Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year In Review

Let's see...

  1. We elected a black progressive/pragmatic Democratic President.
  2. The global economic system to began to collapse.

These are really the top two ed-tech stories as well. I still don't think front-line ed-tech folks understand how much things are going to change for the better with an Obama administration (I figure the big money players do).

For example, I'd predict that the number of teachers with either a school-provided laptop or working desktop will go way up in the next four years, to near 100%. Is this sexy? No. Is it a prerequisite for just about anything interesting happening, whether with Web 2.0 awesomeness or standardized test-score analysis? Yes.

Also, you'll be getting more bandwidth at school! Yawn, right? Oh, but you'd like to have kids using web video? You're gonna need that bandwidth.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Setting Goals

From Making Student Achievement the Focus: A five-year action plan for District of Columbia Public Schools (working draft):

We have two related goals: to create the best urban school district in the country and to close the achievement gap that persists along racial and socioeconomic lines.

To be fair, this is pretty much boilerplate, and after skimming through the rest of the plan I can't identify anything in particular that addresses these goals specifically. For example, the plan isn't different enough from plans already in place in other cities to think that it represents something that would surpass those cities. But it is pretty weird to state your district's goal not in comparison to other cities. It certainly isn't the kind of thing which leads to a "focus on kids." It is an adult politician's goal. And obviously, we're used to the "achievement gap" rhetoric, but does it really work as an operational goal for an individual district? Do you really want to make your goal essentially holding one group still and adding resources so a second can catch up?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The History of Ushra'Khan


In the spirit of the season, I'm going to try to do a few gaming related posts this week. First up, my EVE Online alliance, Ushra'Khan, has an excellent entry in the new EVElopedia, thanks to alliance member Ugleb. There are a couple other unofficial EVE wikis around, but generally wikis benefit when there is one canonical wiki, so hopefully the official EVElopedia will become a strong resource, especially for histories of player-driven events.

For example, U'K is moving to a more forward base right now, which is the first player-built outpost I've been in. I'd like to know a little more about the history of the outpost, when it was built, who has occupied it, etc. Once the EVElopedia is more integrated into the EVE client, hopefully this kind of information will become more easily accessible.

Anyhow, for the three people who will actually look at the article, what's interesting to me is the interaction between the official EVE storyline as written by CCP and the player alliance history. You start out with pure backstory, then much of the history is a blend of the two -- in the early days of EVE CCP created events that role-playing alliances could participate in as part of the main EVE timeline. So Ushra'Khan's early history is intertwined with the official EVE storyline. As EVE has gotten bigger (around 300,000 players) and due to some scandal where CCP employees were helping out their own alliances, they've stopped holding these events. This has led to a general decline in EVE role-play and makes many long-time Ushra'Khan pilots sad.

But, in EVE, we can still write our own history, and the alliance has been lucky to pick up a couple of the best EVE bloggers in recent months, so the more recent combat exploits of our band of freedom fighters can be followed at Ombeve's and Wotlankor's blogs, including Wotlankor's account of this weekend's carrier kill.

Don't Blame Us, It Was TFA! (part 2)

Nancy Flanagan (via Doug's shared):

The initial prompt was a post by an alumna of TFA, encouraging her fellow TFA corps members to take immediate action on the possible nomination of Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education. She noted that decision-makers are paying attention to the discourse—and alumni should read and post frequently on blogs, have their public say, as active participants in the “reform movement that has no name.” Of which Teach for America seemed to be a vital, integral part, in her not-so-humble opinion.

I found it interesting that there was zero consensus among the corps members who posted long and lucid responses. Some of them thought Linda Darling-Hammond was a respected scholar and terrific advocate for the very kids they were currently teaching—and had been unfairly portrayed as TFA Enemy #1. Others were itching for a fight—believing that the only way to effect radical change was to overthrow the system, which would benefit from an infusion of corporate, not “teacher-centric,” leadership. This second group was a tiny, but distinct minority. A few canny, critical commenters thought LDH was a shoo-in for the post, and felt that protecting and defending Teach for America was short-sighted—that a clear-eyed analysis of what was good and bad about alternative routes into teaching was a far better strategy than blind loyalty to the organization that birthed their teaching careers.

This is particularly intriguing combined with Richard Whitmire's assertion that mighty TFA put the Obama administration on notice when it squelched a possible Darling-Hammond nomination.

The idea of a unified TFA "no excuses" reform juggernaut is much more rhetorically useful to an education writer than a varied, thoughtful and self-aware group. It isn't clear to me that turning TFA into a political caricature does it any favors.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Blame Us, It Was TFA!

Richard Whitmire, president of the National Education Writers Association:

Today, TFA alums—14,400 from the last 18 years—are scattered around the country, many holding high-powered jobs (8 percent of Princeton seniors recently applied to join). Two thirds of those alums either work or study in the education field, almost half as classroom teachers. Even alums who left education for good after their two-year teaching commitment and now work as lawyers and investment bankers look upon those two years as their formidable domestic Peace Corps experience—93 percent say they contribute to the TFA "mission" in some way. These folks, who are not beholden to the system, are hungry for reform.

This is not a group to be messed with, so it should come as no surprise that when Obama appointed Stanford education professor and TFA critic Linda Darling-Hammond as his transition education chief, TFA alums (the organization itself stayed neutral) rallied the troops to block her appointment as secretary. It was a messy, one-sided battle. In fact, it got so bloody that Darling-Hammond's allies finally had to rally to her defense with op-eds and letters to the editor, correctly pointing out that her distinguished education career amounted to more than being a union toady. I can't name a single other Obama transition chief who endured that kind of hazing.

Two lessons for Duncan in his new job: Don't mess with TFA, and don't even try to ignore the Michelle Rhee confrontation over teacher competence. At 6-foot, 5-inches tall, you can dunk once on the diminutive Rhee. But don't try it a second time.

