Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Enoch's planets

I'm working on a historical novel that will include the real-life hero Nathan Hale.  While doing some research, I looked at a diary written by his brother, Enoch Hale.

Enoch was an interesting dude.  Here is a page from his diary, where he was tracking the planets...

And may I just say how odd, humbling, and exciting it is to handle documents that are 250 years old.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Education - Lies your high school may not know they told you

Older Kid was watching over my shoulder as I wrote a new post in this series, and she asked a great question: What exactly is your premise for these articles?

Okay, then. I need to make that clear. It's my opinion that public schools have become focused on the "business" of education. They treat students like units of production, rather than people with individual needs.

Why do I think that? Because schools are all about the numbers. GPAs, SATs, percentiles, reading levels, % free-and-reduced lunches, end-of-grade tests, adequate yearly progress, graduation rates, enrollment on September 15th. When you ask what the quality of a school is, most of the time, you're told a number.

I don't care about a school's numbers. I only care about how well my child would learn there.

Let me say upfront that this is not a slam against teachers. I believe most try really hard to do a good job. I have friends who are compassionate, committed teachers. I grew up in a family of amazing teachers. My sister, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all public school teachers. They loved teaching. They agonized over how to help their students. They worked too hard for too little pay.

I also believe that many students will do just fine in regular schools. However, if you're a kid who has any of the following factors, you're in danger of being failed by the system.

  • A socio-economic/family background that doesn't value learning
  • A brain that can't juggle a lot of different subjects simultaneously
  • Health issues, including insomnia
  • Learning disabilities
  • Genius IQ or unconventional interests
  • Behavior patterns that are viewed unfavorably by the school

The local school system failed my kids. One had health issues. The other had learning disabilities. Actually, I failed them too--because I let too much time elapse while I kept hoping for things to get better.

In North Carolina, we have two departments that administrate schools: the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the Department of Non Public Education (DNPE). It's interesting to note that public schools have "instruction" and non-public schools have "education."

I'm not sure why American schools have gone in this direction. I lay a lot of the blame on state legislatures, who have no clue what it takes to educate children from multiple socio-economic backgrounds and with varying skills, learning styles, and intelligences. Most legislators fall back on asking for numbers, perhaps because they don't know any better, perhaps because they're distracted by the money that inevitably circulates around an enterprise this big.

Of course, if I blame government officials, then I have to blame voters too--'cause we're the ones putting the wrong people into power.

Bottom line: It is my opinion that public schools are too focused on the business of generating "numbers" -- and not focused enough on helping kids. Some students will do fine anyway, but there are many who won't, and they don't deserve to be failed by public education.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Online school - Lies your high school may not know they told you

My husband and I are both graduates of the traditional American education system, having attended public schools from first grade through college. We expected the same for our children. Public schools—in buildings made of bricks-and-mortar—had been good enough for us; we expected it would be good enough for them.

The reality was far different.

Both of my kids have learning differences that made the old, traditional, classroom-based approach ineffective. We had to find an alternative. Since we're a family of geeks, education over the internet was something we were willing to try.

I am so glad we did. Online schools worked out great for my daughters! But will it work for you?

Each student is different. If you're considering online education (or cyber academy, virtual school, e-learning, distance education, etc.) here are some things to consider.

Disclaimer: if you're a student with a goal of attending a top-tier university, be sure to research their attitudes toward online high schools. A highly-competitive university may look askance at an online transcript (although Stanford University runs a virtual high school; that diploma would probably look just fine.)

The Good

Variety: Nearly every university in America offers online classes, both for college-level and high school (HS). The number of options is exhausting. Older Kid received her HS diploma from the University of Missouri Online High School. Western Governors University, a virtual college, awarded her college degree. Younger Kid's HS transcript is filled with online classes. Although she attends a bricks-and-mortar college now, her transcript has online courses from multiple universities.

Pace: The pacing is my favorite part of virtual high schools. Most online classes have flexible schedules. My girls could start a class whenever they liked, work on it as long as they needed, and immediately move on to something new when they were done. Since Older Kid had health issues, she could focus on schoolwork when she felt good and heal when she didn't. Younger Kid might race through English in 3 months. Since math was harder for her, she could take a full year with it.

Syllabus: Another great thing about online classes is that you know from the first day what is expected from you. Because you often have the course outline before you register, you know upfront about all assignments, quizzes, and exams.

The Bad

Personality: A student must have good self-discipline and a strong motivation to pursue e-learning. You must be willing to track your own progress. You must be able to learn by reading. If you aren't willing to push yourself to study and complete assignments, you will fail.

Cost: Public schools are free. Online schools are not. For HS, I spent about $4000 per year per kid, which included all online class materials, grading, exams, textbooks, and tutors.  (For Older Kid's virtual college, we paid about $3000 per semester, so its tuition was actually less than most colleges.)


