kitchen table math, the sequel: High School Questions

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

High School Questions

My son will start high school next year and they will have an open house for 8th graders and their parents in a couple of weeks. Do you have any suggestions about what questions I should ask? One I already have is what the heck they do in "Advisory" for 20 minutes each day. They use a block schedule that alternates between day 1 and day 2. Is there anything I should look out for with this kind of scheduling? The first class of the day starts at 7:25.

Of course, we gave our son the pep talk about how all of his grades really matter now, even as a freshman. However, I don't want him (or us) to get weird about everything. I don't want him trying to fill in every last minute of his day. This led me to look at GPA and class rank. It dawned on me that taking more classes will not improve these numbers, but I don't know if they want to have kids fill up all slots with classes. By the way, what happens when you apply for college, do you give them the GPA/class rank at the end of the junior year? I know that colleges look at whether you slack off in your senior year, but does your final GPA/class rank really matter?

My goal is to have him focus on the core courses and not feel like there is always something more that he needs to do. I told him that if he does well on the SAT/ACT and has a good GPA, then he doesn't have to drive himself crazy with all of the intangibles.


momof4 said...

Some colleges used to recalculate all GPAs, using only the courses they consider to be "real". I know of one that did not consider either astronomy or physiology acceptable. This was a few years ago, so I would suggest checking out the issue.

farmwifetwo said...

I am shocked at the variety of irrelevant courses they offer. Whatever happened to English, Math and Science classes??? Do the kids even realize they need these to get into Univ. My alma mater now sends out a "math package" to all incoming Frosh... but they make it clear in our Alumni Magazine (arrive yesterday) that they don't do it b/c math isn't taught in h/s... No it's just an extra.... ::eye-roll::

When we were in highschool Univ's ranked the school's. So an A at one school could have been much lower at another.... although they never officially admitted to that either. I suspect it's still done.

le radical galoisien said...

"I don't want him trying to fill in every last minute of his day"

Why not?

College admissions committees. look at your courseload. Your GPA may not be affected by courseload, but your impressiveness to adcoms will be.

When I came over to the US as a naive Singaporean with no idea how the US high school system worked, they placed me on a really "lax" schedule where I spent way too many hours of the week in study halls and I'm really mad because there were ultimately all these things that could have been studied that weren't.

The secret to college admissions is to take every single AP course there is, and on top of that, dual-enroll.

momof4 said...

The other issue to check is whether the school/district uses a weighted grading scheme. If honors and/or AP courses are weighted, then they have a big impact on class rank and that is important. Some of my kids attended schools where a 3.0 average (with no honors or APs) was in the lower half of the class because the top kids took ALL academic classes at honors level or better. The guidance counselors told incoming freshmen that no one took more than one or two honors classes at a time, which was blatantly false. The very top also took 8-10 AP classes (all of which had honors prerequisites), so they affected the junior GPA. Also, if the school profile (which is sent to colleges with all transcripts, which include GPA and class rank) indicates that APs are offered, not taking them usually hurts. I'd say to take every possible period of REAL classes unless there's a real need for a study hall (like a swimmer/gymnast etc who trains 5 hours a day).

It is also a plus to have significant extracurriculars, especially with leadership. One or two serious commitments with leadership is better than light involvement with a long list of things, in my experience. A lot depends on the high school/community - how big, how competitive, urban/rural/suburban, etc. Of course, what kind of college is planned has a huge impact. I remember an info session (many years ago)for out-of-staters at UNC Chapel Hill where a National Merit Semi-finalist with a 4.0 GPA was told (publicly, no less) that she had no chance of admittance because she had no APs. The various college guides can be very helpful in identifying characteristics of admits.

My kids attended 4 very competitive to highly competitive high schools in three states and their experience leads me to recommend that the guidance counselor is useless until proven otherwise (see comment above). I have never met one that seemed to have much interest in or knowledge of academics; their interests were all social/emotional.

If your block schedule means that a year's course is done in one semester (with double periods), the issue of forgetting previous material can be an issue, especially in math and foreign languages. He also did extra reading in history because he didn't think they really covered a full year. Fortunately, we moved after two years.

Also, it is not necessary to take and AP course in order to take the test; just get a study guide and whatever other materials look helpful.

Sorry for the long post, but I hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

Before you talk about what matters, you need to state what your goal is.

What does your son want to do for a field/career/major? What is he inclined toward? What are his talents?

What colleges is he interested in? What colleges are you interested in?

The other questions can't be answered until the goal is well defined. Saying "get into college" is too vague.

Anonymous said...

If he wants to go to a top college, good SAT and good GPA isn't enough. It just isn't.

That's because they aren't picking between your son/not your son. They are picking between your son and 100 other similarly scored applicants--why him and not them? What does he offer?

Admissions officers aren't faculty, and unless a student is exceptional to the faculty and they make the student be accepted, appealing to an admissions officer is about intangibles too.

SteveH said...

" recalculate all GPAs, using only the courses they consider to be 'real'."

Thanks, I'll watch out for that and ask others.

SteveH said...

"College admissions committees. look at your courseload."

I don't think there will be much problem with this. Once he uses up one of his electives for orchestra, there is not much left after the core courses. I guess I was just thinking about trying to keep him focused on the core and AP courses and not worry much about the other ones. Anyone have any comments on whether some electives can be more trouble than they are worth?

SteveH said...

".. they placed me on a really 'lax' schedule"

Thanks for reminding me. Someone else told me that the guidance counselers tend to do this.

le radical galoisien said...

Ambition is always good -- push for higher courses. If they say a course is for a year above him -- take that.

le radical galoisien said...

Also, local universities or community colleges tend to have more exciting/useful higher math (linear algebra! arguably this should be taken after finishing elementary algebra, BEFORE calculus).

Go further in a language. The standard for how languages are taught in high schools here are terrible -- after passing the learning curve if you study on your own you can basically skip levels and move onto university level.

The thing is, while this sounds extreme, I went to a terrible blue-collar high school where like 47% of the students went on to community college. The culture of mediocrity is something you have to proactively fight, and be adamant about. You have to be aggressive with your guidance counselor.

People who realise this in freshman year are sooooo lucky. I only realised this in my junior year. =(

SteveH said...

".. uses a weighted grading scheme."

They do, so I expect that will play a big role in our process.

"One or two serious commitments with leadership is better than light involvement with a long list of things, in my experience."

I think this is really what I'm trying to help him control. I see what he needs to do academically, but what is enough for the outside committments? I assume it doesn't matter whether it is school related or not. I want to be able to tell him when enough is enough. I don't want him constantly thinking he has to do more.

le radical galoisien said...

Most adcoms will look at unweighted GPAs, individual grades and individual courseloads. They usually ignore the high school's weighted GPA scheme unless it's something like a state-standardised scheme and you're applying in-state to a state school.

SteveH said...

"you need to state what your goal is"

To keep all educational doors open.

Actually, there is a good chance he will go to a music conservatory, but the rules for that are quite different. That doesn't mean I want him to put all of his eggs in one basket at age 13.

"why him and not them? What does he offer?"

I'm looking to quantify this. I like the approach Momof4 suggested which emphasizes heavy involvement in fewer things. And what about sports? Is it better to bring up the tail end of the cross-country team or to describe how you are an avid snowboarder or bicycler?

There is also the time issue. What is the cost in time for each course and activity? My son wants to do a sport, but I don't see how it can fit in with other things he wants to do. It seems like you can only do one large outside activity, whether it is a sport or something else.

I don't even want to think about the now mandatory volunteering that goes on. It's already started in his middle school. Everyone talks about the papers you have to fill out.

SteveH said...

"They usually ignore the high school's weighted GPA scheme unless it's something like a state-standardised scheme ..."

I've heard this from a parent before, but it led him to say that it was better to get an 'A' in a non AP class.

Allison said...

re: keeping all educational doors open: then that means everything. And that means you're better off letting your son start to dictate what he wants to try, and letting him find his way to authentic interests of his. 12 yr olds don't know what they like until they try things. so let him. As a freshman, there aren't any big academically difficult courses, really; you just need to be sure you're being "tracked" so you hit AP in 12th, AP calc in 12th, etc. You won't really know what time sinks courses are until he's taking them.

to really keep every ed door open, he needs to ace everything school wise, demonstrate he's in the top cadre at a good school, demonstrates he has serious outside interests, as well as being a well rounded likable person who wants to make the world a better place.

Serious schools expect an A in an AP class, not that you've gamed the grading scheme by taking less APs. And honestly, the time spent gaming the grading scheme would be better spent just STUDYING.

Would he want to go to an Oberlin or a USC for music rather than a conservatory? Is he only interested in performance, or in composition too? Go find out what those specific schools have for applications, talk to alumni from those schools, go to them and visit them. that's how you'll know.

re: core classes and electives: I have no idea what you mean by electives. I had no electives in high school because "electives" were for people who weren't serious about academics. While I would have loved to take art clases, I couldn't take a single art class because my schedule was filled by taking 4 years of English, 4 years of foreign language, 3 years of science. Even when I'd already finished school math junior year, my "free period" just ended up being used to go to college and take math classes there.

Make sure your son understands he is to take 4 years of math, english, foreign language, and as many years as the school offers in science and history/civics (mine offered 3 in each.) see what remains.

Anonymous said...

Stay on top of the grades from the beginning. I backed off at first and later when I found out the trouble my son was having in a few of the classes it was nearly too late to get the grades up. Luckily, we've got most of them up, but I was surprised at how uncomfortable he was asking for help.

Watch out for the gatekeeping teachers. I now know what punitive grading looks like. We have a couple of excellent teachers, but we also have some that seem to think that trickery is rigor.

If classes are ranked by intensity from I to V, be careful about jumps to the next level. My son took honors bio at the high school in the 8th grade, a level IV class. He made A's the entire year. This year he is taking the next class--honors chem. Well, that turned out to be a level V class, so many of the kids were struggling at the beginning of the semester, including my son. Labs weren't as they were taught in bio. Of course, it would have been nice if someone had told us, but no.

Have him join a couple of low involvement clubs that don't require tons of time. Especially if there is a service club of some sort. If he's got orchestra, good grades, and maybe a sport here or there, a club that helps others can round things out without taking time away from grades.