Mr. Whitmire is a bit too hasty to try to give the credit or blame to for the media onslaught on Linda Darling-Hammond to TFA. If the 14,400 TFA alums have an outsized influence over national education policy -- that's about the same number of citizens who are active teachers in Rhode Island -- Mr. Whitmire and his colleagues in the media have played a major role in giving them that influence.

Maybe I don't understand how the world works, but from my chair, the primary public manifestation of the attacks on Dr. Darling-Hammond came from newspaper editorials, op-ed columns and via education writers.

What Whitmire is really saying is, "don't mess with us, the education writers, cause we'll put a shiv into you and then put it in the hand of this handsome 22 year old Yalie, who you know no jury in this town will ever convict."

The Audacity of Rod Paige

Rod Paige:

As the Obama administration takes office promising sweeping change, I have a suggestion for the new secretary of education: Get our best teachers involved in policy making. Years of working for improvements have taught me that without their involvement, changes in the local school too often won't take root. (...)

Improving student performance cannot be achieved alone by politicians, education think tanks, researchers, pundits, business groups or others, no matter their worthy goals, expertise, good intentions or resources. To get the enthusiastic involvement of those charged with making schools work, we need their help in crafting workable solutions. Our teachers, principals and school counselors understand the socioeconomic realities, the cultural differences and the motivation challenges they find every day in the classroom and they understand how to match policy goals with classroom realities so that our children come alive to the excitement of learning. Bring teachers together with those experts who focus on the long view and the equation for real and immediate improvement will begin to work.

I of course agree with this 100%, but I have not forgotten that Rod Paige was a key player in the Bush-era reforms that have widely dis-empowered teachers working in public school districts. Now, strictly speaking, one can argue that NCLB does not require districts to take tighter control over schools and teachers, but in practice, I don't think it is controversial to say it largely has, and in particular driven a more stark distinction between even more highly regulated district schools and much less regulated charters.

What this op-ed signals to me is the willingness of the Republican Party to flush the past eight years down the memory hole, walk away from NCLB and, as Al Swearingen would put it, leave the Democratic Party holding a bag of shit.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Keep This In Mind, Kids

Andrew Leonard:

All eyes should be on the stimulus package. In recent days, the political commentariat has been obsessed with parsing every possible detail about the latest Obama cabinet picks -- is Tom Vilsack too Monsanto-flavored? What could possibly be the motivation for Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary? Will Hilda Solis at Labor satisfy a suspicious left? But all that kremlinology is a distraction from a truly astonishing story. In just a few weeks, a new Congress will be in session, and the incoming Obama administration plans to have a shopping list the likes we haven't seen in several generations ready and waiting for the Senate and House to sign off on.

If You Deal With Digital Video... is quite likely you'll want to follow Mark Pilgrim's new gentle introduction to video encoding.

Cap'n Dividend

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Explain James Harrison, Please

Before Malcolm Gladwell's quarterback and teacher quality piece completely fades from the zeitgeist, I'd like someone, preferably Malcolm Gladwell, to explain Steeler linebacker James Harrison's career to me. I don't understand how an undrafted free agent gets cut twice, barely hangs on the team for five years, and suddenly becomes a two time All-Pro, team MVP, and candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Also the Limit of Teacher Blogging

Skoolboy on NYC Teacher Data Reports:

Teaching is an extraordinarily complex activity, with teachers making thousands of decisions in the course of their work. Successful teachers make many good decisions and some bad decisions, whereas less successful teachers make many bad decisions and some good decisions. But the capacity to reflect on one's practice and figure out which of those decisions are good and which are bad is exceedingly rare, as is the capacity to share this knowledge with others. In the absence of this reflective capacity, we're all prone to attribute our successes and failures to our pet theories, which may or may not be correct.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fish Stock FTW!

I've made the whole roasted snapper basquaise from the Les Halles cookbook a few times now, and I usually just baggie whatever fish parts are left on the platter and hurl them into the back of the freezer. Now that we've got Trader Joes, I'm buying more frozen food in general, so I had to make room. I almost just gave up and tossed my scary looking fish-bone-cicles (there were some ancient shrimp-shell snowballs, too), but instead I sautéed whatever ersatz mirepoix was in the bottom of the fridge and threw it all in a pot of water on the stove, straining the resulting stock six hours later and throwing the now more stackable containers back in the freezer, not sure whether it was worth the bother.

Well, I thawed those suckers out today, and added some Trader Joe gnocci, frozen seafood and frozen balsamic roasted vegetables. The results: awesome. Literally one of the best things I've ever cooked. So yes, fish stock is worth a little bother. Also, we need a bigger freezer.

The EdSec Lays Down the Law

The Secretary of Education:

We need to stop making excuses and get on with the business of fixing our schools. If a school is bad and can't be changed, reconstitute it or close it down. If a principal is slow to get the message, find strength in a new leader. If teachers are burned out, counsel them to improve or leave the profession. If laws need to be changed, get on with it.

--Richard Riley, 1997, EdSec 1993- 2001.

The name doesn't even ring a bell.

You're Wrong About Obama

I pretty much disagree with anything anyone says about Obama right now. This is going to be a very different country in eight years, and nobody knows anything about how it is all going to play out. All I know is that several things which we know to be "unsustainable" are going to cease being sustained. Which ones, I don't know.

What I do know is that you're wrong about Obama.

Futurelab: Justice without Freedom

I don't really know much about Futurelab, but I am appalled that they're cranking out reports like Opening Education - Designing for social justice: people, technology, learning and Designing educational technologies for social justice which, according to my scans and searches, have no mention of free or open source software licensing whatsoever. As Futurelab says, "Being concerned with matters of social justice involves being concerned with the unequal distribution of resources and power in society." Getting users to participate in the design of software (in particular) without giving them the freedom to use, study, redistribute and improve what they've helped to create is a pre-digital concept of social justice, and in some cases flat-out exploitation. I don't expect these papers to be about software licensing, but software licensing plays such a central role in these questions that its omission hardly seems like a coincidence.