Quality: Just like in traditional schools, the quality of an online class depends on the instructor who designed and developed the content. I'd like to think that virtual schools seek out the best teachers possible, but who knows? Generally, though, from what I witnessed with 50+ online courses, the quality is pretty good.

Relationships: If you're considering online high school, you need the support of your parents/family. It's hard to learn every required subject without another human being to talk to occasionally. So be aware that attending an online HS may change the parent-child relationship. (It strengthened mine, but I wouldn't expect that to be true for everyone.)

Foreign language: Research shows that students who take a foreign language online do better at vocabulary and worse at conversation. We found that to be true, too.

Solitude: You will complete most online classes by yourself. You don't interact with people face-to-face. If you enjoy group projects and social time, virtual school may not be the right choice for you.

Before we pulled Older Kid out of her public HS, she asked her guidance counselor if she could take an online class from NC's virtual public school. He refused, saying that they were too easy to be any good. I suspect he had no actual experience with e-learning. Most studies suggest that students who drop out of online classes do so because they are too hard.

Bottom line: You must have the right personality to be successful at online school: that is, you must be self-motivated and able to learn on your own. The quality of online classes depends on the institution offering it, but you can expect a well-respected university to offer good classes. You can choose class schedules that accommodate your pace. And it's wise to have support from your family.

Other posts in this series:

Monday, April 6, 2015

Diplomas - Lies your high school may not know they told you

I pulled both of my kids out of conventional high schools (HS). Older Kid left at 16. We liked alternative education so well that we pulled Younger Kid out at 14; she spent all 4 years of HS in an educational program customized for her.

One of our first concerns was their HS diploma. What would it take to get a valid diploma? How many credits would they need? Who issued their diplomas and transcripts?

The most important question, though, was: Would colleges accept a transcript from an alternative education source? 

The answer is...Yes, they will. And it's easier than you might think.

[Disclaimer: the information below is useful in North Carolina. Laws and regulations in other states and countries may vary, so always do your own research. Also, if you're a student with a goal of being admitted to a top-tier college, this information does not apply to you.]

Here's what I did to learn about the kinds of  diplomas and transcripts that would impress colleges.

1. Find out what our target colleges expected.

My kids wanted to attend college in North Carolina, either public or private.  The University of North Carolina System has minimum admissions requirements. The requirements were:
  • 15 credit hours (with specific minimums for Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies)
  • GPA of 2.5 or higher
  • SAT score of 800+ or ACT composite of 17+

So, yeah,15 credit hours. That's all they needed.

2. Research the diploma requirements for our state.

  • The state requires more credits for a state HS diploma: 20 for Older Kid (21 for Younger Kid, because the rules changed).
  • That was unexpected. North Carolina requires 6 more credits than minimum admission requirements. Then there is another little gotcha.  Counties are allowed to add even more credits to issue a diploma. Our county adds 5 more credits.
  • If my kids had received a county HS diploma, they would have completed 11 credits more than local colleges require.  I'm sorry, but that's just crazy.

3. Check into HS equivalency programs.

When we looked into HS equivalency programs, we found two: Adult High School Diploma and High School Equivalency.
  • Adult diploma: this diploma is issued by our local county, with the same requirements.
  • High School Equivalency: a certificate is awarded, following the successful completion of a well-known series of tests. Those tests are not easy, by the way.

Nope. We didn't want either of those options.

4. Look into online (distance) HS programs.

There are hundreds of online HS programs.  Most states offer them. Most major colleges offer them. And many private/for-profit institutions also allow you to earn an online diploma. The more research we did, the more we discovered that there are many excellent distance programs available.

5. Select the right option for the student.

  • We decided to use online education for both of our kids.
  • We chose a fully-accredited distance diploma for Older Kid. She took classes from a community college as well as classes from the online high school at the University of Missouri. Older Kid received a HS diploma from the State of Missouri.
  • We simplified high school even further for Younger Kid. She took many distance HS courses from two universities. We formed a home school and customized some coursework around her special needs. Our home school issued Younger Kid's diploma and transcript.

And guess what? Our kids had no trouble at all being admitted to the colleges they wanted.

A conventional high school has no motivation to share this information. There are a variety of reasons. First, they may not know it. Second, even if they did know, they might not realize (or believe) how good these alternatives are. Lastly, there is a financial incentive not to tell students.  

Bottom line:  Alternative education options allow you to choose a high school program that reflects a student's goals and what their family can support.If you want to attend an Ivy League university, you may need a diploma from a rigorous, conventional high school. If you want to start a career immediately or if you want to attend a local college, there are alternatives to conventional high schools--such as home school, distance high schools, or high school equivalency programs.  Check it out!