Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I have a rule: I don't criticize classroom teachers on my blog over their practice. It is just too easy, mean, and unproductive, and teaching is just too hard. Of course, I'm more than happy to slam teachers over their crappy punditry, but that's different. I'm going to add an exception now, though: classroom practice used as examples by professional wonks is fair game.

So... as Elizabeth Green points out, Andy Rotherham shares a quote that Ed Sector, Ed Trust and and others use as an example of a "grade 7 standards based rigorous writing assignment:"

Is this actually a good assignment? First off, I think there is an error in punctuation or usage in every sentence. Not really a good start, nor an indicator of the kind of high quality teacher Ed Sector ostensibly sees at the center of school reform.

The more times you re-read this sentence, as a student struggling to figure it out would do, the less sense it makes:

Your thesis will state specifically what Anne's overall personality is, and what general psychological and intellectual changes she exhibits over the course of the book

People have specific overall personalities? Really? Like... what? Andy Rotherham is an asshat? Is that a specific overall personality description? Do they teach this taxonomy of personality types in seventh grade in California?

However this works, it must be terse, because it is only part of your thesis. Oddly, you move from the "specific" personality to "general" psychological and intellectual changes to complete your thesis. Wouldn't it make more sense to ask about her general personality and specific changes, or just one specific change? Unless you're trying to train kids to write long, dull, unfocused papers for the sake of writing long papers (the standards call for 500 to 700 words at this level), you don't want them to dance around a whole set of psychological and intellectual changes. You want kids to laser in on the text; you want a close reading of one key part of the text and its implications.

But gee, this assignment does seem pretty hard! Rigor! Is this really what the California Language Arts standards require -- is this standards-based? This is the most relevant standard for the content of this assignment:

3.3. analyze characterization as delineated through a character's thoughts, words, speech patterns, and actions; the narrator's description; and what other characters think, say, and do.

The assignment does a poor job at addressing this standard. The assignment should focus on the text, instead of a bogus "psychological" and "intellectual" analysis of Anne Frank. The entire premise of this assignment is wrong. You cannot assign a 21st century 12 year old in California the task of analyzing "Anne Frank," at most they can analyze the text and her characterization of herself. And waitaminute, does the first sentence really say this is a "novel?"

Using the words "psychological" and "intellectual" gives a veneer of "rigor," but it is pure pretense. Is there any rigor to these kids understanding of psychology or intellectual development? Or is it just handwaving? I pulled down my copy of Bridging English, which has some good stuff about psychological profiles in responses to literature, based on different theoretical constructs like Erik Erikson or Lawrence Kohlberg's work. If the teacher who created this assignment gave their students any sort of framework to approach this analysis (and give it some "rigor"), it would have been good form to mention this in the prompt. However, if they did get into that stuff, they would have been wandering pretty far off the standards reservation, because I can't find anything -- I can't find the words "psychology" or "intellectual" -- in the Language Arts, History and Social Studies or Science standards.

In the end, this assignment is no worse than a million other lousy tasks handed out every day, and the world hasn't stopped turning, and I'm sure a lot of kids gain valuable experience in writing crappy essays for high school English class via this assignment.

The point is that this assignment is just one fake prop among many held up by self-styled education reformers who know or care nothing about the messy details of teaching and learning. Apparently none of them can tell a well constructed assignment from tossed off pretense. Standards are just a cudgel to be wielded, who cares what they actually say? We must have highly qualified teachers -- like this English teacher who calls The Diary of a Young Girl a novel and has issues with tense consistency and comma placement. We cannot be freed of these fools too quickly.

This post brought to you by Arrogant Bastard Ale. It's oaked! Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Ravitch Center

I think the Obama pragmatic center will end up close to the Ravitch pragmatic center. Two years ago (or less!) I would have been mortified by this statement. Today, it doesn't sound too bad.

Readers and Writers vs. Information Processors

I imagine pretty much nobody understands why the NCTE/21st Century Skills thing pisses me off as much as it does. First off, it might be helpful to know I've got a Masters in Teaching English from Brown, so this concerns the only discipline in which I have actual professional training, as opposed to, say, everything else I pontificate about.

Here's the nub of it: English teachers do not and should not believe that people "access and use information." That is not the way we think about the world, and it is not how the world works.

We believe that people read, write and create texts, signs, signifiers, culture. Perhaps you can argue that it is a semantic difference, but words matter, and if English teachers cannot be bothered to pay attention to their meaning, then why do we need English teachers?

A Magic Bullet I Can Believe In

Tom Vander Ark gets at the one high concept magic bullet structural rearrangement that I think might work:

While far from easy, states with courageous governors could use this crisis to make a radical change: cut the budget by 10% and send the money directly to schools. Every school would get a three year performance contract (i.e., charter) and would be required to join a support network (which could include what used to be a school district, a university, a non-profit like New Tech Foundation, a charter management organization like Green Dot, a for-profit like Edison Learning, or a self-organized coop).

Urban school district administrations are, in my observation, even more of a disaster area than the schools themselves. As far as I can tell, we know several different ways to make successful schools, but nobody can consistently fix entire school districts, and beyond that, it is even harder to do research on that scale than in individual schools and classrooms.