Between the gatekeeping and sports, many kids who would have been honors kids at our high school are being pushed down to regular classes. They're also struggling because of some bad curriculum choices the grade/middle schools made in math and English earlier.

If there's an extra help center at the school, have your son sign up a few times to get used to it. My son was uncomfortable with the whole idea of student tutors until he was forced to deal with it (We can't tutor him in honors chem). Once he got over the hump of just signing up and going every week for math or chem, it turned out fine. The student tutors were mostly very helpful. But if I hadn't forced him he would have never done it.

Good luck. It's an even bigger jungle out there in high school than what we've dealt with previously here at KTM.


Allison said...

re: volunteering:

That stuff is for summers. I was too young to work for pay, so my parents found me other professional in the community and I helped them do various things--I helped an MD by finding all of the citations he needed; I helped someone who took care of animals; etc. This stuff will arise if you decide it will arise, and if your son gets interested in various things.

Allison said...

The other aspect of keeping all educational doors open is realizing that your child will be getting a pretty crummy education in high school, and you may need to find a way to fix that in addition to the rest. Making sure your son is well read, for example, innoculates him against all sorts of educational issues down the road.

Anonymous said...

I think the first thing you need to do is to decide what your relative priorities are. For example, if
given a choice between learning a lot in HS and getting into a good-but-not-great university (e.g. one of the lesser UCs) *OR* learning less in HS but getting into a really-good university, which is more important?

In theory, these two *should* line up, but they may not and if/when they don't it helps to know what you are trying to accomplish.

Relative priorities also come into play when deciding how much one is willing to enjoy living during HS. For me, large parts of HS are a blur ... in hindsight, I spent too much time on academics and was off-and-on miserable for
four years. Being sad and tired for four years of ones life is a very real cost.

[one way to do this is to have 3 hours of transit every day to go along with classes and a pretty
heavy load of homework ... when one gets to be a junior, one can then take night classes at the local college (numerical analysis, linear algebra, differential equations!) so that you start the day at around 6:00AM and don't get home until 11:00 PM (dad picks you up).] So ... the answer that "more"
is always "better" can come with a very real cost. DON'T MINIMIZE IT!

Relative priorities *again* come into play when deciding on non-class activities. Pick a sport you enjoy for four years, or pick a sport you *don't* enjoy nearly as much (or at all) that you think will increase your likelihood of being accepted
at a higher ranked college? How much are you willing to posture to impress an anonymous committee?

If you are lucky, then doing what you want may line up with what you think will get you into your preferred college ... I'm talking about the cases where there is a tradeoff to be made.

So ... having said this, I think the important academic choices are basically:

*) Take four years of English and/or literature. Try to take "real" classes, but be aware that the writing style you will be taught is horrible and will need to be unlearned if you ever get to the real world.
*) Take four years of Math. Again, try to ensure that it is "real". Aim for Calculus by senior year.
*) If possible, take four years of history
*) If possible, take four years of science
*) Take one year of speech-and-debate. This will be valuable forever.

After this, I think it gets back to choosing what it important. You *can* sign up for half a dozen clubs and put in a few hours a week in each. This *might* impress the admissions committee. Or not. They may not be as stupid and superficial as everyone seems to believe.

Chess or cross-country? Drama club or school newspaper? Beats me.

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

"I have no idea what you mean by electives."

I mean those classes that are not defined by their minimum of 4 years English, Math, Science, Language, etc. There is not much left after the mandatory PE and Tech class. After music, there is even less, so I suppose it isn't even an issue.

"Would he want to go to an Oberlin or a USC for music rather than a conservatory?"

I'm not too worried about that decision yet. He has been competing for 6 years so he has an idea of what he needs to do. He may go to Interlochen this summer.

"That stuff is for summers."

Good point.

Anonymous said...

This won't necessarily show up until he gets to college - it's assumed that kids get help on essays - but writing well is always a plus. In an interview situation, being able to discuss experiences, articulate goals and explain/amplify any possible ambiguous, unusual or conflicting information on an application is also a plus. Starting to discuss these things now can also help kids clarify them in their own minds.

If you're anywhere near the NYC area, you probably know that SUNY Purchase is the performing arts campus. A friend's daughter went there, primarily for the coordination between SUNY and the performance opportunities in NYC, for which credit is given. It might be useful to find out more about such programs.

le radical galoisien said...

AFAIK electives are like

politics. economics. world history. (though AP versions are better -- but some schools only have the honors versions)

science electives like marine biology, (pre) organic chemistry, neurobiology.

the right electives IMO are important; they help you connect your core classes that way when you go on to college you have all this prior knowledge that you can whip out on a moment's notice and you don't have to work as hard.

economics training for example, means that when it comes time to study game theory and evolutionary ecology you've already analysed the whole idea of a niche so the second half of AP Bio becomes really really easy.

Anonymous said...


Regarding choosing extra-curricular activities in an effort to appeal to college admissions committees, may I suggest that you follow Cal Newport's "Innovate" principle?

The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask “how did he do that?” than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities.

The goal of this principle is to stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers.

See Newport's "Art of Activity Innovation" article for more about the "Failed Simulation Effect".


SteveH said...

"Watch out for the gatekeeping teachers"

I suppose the trick is to find out sooner rather than later. I've talked with several parents of high school kids, but their comments have not always been specific or helpful.

"It's an even bigger jungle out there in high school ..."

I'd like to make it an enjoyable experience for my son, not some sort of race against time. I figure that can be solved by being as proactive as possible. I like the suggestion of doing more things in the summer.

momof4 said...

It is sometimes possible to combine extracurriculars and volunteering; my swimmer helped to coach younger kids on her (extra) summer team from the time she was 11 and my soccer players did something similar. I don't know if that's done in music, but my kids liked doing it.

SteveH said...

"In theory, these two *should* line up,..."

Mark makes a good point. I'm not willing to have my son expend much energy playing the game, especially if the two don't line up. I just don't think it's that critical. He's smart enough and there is plenty of time. What is a bigger concern for me is that he shows a lot of interest in chemistry and physics, but might end up hating them because of the high school courses.

I want him to take good core courses and to work hard, but I would like to tell him not to worry about sports or his (non-music) resume. Music is a different world and is the biggest of his risks.

SteveH said...

".. to stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers."

Good point.

Redkudu said...

Don't forget to ask about Writer's and Reader's workshop. For math and English especially, you might look for (I really hope this doesn't come across wrong) teachers who have been in the field longer - they tend to do the most guerilla teaching and know how to incorporate the fads without sacrificing rigor. Teachers of Pre-AP and AP are often able to skirt the issue of incorporating fads altogether because the AP exams are so rigorous - they aren't as often expected to do the touchy-feely stuff.

For the writing, Catherine once recommended "Writing to the Point" (Kerrigan) and passed on her copy to me. I would recommend it for home use if you can find it.

I would imagine much of his 9th grade year is going to be learning exactly what you want to happen in the 10th grade. You'll have a much better idea of the teachers and school by then.

>>"Is there anything I should look out for with this kind of scheduling?"<<

You're probably already on top of these but they bear repeating just in case:

If your son comes home with tales of having watched more than 1 movie all the way through without stopping, and the teacher wasn't absent, in the first semester in any of his core classes, make a schedule change.

Similarly, if he comes home talking about having spent more than 1 class day doing any kind of artwork project - make a schedule change. Especially if it's in English.

Also, if he doesn't take Pre-AP, look for the English teacher who does not read everything to their students or play a recording. This is the new fad (there was some discussion of it a while ago on various blogs), and it's crippling.

Anonymous said...

It must be obvious that I don't know much about music, but even I recognize Interlochen - SUNY probably not on the radar screen

Anonymous said...


I have found that other parents aren't a whole lot of help with high school. I only knew about one teacher from a parent and, of course, my son got him this year. We'll be lucky if he pulls in a B.

Parents appear to be even more intimidated by high school teachers than the grade/middle school teachers. Heck, the grade/middle school teachers talk about how intimidating they are. I think that's why I didn't hear too much.

Once again, time management and extra tutoring when needed are some of the keys to success, and many kids just aren't up to it without help from their parents. It's a special kid that can handle a full honors/AP load and some extracurriculars without any help from home. It really breaks my heart to see bright kids left out of the honors track because their parents just don't realize that it isn't the same as in our day.

I will say that I'm glad we're not taking a full honors load. He's in regular Spanish and I still might move him out of honors English. It frees him to focus on math and science. I think not overloading him was a smart move.


le radical galoisien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
le radical galoisien said...

People do AP courses with help from their parents? Wth? I don't think that's fair. It kinda feels like cheating. What about the kids with parents who don't know calculus or ecology?

Anonymous said...

"People do AP courses with help from their parents? Wth? I don't think that's fair. It kinda feels like cheating."

Have the other kids learned any less because one child has parents who help? Is the goal here to learn, or to "win" the class?

-Mark Roulo

le radical galoisien said...

Man -- if I had parents who could have helped me on schoolwork -- well, I don't know where I'd be but it might have been someplace better than my current school.

The goal is to learn, naturally. But learning advanced academic subjects from your parents after the age of 15 ... seems kind of weird. Like it's one thing to learn from professors or teachers or over the internet, but parents are another thing, I guess?

le radical galoisien said...

"Is the goal here to learn, or to "win" the class?"

Well it does kind of unfairly influence the class rankings -- people with educated parents and people with both parents end up having an advantage over those with working single not-so-educated parents, etc.

Whereas professors, teachers, online resources are all equally accessible to everyone.

Jo Anne C said...

I spoke with a mother of twin boys that were both accepted to UCLA in a STEM program. She is convinced that the fact both boys played musical instruments and applied to be in the marching band was the key to their acceptance. These boys had friends that had similar academic qualifications and volunteering profiles, but were not musicians, and those friends were not accepted at UCLA. She also noted the boys volunteered at a local hospital and tutored other students in math. The boys continue to tutor math at UCLA.

NOTE: This mom is my occasional hairdresser, she said the family never spent time teaching or drilling math with the boys at home. She also indicated she never sent the boys to Kumon or other tutoring facility. Both boys attended public schools in Torrance, CA. (I was surprised to learn this).

