Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The textual form of yelling at the radio while preparing dinner

Me, at RI NPR:

It is not accurate to say the Mass Insight found inefficiencies in the Providence School Department. The report simply was not that detailed. They found that, on paper, Providence had a very lean staff compared to other districts, and seemed to have a lot of people listed as clerks. It ignored perhaps the most salient point, that many of those clerk positions had been unfilled for years, thus rendering any inefficiency purely hypothetical. They did not, for example, look at what each clerk was doing and determine if there actually were specific inefficiencies or redundancies, because Mass Insight are overstretched hacks, and as long as they say what people expect them to say, nobody questions it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Did I get this right?

Me, February 17, 2009:

The reality of our current political situation is that we have a socially conservative, obstructionist Southern regional party and everyone else. I don't see how we're going to get to national standards in that climate. The problem is, however, a good distraction though for people who might otherwise find more effective ways to screw up public education.

I'd say I underestimated the collateral damage they managed to create -- particularly through a media blitz for the standards that focused on half-baked pedagogical hobby horses -- informational texts! close reading for six year olds! -- rather than the standards themselves.

A logical requirement we never fully debated

David Cleary:

Under ESSA, state standards have to be aligned so that the end point of the state standards in k-12 is aligned with the entrance requirements for the public system of higher education and career and technical state standards. This seemed like a logical requirement: students and parents expect that when the student leaves high school, the student is then prepared to go on to higher education or career and technical education.

The problem with this is that it is neither a logical expectation, nor is it the expectation we have had traditionally. Nor is it every fully explained.

Well, whatever. I guess the good part is that the only logically consistent way to do this is to align high school standards to the least demanding post-secondary requirements in each area, because there is still no justification for denying a student a high school diploma if they are eligible for any post-secondary job training.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

How bad are things (in schools)?

Scott Alexander:

I work in a wealthy, mostly-white college town consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the country. If there’s anywhere that you might dare hope wasn’t filled to the brim with people living hopeless lives, it would be here. But that hope is not realized. Every day I get to listen to people describe problems that would seem overwrought if they were in a novel, and made-up if they were in a thinkpiece on The Fragmentation Of American Society.

A perfectly average patient will be a 70 year old woman who used to live somewhere else but who moved her a few years ago after her husband died in order to be closer to family. She has some medical condition or other that prevents her from driving or walking around much, and the family she wanted to be closer to have their own issues, so she has no friends within five hundred miles and never leaves her house except to go to doctors’ appointments. She has one son, who is in jail, and one daughter, who married a drug addict. She also has one grandchild, her only remaining joy in the world – but her drug-addict son-in-law uses access to him as a bargaining chip to make her give him money from her rapidly-dwindling retirement account so he can buy drugs. When she can’t cough up enough quickly enough, he bans her from visiting or talking to the grandchild, plus he tells the grandchild it’s her fault. Her retirement savings are rapidly running out and she has no idea what she will do when they’re gone. Probably end up on the street. Also, her dog just died.

If my patients were to read the above paragraph, there are a handful who would sue me for breach of confidentiality, assuming I had just written down their medical history and gotten a couple of details like the number of children wrong. I didn’t. This is a type. ...

So I made a short script based on the following information:

– About 1% of people are in prison at any given time
– About 2% of people are on probation, which can actually be really limiting and unpleasant
– About 1% of people are in nursing homes or hospices
– About 2% of people have dementia
– About 20% of people have chronic pain, though this varies widely with the exact survey question, but we are not talking minor aches here. About two-thirds of people with chronic pain describe it as “constant”, and half of people describe it as “unbearable and excruciating”.
– About 7% of people have depression in any given year
– About 2% of people are cognitively disabled aka mentally retarded
– About 1% of people are schizophrenic
– About 20% of people are on food stamps
– About 1% of people are wheelchair-bound
– About 7% of people are alcoholic
– About 0.5% of people are chronic heroin users
– About 5% of people are unemployed as per the official definition which includes only those looking for jobs
– About 3% of people are former workers now receiving disability payments
– About 1% of people experience domestic violence each year
– About 10% of people were sexually abused as children, many of whom are still working through the trauma.
– Difficult to get statistics, but possibly about 20% of people were physically abused as children, likewise.
– About 9% of people (male and female) have been raped during their lifetime, likewise.

These numbers might be inflated, since I took them from groups working on these problems and those groups have every incentive to make them sound as bad as possible. There’s also a really big problem where a lot of these are conditional upon one another – that is, a person in prison is not also in a nursing home, but a person who is unemployed is far more likely to be on food stamps. This will likely underestimate both the percent of people who have no problems at all, and the percent of people who have multiple problems at once.

