Michael Williams Steps Down

Girl doing exercise in math book

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced that he will be stepping down at the end of the year, which could mean big changes for Texas schools. Image: mkuram / Flickr

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced on Thursday, October 15th, that he will be stepping down from the position he has held since 2012. A sixteen-year veteran of public service, he cites his family as his primary reason for leaving the position. His public service duties kept him in Austin while his wife lives in Arlington. His weekend commute for all of those sixteen years was more than 200 miles each way.

In his tenure as Education Commissioner, Williams took his job very seriously. Texas’s education system can most generously be described as challenged. The state ranks 39th in the nation in education standards, according to accredited publication Education Week. A major reason cited for that low standing was the poor support for early childhood development, with only about 50% of Texas 3-4 year olds attending any kind of preschool. And by the standards of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, nearly every school district in the state would be labeled as failing.

Williams, never a fan of No Child Left Behind, was behind Texas’s proposal for a new teacher evaluation system. While the federal Education Department rejected that proposal, the evaluation program is in its second pilot year at several Texas school districts and will roll out statewide next year regardless of approval. Williams calls that rejection an “ongoing conversation with the national government” and regrets that he was not able to settle the matter in his tenure.

When asked about his proudest results in his term, he puts improving morale in the Texas Education Agency as his best result. When he was appointed, the agency was still reeling from having its staffing reduced by a full 50% from 1,200 down to 600, and public faith in them was low and discouraging. The year before he took over, lawmakers had reduced the public education budget by $5.4 billion. While he couldn’t singlehandedly cure the ills of the agency, he has in three years managed to restore 200 job positions and has done a lot of “little things” to help the embattled employees feel valued while public opinion batters them, like employee socials and birthday cards.

His resignation will be official on January 1st, 2016. As of yet, there is no one named to replace him. The decision will be made by Governor Abbot.

Tips for Top Students

Young man taking notes at computer

If you’ve coasted through school so far, it’s time to learn how to take good notes.
Image: Shutterstock

If there is one piece of advice that high-achieving high school students need to hear, it is to learn to study.

No, seriously.

In grade school, middle school, and high school, for a certain type of student it can be very easy to coast. You have a good memory, you test well, you’re able to stay on top of things even with high school’s crazy amount of required busy work. You take notes in class, but rarely need to look at them. And that’s the weak spot, right there.

In college, it’s easy to get in over your head quickly if you go on in the same manner. You spend less time in class, overall, but the work is harder and escalates quickly. So it’s vital, back in high school, to cultivate good study habits.

Keep taking notes, but pay more attention to how you do so. Experiment until you find a format and an organization that works well for you regardless of which class you’re in. Get in the habit of taking notes in every class discussion, whether it’s for a test or not.

Make those notes comprehensive. Every topic your teacher touches upon goes into your notes, every assignment they mention and everything they say about it. If they mention a supplemental source, you write it down. If they repeat something they’d said previously, go back and highlight your notes on the first time they covered it; it’s probably important.

Studying starts with your notes. At home, in your study space and ready to work, start by copying your classroom notes, focusing this time on the subject you’re studying for. Copy them out onto clean paper or a new file. This reinforces your memory of the details. Follow up those supplemental sources. If the teacher mentioned anything you didn’t understand, do a bit of research yourself, noting your source, and take notes on what you find.

With high school’s focus on test scores, they are notoriously poor at teaching studying itself. It’s not difficult, but it takes initiative.

StemBox: Science By Mail

Girls with microscope and magnifying glass outside

Stembox is a new product encouraging young people (especially girls) to get involved with science.
Image: Shutterstock

It’s 2015 and we still have a problem with women in science. For fifty years, the percentage of women standing as full professors in the top fifty Ph.D.-granting institutions has held steady at a mere ten percent. Ten percent. Let that sink in. Fifty years of no progress, a plateau barely ankle-high.

Kina McAllister, until recently a research tech at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, thought about that–and set out to make a change, as grassroots as you can get. Inspired by subscription services like Netflix and Grazebox, she has brought to life StemBox.

Once a month, StemBox subscribers get a themed science kit designed to build STEM skills and scientific passion in young girls. From dissecting owl pellets (Don’t worry, parents! They’re clean!) and identifying the luckless contents to computer programming games, each month offers a different facet of science to intrigue and expand young minds.