My son is in Boy Scouts. Does anyone know if having the rank of Eagle Scout will make a difference with any of the college boards?

Anonymous said...


I don't mean "helping" as in parents doing it. I mean hiring a tutor if you need to.

You have certainly hung around this site long enough to know that there's a wide range of school opportunities, as well as teacher ability in schools. No one helped me, either. And yes, I wish they had.

And yes, learning is the goal. I'm not sure I understand what "naturally" would mean. Nor does "win" mean anything here. However you're certainly free to sacrifice your own children to a bad learning situation if it will make you feel better about other kids who don't have involved parents.


Anonymous said...


lrg is a college student. I don't believe that he is suggesting that parents sacrifice their children to bad learning situations. I believe that he misunderstood what you meant by "helping". By the way, I believe his use of the word "naturally" was intended to mean "of course".

Both of you touched on an unfortunate issue.

Susan wrote: "It really breaks my heart to see bright kids left out of the honors track because their parents just don't realize that it isn't the same as in our day."

lrg wrote: "people with educated parents and people with both parents end up having an advantage over those with working single not-so-educated parents"

This is true. Children whose parents are not savvy or don't have the financial resources to provide tutoring or outside test prep are disadvantaged when it comes to gaining admission to the most selective universities.

However, students who are bright, determined, ambitious and who set about becoming savvy themselves can start out at community colleges, or state colleges and eventually transfer to more selective institutions later. Too many students (and parents) seem to think it's all over if they don't get into a top tier school right out of high school.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would ask for:

* a copy of the high school profile, which is the document they send with students' applications to the colleges they're applying to

* copies of the CollegeBoard & ACT score reports for last year's class

* a password and code for Naviance if your high school subscribes

They probably won't have been asked for these things before, but if you just ask matter-of-factly, as if you assume that it's natural and normal for them to share these things with parents, you'll (probably) get them.

You also need to know whether they have weighted grading.

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

I work with gifted high school students, and I can attest to the fierce competition for the top schools. One of the students I have worked with applied early to a well-known top tier college and was not accepted. This student had an SAT score over 2300, had an A in every single course (and they were all honors or AP except for German), and had all fives on AP exams in several social and physical sciences in 9-11 grades (including Calc BC as a junior), impressive performance in national competitions (spelling bee, science bowl, etc.), and had performed research with a professor at a local university.

This is typical of the applicants to your most prestigious name-brand colleges.

On the other hand, the university where I teach will accept just about anyone with a pulse. I run into a lot of students whose SAT scores are alarmingly low and who had two-point-something GPAs in high school. You can get a damn good education here -- if you choose your degree program and courses well.

Catherine Johnson said...

Winner Take All schools by Paul Attewell in bullet points

Anonymous said...

All of those things are important, but I have found the student's individual focus and drive are intangibles that you can't factor in. My dd has an above 'perfect' GPA because of weighting and AP classes. She has pretty much taken all they have to offer. My ds gets A's but is ranked much lower because he has taken fewer AP classes. His own goals are different than his sister's as are his devotion to school. You can help steer but they are driving the bus.

ChemProf said...

"he shows a lot of interest in chemistry and physics, but might end up hating them because of the high school courses."

Unfortunately, the best you can do is ask around if one instructor is better than another. If one of them actually has a background in the field (and isn't, for example, a biology teacher who got stuck with a section of chemistry), that's best. The other thing is to encourage him to try the course again in college, even if his high school experience wasn't great.

I'd also encourage him to look widely at colleges, and think about some smaller schools. As anonymous said, you can transfer to higher tier schools. Additionally, I know that I've sent a lot of students from my middling little college to top tier grad schools -- we do well in this because we know our students well and write really good letters of recommendation.

Anonymous said...

A top tier school might definitely be the wrong fit. Some kids simply thrive better at a smaller, less competitive school. Having read a few college admissions books, I'm amazed at the flimsy reasons a school will use to pass over a top student.

We're starting to consider smaller and mid-size colleges, but most of them seem to be more liberal arts oriented than science/math. We'll have to do a thread sometime that brings in people's experiences with various smaller schools.


SteveH said...

"If your son comes home with tales of having watched more than 1 movie all the way through without stopping, and the teacher wasn't absent, in the first semester in any of his core classes, make a schedule change."

Do these things show up right away so that you can make a change before the next semester? Do schools allow this?

SteveH said...

"I think not overloading him was a smart move."

This is what I'm trying to figure out. Guidance counselors seem to lower expectations, so I think it would be easier to back off than it would be to jump ahead. It's also about time management and reacting quickly to problems before they get worse. I'll have to see for myself how responsive our high school is. I'll give them a test at the open house.

Cranberry said...

I agree that community service, if required, should be done in the summer, if possible. I have an enormous philosophical problem with required community service. I believe that colleges discount it, as they know it's required. Thus, it becomes (yet one more!) non-academic demand upon the students' time. [If anyone's wondering why our international standing drops so significantly during high school, required community service is a good place to look.]

If there's an open house, a good question to ask is, "What's the most important factor in college admissions?" In my opinion, the best answer is, "the transcript." The worst would be, "extracurriculars."

Another thing to check would be the number of students who take AP exams. If you have 200 students placed into honors courses at the beginning of high school, but only 60 take AP exams in any one discipline, beware of gatekeeping.

If your son is a serious musician, I wouldn't try to load him up with many outside activities. Practice, practice, practice, after all! College admissions committees know how to read transcripts. If he chooses an extracurricular, one at school is probably best, as it's easier to schedule, and it won't look as if he's trying to escape his high school community. For the top, elite schools, he should show "leadership," so one serious commitment would be better than 8 "clubs."

Prestigious summer music camps, such as interlochen, and auditioned competitive music groups during the school year, are more impressive than activities chosen with an eye to impressing "a committee."

lgm said...

Open house isn't always the best place to ask what you need to know. This data is handy:
*ask g.c. for gpa needed to stay in top 10% and the top 25%.
*ask g.c. for gatekeeping req'ts for honors/AP/IB and Math. These aren't all published in the handbook.
*confer with head of Music Dept. Here, wkly instrument sectionals are mandatory and done by missing an academic class. Unwritten rule is that if you take private lessons on that instrument, you don't have to attend sectional. Instant advantage.
*ask for written copy of the policy for transferring credits in from distance learning or local colleges or teachers. For ex.:Here piano lessons from the private teacher will be awarded credit.
In the classes themselves:
-ask for a written syllabus
-written grading policy
-testing schedule
-office hours
- recommended test prep book if your state has Regents type exams in the subject
- recommended helpful website and teacher's website
- ask if past unit tests are on file in library
-Find out if the tests, mid-term,and final are common or individual.
-Find out if the tests are from the text publisher or written by the teacher.
-Find out what the make-up and late homework policies are.

My theory with a sport is that it shows you are a healthy individual and you don't spend all your time studying. But, if you stand out, it's a competitive advantage in college admissions if you're willing to continue. I know one nonminority mediocre student who made it in to pre-med at a Tier 2 college based on his sport. His sibling, brilliant, in the top ten students in the cohort, but no passions that could be backed up with outstanding acheivement, couldn't get accepted to a Tier 2 college.

Musicians here go for Cornell unless they are already performing professionally.

You might read "What High Schools Don't Tell You" ISBN 978-0-452-28952-9 for food for thought.

SteveH said...

"a copy of the high school profile ...

* copies of the CollegeBoard & ACT score reports for last year's class

* a password and code for Naviance if your high school subscribes..."

How would I use this information?

le radical galoisien said...

Naviance had a little exploit 2 years ago where you could log onto different school's Naviances and compare stats of all these random kids and what schools they went to and the statistical spread of acceptances/rejections...

Cranberry said...

An odd thought: try to find any publicly available documents from the last time your high school was accredited. That will tell you some of the school's strengths and weaknesses.

Parents can get courses changed, if there's any flexibility. Guidance counsellors seem to universally put together very strange schedules. (i.e., multimedia art rather than chemistry.) Some guidance counsellors, from the stories I've heard from friends, feel that academic courses are more stressful than art classes & study halls. I agree some students put together impossible schedules, but it all depends on the child. You know your child best. Be prepared to camp out politely in the guidance office, until they'll do anything to get rid of you. Of course, the current financial troubles may severely limit the school's flexibility.

A cousin's son is currently waiting to hear from schools. For the math/science branch of colleges, showing initiative, and doing your own thing, is very impressive. If he develops a serious interest in something tech-related, which his school doesn't support, don't be afraid to encourage him to pursue it outside of school.

I realize this contradicts my earlier advice, but I think it depends upon which sort of college he wants to attend. Independently pursuing a tech interest--great for math/science colleges. Head of the student council--great for liberal arts colleges. Katherine Beals' book is a must read, if your son is not a social butterfly.

Lastly, the best advice I've heard so far is the advice from teachers at my oldest child's school. Kids do change during high school. A boy could enter as a baseball fiend, and leave high school a budding chemist. As a parent, I feel it's important to support, but not overrule my child.

SteveH said...

"I have an enormous philosophical problem with required community service."

Me too, especially the need to get it all authorized and counted up. In fact, the Junior National Honor Society his school is now doing seems to be more about non-academic requirements.

"Prestigious summer music camps, such as interlochen, and auditioned competitive music groups during the school year, are more impressive than activities chosen with an eye to impressing 'a committee.'"

Ironically, being a good muscian is a great "extra" in a non-music field, but in music, it doesn't help much if you get 5's on your AP Calc and Physics tests.

Cranberry said...

Taking classes at a local community college is a great idea, but the financial troubles may make that a non-starter. Many students are enrolling at CCs rather than name brand schools, as parents watch their finances.

Recommendations are crucial in college admissions. Skipping a sectional may gain your son time, but deprive him of the opportunity to impress the teacher. If it's an area of strength, don't overlook the down-the-road effects. If your school's GCs are overburdened, they won't have time to form an impression of your son. Any course in which he's likely to do well is an opportunity to make contact with people who can write good recommendations for him.

Cranberry said...

