91 posts categorized "GreatSchools"

January 18, 2013

GreatSchools app “3R Radar” takes 1st prize at SLC Camp Bay Area

Seniormanagement_karissaBy Karissa Sparks, VP of Marketing 



A team of four from GreatSchools won first prize for the best open source app at the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) camp and code-a-thon January 12-13, 2013 in Silicon Valley.

The SLC is an alliance of states, foundations, educators, content providers, developers, and vendors working together to improve and streamline the "plumbing" of education technologies using a cloud-based data store. At SLC code-a-thons, educators are invited to speak about the hurdles they face; developers then work with them to design potential solutions using fictitious data.

In 30 hours, our team built a working prototype for an app to facilitate personalized parent-teacher collaboration. Drawing on assessment and roster data from the SLC, the "3R Radar" app—3R refers to the classic three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic—gives parents an idea of what areas their child can improve on within a subject and what Common Core-aligned terminology means in plain words, and provides parents with actionable tips, strategies, and activities to do with their child. Teachers, meanwhile, can moderate the content and receive feedback from parents.

"3R Radar" App Presentation

Beating out 11 other teams, with employees from Google, NASA, Bay Area tech companies, and educators from a variety of backgrounds, including a teacher panel from Palo Alto Unified School District, our team's app was cited by judges for incorporating "multiple stakeholders" and "great UI".

The GreatSchools "3R Radar" team

SLC-GreatSchools-3R-Radar  (From left to right: Samson Sprouse, Mitchell Seltzer, Patti Constantakis, and Michael Hicks)

The SLC event marks the second time in recent months that a team from GreatSchools has been recognized for education innovation. GreatSchools previously took 2nd place at "HackEd," a Facebook-Gates education hack-a-thon in October 2012.

We learned a lot last weekend, and are busy applying the lessons to a new product currently in development. We’re also gearing up for our first internal hack-a-thon at the end of this month – stay tuned for pictures and highlights in a few weeks!


Related Links:

Summary of the event and list of winning apps - SLC Camp Bay Area 

What teams of educators and developers can create in 30 hours - Thinking Out Loud


December 18, 2012

What parents should know about the Common Core



By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Last Spring, I became intimately familiar with the new math and English standards – at least for Kindergarten through 5th grade. Not just because I’m a nerd, which I am, but because GreatSchools was publishing free worksheets for teachers and parents to use, and our COO casually suggested I peg each worksheet to the new standards. Piece of cake! (Famous last words.)

Now, as teachers across the country are getting a taste of the Common Core cake and students will soon be tucking into their daily dose, everyone (including us) is trying to figure out what parents need to learn about the educational standards that may transform their children’s learning. U.S. News & World Report jumped into the fray with a quick-n-dirty little blog highlighting four things parents should know about the standards.  

Four things to know about Common Core Standards

Click through for the write-ups, but here are the four things from the U.S. News blog (with my commentary):

1)      They are consistent from state to state. If your family needs to move from one of the 45 states that have adopted the standards (aka not contrarian Texas, Alaska, Vermont, Virginia, Nebraska, and Minnesota), theoretically your child will enter a class working on the same math skills. Now, that’s often not the case since states follow such different standards.

2)      They dictate what your kids learn, not how the skills are taught. If you think Singapore math is the best thing since sliced bread, you can still look for a school using that system. The standards only say that your second grader must learn to fluently add and subtract up to 20 using mental strategies. But teachers may teach that skill in any way they choose.

3)      They go deeper. “The Common Core gets away from instruction that is a mile wide and an inch deep, and instead drills into skills students need to succeed in college and the workforce,” writes U.S. News blogger Kelsey Sheehy. Honestly, I’ve read this selling point a lot and I’m repeating it here as part of the blog list, but I don’t buy it hook, line, and sinker. Whether instruction “goes deep” is probably far more dependent on the skills and predilections of the teachers – not the standards.  It’s great that the standards attempt to remediate drive-by curriculum by outlining that teachers need to, say, get kids to think critically, but let’s face it, educational depth varies from classroom to classroom and the standards may or may not improve how deep a teacher goes.  