Is Futurelab ignorant, or corrupt?

Vare High School

This John Thompson post led me to the recently released Lessons From The Classroom Level: Federal and State Accountability in Rhode Island by the Center On Education Policy. It is a modest little set of case studies of six RI schools, including one Vare High School, which seems quite familiar to me, in fact, you could even say that had I participated with a team of local educators to design a high school from scratch, six years later the resulting school might look a lot like this one.

  • Vare High School in Jeanneau School District is an urban school. One-third of the students are Latino, and about half are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but the school does not receive Title I funds. Vare made AYP based on 2006-07 testing, and at the time of our study, it was in year 7 of NCLB improvement. According to the state accountability system, the school was classified as making insufficient progress.

Here's one data point from the study that helps explain why I don't see firing more teachers, bringing in kids for two year stints, and throwing candidates at the wall and seeing which ones stick (a 'la Gladwell) as solutions to urban education's problems:

At Vare, a school administrator made the following comment about the school’s high rate of teacher turnover:

I think we do a pretty good job of moving [our students] forward, but the deficits are too large for us to totally overcome quite often. We’ve gotten better at what we do, at our teaching, and I think that we can still get better... I’ve had to deal with 40% turnover in staff each year for the last four consecutive years.

According to this administrator, staffing problems include the use of long-term substitutes and the hiring of staff who are not highly qualified in their subject area (the district handles teacher hiring). For example, when a position remained vacant at the beginning of the school year, “we had day-to-day subs, and finally in November we ended up with another math teacher,” the administrator explained. Students were directly affected by these staffing challenges, the administrator said:

I have one group that didn’t get math last year; I have another group that didn’t get math the year before. And so, when you talk about testing, you know I get a group of 30 kids from two years ago who will be tested next year, who essentially had a bad year of math or no real math. And this year my blue team, they have a year of bad math behind them... [W]hen we do the test prep, we had to have the science teacher do the math because the math teacher couldn’t do the math. He just couldn’t even control the kids to do the math.

Since this study was completed, new "Jeanneau" superintendent "Matt Cassel's" administrators have been putting a full court press on "Vare High School" to drop its "atypical, nontraditional curriculum" as part of an overall drive to align district curriculum. Given the overall weak position of the school due primarily to the aformentioned turnover and other structural problems (e.g., missed dropout targets due in part to 5 year graduates and transfers who never show up at the school), it looks like "Vare" is well on its way to regressing to the mean, notwithstanding a remaining core of excellent, if dispirited, teachers.

In other news:

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island and three other New England states are forming a regional education partnership and have received a $1-million grant to reengineer high schools, Governor Carcieri and education officials announced yesterday.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has committed $1 million to the newly formed New England Secondary School Consortium, which consists of Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The “partnership” grant includes $500,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and $500,000 directly from Nellie Mae, which is based in Quincy, Mass.

The new consortium has ambitious goals, including boosting the graduation rate to 90 percent; increasing the percentage of students who attend two or four year colleges to 80 percent; and increasing the number who graduate from college.

What's the likelihood that this study will call for new schools like "Vare?" High, I'd say.

The Glass Half-Full on Duncan

The thing about Arne Duncan is that he has been a big city superintendent for seven years and has worked in education since 1992. That's a relatively long time to be an urban superintendent, and by most measures Chicago's results have been good, but not great, and certainly not miraculous. Unlike Joel Klein, Duncan's administration doesn't seem as singularly driven toward public relations, although perhaps that's because I'm farther away from it.

Anyway, as Moltke the Elder said, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy," and nobody is more certain of the brilliance of their education reform plan than someone who hasn't actually tried to reform a school district. I am hopeful that at least Duncan comes to the job with an appreciation of the complexity of the task before him, without the banner of simple solutions.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Duncan, Apparently

Times > GothamSchools.


Good Move

Walter Bender:

6. GNOME: I will be representing Sugar on the GNOME foundation board of advisers. If you have any Sugar-related concerns you would like voiced, please let me know.

Forkage and MySQL

Apropos of recent commentary here on forking and open source software development, Jeremy Zawodny has a good rundown on the state of MySQL development:

The single most interesting and surprising thing to me is both the number and necessity of third-party patches for enhancing various aspects of MySQL and InnoDB. Companies like Percona, Google, Proven Scaling, Prime Base Technologies, and Open Query are all doing so in one way or another.

On the one hand, it's excellent validation of the Open Source model. Thanks to reasonable licensing, companies other than Sun/MySQL are able to enhance and fix the software and give their changes back to the world.

Some organizations are providing just patches. Others, like Percona are providing their own binaries--effectively forks of MySQL/InnoDB. Taking things a step further, the OurDelta project aims to aggregate these third party patches and provide source and binaries for various platforms. In essences, you can get a "better" MySQL than the one Sun/MySQL gives you today. For free.

Meanwhile, development on InnoDB continues. Oh, did I mention the part where they were bought by Oracle (yes, *that* Oracle) a while back? Crazy shit, I tell you. But it makes sense if you squint right.

Anyway, the vibe I'm getting is that folks are frustrated because there's not a lot of communication coming out of the InnoDB development team these days. I can't personally verify that. It's been years since I corresponded with Heikki Tuuri (the creator of InnoDB). So folks like Mark Callaghan of Google have been busy analyzing and patching it to scale better for their needs.

And we all benefit.

For the 99% of users who just need MySQL they know where to find it; for people who need something particular, they can probably find it too.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Reading and Bluffing


I wonder if you see a substantial difference based on educational attainment here. It seems to me that college (at least as we did it at Harvard) largely consists of lessons on how to pretend to have read various books. How many section discussions of British Moralists 1650-1800 (by far the best introduction to the subject!) did I bluff my way through?

