Hard for GT Prof to Get into High School

August 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm 3 comments

I haven’t done much work directly with K-12 students since my dissertation, where I had high school students learn physics and CS by building kinematics simulations. In Georgia Computes!, we work with K-12 students in afterschool programs, through youth-serving organizations (like Girl Scouts), and in summer camps, but not directly with the schools. We help develop middle school and high school CS teachers. But we’ve come up against a research question that requires us to work directly with high school students.

Few minority students take AP CS, even when there are teachers in the school who have gone through our workshops and summer programs. Even fewer take the AP CS exam, and very few pass it. Why is that?

A graduate student working with me, Jill Donnelly, decided to help us answer this question. She’s put together an interview protocol to ask high school students (both taking AP CS and not taking it) about their attitudes towards AP CS. She’s tried out her protocol with summer camp students this year, but that’s not really a fair distribution. She also wants to talk to teachers (what do they think? do they encourage or dissuade students from taking it?) and guidance counselors (ditto). Barb helped us find a high school with good CS teachers and with little AP CS attendance.

First Jill spoke to the AP CS teacher (after multiple emails and phone calls), who sent her to the principal. Repeat application of emails and phone calls, and add a physical visit to get on his calendar. He sent her to the administrator in the school who manages research projects. Repeat. We find out that we have to apply to the Fulton County Board for research project review. Repeat the emails, calls, and visits. I write a letter to the principal. I help Jill get the form together for the County. The application goes in in my name All of this takes about six months.

Yesterday, we get a four sentence form letter, where the second sentence begins, “We regret to inform you.” No explanation. Nothing which is specific to our case at all.

It’s frustrating. I have been complaining (okay, whining) about this on Facebook and to my colleagues. I’ve learned that this is a common problem. I understand better why so many of my colleagues work in private schools, charter schools, and even schools they create themselves. Of course, that doesn’t help us — that’s not where our question is..

Why did Fulton County say no to us? From what little we’re hearing back, schools are often afraid that we are going to make them look bad. This is the down side of Stuck in the Shallow End — schools don’t want to be painted with the same brush. I can’t promise that they’ll come off blameless, but we want to work with them on data collection, analysis, and reporting.

One of the analyses we can do without permission is to look at published data. In our schools that are getting good AP CS success, over 75% of the students who take AP tests pass them. In our schools that have this confound (good teachers, few students), the pass rate for AP overall is around 5%. It’s not just CS. Is it culture in the schools? Is it how AP is thought about? I don’t know, and we’re having a hard time finding out.

In response to my Facebook complaints, former Dean of the School of Education, Carl Berger, responded that that was how U-Michigan got my advisor, Elliot Soloway, away from Yale. Elliot wanted to work in high schools in New Haven, but was getting shut down. U-M always had great relationships with Ann Arbor schools. I was surprised. I knew lots of reasons why Elliot left Yale, but this one was new for me. Is it really necessary for a researcher to change jobs just to get access to research participants?

I was spoiled at Michigan. We had so many projects going on in the Ann Arbor schools. It was easy to get started, even for graduate students or post-docs I was working in the CS classes with the GPCeditor. MediaText was used in journalism and physics classrooms. Yasmin Kafai wanted to work with geometry classes, and immediately had teachers to work with.

On reflection, I realize that it really helps to have a School of Education to do work like this. From pre-service student teaching, to in-service teacher workshops, to graduate degrees for teachers, a School of Education provides a reason and an opportunity to have an on-going relationship with the area schools. At Georgia Tech, there are a handful of us who work with education — it’s hard to maintain a relationship, particularly a multi-faceted one like Michigan had.

Right now, I don’t know where we’re going to go next to answer this question. I suspect that the first step is for me to visit the research decision-makers in Fulton County, to find out what happened and how we could improve our chances. I don’t know what Jill is going to do for her HCI Masters project, but I’m hoping that we can get approval still.. It’s depressing and frustrating that it’s so hard for education researchers to find willing partners in K-12 schools We know that there are problems in the schools, and we are interested in helping — not to drop in our solutions, but to talk to people to try to identify the problems and work with the schools to develop appropriate interventions. It’s so hard to get into high schools.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gflint  |  August 9, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    As a former public HS school math/CS teacher who now teaches math/CS in a private HS school I understand your problem. It is so much easier for public school administrators to do nothing to improve their schools by opening them up to studies like yours. They are guaranteed there will be no job endangering issues if they do nothing. Private schools on the other hand are always looking for something to sell the school. Having been part of some study and being able to use the results to guide improvement is a big selling point. For a private school to maintain the status quo with the public schools means losing students to the cheaper public school. We are always looking for some way to make improvements and advances so we can put them in our marketing. Want to improve a school? Take away all that fat tax funding and require a school to be good so as to attract students to pay the bills. Administrator and teachers would all of a sudden very motivated to find ways to improve the education system at the school.

    Reply
  • 2. Lisa Kaczmarczyk  |  August 10, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I have another thought. I don’t know how Georgia works, but here in San Diego, there are public charter schools that, by law, are open to any student within the San Diego Unified School district – until they fill up anyone can attend (if I understand it correctly). After they fill up, a lottery process is used. In other words, there is some self selectivity involved, because parents have to choose that school for some reason, but on the other hand, they are public schools and must follow many of the state mandated guidelines and will enroll more of the demographic typical of the community than a private school.

    In my blog (http://computing4society.blogspot.com/) yesterday I talked about one such school, a new technology oriented high school that is opening in San Diego this fall. I know several of the people involved in the startup of this venture.

    I certainly cannot speak for the school, but my initial thought is that a school like this charter school might be easier to gain access to and to work with, as they have more freedom in some areas than a traditional public high school. Does Georgia have the equivalent of the school I discuss? If so, have you looked into contacting them?

    Reply
    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  August 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion, Lisa. We do have charter schools here. Unfortunately, that’s not where my research question is. I need to understand what’s going on in the minority-majority high schools where the AP CS isn’t taking off. Looking at charter schools doesn’t help me with that question.

      Reply

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