Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Blog 2010: Digital Nativity

We have had a lovely holiday, and hope that you all have as well.

Here is a video I plan to use in Sunday School tomorrow (if we don't get snowed out).  My theme is that different cultures have told the Nativity story in their own way, regardless of what the "truth" is about the actual event.  But this video tells the story for our YouTube/Twitter/Google (etc.) generation.

Again, best wishes to all, and I hope you enjoy this new take on an ancient story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: Make Your Own Sugarplums

My earlier blog post today that mentioned s'mores made me think of another Christmas confection--sugarplums.  A couple of weeks ago, we had our traditional Christmas visit by our homeschool group to an assisted living facility where the children read Christmas stories to the elderly, and my son helped read the classic "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Moore.  But on the way home, my son asked, "What IS a sugarplum?"  

Thank goodness there is a Google--how did parents survive before it?  Anyway, Wikipedia (another parental blessing) says that in olden days, "plums" referred to any dried fruit, not just plums (of course, we know dried plums as prunes).  So sugarplums were candied fruit, sometimes finely minced and combined with nuts or seeds, and molded into a round or oval shape.  However, apparently the traditional approach to do that produced a very sweet and intensely-flavored candy.  And, of course, until the last century or so, sugar was so expensive that making such a confection would have been limited to the wealthy and/or as a VERY special treat.

If you are interested in making your own sugarplums, here is a traditional recipe.  Or if you are looking for a more contemporary approach, here is one by Alton Brown.

Christmas 2010 Blog: Win a Free Curriculum Package!

While, of course, I always try to emphasize the spiritual qualities of Hanukkah and Christmas, I have to admit that I like the presents as well.  And now I have the opportunity to pass on a present to one lucky reader to this blog, thanks to a blogging giveaway program being offered by In the Hands of a Child, a renowned lapbook curriculum developer.  HOAC will give a free bundle pack (which includes a printed project pack, kit pack, and answer key if available, and is valued at $40) to a randomly-selected person who enters their HOAC wish list below.

In the Hands of a Child is a partnership between a few homeschooling families who have turned unit studies they developed for their own children or homeschooling communities into complete lapbook curriculum packages.  If you are not familiar with lapbooks, they are a hands-on way to record information on any topic.  Students complete "mini-books" on various aspects of that topic and paste them all into a framework made by pasting two or more file folders together.  It usually depicts information in a visual way, with space for students to write relevant information, in small chunks on papers that fold or flap or open up or are enclosed in a small envelope, etc.  This makes it a great tool for visual and/or kinesthetic learners, as well as for students who get overwhelmed by a large topic and prefer working on manageable bits within the larger subject matter.

I have used a number of their packages, and can attest to their high quality.  To be honest, we usually don't do the entire lapbook, but I often use some of their mini-books for a hands-on activity to accompany a topic we are studying.  So while they are designed to be stand-alone studies, they can also be useful for supplemental materials to accompany another curriculum you might be using.  And, particularly for older students, they also offer much of their curriculum in a notebooking (that is, doing a lot of guided writing on designated notebook pages for specific items within the topic) format as well as for creating a lapbook.  Finally, their prices are reasonable, their customer service is good, and they are generous to the educational community.  They are often giving things away (like this promotion), and always have at least one unit on their site available for free download (right now it is "Study Any Great Painter")at:  Finally, their materials cover the gamut of disciplines and age ranges.  While they have hundreds of units at the elementary level, they have 250 items that are suitable for middle schoolers, 128 for early high school, and 80 for upper high school.

So for a chance to win a free printed lapbook/notebook package (NOT just a downloadable ebook, which is what I usually get), what you have to do is to visit the website of In the Hands of a Child and/or to download their 2010 catalog at  .  

Then chose five HOAC units for your wishlist and enter them using the link below by December 31, 2010.  I will randomly select one name and forward it to HOAC, who will mail that person their bundle pack the first week of January.

HOAC is having this giveway in honor of the fast-approaching release of their 400th curriculum package in early 2011.   There will be even more prizes during that event, so you might want to get on their email list to catch all the buzz at that time.

Enter your wishlist and contact information below by December 31, 2010, and good luck to all contestants!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: Angels

So even with my belief about lighting up the darkness...It's now Christmas week, so maybe it is time to do some seasonal blog posts.  So today's topic is Angels.

When I was working on a lesson plan this past week for our World Religions class, I did some research on the topic of Angels.  I was amazed to find that numerous polls by different organizations (news, university research, and religious organizations) over the past two decades reported that the majority of Americans believe in angels, particularly guardian angels.  The data shows that this majority (generally ranging from 55% to 72%) is consistent within different Christian or Jewish religions or political persuasions.  Actually, studies among adult Americans in the past few years say that more people believe in angels (55%) than believe in evolution (39%), human-created global warming (36%), or either ghosts of UFOs (each had 34% believing in them).

The believe in angels among adolescents is even stronger.  It has grown steadily from 1978, when only 64% of the 13-17 year olds polled said they believed in angels, to 76% angelic believers in 1994.  Belief in angles outstrips those among teenagers who reported believing in other supernatural people or activities, beating belief in astrology, ESP, mind reading, witchcraft, ghosts, Bigfoot, or vampires.

So it seems that for the majority among us, no longer do we need to sing only about "Angels We Have Heard on High."  Most of us, particularly among perhaps not middle schoolers, but certainly high schoolers, believe that angels play a role in our personal lives, protecting us from harm or conveying important spiritual messages to us.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Curriculum Resource: They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

If you are looking for a terrific resource on a difficult subject--racism, Reconstruction, and the history of American hate groups--I wholeheartedly recommend Susan Campbell Bartoletti's new book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.  Bartoletti is no stranger to substantive non-fiction books for adolescents; she won a Newbery Honor for her 2005 publication of Hitler Youth:  Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow.  But she has done such a great job on this book,  it is no wonder that it is also on many people's short list for another potential Newbery Award.

According to the author, the inspiration for the book came when she saw a statue of the renowned Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also supposedly the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and wondered to herself, "Where are the memorials for the victims of KKK violence?"  After finding out from the Southern Poverty Law Center that there were no such memorials, Bertoletti knew that she had to write this book.

However, what is great about this book is that Bertoletti tries to understand the complex history of  this paramilitary white suprematist group from both sides.  Her book explores how common, ordinary, usually decent people could get involved in such a violent group, and even believe that they were doing God's work.  It also demonstrates the strength and courage of common, ordinary people, both black and white, who stood up against the Klan.  Her work contains much more information about the politics behind Reconstruction than is usually available for middle school or high school history.  And the work is all the more effective by the even-handed way she approaches the topic, allowing young people to draw their own conclusions rather than preaching to them.

