Sunday, November 22, 2015

What the new law means for vaccine opt out rates

A bit off-topic, but some parents may be interested in this and there seem to be some misconceptions about the recent law changes in California, so if you have strong feelings about immunizations (whether you want to avoid them or avoid people who avoid them), then read on.

[Caveat, let's not turn the comments into a giant debate between those for and against vaccines. Many other forums for that. Let's just try to give parents information they can use to make better choices of schools relative to whatever views they may have.]

Background: CA previously allowed opt-out of vaccination requirements for students attending schools, called Personal Belief Exemptions, or PBE. But a recent law makes it harder to opt-out. There are subtle details though.

First, current PBE rates for all schools in CA (public and private) can be found here (at the bottom of an article about recent overall trends in the rates):
Search for any string and all matching schools will be displayed in decreasing opt-out rate order. Just put in San Francisco for example to find the schools with the highest PBE rates in the city.

Second, two helpful links I found to help understand the recent law change and how it is being implemented:

My quick read is that existing exemptions are grandfathered: Anyone with an exemption on file by Jan 1, 2016 gets to avoid vaccination until they hit 7th grade (if they are in K already) and now that everyone knows the law is passed, they still have time to get new PBEs through the end of 2015. In addition, these grandfathered PBEs appear to be transferable school to school within California.

This means that PBE rates won't go down quickly at those elementary schools where they are already high---only slowly as new kids enter each year. And in fact, kids in kindergarten now will remain in the cohort that can have the highest PBE rates for the longest (since they won't hit 7th grade for many years).

It's worth also noting, since many people might not be aware, that many Waldorf schools (which typically have the highest PBE rates) consider "kindergarten" to be 2-years starting with 4-year-olds (the year that most other schools would consider the final year of preschool). Thus, this year's Waldorf 4-year-old K cohorts may have high PBE %s for 7 more years.

For families applying for kindergarten for next fall, it will be very hard to avoid vaccinating. Home schooling might be the easiest route to avoid it. (If homeschooling can be considered easy!)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Open Thread: How is school going for familes that started last year or prior?

Parents who went through the school shopping process in previous years were clearly more prolific at posting to this site, so how is kindergarten (or later grades) going for your families? What school did you end up at and what can you say that is good or bad or otherwise important to know about it---especially the stuff that only a family already enrolled would know?

Does anyone regret their choice and wish they had made a different one?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Open Thread: How are 2015 tours going?

How is tour season going? Where have you toured (or gone to an open house) and what was one memorable impression you got that you didn't know ahead of time?

Know anyone who is going through the process this year but maybe doesn't know about this blog? Send them a link and suggest that they post a comment here.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The science of education and the science of teaching science

This past summer Nature and Scientific American coordinated to publish special issues devoted to science and education. There's science that informs how teaching should happen as well as stuff on how science itself specifically should be taught, both of which may be of interest to readers here for evaluating and choosing schools.

All the articles from both publications can be found linked from this one page:
Here are some super-brief summaries of what I thought was relevant.

The brief 6-paragraph intro "An Education" explains why they did these special articles and motivates active (vs. traditional passive) learning, in which students are given tough problems and try to figure them out in depth, rather than just being told the answers and then needing to remember them.

"Why we are teaching science wrong and how to make it right" presents evidence that such active learning produces better understanding and memory. Project-based and hands-on-learning type schools from progressive independents to extreme outliers like Brightworks (and even public charter New School SF) would seem to be elementary school analogs to this kind of educating (vs. traditional school structures), but most of the discussion in this article centered around college-level teaching (with unclear validity to generalizing down in ages). It's hard to tell if the increasing standards demanded nationally of public education make it harder to teach this way because it takes more time to prepare for such teaching and adding more stuff to a curriculum that can't be missed leaves less time to not just tell students the answers. It's also worth noting that even at the college level, there is debate about the merits of this approach.

My take-home was to think that this type of teaching is vital as at least a component, but I didn't see enough to convince me that it has to be everything. It made me like in-depth progressive/project-based/hands-on problem solving even better, but even in schools stuck with teaching so much of a core curriculum that much of it has to be taught traditionally, there is probably room for some of this in after-school or supplemental programs, but PTAs might have to fund & choose/fight for it over other things.

"Reading, Writing and high-energy physics" discusses an approach to education (from preschool to university) whose effectiveness "has been verified by hundreds of empirical studies". The approach involves kids coming up with answers to questions (sometimes crazy answers like trees cause the wind by shaking their leaves) and then rather than teachers correcting them or adding new knowledge the teachers help nudge the kids to think of ways to test their ideas, such as asking if anyone has seen wind where there aren't any trees, or performing an actual experiment if possible. The kids then mimic the process of actual science (testing hypotheses). "The point is to spark questions, and a conviction that they can be explored rationally."