"Ironically, being a good muscian is a great "extra" in a non-music field, but in music, it doesn't help much if you get 5's on your AP Calc and Physics tests."

True. At some point, he may need to choose between music and cutthroat academics. Music takes up a great deal of time and attention.

On community service: See when he can start it. Our local high school has mandated community service, and apparently service performed in the summer before freshman year can count.

I would personally prefer to see kids with real jobs during the summer. (I'm just a mom!) I realize that state labor regulations may make that difficult, let alone the current financial problems.

le radical galoisien said...

Most local and state governments AFAIK sponsor dual-enrollment endeavours.

lgm said...

Dual enrollment credits depend on the local high schools initiative here in NY. The offerings differ from district to district, even for schools in the same CC or private U's zone. For. ex.:One cannot take Calc II here in my district under dual enrollment - it's not offered.(at all..dual enrollment, on campus ,etc - simply a course the high school refuses to offer). The credits could be transferred in if the principal determines that the course meets the district's guidelines and the credits aren't over the max allowed.

The strategy the school is promoting for excellent students is to graduate in 3 yrs, or to take the half day workstudy option which means work 2 hrs somewhere and go to CC or take distance learning classes after you come to school and take that mandatory PE course and any dual-enrollments that you haven't already taken.

SteveH said...

"Here, wkly instrument sectionals are mandatory and done by missing an academic class. Unwritten rule is that if you take private lessons on that instrument, you don't have to attend sectional."

Wow! I'm getting a big list of questions for the open house! They'll put me on their black list.

Cranberry said...

Yes, lrg, you're right. However, tax revenues are down across the board. My cousin's son tried to dual-enroll at a nearby state college. Many students had done that in the past; I believe the high school's curriculum was weak for high-performers, because they were expected to dual-enroll. When he tried to enroll, at first it wasn't possible, because the person responsible for scheduling had been let go. Then, he got bumped from the math courses he wanted to take, because the enrolled college students had priority.

The surge in enrollments at state colleges and community colleges, coupled with colleges cutting down upon employees, could mean that there's "no room at the inn" for high school students.

le radical galoisien said...

The weaker students had higher priority?

AFAIK dual-enrolled HS students score higher and rank higher than their matriculated classmates in local universities. Kind of ironic, but not really.

lgm said...

Just a comment on sectionals - the students are in a Catch 22 often, as they must have a certain number of lab hours or they don't get credit for their science courses. Same for PE. Both are very hard to make up in overcrowded schools due to limited room. Private lessons were the only out this school could come up with to resolve the bind. For some reason, varsity athletics won't give a kid make up credit for PE. I understand from relatives that it's the same in their schools too.

Steve, another thing to ask is what GPA the colleges are looking for and how it is determined. Here numerical grades are used to determine class standing and never converted into an A,B,C scale. The counselors are telling us that a cumulative average of 88 is typical for those going on to a 4 yr state colleges, and 93 for private. 88 seems to translate into the upper 25%.

Anonymous said...

re: open house:

do your homework before. don't ask all of these questions; find everything you can without asking.

I don't know what state you're in, but the accreditation docs are public docs, and a government docs library in your state will have them.

likewise, for schools that your son is interested in, calling those colleges and asking their admissions dept for information may get you farther than asking your high school. Certainly calling the local alumni group for that school, or the alumni office to see if there are alumni in the area, is a big big plus.

When you ask about AP classes and tests, ask how many enrolled, how many took the test and how many got 4s or 5s (the lower numbers don't count.) If the school has kids getting 1s, then the AP class is a joke and you are better off skipping it for something else.

How big is the school you're looking at? How many sections of courses? My 1500 student hs had one chem teacher, one physics teacher, one math teacher who taught calc. There wasn't any choosing between these folks. Similarly, while the honors english and honors history were all taught by one teacher, too. changing schedules might not be possible, don't put much stock in it.

Has he taken placement tests for freshman year yet?

Now might be a good time to ask what the possible placements are. In my school, there was no science in 9th grade, but if you were low enough on the math track in 9th, then you were automatically on the non-honors science track in 10th, etc.

SteveH said...

"Skipping a sectional may gain your son time, but deprive him of the opportunity to impress the teacher."

This reminds me to tell him that when he gets to high school, he is starting over to some extent and that first impressions are very important. Nobody knows how good (or bad) a student or musician he is.

Cranberry said...

Our public library has a section for such docs; yours might too.

Try to find out if there are restrictions upon the number of honors or AP courses your son will be allowed to take. Also, find out if arts or clubs are also rationed. Our high school had that. If you're in a regional school system, be aware that (in my opinion) sometimes seats in honors courses are apportioned with an eye to the students' regional distribution.

The high school's course of study is a good document to read before the open house. It should be available online, or you could pick up a copy in the office. Also, in our state, schools are required to distribute their handbooks to any citizen who requests one.

The best source would be parents of freshmen in college. They can tell you what to look for.

A big question is the quality of the guidance department. More and more parents are hiring private counselors, to do the advising gcs once did.

I now believe it is a very bad sign if a high percentage of parents in the district choose to send their children to private high schools. This should be a matter of public record.

SteveH said...

"...find everything you can without asking."

Yes. First impressions are important for the parents too.

"Has he taken placement tests for freshman year yet?"

I think they do it based on grades and/or teacher recommendation. The only advanced placements are in language and math. I don't know if we will have to argue over honors versus non-honors classes. I think the official class offerings for next fall will be published by then, so I hope to get someone to go over the options. I figure that getting into details will bring out more questions.

For music, we went to visit the Curtis Institute last year when he was near Philadelphia for a competition. Our goal is to make sure he knows what reality is all about.

SteveH said...

"The high school's course of study is a good document to read before the open house."

I've read it. It's online and it seems that for college-track kids, there is little room for choice. The only thing that could be an issue is whether they have a limited number of slots for the honors versions of the courses. Do guidance counselors have pressures about filling in all of the slots rather than placing the kids into appropriate courses?

Our guidance department says that the school has been designated a RAMP school (Recognized ASCA Model Program) for the American School Counselors Association. I'm not sure what this means in practice. Hopefully, it doesn't mean that they are trying to insert themselves between the student and the parent.

lgm said...

Another thing to find out from your music parent network is how scheduling conflicts are resolved for the more select ensembles. Here it's pretty common for the ambitious student to forgo lunch in order to schedule a select ensemble. Grading is such that the ensemble will help the overall GPA substantially in a risk-free manner. The trick though, is not to sign up until classes start. This way the g.c. will schedule in the mandatory classes like health and then ignore the 'all students must have lunch' rule when the select ensemble is addded.

SteveH said...

"Grading is such that the ensemble will help the overall GPA substantially in a risk-free manner."

Help in that it has a higher weight factor or because it would be an easy grade for a good musician?

Pianists (classical) don't seem to have much to do in schools. I was told by one parent that you have to create your own opportunities. I'll have to ask about chamber ensembles, although he is currently doing that through our state philharmonic music school. Rather than pay, it would be great if he could do it for free and get credit for it.

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

To tie music in to the mandatory community service -- can your son play music at a nursing home (or similar facility)?

SteveH said...

"To tie music in to the mandatory community service -- can your son play music at a nursing home (or similar facility)?"

Yes. A piano quartet he is in was supposed to do that last Monday, but not everyone could go. I was wondering what sort of paperwork he needed and felt annoyed and mercenary about it. He would have done it anyway and that would be that. Now, he has to track the hours like an accountant.

ChemProf said...

SusanS: "We're starting to consider smaller and mid-size colleges, but most of them seem to be more liberal arts oriented than science/math."

With smaller schools, the admissions folks are usually more liberal arts-oriented. You need to talk to faculty to figure out what the situation in science/math is at these kinds of places. Ask what the labs are like, what research experiences are possible, and where their graduates go. How many go on to grad school and where do they go? Admissions should be able to recommend people to talk to, and faculty at these kinds of places expect to do some admissions work (especially in science!) I've given tours of the science building at my school during preview days, for exactly this reason. Admissions doesn't do a good job of selling us!

Anonymous said...

re: smaller schools as liberal arts schools rather than science schools:

The big issue is that smaller colleges historically haven't had the funding to have the kind of labs on campus that create excellent science departments, and that's because they can't attract large swaths of federal funding because they have no full time researchers/faculty/grad students who spend nearly all of their time on research.

But some of that is changing as the nature of the sciences are changing. Math doesn't need big research labs, while physics does; computer science doesn't require anything but a few laptops these days. Chemprof can speak to what modern chemistry can be done in a small lab. Smaller schools now have faculty with ties to research facilities at national labs or other industry places to get those kinds of resources. So it matters if you mean your child is interested in being a physicist vs a computer scientist vs. an engineer, if their interests are in pursuing grad degrees, etc.

Harvey Mudd comes to mind as the premier small science school. Williams is a superb school for physics. RPI and other 2nd tier ones might be a good fit, too. Caltech is smaller than everyone, though, so size isn't exactly what you're after, is it?

ElizabethB said...

If he's even remotely interested in a military academy, he should do at least one sport a year, as well. They prefer a 3.5 GPA student who has done sports and things like band and leadership opportunities to a 4.0 student who has only done academics.

Requirements really do vary by school, I would look at some college websites and see--they are all very open about what they are looking for (except for breaks for Alumni donors, etc!)

lgm said...

>>Help in that it has a higher weight factor or because it would be an easy grade for a good musician?

Easy 100. No weight bonus here, but check your handbook.

Assume everyone that's in the grade game is getting an easy 100 in gym and band when you look at the school profile (if it includes a grade distribution). Here's Arlington H.S. in NY (since that school comes up occasionally here):

Opportunities on campus for pianists are usually with jazz band and the school musical, both of which have organized volunteer work, usually playing for seniors. One could also work for pay accompanying other students who are auditioning for colleges.

lgm said...

'playing for seniors'=playing for senior citizens in above comment

le radical galoisien said...

At my high school, everyone in a band got a B+ unless they were utterly exceptional.

My sister complained about this policy a lot, since it constantly prevented her from achieving high honor roll.

lgm said...

lrg, my anecdote is similar. In class rank #1 & #2 were not band students while #3-8 were all band students who were rec'ving Bs for not taking private lessons that would enable them to hold down first chair. #3 would have been #1 if not for Bs in band however went to a much better college than 1 and 2 based on other acheivements.

