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Would you like to know how to write a statement of purpose (SOP) for a Ph.D. program?  First piece of advice–forget everything you know about writing SOPs. That’s because SOPs for graduate research programs are fundamentally different than SOPs for undergraduate programs or for professional schools (like law or medicine). For that reason, most of the general advice you find online or even from mentors about writing SOPs will be useless, or even harmful, when you apply to a Ph.D. program.

In undergraduate program SOPs, students are typically encouraged to paint a vivid picture of what they were like growing up, and how that made them the person they are today. That is exactly what you want to avoid in a Ph.D. SOP. Nobody in a Ph.D. program wants to read sentence after sentence about your love of learning as a child and how it grew.

People who are reading a SOP for Ph.D. programs care about two things: (1) Do you have the potential to be an outstanding scholar? And (2) are your research interests a good match for the Ph.D. program and its faculty? Anything beyond these two things is superflous. Your SOP should thus be directed to getting these two things across. Here are essential elements, though they need not be in this order:

1. Your research interests. What are you interested in researching? What makes that interesting and important? How are you interested in looking at it? You don’t need to have a precise research question for your dissertation, but neither should you be too broad and general, i.e., “I’m interested in investigating social psychology”. You can mention a couple of different possible areas that are of interest if you wish.

2. Your research and academic background. What about your prior experience has prepared you to be a successful Ph.D. student and scholar? You can briefly mention your personal background here, especially if it suggests you will contribute to diversity in graduate studies and research, but the main focus should be on the knowledge, skills, and expertise you have developed through course work, previous research projects, professional work, etc.

3. Why this program is a good match for you.  You can make reference to any of its faculty, their research programs, labs and research centers in the department, the specializations or structure of the program, etc.  Basically, given your background, research interests, and career goal, what is it about this program that will help you achieve your goal?

4. Your career goal. This can be brief, but it should be research oriented if you want to be taken seriously for a Ph.D. program.

Again, these things can be mixed or combined in different ways and in different order.  I’m not suggesting that they need to be enumerated as above.  Just trying to give a sense of what is important to include.

Good luck in your Ph.D. applications!

Two major new reports were issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics earlier this year.  The reports are of special interest because they are based on well-designed national survey methods and thus can be presumed to be pretty accurate.  In addition, since NCES has carried out similar studies over the years, they allow comparison of trends.

Educational Technology inPublic Schools: Fall 2008 was released in April 2010. Teachers Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools: 2009 was released in May 2010. The former focuses on the presence of technology in schools.  The latter adds information about technology that is accessible by individual teachers and how teachers use the technology.  Both provide breakdowns by the demographics of the schools involved (such as number of low-income students), which is especially interesting.

Here are a few of the most interesting findings.

(1) The overall ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access in U.S. public schools as of fall 2008 was 3.1.  That number fell from 3.8 the last time it was measured in 2005.  The ratio was 4.8 in 2002, and 12.1 in 1998. These numbers only include desktop or laptop computers and do not include any handheld devices.  The numbers suggest that the U.S. is on an inexorable march toward having a computing device available for all students.  I expect that the trend in this direction has probably slowed down since fall 2008 due to the recession, but with computer prices continuing to fall and new kinds of mobile devices available, it will probably pick up soon.

(2) There is, not surprisingly, a growing trend toward use of laptop computers.  58% of schools had laptop carts as of fall 2008; the number is certainly higher now. According to the fall 2009 data, a teacher typically has one computer for every 5.3 students in the classroom, but can lower that ratio submstantially by making use of laptops from school laptop carts.

(3) Inequities in terms of school access to computers by the socioeconomic status or demographic characteristics of the school continue to fall. Schools that have 75% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a rough measure of low-income students) have a 3.2 student to computer ratio. In schools that have less than 35% students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the ratio is 3.1, nearly identical.  The difference by enrollment of non-white students is slightly larger, but still, the schools with the highest number of minorities students also have a 3.2 student to computer ratio, just slightly higher than the national average.  Differences in these regards have thus narrowed substantially over the years.

(4) There are still important differences in how computers are used in classrooms.  In low-income schools (with 75% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), 83% of teachers report that their students use technology sometimes or often to “learn or practice basic skills.”  In high-income schools (with less than 35% of students eligilbe for free or reduced-price lunch), only 63% of teachers report that.  However, in high-income schools, students are more likely to prepare written text; conduct research; correspond with others; create or use graphics or visual displays; develop and present multimedia presentations; create art, music, movies, or webcasts; or design and produce a product.