The first part of this article discussed early education, so it felt very relevant. I've seen analogs of some of these ideas at various independent schools. The Brightworks/tinkering "never say no" philosophy seemed similar but in the programs of the article it was never tell them they are wrong or give them the answer (science vs. engineering/building focus). Also, I remember reading in SFKFiles comments from prior years defenders of SF Friends School (and from the tour of that school itself this fall) discussions of teaching approaches to problem solving in math rather than just teaching the math itself. But few schools are going to teach like this all the time, and it's very hard to judge just how effective the technique is (let alone for us to judge to what extent different schools do this, or might in the future as evidence for it accumulates). [Locality note: The author of that piece writes for Nature from SF.]

"Body of Knowledge" advocates the outdoors/nature and unstructured play (vs. educational apps & traditional classrooms). Nature is immersive and kids are mini-scientists when free-playing there. Summary of the science: it's clear that time in nature is important to development but the science on the subject is pretty new, so hard to quantify how important or the details of how/why/etc. One study found that outdoor time improved 5-12yo's self-confidence and ability to interact with others & adults. Examples were discussed of how immersive natural environments lead to abstract kinds of knowledge such as math concepts (counting, categorization) not just direct knowledge of plants, etc.

I think many if not most people already agree that outdoor time, time specifically in nature (vs. just outdoors), and unstructured play (which overlaps but isn't the same) are all good. For many urban elementary schools, time in nature is only occasional trips and even outdoor time and unstructured play are pretty minimal, all to a degree that's clearly lamentable. There are some private schools with more of these but it's also clear that one gives up other things for many of those choices. The science doesn't seem at a point yet where it can help us practically make more informed choices other than vaguely factoring in outdoor- & unstructured-ness as one of many criteria in ranking schools. In the meantime, many schools give a lot of lip service to trips, to their small gardens, and to their plans to greenify their asphalt/cement-covered outdoor areas and clearly this is a big enough issue that most are moving in this direction, but some faster than others. The immediate take-home I got here was to plan to get my kids to nature as much as possible outside of school hours once they start K.

"Schools should teach science like sports" makes a great analogy that is better quoted than paraphrased: "Suppose you wanted to teach children to play baseball or softball. How would you go about doing it? One approach might be to sit them down and start having them memorize the rules of the game, the dimensions of the field, the names and statistics of past players, and a host of other facts. You would stop teaching them periodically to review the material in preparation for multiple-choice assessment tests. The students who showed a great aptitude for memorizing large numbers of facts could go into honors classes where they would memorize even larger numbers of facts. At the end of the process, without ever leaving the classroom, how well do you think the children would be able to play baseball or softball? More important, how many would even want to? Why have we thought that this process would work with teaching science to children?" You can probably guess the gist of the rest. The interesting part is that new K-12 science standards are coming down from a national standards-setting group since 2013 and 12 states + DC have adopted them already. So change seems to be coming. But it won't be at all SF schools at all grade levels tomorrow.

"Researchers find that frequent tests can boost learning" is an antidote to the idea that all testing is bad, an extreme that some progressive, project-based educational ideas seem to be taken to. Rather than throw out all testing, doing it in a way more consistent with research from cognitive science can actually improve retention and deepen understanding. The basic idea is that tests help solidify knowledge and connections to other related facts in the brain and shouldn't be used solely as assessment tools. In addition to a randomized controlled trial of the technique described (with great results), 2 other interesting things were mentioned later in the article: Use of the technique in one course in a certain study resulted in improved grades in other subjects as well. Also, the technique helped reduce achievement gaps between social-economic classes. Lastly, the article lists several ways in which current standardized tests are exactly the wrong kinds of tests to optimize learning based on the known cognitive science.

This sounds interesting, but I'm not sure I've learned much of anything about testing at different schools to help use this info to better evaluate schools. The publics for the most part do more of the unhelpful (and maybe harmful for other reasons such as stress, teaching to the tests etc.) testing, but I'm not aware of any schools that specifically use these techniques to optimize learning (but it could be this kind of detail just isn't discussed, especially since testing is such a dirty word to some parents). Interestingly, these techniques are quite a bit different than some of the ideas from the other articles or the standard "project based" or "hands-on" philosophies of many independent or charter schools.

There are other articles in the collection, but I pulled those out as the ones that seemed most relevant. Please share a summary if you read one of the others or your own take-homes from any work in this area, or what you see as relevance to specific schools in SF!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Web research links with comments

I have found this blog and its archives very helpful for elementary school research, so I've been sad to see few posts this fall as we go through the process to choose kindergartens. So I've decided to give something back in at least a small way by signing up to blog and contributing a few posts this year, starting now. I hope it both helps other families, even if they just read and don't ever post, but more importantly let's keep the great community of posters and commenters alive/renewed this year to compare notes and create useful dialogs. If you haven't yet created an account to make comments on the blog posts on this site, please don't hesitate if you have any questions, comments, or observations!