While aimed at inspiring young girls, StemBox kits are not gendered and would be a fantastic gift for any child. And not only children. At a recent demonstration at Seattle-based GeekGirlCon, all ages were thrilled to dig into the simple yet fascinating projects. Separating strawberry DNA into strands you can see and using a lemon to light up a series of LEDs are tantalizing tastes of genetics and applied chemistry.

That’s precisely what StemBox is. It’s a tasting, offering powerful glimpses into as many STEM fields as McAllister could stuff in.

StemBox’s kickstarter earlier this year was a success, and McAllister was able to move into full-time development. Subscriptions and sample boxes are still available, and the first project boxes are due to begin arriving in eager hands in January 2016.

University of Wisconsin Chooses Under Armour

Under Armour logo

The University of Wisconsin has made a new deal with Under Armour to outfit their football team.
Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com

The University of Wisconsin Athletic Department’s longtime 15-year partnership with Adidas is coming to an end, and the school is expected to sign a 10-year, $96 million deal to make Under Armour its official outfitter to provide apparel and footwear for the Badgers.

The school is currently signed to a 5-year deal with Adidas that is set to expire June 30, 2016. The Badgers have partnered with the German company since 2001.

Going into effect next July, the deal is one of the most lucrative in college sports, as it exceeds Under Armour’s previous largest deal – a 10-year, $90 million contract with Notre Dame signed in 2014. The UW/Under Armour partnership is believed to be the second largest deal just behind Michigan’s 15-year, $169 million deal signed with Nike earlier this year.

The deal is both sentimental and strategic to the sportswear company:

“The first big account that I ever sold product to was Eastbay, based in Wisconsin,” Plank recalled.

“It’s also strategic in that when we look at our e-commerce business we see a tremendous amount of orders coming from Wisconsin zip codes,” says Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank.

Fans also shouldn’t worry, as there won’t be any radical changes in the look of the Badgers.

“I think we built this reputation that we want to make wild uniforms for everybody,” Plank said. “I just want to settle everybody to know that we’re going to play the right song for the right situation. There’s an incredible history here at the University of Wisconsin that doesn’t tend to require a lot of flash and a lot of pop, beyond the flash and pop that has already been established.”

As a way to help recollect declining sales in the world’s biggest sportswear market, Adidas has been pushing a major marketing campaign in recent months to sign endorsements and merchandising deals with U.S. sports teams.

Although Adidas is a German brand, two of its most notable executives are tied to Wisconsin. Green Bay, Wisconsin native Mark King, the company’s North American division president, is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin’s Green Bay campus. Adidas’s global brands president, Eric Liedtke, graduated from the university’s Madison campus. Prominent alumni from the university also include social entrepreneur Ben Schumaker, actress Joan Cusack, businessman John Oros, Dick Cheney, and many others.

Wisconsin is the most recent school to make a jump to Under Armour, joining Northwestern and Maryland in the Big Ten conference.


Just the Job

Teacher and students in classroom

Teachers in struggling Pennsylvania schools struck earlier this month to raise awareness about how teachers go above and beyond.
Image: Shutterstock

It was a different kind of strike in Philadelphia earlier this month. For one week, a number of elementary school teachers across the city did their jobs.

Only their jobs.

Only their jobs as stipulated by their contracts, in fact. So while they taught, graded, and cared for their students, they did not patrol the playground before school, tutor kids at lunch, or stay late with kids whose parents couldn’t be there right at the bell. No printouts in the classrooms or copy paper to make them, because that’s been coming out of the teachers’ pockets. Books purchased by teachers for their classrooms vanished, just for the week.

These actions, organized by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, were concurrent with a protest held at Cooke Elementary School, one of the statistically “failing” schools that the Philadelphia School District intends to hand over to a charter operator. That announcement was not received well by local teachers.

“We don’t have teachers in classrooms some years, and then they tell us that we failed,” said Christine Kolenut, one of the Cooke teachers who will be fired if that handover occurs.

The decision to make more Philadelphia schools into charter schools has not been popular with parents either. In 2014, the district allowed the parents of two schools to vote on the matter, and both votes were landslides against charters. This year, the decision was made without parent or teacher input.

The objective of the semi-strike was to force the district to recognize that teachers do much more than the contracts itemize, and that disrespecting teachers will never lead to a better-performing school.