One way Bertoletti achieves this is by relying heavily on first-hand accounts and primary source materials.  She uses quotes from both proponents and victims of the Klan in a masterful way.  And while she doesn't gloss over the violence and death of this terrible time in our history, she also doesn't focus on it so much that it becomes too intense for a middle school audience.

Bertoletti's book is a much-needed addition to the middle school or high school history curriculum about the aftermath of the Civil War.  But it is also a valuable resource for talking about current events.  I love that she identifies the KKK as "an American terrorist group"--a great wake-up call for our post 9/11 youth who think all terrorists come from outside our borders.  The book also contains a Civil Rights Timeline and a comprehensive Bibliography and Notes section that is also useful in extending the dialogue.

So this may not seem like the kind of book you want to be reading during our holly, jolly holidays.  But the author, who besides writing about the Klan and Hitler's youth has also tackled such difficult topics as famine, youth labor rights, and working in a coal mine, says that the only way she knows to deal with the dark is to try to shine a light on it.  As we approach the winter solstice, it's great to know that we have this outstanding reference to help shine some light on some of our nation's darkest hours.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Public Education in California: The Good, the Bad, and the Intriguing

As we debate what to do about the public school, either here in North Carolina or where ever it may be that you live, it can be instructive to keep an eye on what is going on in California.  Not only is that the most populated US state, but it has a history of innovation and experimentation that has swung between the left/liberal and right/conservative perspectives from not quite year to year, but certainly decade to decade.

Let's start with the Bad (I always like to get that out of the way):  California, strapped for revenue due to the  bust in the real estate market and the infamous Proposition 13 that limits their ability to tax, needs to cut $25 BILLION from its state budget.  So Governor-elect Jerry Brown warned the schools that they should expect a reduction of 20-25% in next year's funds.  This year, California spent $49.6 billion on K-12 schools and community colleges, so that could mean a cut of over $12 billion--and that is on top of the $7 billion less they spent this year compared to three years ago.

Problems of that scale help us keep our $3 billion deficit in North Carolina, and warnings of a 5-10% cut in education funds, in perspective. &nbsp;California's <b>reductions</b> in education spending could amount to more money then North Carolina spent in FY 2009-2010 on NC public K-12 schools, community colleges, and the state university system combined.

So that is a major amount of money to have to cut from the education budget.

But now for the Good: &nbsp;the incoming Governor, Jerry Brown (yes, the same one who served as Governor in 1975-1983, when he dated Linda Ronstadt and opposed the passage of Proposition 13), seems to have a good head on his shoulders when it comes to education (translation: &nbsp;it looks like he agrees with me!). &nbsp;In general, he seems to impose the national trend towards standardization, an emphasis on test scores, and the liberal bias I discussed in <a href="">yesterday's post</a> towards systematic solutions that derive from data instead of human flexibility, creativity, and differentiation. &nbsp;Let me quote just a bit from comments he sent to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:
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<span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: Times, 'Times New Roman', serif;"><span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-size: small;"><i>What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.</i></span></span></div>

I read his comments, and just thought, "You go, Jerry!" &nbsp;To see his complete statement, read <a href="">this blog post</a> from Teacher Magazine.

And finally, the Intriguing: &nbsp;one of the things that outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar touts as a major achievement in improving public education is the passage of the so-called "parent trigger" law, which allows a majority of parents in the district of a "failing school" (once again, as determined by test scores) to demand changes in that school. &nbsp;The parental options include firing the principal and top administrators, converting to a charter school, or even shutting the school down.

On December 7, 2010, the first group of parents activated this new law. &nbsp;Petitions signed by 62% of parents requested that McKinley Elementary School be converted to a charter school that will be run by Celerity Educational Group, a private company that is running three other schools in California.  As can be expected, there is a lot of controversy about this event.  The state is investigating charges of harassment and misrepresentation on the part of the petition organizers, the state educators are protesting uninformed intrusion into their long-range plans, and liberals see this as another conservative ploy to turn public schools over to private management.  But Schwarzeneggar and other proponents argue that legislation like this is the only way to address the problems of "drop out factories" and a lack of educational alternatives for the urban poor as demonstrated in documentaries such as "Waiting for Superman" (see <a href="">my blog post</a> for a review of that movie, or read <a href="">this blog post</a> from The Huffington Post for more info on the parent trigger law).

I have mixed feeling about this law.  I think I need to see how it plays out before I can decide if I think it is a good idea or not.  But I do believe it is something worth keeping our eyes on as our national debates about what to do with public education continue to dominate much of our civic discussions.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do We Need to Be More Conservative in Our Teaching?

I'm always on the look-out for ideas about how we can improve teaching (rather than test scores).  A new idea has popped up for me about incorporating more conservative techniques in teaching, sparked by an intriguing new book by David M. Ricci, a professor of politics and American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  However, before this becomes a political debate, let me say I'm not talking about incorporating more conservative beliefs in teaching; I'm talking about including more of the conservative reliance on selling ideas through great stories.

Ricci's book is entitled Why Conservatives Tell Stories and Liberals Don't:  Rhetoric, Faith, and Vision on the American Right.  This book answers the puzzle posed by New York Times colonist and author of The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, who stated just before the recent elections "The thing that baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics."  It also explains why conservative leaders whom those with left-wing leanings find to be, at best, simple, and at worse, let's call it "intellectually challenged," keep winning elections.  These Conservatives may not have the Ivy League degree or the facts and figures at their fingertips.  But they tell a great tale about America's glorious possibilities, and sometimes those stories triumph--even if they turn out to be fantasies, or even worse, lies.

Ricci argues that it is in the very nature of liberalism to eschew storytelling over data.   He traces the liberal movement from the Enlightenment, and shows how they have consistently relied on science, theories, and facts to convince the population to abandon long-held policies or behaviors.  Conservatives, on the other hand, promote traditional values, conveyed through uplifting stories about such qualities as courage, decency, authenticity, and the democratic virtues of freedom and justice.  So you have President Obama trying to teach people about his national health care legislation, which was more than 2,300 pages long, while Sarah Palin talks about her mama grizzlies and tea parties.  And we all saw which approach tended to be most convincing to voters in the 2010 elections.

But leaving politics aside--I think this is a valuable insight for us to consider in education.  How many of us are liberal thinkers, and so think the most important thing is to teach our students the facts and figures of what ever subject we are teaching?  If we are, how powerful would it be NOT to abandon facts, but to combine it with the more conservative bent towards storytelling?  Because when I think back to the best teachers I've ever had, they weren't the ones who necessarily fed me the most theories and data.  The best ones, for me at least, were those who brought the subject alive through their passion for and, yes, stories about their subject matter.  