Whether it is a high school English teacher's job to teach kids to read or pretend to read is a real issue, which is itself influenced by the students' parents' educational attainment and class. I believe all students can generate meaningful and insightful readings, interpretations and critiques of literature, and it is hard for nearly all of them, regardless of background. However, it is way easier for kids who grew up around books and book talk to crank out make-work and bluff for English class.

The ascendance of AP and college prep as the primary goal of the education of disadvantaged students reflects a misguided emphasis on playing school over understanding.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Not Predicting Web 2.0 Winners

I think Sylvia's Ten to ask - How to predict the Web 2.0 winners post misses the point. If you're experimenting, use whatever you please. Just remember you're experimenting. If you're implementing something serious, you should only be considering commodity services from big companies (GMail, Blogger, Flickr...). That is, you shouldn't be predicting winners, you should only consider things that have already clearly won. If you really want to get out on the edge and, say, play with virtual worlds with your kids, just remember that we're still in the AOL vs. CompuServe days there. It really doesn't matter which one you pick because they're all going down in what is the long run in technology terms, but near future in educational time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

EdSec Götterdämmerung

As we approach the climax of the EdSec Götterdämmerung, such that even David Warlick throws in his 2 cents, I've just got a couple quickies to throw in from the day's reading.

This might be the most annoying thing I've read this month, courtesy of Jonathan Alter:

Betraying his own professional background, Gates shakes his head in dismay at the idea of secondary schools and colleges trying to function at all without simple software that offers them basic statistical information about how students and teachers are performing over time (for-profit colleges are an exception). Everyone in education knows why: unions have simply prevented teachers from being judged, even in part, on whether their students improve during the course of the year.

Schools don't have good data systems because the IT industry has utterly failed them for decades. You can go back through thirty years of newspaper clippings in Chicago or probably any other city and read story after story, repeating at regular intervals, about the planning, implementation, and ignominious failure of massively expensive IT infrastructure projects. Sure, some of it can be blamed on school administration, ill-thought out legal restrictions, and maybe a little teacher union intransigence in there too, but on the whole, we've been failed by big IT again and again and again. The idea that industry has provided awesome data systems to schools that are ready to if only teachers would give the thumbs up is an utter joke.

Also, Kevin Carey:

As you'd expect, Finland's child care policies are more generous than ours; Matt Yglesias explains more here and here. Meanwhile, on the teaching front, all K-12 teachers are required to go through rigorous university-based training, in most cases through a master's degree. But only 10 - 12% of applicants to university teaching programs are accepted. In other words, the system seems to be roughly what you'd get if you locked Linda Darling-Hammond and Wendy Kopp in a room and didn't let them out until they'd struck a grand bargain about the nature of teacher selection and training.

Um... yeah. Linda Darling-Hammond is interested in improving schools of education, to make them more respected and effective, like Finland's. What is Wendy Kopp contributing to this negotiation?

First Principles in Education Policy

Matt Yglesias on Alfie Kohn's Beware School Reformers:

I think there are two aspects of education policy debates that have substantial linkage with the basic left-right ideological conflict. One concerns levels of spending. The right generally wants to spend less on social services (such as education) and the left generally wants to spend more. Another concerns centralization. The left generally supports federal action, national standards, and a strong center to prevent slippage whereas the right tends to favor decentralization as a means of weakening state capabilities. Nothing on Kohn’s list is relevant to the issue of spending, where certainly I like a very conventional “left” person would favor high levels of spending. And on the issue of centralization Kohn has, for no real reason I can see, decided that it’s conservative to believe in national standards. In fact it’s the reverse, and a strong belief in school decentralization is something many conservative legislators adhere to. It has, therefore, been a useful thing for left-wing NCLB opponents to latch on to in order to build a coalition with right-wing NCLB opponents. But I think it’s a little sad to see some people confusing their alliances of convenience with their real principles.

Centralization and spending levels aren't principles of progressive (or traditional) education. They are political tactics. For example, one reason we associate progressive politics with centralization is civil rights and school desegregation, when the majority of the country was on the progressive side and forced a minority to do the right thing. Had we lived in a country with a segregationist majority that sought to impose its system on desegregated systems, you'd better believe that progressives would have been crying for decentralization.

For example here's how the hierarchy breaks down from my seat:

  • our neighborhood high school = good
  • our city school department = bad
  • our state Department of Education = pretty good
  • national Department of Education = bad
  • UN education policy = probably not bad

So, at the moment, I'm in favor of a concentration of power at the neigborhood, state and global levels, not so much on the district or national level. This is subject to change, although ultimately, on principle, I favor local, neighborhood-level control.

Likewise, political conservatives do not oppose spending on education on principle. They do not, for example, support hard caps on private school tuition, want to ban fundraising by local PTA's in rich towns, seek to limit the influence of philanthropy, or blink at the Department of Education directing millions to their favored private vendors. What they oppose on principle is raising taxes. The opposite is not true; Democrats do not raise taxes on principle, but, as a clever young blogger once put it:

Progressives say, no, that creating an environment with a public sector that’s robust enough to provide first-rate infrastructure, high-quality education, and a healthy workforce will attract more than enough business opportunities to make up for whatever negative impact is caused by higher tax rates.

When you ask whether or not national standards are progressive or conservative, it is like asking whether or not a national system of laws is progressive or conservative. It depends on what the laws are. And it depends on what the standards are. Progressives oppose national education standards because the likelihood of a national set of progressive education standards leading to nationwide progressive education reform in early 21st century America is very, very small.

And whatever else you might think about Alfie Kohn, he certainly is a man who knows what his principles are.

Republicans = Southern Regional Party

Andrew Leonard:

The economies of Michigan and Ohio are already in the dumpster. Darker times are ahead. And yet, at this critical perilous juncture, Senate Republicans have decided to pick a fight with the working class. My guess it will be a long, long time before either state ever votes for a Republican for President again.

