Friday, September 18, 2020

Why Fix the Best School? Because It's Broken

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country. We can debate the metrics that are used for such lists, but it's hard to argue with the results the school produces: Tons of exemplary students who gain admission to impressive colleges and universities and go on to amazing careers. TJ is a success.

So why would anyone suggest changing anything about the school? The table below shines some light on the problems.

Three things jump out at me from this table. First, Hispanic and Black students aren't even applying to TJ nearly as often as we would hope. Second, once they apply, the admissions test knocks many of them out of contention immediately. Third, it's an even worse picture for economically disadvantaged students. 

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Asian kids are just smarter," then we have different assumptions about the nature of race, so you can just move on. I have no reasoned response.

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Black and Hispanic kids are not as qualified (through no fault of their own), and letting more of them in will significantly dilute the academic strength of the TJ student body," then we can have a reasonable discussion (though I disagree with you). 

In a recent School Board working session, the Superintendent presented his TJ Admissions Merit Lottery Proposal, and I like it. For the first time, the admissions process can reflect the reality that many students could benefit from the rich experiences at TJ -- not just excellent test-takers. Most students who meet the new requirements (e.g., moving the minimum GPA up from 3.0 to 3.5) will be able to thrive at TJ. A few points: 

  1. The current system does a great job of identifying great test takers, but there is more to academics than test taking. I actually don't care about creating a strict ordering of everyone who can take a test well. It's important that admitted students be qualified, but more than 500 students in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, and the other participating districts are qualified to attend TJ. 
  2. TJ teachers can figure out how to bring out excellence from students who took Algebra I in 7th or 8th grade and have a 3.5 GPA in their core middle school classes. Their classes will be SLIGHTLY less homogeneous, but not much. 
  3. More Black and Hispanic students will apply than in recent years. I would guess that many students of color haven't particularly wanted to go to a school where they are culturally alone.
  4. The TJ community will benefit from having more diverse perspectives and skill sets, while communities around Fairfax County will benefit from having connections to TJ. 
  5. For the class of 2022, 2 middle schools combined to send 140 students to TJ (about 40% of the county's total), while 15 middle schools sent too few to report (small single digits).

The lack of diversity in TJ's student population has inspired hand wringing before. One question that struck me from this article was from an alumna who asked "Why are her white peers just noticing the problems now?" Honestly, I suspect that the declining representation for white students is a significant trigger. Nothing gets the attention of someone with privilege like being underrepresented. There are probably other reasons including the increased emphasis on equity in our society, but I'm a bit of a cynic.

Here are a few bold predictions:

  • First of all, defenders of the status quo are going to lose their ever-loving minds. They will make impassioned pleas and defend the current system as the epitome of meritocracy.
  • If this merit lottery ends up being enacted and the number of National Merit Finalists goes down, those defenders of the current status quo will freak out again and say "I told you so!" My response: I'm ok with that. When you rely on a test for admission, then it is no surprise that those students remain good test takers. I will not judge TJ based on how many exceptional test takers attend. That merit is judged primarily by a single test is ludicrous and narrow-minded. What is being rewarded with the current system is test preparation.
  • Some families are going to move (or at least appear to move on paper) so their kids can have more favorable chances of selection. Any system can and will be gamed.
  • Academic achievement will rise a bit at many middle and high schools. All of a sudden, kids from underrepresented areas of the county will realize that they have a chance of getting into TJ, and will work to become qualified for the lottery. 
I applaud Dr. Brabrand and the folks at FCPS who put together this innovative proposal. It will improve educational opportunities and outcomes across the county, and will make TJ a better place to learn.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Tips for Working in Zoom/Webex/BBCU

Here are a few tips for people transitioning to Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate or Webex or Google Meets for the next few months (most notably teachers). 

Ergonomics: (You probably ignore this usually, but being on your computer 8 hours a day can expose all sorts of issues)

1) Consider an external keyboard. The angles your laptop force your wrists into aren't comfortable for everyone. Since I've been using a wireless curved keyboard with ergonomic mouse, the tendinitis in my wrists has been fine. 

2) Top of monitor should be right around your casual eye level. 

3) Your elbows should rest at a right angle when using your keyboard.

4) Consider a setup that can allow you to stand. I use an Ikea desk with a motor that allows me to switch between standing and sitting. There are other solutions, but being able to stand every once in a while is a good thing.

Prepare your A/V presence:

5) Get an external monitor, and keep your open laptop to one side. With two screens, you can use your laptop to keep an eye on chat or to preview what you want to show next.

6) Make sure your camera is close to the top and center of the monitor you plan to be looking at. That might mean buying a $39 USB webcam that you can position on top of your monitor. My laptop's camera is by the hinge, and the view up my nostrils is not pleasant.

7) Position your light source(s) near the camera. Avoid having lighting (especially windows) behind you.

8) Keep a headset with boom mic or earbuds with a mic on hand. The sound quality of your laptop's mic might not be great. I know the headset will mess up your lovely hair. Cry me a river 😉

9) If you can, use one browser for personal stuff and a different browser for work. For instance, keep Chrome for work and Firefox for personal stuff on your work machine. This makes it easier to keep your worlds separate.

10) Before you start sharing, always check your tabs. You don't want to over-share. On Chrome, F11 hides all the menus and toolbars.

11) I didn't think I needed it, but I like having my phone on a stand on my desk. It brings it into my visual space so I can leave it on mute and not miss anything critical. Google Messages and WhatsApp both have web apps that allow me to see text messages in a browser tab, which is even better.

12) Make sure the space behind you is not distracting and doesn't include any windows or other bright light sources. Just like with browser tabs, you don't want to provide more distractions.

Special note for teachers: I know this is new for many of you, but you can and will make it work. You don't need to be perfect. You just need to be present and  connect with your students. If all you do is show up, riff a bit, and get students to engage in a conversation, that will be amazing. If you are lucky and/or good enough to also have some coherent curriculum, then that's awesome. Keep it simple and show up. You got this!

Why Fix the Best School? Because It's Broken

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country ....