I don't think the "cut the budget 10%" part is a necessary or desirable part of the plan, and it would be easier to stomach once we pass the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easy to re-organize all the little schools.

via GothamSchools.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Obama Question

Getting too deep into guessing Obama's intentions for ed policy a week or two before he picks his Education Secretary is, well, just pointless. But let's frame the question properly at least. Obama sees himself as a pragmatic, centrist technocrat, although we'd all have to admit he's an unusually charismatic one.

The question is, what's the pragmatic, centrist position on education?

I'd certainly argue that our ed policy, as practiced by the government and elucidated by think tanks for the past eight years, has been highly ideological, driven by ideas, not evidence or results. Or, particularly, driven by unproven ideas about certain kinds of evidence. It has been driven by a partisan strategy to eviscerate traditional Democratic constituencies and policy points and create a permanent Republican majority.

Of course, people who disagree with me feel that my positions are radical, ideological, partisan, etc., and they're the level-headed centrists.

The question is, where does Obama find the pragmatic center? So far, it feels like a lot closer to my point of view, but the big shoes are still to drop. We shall see.


King Kaufman feels my pain, and vice versa:

It gets harder every year. The calendar comes around again and the same things keep happening. Every once in a while I get a hot idea for a column, write about half of it, then discover, during a Google search on the subject, that I'd written the exact same column four years earlier. How many different ways can one person say, "Please point the camera at the ball!"?

Repeating Myself

Obviously, I hit recurring themes here, but increasingly I get these panicky feelings that I'm writing exactly the same posts over and over. Did I write exactly this post the last time NCTE put out something about 21st Century Skills. Maybe, but apparently if I did it was more than two years ago, so that's probably permissible. Also, it is hard to keep track of which posts I actually published, compared to the ones I wrote in my head, or started then abandoned.

Compare and Contrast

Robert Scholes, 1998, describing Pacesetter English developed in partnership with NCTE:

Literacy involves the ability to understand and produce a wide variety of texts that use the English language--including work in the traditional literary forms, in the practical and persuasive forms, and in the modern media as well. Whether students go on to higher education or enter the workforce after graduation, their success will depend to a great extent on their ability to understand and use the English language. That is why this course makes language itself--and its use in various forms, genres and media--the center of attention.

Language can be as personal as the pronouns I and you--or as impersonal as a tax form. To live as mature human beings and functioning members of society we need to be able to communicate with others. In some cultures the ability to speak and listen carries the whole burden of communication. But our culture is organized by the most complex system of textuality the world has ever known. We need speaking and listening skills, to be sure, and we need to be literate in the traditional sense: able to read and write. But we also need to be "literate" across a various and complex network of different kinds of writing and various media of communication.

It is this complexity that has led us to the use of the word text in designing the Pacesetter English course. Poems, plays, stories, letters, essays, interviews, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, television shows, yes, and even tax forms, are all different kinds of texts. What the course aims at, then is to increase the textual power of the students that take it: to help them learn how to read in the fullest sense of that word. Reading, in this sense of the word, means being able to place or situate a text, to understand it from the inside, sympathetically, and to step away from it and see it from the outside, critically. It means being able to see a text for what it is and to ask also how it connects--or fails to connect--to the life and times of the reader.

This is textual power, but textual power does not stop there; it also extends the ability to respond, to talk back, to write back, to analyze, to extend, to take one's own textual position in relation to Shakespeare--or to any kind of text. Shakespeare wants audiences whose love of language and ability to respond to it matches his own textual power. A tax form (like most other bureaucratic forms) wants a person who can follow directions. Ever text offers its audience a certain role to play. Textual power involves the ability to play many roles--and to know that one is playing them--as well as the ability to generate new texts, to make something that did not exist before somebody makes it. That--all that--is what this course is about.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008 in cooperation with the NCTE, 21st Century Skills Map.

I hope NCTE get a mess of pottage in the exchange for their intellectual birthright. The problem is not that these texts are directly opposed to each other, but that one is (in part) a hollowed out shell of the other.

The New New 21st Century Skills


We're heading into a hard work economy in which people derive their pleasures and gratification more traditionally -- mainly through the company of their fellow human beings (which is saying a lot, for those of you who have forgotten what that's about). Our current investments in "education" -- i.e. training people to become marketing executives for chain stores -- will delude Americans for a while about what kind of work is really available. But before long, the younger adults will realize that there are enormous opportunities for them in a new and very different economy. We will still have commerce -- even if it's not the K-Mart blue-light-special variety -- and the coming generation will have to rebuild all the local, multi-layered networks of commercial inter-dependency that were destroyed by the rise of the chain stores. In short, get ready for local business. It will surely be part-and-parcel of our local food-growing and manufacturing activities.

An Important Opportunity for Education-Oriented Internet Projects I Like

Here. Projects I don't like should submit their ideas to David Warlick.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I Got the Wii Fit For the Yoga, Really!

Coming soon to a balance board near you...