Academically, Girls Out-Perform Boys in 70% of the World

Girl and boy reading in classroom

A recent study showed that girls generally out-perform boys in school.
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Numerous studies and articles have assumed that boys out-perform girls in academic areas like math and science, but according to a new study by researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Glasgow, girls actually out-perform boys in all academic areas in 70% of the countries they studied.

Their study looked at around 1.5 million 15-year-old students, based on data collected between 2000 and 2010, and in 70% of the locations studied, the girls out-performed the boys by that point. Only three places–Colombia, Costa Rica, and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh–found the opposite to be true, and performances were close in some economically developed nations like the United States and United Kingdom. But otherwise, regardless of the level of gender, social, or economic equality in the places studied, girls did better in school.

This data has some interesting things to say about education. Namely, it tells us that access to education doesn’t necessarily do much about the “gender gap” therein. It also tells us that the gap isn’t increasing, which is good, and, for those who weren’t aware, that girls are leading that gap. But we do need to figure out how to address that gap and find ways to help boys perform as well as girls, academically.

With girls out-performing boys across the board, though, we should also be asking how to make sure girls get the most out of their education. Certain fields, like computer science, have low numbers of women involved at the professional level, and many people in technology industries have been wondering how to get–and keep–women interested and involved in those fields. It stands to reason that, if girls are so consistently out-performing boys academically, if they were to enter fields where they’re underrepresented, they might be able to do even more for those fields than their male peers.

Oregon Schools on the Mend

Pile of books on desk with apple on top

Oregon schools are fighting to repair earthquake damage and protect schools from future incidents.
Image: Shutterstock

In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami rocked the Pacific basin from coast to coast. And even though damage on the North American coast was minimal, especially relative to the cities swept out of existence in Japan, it was a sharp wake-up to school districts up and down the Oregon coastline.

Oregon’s coast is largely low, flat, and exposed. And prior to 2011, seismic risk was evaluated on rather a different scale. Tohoku caused a rush to re-evaluate, and hundreds of schools have been found at “high risk of collapse” in any major earthquake event. Some of those, the state has known about since 2007. But the Great Recession and a host of other budget shortfalls have delayed attempts to rectify the situation.

At Corbett Middle School, an entire lower floor to the school has been condemned for years. Corbett District Superintendent Randi Trani has tried three times to pass a bond measure on local ballots to fix the school, which he’s been told by structural engineers would simply “pancake,” or collapse directly in on itself in the event of a major earthquake. He said those measures all failed for “the usual reasons.”

The usual reasons are, of course, the ones with dollar signs. Two thirds of the homes in the area are owned by out-of-town retirees who don’t want the taxes on their vacation home to go up to pay for a school they have no stake in. Even the locals think that the state should be the one paying the tab, instead of local levies.

Luckily, state help is finally on the horizon. This year, the Oregon Legislature committed $175 million for school retrofits. Leaps and bounds past their former record contribution of $15 million. But still comparatively small change. Portland’s strong tax base has recently passed a nearly $500 million bond for only 26 schools. But at least it’s progress.

Community education is likely the key to the shortfalls. That’s why parents and staff at schools across the state have begun organizing preparedness fairs, in which other parents and community members can be walked through their schools’ level of readiness, including what it still needs to be a place of refuge. Just in case.

Indiana University’s eTexts

Indiana University campus

Indiana University is fighting high textbook costs with etexts.
Image: Chuck W Walker / Shutterstock.com

Textbooks are one of the most frustrating expenses to students. A math textbook that can only be used for a semester, three at most, can run as high as $300 or more. College bookstores flaunt bright posters advertising their buy-back programs, but it only takes one semester to learn that those are a false promise. By the time you can see back that math book, the new edition’s already come out and your $300 book will net you $16 in store credit.

The average university student with a full course-load spends over $1000 a year on textbooks. The reasons for the high tickets are many, but the key points are these: Professors assign specific editions for their convenience, which means students have no ability to vote with their dollar. There are only five major textbook publishers, which means they have no incentive to price themselves competitively.

Textbooks are 81% more expensive now than they were a generation ago. Students have spoken out about having to choose between vital texts and their meal plans. And now, some schools are stepping up to help students fight back.