Of course, it may seem that storytelling lends itself more to some disciplines than others.  Literature, of course, is all about stories, and history can easily be taught (although, unfortunately, too often is not) as a series of narratives about historical dates, facts, and figures--tales of the who and why that enliven the when and what.  But how about math?  For many of us, that is one of the most fixed, inflexible, and uninteresting (and, unfortunately, for some incomprehensible) subjects.  However, you only need to meet a master math teacher like my friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, to learn otherwise.   No matter what topic she is teaching, Maria is always conveying a story of math as a fun, creative, flexible, beautiful, and personal medium through which each student can express him- or herself and make life better.  Maria changes people's stories about math, and that can make all the difference in their ability to learn math.  

Or how about science?  There has been an intense discussion lately on the Natural Math e-loop on how science differs from math in regards to storytelling (which, unfortunately, has gone over my head, or at least over my ability to devote the time and attention to comprehend all the posts and links that have been exchanged by people with much more specialized knowledge in those fields).  But I still believe that there is a place for storytelling in science and that science, too, in the end tells different stories about the world.  If you have read Thomas Kuhn's classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, major shifts in the fundamental theories in science, like moving from the Ptolemy to the Copernican astronomy or from mechanical to quantum physics, also change our story of who we are and how our worlds operate.

Once again, I haven't actually read the book, so I'm not sure that I completely buy Ricci's argument.  But I think he raises a fascinating point to consider, and shines a light on something that may be a bit of a blind spot for some of us.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Grateful that We Don't Live in Juarez

In 2007, when Bill Gates (Harvard's most famous drop-out) was receiving an honorary degree from his could-have-been alma mater and giving the graduation speech, the beginning of his talk addressed his failure to graduate with the stereotypical break-up line:  It's not you, it's me.   But then he segued into an issue with his Harvard education, although he still presented it as a personal failing.  His great admission was:

But taking a serious look back...I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world - the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I think that problem is true for most of us who were born in the United States.  Even the most progressive among us can't imagine how good we've really got it unless we've spent some time in some of the other countries that are less privileged.   

This was brought home to me again today with an article in today's local newspaper about the school systems in Juarez, Mexico.  It seems that gangsters are now targeting school teachers for extortion, because the teachers get a Christmas bonus of up to a month's salary (which, down there, apparently average about $650--and this is for the month).  The mobsters are not only threatening the safety of the teachers; they are also threatening violence towards the children they teach.  And their threats have not been all talk.  Last week, they torched a preschool, which, while it seems injuries were avoided, left the administration offices in ruin.

I know I can be rough on my local school system (although I try not to be rough on the teachers, most of whom I think are doing a hero's job under difficult and demanding circumstances).  But I know that, every now and then, I need a wake-up call about how good we've got things.  I may not like the emphasis on testing, I may not like school board policies, I may not agree with curriculum approaches.  But thank goodness that we can send our children to school without thinking they might be targets for criminals who want to shake down teachers, of all people, for their Christmas bonuses.  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Is Studying a Foreign Language Still Important?

Every year, we are advised about all the additional stuff we need to be teaching our middle schoolers and high schoolers.  We are told they need more science and math, more computers and technology, more business and finance work, more arts and music, more writing, more more more.  But how can we fit it all in?  If we are adding in additional years in traditional subjects, or including new subjects like information technology, what do we let fall by the wayside in a school day that only has so many hours?

One area I haven't heard as much about lately is foreign languages.  On one hand, with all the emphasis on the globalization of our modern world, it seems it would be important to communicate to at least some section of the planet that doesn't speak English.  On the other hand, are we just assuming that everyone else will continue to learn English, so there is no need for us to learn one of their languages?

However, at least on the college level, it seems that foreign language instruction has been growing steadily for at least the last decade.  The Modern Language Association has just released the results of its 2009 comprehensive survey of enrollments in languages other than English among 2,514 US undergraduate and graduate institutions.  It shows that foreign language enrollments in 2009 were at an all-time high of 1,682,627 students, having grown by 6.6% between 2006-2009 and by nearly 13% from 2002-2006.  

The most popular language by far (it enrolls more students than all other foreign languages combined) is Spanish, which has long held the #1 position in foreign language studies with 864,986 students.  The second most popular language is French, with 216,419 students, and followed by German with 96,349 enrolled.  These languages, along with what has traditionally been the fourth-ranked language, Italian, continue to grow, but by relatively small percentages (from 2-5%).  

The great leaps in enrollments, however, have come from what the MLA calls "less commonly taught languages" or LCTLs, which grew by 31.2% from 2002-2006, then by an additional 20.8% from 2005-2009.  The biggest percentage gains were registered among the Arabic languages, where enrollments raised by 126.5% from 2002-2006, then by another 46.3% in 2006-2009.  Any guesses about what the most popular LCTL is?  Actually, it is American Sign Language (ASL), which was up by 16.4% to a total of 91,763 students and supplanting Italian as the fourth most popular language.  Japanese, with 73,434 enrollments, was the most popular Asian language and was the 6th most popular language overall, followed by Chinese in 7th place with 60,976 students.  The top ten list was rounded out with Arabic in 8th place (35,083 students), Latin in 9th (32,606), and Russian in 10th (26,883).  The only languages among the top 15 that reported losing students were Ancient Greek (although some of that was explained by some schools that have reclassified their Greek classes) and Hebrew, both Modern and Biblical.

The good news, according to experts, is that language studies seem to be more stable now then they were in the 1980s and 1990s.  So if your children are interested in pursuing a LCTL, there's a good chance they can find a college that will enable them to continue their studies at the postsecondary level.  Overall, US colleges and universities reported offering a total of 217 LCTLs, which is 35 more languages than were available in 2006.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine

For the second night of Hanukkah, I thought I would review the book that recently won the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and is on most people's short list for the 2011 Newbery Awards--Mockingbirdby Kathryn Erskine.

If yesterday's The Thirteenth Princess was based on a fairy tale, then Mockingbird was inspired by a nightmare--namely, the shooting of 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic University in Blacksburg, VA, close to where the author lives.  In this book, Erskine looks at how someone can pick up the pieces if his or her family have been the victims of such senseless violence.  But the protagonist and narrator of the book is not just your average "someone"--she's a 5th grader with Asperger's syndrome who not only lost her beloved older brother who helped her navigate the world, but whose mother has died from cancer, leaving her with only her grieving and just-barely-functioning father in the home.

This is a rough set-up for a story--but also, I think, a brilliant one.  Most of us can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one in something like 9/11 or Columbine or the VPI tragedy.  But imagine trying to deal with it compounded by the issues related to Asperger's, an autistic spectrum disorder that is usually not associated with a lack of cognitive or "academic" understanding, but with poor social skills, the inability to pick up on non-verbal or non-literal cues, and a lack of empathy or understanding of the feeling with other.  As I said, I think this was a brilliant concept of Erskine's.

