Thursday, December 27, 2012

Is There Anything Else You'll Need Before I Go

Pennsylvania law requires that students complete a project to qualify for graduation. My guess is that this came about because the Department of Education is full of people with PhDs and EdDs. Typically a degree like that will require a thesis, and there's nothing like suffering through something to make it seem like a good idea for everyone else (see also: cults).

In Pennsylvania we tend to switch the political party of our governors every eight years and, in so doing, the entire direction of public education. Also, this governor can't even seem to agree with himself (see: here and here), so I'd better hurry up and finish this post before everything changes again.

The law isn't precise regarding the exact nature of the project, which leads to lots of variation among districts. Some schools count a freshman careers unit, others a community service journal. My school took this very seriously, and continues to take it very seriously. The teachers' contract includes a provision for keeping us after school to evaluate; the library becomes a complicated exchange depot where students submit projects and teachers go to get their own copy (students must produce three copies of the entire binder) several days before the presentation; and English classes spend considerable time on a research paper--not so strange, perhaps, in senior English--as well as discussing the myriad requirements and rehearsing the oral presentation. Almost every room in the school is used (and certainly every projector and SmartBoard), and members of the community volunteer to be additional evaluators. Most strikingly (for this particular district where they don't like to pay any extra curricular contracts), an employee is hired on a special contract to coordinate the whole thing.

Anything that consumes resources this way, and is given time and space to this degree, deserves careful analysis and reevaluation from time to time. Typically this means serving on a committee, but this blog has as much of a chance of making the whole thing work better (i.e. not much) as a committee, and can be done while I'm in my boxer shorts--very few school committees offer this option. Maybe someone would be kind enough to serve on the committee and just read this entire blog entry into the record.

First, a little history.

When it began, the "project" had to be something tangible. This led to some pretty goofy scenarios in which a student would do a scholarly analysis of George Washington's military strategies during the Revolutionary War, and then need to manufacture some wooden teeth to complete the project and graduate.

To fix this problem, a new scoring system was developed. Students were to enter into an intensive, multifaceted study of something of his or her choosing, and document this study in a portfolio, which included a log of time spent and conversations with experts on this topic. Standards of how many experts were to be contacted and how this was to be documented were developed. As is always the case, the scoring system became reality, so now the project is essentially a binder of forms and signatures as much as it could be considered is a study of something.

One problem with the whole thing is that the scoring is based on the belief that my school is just like Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Two of those may be true, but it's not enough. In keeping with this worldview, we set out to devise a scoring system that would simultaneously encourage the strongest students to do their best, and on which even the weakest students (with no adaptations for special education students) can achieve 70%. By the way, the educational law of the land is also based on this concept.

The successes and failures of the Senior Graduation Project are testament to the power of a rubric, and the way this scoring tool attempts to numeratize (I made up that word) otherwise subjective criteria. The rubric is designed so that even the weakest student can pass, even with the most ball-busting teacher as an evaluator. It is also designed so that the best students should be able to achieve a perfect score, even with an extremely weak and/or distracted teacher evaluating. In order to meet these two extremes, however, it must be possible that an intelligent Slacker student can at least pass with minimal effort, and possibly fake the entire thing.

So here it is, the Slacker's Guide to Senior Projects (these techniques are useful in similar situations like master's theses and other major assignments, so you are not permitted to stop reading just because you're not a sophomore at Conrad Weiser):

  1. Swallow any remaining sense of dignity: " may feel a slight sting. That's pride f*&king with you. F%$k pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps." For example, you're required to meet with your "adviser" twice in your junior year and three times in your senior year. Yes it's pointless. Do it anyway, even if your adviser (who doesn't want to have this meeting any more than you do) doesn't have anything useful to contribute. There are lots of silly little marks to hit like this one, and your best bet is to not over-think and just do it. In a very literal sense, it's not pointless--the forms from these meetings result in points that can only be earned this way.
  2. Screw quality: There are a number of items on the rubric that require things to be present, but for which there is no quality assessment. For example, you get points for including a copy of your paper, even if your paper just says "Kill Flanders!" or "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over. 
  3. Mind the cleverness: I completely understand the motivation to do a project called The Senior Project: Why It Sucks. Fight that: A. Someone who works harder than you has already done it, and 2. Your judges won't be so charmed while they're missing their tee-time, or kid's soccer game, to evaluate this. If you are additionally motivated to use this blog as a reference, and me as an Expert Contact: yeah, fight that too (see also: #1.--above).
  4. Choose something that you know a lot about (and most people do not): Do you have an interest in pewter figurines from Dungeons & Dragons(r)? Enjoy ocarina music? Know how to make candles from beef tallow? Good--no one else does. This stuff is Senior Project gold because your judges will not come to the evaluation armed with a whole lot of difficult questions.
  5. Try literal song and dance: Judges are suckers for singing, dancing, gymnastics, horsemanship, and ping-pong. If you show up with a skill that they don't have, they will feel compelled to give inflated scores, lest they be asked to participate. Besides, if you feel things are going poorly, you could always ask them to participate.
  6. Video killed the radio star: Here's a tip: take a whole bunch of random footage from your phone and edit together over a Ke$ha song using MovieMaker or FinalCut. Most of your judges grew up in an era when we actually had to splice film together with tape, so the sort of crap that you would put on YouTube just for kicks and giggles will help distract them from your shoddy PowerPoint.
  7. Through their stomachs: Some of your judges may be squeamish about eating stuff that you prepare for them, but others (think: boy teachers) will unwittingly add elocution points to your score if they're eating brownies at the time. 
  8. Be known as a good kid: The cost/benefit on this may not really add up, but if you've already invested lots of time and effort in being known as a good kid, don't be afraid to cash in on that now. The kids who get away with falsifying their entire project are never the ones you think would even try it. 
  9. Just pass: Senior Projects must meet 70% of the required elements (there's a more complicated formula, but that's the gist of it). Slackers need to keep in mind that they will need to meet 70%, and make sure to pass on the first try--keep in mind, that's quite a bit lower than our typical goal of B-. Non-Slackers should keep in mind that they only need 70% to pass. Unless you're going for the Perfect Score Award (I think there is such a thing), achieving 94% on this is just a waste. You've never really had to think this way, but it's very sad to see great kids hyperventilate over whether they can achieve what amounts to a C-.
  10. Let your mother dress you: Lots of students dress not so much in business attire, but rather business attire as might be interpreted by a stripper. Some of your judges will be annoyed or offended by this, others may be intrigued--either way, you want no parts of it. There are points available for "thematic dress," however, so if your topic is My Job as a Hooters Waitress, I guess you have a decision to make (however, see 3.--above).
 High-stakes projects are like high-stakes tests (see also: here). The problem is that even good evaluation systems have trouble when scaled up for the masses. Eventually people figure out how to avoid the actual stuff you want them to know or do, and just work to beat the scoring. Then it become an arms race between students and educators (at the corporate level: Educational Testing Services vs. Kaplan). I don't know if it's possible to devise a project that  every student could conceivably pass, that every student would need to put effort into, and that any teacher at all teacher could grade fairly. Until we can, or until the next governor comes in and changes it all again, feel free to use my handy tips. 


  1. as a parent of a Pennsylvania high school student, this post is greatly appreciated