Fortunately the school board stepped in my jr year and put a stop to that and hired a new director who improved the program tremendously and made it possible to earn an A by including knowledge of theory and conducting as well as improvement in skills, rather than basing the grade solely on chair position.

It's always good to find out the grading scheme before you sign up. Check the handbook and find out if pass/fail is an option. It is here after the first year since only one fine arts credit is necessary.

SteveH said...

"In class rank #1 & #2 were not band students while #3-8 were all band students who were rec'ving Bs for not taking private lessons that would enable them to hold down first chair."

Wow, grading by chair! These are the things I want to hear about. My son plays mallets in the band because he likes to play music with others. He never practices at home (we don't have a marimba or anything). However, he played piano in the state's Solo & Ensemble Honors Recital last year. I guess I'll have to be blunt and ask about grading in music. It's not in the handbook.

My concern is that I will take too many things for granted and have to learn the hard way. If you are blunt and ask too many questions, then you run the risk of having people think you're gaming the system. I guess it's best to figure all of this out behind the scenes so that in the end it all looks so natural.

"Oh yes, I don't help my son at all. It must be his hard work and all of the wonderful teaching at the high school."

Tex said...

To keep all educational doors open.

That was exactly my goal with my son, who has just been accepted to a top 20 school and we’re waiting on more.

You can help steer but they are driving the bus.

Oh, so true.

Our guidance counselors do seem to lower expectations. While I can understand their view that most kids will not make it into the top schools, I hated to see how they would just accept poor effort as a “boy thing”.

NHS membership is not as important as it might seem; it doesn’t trump GPA, for example. There’s a lot of bs in high schools in how they manage membership and colleges apparently know this.

Recommendations can be very, very important. The guidance counselor will be a key point person in this process, and the more they know him the better they can advocate for him.

When you get to that point, look at college freshmen class stats to help you understand where your son has the best acceptance chances.

Tex said...

I was advised to “create” a theme for my son in order to “market” him for college admissions. He was/is the punk rocker Eagle Scout with a deep love of learning and high test scores. (GPA was not so stellar.) Your son might be the passionate pianist with a science/math streak, for example. Elements of that theme should run through all his activities and will show up in his college essays. Make him memorable to the college admissions committees. The guidance counselor should find this theme idea helpful too, especially if she thinks she was the one who puzzled it out. ;-)

I unabashedly acted as the “product manager” for my son in the college application process and I believe it made a difference.

Redkudu said...

>>"If your son comes home with tales of having watched more than 1 movie all the way through without stopping, and the teacher wasn't absent, in the first semester in any of his core classes, make a schedule change."

Do these things show up right away so that you can make a change before the next semester? Do schools allow this?<<

They will show up in the first semester, usually around holidays, and you will spot the danger signs pretty easily if your child comes home complaining of boredom and the class being too easy - and those movies.

However, you should expect there will be some movies shown, especially in English. I should probably make up a list of what to expect...but basically there are some good tie-ins to literature that an effective teacher can use well. They shouldn't be watching a movie for everything they read, however. Shakespeare, certainly, should be viewed in some capacity. Every now and then, when I have a VERY mature class, I'll get parental permission to show "Scotland, PA" after reading Macbeth. (It's a dark comedy setting the play in a 1970s burger joint.) In 9th grade you might expect students to see either "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" or the old "Clash of the Titans" to go with either The Odyssey or a unit on Greek myths.

One caveat: some schools are very lax about whether they require the teacher to notify parents of the movie's rating. I always get parental permission for anything over PG. If you're worried about what your child might be seeing, certainly contact the teacher ahead of time and ask to be informed.

In schools where technology is top-notch, many teachers may show a video clip every day or every other. This would be acceptable to me if it's no more than 5 minutes long and directly related to the material.

When I was able to project material from my computer I used to do "Youtube Friday" every other Friday. I'd show students something off Youtube they wouldn't normally watch - sometimes it was related, sometimes not. (The Pachelbel Rant is great for both irony and motif, The Beatboxing Flute Player made them think about innovations in music, sometimes I found a great student video about material we were reading, etc.)

I have seen great applications of video and some that made me cringe. (Won't talk about the teacher who allowed kids to bring their favorite movies to be shown. I shudder to remember what I heard coming out of that classroom.)

You'll know it when you see it, and your child will know it too. They know who the good teachers are and aren't.

Redkudu said...

>>In schools where technology is top-notch, many teachers may show a video clip every day or every other. This would be acceptable to me if it's no more than 5 minutes long and directly related to the material.<<

Sorry, I should have said 5-10 minutes per 90 minute class. If it's a 50 minute class, and they're seeing a video clip every day, I personally would consider that too much. Your opinion may vary.

momof4 said...

As far as the guidance counselor being an advocate in the college process/recommendation, I've never seen it. State schools may require a simple recommendation check (not, weak, mod, strong, or even a yea/nay), but the more competitive schools (even state flagship) were more interested in/demanded recommendations from teachers in areas related to the kid's intended major. I'd check it out and make sure the kid makes an effort to connect with teachers in his area of interest, especially those from honors/advanced classes.

Anonymous said...


That theme idea is a great one.

Although I should probably avoid the pre-K teacher's description of him as being a bit "squirrelly".

Squirrelly Math Kid might not get us too far.


le radical galoisien said...

I used movie time to do my linear algebra homework and finish my art projects.

ChemProf said...

I went to Harvey Mudd, which at the time had less than 500 students, and then to Berkeley for grad school. When I was doing the postdoc shuffle I taught at a state college, then a mid-size Catholic college, and am now at a ~1000 student private. So, I've seen science education at a range of places.

The theory is that large schools have world-class equipment, but that typically doesn't trickle down to the teaching labs. At my institution, our equipment is okay, but everything we have undergrads can use. At Berkeley, I was assigned to teach 25 freshman with a brand new B.S. and 3 days of training. The Berkeley students never touched equipment until they were seniors, but would turn in samples that the TAs would run instead. That's typical -- your education at major universities is by grad students rather than professors. So, if you want to go on as a researcher, and if the finances work, I tend to encourage people to consider liberal arts colleges. The professors are focussed on teaching, not their research, and the research that does go on involves more undergraduates. I don't publish a lot, but my publications always have undergraduate co-authors.

Having said that, Alison is right that students go to top-tier schools for the cachet as much as (if not more than) for the education. I do always encourage my students to go to the best grad school that they get into, for just that reason. If you want to go straight from college to work, it will be harder from a smaller place, because employers won't know how to evaluate you. Having summer research experience will be critical, and an internship in a company will help a lot.

If you want to go to grad school, I think small liberal art schools often do very well. Certainly, I have never had a chem major who wanted to go to grad school who didn't get in, and have sent students to Berkeley, Stanford, UCSF, and Yale from my tiny private. (I'll also say that while I talk about "big" and "small", I really mean primarily undergraduate versus research universities. As Allison points out, CalTech is pretty small but is definitely a research university. The question is, are undergrads an inconvenience or the reason that faculty are there?)

Barry Garelick said...

In my daughter's world history class, the teacher showed "Dead Poets Society". I hit the ceiling when my daughter told me this. She said the teacher said since the class in the movie was studying the romantic poets and the history class was studying that period of time, she used that as an excuse. The same teacher admitted to the class that she didn't like teaching history; she'd rather be teaching math. Hey, so would I. In fact, I'm not sure her history teacher should be teaching anything.

Redkudu said...

Blackbox info:

Today, at the teacher's lunch table, I overheard the following from a third year math teacher who is about to quit - maternity leave for the rest of the semester, basically.

"I didn't take any math courses in college, but I'm okay at math. It paid more, so I did it."

SteveH said...

"Squirrelly Math Kid"

HaHaHa! Mine would be Superficial Knowledge Boy. Just the other day he was quizzing me on all of the weird states of matter and the names of the phase transitions. Of course, he memorized it all on his own. Actually, he doesn't memorize, he just absorbs. Has any educator ever talked about that? He had a recital where he memorized 20 minutes of music, but if you ask him, he will tell you that he doesn't memorize music. He doesn't. It's something else.

ChemProf said...

In reading over my comments, I felt I should moderate some of what I said about research university faculty. At a lot of places, they do care about their teaching. I was on a panel with a member of the Stanford faculty a while ago, and he talked about the importance of good teaching for hiring. However, he was also clear that good teaching with okay research would not get you tenure, but okay teaching with amazing research would. The plain fact is there are only so many hours in the day, and these folks are primarily spending their time on research and grant writing (and only teach one class every other semester with lots of TA support).

Allison said...

I would add something else to Chemprof's comment that if you want to go to grad school, small liberal arts schools are a good place to go.

One thing all but the most spectacular of students need is encouragement and mentorship from a professor. If they wish to go into grad school, they need to know that they can *learn* the skills needed to do research, to know what a proper research question is. That is, they need to believe these are learnable skills, developable skills.

MIT, Cal, Yale, Caltech are schools that in most majors are far more soul-destroying than encouraging. They don't encourage the belief that these are teachable and learnable skills.

Or, to put it another way, it helps to be happy. I know more happy successful academics from Williams than I do from MIT, and I didn't go to (nor date anyone from) Williams. Can I just reiterate this? Pick a school and a major where people are happy. If you aren't inclined to be happy, then it's EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAT YOU DO SO.

Allison said...

I also would not consider the school guidance counselor as a point person.

The colleges want recommendations. Recommendations are make-or-break. In proper recommendations, teachers essentially rank you against all of the other students they've had accepted to that school. So the best you can do is pick the teachers from your hardest subjects that like you best, that would pull hardest for you (rather than some other student from your school) to get into that school. The guidance counselor can't do this, no matter how well they know you.

This also touches on the "narrative" idea: when you are trying to pick that narrative, it's going to have to come across as the same narrative that your teacher recs have for you. Their impression of you on those intangibles might have been formed in 30 seconds, but it is what will be the basis of that rec.