Intensity and Experience


Moreover, as you teach, you begin to anticipate the material that will confuse these students. You realize that your intervention can effectively transfer a student from one camp to the other. At a certain point, the technical challenges to increasing student achievement disappear, but the moral challenge remains. Will you do it? Every day, every hour, every student for 180 days, will you do it?

John Thompson:

Teaching students who are years behind their grade level requires the same skills that allow a 55 year old to run the court with teenagers. I need to "read" my kids, identifying gaps in their knowledge and skills, and anticipating where their weaknesses will lead. On the basketball court, I read the kids’ minds and get my lumbering body into position before my opponent starts his move. Its hard to say which mind game - the classroom or the playground - is more satisfying. Not having kids of my own, I have cherished the opportunity to bang on the boards, take charges, hit the open man, and use guile to play tenacious "D" with my young friends.

Right now, the "Dan Meyer" character in my imagination is going all Kevin Garnett on his kids, all hustle and intensity, and wondering a) why everyone else doesn't play the same way and b) if he can or wants to keep this up forever. Luckily, it is not the only way to play basketball.

Thanks for Writing Down What I Was Thinking

Eduwonkette saves me the trouble:

So where's the "forest" for a quarterback or teacher? It's a team. Or a school. Even the most gifted quarterbacks end up with pretty crappy pass completion stats if their teammates consistently miss the ball. And a great quarterback doesn't look so great if he's a poor fit for the team he's playing with. The same goes for teachers. So my fingers are crossed that the Gladwell who recognizes the importance of the environments - not just individuals - wins this match.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Empathy: A Facet of Understanding

Steve Clemens:

Empathy might seem like a foreign concept to policy practitioners used to thinking in terms of the harsh realities of an anarchic international system characterized by realpolitick, the pursuit of self-interest, and ruthless competition. However, the importance of empathy, properly understood as "the capacity to recognize or understand another's state of mind or emotion," flows logically from the centrality of self-interest to power politics.

Executing an empathetic foreign policy means both appreciating other countries' perspectives and understanding how our words and deeds affect their behaviors. In other words, empathy must be part of both our foreign policy development and our approach.


At its best, realism isn’t just cynicism, it’s a recognition of the important reality that other countries have their own real and perceived interests and that effective US foreign policy needs to take that into account. And at its worst, the liberal humanitarian impulse becomes less about actually helping other than about appropriating vaguely high-minded rhetoric to mass an agenda of arrogance (see e.g., Max Boot’s paen to the virtues of imperialism). Productive synthesis between this impulses can be a guide to good policy, and the useful corrective in both cases is empathy — the idea that others’ point of view should be taken seriously.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oh Lord I Need to See This

My copy of The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States finally arrived:

No discussion of the Ferrer movement would be complete without taking The Modern School magazine into account. Growing out of the News Letter was one of the so-called "little magazines" which proliferated during the early decades of the century, mounting an attack upon the "genteel tradition" in the arts. Lovingly edited and printed, it became one of the most beautiful cultural journals ever published in America, rich alike in content and design. Luanched in 1912, it continued until 1922, surveying a whole range of literary, artistic, and educational ferment of the period. According to Manual Komroff, it "cut new furrows in a parched land." (...)

"I have tried to make it a beautiful thing," wrote (editor Carl) Zigrosser to a friend, "a medium of expression for creative thinkers and artists. It deals with radical ideas in education, and by education I mean every activity that broadens and enhances life." (170-172)

Had I been in an MRI machine while reading that, my entire skull would have glowed bright orange on the monitor.

Bush Who?

Advice from the bankrupt dinosaur (via M.Klonsky):

Obama sent a strong message of change Sunday when he named retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who clashed over Iraq policy with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to oversee veterans' affairs. And he'll send some sort of message—encouraging or discouraging—when he picks his education secretary. That person won't dictate congressional policies or set federal funding levels. He or she will, though, oversee a bureaucracy with great power to establish and enforce priorities that affect how districts operate.

The Bush administration exploited this post not only to help promote crucial No Child Left Behind legislation, but to follow up by making schools more accountable for how well their students do—or don't—learn.

Notice the rhetorical trick here. Shinseki was a respected professional who was pushed out by the Bush administration for giving honest and accurate professional advice that contradicted the fantastic and ideological predictions of political appointees. Predictions that turned out to be disastrous when put into practice.

So if you want to appoint a Shinseki analogue in education, you'd appoint a respected career professional educator to undo the ideological excesses of Bush-era reforms, not the ideologues the Tribune suggests.

This scrappy team of self-styled reformers has controlled the Department of Education for eight years, enjoys unprecedented unified control over almost all of the prominent urban school districts, has ample funding from foundations spilling over with excess monies following a period favoring extreme concentration of wealth, and for whatever it is worth these days, they've got blanket support from newspaper editorial boards. Their challenge is to control the system, as they have done for years now, without owning its failures.

For example, the worst thing that could happen to alternative certification programs would be to become the standard certification programs. "Congratulations, you're now responsible for recruiting, training and certifying 4% of the civilian work force." Good luck with that!

Ubuntu on XO

I'm now running this customized Ubuntu image on a SD card in my XO. Everything works pretty much as I would hope, including re-scaling UI elements to be appropriately sized on the high-resolution screen, wireless and aggressive power management (optionally) work.

The only major thing left on my wishlist would be screen-rotation aware cursor control using the gamepad keys so I could easily read RSS feeds in ebook configuration. In theory I think I can do this by using the buttons to tab through to the links I want, but in practice I want to try just steering the cursor around with the directional gamepad key.

Also, the Fedora team has been doing a lot of work along the same lines, but I can't nail down a definitive set of instructions. I'm sure they exist somewhere.

So basically, if you bought your XO last year thinking, "This might be nice for casual web browsing around the house." and then found that no tabbed browsing was a deal breaker in your personal relationship with Sugar, and you didn't want to tweak your own Linux install, well, now you can pull out the old XO and have another go. That XO is no more obsolete now than it was a year ago.