Thursday, November 20, 2008



Zeitgeist Alert

I think this is a good indicator of the direction the wind is blowing:

"Unfortunately, so much of the discussion is around academic outcomes that people are going to make some false choices," Canada said. “We are going to create a hole that we are not going to be able to dig ourselves out of.”

Another panelist tried to calm Canada’s fears, saying that programs that are considered successful won’t be at risk. “They’re still going to fund results,” the panelist said.

But funding results is exactly the problem, Canada replied. The emphasis in recent years has turned so squarely onto results — usually in the form of test scores — that programs that don’t demonstrate a clear academic benefit are in jeopardy, even when they are valuable, he said.

Canada said funders often ask him questions like, “You’ve got that chess program — how are the kids’ grades?” He said he thinks, “That’s what we pay the chess instructor for. When I send my kid to play soccer I don’t expect his reading scores to go up!”

And funders often ask for evidence of success that is difficult or impossible to generate, Canada said — evidence that he pointed out isn’t required in other fields.

“We’re giving huge amounts of money to people who admit that not only have they failed … but they almost destroyed the whole economic system of the world,” Canada said, his voice rising as he referred to the Wall Street bailout that is costing taxpayers more than $700 billion. “Then somebody asks me if kids should take violin and do I have evidence?!”

Also, you totally should be reading GothamSchools.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Early Jaded

Seventeen years and 11 months ago, I was standing outside a dorm at Evergreen College listening to Nirvana's set in the living room rattling through the windows, chatting with Mark Robinson and Tobi Vail and generally feeling like Nirvana was a band whose moment had past. They were great in the summer of 1989, but that was a long time ago. Of course, the following year they released Nevermind, the most influential rock record of the decade.

I'm kind of feeling the same way about OLPC, but I also suspect I'm wrong in the same way. So... I don't have anything in particular to say about the new G1G1, except I'm happy that it seems like they're going to be able to keep the ball rolling, and if they can find a drummer as good as Dave Grohl, they'll be unstoppable. Well, as long as Nicholas Negroponte doesn't marry Courtney Love.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I Get It, This Is One Of Those Tree Octopus Things, Right?

National Geographic:

Explaining the oddity will undoubtedly unearth new laws of physics found only on Saturn, said Nick Achilleos of University College London.

Is someone testing my 21st Century Literacies?

Four Percent

Richard Ingersol (via eduwonkette):

Teachers represent 4% of the entire civilian workforce. There are, for example, more than twice as many elementary and secondary teachers as there are registered nurses, and there are five times as many teachers as there are either lawyers or professors. The sheer size of the teaching force combined with its levels of annual turnover mean that there are large numbers of teachers in some kind of job transition each year. For example, the data show that over the course of the 1999-2000 school year, well over 1 million teachers— almost a third of this large workforce—moved into, between, or out of schools.

A lot of this chatter about teacher quality and the efficacy of firing our way out of an education crisis simply loses track of the scale of public education.

Put another way, the percentage of teachers in the US workforce is close to the percentage of Asians in the US population.

Or, to express this in "Did You Know?" math:

If 100% of the top 5% of all workers...

...became teachers...

...there would only be 1% left for...

...all other occupations.

The Filibuster in Theory and Practice

Andrew Leonard:

In the modern political era, the Democrats assume they will need 60 votes to pass anything, based on their fear of a Republican filibuster. Personally I would like to see this theory tested in practice a little more often, just so the general public gets a clear sense of exactly who is obstructing legislation, but I will concede that the current Democratic majority in the Senate is so razor thin as to make that a moot point.

The majority will be significantly larger in the new Congress, but still not up to 60, barring a surprise in Georgia and a recount victory for Al Franken in Minnesota. What this means is that Obama's chances for success, on anything will hinge on being able to convince two or three Republicans to cross party lines. Everything. A new stimulus plan, health care, climate change -- the works. For at least two years, the power to steer the U.S. economy is going to be controlled not by the President who gained 63 million votes, not by the majority party in both the Senate and the House, but by that rarest of nearly extinct creatures, the moderate Senate Republican.

Maine, with its two moderate Republican Senators, is about to become the most important state in the union.

Step one is re-framing the filibuster as a somewhat extraordinary act and not the intentional design of American democracy. Actually making the Republicans execute the filibuster would help.

Every Dumb Thing


Given the quantity of young people participating in social networking and user-generated media, one assumes that a few decades from now we’re going to have to completely shift our norms about some of this stuff, since by 2040 it seems to me that it will hardly be viable to be holding everyone to account for every dumb thing that was ever on their MySpace account in their college days.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Down with BTT

Why I Left and related posts from DC Teacher Chic make for engaging reading. I'd avoid drawing too many larger conclusions, aside from perhaps that one can predict that the wave of enthusiasm for teacher quality will be followed by the startling discovery of the importance of principal quality.

But it also gives me the opportunity to point out something I haven't otherwise had the excuse to do:

As the meeting ended, one student came up to me and said, “Ms. M, Sedric and Rahnold said BTT is still in effect.” BTT stands for “Bust the Teachers,” and it’s a program about 5-6 of the 5th grade boys have. It basically means to give the teachers a hard time, disobey, disrespect, disrupt, etc. This was not good news.

