Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lunch 12/23

I'm crying from laughter because about 10 kids are in my room at lunch, singing and dancing to Britney's "One More Time."  

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tales from the Dean's Office

The following actually happened at a South Bronx high school today.  A girl was supposed to be drug tested in the afternoon.  She brought a jar of pee to school with her, but by the end of the day it was cold.  So, before school let out, she went to the dean's office and heated her pee up in the faculty microwave.  Neglecting to take the lid off, the jar exploded, and the girl ran off in a panic.  They had to trash the urine-scorched microwave.

War on Chirstmas

This is probably my new favorite holiday song, by country ass-kicker Toby Keith.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama in the Center

As we move forward into the Obama administration, I am increasingly happy about his actual practice of post-partisan politics.  We should all hedge against a confirmation bias and critically examine whether his actions match his language, but it looks like the President-Elect is walking the walk.

For years, we've talked our education problems to death in Washington. But we've failed to act, stuck in the same tired debates that have stymied our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves -- Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus the status quo, more money versus more reform -- all along failing to acknowledge that both sides have good ideas and good intentions.We can't continue like this. It's morally unacceptable for our children and economically untenable for America.
It's great to hear this coming from our nation's policy leader, and it's harder for me to understand how easily people dismiss arguments from the other side.  This is partially why it's hard for me to identify as a Democrat, even though I functionally am. There is a natural human desire to belong in something greater, and psychologists have produced a lot of evidence that we really like being around people who share our values and agree with us.  It's not hard to see the logical next step, which is that this emotional connective tissue undermines our ability to step back and criticize when criticism is warranted.  And when we spend so much time on demonizing the other party, it gets hard to reach out and talk.

The pettiness that undermines policy is also what makes it tougher for the kids I see every day.  It sounds absurd, but we still don't have a comprehensive education reform policy because... adults can't sit down and talk?  Really?

Here's hoping for a new beginning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Student Reaction to Slavery Book

"Mister, I really like this book.  I was reading it on the train like a white person."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More on Scarsdale's Decision to Cut AP

Education Notes Online has a good post on Scarsdale's move to nix Advanced Placement in favor of a more constructivist, student-centered curriculum.  Ed Notes responds to Joel Klein's position that kids need to develop basic skills before they can enjoy the benefits of an enriched education:
The primary motivation in reading development is a need to read and many kids who struggle don't feel that need. Reading in a world of test prep equals tedium and with the pressure and threats of being left back added, becomes an often joyless exercise.

Build an enriched curriculum and they will come. And improve their reading in surprising ways. Of course, there are often some techinical issues, like poor phonics, that may interfere in the process, but those are relatively easy to solve.

Michelle Rhee and TFA-style Education Reform

A good way to understand Teach For America and the standards based education reform movement is by reading this Time article on DC Superintendent and TFA Alum, Michelle Rhee.  Her approach to reform is summed up in a few key ideas:
  • the quality of teachers is the most important factor for student success
  • the quality of current teachers is low because unions make bad teachers unfireable and good teachers unrewardable
  • students must be rigorously tested to make sure they are learning
  • teachers must be rewarded and punished for their students' performance
  • ed schools don't create good teachers; intelligent, competent people do
The article explains how Rhee has enacted her accountability based agenda:
In the year and a half she's been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most school leaders--even reform-minded ones--make in five years. She has shut 21 schools--15% of the city's total--and fired more than 100 workers from the district's famously bloated 900-person central bureaucracy. She has dismissed 270 teachers. And last spring she removed 36 principals, including the head of the elementary school her two daughters attend in an affluent northwest-D.C. neighborhood.
It also showcases some good research backing Rhee's approach:
The data back up Rhee's obsession with teaching. If two average 8-year-olds are assigned to different teachers, one who is strong and one who is weak, the children's lives can diverge in just a few years, according to research pioneered by Eric Hanushek at Stanford. The child with the effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15% of all teachers, will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time she is 11. The other child will be a year and a half below grade level--and by then it will take a teacher who works with the child after school and on weekends to undo the compounded damage. In other words, the child will probably never catch up.
But the article also reveals Rhee making some very polarizing comments.  Teachers unions often complain that standards reform people disparage the profession.  Rhetoric like this characterizes the debate:
"The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job." [emphasis added]
This tone is problematic for standards based reform people and TFA.  I don't know in what other professional setting you can publicly and derisively mimic others in the workplace.  Many New York City teachers, including alternatively certified ones, already resent an implicit message they see in the program: that teaching is a 2 year volunteer stint before you start your real job, and that learning is poor because teachers are bad.  For a political platform premised on the deficient quality of existing teachers, its people don't exercise a lot of tact.

If you want to get a skewed but decent overview of the major education policy debate, this is a good read.

The Shortest Month of the Year

This week, we're reading parts of the book, To Be a Slave.  One of my students asked, "aren't we supposed to wait for February to learn about this?"

