STEM Beats - September 2011

Schools Flip Out: Should Lecture and Homework Trade Places?

September 30, 2011

Is it time to flip homework on its head? That’s just what a handful of teachers and schools around the country are doing. Here’s how it works: Get your students to view lectures that cover the content when they’re at home, and then use all that valuable face time in class to work with a gifted teacher on experiments, demonstrations, and assignments tied to the material. (Two teachers describe the idea in some detail here.)

Take, for example, the new Khan Academy pilot school in Los Altos, California. When they’re at home, students at that school watch instructional videos from Khan’s now famous website, which contains thousands of such videos. Students do some brief exercises at home to test their grasp of the material and then presumably spend valuable class time delving much more deeply into the material. This could be one of the more promising models of “blended learning,” which mixes on-line and face to face learning.

If the flipped school experience really works, students who usually tune out during school lectures might be getting a wake-up call. They’d also be doing more work overall. Student surveys show that many don’t spend a lot of time on school when they’re at home. The flipped model might require them to spend a good deal of time at night watching lectures.

So is this a good idea? Should schools flip out?

Wake Up Call: Most College Students Never Graduate

September 29, 2011

Get a load of these college graduation rates. The New York Times reportsthat, in Texas, only about 61 percent of people who enroll in 4-year schools earn a degree within 8 years of starting. A mere 9 percent of Texans who enroll in community college graduate within four years. In Utah, the numbers are 45 percent and 20 percent.

The Times draws these data from a new report (PDF) by Complete College America, a non-profit that aims to raise the share of Americans with college degrees. The report is news, because it presents very new data, counting part-time and transfer students in its calculations. Federal data leave these students, who make up more than 40% of college enrollment, out of account.

The report doesn’t offer data for every state, because some didn’t cooperate. But it managed to get the data for 33 states, which is quite a feat.

The report's main conclusion: Time is the enemy. The longer it takes students to make their way to the finish line, the less likely they are to get there at all. Three of four college students juggle other commitments, like family or jobs. (The image of the college student as a 20 year old studying full time on a leafy campus somewhere is very out of date.) Those other commitments conspire with poor preparation in high school to keep students from graduating.

How do states and colleges turn things around? The report offers a number of recommendations. Among them: Reduce the amount of time students have to spend in class. Create predictable block schedules so that working students can plan their studies better. Allow some students to get their degrees faster by studying year round and in shorter academic terms. Embed remediation into the normal curriculum “so students don’t waste time before they start earning credits.” And give students better information on different programs costs, graduation rates and job placement track record.

The report does find some bright spots. As the Times reports, it “praises Tennessee's 27 Technology Centers, where the degree completion rate is 75 percent”:

Tech students, with an average age of 32, sign up for a program, not individual courses, and they come for seven hours a day, Monday through Friday, with classes ending by 3 p.m., allowing them to hold an evening job or care for their children after school. Instead of separate remedial courses, the centers have a required foundation course, in which each student learns skills needed for a program.”

Technical schools like Tennessee’s Technology Centers don’t really get the attention or respect they deserve, because they don't evoke traditional visions of college. If Complete College America succeeds, it might just change attitudes.

...And What About American Ingenuity, Perseverance and Grit?

September 27, 2011

Keep this image in mind: In the pre-dawn hours, a constellation of lights shimmers in the dark courtyard of a junior high school in South Korea. What explains this curious sight? Students studying by flashlight as they wait for the school’s doors to open.

Tom Brokaw recalls seeing this vision out of his studio window every morning as he wrapped up his daily broadcasts from Seoul during the 1998 Olympic Games. As he writes in his first blog for NBC’s Education Nation, the image evokes “the challenges ahead for our country as we compete with the ambitions of Asia and emerging nations around the world.” Those South Korean kids have fire in their bellies.

Some who read this might think that nationality is destiny: Asians have the drive to succeed in the blood, which is where we Americans store the bad cholesterol and triglycerides we build up by scarfing slyders while watching Jersey Shore reruns. Even Jay Mathews, who is no apologist for teen slackers, once claimed that US kids could never match their Asian peers in math and science, because Asian kids are just wired to try hard and do well in those subjects—full stop.

Is that really true? Are U.S. students fated to maintain their mediocre to middling standing in international tests of math and science? Aren’t there other home-grown traditions we can draw from? What about all those stories of American ingenuity, inspiration and perspiration? The belief that American kids are constitutionally unable to step up their game seems, well, un-American.

In his blog post, Brokaw reminds us how much a country can change its own fortunes. Forty years before he saw those South Korean middle schoolers bent over their books in the dark, “their country was ravaged by a brutal war and their economy was somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. Now they’re a world political and economic power.”