And no, this doesn't have much to do with my overall perception of Sugar. 90% of the time, I just need a substrate for the browser, so whatever gives me a better browser wins.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Confused About What US Autoworkers are Paid?

Jonathan Cohn explains it well. The back story is that the Big 3 decided decades agp that paying lifetime health care themselves was a better idea than supporting public health insurance for everyone. They were very, very wrong. Now, when new plants are built in the US by foreign companies, they pay their workers a competitive wage, but they aren't weighed down by the cost of providing health care for a couple generations of retirees. This was sort of fixed in last year's UAW contracts, but apparently too late.

GNOME Annual Report

If you want to get a sense of the scope and dynamics of a BIG open source community, in a format which is more traditional and user-friendly than trolling around a wiki, mailing list and code checkins, you might browse the GNOME Annual Report.

A Great Teacher is X Times Better than a Lousy One

One of the weird things about evaluating teacher quality through "value-added" testing data is that most people would say that the results actually underestimate the true difference in value of a great teacher over a lousy one. Think of a fantastic teach you or your child has had; now think of a bad one. Is the first only three times better than the second? I think not.

It is only when you artificially narrow the definition of good teaching that the impact of teacher quality seems so small.

Think of the Kid in the Favela

Jeremy Allison:

Jon "Maddog" Hall's keynote talk at the Ontario Linux Fest also made this point in a very powerful way. Jon is a wonderfully entertaining speaker, and not afraid of controversy. Showing a picture of a child in the African bush holding a "One Laptop per Child" laptop he said "I don't care about this kid". The audience drew a shocked breath. "He's screwed," continued Jon. "Five hundred miles of bush behind him, five hundred miles of bush in front of him. There's nothing I can do to help here". Jon flipped the slide to show a Brazilian "favela", or slum city, with an incredibly dense population, seeming to cling to the side of a nearby hill. He said, "This is where I can help. These kids have electricity. They can get a network connection. I can do something with Open Source and Free Software here".

Monday, December 08, 2008

Designing "Walking in Stations"

I usually make fun of people who have nothing better to do than watch tiny, tiny conference presentations on their computers, but I must admit I have been enjoying the highlights from the EVE Online Fanfest, since there is a fair amount of info not available elsewhere. Of course, if you play EVE, you probably already know this, and if you don't, why would you conceivably care?

Well, perhaps if you are interested in designing (and developing) virtual worlds, and particularly social spaces, or women in the games industry, you might like this talk about designing the upcoming "walking in stations" part of EVE, wherein we will actually get out of our spaceships and walk around.

I'm blogging this in lieu of simply emailing Sylvia, because there is a small chance Vicki Davis will enjoy this.

Freedom and Benign Dictators


Brian Silverman, one of the driving forces behind LCSI for decades, plus Turtle Art, LEGO TC Logo and even Scratch will tell ou that one of the problems with FOSS is that there is no mechanism for leaving out features - a critical design discipline when creating constructionist learning environments for children.

I wish Gary, Brian, and a chunk of the rest of the learning sciences and ed-tech research community would find the time to observe a successful open source community, like, say, the Python community. Sit through one of Guido's "State of the Python Union" talks, where he explains what changes will and will not be made to the language in upcoming versions, or peruse the mailing lists discussions or the Python Enhancement Proposal index. Simplicity and clean design is just as much a core principle in Python as it is in any learning environment for children, Guido strictly protects that simplicity, and it is one of the key factors in Python's established and growing success. There is absolutely nothing about open source software development that says it is a democracy. People will request things, whine and squawk, but the maintainer is free to ignore them.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Geogebra: Innovations in Fouled-Up Poison-Pill Fake Free Software Licensing in Educational Software

When I read things like:

I downloaded Geogebra a million years ago and recognized immediately its value as a free alternative to Geometer's Sketchpad...

You should know by now that I have to go see what "free" means. The GeoGebra site says:

You are free to copy, distribute and transmit GeoGebra for non-commercial purposes. Please see the GeoGebra license for details.

This is not an accurate description of GeoGebra licensing. First off, there is no GeoGebra license. According to the more detailed licensing explanation, "GeoGebra's source code is subject to the GNU General Public License," and "All GeoGebra installers, language files and documentation files are subject to the following Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License." In this combinations there are times that commercial distribution is allowed, and circumstances when non-commercial distribution is disallowed.

This is essentially a non-commercial variant on the old proprietary installer strategy that Linux distributions like SuSe used to use. The idea was that the distribution vendor would keep the OS installer proprietary, thus preventing people from legally redistributing the install disk, even though it was 99% free software. The thing is, this simply turned out to not be a competitive advantage, and I'm not aware of any major Linux distro that still takes that approach (including SuSe, although SuSe and Red Hat have proprietary versions via different approaches).

For an individual application this approach appears to violate the GPL itself, however:

For an executable work, complete source code means all the source code for all modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable.

Beyond that, I assume that the reason people apply these kinds of licenses is not to keep small-time teacher/consultants from passing out CD's at conferences (although technically, it probably should) but rather to prevent a big corporation from co-opting tha application. In this case, a vendor who really thought they could make some money off selling or distributing GeoGebra could simply write their own installer, documentation and relevant translations, which may not be much of an cost, depending on the circumstance. For example, if I wanted to distribute GeoGebra with a textbook, these would be small costs relative to the whole project.

What this kind of licensing actually accomplishes is creating enough uncertainty that most people won't want to modify or redistribute the software on a large scale. For example, the Debian project is one of the main gatekeepers for free software and the basis (directly or via Ubuntu) of most of the government-sponsored educational Linux distributions used around the world. Here's their take on the situation:

Some weeks ago I did speak with geogebra authors to clarify geogebra installer license. At the end, IMHO there are somme (sic) License issues not debian compliance.