Nevertheless, I ran the script twenty times to simulate twenty different people, and here’s what I got (NP stands for “no problems”):

01. Chronic pain
02. Alcoholic
03. Chronic pain
04. NP
05. NP
06. Sexually molested as a child + suffering from domestic violence
07. Unemployed
08. Alcoholic
09. NP
10. NP
11. NP
12. Abused as a child
13. NP
14. Chronic pain
15. NP
16. Abused as a child + unemployed
17. NP
18. Alcoholic + on food stamps
19. NP
20. Clinically depressed

If the two problems mentioned above haven’t totally thrown off the calculations, this makes me think Psychiatrist-Me is getting a much better window into reality than Normal-Person-Me.

If you made a similar script for students in an urban public school district, including recent refugees, etc., it would be even more intense. Alexander's post cuts to part of the disconnect about urban school districts in particular.

On one hand people say, usually from a distance, "Poor kids can learn! Black kids can learn! This is totally doable." And on the other hand, up close, others see just how many kids in their classroom aren't just low-income, but working under a whole matrix of issues: homeless and learning disabled and sexually abused. ESL and lead poisoning and parents in prison. That's the reality. It is difficult to wrap your head around, even if you see those kids every day you might not know all or most of the issues, and from a distance it just sounds overwrought and made up.

The two sides are talking past each other because the complexity of the problems just comes across as excuses to the distant optimist. The school level realist doesn't actually disagree with the basic point -- "yes, poor kids can succeed!" -- but that gets muddled because it isn't actually the problem they face.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A practical implication of very low proficiency rates

I didn't come up with this myself, but it is now the conventional wisdom in Providence's high schools that the immediate priority in terms of raising test scores is to focus on the highest achieving students. If only 5% or so are passing, and getting to 10% or 15% would be a great step, you're talking about getting, say, instead of one or two kids in each classroom over the standards to getting three or four to pass. Realistically, most of the class has no chance. The "bubble kids" are now at the top of the class.

I'm not saying that's the official policy, anyone's acting on that, whatever. It is just clear that if you get together, analyze the data, and come up with a strategic plan... that's what the data is telling you. It is a rather different "call to action" than most ed reform advocates think they're making.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Common Core & Style

Fredrik deBoer:

My fundamental learning goal in teaching style is this: to demystify prose style. Very often, students coming to a formal consideration of prose style with a sense that prose style is a pure “feel” thing, that they know it when they see it but can’t put their finger on it. That’s romantic, but it stands in the way of their adopting prose style themselves. My intent is to demonstrate to them that style emerges from the text itself, that we can observe style the way we do any other textual feature, and that we can in type write with our own style by becoming more attuned to how great stylists write.

To that end, I teach a three part assignment sequence. First, students write a brief analysis of a writer’s prose, identifying its salient features and the textual properties that makes it stand out. Second, students parody a writer’s style, typically rewriting an already written passage in a caricature of another writer’s style, or writing their own narrative in that style. Finally, students write their own text, perhaps a narrative, review, or editorial, in highly stylized prose, working to inflect their own writing with some of the features they’ve recently identified in that of others. Assignment sheets for this sequence can be found in my Teaching Portfolio.

Since this is in the context of teaching freshman composition at a major university, it piques my interest in relation to "college and career readiness." How does the first part of this sequence -- students write a brief analysis of a writer’s prose, identifying its salient features and the textual properties that makes it stand out -- relate to Common Core reading?

Jumping to the chase a bit, the bottom line to me is that deBoer's assignment is arguably a better, clearer, if a bit unpolished "standard" than the Common Core equivalents, which would be:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Compare this to, say, the NECAP Grade Span Expectation:

R–12–6 Analyze and interpret author’s craft within or across texts, citing evidence where appropriate by…
  • R–12–6.1a. Demonstrating knowledge of author’s style or use of literary elements and devices (e.g., simile, metaphor, point of view, imagery, repetition, flashback, foreshadowing, personification, hyperbole, symbolism, analogy, allusion, diction, syntax, genre, or bias, or use of punctuation) to analyze literary works
  • R–12–6.1.b. Examining author’s style or use of literary devices to convey theme

The NECAP expectation seems closer to what deBoer is asking his incoming students to be able to do as the first part of a multi-part assignment. The Common Core is, as always, oddly fragmented and over-specific. Students jump right into assessing how point of view or purpose shapes style without preliminary standards teaching what style is. Standard four is mostly about the meaning of specific words, five about overall structure, and six is about point of view but also in the grade level standards slides away from authorial point of view into character point of view. The parts don't seem to add up to the whole.