Take heart, and work hard. No nation is destined for mediocrity.


The Old Voc Ed Model Has Lessons to Share, Both Good and Bad

September 26, 2011

This story about a cache of very old report cards from a long defunct New York City trade school for mostly low-income, immigrant girls got Joanne Jacobs thinking:

One graduate started a business making stuffed animals and toys that’s still around.

Today, girls from low-income immigrant families are urged to go to college with little guidance on what they might do there to reach their real goal, a decent job. Most will start in remedial classes, give up on a degree and work low-skilled, low-paying jobs forever.

Jacobs's implicit question is: Are we wasting our effort pushing such girls into four-year colleges when vocational guidance might do them more good?

The usually astute Jacobs chooses an unfortunate example here. The New York City trade school taught girls trades like needlework, which required very little academic skill. It hardly needs saying that the world has changed, and that the kinds of jobs a trade school prepared you for almost 100 years ago have fled to other shores. Those that remain pay minimum wage. Even in the days of that trade school, the story of the graduate who started a business is likely the exception rather than the rule. Jobs that pay a decent wage and offer any prospect of a middle class life require more knowledge and skill than most students ever got through the old vocational model.

But Jacobs does have a point. Not every student needs to go to a four-year college. Other options, like technical school, can prepare young people for exciting high-tech careers and perhaps open the doors to a Bachelor's program down the line. Students who enroll in four-year schools unprepared for the rigors of college, or without any sense of what they can do with their lives, often end up with worse than nothing: no degree and crippling debt.

But does that mean we should stop counseling low-income immigrant kids to consider four-year colleges? In the days of that New York City trade school, the system was built to sort winners from losers, all too often on the basis of income and ethnicity or race. High-income, native born white kids went to college, and others went into basic trades. Now, a Bachelor's degree or more still pays off in lifetime wages and better employment opportunities.

We need to give all kids a better sense of what their options are for education after high school, and we need to make sure that they are prepared for all those options. We'll know we've been successful when student inclination, and not income, determines their course.


Tags: women & girls

Are We Leaving Our Best Students Behind?

September 22, 2011

Are we letting our concern for low-achieving students distract us from the need to push and support the highest achievers? The authors of a new reportfrom the Thomas B Fordham Foundation think so. The report traces the progress of some 120,000 students and suggests that we are ignoring our high-fliers at our own risk, as they are critical to our nation's economic success. It implicitly raises a very uncomfortable question: Do we have to choose between equity and excellence?

So just how dire is the situation for our top performers? The report finds that, in math, almost half of the students who start in the top ten percent of students lose steam over the course of their K-12 careers. Yet it also finds that a slightly larger number of students ascends to the top than falls from it. So the overall share of high fliers actually grows slightly.* Academic mobility goes both ways.

Yet we do have cause for concern. Even though they don't fall far--seldom below the 70th percentile--those who fall from the heights could represent a lot of squandered talent. Those who climb into the top 10 percent didn't have to climb very far. Students who are below average, by contrast, very seldom make it to the top.

What's to blame for the fact that so many top students lose speed? The study's authors point to the No Child Left Behind law and other similar policies that focus on students at the bottom. Elsewhere, Rick Hesspoints to states that shifted funds from gifted to struggling students.

There is, as Catherine Gewertz notes, an uncomfortable tension here. Can we reconcile equity with excellence? The report notes with some concern that students at the bottom made faster gains in reading than students at the top did. In math, students at the bottom and top gained at about the same rate. So let's get this straight: The narrowing achievement gap in reading is bad news, but the persistent gap in math is good? Do we want some people to have far worse prospects than others? Do we want to maintain income inequality? (Bear in mind that low income students are by far most likely to be at the bottom of the heap).

The answer, of course is that we want equity and excellence. There will always be differences among students. That's natural. But we need to raise both the floor and the ceiling.

We can start by not settling for "proficiency" as defined by many states. Many set that bar so low that it obscures actual differences between the middle and the top. Even if we succeed in hoisting many struggling students just over the bar, we may not be cultivating enough truly strong performers. International tests of student performance reveal that even our top students are lagging behind students in many other countries.

As always in education, it's both/and: We have to close gaps and raise the floor. We have to attend to everyone. We don't have the luxury of choosing between rich and poor, star and straggler.


* Note: How can the "overall share" of students performing above the 90th percentile be very different from 10 percent, you ask? The study's authors based the 90th percentile on 2008 norms and did not change that bar to reflect the performance of different student cohorts.