Now, just imagine that you've got a new merit pay and or "you'll get fired for low test scores" initiative in your district and the kids start talking about BTT on test week.

Later... Actually, it is unfair for me to assume the principal is the problem in this case. I think it is prudent not to draw any specific conclusions from this train wreck.

Shirky in Translation

I'm pretty sure Clay Shirky would never say this (from Miguel's notes on Sheryl's presentation):

According to Clay Shirky, there are 4 stages to mastering the connected world:

  • Sharing
  • Cooperating
  • Collaborating
  • Collective action.

In his book, he does describe a "ladder of activities that are enabled or improved by social tools" in which "The rungs on the ladder, in order of difficulty, are sharing, cooperation, and collective action." (Here Comes Everybody, p.49). But that's very different from thinking of these as a sequence of things to be mastered. Each one is potentially more powerful, but also more difficult and complex.

Beyond that, you can't "master" collective action; these things aren't skills. What's good about Shirky is that he problematizes this stuff; I guess it is inevitable that people giving boosterish keynotes referencing his work will subsequently run it though an un-problematizer.

Just something that caught my attention while waiting for Helen to get her mic working on Skype...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dear Santa

I've been waiting for this for thirty years.

21st Century Jobs


It often seems like common sense to believe that if a society gets really good at doing something, then tons of people are going to be doing that thing. But oftentimes the reverse is true. Vastly improved agricultural productivity means fewer farmers. Improved industrial productivity means fewer people in factories. And, indeed, improved information technology will in the long run mean fewer people doing information work. Consider that there used to be a very robust “information economy” of people answering phones and taking messages for executives, taking dictation, managing vast cabinets full of files, correspondence, etc. But now computers and voice mail and so forth take care of a lot of that work.

The future is likely to entail increasingly numbers of Americans working in fields where we’re not seeing any dramatic improvements in methods or technology. Teaching preschool. Cleaning houses. Cooking food all up and down the scale from lowly burger-flippers to high-end chefs. Taking care of the elderly. That sort of thing.

On the other hand, agricultural productivity could suddenly plummet when we run out of cheap oil, and we might need more farmers in a hurry.

AS220 Fab Lab!


The City of Providence has entered into a partnership with AS220, the nonprofit art, design and innovation organization, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a public technology workshop. The AS220 Labs will make Providence one of 20 sites worldwide to host a fabrication laboratory developed by MIT. The so-called Fab Labs provide training and public access to technology and equipment that allow anyone to design products and inventions on a computer. Projects already being developed and produced in Fab Labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, wireless data networks, and custom housing.

More here...

I'm thinking about laser cutting some 19th century base ball covers.

The Cycle of Life

M. Klonsky:

Thus, the new 3 Pillars strategy strikes a mighty blow against all those who claimed that “school structure was sufficient.” But who are they? Sufficient to do what? Does this mean that the 3 Pillars are “sufficient?” Who knows? Who dares to ask? And doesn’t the foundation make this same discovery--about small not being a panacea—every three years or so?

So while change is in the air in Seattle, some things remain the same. Power philanthropy still rules the roost of top-down school reform. Critical thinking is still AWOL. For those in the schools, it’s buy-in or buy-out. You’re not at the table.

Top-down reform inevitably fails. When it does, there’s always another secret summit, a new set of cadre, and a new set of threes.

OLPC and Windows


I would like to point out a few facts. Facts, people. Verifiable facts, straight from the honchos at OLPC themselves.

1. Microsoft committed to purchase 10,000 machines in May, customized to run Windows. They're free to do whatever they want with those machines. For instance: if Microsoft wants to run a pilot of unspecified size in two towns, and turn that pilot into a huge PR event... they are perfectly free to do that.

2. The reason these 10,000 systems had to be customized? Simple: Windows can't even boot on open firmware. Can't even boot! Which means that the other 990,000 XO (or so) systems in the wild CANNOT EVEN RUN WINDOWS with the firmware installed on them.

3. OLPC builds XOs with Linux. OLPC will continue to build XOs with Linux. OLPC has no plans to change this. None.

I Would Find a Less Repugnant Comparison

Ben Lorica:

In a relaxed conversation with Tim, Shai described an electric car industry that resembles the mobile phone business.

The planet is doomed.

Honest Advocacy for National Standards

I for one am glad that the Gates Foundation is going to have a crack at writing national standards. Most talk about national standards is pure phoniness, the equivalent of calling for a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a plan for social security. Just tell us what you think! Don't pretend this can be made non-political. What do you propose, exactly? Which standards?

We've been doing standards a long time now, as have many other nations. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of versions out there. Surely an advocate for national standards can propose an actual set of standards. Are there no good enough standards? If not, why would we imagine that after trying and failing for a couple decades we'll suddenly get it right in some undefined way?

Of course, as soon as you propose a set of standards, half the country (at least) will jump down your neck -- which is the problem with national standards. If Gates thought running small schools was hard, wait until it tries mediating a settlement in the math wars. But really, if you don't have the stomach to take that on, you should shut up about national standards, so kudos to Gates for taking it on.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Making Money

You know, something like The Deck might work for ed-tech blogs, albeit at a somewhat smaller and less profitable scale.