So much of the book deals with the main character, Caitlin, trying to develop empathy for other with the help of a committed school counselor and a few off-beat, maybe/could-be friends.  But, of course, that is just the ploy; the real business of the book is for us, the readers, to develop empathy for people like Caitlin. Erskine puts us inside Caitlin's head, who dictates the whole book in first person, explaining not only what she says or does, but why she is saying or doing it.  It takes a little while to get into the thinking pattern, especially the verbal cues Caitlin thinks to herself to behave as she knows she is expected by the world to behave.  But it is definitely worth the effort, for once you figure out her system, it is a wonderful way to see why people that the world thinks act "crazy" are really behaving quite logically-within their own system.

There are a few other things that I appreciate about the book.  I love that it has an important tie-in with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  I like the ending, which is hopefully without a "happily ever after" context that doesn't fit the situation.  I like seeing schools making a difference to kids like Caitlin, and even overwhelmed teachers who might act like dunderheads, but can realize their mistakes, apologize, and try to do better.  The characters in this book are all quite easy to relate to:  flawed people doing their best under a bad situation.  They are people in progress, just as we all are, and they are at least moving in the right direction.

My one reservation, at least in terms of this blog, is the question, "Is this really a middle schoolers book?"  Again, I'm not sure.  But I'm inclined to think not, at least for the younger end of the spectrum.  Once again, the reading level is appropriate, especially since it is being narrated by a 5th grader, and middle schoolers can definitely relate to the context if not the specific situation.  On the other hand, it is a grim situation to pick up and read about.  I'll confess that I didn't want to read it, although now I'm so glad that I did.   And it does take a while to get inside Caitlin's world and understand what is going on through her perspective.  So maybe it will work for 13 or 14 year olds, but I think it is a bit mature for the 10-12 crowd.  My son read it, and he thought it was pretty good, although sad and sometimes confusing.  And since it is such a wonderful book, if the reader can really get into it, I would advise holding off with your children until you think they are ready to really benefit from it.

But as an adult, I found it a very powerful, enlightening, and uplifting book.  There is kind of a mantra in the book about making something "good and strong and beautiful."  I think that is exactly what Erskine has done with this book.

Book Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

As I said in yesterday's post,  while I loved Mockingbird, my one complaint might be that I think it may be more of a critics' (and parents') choice than one of young adolescents.   There is another book that covers some of the same themes that appears to be more popular with the tweens I know from our local Mock Newbery Club and some other online clubs (at least, according to their blogs).  That book, Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, is the subject of today's special Hanukkah book review.

Like the protagonist in Mockingbird, the narrator of Out of My Mind has some special challenges that make other students in her school dismiss her, unaware of the incredible gifts she holds inside.  In the case of ten-year-old Melody, she has a photography memory and is probably the smartest child in the school.  Unfortunately, due to her severe Cerebral Palsy, which has rendered her incapable of speech or writing,  Melody has never been able to communicate her inner brilliance to anyone else.  So instead of winning praise for her outstanding memory, she is shunted into Special Education classes that some years can be valuable, but other years nothing but a boring waste of time--depending on the attitude of her teacher.  She also sometimes attends part of a regular classroom, where the other students tend to either shun or mock her.  But despite the difficulties and frustrations, Melody searches for a way to prove herself to the world around her.

This is another good book.  Some of the passages are quite poetic, especially when Melody describes how words feel to her, or how she associates music with different colors (which is a real condition, called synethesia, that many musical talents, including Leonard Berstein, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Duke Ellington, apparently share).  Of course, since it is told in the first person, we readers get to hear what is going on in Melody's head, which is much more fluid language than the more silted conversations Mockingbird's Caitlin carries on with herself.  And it covers many the same themes about about not underestimating either oneself or others, being less judgmental about people with differences, and the difficulty in status and relationships that is so prevalent in middle school, obvious disability or not.

And I'm suspecting that it is easier for middle schoolers to learn those lessons from Melody rather than the more-difficult-to-get-in-synch-with Caitlin, even those Melody's handicap is more extreme.  I'm thinking that is why most of the middle schoolers I know prefer this book to Mockingbird.  I don't know whether that kind of thing figures into the Newbery committee or not.  But my personal advice, as a parent, is to give Out of My Mind to your tweens, and save Mockingbird for your teens.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Collaboration and Community in Education

There are two items I've worked on with my friend and colleague, Maria D ofNatural Math, that I would love for people to check out and comment on.  One is the conclusion of the "Family Educator Commons" article that we wrote for the Shareable website.  This part, entitled "Online Communities, Agile Methods and the Commons" addresses the common myth that homeschool students are sitting at home, tackling their subjects alone or with just the company of their immediate family.  We share one example of "a day in the life of" a homeschool student that shows how family educators, working within a community setting, share their different abilities and resources, usually in a non-monetary or informal bartering system, and work together to ensure that all their children receive a complete, stimulating, and individualized education.  We also discuss online education, the ability to change educational directions on the fly when something is not working, and what is possible when you channel the parents' commitment to their children's educational success into a connected and cohesive community.

On another front, I've been helping Maria with a grant proposal for her idea of constructing an international database of math education communities that want to support students and families in developing their math capabilities.  You can see her proposal to the Knight Foundation News Challenge, and even vote for or comment on it, at least through tomorrow.  Or if you miss that deadline (I don't know how long they will keep up the proposals), you can comment through her blog at  What would you like to see from an effort like this?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Educational Resource: NoodleTools Bibliography Software

As our students move into the highly-shareable world of digital information, it is really important to teach them from an early age the ethical practice of identifying the source of text, pictures, or other content they may borrow and incorporate into their own materials.  This includes the more information types of credit statements on websites, blog posts, etc., as well as the traditional modes of including a bibliography of sources used in developing a paper, report, or other writing.

And as long as they are starting to maintain resources from an early age, why not have them present them in one of the major styles they will be required to use by the time they are in college, or even in high school--styles like the MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian style?  Fortunately, there is software available that makes it easy for even elementary students to generate bibliographies with the proper formatting to meet these criteria.

There are many bibliography packages out there, many of which are free and/or open source.  However, my favorite one so far is called Noodle Tools.  While the complete package is not free, it is available for a single family use for a very reasonable subscription of $8/year.  I haven't done an exhaustive comparison, but I found Noodle Tools to be the most intuitive and easy-to-use of any of the packages, and it is worth $8 to me for the cleaner, more user-friendly (especially for a child) interface.  Plus, there is a stripped down version that is free, and would probably be acceptable for most middle school and even some high school uses if all you want to do is to create a bibliography.