In considering these data, it is useful to keep in mind an earlier national study by Dynarski et al. that found that reading and math tutorial programs have no positive impact, a well as a book by Wenglinsky that found that, all other things being equal, time spent on rich and creative uses of technology is correlated with higher test scores, while time spent on drills and tutorials is correlated with falling test scores.

In summary, a “digital divide” based on unequal access to computers in school has largely been erased, but there is still work to do to see that all students have opportunities to use school technology in rich and productive ways. Though greater amounts of technology are needed for this, the principal need is for development of the right goals, curricula, pedagogy, assessment, and overall educational vision. We discuss some of these topics in more length in our research review on technology and equity published earlier this year, and they will also be addressed in a new book I’m writing for Teachers College Press.

Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. served as a dedicated teacher of low-income immigrants at Miramonte Elementary School in what was described as an “impoverished gang-ridden neighborhood” of Los Angeles for 14 years.  He lived a few blocks from the school and had worked as an instructional aide there for four years before becoming a teacher. From the age of 22 to 39, much of his life revolved around the school.

On August 29, 2010, the Los Angeles Times published a database, with individual teachers’ names, of “value-added” ratings of 6,000 elementary school teachers.  The controversial ratings come from how much individual students in the teachers’ classes increase in standardized test scores over the course of a school year.  Ruela’s published rating suggested that his “overall value-added effectiveness” in comparison to other teachers in the district was “less effective.” He was rated in the “20th to 40th”  percentile in “math effectiveness” and in the “40th to 60th percentile in “English effectiveness.”

Less than one month later, Ruelas was dead.  Police determine he committed suicide by leaping from a cliff. Newspaper reports suggest that he was distraught over the L.A. Times ratings, and particular stressed about having to meet with parents and explain the situation to them.

All indications are that Ruelas was an outstanding teacher.  According to a report after his death, he had nearly perfect attendance during his time as a teacher, and he was a “mentor to youth tempted to join gangs and a tireless booster that kids could make it to college.”  Even on the value-added assessment measure, his performance was above the average performance of other teachers at the school since, overall, Miramonte was rated as a “least effective” school in value-added measures by the LA Times.

A recent report from ten of the most prominent educational researchers in the U.S., including the co-director of the National Center for Evaluation Standards and Student Testing, outlined many of the flaws in the value-added approach, which include great variability from year to year, lack of reliability due to nonrandom assignment of students in teachers’ clases, a narrow focus on only a subset of what is important to learn, and the complex matrix of educational and social factors that affect individual students’ performance.  In spite of these flaws, many educators agree that value-added measurements should be part of the conversation in evaluating teachers.  However, they need to be taken in context and complemented by a broad range of other factors.

All this brings us back to Rigoberto Ruelas.  It’s natural to assume that there must have been other things going on in Mr. Ruelas’s life, that mentally stable people do not commit suicide over a subpar work evaluation.  However, there were several very unusual things about this particular evaluation.  It was not performed by his employer, but by an outside agency according to criteria that Ruelas was not informed about or judged on.  Teachers in L.A. did not even have this information before it was published by the L.A. Times.  And L.A. Unified had never communicated to teachers that this was a principal means of evaluating them.  Even more importantly, this evaluation, which reduced a teacher’s entire career to a single dubious rating, was published by one of the most prominent newspapers in the world.  I don’t think there is any precedent for having any employees publicly rated in this manner.

As a research professor at a major university, I have to carefully adhere to rules of ethics in carrying out research.  One of those rules is anonymity–I am not allowed to publish people’ names without their permission if there is any way that my doing so can bring unnecessary or disproportionate embarrassment, humiliation, or other harm to them. If I wished to do a study of this type and publish teachers’ individual names with their ratings, my university never would have permitted me to do so.

There are of course differences between journalism and scholarly research, and journalists thus operate by different rules.  And the rules that journalists operate by are not codified in the way that university research rules are.  One would hope, however, that a respected news organization such as the L.A. Times would operate with at least a modicum of ethical concern, which was clearly violated by publishing individual names of teachers and thus bringing public shame and humiliation, without sufficient evidence that the rankings even accurately reflected teachers’ actual contributions.