If you are pushing that you're the punk rock eagle scout and your teacher recs don't highlight that as you, the disconnect will be obvious to the colleges, and they will think something is amiss. Worse, if the teacher recs don't value a punk rock eagle scout, it will come across too.

If the teachers see you as perky girl who diligently does her work and frets over every detail rather than a serious student who effortlessly succeeds academically, then their letters will reflect that unseriousness. If they see a young man with 18 interests as conflicted about who he wishes to be rather than as genuinely voracious in intellectual appetites, their letters will reflect their view of his immaturity.

You can't entirely control how the teachers view you, but you can pick teachers whose view of you is most authentic and positive to write letters. don't roll the dice if you don't have to.

le radical galoisien said...

Though I resent the gc department for what they did in my first two and a half years, I must admit they were really helpful in my last year, especially when it came to applying to private scholarships, etc.

Their rec letters can show other aspects that might be of relevance, e.g. being from a single-parent working-class household, migrant experiences.

le radical galoisien said...

also re: mentorship at big schools v. LACs -- I really feel it's a matter of initiative.

I think people here will let you use the NMR machines if you're an undergraduate and regularly submit samples for NMR.... something as simple as, "could you teach me how to use the NMR computer"? I mean, you won't break the machine by applying the wrong Fourier transform or even if you end up searching 30 ppm upfield of TMS. Why not?

I don't know how it is like at an LAC. Right now my impression is that at a large school you can have the same mentoring relationships. You just need to be more forthright, more proactive and expend more "activation energy", so to speak. (okay technically it's not E_a since you don't recoup it, but hey...)

SteveH said...

I think that many students dismiss large schools and universities too quickly. For me at the U. of Michigan, everything revolved around the department. It was like a family. We had picnics. The students had an assigned place to work and hang out in the building. Most professors left their office doors open. Undergrads were helped to get a place on research projects. Some of the professors with open doors were the same ones whose articles you read in the leading technical journals. They had a fund to help students go to technical conferences. I still send Christmas cards and I recently went back for a meeting and my old advisor put me up at his house. The department still had the same energy level and excitement.

A larger school also offers potential exposure to other opportunities. I got to take computer graphic classes from some of the pioneers in the field.

I was lucky, but I would say that these lesser factors can be investigated. Allison is right about being happy; happy in what you are studying and happy about the department and professors.

Everyone make a big deal about the college they get into, but it would be better to focus on the college you get your degree from. For many, it's almost impossible to get that right as a senior in high school. I transferred to UofM from another university when I finally figured out what I wanted to do. I lost at least a semester in lost transfer credits, but it was worth it.

Anonymous said...

Getting research opportunities is not the same thing as getting mentorship.

I had plenty of research opportunities. I was left alone to "find my way" in most of them, and guess what? I didn't. Neither did most of my peers who were just as neglected. Left alone as a lone ugrad on a team of grads who didn't speak to you, or having profs who routinely left town without telling you when they'd return; being assigned papers to read but not being taught how to read them; being told to replicate an experiment but not being taught how to find out how an experiment was constructed since it wasn't in the published paper; being given the job to write software without hvaing a formal training it, let alone in the actual subject matter--these were called "research opportunities".

Having initiative to land the opportunity doesn't mean you had the instincts to pick a good opportunity, and most profs at most research schools have no skills at mentoring undergrads, and aren't required to. Giving you a position on their team isn't enough.

Not everyone was neglected; other peers had abusive research advisors, others had finicky micromanaging ones. Almost none learned how to tell a good research question from a bad one, how to stop moving backwards reading more papers and stab forwards at small-enough-to-solve problems.

Grad school is inherently the worst of the guide-on-the-side-constructivist ideas. Explicit instruction in how to do research is possible, but is not taught. But in grad school, that's the deal. At the undergrad level, though, research universities treat ugrads like grads even though they aren't. It's vastly different at small liberal arts colleges who believe in real mentorship.

ChemProf said...

Again, you need to ask what students actually get to do, and how many. A lot of this is economy of scale. I have 15 people in Analytical, so I can have each of them do an individual multi-week project and use that to help them learn about choosing a research question. When I was at Mudd, I did the same in Analytical and in Organic (and I now sympathize with my poor instructors!) At Berkeley, when I taught p-chem lab, we had 150 students, so that kind of thing (or even individual presentations) wasn't possible.

Same thing with running your own measurements -- if there are 250 organic students in a class, and each needs 10 minutes to be shown the NMR and run their sample, then that's a full 40 hour week someone has to dedicate. A faculty member might take on an undergrad, or let them mess around in the lab, but they won't necessarily have the time or interest to mentor. Some do, and that's great, but the odds aren't always good.

With that, SteveH is also absolutely right that the experience can be totally different once you are in a department at the upper division. Transferring can be a great solution. My only concern there is that, if you are planning to go to a community college, that you not depend on THEIR guidance counselors to get you into the right classes. I can't tell you how many "juniors" I've advised who haven't taken a single basic science course and want to finish a major, which includes a three-year sequence, in two years.

Cranberry said...

chemprof, I think the current financial problems mean one should now say, "Transferring from a community college used to be a great solution." See this NYT article:

le radical galoisien, yes, the college students who were accepted, enrolled, and were paying tuition, room & board have preference over high school students. Money is tight. There aren't any extra seats in the college classes and lectures. It isn't the fault of the state college that the high school chose to offer an inadequate curriculum. I'm certain the state college administrators feel terribly about denying ambitious students, who are left with no other options. Their first duty is to their own students, though. If I were the parent of an enrolled college student, I would be livid to hear that she had been denied a spot in a required course, so that neighboring high school students could brush up their resumes.

SteveH said...

"Having initiative to land the opportunity doesn't mean you had the instincts to pick a good opportunity, ..."

At some point you have to figure it out and do something about it. If that means a transfer to another college, so be it. I remember being smart enough to avoid certain professors who just wanted to use me. Most students should be able to get by as undergraduates, and then make a good selection for grad school, where you can push for exactly what research you'll be doing and which professor you'll be working for.

Anonymous said...

--At some point you have to figure it out and do something about it.

Okay, I agree. But my point was that I, and lots of other kids, weren't mature enough to do that at MIT, arguably the premier research institution in the country for undergrads. We'd have been better off at smaller liberal arts schools where we weren't expected to "figure it out", but were given more explicit instruction.

Look, it's just another version of the same argument of middle school: is your student ready for a model of middle school or high school where they are expected to have "figured out" how to get help for the material they don't understand? Or did someone help instruct them on how to outline, how to read material, how to study for tests, how to prepare for quizzes, how to learn what it is they don't know?

At college, it's another version. You can find schools that expect the student to "Figure out on their own" how to tell a good research mentor from a bad one; how to learn to build an experiment with no help, etc. Or you can find a school that values instructing the student on these skills instead of assuming they already have them.

Some students will be ready for this on their own. Most 16-19 yr olds aren't. Knowing how your student will do in a "thrown to wolves" or "drink from firehose" environment is important to picking a good school.

SteveH said...

Well, we went last night and it was what I expected - an overview. Everyone got a bag that I thought would contain things like the student handbook, the course catalog, and the list of courses available in the fall. No, it just contained various things about substance abuse and prevention. Great. They presume that all kids are on the cliff ready to jump off and that we parents are looking the other way. My son now thinks that all kids in high school drink and do drugs.

Anyway, the meeting did not give many details. They offer three levels of courses; low, for those who are behind substantially on the state tests, college prep for those who want to be prepared to go to a 4-year school, and honors. Of course, many kids (and parents) are scared away from the word "honors". How could they possibly handle all honors courses. The guidance counselor who spoke wasn't much help. She seemed to indicate that maybe it would be better to start out in something easier because you can always move up. Even my son, who sucks up knowledge like a sponge, was worried. I had to explain to him what I had heard and figured out.

A few years ago, the high school went from 4 tracks to 3 tracks. Now, the lowest level is only for kids who have been carefully selected as needing specific help or are at least a year behind grade level. These are the beneficiaries of NCLB. They used to let these kids fall through the cracks. All of the rest go into college prep, even if the kids are barely at grade level of if they flunk because they just don't care. It's called college prep. College prep now seems like it's the dumping ground. These are the kids the school does not have to worry about for the state's low proficiency test cutoff. This has to dumb-down the college prep classes and force more students into the honors classes.

Back when my wife and I were in high school, the top track was called college prep. There was no honors courses. Now, the high school calls college prep what we used to call "general" or "business". Honors is now what we used to call college prep. Last night, I'm sure a lot of kids and parents were scared off from a full load of honors classes.

What I'm now concerned about is how much parent inolvement they offer. They didn't explain the details on how that worked. They said that couselors at the middle schools would take into account these 4 things:

1. Class grades
2. Testing - state and NWEA
3. Work habits
4. How the student compares with others who are at the high school

By the way, I've never heard of NWEA testing. I really, really hate it when I find out they are testing my son without telling us or showing us the results. They are intentionally keeping parents in the dark.

What have others run into? Do schools try to keep parents out of the process because they might try to push for too many honors classes? It seems like they want to minimize parental input and have the decision made in a meeting with just the student and the counselors. I get the feeling that they just don't like parents. It's easier to manipulate kids.

Anonymous said...

If your child is motivated and well-prepared, s/he can handle all honors classes.

Anonymous said...

I also get the feeling they want to make these decisions with the kids with no parental input. I've had to actively tell the guidance counselor that my husband and I are to be a part of these decisions.

It does seem like honors is handled differently at different schools. We have a big suburban school that has a multi tiered special ed level. Honors is broken into two levels-honors 1 and honors2. Honors 1 is known to be much harder and intense even though both honors levels are weighted the same.

I am grateful for the couple of non honors courses my son is taking because it has given him enough breathing room to participate in clubs and a sport. At this juncture he is taking non honors Span 2, non honors history (all kids must take this course), and PE. He is loaded up with top honors in Chem, Geometry, English, and AP Stats. I am considering getting him out of honors English and keeping the honors/AP courses focused on his strengths, math and science.

The gatekeeping and unfair grading practices are happening in two of the honors classes. The other teachers are tough, but fair and accessible. It's been a tough freshman year as he learns how to get around the bad teachers, but it is a part of life, I suppose.