Indiana University, in 2012, began making electronic textbooks, eTexts, available to students who opt in. For about $35 a book, they can access their text from any internet-connected device. They can take notes, get access to their teacher’s notes on the texts, and share their reading with others. With 21 smaller publishers providing material directly to the school, rather than via a distributor, costs are kept low.

At the beginning of this school year, approximately 25% of the school, or 25,000 students, had opted in to eTexts. The number has swollen every semester since the program’s inception. Teachers like it because it means the entire class can afford the latest edition of the assigned reading, so everyone can be literally on the same page. And students, of course, appreciate the lower cost and not having to lug heavy books across campus for every class.

While there are and always will be those who appreciate the “dead tree” kind of text book, the mere fact that there are options now should start to force an improvement in quality across all formats.

Flint Schools and the Search for Clean Water

School front in Flint, MI

Flint, MI schools are desperately seeking clean water.
Image: James R. Martin / Shutterstock.com

Flint, Michigan, was #2 on Forbes.com’s list of America’s most miserable cities only two years ago. At the time, the recent unemployment rate was north of 11%, one in every twenty-five houses in the city was foreclosed on, and their crime rate was the third highest of any city in the country, behind only Memphis and nearby Detroit. The city is surrounded by massive empty lots that were once the GM factories employing most residents.

It’s gotten worse since then.

In the spring of 2015, Flint city water changed its source from Lake Huron to the much nearer Flint River, which runs right through the city. Since then, citizens have noticed a change in the color of the water, and many have reported everything from rashes and chemical burns to hair loss and e. coli infections. City officials insist that the water is safe and that the fact that it is cloudy and smelly straight from the tap is unrelated to federal standards.

Despite the city stance, however, Flint’s schools are taking a more cautious view. Bilal Tawwab, superintendent of Flint public schools, has formally asked parents to send bottled water with their children every day. He cites local doctors reporting a spike in lead levels detected in children that finally provoked the release of a lead warning.

Providing bottled water to schools full of children isn’t cheap, hence the outcry to parents. Tawwab is also seeking donations of money and water, as well as looking for community sponsors to help ensure that not one student has to resort to the potentially toxic drinking fountain that the state won’t allow him to deactivate.

One principal estimates that the 150 students in her Flint charter school, Eagle’s Nest Academy, go through 400-600 bottles a day.

As most parents have already resorted to bottled water use at home to avoid the same water, it has not been hard to get people to pitch in and help. But Flint is a city on the edge of absolute poverty, so help needs to come from outside. Many citizens of Flint are hoping for federal aid, but after 30 years of watching their city die, they are not hopeful.

UW-Madison Ranked 11th-Best Public College

UW-Madison campus

Several areas of UW-Madison ranked well in the latest US News & World Report college rankings.
Image: youngryand / Shutterstock

The latest college rankings from US News & World Report put UW-Madison at #11 in a nation-wide ranking of public institutions, up from #13 last year. The ranking used criteria including retention/graduation rates, academic reputation, financial resources, and faculty resources. In particular, UW-Madison’s College of Engineering (#14) and the School of Business (#15) did quite well, as evidenced not only by the rankings, but also their alums, including John Oros of J.C. Flowers & Co. (BBA from the School of Business) and Christopher J. Struck of CJS Labs (BSEE from the School of Engineering). The US News & World Report rankings include more than 260 national universities, and the rankings will be included in the 2016 edition of America’s Best Colleges.

“Our mission is always to provide student with the top-notch education people have come to expect at UW-Madison,” said Provost Sarah Mangelsodorf. However, she also cautious that “national rankings don’t adequately portray the many factors that go into providing a high-quality educational experience.” Still, rankings can be extremely helpful for potential students and their parents who are researching places to apply.

Other areas of UW-Madison also ranked well:

  • The Insurance/Risk Management Program ranked 4th overall.
  • The Real Estate Program ranked 4th overall and 2nd among public universities.
  • UW-Madison was also ranked as the 33rd Best College for Veterans.

US News & World Report rankings include categories for national universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities, regional colleges, undergraduate business programs, undergraduate engineering programs, historically black colleges and universities, undergraduate teaching, top public schools, and rankings as determined by high school counselors. The rankings are traditionally part of the way high school students find out about which schools they want to apply to.

With the importance of STEM education at the forefront of discussion these days, it’s interesting to note that UW-Madison continues to deliver in these areas.