Imagine, then, the situation of Rigoberto Ruelas.  He lived a few blocks from the school and had experienced first hand the harsh conditions of life in the neighborhood.  Perhaps he himself rose from difficult conditions and became a successful educator.  He dedicated his entire life to improving the conditions of youth in his school and community.  He almost never took a day off because he didn’t want to leave his students in the hands of a substitute.  He spent time at lunch, after school, and weekends mentoring youth, doing whatever he could to keep them out of gangs.  Even by the narrow measure of test scores, he was one of the better teachers in his school.  For years he may have despaired over the directions of “reform” in L.A. schools and elsewhere, which, by focusing narrowly on test scores, made it increasingly difficult for him and other teachers to provide his students the kind of broad, rich learning experiences that would keep them engaged and successful in school year after year.  But all the hardship was worth it to him, because, he had a strong self identity as a teacher, someone who gives his all for the children in his community.  Then, one day, that identity is attacked, by a humiliating rating that ignores all his contributions. What’s worse, because it is public, he is forced to defend himself to parents and the community.

Nobody knows, of course, exactly what was going on in Rigoberto Ruelas’s mind in the weeks and days before his death. However, we do know that it is a terrible idea to publicly humiliate dedicated public servants based on inaccurate and incomplete value-added ratings.  The L.A. Times should take the ratings down. That’s the least the newspaper can do to honor Ruelas’s memory.

My family and I moved to Japan in August for a one-year sabbatical.  I wanted to share the experience of what it was like to enroll my kids in school.  Since kindergarten is not mandatory here, it’s actually somewhat of a complex process, so perhaps this information will be helpful to others in similar situations.

Mandaratory Japanese school starts in first grade at the age of 6.  Whereas American kids typically have 1-2 years of (voluntary) preschool before they start (mandatory) kindergarten, Japanese kids typically have 2 years of (voluntary) kindergarten before they start (mandatory) first grade. These two years are called KG-1 (for 4 year olds) and KG-2 (for 5 year olds).

Our three kids were ages 4, 4, and 6, when we arrived in Tokyo in August — but the Japanese school year starts in April.  So their placement in the educational system was determined by their age on April 1 of this year, and on that date they were 4, 4, and 5, thus all 3 qualifying for kindergarten.

Since kindergarten is not mandatory, placement in it is not guaranteed, so we had to spend some time looking into these matters and hope we would find a good place.  It was even more complicated since we were coming some 4 months into the school year.  Finally, each of the 23 “ku’s” (wards) in Tokyo has its own school system, so we pretty much had to figure out where we were going to be living before we could pursue any details.

Fortunately, we had a lot of good advance information, mostly from extremely kind and knowledgeable people on the Education in Japan Yahoo Group. (They also have a Website and a blog.)  My big thanks to Aileen Kawagoe and all the helpful people in that group. The fact that my wife also speaks Japanese made a huge difference too.

My wife is originally from Japan (though has lived in the US a long time) and I am American.  Since one of the motivations for our coming to Japan was immersing our children in Japanese language and culture, we early on ruled out international schools.  That left us with two main choices: “yochien” and “hoikuen.”

A Japanese yochien is pretty similar in many ways to a US kindergarten–a half-day of learning that prepares children for the first year of school.  One main difference is that there are very high demands on mothers’ participation.  Moms are expected to make their children elaborate box lunches every day (bento) and participate heavily in the school experience.

In contrast, hoikuen are especially designed for working parents.  They last all day and most provide lunch.  Parents are not expected to be heavily involved.  However, they tend to be less academically oriented than yochien, and many parents thus prefer yochien as they believe they will better help their children prepare for the competitive Japanese educational system.

Finally, both yochien and hoikuen exist in both public and private variants.  All cost money, but public ones are subsidized and presumably cost less.

Since both my wife and I are here as visiting scholars conducting research, we chose to seek a hoikuen, and we sought entry into a public one.  Basically, we had to go to the ward office before the 15th of the month (August 15 in our case) in order to enroll our kids by the 1st of the next month (September 1 in our case).  We live right next to Waseda University campus, which is in Shinjuku ward, so that is where we went.  The office maintains a list of all the public hoikuens in the ward and how many spots they have open.  We had to consider the local hoikuens and request admission into a first, second, and third choice.  Fortunately, there was one a few minutes walk from our house that appeared to have sufficient spots, so we requested that as our first choice.  However, we had to worry about other families that might have been requesting spots during the same month and thus might be competing for placement in the hoikuen.