The Jedi Mind Trick

Dan writes:

I won't allow a fourteen year-old to choose to fail.

This is the Jedi mind trick that lies at the heart of successful urban secondary school instruction. I never learned it. Glad Dan has.

Nothing Bringing In a Cadre of Energetic TFA-er's Can't Fix


Interviews with teachers, parents, students and police paint a picture of a troubled school that, far from hitting bottom with its placement on "restructuring" status, has fallen into an even deeper hole. It is overenrolled and understaffed and lacks the extra academic support promised by Rhee, teachers said.

No matter how bad things look, they can still get worse. Forget that at your peril.

Nobody could have predicted...

"We're getting a lot of new principals who, quite frankly, are not very skillful at handling student discipline," Parker said.

Vernon Williams, a union leader and Advanced Placement English teacher at Spingarn High School in Northeast, said he saw a generation of young, talented but inexperienced teachers burning out because of a lack of administrative support in handling unruly students. "I'm not sure how long these newer teachers are going to last," he said.

Obviously the next step is to fire more veterans.

Black Box Assessment

A Test for the Twenty-First Century by Claus at Public School Insights, suggests one of the stronger arguments (compared to what I advanced last night) for demanding open source software in some cases. Specifically, assessment. It is not OK to assess students based on a simulation like, say, River City that is based on rules that cannot be inspected, verified, argued over and improved. That's OK maybe for someone's academic research project designed to generate further academic research grants, but in the real world, it should be regarded as an indulgent toy.

What's particularly horrifying about this approach is that it is often promoted by people who would purport to lecture you on 21st century literacies and such. Whatever is coming from their mouth, the body language screams "Trust the black box. Trust the experts. We are acting in your best interest. Move along, nothing to see here."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Defining Freedom Again

Sylvia asks: I'm getting that what you mean is that open source means that anyone should be able take the source code and do anything commercial or non-commercial? Yes? Is there any way to prevent the commercial path? Or is that just a bad idea in your view?

More importantly than whether or not I think it is a bad idea is that open source and free software have always been defined to allow commercial or non-commercial use. It is simply what those words mean. As Mako put it:

To be sure, many programmers and software companies are uncomfortable with the freedoms required by the FSD (Free Software Definition). Programmers are welcome to release applications under a license that prohibits terrorists, fascists, or pacifists from using their software but their software won't be free. There are very good and thoughtfully considered reasons for each freedom in the FSD; there may also be very good and thoughtfully considered reasons for choosing not to use them. Free Software draws a line and leaves the final judgment calls up to the developers applying the licenses and the users using the software.

Not every programmer has to write free software. Not every programmer does. But if coders want to call their project "Free Software" or "Open Source," they must pass the bar set in the FSD and OSD. If a programmer wants their software included in Debian, listed in the Free Software Directory, or supported by SourceForge, Free Software's core freedoms must exist for their users. As a result, few coders write "almost free" software today while, proportionately, many more did two decades ago.

I do think that in most cases non-commercial licensing of educational software is a bad idea on pragmatic grounds in part because the market for educational software is so lousy. I don't sit around gnashing my teeth over the fact that the small number of profitable proprietary educational software companies, like, say, Carnegie Learning, don't open source their software. It would be nice if they did, but I've got other fish to fry.

But in most of the cases of academically produced software I'm thinking of, commercial licensing the software won't be a windfall for anyone, either the person who created it or anyone else. The only thing practically accomplished by the non-commercial license is creating a significant barrier to re-distribution. There are other arguments to be made against non-commercial licensing; I primarily think it is inefficient and wasteful and demonstrably doesn't work. It just creates shelfware.


Universities use public funds to make this stuff - so is it fair that some company can take it, not share their work, and sell it?

The flipside to this, which I think is compelling, not to mention politically expedient, is that educational software companies and publishers pay taxes too. I want the government to fund research and development in these fields, but ultimately you're talking about the government creating products that compete with products made by the private sector. Allowing commercial use and distribution of government funded software mitigates that conflict. I think it is a reasonable compromise. You're not going to make an obscene profit by simply selling copies of software that's already available at no cost, and I do hope vendors have incentive to provide training, support, etc. for free software, at a fair profit. Using a more restrictive free software license like the GPL also helps ensure that changes made by the commercial vendors will be made available to the commons.

This is (Not) Our Emergency


But responsible leadership needs to tackle topics with an eye on the extent to which they’re actually pressing emergencies rather than just festering sources of injustice.

Ginning up educational crises just gets you this:

Instead of a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done and then simply doing it, the [poorly performing] companies launched new programs "often with great fanfare and hoopla aimed at 'motivating the troops'" only to see the programs fail to produce sustained results. They sought the single defining action, the grand program, the one killer innovation, the miracle moment that would allow them to skip the arduous buildup stage and jump right to the breakthrough.

This debilitating pattern of the "doom loop" is felt acutely in urban schools. School districts replace superintendents with alarming frequency, hailing each as the savior leader. Curricula lurch from progressive to traditional and back again, and each year a new professional development guru rolls out the program du jour. Initiatives and teams are developed without enough planning and training, and no program or leader is given enough time to produce great results. By the time any traction is made, a new program, fad, or leader is in place. Nobody is truly accountable, and no momentum toward excellent results is built up. Teachers are frustrated, and students fail to learn.