People, corporations and governments trust Debian because they don't put up with ambiguously licensed software. You can build on it without worrying that some sloppy licensing bomb (like GeoGebra violating the GPL by excluding the instaler) is waiting to go off in there. And that's why things like GeoGebra don't get in Debian and get into the hands of fewer kids than they would otherwise, with no apparent offsetting benefit to the original developers.

I think Dr. Geo is the true open source alternative to Geometer's Sketchpad, but it is quite possible there is something better I'm not thinking of.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Big Media Matt Goes to Helsinki


Kids — I’m off today for a week-long trip to Helsinki, Finland where I and some other DC-based policy thinkers and writers are going to be guests of the Finnish government to learn about their education system.

It would be more fun if Matt wasn't smart enough to know that Finnish educational success has nothing to do with the reactionary reforms he leans toward, thus sparing himself the polite but witheringly condescending responses to inquiries like "Tell us about how high stakes testing and merit pay has led to your success" that I'm sure Finnish educators have honed for such purposes.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Time for Will to Just Get a Job as an Advisor at a Met School


As I commented to Rob, I think I’m finally getting to the root of my continued frustration with my kids’ education which is the system’s inability to help them find and nurture the areas they truly have passion for. It would be nice if the institution were the place that connected my kids to the experts they desired and needed to support their learning, wouldn’t it? Again, I know it’s more complex than that, but you get the point.

As I've said before, these schools exist! And they're hiring! You don't have to wonder about the complexities, you can experience them firsthand!

Web Browser of the School of the Future

Apparently the future cannot be viewed using Google Chrome.

Apparently the he future is surprisingly similar to 1999. This used to be dangerous. Now it is just funny.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Logo Ascendant

TIOBE Programming Community Index for November 2008:

Logo, certainly the oldest visual programming language, enters the top 20 this month.

Right behind ActionScript and ahead of Lua.

Good Language Vs. PHP


While I'm a raging Python fanatic (or at least a serious Python user :) I don't think (the apparent decline of Perl) is anything to gloat about: Perl vs Python is a relatively minor struggle compared to Good Language vs PHP, and Dynamic vs Static.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm Not Sure What Awesome Things People Believe Are Happening Inside Suburban Classrooms

Erika Owens, applicant to teach in Philadelphia:

During the group interview there was a hypothetical situation -- pretend you are a teacher at a cash-strapped urban school who just found out, a week before school starts, that you're going to use a curriculum the rich suburban district has been using. I said I would probably be really frustrated because I would not have the resources that the suburban district has to implement the curriculum and not only that, but that my students probably wouldn't be starting at the same place so they would need even more resources and time just to catch up. I didn't say that because urban kids are stupid, but because I worked with urban teenagers who couldn't read or add and who needed tremendous help to increase a grade level never mind get to grade level.

Given a moment to collect my thoughts, I'd say "The curriculum the rich suburban district uses probably sucks."

Questions like this make less sense in the particular disciplines than the handwavy abstract. Is the Algebra II curriculum different in the suburbs? In what sense? Does it not matter if one school actually has lab facilities for science class and another doesn't? Do they actually do science labs in the suburbs? Or do they just memorize way more stuff? Do we just have to read the same books in 11th grade English, or do I also have to give the same crappy assignments? The biggest challenge there is that suburban kids are much better at writing and talking about books they haven't read than city kids. If I can tell the suburban kids to come back on Monday with a six-page research paper, and they do, and I do the same thing in the city, and they don't, then what? Is it the same curriculum if they need more support? Do I still have to cover as much?

Actually, Ms. Rhee and I are sort of on the same page with this one. She says:

Those teachers should teach in Fairfax County or somewhere where the challenges are not as great. And they'll do good things for those kids. No issues with that. But we need people with a different mindset for our kids.

Is it "no excuses" to say that about about personnel but "low expectations" to think it about curriculum? Suburban schools slide by with lousy curricula just as much as they do with mediocre teachers.

Shorter Michelle Rhee

"I give up on teachers who I think have given up on students."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

In Case You Missed It, Chris

Liz Willen at

For example, if Beacon really is everyone’s first choice for a non-specialty high school, can what they are doing please be replicated and spread out a bit? After all, Beacon received 4,600 applications last year for just 262 spots. New York City parents are willing to do the hard work of finding, touring, ranking and then supporting good public high schools — as long as we are assured of having good choices. Schools that offer a rich program of arts, clubs and sports, along with plenty of advanced courses and an enthusiastic staff will naturally have enormous appeal to both parents and to kids.

Indeed, if we're doing market-based school reform shouldn't there be a flowering of Beacon-style progressive schools?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Virginia State Pilots for CanDo/SchoolTool

An RFP went out yesterday from the Commonwealth of Virginia for funded pilots of CanDo (note to self: update CanDo web presence), which is a component of SchoolTool that tracks student competencies:

Local school divisions, regional technical centers and academies are invited to participate in a pilot project that will test the functionality and capabilities of the “CanDo” electronic student competency recordkeeping system for career and technical education courses. This project will be funded and administered by the Office of Career and Technical Education, Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

There will be one pilot site per superintendent’s region. The Office of Career and Technical Education will award eight grants of $5,000.

This is a big step for both projects.

This Was Written When I Was 14

Brian Harvey:

I think the notion of computer literacy grew up in the first place as an accident of history, because of the great speed with which computers have become important. Curriculum developers are, by and large, 30 or 40 or 50 years old. They grew up in a world without computers. Suddenly, they have had to face up to a shocking change in the very nature of the world around them. In inventing computer literacy courses, they have designed a curriculum for themselves, not for the kids who have grown up with Pacman, automated bank tellers, and bar code readers in the supermarket.