Another complicating factor is that our oldest son has Down syndrome.  Japanese primary schools of course accept all children with disabilities.  However, since Japanese kindergarten is not mandatory, children with disabilities are accepted in kindergarten on a space available basis.  In other words, each yochien or hoikuen only has space for a few children with disabilities, and once that number is met, the child would have to be assigned to another yochien or hoikuen.  Again this was aggravated by the fact that we were seeking spots in the middle of the school year.  We had to find a site that not only had spots for three children–two in KG-1 and one in KG-2–but that also had a spot in KG-2 for a child with a disability.  And, before all this happened, our son had to have a few evaluations to learn more about his disability and what kind of support he would need in kindergarten.

After going through all the registration procedures, we waited anxiously, and, in the end, things turned out magnificently.  All three children were placed in our first choice public hoikuen that is only a few minutes walk from our house.  Our two younger children are in a regular KG-1 class.  Our older son is in a regular KG-2 class, but has an individual aide to help him.  The wardis hiring a new person to work as an aide for him, but, in the interim, the hoikuen has reassigned a teacher from elsewhere in the school to work with him as an individual aide.  This reassigned teacher also speaks some English, which is even more helpful. (Our younger twins went to Japanese pre-school in the US and thus know more Japanese, but our older son hasn’t had as much exposure to Japanese so its great to have an aide who knows some English during his first month or two.)  Our twins can go to the school anytime from 9 am to 6:30 pm (we usually pick them up about 5 pm). Our older son, due to his special aide, can go for a little shorter time–from 9 am to 4 pm. We hired a local university student to pick him up at 4 pm and work with him on his English reading for an hour a day after hoikuen.

From what we can gather, the hoikuen is very play oriented, without much focus on academics or explicit instruction.  That’s fine with us.  So far we are very pleased with the program there.  The teachers all seem really dedicated and the facility is reasonably nice (given how crowded things are in Tokyo).  The food is great too and are children are adjusting there nicely. The only thing we don’t particular care for is that the children take naps every afternoon, which is unusual for children that age in the US and which ends up keeping them up until much later than their US bedtime.

Oddly, our kids attended the hoikuen for nearly 3 weeks before we received a statement from the Shinjuku ward office indicating how much we would have to pay for all of this.  Payment is determined based on salary in the previous year — and since both Keiko and worked full-time last year, we came out in the maximum payment bracket.  We waited anxiously every day to find out how much we would have to pay. When we finally got the letter, to our pleasant surprise, we learned that the total payment for all three children is only 30,600 Japanese yen a month ($357 total for the three children at today’s exchange rate).  That is based on 18,000 yen ($210) for the first child, 12,600 yen ($147) for the second child based on a two-child discount, and the third child free.  These rates vary from ward to ward and I’m not sure if every ward has such low rates and a policy of third child free. But in our case, we are of course very pleased.

Thanks again to everybody who provided information to help us get through all this.  It was quite a chore, but in the end it worked out perfectly.

Two recent studies on the effect of home computer access on students’ academic achievement have recently gotten a lot of attention after being discussed by David Brooks and Randall Stross in the New York Times.  In Romania, children of families that won a voucher to purchase a computer had lower school grades in Math, English, and Romanian after a year that children of families who did not get the voucher.  In North Carolina, children who gained access to a computer also experienced lower test scores in math. The papers were recently discussed in the New York Times In 2008, Paige Ware and I published a paper called Learning, Change, and Power: Competing Discourses of Technology and Literacy.  I believe these three competing frameworks are very helpful for considering how to interpret these findings.

I use the term “Learning” (admittedly, not the best term) to refer to those who evaluate uses of technology by students solely from the perspective of the impact on academic achievement, usually as measured by student test scores taken within the first year or two of gaining access.  From this point of view, the two studies confirm what many have suspected–that supplying computers to children does not raise their test scores and that there is thus little reason to increase spending on computers in schools.  (And, if we do choose to use computers in schools, our only measuring stick for their success should be how they impact standardized test scores.)

I use the term “Change” to refer to those people who value sweeping change in the media of communication for its own sake.  From this perspective, everything new that children do, from tweeting to instant messaging to online gaming, is breaking through the old, limited way of doing things and is preparing students for a successful life in the 21st century.  Thus test scores don’t matter–only difficult-to-measure new literacies do–and we could probably solve most educational problems if we tore down schools and let kids play online games all day.