For the Love of God Could Somebody Please Explain Open Source Licensing to These People

Sylvia writes about PhET simulations:

Many of them have also been translated into many languages, and are open source so they can be modified if you want.

I have, of course, learned to actually investigate such claims, although this is only, only an issue when universities and foundations purport to be providing open source software to K-12. For all intents and purposes, the entire rest of the software industry gets this right (ok, maybe not embedded system vendors). Universities and foundations get it wrong, and continue to hold out "open source" software to educators like Lucy tempting Charlie Brown with a football.

Anyhow, here's the licensing page:

Creative Commons License PhET Interactive Simulations by The PhET Team, University of Colorado are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
What does this mean?
The interactive simulations developed by The PhET Team may be freely used and/or redistributed by third parties (e.g. students, educators, school districts, museums, etc.) as long as that use or distribution does not involve commercial uses (e.g. reselling the simulations, distributing the simulations through a website that makes money off of ads, etc.). If you are interested in commercial uses, see next section.

For commercial use and distribution of sims:

If you are interested in alternative license options, please contact PhET at

Source code for sims:

Creative Commons License The PhET sourcecode is licensed under a Creative Commons GNU General Public License.

The problem here is very basic. They're trying to use a non-commercial license and the GPL, which allows commercial redistribution. It doesn't make any sense. This is the mess the Hewlett Foundation, NSF (i.e., you, American citizen), and King Saud University get for their money. Pathetic.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Making Him Do It


In the current political world, I believe that Obama and the Democrats need a strong left wing that is out there agitating in order that we can continue to build popular support and also give them a political excuse to do things that the political establishment finds too liberal. Being cheerleaders all the time, however enjoyable that is, is not going to help them. Leaving them out there with no left wing cripples them.

One of the problems for Democrats has been that there has not been an effective progressive voice pushing the edge of the envelope. Therefore, when they inevitably "go to the middle" as politicians often feel they must do, the middle become further and further right. It is my belief that one of the roles of the progressive movement is to keep pulling the politicians back to the left, which often means that we are not being publicly "supportive," in order that we really do end up in the middle instead of farther to the right than the country actually is.

I'm not an idiot and I know very well that Obama needs room to govern. A big historic victory, a village predisposed to at least give him a chance and a set of very serious crises to confront will give him that. My role is to make sure that the progressive agenda is pushed as well, and to make sure that the village knows that we are watching. I don't mind if they hate me, if they also have a healthy respect for the fact that I will stand up for what I believe in. I think this is necessary for successful politics. I don't expect to win all the time (or even most of the time) and I will be very, very supportive when the Democrats come through. But I believe that they need us to keep their feet to the fire.

In addition, we need to start the long process of making progressivism the default political identity of the young. That requires rhetoric that stands strong and takes pride in being liberal. Politicians may have to say that they "represent all the people" and give lip service to bipartisanship, but there is no reason that they should have to run from the progressive label or feel the need to kick their own base in the teeth in order to govern. That's bad for our politics in the long run.

So, everyone needs to relax a little bit about the blogosphere criticizing Obama and the Democrats. We are necessary. If all Obama has is the Villagers and the right defining what change means, then those are the parameters within which he will have to operate. He needs us to "make him do it."

Friday, November 07, 2008


Reportedly, the incoming freshman class at the neighborhood high school is noticeably less computer literate than their peers over the past decade or so, using the classical definition of "computer literate" as knowing how to do things like cut and paste with the mouse. Presumably this reflects changes in middle school priorities.

"...Ensur(ing) that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels."

From the Obama education platform and transition website:

They will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.

What do you think that means? I think we're going to get this, more or less:

  • Courses for each grade. There would be course materials for mathematics and science for all students in each of five grades 6-11, and four advanced courses would be generated for grade 12 science students. Engineering topics would be woven into each course.

  • Research-based. The design would incorporate insights from research and best practice. Learning would be contextualized, inquiry-based, hands-on, and adapted to student capacities and understandings.

  • Integrated. Mathematics and science would be tightly integrated and the math/science/engineering topics would be integrated across grades. Grades 9-11 would feature a physics-chemistry-biology sequence.

  • Focused on core concepts. The treatment would make extensive us of computational models and tools to help students learn concepts and avoid getting lost in details and exceptions. Formalism, proofs, and computation would be minimized.

  • Online, free replacement for texts. All materials, assessments, and teacher support would be available free online using the open source and open access models of electronic distribution. This would free schools to use $600M/yr in textbook money for the requisite technology and break the tyranny of state textbook adoption procedures.

  • Tested, revised, and validated. An extensive formative and summative research effort would support revisions and measure student learning gains.

I hope this will be an example of what will become a trademark Obama move: innovative, large-scale, forward-looking, controversy-defusing, and massively cost-saving. In particular, this is "controversy-defusing" in comparison with the conventional ("center-right") wisdom, that we need national standards. Yeah, right. That'll take forever, produce something that the Republicans will rail and run against for years, and result in slightly realigned textbooks landing in classrooms around 2012. Yay. Just pick some good standards (or if there aren't any by this point, that's pretty much a definitive proof that the entire standards-driven approach is a failure anyhow) and write the curriculum.