With Noodle Tools, you start a project, decide which format you want to use for the bibliography, and start inputing data for the requisite fields (author's name, publisher, date of publication, etc.).  That database then formats the information in the proper format for the selected style (MLA, APA, etc.)  However, in the paid version, you can also create note cards attached to that citation, and use those to take notes or even cut and paste text, graphics, photographs, etc. from that source that you want to include in your paper.  You can export that information and/or bibliography either to a Word document or to a Google Doc document.

The website also has resources about citation rules as well as the ethical use of outside sources.  It was developed as a teaching tool, and I think it is a great support to help our children learn the proper way of keeping track of and giving credit to the material they draw on from others when they are creating their own works.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Middle School Minorities Achievement Gap in Math and Its Effect on College Success

On an email loop of my friend Maria's Natural Math community, there is a discussion going on right now about some research that taking advanced math, particularly calculus, in high school leads to greater success in science classes in college.  But I think the path to calculus in high school begins earlier, particularly with the math instruction students get in middle schools.  And several articles or reports published lately suggest that advanced math instruction in middle schools is problematic for many ethnic minorities, particularly African-American males.

One great example of this, I think, came from a recent article in The Washington Post about the school many publications list as the best public high school in the country, the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County (outside Washington DC).  While the school is almost universally lauded for the quality and subsequent success of its graduates, it has come under fire recently for the low percentage of black and Hispanic students, despite several years of a concerted minority outreach and recruitment program.  While blacks and Hispanics represent about one third of all students in the surrounding public schools, they make up only 4% of the TJ population.  Approximately 90% of students are Asian or white (with Asians accounting for a slight majority of that number), while the remaining students categorize themselves as "multi-racial."

The school's explanation for such a dramatic under-enrollment of blacks and Hispanics?  One of the pre-requisites for applying to Thomas Jefferson is that the student passed Algebra in middle school.  School officials claim that there is not a large pool of black or Hispanic middle school students with Algebra already under their belts from which they can recruit.  So should Thomas Jefferson drop that requirement for underrepresented minorities, or should the area middle schools do a better job of getting more of those students through Algebra?  (For comparison, the state-wide magnet program at the the residential North Carolina School for Math and Science has about a 10% black, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Native American population; that high school strongly recommends, but does not require, Algebra.)

This issue has been under a lot of discussion here in Wake County, because recent data shows that in previous years, where teacher recommendations were a major factor in admittance to advanced math classes, Asian and white students were admitted to Algebra at much higher rates than other minorities.  In 2008, over half of all test-qualified white or Asian students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in 8th grade, while among black and Hispanic students with similar test scores, only 40% went on to Algebra.  Things were even worse in 2006, where only 19% of high-scoring black male students were placed into advanced math.  This led to a policy change this year where students were placed into math classes purely on math scores, rather than considering teacher recommendations (although the effects won't begin to show up in Algebra until next year, because they still have a requirement for students to complete pre-algebra before entering the Algebra 1 class).  For a detailed analysis of this data, see the article entitled "Math Placement and Institutional Racism in Wake County Schools?" on the excellent blog "Barbara's Take on Wake."

It will be interesting to see the data in a couple years about what happens with this policy change.  Is it really true, as Barbara suggests, that the WCPSS has institutional racism in terms of minorities in math?  Or do the teachers know something that the test scores don't show?  Of course, if we refused to allow failure and gave minority students additional time, if necessary, to complete such classes, that might be the best of both worlds.  But as my blog posts ofNovember 14  and November 21 demonstrate, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

But this only deals with the under-represented minorities who are actually scoring well on their math tests.  According to a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school districts, among the urban school systems participating in the study, only about 12% of black males tested at or above the Proficient level in 8th grade math; at least 50% of 8th grade urban black males scored below the Basic level.  According to CGCS, this eventually leads to black men accounting for only 5% of all college students in 2008.

I don't know the answer to all this.  But it is a troubling question to examine.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Update: Should We Stop Giving Students F's

Apparently, the official answer is now NO.

About a week ago, I wrote a post about a high school in the DC that had completely replaced the grade F with an Incomplete, which would remain as long as necessary for the student to complete the necessary work at a high enough level to pass the class.  The principal argued that the point of education is for students to acquire mastery, and that goal was more important that the arbitrary length of a school semester.

However, when this policy was reported in The Washington Post, the community went ballistic.  After a maelstrom of protests from parents, teachers, the educational community, and, I'm sure, various and sundry commentators, last Friday the principal sent out an email rescinding the policy.  He says that while he remains committed to his original intention of mastery-based learning, he admits that they hadn't developed sufficient consensus around the issue to move ahead with such a drastic change in grading.  So he will be forming committees and such to see what can be done to develop a mastery-based program that will be accepted by the community.  

But students who are currently failing, but who thought they would have additional time to do their work, will receive F's on their next report card if they do not bring up their work and test scores.

I suppose the principal had no choice but to take back his innovations when the parents were so upset.  But I regret that they didn't have more time to see how a "No Failure" program worked out.  I hope they can create some kind of acceptable mastery-based system through their new committees and actually give a new approach a try.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Should We Send Homeschoolers to School for High School?

Although we're just in our first year of middle school, I am often asked, "Will you continue to homeschool your son through high school?"  My response is that we'll see where things are when we get to that point, but right now I don't know why we wouldn't continue homeschooling.  But certainly many families do decide to send their children to school for high school.

Just like with the decision to homeschool, sending a child to school for high school can come from many different reasons.  Some homeschooling parents are just tired, or have spent enough time devoted to their children and want to get back into their former careers, start a new career before they get too old, or just need some time for themselves and their interests.  Some don't want to add the pressures of having to be a teacher on top of the conflict that sometimes comes with being a parent to a child going through a rocky adolescent.  Others feel intimidated about teaching subjects at a high school level, and feel their children will get better instruction from specialists in each field.

But one big argument people give in favor of sending a homeschooler to school for high school is to prepare them to look attractive to and do well in college.  I don't want to judge those families who make those decisions; for many, especially those who want to pursue careers that will require a lot of schooling (like becoming a doctor) or that will ultimately be in education (like being a college professor), that is probably a wise choice.  But I also have to ask, especially for those with children like my son, who certainly doesn't have such a driving ambition right now:  Is teaching our children the skill set to do well in school going to help them, hinder them, or have no effect on their success in the rest of their adult lives?