From the perspective of “Power,” the ultimate goal of education is not test scores alone, or newness for its own sake, but rather increasing the opportunities of individuals and communities to fully participate in, and contribute to, society in all walks of life, through further study, careers, and civic engagement.  From this point of view, test scores matter, because they are reflective of important underlying skills of literacy and numeracy, but they are not the be all and end all.  New literacies also matter, but, like traditional literacies, they must be seen in context. From this “Power” perspective, we are not only teaching student to read and write texts, but also to read and write the world.

Taking this perspective into account, we cannot try to keep computers out of children’s hands, because they need to learn how to use digital media well for their lives and their futures.  (Indeed, those who are arguing against the educational use of computers are using computers for their own pontificating, and I bet their children are using computers as well).  Indeed, since low-income children are less likely to master new technological literacies without outside intervention, we are at risk of growing inequality of we don’t figure out how to best make use of technology in education.

At the same time, though, we will not be empowering youth for the long-term if we simply “give them [laptops] and get out of their way”, as advocated by the initiator of the One Laptop Per Child program in Birmingham, Alabama. With the OLPC’s XO laptops owned and maintained by children and their families, there is growing evidence that they are seldom used in schools, even in model OLPC programs such as that in Uruguay. If they are not being used much in school, any benefits would thus need to come from home use.  The problem is that, simply providing computers for use at home, outside of any educational intervention or mentoring, likely means they will be principally used to hang out with friends online or play simple games–and any gaps that exist between low- and high-income youth may be amplified (since high-income youth will likely have more social support from friends, neighbors, and family members to support more advanced uses of technology, see, e.g., Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010).

What then to do?  I believe that we need to integrate technology into education with a great deal of attention to the other elements–especially curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, professional development, and infrastructure–that can help make its use effective.  We also need careful planning, pilot programs, formative and summative evaluation, and staged implementation to help make programs successful. There is evidence (see this example in Colorado) that, when we do this, we will have success in helping students increase test scores and develop new literacies.  All of this means that the path toward a digital education will be slower, but in the long run much more successful.  To choose either of the other alternatives–either massively handing out computers to young children without ensuring that other requisite elements are in place, or abandoning a vision of improving schools with technology–is to give up before we start.

Remember the Hole-in-the-Wall experiment in India?  Based on the principal of “minimally-invasive pedagogy,” computers were installed in kiosk walls in Indian slums so that children could teach themselves about technology.  Though the organizers of the project have published a series of very positive reviews over the years, until now I am not aware of any independent reports on the project and its results, other than my own discussion based on a visit to one of the sites.

Now, an article by an independent researcher has appeared, reporting some interesting findings.  It turns out that the two Hole-in-the-Wall sites that she visited both stand in ruins, one closed down within a few months of its opening due to vandalism, the other surviving until it became inactive. According to the article, while the broader Hole-in-the-Wall project still exists, it has evolved from its earlier approach of eschewing relationship with community organizations, schools, and adult mentors, and has now “started to focus more on the building of ties with the school, particularly in regard to using the teachers or others in the local communities as mediators in learning.”   This is a welcome change and reflects the important realization that mentorship and institutional support are important if children are to learn effectively with technology.

Well, according to this recent study, no, at least in terms of standardized math and reading outcomes. Two Duke economists use large scale data sets to investigate the impact of gaining access to computers and the Internet on children’s test scores in math and reading.  For computer ownership, they use a self-reported measure by students.  For Internet access, they use a proxy variable related to number of local Internet Service Providers.  In both cases, whether via home computer ownership or ISP access, they find a negative impact on individual student’s math and reading scores after gaining more home access to technology. The negative impact is greatest for African-American youth–for other groups, the impact is mixed (sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on the measure and group).  The authors interpret their findings as indicating that unproductive uses of computers tend to crowd out time spent doing homework, especially for low-income and minority students who may not have the kinds of social support needed for more productive uses of technology at home.

The differential impact of home technology by different groups is consistent with that find previously, for example, in our recent review of technology and equity among U.S. youth. It provides further evidence that the aim of our educational efforts should not be mere access, but rather development of a social environment where access to technology is coupled with the most effective curriculum, pedagogy, instruction, and assessment.