You don't have to make it mandatory, and because it is open source it is really just a starting point. States and vendors can modify it to suit their needs, researchers can build on it and refine it. Flat-earthers and creationists can just ignore it.

This is also the lever point for computers in schools. Computers for the sake of computers is a dead letter, yet, we need computers! Especially for teaching forward-looking math and science. So you write the curriculum assuming that every kid has access to at least an XO-style laptop/e-book reader, and provide about a $100 subsidy per student for laptops. Then you're talking about a device with a clear, specific pedagogic purpose and low-cost. That will work. If people really don't want it, I'm sure Pearson will sell them the doorstop version, or if they want better computers, they can get those too. But we can get enough computing into kids' hands at a low cost.

I was going to make this an 8-year prediction (with the implicit prediction of two terms for Obama), but now I'm feeling like it will be sooner. What's the argument against it?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Deep Thought

I hope to live to see a Jew from Wisconsin become President of the United States.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Free Software and Academic Research: The Dog that Has Not Barked

Jim Gettys rides one of my favorite hobby horses, although he's looking at research in user interface design, rather than educational software (not to say there isn't a huge overlap):

I recently attended the UIST conference, and discovered there was essentially no overlap between the research community and (the free software community). (...)

Dan Olsen notes in “Evaluating User Interface Systems Research“:

“This search for fatal flaws is devastating for systems research. It is virtually impossible for a small team of researchers to recreate all of the capabilities of existing systems or to completely examine all of the eventualities of new concepts. The farther such a team reaches into new territory the more compromises will be required and the more supporting ideas must be left unresolved.  If a new systems approach is attempted, the omissions of some important feature is guaranteed. The existence of a fatal flaw is a given. If the evaluation of the work is focused on “what does it not do” no research system will ever pass. Flaw analysis will frequently be a barrier to new systems research.”

As a result, UI systems research has stagnated due to combined effect of the middleware of the UI stack being closed (or in our case, until the recent flowering of the free desktop undid more than a decade of stagnation) and this effect.  Many good ideas of all kinds have been explored from hardware, to window system UI ideas, to UI ideas for specific classes of applications. But there is much less proof of which ideas actually works in a real system, for the reasons Dan lays out.  The resulting research experiments are usually “toy” systems, and toy applications, built in the limited environment of MacIntosh and Windows where much of the system is off-limits.  The research community has neither the resources nor (if they work on Mac and/or Windows) the ability to make advances “real”.  But we do! We have the resources, the open system, and the ability to and desire to innovate.

Our fundamental advantage we have is the ability to experiment  and modify all areas of the stack; from hardware, to the window system, though toolkits to applications.  Just as compositing has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom (most of which stink, but we’ve picked some that smell pretty sweet) in eye candy, accessibility and in other areas, compositing and other modern free software technologies can be used in new an unexpected ways. We are able to perform experiments, and have a large audience to test the experiments radically faster than commercial software.  Nice as the Web is, there are just some things you can’t do in the web until the underlying technologies have support.  20 years of frustration in the UI research community shows that pushing from research to commercial vendors does not and cannot work at more than a glacial pace. Let us pull people to free software by out innovating and becoming the system with the best user experience, by pulling with the best ideas of free software and research innovation.

A New Era Begins...

I went shopping in Rhode Island's first Trader Joe's today. Life may never be the same again.

Living to See It...

When Jennifer and I lived in Connecticut we used to go to the annual Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) summer conferences, which are traditionally held at campsites. Not your standard academic conference, with an heterodox mix including plenty of people who were not academic economists (like me).

My main pastime at the conference was hanging out with a couple I met there, Jim and Rina Garst, listening to them tell stories about their lives spent organizing and agitating for social justice. I learned a lot of history from them. There is actually a interview with Rina discussing her childhood and education accessible via Google Books (or buy it!) that gives you some of the flavor:

I was born in Stelton in 1931 as Voltairine de Cleyre Winokour, the second daughter of Abe Winokour and Anna Sosnovsky, both dedicated anarchists who are now buried in Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago. My sister's name is Tisa, "ti" from Vanzetti, "sa" from Sacco. She now lives in California. At Stelton I recall in 1937 driving through the colony with Father collecting clothing for Spanish anarchist refugees. We also went to the Johnson & Johnson factory in New Brunswick to buy bandages and medical supplies to send to Spain. Spain was the overriding issue at the time, and I was weaned on anti-Communism, the Communists being the betrayers of the Russian Revolution and now of the Spanish Revolution. There was a big fight in the colony during the thirties between the anarchists and the Communists, even when I was a baby. Ma was so upset that her milk became poisoned and she almost died. Dr. Stretch saved Ma by putting me on goat's milk, and we then kept a goat in our back yard...

Rina told me a great story about her involvement in an action to desegregate diners in New Jersey, in what I guess must have been the early 1950's. She went from diner to diner with an African diplomat until by the end of the day they had been arrested over twenty times for sitting where they pleased (or, at least, that's how I remember it).