4)      They are rigorous. “Students will take algebra in middle school and precalculus in high school under the new standards,” writes Sheehy. (Pre-calc being the new minimum requirement; presumably good high schools will continue to let kids learn through AP Calc II and beyond.) In many cases the standards introduce more rigor, but not in all cases – such as Massachusetts, which some have argued has higher standards than the Common Core already.  

A few surprising examples from the new Common Core Standards

It’s a nice overview. But as a parent, other than giving you license to move, did it help you understand what’s going to happen in your second grader’s class? That’s what we’ve been struggling with. We aim to help parents get the best possible education for their children. So here are just a few things that surprised me as I poured over the standards last spring:

  • Kindergartners will do a lot of academic things we were never required to do: count to 100 by ones and tens, they’ll also count syllables in spoken words, and be asked to identify the author and illustrator of the books they read.
  • Starting in first grade, kids will be expected to develop digital and technical skills that were never a part of our elementary school education: using “a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing.”
  • And beginning in second grade, elementary schoolers will not just write a lot, but be expected to do things I never learned until 6th grade, such as revise and edit their writing.

In the ramp up to Common Core there are going to be a lot of people attempting to translate this technical bullet-point-crazy document into parent-friendly information. Sheehy’s blog seems like a pretty good start, but for someone who has spent way too many hours poring over the details of these standards, I wonder how relevant these general ideas about standards are to parents. Did her points address your concerns about the Common Core Standards?  Do you have other more pressing questions?  Do you even care?

As we work on the best way to help parents navigate the new standards (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I’d love to know what you find helpful, informative, and excessive. 

November 30, 2012

This year, should we give girls guns for Christmas?


By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Here's a picture from the Swedish version of an international toy company’s catalog. In keeping with Sweden’s focus on gender equality both at work and in society, this catalog is gender-neutral. In the U.S., the toy gun advertisement above would show a boy aiming the gun, not a girl. But this is the Swedish version. (Click through to a Wall Street Journal article to see more pictures from the catalog showing boys styling hair and wielding toy irons.) 

For the catalog's U.S. version, apparently, the same photo set-ups are actually used – but with boys playing with battle toys and girls playing with dolls. And this, my friends, is how we urge innocent kids to accept the pink/blue, girl toy/boy toy world I fear we've created.

If you are the parent of a young girl in the United States, you may sometimes feel you are drowning in a sea of rhinestone tiaras and tulle-and-taffeta cream puff gowns. Even though Disney stopped churning out so-called princess movies at the end of 2010, the pretty-pink-princess craze has lived on. But it wasn’t always so.

I was reminded of just how un-princessy my childhood was as I sorted through the honest and hilarious comments in response to our GreatSchools Holiday Toy Survey.  Of the 500 parents who shared their terrible toy stories and rave reviews, the majority (67%) are Gen-Xers like me. When we grew up, there wasn’t such an exaggerated gender divide as there is today. I wore brown Zips, for goodness sakes, because they were the “fastest” running shoes. And I’m pretty sure my bike was – gasp – blue!  

For our survey, we asked parents which toys they liked as kids – and what toys kids like today. It turns out that many toys are still alive and kickin’, like Legos. Others, like Lite Brite and Speak-n-Spell have been eclipsed by LeapPads and even pricier tablets.

One striking difference the survey results highlight is this generation’s toy-gender divide: superhero worship. As kids, Gen-Xers had a serious passion for superheroes: 57% of now-adult-men loved GI Joe, 28% had a thing for Batman and Robin, and a quarter of men were into the Six Million Dollar Man.

In those days, girls had their own superheroes. Some 42% of now-adult-women adored Wonder Woman, 25% liked the Bionic Woman, and 19% were into Superman and/or Superwoman. (For me, no outfit was complete without my Wonder Woman Underoos.) Now, it’s different.