Anyhow, I suppose deBoer will see in a few years if students start having a slightly different reaction to this assignment, clicking into their PARCC-ready close reading drill, and if that is better or worse.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Nobody wants to fund foundational R&D in ed tech and assessment. STILL.

Kerri Lemoie:

This week at MozFest in London there’s a session called “Hack the Backpack” where the Open Badges community is being asked to help contribute to long-standing open and unaddressed issues regarding the backpack. It needs some “love”. But why is the Backpack in such dire need of attention? Isn’t Mozilla working on it?

You’d think so. It’s actually unclear why it’s still called the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack at all since there is not a single full-time employee left at the Mozilla Foundation assigned to Open Badges. There is no Open Badges Team at Mozilla.

The team was disbanded well over a year ago. Not only was the backpack abandoned — technically put on “maintenance mode” — any real initiatives and plans for what the backpack was supposed to be were essentially put on hold since the spring of 2013. Resources at Mozilla for Open Badges were redirected to support Chicago Summer of Learning and after that to support Cities of Learning in late 2013–2014. The Open Badges team focused on the much hyped BadgeKit which was really only used as a private beta for Cities of Learning and then abandoned in the summer of 2014.

In the late winter of 2014, a handful of the Open Badges founders formed the Badge Alliance to support the work of the community and keep the Open Badges Specification and infrastructure moving forward. It was funded in a cooperative effort by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla but after 6 months, the Badge Alliance lost its anticipated 2 year funding stream. By December 2014, both the Badge Alliance staff and the Open Badges team at Mozilla were gone.

The Open Badges community, mostly unaware of this, remained and continued to grow. Through June 2015, the Badge Alliance staff kept going anyway — unpaid and unauthorized. They persisted with the hope that the funding would return and out of concern and loyalty for the work and community. Without that effort the Open Badges community calls and the specification work would have come to a screeching halt leaving a leadership vacuum and throwing the growing but still nascent ecosystem into uncertainty.

I could have gotten in on the ground floor, or more accurately the sub-basement, of this scene starting 12 years ago or so, but at the time it was clear that the potential funders of the work were 5-10 years away from understanding what was necessary, and much worse than that, doing this work correctly is a massive multi-disciplinary project. It is exactly the kind of thing futurists are referring to when they talk about the demand for jobs that don't exist today. And yet, they just don't seem to grasp the difficulty of this work, and the huge long term investment that would be necessary to even get the infrastructure and core standards working properly.

Anyhow, I haven't been following this scene extensively, but based on my knowledge of the problem space, the economics and politics of open source development, and foundations, this all rings quite true.

Monday, November 23, 2015

This explains a few things, including TFA

Paul Rosenberg:

But the golden age for elites causes their population to grow as well—both through reproduction and through social mobility. As a result, “The class of the wealthy and powerful expands in relation to the whole population,” which eventually creates scarcity for them. In particular, “There are not enough positions, power positions governing, in business and government, to satisfy all elite aspirants. And that’s when inter-elite competition starts to take uglier forms.” That can be measured in terms of “overproduction of law degrees, because that’s a direct route into government, or the overproduction of MBAs,” and, higher up, in the increased competition for House and Senate seats, where the money spent on such contests spirals ever upwards.

“So the competition intensifies, and when competition intensifies, there are losers. There are many more losers now than there were 40 or 50 years ago,” Turchin said, and “Many of them are not good losers,” meaning they devote themselves to frustrating others, further eroding the cooperative ethos societies need to keep functioning.

This in turn connects with the role of the state in moving toward increased instability. “During this pre-crisis phases of the secular cycle, the governments tend to get more and more indebted,” Turchin said. “The reason is, most simply, the inter-elite competition becomes very hot. You have a lot of frustrated elite aspirants, and the states try to respond by providing them with jobs…. even in the historical societies… they would expand the army, so that offices could serve…. That puts a lot of pressure on the state coffers.” (Even nowadays, when elite opinion rallies around the idea that “middle class entitlements” are the great threat to fiscal solvency, Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson have pointed out that the actual primary threats are “the excessive costs of oligopoly in health care and defense spending” plus “the contingent liability of another financial crisis,” all of them rooted in elite special interest demands on the state.)