My thinking along these lines was sparked by Alfie Kohn's latest blogging in the Huffington Post (followers of my blog know that Kohn is the source of some of my greatest educational inspiration).  Entitled "'Ready To Learn' Equals Easier to Educate,"Kohn explores what may be American education's greatest irony--that our best and most elite institutions are devoted to finding, attracting, and teaching the students who need it the least (or, as I'm constantly saying in discussions with my friends, if you have what it takes to get into Harvard, you don't need to go to Harvard because you already have it made).  Kohn argues that, starting in preschool, we cherry-pick the "brightest," usually most advantaged, and most cooperative students and give them additional educational resources that only increases the gap between them and their less advantaged peers, justified by the rationale that those other children aren't "ready to learn" (at least, in that institutionalized way, since children are learning all the time, one way or another).  But this gap continues and expands all along the educational pipeline until one set of children is on track for Harvard (or Duke or Cal Tech or's not Harvard per se) and the other set is on a conveyor belt towards failure (see Waiting for Superman for more details).

But it seems to me one manifestation of this "ready to learn" concept is sending students to high school to prepare them for college.  On one hand, and particularly for some kids, sometimes it makes sense.  On the other hand, what does sending homeschool students to high school teach them?  For one thing, it certainly teaches them to expect less individual attention and less one-on-one discussion with teachers and peers.  I fear that it teaches them to give up pursuing their unique questions and curiosities about a subject in favor of following the pack along the educational path set by the teacher.  Since homeschoolers are an admittedly fairly homogenous community, even within a pretty sophisticated secular group like our Cary Homeschoolers, learning with a more diverse population might be a valuable aspect of school.  But reports from my friends in high schoolers in school say that their children are tracked or gifted-programmed or cliqued into groups that are no more diverse than our homeschool peers (who at least are definitely exposed to a greater age range of fellow students).  

As I said, this is probably the right route for many students.  But does it develop skills that all students need to become happy, productive adults?  I don't think so.  Or am I missing something?  Please let me know, because I'm open to reconsidering this position.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Should We Stop Giving Students F's?

In the movie Apollo 13, when Ed Harris's character (Flight Director Gene Kranz) announces "Failure is not an option," he is referring to the fact that the team could not even consider the possibility that the astronauts stranded in a broken spacecraft would not return to Earth safely.  But when West Potomac High School principal Clifford Hardison says it, he is talking about the fact that his school has dropped the use of the F grade in classes.  Rather, students who have not performed up to minimal expectations will be given an I for Incomplete, and will be given additional time to do the work necessary for a passing score.

Needless to say, this has been a very controversial move, both within the school itself and among the educational community.  Proponents argue that what we should really care about is that students' achieve mastery, not how long it takes them to do so.  Otherwise, they continue, students receiving F grades simply drop any attempt to understand that subject matter....and, all too often, end up dropping out of school all together.  Opponents say that removing the F grade takes away one of the few tools in the teacher's arsenal as teachers attempt to persuade reluctant learners that they need to apply themselves and do the work necessary to cover the subject matter and skills required to be productive in "the real world."  And the "good students"--the ones who have performed to expectations, who turned in all their assignments on time and studied to get good grades on their tests--worry that the fact that their high school gives out I's (to be replaced by the appropriate grade once all assignments and tests have been passed) will diminish the value of the high grades they achieved within the normal timeframe of the class.

It is particularly interesting to consider from a homeschooling perspective.  Most of the homeschoolers I know do minimal or no grading until students get into high school level classes, which need to be turned into some kind of transcript for college admission or job applications.  In my experience, the prevailing thought among area homeschoolers is that those transcripts need to include grades, because that is what colleges or employers expect.  But there is a contingent that argues that even high school level work should not be graded (including one of my favorite writers on educational reform, Alfie Kohn).  But even among those who are grading their students, many actually take the same approach as West Potomac.  That is, if their children don't get through all the material in a subject the parent's have planned for the year, they don't usually get an F; they continue to work on it in the next academic year, and it is listed as a course in the year in which they complete the work, not the year they began it.

I haven't decided which way we will go when my son gets to the transcript years.  But what about you?  Do you think giving F's is a good idea or a bad idea?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Waiting For Superman

Last night a few of us went to see the educational document Waiting for Superman (which I mentioned in a previous blog post on Educational Reform Documentaries).  This film, which was made by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," seeks to do the same thing with this documentary that they did with Gore's movie--to raise public consciousness about a crucial issue and to spark a grassroots movement to start taking action to solve the problem.

This documentary, as you might expect, is really well done and contains lots of shocking data.  But I found it more heart-wrenching and depressing than "An Inconvenient Truth."  What they have done in this movie is to personalize the almost-unbelievable statistics about the failure of public schools to education urban minority youth by focusing on the stories of a few specific children in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York City (among others).  OF COURSE, these children are photogenic and adorable youths with dreams for a better future being raised by loving and concerned lower-income families.  As the documentary cites the statistics about how poorly these children's schools are serving their communities--backed up with footage of schools that demonstrate bad teaching, depressing buildings, and uncaring school administrators--the families pin their hopes that their children can beat the odds by winning a lottery entrance into one of the charter schools whose track records have produced almost universally successful  graduates.  Unfortunately, the odds are against them; at one of these schools, there were over 700 applicants for under 50 available spaces.  By the end of the movie (at least if you are a softie like me), you care so much about these children that it is almost too stressful to even watch them go to the public lottery to see if their son, daughter, or grandson will manage to win one of the coveted spots.

The question the movie poses is, Why should these children have to win a lottery for a shot at a decent education?  Shouldn't that be the right of every American child, or at least all those willing to put in the effort required (as these examples all are)?

The movie isn't completely depressing.  In particular, it highlight schools that are working, that have a 96% graduation rate in communities where the comparable public schools have 2/3rds of their students dropping out.  It does a great job of capturing the vision, the energy, the thinking, and the settings of educational reformers who are doing a great job in preparing their students to succeed in college.  And it suggests why all schools aren't doing a similar job.

So, if you want to learn about such highly-technical educational terms as "dropout factories," "the dance of the lemons," or the infamous New York City "rubber room," or if you want to hear the story of Anthony in DC, Daisy in LA, or Francisco in Harlem, check out "Waiting for Superman."  Particularly here in Wake County NC, where the community is engaged in an intense debate about how our schools should be structured, this film sheds lights on disheartening data we would like to ignore and raises questions we might not want to answer--but we should anyway.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lesson Plan: MBTI for Tweens/Teens

In our psychology class today, we covered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is probably the most widely-used psychologically-validated personality test in this country, and probably the world.  While I have taught this to hundreds of adults, it was particularly satisfying to cover this material with this age group (middle school to young teens).  As opposed to adults, who usually have at least some inkling about some of the MBTI traits, this age group has usually never been exposed to these terms before.  But as it is presented, you can really see them taking it in and applying it to themselves and other people among their families and friends.  And I personally think this is a fabulous thing to expose them to early, because I think understanding Myers-Briggs differences between people can really reduce judgement and conflict between people, whether applied to your family, your friends, your community, or your world.