Sifting through our toy survey results, I was sad to see that nowadays, while young boys are still passionate about superheroes (particularly Spiderman, followed by Batman and Robin and the Power Rangers), girls are not. In our survey, no superhero garnered even 20% support among girls, and a mere 16% of girls like Spidey (compared to 54% of boys).   

My first reaction when I saw the data was dismay. Did princesses primly push superheroes out of our daughters’ worlds, replacing power with all things pink? Thankfully, no. In fact, princesses aren't as universally popular among girls as you might think. Our survey results show princesses enrapture only 10% of 4- to 12-year old girls (which is only slightly more than the 7% of girls who still worship Wonder Woman and her truth-telling lasso).

I’ll take that good omen for now. Next year, though, I’d love to see the gender-neutral version of toy catalogs in American mailboxes. Wouldn’t you?

(For more on our toy survey, see how families celebrate the holidays and best, worst, and most popular toys.)

November 26, 2012

9-year-old girl outruns the boys, takes hits, and shines in football reel

I don’t love football, but I do love this football video!

Even next to her adorably pee-wee-sized opponents, Samantha “Sweet Feet” Gordon looks faster than a speeding bullet. Cute! Then, you see her take a couple hits. Bam! Ooh. Ouch.

Samantha Gordon of Utah also plays soccer, but she decided to try out for her brother’s football team after acing a few speed drills. Then, her dad put her reel up on YouTube… and the rest is cyber history in the making. Wheaties honored her with a cereal box (not for sale, sadly, at least not yet!) – and she’s the first female football star to earn this honor. Check out her adorable response on ESPN’s Sports Center

She’s now also my favorite football star – ever. (Joe M., I trust you’ll understand.)

November 08, 2012

Proof of impact

Seniormanagement_vidya By Vidya Sundaram, VP of Business Insights

A Stanford study finds that GreatSchools Local has a real impact on how parents of elementary age kids choose schools

For the past five years, GreatSchools has been operating local programs in select cities to help parents who might not otherwise have access to resources and knowhow find the right schools for their children. As we have collected feedback that parents appreciate and use our services, our local offices have expanded and evolved. Milwaukee's office opened in November 2007 followed by ones in Washington, DC in 2009 and Indianapolis in 2011. All three communities have open enrollment, abundant charter options, and voucher programs for low-income families. We reach predominantly low-income families. In 2011-12, 60% of families we served in Washington, DC and 70% in Milwaukee, WI were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Yet without a well-designed rigorous study conducted by a neutral party, it's been difficult to measure the impact of our programs. This fall, with the preliminary release of findings from a randomized control trial (RCT) conducted through Stanford University's Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA), we can finally point to strong evidence that GreatSchools Local is influencing parents to choose higher performing schools.

Conducted by Susanna Loeb and Jon Valant, the study focused on GreatSchools Local programs in Milwaukee, WI and Washington, DC.  The researchers examined the effects of providing printed booklets with detailed school choice information and personal coaching support provided by GreatSchools staff. Preliminary results found that families with students in their final year of elementary school randomly selected to receive services in Washington, DC, chose higher performing middle schools (approximately 0.21 more stars on a five-star scale) than parents in the control group.

Although the same effects were not seen in Milwaukee, the likely cause is that several parents and schools in the Milwaukee control group, who had in previous years received GreatSchools information and services, requested the information (it was our policy to not deny any requests for print guides and/or services). In other words, in Milwaukee, our presence is now so strong that it was difficult to get a "clean" control group.  In Washington, DC, the study began during the program's first year, allowing for clean differences between the treatment and control groups.

CEPA will continue to report on findings from this study, including the impact of GreatSchools Local programs on high school selection, as well as the impact on student academic performance one year after enrollment. These results are expected to be peer-reviewed and presented in 2013.

