School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Digital Dominance

U.S. News & World Report has taken its “Best High Schools” survey to the digital level with its new Most Connected Classrooms rankings. The survey aims to measure “the modernity and sophistication of high schools’ online infrastructures, and the access students, faculty, and parents have to them at school and home.”

How did it work? More than 300 public high schools from the U.S. News “Best High School Rankings” were assessed using a Connectivity Index. The Index considered these criteria:

  • Internet speed and wireless access
  • Access to computers
  • Additional technological resources
  • Connected to school from home

Because I live in Washington where computers (and airplanes and coffee and Kindles) are king, I decided to look at results in terms of state representation.  So, I compared the states represented on the Most Connected Classrooms index to “America’s Top States for Technology and Innovation 2011” ranking from CNBC. The CNBC index ranks states based on their degree of innovation in the technology industry.

Some interesting results from this highly unscientific comparison:

  • Of the Top Ten” Most Connected” high schools, only two schools hail from states in CNBC’s Top Ten States for Technology (Michigan and Pennsylvania).
  • The top five states in CNBC’s index (California, New York, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington) placed no schools in the Top Ten.  New York placed three schools in the Top 25.
  • Defying conventional wisdom, Alabama placed two schools in the Top Ten, and three in the Top 25.  Same goes for South Dakota, which placed two schools in the Top 25.  Neither state is ranked in CNBC’s Top Ten. (Alabama is ranked 33rd and South Dakota 49th).
  • California’s highest-ranked school was 26th (Amino Inglewood Charter High School/Inglewood, CA).
  • The highest- ranked school from my state, Washington, placed fifty-seventh (Royal High School/Royal City, WA).

Beth T. Sigall

October 27, 2011


Reading, Writing and . . . Civics

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) urged the public education system to re-examine the role civics education plays in K-12 instruction in a series of ten research papers released last week.  The authors of those papers made the case that civics education is as critical as mathematics and literacy for preparing students to become active and productive members of their community.  The papers examined what civics education should look like, how it can be taught, the challenges teachers and schools face, and the opportunities for using new media to teaching it.

As reported by Jaclyn Zubrzycki in Education Week, a primary aim of the research is to show that civic skills, like those of reading and math, can be evaluated and measured. The work will also profile what lessons students and faculty can learn from schools that teach civics well.  Specifically, the research group will examine whether schools that place a greater emphasis on civic values produce students and schools with a heightened ethos of civic responsibility. The researchers will look not just at whether students are learning the basic concepts of civics education, but whether certain curriculum or teaching strategies actually make for a better informed citizenry. According to another author (David Campbell of University of Notre Dame), research already shows that some private and charter schools impart civic values with greater success than regular public schools.

Peter Levine (of Tufts University) explained it this way:

If you ask the average person what they think is going on with civics education, they’ll say, ‘They don’t teach this anymore the way they did when I was a kid.’  They’re right.

According to Levine, we need to build on learning the basic facts of civics by teaching students how to apply those skills, so that they are “able to understand the news and form one’s own opinions about the news, and . . . able to affect one’s community in a productive way.”

Another paper focused on how to use student engagement in digital media “as a potential bridge between what students find engaging and what they need to know,” said Joseph Kahne, another researcher on the project.  Successful online programs such as retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics and Youmedia of Chicago are making great strides in this arena. These two online offerings demonstrate how digital media can be deployed to reach and teach students about civics in highly diverse ways.

Beth T. Sigall, October 24, 2011

Turning an Online Page: 140,000 Enroll In Stanford Course

Today my husband turned in his first homework assignment for an online course he’s taking at Stanford University: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.

So did 140,000 other students around the world.

What started out as an experiment at Stanford in measuring the interest in and effectiveness of online learning has become a potential watershed moment in the evolution of online learning.

The instructors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, are rock stars in the world of artificial intelligence.  Norvig, a former head of NASA’s computer sciences division, is now director of research at Google.  Thrun, a Stanford professor, is known for developing a robotic car that drove 132 miles in the Mojave Desert.  He now leads Google’s autonomous car program.

Their course is one of three being offered for free by Stanford’s computer science department as part of an effort to extend technology and learning beyond Stanford to the entire world.

While interest in the course initially was modest (about 80 students signed up at first), an email describing it was distributed widely by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.  That email went viral, resulting in a course enrollment over 140,000 students from around the world, ranging in age from high school to retirees.

Online students will not receive a grade or course credit, but their performance will be ranked against other online students.  Students will also receive a “statement of accomplishment” upon completion.

“I personally would like to see the equivalent of a Stanford computer science degree on the Web,” said Andrew Ng, who is offering an Introduction to Machinery course online through the same program.

These online offerings differ from past efforts because they are more interactive, with graded quizzes and homework, streaming video, and moderator software that will let students vote on the best questions to ask the professors. And again, it’s free.

About a million videos were viewed on the first day, causing servers to overload.

Thrun and Norvig were inspired by the ground-breaking work of Sal Khan and Khan Academy, a free, online learning website with over 2,600 courses focused primarily on middle and high-school students.

Should elite universities accustomed to charging hefty tuition be worried that Stanford has changed the rules for good? Dr. Thrun says no, because his aim is different.

“I’m much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world,” Dr. Thrun said. “I see the developing world having colossal educational needs.”

First reported in the New York Times: Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course.

Follow up story in San Francisco Chronicle: AI Experts Let Thousands Join Class

You can watch Dr. Thrun describe the course here.