This post is a list of useful research resources, with descriptions of what's good about each, whether you are looking for public grade schools, privates, or both. It's not too late even now to start if you haven't, and even those who have done a lot might find something new and helpful below.

Web research is not a substitute for personally going to a tour or open house and Q&A, but it is a great way to decide which schools are worth the time to visit, and getting the basic facts ahead of time allows one to concentrate on the other important stuff during a visit. Also, the few minutes one gets to observe classes in session or see students outside of classrooms on a tour are somewhat random, so combining this info with other people’s reports of their tours makes for more trustable data. Plus, comments from parents already at a school (in addition to the ones the school picks to interact with you) and comparing notes from parents who are or were making similar decisions to you are both invaluable. Okay, the list.....
Obviously, I don't need to describe the basics about this site, but rather than omitting it from the list completely, let me point out that Google searches with along with school name/acronym (using multiple variations separated by OR or as different searches) is helpful to find comments from recent years that are probably still relevant.

Also, a good post on new independent schools from a 2013 may be helpful to some people who haven't heard of some of these schools: forums: Elementary Years & GGMG hosts forums on many different topics. Two forums are relevant:
The Elementary Years (one must request membership, but it seems to be granted easily)
GGMG (GGMG members only, and GGMG itself is limited to roughly SF moms only)
Both of these have discussions of elementary schools (public & private) and of the process for choosing, applying, etc. Many similar kinds of comments to SFKFiles, so just additional comments from some different folks. Using the search box with variations on school names is useful as posts are find-able that way going back more years than is probably relevant.
Has rankings for public elementaries & middle schools, public & private high schools, and even private high schools (but not private elementaries), at the national, state, or metro-area levels. (And since specific city is listed, it’s easy to take the SF-Bay-Area one and do find-in-page to get a ranking of any SF schools that make the top-bay-area 100 in each category.) The site also provides letter grades (A-, B, etc.) in several different categories, plus some other basic info (high level type of school, eg Catholic & top grade level, # students, etc.) with more detailed info for the publics (but it’s also easier to get that info other places as well). There are also some reviews.

It’s much harder to get comparative info on private elementaries of course since they don’t all have to do the same tests (or any tests). One method people use to compare is to look at what high schools the graduates attend, which most of the independent schools will tell you if you ask, or put in their annual report, or in a few cases put on their website (with the numbers). The high school rankings at this site, while surely highly imperfect (like all the rankings), can give some idea to those who don’t already know the reputations of how different high schools compare. One big hole in this approach of course is that the many new private schools have no data of this kind yet.
Has reviews and some other info for publics & privates. The reviews are the most useful info as there is little other info for privates and for publics there are other sites that provide the info too. Lots of reviews for publics but not many recent (eg, last 5 years) reviews for independent schools I checked except, eg maybe a handful or less for most, essentially none for some, and dozens in a few isolated cases. Also, the comments tend to be a bit less detailed than the above sites.
Message board, but seems pretty much unused in recent years with very few recent posts.
So obvious that maybe it shouldn’t be included, but also so obvious it could be overlooked with so many other sites to check & search. But just doing generic websearches for a school can turn up interesting things. Or searching for a school name and whatever is most important to you that you are looking for, or most worrying to you that you are afraid of. Or searching for 2 schools (such as the 2 you are having a tough time choosing between).


The above sites were all generic enough to be helpful for both publics and privates. Those below here are useful for SFUSD schools only. Most links naturally go to, but I’ll break out distinct useful resources.

Boundary map PDF for SFUSD:
Useful for both giving an idea of all the schools near you, and also one’s area school.

SFUSD enrollment guide:
Lots of details. Huge Enrollment Guide PDF for download. Lots of info on process, key dates, etc.

Demand rankings:
The 2nd page has a table listing detailed numbers for the most requested 15 Ks (and tables for middle school and high school too). There is probably a link somewhere that just gives a simple number #1, #2, #3, etc. for the top 10 schools but this table is actually better since you can see the number of people who list it vs. the number of spots.

And much longer document that gives a lot more details about every school is this:
This one is useful to see the relative demand for different tracks (eg, immersion vs. not).
Detailed quantitative info including test scores (API), diversity, parent education, etc. Usefully presented too. Even has maps. This is not SF-specific, so this site can be used also to compare SF schools vs. those in other places (Marin, Oakland, Palo Alto, etc.).

Accountability Progress Report 2012-2013:,San,Francisco
API scores and other info for all the SF public schools in a simple table. Alternative source to for the test sores & 1-10 grades.

SFUSD public schools individual data sheets:
Lots of details about each school (hours, uniforms, languages, map, etc.).