Thursday, November 15, 2007

Competition for Magnet Middle Schools

No school district is perfect, but based on our year-long evaluation of Greenville County (SC) Schools, there is so much more to be impressed with than there is to complain about. The "magnet" concept seems to be just the right blend between charter and "standard" public schools. Without shunning the leadership, rules and resources of the school district (which is organized county-wide here, not just a city or three), magnet schools get to move in new directions and adapt curriculum to integrate related topics, like the arts, science, or language immersion. They begin at the elementary level, and my sons attend the arts-infused magnet elementary. So far, it's been a great experience, and the boys both get up in the morning, excited to go to school and attend additional art and drama classes after school. Spanish has left them a little flat, but we'll work on that. ;-)

So, with a district as well-planned as Greenville, it's no surprise we are already visiting the magnet middle schools, and applying for next year. Well, here's the interesting part: the magnet schools serve a traditional population and the magnet population. So, each magnet school has a standard attendance area. So, if you live in the attendance area, you automatically have a seat at the magnet school. However, rather than invoking a "schools of choice" process, the additional magnet seats are still an application process, but also slightly competitive, both for the student and for the school.

The process begins with the schools wooing as many magnet applicants as possible, by promoting their strengths and student work. Each school has a "magnet information night," where they invite families to visit and show off their best. Students submit a short form with a statement explaining why they want to attend the school, and attach records from the current school year and last year. It's pretty low-key, but still an application process.

However, one middle school raised the bar this year, announcing enhancements to their curriculum during the application process. School board presentation, media coverage... Here's a great newspaper article on what Greenville Middle Academy has in store when they move to their new building in January (article).

Among these changes is something I'm really excited to see: "The plan calls for students, who already know how to use the Internet, to differentiate between propaganda and facts," said Robert Palmer, Greenville Middle's principal. Greenville Middle's full title is "Greenville Middle Academy of Traditional Studies," but it will become "Greenville Middle Academy of Global Studies" with this curriculum addition. Of course, along with a "global studies" focus comes video conferences with classes from around the world... kids have been doing this, but this is a first for Greenville schools. This is the stuff we helped Novi (MI) schools start in 1995 by installing the networking infrastructure to make it happen.

I've been itching to see it happen for my own kids, and now, it will! Unless, of course, my middle-schooler-to-be chooses a different middle school.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A new/old/new idea for grades and college entrance

So, please tell me why, again, we need separate tests (SAT and ACT) to gain entrance into colleges in the US? Well, maybe it's because of the unreliability of grading scales in U.S. schools. Okay, that's not a new observation. Even less new is the solution. Canadian schools grade on a percentage. So, instead of being awarded an "A" in a class, you are awarded your exact numeric score, expressed as a percentage, like "93%." So, while American schools are dickering about what constitutes an "A," Canadian schools bypass the need for SATs and ACTs by delivering those exact scores to colleges. Schools can tell the difference between someone who barely earned that letter grade from someone who obviously did well in the class.

Here's part of the problem with letter grades: assignment percentage to letter grade (rounded) then back to a number with only a 4-digit spread (more rounding). So, even though a grade-point average attempts to distinguish "strong A" from "weak A," it's already so far removed from the original score in the class that it's meaningless.

Gotta save this conversation with a graduate of Canadian schools:

Kahleida> yeah general admittance is based on grades... which in Canada are a percentage, not a GPA... so they look at the exact grade, ie if you get 86% in the class, you have 86% on the report card... and classes are harder in Canada, but they make an A larger... A=80% and above, if you get 90% or more it means you are doing very well
xyb> oh!! I like the percentage idea!
xyb> that's much more exact
Kahleida> yes I much prefer percentages
xyb> too much rounding isn't good.
xyb> think about it... percentage to letter grade (rounded) then back to a number with only a 4-digit spread (more rounding). that makes for a very generalized assessment
Kahleida> it's more standard too... A is always 80%+ vs the States where it seems like each teacher could decide what an A is
xyb> well, at least *districts* decide now.
xyb> but they're trying to establish a national standard.
xyb> with a percentage scale, it wouldn't matter, though! that's cool!
xyb> I could lobby for this
Kahleida> yeah with standard grading procedures there is no real need for stupid generalized tests which don't really reflect how someone performed in school
xyb> it's so simple that we all missed it

So, eliminate the letter-grade ranges, and you can go back to properly assessing *complete* classroom performance, by the teacher who spent the whole semester with that particular student. After all, we are all learning how little standardized tests are quantifying, anyway. But that's for another post.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

To Technology or Not

A little behind on posting news articles... Fast Company seems to have an "education-related" article each week. The latest is a comparison of two opinions on why technology does or doesn't work in the classroom:

Reading this, I realize I need to formulate my opinion on the use of technology in the classroom in a very concise manner. Of course, I'm that middle-of-the-road person who's not an early adopter of technology, nor am I lagging way behind.

Frankly, I let other people test it out first, and if it's just a cool gadget, I skip it. I still don't have an iPod, because it doesn't meet my goals: Gimme music, now. No, instead, I'd have to either rip all my CD's or buy mp3's, load them onto the iPod and spend time I don't have creating play lists. Instead, I have XM Radio. I plugged the thing in, and turned it on. Music.

So, if a technology is presenting too many problems in functioning, I'll ditch it. That's why it's wise for many schools to choose Macintosh computers over Windows-based computers... the Windows technology is still buggy, and gets in the way. Heck, even in Corporate America, how many times have we been in meetings that get delayed because the network connection "broke," or the PowerPoint presentation was too large to open on the conference room computer?

There's a definite science to working out the kinks in any technology before launching it in the classroom. And that's just the logistics. The bigger question is one that was raised by calculators 30 years ago: Is the process of learning any different by adding technology to the mix? I think it can accelerate learning by condensing the amount of time students handle known facts and processes, creating more time for critical thinking, comparison and experimentation. You know... the time when that magic happens.

Yes, technology in the classroom. Yes, testing before launching. Yes, being selective about which technologies to use.

No, technology itself does not raise test scores. A laptop cannot teach without someone to at least write a program that the student can run. ;-)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Undergrad Racket

I think I grew up in the first generation that assumed I would be going to college, and the question was "where," not "if." (Of course, no one bothered to ask me "what," which would have been helpful!) Seth Godin points out that the generation after me took that "where" question to the next level, and created a nice marketing hole that many unsuspecting undergrads are having a hard time climbing out of -- the marketing of the Top 50 universities, as compared with the Top 500.

Seth points out that the elitism built up over these Top 50 schools makes for a fabulous marketing case study, but at the expense of students. And that's where he stops. While I love the marketing aspect of what has happened, I can't help but be concerned for high schoolers who are so pressured to get into a Top 50 school, when really the Top 500 might even serve them better, at least in the self-esteem arena. After all, working in American Business is schooling enough on kow-towing to superiors. College should be about learning, not superiority.

This gets me thinking about how intensely I've been pushing my fifth-grader to work harder so he can go to the science magnet middle school here in town. The last thing I want him focusing on is doing the "meaningless tasks" just to get the reputation. The whole point of the exercise is to help him fulfill what he has expressed his dreams to be -- become a mad scientist. He is slated to go to an excellent middle school based on where we live now; do I push to send him to the school that's "known" for its science program, or let him flourish in a "regular" (or, as Godin puts it, "good enough") science program?

I'd hate to see the kind of pressure put on students at the high school level -- the next step in the marketing food chain.