Meanwhile, our in-house research team has also gathered information about who we serve locally, how parents value our services, and the nature of their school choice behavior. In June 2012, GreatSchools conducted an internal phone survey of more than 500 families served through our local programs, measuring program satisfaction and school choice behaviors. In Milwaukee, we found that 62% of families served visited two or more schools, and 95% applied to one or more of the higher performing schools in the city, up 20% from the year before.* In DC, we found that 65% of families visited two or more schools (up 11 percentage points over 2011) and 75% applied to one or more higher performing schools in the city.* Most parents reported that the school their child will be attending in 2012-2013 meets their top criteria and is a good fit for their needs. Very high program satisfaction rates -- 93% in Milwaukee, 98% in DC, and 92% in Indianapolis -- reflect the high value families find in our school information.

We're gearing up to build on this research in 2013 to better understand the impact of our digital programs nationally and locally on families and on schools systems. The quest for evidence continues!


*Schools in Milwaukee were designated as higher performing if their GreatSchools Rating was 5 or higher, or the school met Adequate Yearly Progress in all objectives. Schools in DC were designated as higher performing if their GreatSchools Rating was 7 or higher, or their published DC School Chooser guide rating was 4 stars or higher.

October 31, 2012

New study finds unexpected key to helping bullied girls

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

One of the many heartbreaking moments in the documentary Bully was when Alex – after enduring endless torment on the bus and in the halls at school – comes home to his parents (who I’m sure wanted to help but didn’t know how) almost mocking him for being bullied.

Middle childhood (think 10 years old) is a critical stage in a child’s identity development. On the downside, mental disorders and psychological issues often emerge around this age. On the upside, research has identified “protective factors” that can boost a 10-year-old's emotional well-being and healthy development – including your child’s relationship with… you!

So reports a new study published this month in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers set out to better understand the effects of bullying in 10-year-olds. Building on previous research that shows bullying can lead to increased anxiety and symptoms of depression, this study found a four-way interaction between bullying, gender (girls), relationships with adults, and friendship with peers: “victimization [is] particularly strongly associated with low life satisfaction, low self-esteem, and high depressive symptoms for girls with low self-reports of peer and adult connectedness,” write the five co-authors of the article “A Population Study of Victimization, Relationships, and Well-Being in Middle Childhood.”

Bullying rates among 10-year-olds

The researchers found that about half the kids reported at least one instance of bullying in the past year. About 1 in 7 girls and about 1 in 6 boys – all 10-year-olds – report being bullied several times per week. For girls, bullying primarily took the form of social victimization, followed closely by verbal abuse, then physical abuse, with far fewer instances of cyberbullying. For boys, social and verbal victimization were the most prevalent, followed by physical abuse, with far fewer reports of cyberbullying. These findings are concerning for many reasons – not the least of which is the association between being bullied and developing low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and low levels of life satisfaction.

However, this study – featured in a journal devoted to Happiness Studies breaks ground by finding an association between “protective factors” and mitigating the effects of bullying. “Some of the most powerful factors are of social nature:  Positive social relationships with adults and peers are strongly associated with children’s resilience, well-being, health, and competence,” the researchers write. They warn that protective factors don’t necessarily counteract the negative effects of being bullied, but the evidence shows that – especially for girls – social support from adults and peers may buffer them. Unfortunately, this moderating effect wasn’t found for boys, so further research is needed to determine what may have a buffering affect for boys.

How you can buffer the effects of bullying

So what’s in this secret sauce to create a connection between you and your 10-year-old? Among the questions the 10-year-olds answered: “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home listen when you have something to say?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home believe that you can do a good job?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home want you to do your best?” Even if the study doesn’t prove these parental efforts are equally effective for boys, I can’t help but think that Alex would have benefitted, in a large or small way, if he'd been able to answer, Yes, Yes, and Yes. 

October 17, 2012

GreatSchools Takes Silver at Gates-Facebook Hackathon

Seniormanagement_karissaBy Karissa Sparks, VP of Marketing 



HackEd_p0_posterGreatSchools recently participated in and won 2nd place at HackEd, an inspiring 1-day education "hackathon" sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, CA.  College Summit and King Center Charter School co-sponsored the event.

The goal of the hackathon was to encourage developers, education experts, and nonprofits to prototype Facebook apps that help low-income and first-generation students get into and graduate from college.  HackEd was also the official kickoff for the College Knowledge Challenge, a broader challenge issued by the Gates Foundation with 30 more prizes totaling $2.5M.