I'm now hearing from more and more parents (wish I'd talk to them earlier) about some of the junk that's passing for good teaching in a few of these classes.

The rumor about the "middle" at my school is that it is a vast wasteland where not a lot of learning happens. You don't want your kid there if you can help it.


lgm said...

>> Do schools try to keep parents out of the process because they might try to push for too many honors classes?

Yes. Its a numbers game for many reasons. There will be qualified students that would do fine in honors that will be left out because the school doesn't want to open another section of honors.

When your son comes home with his intro to high school story it will be interesting. Ours was the high school principal introducing the chief of police and the cheif of security and explaining how discipline was going to be handled. Nothing about courses, challenging oneself, etc. Good eye opener on the population of the other feeder schools.

ChemProf said...

The College Prep thing isn't new, at least not in California. When I was in high school in the 80's, there was Honors, College Prep, General, and Special Ed. College Prep was the largest track, and basically aligned with the CalState requirements, while Honors aligned with the University of California requirements. Most CP students went on to community colleges, and only a minority actually got four year degrees, despite the name. This was in my okay suburban district.

That was before there were honors sections of languages, though, so everyone mixed in foreign language and fine arts. Only place I saw a lot of folks I'd known in elementary and junior high. However, taking "all honors classes" other than that was the norm at the time.

SteveH said...

"If your child is motivated and well-prepared, s/he can handle all honors classes."

His problem is that he doesn't make value judgments on homework. He doesn't know what work to crank out and what work is more important. He will have to be more efficient with his time.

"I've had to actively tell the guidance counselor that my husband and I are to be a part of these decisions."

Wow! I was afraid of that.

"I'm now hearing from more and more parents (wish I'd talk to them earlier) about some of the junk that's passing for good teaching in a few of these classes."

But what can you do? They made a specific point about how parents can't select teachers, and I don't disagree with that.

"The rumor about the 'middle' at my school ..."

That's what I've heard at our school now that they have just three levels. When the vice-principal gave an example last night for the lowest level, he talked about someone who could not multiply two numbers. This means that many others at a not much higher level populate the college prep level. I'm now trying to find out how many of the student take almost all honors level courses.

"There will be qualified students that would do fine in honors that will be left out because the school doesn't want to open another section of honors."

I was told today that parents have override power in the placement decision. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

"His problem is that he doesn't make value judgments on homework. He doesn't know what work to crank out and what work is more important. He will have to be more efficient with his time."

I haven't been there ... but ... can you teach him to do this reasonably well? I'm thinking that every evening you ask him to list his homework tasks, and tell you roughly how much time should be spent on each. You can look at the tasks and then correct his answers if needed.

Eventually, he'll figure out how to properly budget time.

Is this feasible?

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

I'm now trying to find out how many of the student take almost all honors level courses.

That's probably a good idea.

Most of the parents I talked to were parents of girls who were strong across the board. I really needed to seek out parents of math boys/girls who hate group work. You might want to seek out music kids who are on the honors track to get an idea of the stresses.

But what can you do?

Nothing, really. The "fit" in high school for teachers is as important as the lower grades, but we have no say. And I agree that we probably shouldn't have a say, but boy, the good teacher/student fit is a glorious thing.

I guess the skill to teach them is how to get by that kind of teacher. I wish someone had taught me that in high school, so I think it's a worthy thing to coach.

The problem comes with something more subjective like English. And it's only in that class that "class participation" is a huge grade. My son can raise his hand every day in class and speak up in groups and never get above a C for participation. He can't figure it out. He thinks he's talking about 10 times more than he ever does, but it isn't enough.

The attention to detail has been the thing that threw my son off at first. He managed to salvage his grades after we got involved, but it took a gargantuan effort to get him to realize that middle school was over. The giant rubrics, the class participation expectations, the intense level of studying, etc. all got the best of him at first. It seemed like college level executive functions, once again, were required of him.

Getting over the hump of asking for help and going in to see the teacher, weekly if necessary, was another obstacle for him. Now that he's done it several times for several teachers he is starting to understand how critical it is to take care of problems immediately.


Anonymous said...

"My son can raise his hand every day in class and speak up in groups and never get above a C for participation. He can't figure it out. He thinks he's talking about 10 times more than he ever does, but it isn't enough."

Is he raising his hand to agree with the teacher? If not, it is something he might consider...

-Mark Roulo

le radical galoisien said...

In America I think it's OK to be ambitious about high school language classes. Even in the nation's top schools there are people who studied French, Spanish, etc. all their four years in HS but still make lots of basic pronunciation mistakes.

You can remarkably jump ahead by a large shot simply using online dictionaries and studying as little as half an hour on your own each day, editing the Wikipedia of the foreign language, using forums or working on a poem.

SteveH said...

"You can look at the tasks and then correct his answers if needed."

I don't think he wants to be told how to do his homework. I think I have to help him see that he can really spend less time but still do a good job. He'll have to figure it out or else he won't have any free time.

"..but boy, the good teacher/student fit is a glorious thing."

He is strong across the board, social, and does very well with class participation. All teachers love him. I guess I have to relax a little bit. Perhaps it's a result of the last 8+ years of school. I'm waiting to get blind-sided by something.

"It seemed like college level executive functions, once again, were required of him."

This will be the hardest thing for him. He won't have any trouble with the content, but he will have trouble with time management. He won't get the work done. He will also have to learn to study. So far, he never studies for a test.

Speaking of time management, I would like to hear from others what after-school sports and activities require for time at their schools. My niece in MI said that swimming took up 3 hrs. each afternoon. She had to drop it. How about the time expected for club activities?

Anonymous said...


Is there really a reason to believe he will have to learn to study in 9th grade?

It took me 3 months of high school to figure out how to get dressed in less than 20 minutes (coming from uniforms to no uniforms). It took me several months to adjust to my new sleeping schedule. It took me under a month to realize there was nothing to study for in 9th grade.

I didn't learn to study until 11th grade, because there was nothing challenging until then, not even in the honors courses. And even then, I learned to read and outline, but didn't learn what to do when you're actually confused by the material.

I think you might be vastly overestimating the difficulty of 9th grade, and overestimating the assigned homework.

re: after school: what are your commute arrangements? Sports at our school took up 3 hours an afternoon, but that included wasted time between class ending and sports starting. By contrast, my taking the bus home wasted over 2 hours, but a ride after sports ended was completed in 30 minutes. It depends...

le radical galoisien said...

If I could suggest anything to a 9th grader it would be to take a sport now -- it's better than trying to start one later!

In senior year I had linear algebra after swim practice.
Needless to say, linear algebra homework would often get done on the day they were due. A few difficult assigned proofs were solved while struggling to do 10x50m sprints.

Lisa said...

My experience is that the high school doesn't want to see, talk to, or receive e-mail from a parent. Period. The cover they use here is that they are teaching the kids personal responsibility. I have heard from the counselor exactly once in my dd's 4 years and my ds's 2 years of high school. She e-mailed me to see if it was 'ok' for my dd to take 4 AP classes and and 2 honors classes out of 7 classes. I assured her that my dd was actually trying to get an education. Do not expect help from these people.

lgm said...

Varsity sports practice is usually done three hours after dismissal, however the start time depends on the transport time for coaches as well as students, since not all sports practice at the high school and not all coaches work at the high school. In my district, help is available at lunch, during study hall, and before school, so playing a sport doesn't mean that the student gives up access to help. Usually a parent meeting is held so you have a chance to learn of the time committments from the coach. Some sports - v. football and v. swimming for ex. take more time than others and most will have practice on non-school days in season.

Club time depends on the club and its activities. The advisor can give you a good estimate.

Study Skills: Biegelson's Theory of Small Pieces is effective once the student can discipline himself to follow it. When the child is easily getting 95-98s in honors classes, it's hard to convince him to discipline himself to learn to study and ace the course.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that link, lgm. I'm printing it out right now. My son suffers from the "just enough" syndrome towards schoolwork. He wants to only do just enough and nothing more, and he's finding out that it isn't working in some classes. Unfortunately, he got away with that attitude for years.

Steve, you probably don't have too much to worry about with your son's social skills being so strong and his academic strengths across the board. Our problems are with class participation and the "personal connections" part of the writing assignments.

I only have experience with cross country and track and field, but those sports have been quite manageable with his class load. I've heard from the other sports parents (swimming, basketball, football) that it is very difficult because of time commitments.

The clubs have been good outlets without requiring too much time-wise.

Is he raising his hand to agree with the teacher? If not, it is something he might consider...

Mark, I wouldn't be surprised if that isn't part of the problem although I've tried to discuss this with him over the years. He's had teachers who welcome different points of view, but others who clearly don't.


kcab said...

Oh man, you guys are scaring me...I don't have to deal with the HS yet since my oldest is in 7th, but it is close enough that I am paying attention here.

SteveH - you may be familiar with NWEA testing under a different name, MAP.

Wholeheartedly agree with Allison on picking major/school where people are happy. Also important to be aware of the same issues when picking a lab during grad school.

SteveH said...

"I think you might be vastly overestimating the difficulty of 9th grade, and overestimating the assigned homework."

That could be. However, he needs to be more efficient with what he gets now in 8th grade. It's not a ton, but he tends to wait until the last minute. Then again, if we could only eliminate the silly art projects, that would be a big help. From what I hear, this won't happen in high school.

"The cover they use here is that they are teaching the kids personal responsibility."

This reminds me of the the comment by Ollie North's lawyer to Congress years ago:

"Well, sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job."

SteveH said...

"My son suffers from the 'just enough' syndrome towards schoolwork."

My son tends to suffer the opposite; "it's never enough". I end up sounding like one of my old bosses: "Just do it." Actually, I've asked him whether he thinks that any other student puts in even half the time he does. That stops him a little bit. One of the problems is the non-linear rubrics the school uses. It goes from 1 to 5, but to get a 5 is almost impossible. One teacher told me once that a 5 is even something more than an A+. They use it to challenge the top students, but some teachers almost never give out 5's. Hopefully in high school, with a normal grading system, it will be much more clear when enough is enough.

SteveH said...