There are four trait continuums in the Myers-Briggs test:
Extrovert (outward focused, get energy from social interaction) vs. Introvert (inwardly focused, gets energy from being alone)
Sensory (gets information from senses, usually linear and sequential thinker, focused on the tangible, component thinker/sees trees rather than forest) vs. Intuitive (gets information from mental connections between items, usually broad/web-like thinker, focused on patterns and relationships, big picture thinker/sees forest rather than trees)
Thinking (makes decision based on logical, rational, data-driven process) vs. Feeling (makes decisions based on feelings, emotions, or non-logical process)
Judging (prefers life that is known, routine, fixed, organized, closed-ended or settled) vs. Perceiving (prefers life that is casual, flexible, changing, unpredictable, open-ended or unsettled)

I tried to come up with an experiential exercise to help introduce each trait.  For Extrovert vs. Introvert, I had one side throw a ball into a bag held by a partner on the other side after saying a word they related to the word “outgoing.”  The other side had to get the ball out of the bag, say a word they related to the word “introspective,” then throw it back to the other side.  The point of this exchange, besides having them think about what it is to be outgoing (extroverted) or introspective (introverted), is that extroverts are always willing to throw the conversational ball to you, but introverts usually have to go within (in this case, within the bag) before coming up with a conversational ball to return to the other side.

For Sensory vs. Intuitive, I gave them slices of apples, told them to look at them, feel them, smell them, then close their eyes and eat them, then write down what they noticed/thought about.  Some people stuck strictly to describing the apple (Sensory information).  Others began to drift off to other topics:  from apples to oatmeal (from eating apple cinnamon oatmeal) to thinking about being hungry (or not) to eating something else to nutritional science to something as far flung as Reese Witherspoon (OK, so that was me, but it’s not as crazy as you might think...apples made me think of apple picking, which made me think of the rumor that Taylor Swift went on an apple-picking date with Jake Gyllenhaal, which made me think about him breaking up with...Reese Witherspoon!)  The answers to this question helped them see who stuck to more tangible or sensory information, and who wandered over to the realm of the Intuitives.

For Thinking vs. Feeling, I gave them this dilemma.  Our class of eight students have been offered an all-expense-paid trip to a fabulous place that everyone would enjoy (such as Disneyworld).  However, the offer is only good for a maximum of six students.  Should we turn it down if everyone can’t go?  Or if we accept, how do we decide who should go and who should be left behind?  Again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this.  However, during the discussion of their reasoning in answering this question, it was pretty easy to see who was thinking logically(give preference to those who haven’t been before, or just choose randomly, etc. ) and who was thinking emotionally (we should stay instead of leaving people out, or I would rather not go then leave a friend behind).

For our final trait (Judging vs. Perceiving), I gave them an easy example:  Describe the scene at your house as you prepare to come to the coop where the class is being given today.  A few had stories of a quiet, organized, prepared morning (everyone Judging), but most of the students were telling tales out of school, confessing that their mothers were yelling at them to hurry up because they were running late (Judging parent, Perceiving children) or children who were fussing at their parents to hurry up or they would be late as the mother was still running off sheets for today’s class (Judging children, Perceiving parent). 

This was a fun, but more accessible way, to present the MBTI to the students.  After each trait discussion, we also created a continuum in the classroom and had the students place themselves where they thought they were on each trait (extreme E, slight E, borderline E/I, slight I, exteme I, etc.).  Then they are supposed to go home and take an online MBTI test and see if their test results fit where they rate themselves.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Plans for the NC Museum of Natural Sciences New Research Center

As I discussed in a previous post, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is building an addition that will house new educational, research, and exhibition areas to help visitors understand how science has developed the scientific knowledge it has attained.  While there are all sorts of exciting plans in the works--multimedia presentations, interactive displays, and working state-of-the-art labs, particularly exciting for those of us with middle schoolers students and above are the possible of expanded educational programs that can go into greater depth about some of science's most pressing issues.

Today we got a preview of some of the plans under development from one of the Museum's educational staff.  First, the bad news:  the new facility will probably not be operational until 2012.  They expect to complete construction by late 2011, but preparing the exhibits and laboratories will take additional time.  In particular, there has to be a "settling in" period of some months that will allow dust, particles, or other cast-offs of the construction materials to clear the air before they can bring in the sensitive computer and laboratory equipment that will outfit the building.

However, once things get underway, they expect to be running educational programs in several different labs.  The labs specifically mentioned were a macrobiology lab, a microbiology lab, and a digital visualization lab that will specialize in helping us to understand how all the data scientists collect can be displayed in a visual way so that humans can actually understand it.  It sounds like these labs will come complete with fantastic microscopes and other equipment that will allow a small class to have hands-on experience with some advanced science topics.

So we still have to be patient for a little while.  However, particularly for those of us in the Raleigh area, it seems like this will be a great addition to our children's access to high-quality hands-on science education.  Also, for those of us who homeschool, the Museum is definitely open to and enthusiastic about working with homeschoolers to make sure their new offerings help meet our needs for the kinds of hands-on laboratory science that prepares our students for college.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should the Government Ban Minors from Buying Violent Video Games?

Next Tuesday, two wonderful expressions of our democratic government will take place.  For millions of us, Tuesday will be the day we vote for our U.S. Congressional Representatives and a host of other state or local officials (the others, I'm sure, have already voted by early ballot).  Meanwhile, in our nation's capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about whether or not the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution extend to video games.

On Tuesday, November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), which deals with a 2005 California law that restricts the sale of certain violent video games to people under 18.  The law was overturned by the California courts for being unconstitutional, but the US Supreme Court agreed to consider the matter when the state of California appealed the decision.

On one side of the issue are various parent groups, who cite studies that linke playing violent video games to actual acts of violence, and argue that we should restrict children's access to such dangerous items just as we refuse to allow them to buy cigarettes or alcohol.  On the other side are civil libertarians and media groups, particularly the game developers themselves, who argue that with their ever-increasing ability for interaction and interconnectivity between players, video games are a growing means of self-expression for tweens and teens, and denying them access to that media runs counter to their constitutional rights, which have been re-affirmed in regards to books.

For our particular family, this matter is not really an issue; we don't own any game consoles, my son doesn't play many video games, and he doesn't enjoy violent games or activities in general, so I can't see him getting into such games whether or not they were banned.  And I can certainly understand the arguments of the proponents of the law.  I highly recommend the book Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria Degaetano, which makes a chilling case that time spent on violent video games (some of which were adapted from military sharpshooter training materials) not only numbs children to violence but gives them the skills to shoot with deadly accuracy, and was a factor in the mass school killings such as Columbine.

