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Standards-Based Report Cards

The New York Times Opinion Page had a piece (which I seem to have misplaced) describing new report cards featuring state mandated standards from a parents perspective. They found the several page document bewildering, and this is coming from a member of the New York Times Editorial Staff. Imagine how the average mom and pop might feel with a report card that reads:

2.1 Understand negative whole-number exponents. Multiply and divide expressions involving exponents with a common base.

Most of the problems in education come from terrible feedback mechanisms. Teachers don’t have the time to give substantial feedback in person, nor do they have time to write intensive analysis on a per student basis. Parents are completely in the dark, even if they try to follow along (and most don’t even try because the information they get isn’t good enough). And students delude themselves into thinking whatever they want to think about their performance. The need is great for better, real-time, actionable reporting to all stakeholders in a kid’s life. The Truth Will Set You Free, or in this case The Truth Will Give You Power Over Your Students.

Standards based reporting is coming. The question is whether or not it can be presented in a fashion that means something and promotes the action necessary to increase student learning and performance.

Universities and Urban Renewal

The Chronicle of Higher Education podcast featured a talk with Oberlin College President Marvin Krisolv about the relationship between the College and the community of Oberlin.  Oberlin claims to be taking an active stake in the local economy, helping to invest in infrastructure and service programs as part of an Urban Renewal effort.  Having observed many schools, I think that their success inextricably linked to the livability and opportunities in their immediate surroundings.  Oberlin is not taking it far enough.

In particular, Harvard and Stanford have dramatically altered and managed the towns around them.  Owning and managing the surrounding community to promote a safe, clean, and livable environment is only the first step.  The next seems to be to promote the location of research institutes nearby, as well as set up space for and engage the industries of the future.  Stanford has done this and more: it has been the most extreme example of helping to jump start Venture Capital firms, and the firms have a home bias that inevitably has made Silicon Valley one of the wealthiest areas of the planet.

University involvement in urban renewal seems to be the trend, but service programs are temporary and are more of a band-aid than a solution.  If a university really wants to see their community improve, they need to become the spark of economic development through the active management of residential, commercial, and high tech industrial real estate, the creation of research institutes, and the support of Venture Capital.

Course Data Needs to Open Up

Since I’ve been working on Courses on Facebook, a lot of other web application developers with interest in the education market have approached us hoping to tap into “courses”, to make their product available to our users in the context of participating in their courses. From turning camera photos into scanners, to a virtual whiteboard, there are lots of developers out there trying to make innovative products.

However, it is difficult for most of these applications to gain traction due to a “brick wall” around course data. All accurate course data is closed, kept for school use only. As a result, the only software available that can be used in courses has to be marketed from the top down. Either that, or users have to be so compelled to use the product that they enter and clean data on their own, which is rare. As a result, much of the developer talent avoids the education space.

What if course data and even course membership data could be open? There could be XML tags around them, including <uni_name> <term_name> <term_start> <term_end> <school> <program> <department> <course_title> <course_code> <primary_instructor><instructor id=n>

Opening course data could remove the “brick wall” and increase user adoption of numerous web applications trying to create better or even new ways of sharing information in and around courses.

Yet another set of Data Gymnastics

I just read an article that revealed how the US News and World Report’s best high schools in the country (at getting kids ready for college) are identified. As usual, I was beside myself at the naivety of the data gymnastics involved.

The researchers measured whether a school performed better than average on the state exam, including disadvantaged groups compared to other disadvantaged groups at other schools. Then they take the weighted average of the AP participation rate and performance, as well as the ratio of students passing the AP exams over the number of graduating seniors, do a little index magic and outcomes the praised number.

This, of course, has very little to do with college readiness. The ratio of passed AP exams to the total graduating class directly measures only the number of students signing up for AP classes with the confidence and money to take the exam.

While there is reason to champion the AP program as well as the AP exam, it is only a standardized exam that measures content knowledge with (as every multiple choice exam) mild treatment to analytical ability, reading comprehension, and form writing.

The AP exam cannot measure a students’ habits in the absence of supervision, nor can it measure a students ability to solve comprehensive problems that cannot be contained within a few paragraphs of text. It cannot measure knowledge of research procedure, or of self-monitored study-skills. While a commitment within the structure of high school and parent led homes can be inferred, true motivation nor an intrinsic love for learning cannot.

The AP exam is heralded simply because its hard data, but college readiness lies in much more qualitative assessments. With some serious effort on the part of policy makers and administrators, perhaps we can start touching on that too one day.

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