More than 150 people attended HackEd, including representatives from organizations such as iMentor, 4.0 Schools, EverFiMytonomy, Unigo, and more.

I represented GreatSchools, along with Gretchen Anderson, our VP of Product. We joined forces with Ben Rabidou and Marco Morales from Alleyoop.com to form the "College Dream Board" team, one of approximately twenty-two teams in all.

(From left to right: Ben Rabidou, Marco Morales, Karissa Sparks, Gretchen Anderson)

To get started, we were instructed to focus on one of these three challenges:

  1. Pathways: Help students build, test, and implement personal academic pathways that grow out of college-career aspirations and are supported by informed decision-making.
  2. Building Peer Groups: Help students build social capital and a college-going peer group.
  3. College Admissions, Selection and Aid: Tackle information asymmetries in the college admissions, financial aid, and college selection processes that disadvantage low-income and first-generation students.

Our team addressed challenge #1.  In six short hours, we prototyped an app called the "College Dream Board." 


Designed for teens aged 13-17, the app offers a fun, highly visual, social way for youth to envision themselves as college-going students. Once a teen has the app, she is prompted to add milestones in three areas:  Passions, Strengths, and Skills.  She can also invite her close friends, family, and alumni from her high school or colleges of interest into her personal "Dream Team," a circle of supporters who provide information and encouragement as she builds her Dream Board - the collection of all her milestones. It's like Pinterest, but it exists within the Facebook environment and focuses specifically on the student's individual education journey.

HackEd was a great experience, and in my opinion, we were all winners.  We learned a lot from one another and were spurred on by wall-sized banners featuring  mantras like "Focus" and "Move Fast and Break Things." Here are three lessons our team took away from the event:     

  1. Focus. The best ideas were the ones that focused on a single value proposition or killer feature and then drove it home. Apps that weren't well-defined or tried to do too much were less memorable -- and less successful.   
  2. Be bold.  The smartest thing our team did was to step outside our comfort zone and risk rejection early by sharing our idea with a pitch coach first thing in the morning.  He helped us hone our idea by asking some hard questions, and we incorporated his feedback.  We also  talked to high school students who were there  to provide  real-time feedback (they were tougher than the judges!), and we listened to what they had to say.  Rule #1 in designing great products: talk to your "customers" early and often. We pitched something that was unexpected, and we were willing to make quick adjustments on the fly if necessary.
  3. Done is better than perfect.  Several teams had interesting ideas, but didn't leave time to design their prototypes. Others had too much to say and were unable to get to the end of their pitches in the allotted 3 minutes.  If there is one thing we know from building digital media solutions—and HackEd was a great reminder of this—it's that we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. The 6-hour time constraint forced us to get to the heart of the matter quickly and to create a finished product – minor flaws and all.

So what's next?  Now that we've had a taste of hackathons—HackEd was our first ever—we're converts. Next up: GreatSchools will be participating in the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) Camp in California this December.  Read more about it here.  After that, who knows? We might just issue our own hackathon challenge in 2013. Stay tuned!


Related News Coverage:

Gates Foundation to award $100,000 grants for college apps [CNN Money]

Tech powerhouses hold hackathon for students [ABC 7 KGO-TV Bay Area]

Inside the Facebook Hackathon: What's Next? [NBC Bay Area]

October 11, 2012

Electioneering at your kitchen table: what are you teaching the kids?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Raise your hand if you can explain the electoral college to your curious 7-year-old.

We tried this at our GreatSchools laboratory (aka on our own children at home) and quickly figured out how tough it was.  

How do you teach your kids about something you don’t understand all that well yourself? That’s where we aimed to help. Keeping in mind that we want kids to be engaged, not glazed, we envision great fun and election education all wrapped up in a series of activities that would work for a range of kids (and might even teach us grown ups a thing or two.)

A virtual scavenger hunt!

Back at the drawing board, we mapped a plan to create something fun and useful.  Entertaining and educational.