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Standardized Testing in America's Best Schools

Conservatives like to say that teachers unions oppose standardized testing because they don't want to accept accountability or set high expectations.  Teachers do this because, like any other trade union, they want to maximize their wages and job security.  Rigorous state standards with tough tests mean more work and stress for the teachers.  It might even put their jobs at risk.  So they oppose it.  By doing so, they lower expectations and foster academic failure, especially for low-income minorities.

But conservatives miss the pedagogical point that the volume of standards and testing actually diminishes the quality of education.  This article from the New York Times discusses how Scarsdale High School - one of the best in the country - has abolished it's Advanced Placement curriculum.  These are some of the best students and teachers in the country, and they have determined that the AP standards were actually hurting how much kids learned.

Scarsdale criticized the AP curriculum for testing too much breadth of content.  When the material is so vast, students are drilled into memorizing an amazing amount of superficial knowledge.  This sacrifices opportunities to learn in depth, which is when students can develop analytical skills, become critical thinkers, and make deeper connections.  One way of thinking about the trade off of depth and breadth is to consider what you would want your child to be: an independent analytical thinker, or an encyclopedic repository of superficial knowledge?  Like the AP standards, state standards tilt learning toward the encyclopedic end of the spectrum.  Most educators think this is a lower quality education: we want our kids to think and write more than recite, not the other way around.

Scarsdale's move is politically important.  It demonstrates that great teachers who want the best for their students understand that current AP and state standards undermine their effort.  It undermines the conservative narrative that opponents of NCLB-style testing are lazy teachers unions putting their interests first.

New Ideas on the Expansion of Broadband

Two guys from the New America Foundation - the tech public policy think tank run by Eric Schmidt of Google - published an awesome paper suggesting ways to expand broadband using basic intuitions from property rights.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Education Theory

To all my friends not in education, if you want to get a glimpse at what ed school is like and get an overview of some basic but important ideas in education theory, I am posting my term paper for my grad class this semester.  I'm doing this not because I think it's especially good, but I might be curious of what all this was about if I weren't a teacher.

John McCain said that "Education is the civil rights issue of this century," and Nobel Prize Winning Economist Ed Glaeser has called for a "Marshall Plan" in eaducation so America can not only cope with, but be at the frontier of new knowledge and technology.  The two ideas I discuss in the paper are, I think, central to the pedagogical dimension to this enormous challenge.

You can view it here.  Any comments or feedback are welcome.

Google Docs and the Future of Computing

I just wrote a term paper on a free web application offered by a search engine.  The last time I wrote a paper in something besides Microsoft Word, I was 7 years old and the year was 1994, when you could buy the internet in a box.

My desktop Packard Bell computer ran a Pentium I with 64MB of RAM.  My 15 inch cathode ray tube monitor looked like a droid from Star Wars, and my computer gaming life was limited to a turn-based, 2-D, tank-shooting death match.  

Then, my mom brought home a copy of Office from work.  I've used versions of that program to write book reports in grade school, research for debate in high school, and write my thesis in college.  My relationship with this productivity suite has taken me through a lot.

So, it was a big development in my life when yesterday, I wrote a paper in Google Documents: 24 pages, 1.5 spaced, 1 inch margins, APA format, headers, footers, and tiered headings for crystal organization.  Google even packaged the document into a PDF.  

And I can't see myself going back to Office again. 

Google Docs, and the associated Google application suite, allows  me to sit down at my "computer" at any computer connected to the internet.  No jump drives, no sync programs or anything.  All I need to get my stuff is a browser and a computer no more powerful than my old Packard Bell.  Pretty cool.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Political Theater in the McCain Concession

Theater plays a central role in politics.  The stage design of presidential debates shapes the interaction of its characters; the tension in the John Williams score that introduces Meet the Press foreshadows a focused and rigorous exchange; and the ubiquitous station colors of red, white, and blue remind us of our final allegiances.

But the music for John McCain's November 4 concession speech raised the bar.

The song playing as McCain ascended the rostrum was "Victory Lane," by Academy Award Winner Hans Zimmer, from Days of Thunder, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.  The song playing McCain out was "Roll Tide," by Zimmer, from Crimson Tide, produced by Bruckheimer and Simpson.  Bruckheimer's films have netted 35 Academy Award nominations, and Zimmer's resume includes The Lion King, Gladiator, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

"Victory Lane" is the song that plays when Tom Cruise's character comes from behind to win the Daytona 500.  Four years before Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise played a navy combat pilot named "Maverick" in Top Gun.  "Roll Tide" is from a movie about a fictitious nuclear escalation with Russia, and a power struggle for control of the submarine's nukes between a white, bellicose commander (Gene Hackman) and a black, less-experienced, intellectualizing, and eminently cool lieutenant (Denzel Washington).  The characters in both films are prototypical McCain supporters: southern stock car racers who make disparaging remarks about "Yankees," and military serviceman (aboard the USS Alabama, no less).