However, while I can't speak from personal experience, it also seems that the video games industry is evolving and has created some interesting games that lead players through the consequences of such violence.  The game industry puts forth examples of more-nuanced violent games as "Darfur Is Dying," where the player tries to avoid being killed by militias while in a refugee camp, "BioShock," where the game deals with genetically modified people being used in a bad system that players can choose to either profit from or rebel against, or "Fable 2," where players face the ultimate ethical dilemma--whether they will save only their immediate family from death, or sacrifice their family to save thousands of innocent lives.  Such games, according to game developers, actually allow teens to confront the moral issues surrounding violence and give them better coping skills if faced with violence in their real lives.

So in the end, I have to come down against the proposed law.  I think it would inhibit the free speech that mature middle schoolers and teens should be having about these issues.  And I am always reluctant to restrict civil liberties, which I think are already under seige with the threat of international terrorism.

So if Chief Justice Roberts were to ask my opinion as a parent, I would say the Supreme Court should uphold the lower court decision ruling the law as being unconstitution.  What would you say if he were to ask you?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Triangle NC the Center for Bargain Colleges

The College Board released statistics this week that claimed that while the average cost per year for a four-year  private school undergraduate education is now $36,000 (compared to $21,000 ten years ago), the increase in financial aid actually reduces the average per year cost to $22,000.  Kiplingers followed up that data with their annual listing of the best bargains in private education, based on the average amount of needs-based, and in some cases, non needs-based grants available to reduce the actual costs of attending the school.

The top school on the list for 2010-2011 is Princeton University.  However, the fifth university of their best-value listing was Duke University, located in the Durham point of Research Triangle, NC.  This adds Duke to last year's rating of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the best value among public universities, as well as North Carolina State University's inclusion as number 10.

So even though the college costs around here sound astronomical, it appears that the true costs can be significantly lower.  And we seemed to be blessed with a variety of choices for "bargain" undergraduate education; I didn't any other community that had options under both the public and private lists.

I've included some of the data from the report, including graduation rates and average debt upon graduation, below.  I've also included the statistics from my alma mater, The College of William and Mary, which was #4 on the list....just because it is my old school, several of my friends have children applying there, and it provides some useful comparisons to the local schools.  But if you want to see the data itself, or want to look for other colleges you are considering, you can access the Kiplinger statistics at:

Duke University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/5yrs:  83%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  8
Yearly cost:  $53,157
Average debt at graduation:  $23,059

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  75%, 88%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  14
Yearly cost, in-state:  $15,294
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $33,184
Average debt at graduation:  $14,936

North Carolina State University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  37%, 70%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  16
Yearly cost, in-state:  $14,390
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $26,875
Average debt at graduation:  $14,996

The College of William and Mary
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  84%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  11
Yearly cost, in-state:  $20,566
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $40,358
Average debt at graduation:  $12,859

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is Going to College an Economic Mistake?

Another provocative article in the Washington Post argues that sending children to college is not a good economic investment.  "Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree" by Sarah Kaufman suggests that soaring tuition prices are reducing the economic benefits of a college degree.  According to the statistics in the article, the differential in annual salaries between high school graduates and those with a bachelor's degree has narrowed, as has the difference in unemployment rates, particularly now that college graduate unemployment is at an all-time high.  Also, as the article points out, the average college degree earnings hide huge discrepancies between disciplines; the high wages of business majors or accountants look good compared to high school graduates, but those graduating with degrees in anthropology, social work, or preschool education may not be any higher than the compensation for high school graduates.

Compounding the problem, according to these financial advisers, is the burden of debt many young graduates have from their student loans.  Paying off that debt causes many to postpone major steps in their lives:  buying a house, having a family, opening their own business.  Many can't pay and end up defaulting; this not only ruins their credit (and thus, perhaps, their chance to rent an apartment or arrange a car loan), but may prevent them from getting some jobs (or have the government garnish their wages if they do get the job).

What do these experts say parents should do instead?  Invest that money in their children's future.  The $200,000 (minimum) it costs for four years at a highly-competitive private college would, if invested in T bill with 5% interest over 50 years, grow to nearly $3 million by the children's retirement age.  For those with not-such-deep pockets, at least one adviser says to give your children $10,000 to open their own business.  This, he argues, will teach them more life lessons than any college course, and will make them more motivated in whatever college education they do pursue.

Of course, as the article itself admits, there are non-monetary benefits to attending colleges.  It is for the intrinsic value of the college experience that I would want my son to go, not for the guarantee of a job with a big paycheck.  But it is an interesting perspective to keep in mind.  It is easy to  get caught up in college-mania, worrying about doing the right test-prep to get high enough scores and taking enough AP classes to ensure our children get into that "perfect" school, whatever it is--Harvard?  MIT?  Stanford?  St. John's?  University of Chicago?  Whatever.  If the voice in your head ever says, "But I'll ruin my children's lives if I don't prepare them well enough to get into (substitute educational Nirvana here)," this article provides some good food for thought.

And regardless of what I think about the article, I just have to ask:  Is there really any bachelor's degree program that is worth a quarter of a million dollars?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lawyer Tells Wake County School Board to Stop Texting During Meetings

Last week, the attorney for the Wake County School Board officially advised them to stop texting during board meetings.  Board Attorney Ann Majestic, who researched the issue on the request of the school board chair, Ron Margiotta, recommended against board members texting or sending instant messages or emails during the public meetings.  Majestic's legal reasoning is that the meetings are supposed to give the public an insight into the board's deliberations.  However, if members are sending private messages to each other during the course of the meeting, the public is obviously not getting access to all the board's thinking and communications.

Personally, I am completely behind this opinion, both because I think the sunshine laws require that board communication in public meetings should be available to the public, but also because it is a pet peeve of mine to see public official texting and tweeting and such during official hearings and events.  It drives me crazy to watch public occasions, such as the State of the Union address, and see our national representatives not paying attention to the President because they are too busy typing away on their Blackberries.

But I think it is especially important in this case because it send a message to the students.  When the public or other board members are addressing the body, I think it is rude for other board members to be texting instead of listening.  I believe they should be paying complete attention to the limited amount of time that the public has to express its opinions.  I also believe students should be paying complete attention to the limited time that the teacher has to teach, rather than texting and e-chatting.  In my experience, this is a rising problem in high schools, and teachers differ about how to deal with them.  Certainly, sometimes students are using their cell phones or laptops to access relevant material, and that is to be encouraged.  But the best way to make sure they are doing that, rather than chatting with their friends, is to set a policy that it is not appropriate to be carrying on private or off-topic discussions with friends during class, whether that is by voice, by written note, or by electronic communication.

I think the school board should set a good example for the students by refraining from electronic communications during board meetings, regardless of the legal issues about open meetings and sunshine legislation.  It is one way they can support teachers in the classrooms (even homeschool ones) without spending any money, building any facilities, or reassigning any students.