When Good Companies Don't Want To Sell To You

Paul Graham:

Joel Spolsky recently spoke at Y Combinator about selling software to corporate customers. He said that in most companies software costing up to about $1000 could be bought by individual managers without any additional approvals. Above that threshold, software purchases generally had to be approved by a committee. But babysitting this process was so expensive for software vendors that it didn't make sense to charge less than $50,000. Which means if you're making something you might otherwise have charged $5000 for, you have to sell it for $50,000 instead.

The purpose of the committee is presumably to ensure that the company doesn't waste money. And yet the result is that the company pays 10 times as much.

Checks on purchases will always be expensive, because the harder it is to sell something to you, the more it has to cost. And not merely linearly, either. If you're hard enough to sell to, the people who are best at making things don't want to bother. The only people who will sell to you are companies that specialize in selling to you. Then you've sunk to a whole new level of inefficiency. Market mechanisms no longer protect you, because the good suppliers are no longer in the market.

These are pretty good reasons for why schools get such crappy software. Also, note that other large enterprises have the same problem. Teachers have a tendency to come up with overly philosophical reasons to explain why their schools seem so poopy. A lot of it is just that they're big enterprises. Working for a big business is often equally poopy.

Wendy Kopp's Oval Office Visit

Here's what I'm picturing. President Obama invites Wendy Kopp to the Oval Office, charms her socks off, tells her how awesome she is, and then offers a personal challenge to take Teach for America to the next level, to take the step that America needs it to take, and to turn TFA into an organization dedicated to creating a corps of insanely great career professional teachers, principals, and education professors.

What is she going to say? "No. I can't?"

I can't imagine this scene not taking place.

Forks and Knock-Offs

I'm gratified that Bill Kerr has followed up on my concerns about Scratch Licensing and, after what I'd consider an impartial review of the situation, reached pretty much the same conclusion I have. Here are some quotes from Mitch Resnick's response to Bill's post:

* One key issue remains. We restrict the source license to non-commercial distribution. Our concern is that a company might make a slightly modified version of our source code and start selling it with a big marketing budget -- and with a different educational philosophy than our own. Such an effort could (via its marketing budget) gain much more visibility than our Scratch effort, and undermine our educational efforts with Scratch. I don't know if that's a significant risk. But we're hesitant to allow commercial distribution of variants of our source code, at least until Scratch is more firmly established in the world.

* In your post, you mention that you personally moved away from certain versions of Logo because they were commercial. So I would think that you would appreciate our efforts to keep Scratch non-commercial, and to avoid commercial competition at least for a while, as we establish Scratch.

* Like you, I am also concerned if the Scratch license "significantly restricts the distribution of Scratch to children around the world." But a well-funded commercial competitor could also restrict the proliferation of Scratch (and the educational ideas underlying Scratch). As I said earlier, I think the Scratch Team's goals are well-aligned with yours; we just have some difference of opinion on how to best achieve those goals. We will continue to re-evaluate our licensing policies over time, as we try to figure out the best way to help more people become engaged with Scratch and related educational ideas.

Let's start with the Logo question. My reading of the Logo (programming language) history is that the popular Logos of the 1970's and 1980's were commercial and proprietary, including the LCSI Logo, which I presume should be considered the canonical Papert Logo. Because these were proprietary implementations, what happened then was not forking off a common free codebase. What you got was a bunch of knock-offs, many just cherry-picking the flashy "turtle graphics" parts without the deeper aspects of the underlying Lisp dialect.

I don't want to be too glib about it being a mistake to not "open source" the original Logo -- they simply preceded the Free Software movement. We know a lot more about software licensing now than we did then. But we can speculate that a free Logo kernel would have strengthened Logo in its day, putting a real Logo directly in more kids hands as well as putting a more powerful language inside those knock-offs. Open source processes have been a raging success in programming language development, more than in any other application, and it is unfortunate that Logo came along too early to take advantage of that.

Getting back to Scratch: what if this happened:

A government agency, or foundation, or university makes a slightly modified version of our source code and starts giving it away with a big marketing budget -- and with a different educational philosophy than our own.

That's allowed under the current licensing scheme. In fact, a government has better than a marketing budget, it could make its evil Scratch fork part of the curriculum.

Setting that hypothetical aside, let's try to guess what they're really worried about. Let's say LeapFrog wants to market multimedia authoring and programming environment for kids, and they want to build it on Scratch. Here's what they can do now, by my reading:

  • Get an earlier version of Scratch under the more permissive (BSD-style) license and do more or less whatever they please.
  • Distribute the binary release of Scratch with whatever supporting materials they wanted.
  • Modify the source release of Scratch and donate the IP to a shell non-profit. Sell books, hardware, etc., and distribute the software on a non-commercial basis.
  • I think that given the weird nature of Squeak that you could distribute the binary of Scratch with a patch that either via an automatic installer or with some minimal user intervention would change Scratch to do whatever you wanted it to do.

In short, I think if an aggressive corporation really thought they could make a lot of money redistributing a version of Scratch, the current licensing provides plenty of holes for them to do so.

One last point that deserves some discussion: what's the role of educational philosophy in this, really? I for one would be happy if LeapFrog took Scratch, re-branded it, properly crediting the Scratch team, retained the original intent and philosophy and sold a zillion copies. Is the Scratch team against that? I don't buy the idea that a company would take Scratch and mutate it into something with a fundamentally conflicting educational philosophy. Scratch is a tall stack of obscure and obtuse (to most programmers, at least) software engineering built for a specific purpose. If you want something less powerful than Scratch, there are much easier ways of getting there than trying to create a neutered Scratch. It simply doesn't make economic sense. There just aren't enough Squeak developers on the planet to contemplate it. If someone wants a crappier Scratch, they'll write a knock-off.

What's annoying about all this is that the Scratch Team is making a cost/benefit analysis and deciding that an imperfect method of preventing an unlikely outcome which is potentially sort of bad, but doesn't affect them directly, that they'd rather prevent that than take advantage of the entire global free software community and distribution system, which actually exists, and gets stronger every day, with or without them.