Here’s what we did:

  • Because kids think paperwork is fascinating and fun, we let them register to vote.
  • Because there really are words your child needs to learn, we made a fill-in-the-blanks story.
  • Because we think all kids should think about being president if that’s their dream, we have silly speech-writing, creative poster-making, and inspirational White House design activities.

And because the best way to understand something is to do it yourself, we include a ballot so your child can vote.

How you use these materials is up to you. But try the activities with your child, share them with your child’s teacher, and tell us whether you think we helped turn your curious grade schooler into a well-informed, thoughtful, future voter. 

Download the election booklet here or see it here.


September 28, 2012

Eat your &@%$#! lunch!

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

It turns out that some kids are angry about the new school lunch policy, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010  — promoted by Michelle Obama — which mandates more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,  and limits total calories in school lunches.

Check out the popular new YouTube video, "We are Hungry" (below), which shows teens (and teachers) fainting in class, athletes sprawling flat in the gym, and young kids crawling home from school — ostensibly because they didn't get enough lunch.

The video, which was created by a teacher, is comical but the intent is serious — it's a direct attack on the new lunch guidelines (in the video, kids burn copies of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act).  Meanwhile, students around the country are protesting the new lunch policy, and some Republicans in Congress have introduced the No Hungry Kids Act, which would limit the calorie restrictions imposed by the new lunch guidelines. 

The childhood obesity epidemic

If kids don't like the new, healthier school lunches, what's the answer? Should we go back to unhealthy, high-calorie school meals (which, incidentally, kids complained about, too)?

Hello — we're in the middle of a full-throttle health crisis in this country: more than a third of U.S. adults are obese, one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and obese children are more likely to become obese adults. Obesity condemns people to shorter life spans and expensive, debilitating health problems including diabetes, stroke and heart disease. 

Even as kids complain that the new lunches are leaving them hungry, according to an ABC news report, students are throwing out twice as much cafeteria food as they did last year.  

There's something wrong with this picture: kids are complaining about being hungry — and throwing away more food than ever before. I'm sorry, kids, but it's time to stop complaining — and eat your lunch!

More on the school lunch debates from Jon Stewart.

September 26, 2012

She was picked as a joke – but the joke’s on them

Tiara_Robynlou8_picPhoto by Robynlou8

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

No matter how (un)popular you were in high school, Whitney Kropp’s story hits home.

Imagine this: she’s sitting in math class as the homecoming court is announced over the PA system. She’s surprised – and thrilled - when she hears her name in the homecoming line up.

"She's just sweet. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body," Whitney’s mom, Bernice Kropp, told The Detroit News (as reported in a wonderful article, “Town turns tables on school prank”).

But the surprise quickly turned into a nightmare: it turns out that Whitney was picked as a joke. The 16-year-old found out, via Facebook and word of mouth, that “popular” kids put her name in the running as a prank. Hysterical:  an unpopular girl in the homecoming court! Right?

Wrong. But what makes this act of bullying different is that it wasn’t hushed up or ignored. Covering up incidents of bullying ostensibly protects the victim, but it can also send the message that the bullying target is somehow at fault; it also lets the bullies off the hook.  But that’s not what happened in this case. Instead, Whitney’s sister told her friends, who told their parents, who told their friends, The Detroit News reported.

Word spread and people rallied around Whitney in support. Someone created a Facebook page in support of Whitney, and it has more likes than the rural Michigan town has residents. Local business owners are donating their specialties so Whitney will have her hair and nails done, new shoes and a gown, a nice dinner, and even a tiara to wear. But it doesn’t stop there: Friday night’s game promises to be packed with residents wearing orange “Team Whitney” t-shirts.

The overwhelming support is heartwarming, and the outright rejection of 1980s John Hughes-esque high school meanness is inspiring. I love how this town has turned the tables on these small-minded bullies; this kind of community support is what could finally put an end to bullying once and for all.

Do you think this could happen in your town?

Read the article here and support Whitney on Facebook here.

Want more tools to combat bullying? Read our articles:


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