"you guys are scaring me"

Next, let's hear stories about "files" or something like that. I thought there was a discussion of them years ago on KTM. It has something to do with how class and test information is passed down through the years. Apparently, many teachers reuse tests. So, how prevalent is this underground network of information? How big of a problem is cheating? What should I warn my son about?

Unknown said...

"I think you might be vastly overestimating the difficulty of 9th grade, and overestimating the assigned homework."

My 9th grader's IB Spanish homework so far has been posters, family trees and cooking.

Yesterday, they watched the movie Stuart Little in Spanish. The homework was to color a picture of the Little family with the appropriate colors for hair and clothing. Actual Spanish work included labeling the characters "Senor Little, Senora Little and Stuart"

Anonymous said...

"you guys are scaring me"

Hah! Sorry about that. High school is a subject we haven't talked a lot about around here. Or maybe we have and I wasn't paying attention. I think it's fascinating to, once again, see the similarities between high schools across the country from an anecdotal point of view.

Is the MAP testing the computer formative assessment test? If so, our grade school and middle school use it early in the year and then at the end. I thought it was pretty accurate with my son.


Allison said...

--Apparently, many teachers reuse tests. So, how prevalent is this underground network of information? How big of a problem is cheating? What should I warn my son about?

There are two separate issues here.

One is cheating. One is using all available materials to study, and how some students may have this while others do not. They are not the same, and teachers who reuse tests should be confronted with this issue as being about their laziness, not an issue of the student doing something wrong.

Cheating in high school, just as in college, is commonplace. Most forms of it are stupid, and don't enhance the grades of the cheaters. The teachers catch it, or worse, the cheaters cheat from other idiots with poor grades.

A student who is naive and a good student will not recognize cheating. They will not notice it happening all aroud them, just as a straight student who doesn't take drugs won't recognize that a fellow student is high or hungover. That student is better off staying naive, because it won't undermine their work ethic to not know how little others do.

When the top students cheat, they are also sophisticated enough to game the system if they get caught by pleading terror of not getting into Yale while weeping about their ruined future and their parents grounding them permanently. And lots of the top students cheat.

Allison said...

The issue of cheating is just another instance of the issue of culture. How big is the high school your son will be attending?

At high school, culture is really king. Kids self sort, and it might take a couple months, but basically, social structure at school is fairly stable fairly quickly. Your son's close friends will change, as will his dates and crushes, but it will largely be from the same group of peers, and that group will definitely be a subset of the whole school.

Your son will fairly quickly find himself in some sort of group/clique of young men and women, and how you and he handle cheating/drinking/dating/etc. will really be determined by who his friends are, and who their parents are.

Get to know the parents of your kid's acquaintances, and then from there, who have the same educational ideas you have fairly quickly. This isn't that difficult, since you can probably tell by one or two conversations.

If his peer group is one where the parents all see things the same way about homework and cheating and discipline, then it won't matter how prevalent cheating or drug use is, because your kid won't be in that group.

Allison said...

re: teachers using repeated tests, etc.:

Only the top students are going to organize their teachers' notes, quizzes, and tests into some useful format for the next year's students. No one else cares. Top students aren't going to hand out their bibles to mediocre loser students; they will give them to their friends/crushes --so the top students stay the top students.

Your son doesn't need to worry that other kids will have the competitive advantage; HE will be the one with it, in all likelihood, because of his seriousness in study and likely peer group.

Prior year material is an excellent study aid, and your son should be encouraged to keep his notes for these reasons, too.

If teachers use repeated tests, and a student receives a copy of a previous year test that was handed back to someone (not kept through some kind of deception), that's totally morally fair game as far as I'm concerned. If you think it isn't, you will need to figure out how your son is supposed to ignore what's in ths public domain, so to speak, and you should come up with a way to talk to the teacher and inform them of these issues.

Especially in IB/AP classes, these bibles are all handed down year after year because they contain so much prep work for the AP tests themselves. Telling your son he can't use such things would be crippling.

SteveH said...

Thanks for all of the feedback. I found out today that about 10-15% of the kids take all honors courses. That's a big piece of information.

I'm going to tell him to work hard and that the grades will take care of themselves. He will have many good choices for college. Then again, if he decides he really wants to go to a music conservatory, then that's a whole different ballgame.

VickyS said...

He won't have any trouble with the content, but he will have trouble with time management. He won't get the work done. He will also have to learn to study. So far, he never studies for a test.

I have to agree with those who think you may be overestimating the difficulty of 9th grade. In addition, your 9th grader might be an entirely different person from your 8th grader. High school itself worked an amazing transformation on my boys. For example, both of them recently knocked off 10 page term papers in biology in the space of a weekend(one on retroviruses, the other on zinc finger proteins). These former foot draggers have become surprisingly efficient and able to concentrate for a several hours at a time, which for many people is really a much more efficient way to get your work done than plodding along a bit at a time every day. An intense burst of activity allows you to get deeply into the subject and stay engaged. They are doing this for almost all their school work, and they have plenty of free time.

Time management, which had terrified me, has been absolutely no problem in high school. All the kids stay connected via facebook and are constantly updating each other with where they are on their papers or projects, what the assignment is for tomorrow, who is having trouble with what, etc. These are good kids (the equivalent of honors students) and are on collective autopilot.

I would never in a million years have predicted this from their middle school performance.

I'm content with high B's and A's...especially when they do this without any help from me. I suppose if I was pushing them to a 4.0 I would have to be somewhat involved.

I believe this is really nothing more than a case of becoming developmentally ready to do this kind of work; it's not so hard when it's developmentally appropriate. That's why the kids struggle so much in middle and elementary school--they are expected to behave like high schoolers. When they finally become high schoolers, it's not so hard after all!

Also, I submit there's nothing wrong with efficiency. My kids get good grades without studying all that much. Why? Because they pay attention in class and do all the homework, and at at this stage, as Allison pointed out, that is sufficient to do fairly well. The problem with the middle school approach is it's all about effort, time in the saddle. I say, if you can do twice the job with half the effort, more power to you!

And that, of course, is where you are able to make your time for that swim team (yes, it really is 3 hours a day) or mock trial, or math team, or model UN. Clubs don't take up much time; sports do, in our experience.

SteveH said...

"I have to agree with those who think you may be overestimating the difficulty of 9th grade."

Thanks for your perspective.

"The problem with the middle school approach is it's all about effort, time in the saddle."

Yes, it does seem like they design the rubrics such that he never feels that he has done enough. On a scale of 1-5, the teachers tell students that a 3 is good (like a B), but the better students feel like they have to always strive for a 5. It's a non-linear grading system that makes kids feel like they are never good enough. It's a differentiated grading system where the main goal is to put pressure on kids at all levels, not to represent some sort of goal for skills and knowledge.

With the high school's traditional linear grading system, a rubric 5 would be an 'A', but those with 3's or 2's would be close to flunking. I hope that the change in grading will make it more clear to him when enough is enough.

"And that, of course, is where you are able to make your time for that swim team ..."

Or piano practice. He was really surprised when he heard that his cousin spent 3 hours a day on the swim team.

Actually, I see him becoming a chemist or a physicist. He is constantly testing me about molecules, the Periodic Table, and things like the Bose-Einstein state of matter. I think I'll get him a book on quantum mechanics. That will slow him down. Any comments on what might be a good book for him? I'm only half-kidding.

Allison said...

Hey ChemProf, come point SteveH in a good direction!

Off the top of my head, John Gribbin's In Search of Schrodinger's Cat

was a terrific book for me in high school. A popularization of the science but no religious/zen/hippiedippy/spiritual pieces at all, and few physical misconceptions. The historical perspective was fascinating to me, and exciting. It was exciting enough that I stayed a physics major til my senior year and went through several grad school rabbit holes to end up in quantum maybe it's not such a great idea after all :)

I will look through my other popularizations to see if there are any that I'd recommend. Most are deeply notoriously wrong when it comes to the physics, though, and embedding misconceptions in there is not so good.

A cool book on the symmetry properties of molecules would be aweomse at that age. I wonder if there is one ?

kcab said...

"Is the MAP testing the computer formative assessment test? "

So far as I know, yes. It seemed pretty good for my daughter too, sadly the district dropped it in favor of something that I guess is supposed to simulate the state tests better. (And is riddled with errors. Oh, whoops, maybe that does correspond better with the state tests...)

After I left the comment it occurred to me that there might be other NWEA tests though.

SteveH said...

"Off the top of my head, John Gribbin's In Search of Schrodinger's Cat"

Perfect! At least it looks like something he would enjoy. It's better than reading Artemis Fowl book no. 2694.

Since he is so good at sucking up data (he can rattle off a list of sub-atomic particles), I thought it would be good to give him a better/historical framework.

SteveH said...

" it occurred to me that there might be other NWEA tests though"

I think they use the MAP. I will have to ask. I'm glad to hear that it's good, but I'm not happy that they test my son and keep it hidden from me.

SteveH said...

How about ... Schrodinger's Kittens?

Anonymous said...

Haven't read Schrodinger's Kittens. By the time Gribbin moved on, I was actually taking real quantum, and the popularizations were just not interesting. But I'd assume it's more about the physics in the aftermath of the 40s.. a kind of "where are we now". But I don't know the book. Sadly, I don't have much positive to say about what's come after in physics, but will avoid that rant in this context. Stick with the first, and then if he's still interested, maybe Gribbin's others are good too.

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Anonymous said...


If it's MAP then they should send you a printout about how your child did and how others did as well.

The funny thing about taking it is how it messes with the kid's heads. If you miss a problem, the computer gives you an easier one. If you get the problem right, it sends you a harder one. So the kids who sit there with it the longest are actually doing better. My son told me how it freaked him out that so many kids were "done" with their tests while he and some others sat there for a much longer time.


ChemProf said...

I liked Allison's suggestion of Gribbin's In Search of Schrodinger's Cat. I haven't read Schrodinger's Kittens, but I know one of my research students liked it.

I'd still point you to Asimov on Physics and Asimov on Chemistry, though!

SteveH said...

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat has been shipped. I also bought the "kittens". I'll look at the Asimov books again, but those seem to be out of print.

ChemProf said...

The Asimov books are out of print, but you can find copies on alibris or other used book sites.