Online University Classes? Not So Fast

Two powerful forces in California – technology and labor – are clashing over whether and how universities will deliver education online.  The union representing the University of California teachers (UC-AFT) has stated it will use its collective bargaining power to stop any online course offerings that conflict with the basic principles outlined in its declaration against online education.  Despite facing significant budget shortfalls, and being urged by state government to find creative ways to innovate and reduce costs, last week University of California officials agreed to the union’s demands for, in essence, a veto power over online course offerings.

According to union president Bob Samuels, as reported in Inside Higher Ed, the agreement effectively gives the union power to block any online learning effort that might threaten jobs or work lives of its members.  “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.  University lecturers are concerned that online learning will result in reduced pay, increased workloads, job outsourcing or even replacement.

While university officials disagreed that the union can now exert complete control over online course offerings, they did concede that the agreement places innovation with online course offerings “in a holding pattern.”  Given that the University of California system services 191,000 students across 10 campuses, this “holding pattern” could have profound implications for the future of online learning in California and beyond.  As economist Tyler Cowen observed, such is the culture that is California.

Making the Mediocre Grade: Wealthy Suburban U.S. Schools

Talk to practically any suburban parent about the problems plaguing American public schools, and you’ll probably hear something like this: “Yeah, it’s tough being a kid in the inner city, but my kid’s school is great!”

Well, not exactly.  Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee have developed a first-of-its-kind “Global Report Card” that looks at how each U.S. school district performs in relation to its international counterparts.  By examining district performance instead of student performance, the Global Report Card compares academic achievement for “virtually every public school district in the United States with the average achievement in a set of 25 other countries with developed economies that might be considered our economic peers and sometime competitors.”  Greene and McGee summarized their findings at When the Best is Mediocre in Education Next.

The results of the Global Report Card provide little comfort to parents who moved to elite, wealthy suburban school districts in search of a world-class education for their kids.  Because districts commonly use comparisons between suburban and urban schools in the same state to demonstrate the superior performance of suburban districts, parents falsely convince themselves that their elite suburban district is high-achieving.  However, this comparison is meaningless.  Yes, suburban schools in most cases outperform their urban counterparts. But suburban U.S. students will compete for jobs with the best and brightest from Canada, Singapore and the rest of the world, not just urban (or rural) U.S. students.  Thus it’s critical for parents to compare their child’s school district with its global counterparts.

So how did wealthy, high-achieving suburban school districts perform on the world stage?  Time and again, the Global Report Card shows that these school districts fell far short of their international counterparts.  Green and McGee highlighted these elite school districts as typical of their findings:

  • White Plains, New York, in suburban Westchester County, is only at the 39th percentile in math
  • Grosse Point, Michigan, outside of Detroit, is at the 56th percentile in math
  • Evanston, Illinois, the home of Northwestern University outside of Chicago, is at the 48th percentile in math
  • The average student in Montgomery County, Maryland, where many national government leaders send their children to school, is at the 50th percentile in math

Perhaps the Global Report Card will spark a rigorous re-assessment of how our suburban districts are performing.  Otherwise, as the authors of the study observed, parental complacency will stand in the way of meaningful change:

As long as the elites hold onto the belief that their own school districts are excellent, they have little desire to push for the kind of significant systemic reforms that might improve their districts as well as the large urban districts. They may wish the urban districts well and hope matters improve, but their taste for bold reform is limited by a false contentment with their own situation.

Want to know how your school district performed? Click here for the Global Report Card and find your district.

Meet The Online Teacher

In a previous post I examined the promising trend of the hybrid student. In Online Teacher Connects With Her Students, reporter Angela Dice looks at online learning from a teacher’s perspective through Tami Caldwell, an online social studies teacher with Insight School.  Much like the hybrid student, Caldwell’s experiences as a teacher appear to defy the conventional wisdom of the pros and cons of online learning, particularly when it comes to social connectedness.

Although she started her career in a traditional brick and mortar school, Caldwell was forced to explore alternative ways to teach so that she could care for her husband, who was dying of cancer.  She heard an advertisement for Insight School, and applied.  She now teaches at Insight School of Washington from her home in Bremerton, Washington.

How does it work?  The social studies curriculum comes already prepared, but the teacher can modify or expand it to suit the needs of the students.  For example, students can create videos or graphic presentations in lieu of written essays.

What is the typical profile of her online students?  According to Caldwell, there really isn’t a single profile.  Some students just need more learning at home, others want to escape bullying.  Some are training for specialized events like the Olympics, while others have changed family circumstances (giving birth, illness).  Still others seek advanced courses not offered by their schools.

While there is no single profile, there is most certainly a common theme for online students: “We get a lot of students that mainstream schools can’t serve,” observed Caldwell.

But what about the impersonal nature of online learning?  Does the lack of daily, in-person contact mean that students miss the emotional connection so vital to the learning process?  Not so, says Caldwell.  In fact, Caldwell claims online teaching allows for more, not less, bonding with her students.  All 200 of them.

How?  Through the regular use of email, texts, phone calls and comments on her professional Facebook account, Caldwell can connect with her students on a more personal level.  She also takes students on course-related field trips, or meets them for coffee to discuss a problem.  In other words, the flexible nature of online teaching allows for more varied and more frequent individualized student contact.

In a [traditional] classroom, I got to know most of my kids, but for only one hour a day. You don’t have any time to say, ‘What’s going on in your life?’  Online, the opposite is more there. I pick up the phone and call. There’s no sitting in the back of the class with your head down.

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