Our Ideas series is exploring how innovation happens in education.

Almost all college students have a cellphone. They use them an average of eight to 10 hours a day and check them an average of every 15 to 20 minutes while they're awake.

Heavier smartphone use has been linked to lower-quality sleep and lower GPAs — oh, are you getting a text right now?

I'll wait.

Anyway, as I was saying, one professor at the University of Colorado Boulder has come up with a solution to smartphone distraction in one of his astronomy classes.

Our Tools of the Trade series examines iconic objects of the education world.

The 24 juniors and seniors in the astronomy class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., sink into plush red theater seats. They're in a big half-circle around what looks like a giant telescope with a globe on the end. Their teacher, Lee Ann Hennig, stands at a wooden control panel which, appropriately, has enough buttons and dials to launch a rocket.

There is a letter that school districts really don't like sending home to parents of special education students. Each state has a different version, but they all begin with something like this:

"Dear Parent, as of the date of this letter your child's teacher is not considered 'highly qualified.' " And then: "This doesn't mean your child's teacher is not capable or effective. It means they haven't met the state standards for teaching in their subject."

Federal law does not prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in college, but it does something nearly as effective, banning them from receiving government aid. In recent years, though, some undocumented students have stumbled upon a little-known, nonprofit online university that doesn't charge tuition and doesn't care about students' legal status.

High school graduation rates are on the rise across the country, except for one segment of the population: They've dropped dramatically for people in prison or jail who need to get their GED diplomas.

Since a new version of the General Education Development test came out last year, the pass rate for inmates has plummeted. Formerly, it was a multiple-choice test taken with a pencil. Not any longer: The test has joined the computer age, abandoning handwritten essays and instead requiring computer skills some inmates simply don't have.

One in 10 teachers will quit by the end of their first year — and getting through October and November is especially tough. Having someone to support you along the way can help.

Turns out there's a toolkit to help — as we wrote about this week. Thousands chimed in on Facebook and Twitter, and in the comments section. Here are some takeaways from the discussion.

The "disillusionment phase" goes by another name:

Sheree Woods is sitting in her car in the parking lot of a mini-mall in a Los Angeles suburb, with the air conditioning blasting.

She's here for a huge sale.

Woods is a high school art teacher at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a big magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Every year, like countless other teachers around the country, she digs deep into her own pocket for school supplies.

Our Ideas series is exploring innovation in education.

Some version of this criticism has likely echoed since the rise of compulsory schooling during the Progressive era: Teachers tend to teach to the middle, leaving struggling students feeling lost and more advanced students bored.

Everyone too often gets the same books, material, homework. The same level of difficulty.

Many people have experienced the magic of a wonderful teacher, and we all know anecdotally that these instructors can change our lives. But what if a teacher and a student don't connect? How does that affect the education that child receives?

Is there a way to create a connection where there isn't one? And how might that change things, for teachers and students alike?

Madalitso Mulando knew what she needed to finish 10th grade: $150.

That's the cost of tuition at Chinika Secondary School, a public high school in Lusaka, Zambia.

Completing 10th grade was part of Mulando's dream to go to medical school and become a doctor.

But the 15-year-old's parents were broke.

"Yeah, I was alone. I was in my bedroom ... and I started, like, crying because Mom and Dad didn't have any money," she remembers. "And I was like, maybe I'll never go to school again because Mom and Dad didn't have any money."

"The value of my education is priceless, but the value of my education is also not $140,000 in debt."

That was the statement of a Hunter College graduate with a master's degree, as quoted in the documentary Ivory Tower. And a new national poll suggests that thousands of graduates, especially younger graduates, agree with her.

Ron Turiello's daughter, Grace, seemed unusually alert even as a newborn.

At 7 months or so, she showed an interest in categorizing objects: She'd take a drawing of an elephant in a picture book, say, and match it to a stuffed elephant and a realistic plastic elephant.

At 5 or 6 years old, when snorkeling with her family in Hawaii, she identified a passing fish correctly as a Heller's barracuda, then added, "Where are the rest? They usually travel in schools."

In Molly Pollak's second-floor Manhattan apartment, the spare bedroom is filled with decades of classroom memories.

"Those are all my high school yearbooks," Pollak says, pointing to a shelf stacked two books deep. "Those are my middle school yearbooks. There's more over here."

Even more shelves are stuffed with old lesson plans.

"I really need to throw them away," she admits.

Take a big room in Manhattan with more than 100 people, all of them fired up about education. Add some dramatic lighting and booming PA announcements, and you've got last week's New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference. And everybody there, from university presidents to ed tech startups, was talking about how higher education is changing.

Here are some of the themes and ideas that stole the show.

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A few years ago, a good friend and I were walking near downtown Philadelphia, not far from my old elementary school, Thomas C. Durham, on 16th and Lombard. The school was built on the edge of a black neighborhood in South Philly in the early 1900s, and its design earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places when I was in the third grade. I nudged my friend to take a quick detour with me.

The US News & World Report Best Colleges rankings, the leaderboard of competitive college admissions, are out this week. And all this week on All Things Considered, we've been talking with students who graduated from high school in Montgomery County, Md., four or five years ago.

Imagine you had the option of going to a top state university on a full ride or a prestigious Ivy League for about $20,000 a year. Would it be a hard decision? What would you choose?

Four years ago, Becca Arbacher had to make that decision. She chose Columbia in New York City over the University of Michigan.

And she's glad she did.

"Being at Columbia has offered me some really incredible opportunities that I wouldn't have otherwise," says Arbacher. "It's kind of impossible for me to guess what my experience would have been like at Michigan."

Alabama's Science Standards Get A Makeover

Sep 10, 2015

Alabama schools are getting new science standards for the first time in a decade. The state Board of Education voted unanimously today to replace old standards that some teachers say were behind the times the moment they were approved.

As evidence, they point to their students' biology textbooks, many of which currently come with warning stickers that call evolution "a controversial theory." The state's old science standards say students should "wrestle with the unresolved problems still faced" by evolution.

It's show time.

"Please try to limit all other background noise, like your cellphone should be muted."

This is a virtual classroom, and that's the stage manager giving last-minute instructions to students. This is unlike any virtual classroom you've probably ever imagined. Behind the scenes, in a control room upstairs, a producer calls the camera shots.

"Stay with him. I'm going to four. Take six."

The Harvard Business School has rented this television studio from WGBH in Boston, and transformed it into a sleek online classroom.