I also remember sitting with Jim and Rina in a panel discussion at a different conference in New York circa 1998 where the subject was the future of organizing over the internet (hm... actually it was "Politics and the future of the labor movement" in September of 1996... the things you can do with Google...). I didn't think it would replace face-to-face organizing. Turns out it didn't, but I don't think anyone quite understood how the two would work together a decade later.

So at this historic moment I've been thinking about Jim and Rina. Once I started teaching, the Summer Conference fell the weekend before school started, and it was too tough to attend, and I lost touch with Jim and Rina. Sadly, Jim passed away in December 2006 at the age of 80. Rina looks like she was doing well as of May of this year. So I hope she got to see this culmination of the long project of integration. I don't know if Rina would vote for Obama though. She always wrote in Jim's name for President. Of course, the good thing about living to see the day is that I don't have to wonder how she would feel, I should just track her down again and ask her.


Ezra Klein:

My basic emotion is relief. The skill of an Obama administration has yet to be proven. The structure of our government will prove a more able opponent of change than John McCain. But for the first time in years, I have the basic sense that it's going to be okay. Not great, necessarily. And certainly not perfect. But okay. The country will be led by decent, competent people who fret over the right things and employ the tools of the state for recognizable ends. They may not fully succeed. But then, maybe they will. At the least, they will try. And if they fail in their most ambitious goals, maybe they will simply make things somewhat better. After the constant anxiety and uncertainty of the last eight years, maybe that's enough.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Never Thought I'd Live To See...

...a person I voted for elected President.

Exchanging Virtual Money for Playing Time

I've always associated selling in-game money and assets for real-world currency to be, essentially a cheat, but I'm seeing the wisdom of how CCP is approaching the matter in EVE especially as we sink into a global recession and a chaotic period on the currency markets.

For a while they've maintained a system by which you can buy (with real-world money) a "game time code" (GTC) for a play subscription of a certain number of days, then sell that to another player through the EVE Online website for ISK (in-game currency). Soon, you'll be able to buy and sell gametime through the (quite sophisticated) in-game market and contract system.

We are going to try this out in the next couple of months and see what the results are. You should see this in Quantum Rise or shortly following it. I personally think that it will enable a lot of people to continue to play EVE despite the current world economy and enable others, that could never pay 15 USD in foreign currency but have time to play, to start playing EVE. Like this one time, in Iceland camp, it‘s almost impossible to get foreign currency. 15 USD would buy me a case of beer whereas previously it would get my voracious liver only one.

One thing this may do in particular is strengthen the capacity for in-game alliances and corporations to internally balance out players who are wealthy in-game but perhaps have hit hard times in real life, with players who are in better economic shape in real life than in EVE. Generally making it easier for players to spend EVE currency to keep playing EVE, even if they are short of real money, while additionally providing structures to do within in-game organizations, so I'm not subsidizing my enemy's pilots, or just giving cash to gold farmers.

It seems like a smart move. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

2008 Winners:

If I was someone who gave lots of talks at ed-tech conferences about "Web 2.0" and such, I'd definitely add a piece about the success of Since over three and a half million people visited the site last month (beating out established blogs like Talking Points Memo, for example), there is a pretty good chance you've already seen it.

It is a strong example of the meritocratic side of internet publishing. 538 is essentially three guys, Blogger and some spreadsheets. But they've done more than just analysis, they've gone on the road and done excellent reporting (while the pros waste their (and our) time). The site design is simple (e.g., a blog), but vastly better than directly competing poll analysis sites.

The other thing that people need to be reminded of is that reputation and reliability unfold over time. When a site like this is new you can judge it by their own description of their methods, the quality of the thought and writing, etc. But at the end of the day, you're going to be able to look back and know if they were right or not. That's the most important thing to keep track of. Four years ago, I was reading a lot of Ruy Teixeira's blog. Ruy is a smart fellow, but his theories about why Kerry might pull out a victory left me (and many others) feeling burned. People tend to be over-optimistic about blogs being self-correcting in the short term, but in the longer run, the chances may be better.

Claire Spark Loeb: “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.” That's your "information literacy" lesson for today.

Monday, November 03, 2008

This Campaign Has Gone On So Long...

...I can't remember if I ever thought I'd see a black president in my lifetime.

Are Your Children Prepared for the Coming Techno-Utopia?

Education is by its nature forward-looking, and particularly in ed-tech, we take the indulgence of making a lot of arguments based on predictions about the future, and the projected needs of citizens of the future. Or at least we do a lot of hand-waving about the future, but you'll look in vain (or at least I did) for a description of what the 21st century looks like on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills site. And David Warlick (for one) likes to hedge by saying "for the first time in history, we cannot clearly describe the future for which we are preparing our children," which is transparent bullshit (the "for the first time" part, that is).

But generally speaking (in the US K-12 sphere), the message that has really resonated is exemplified by Did You Know? Clearly, this little presentation captured the zeitgeist.

I've been thinking about this and I've decided that overall, what people have gotten caught up in are pessimistic takes on essentially optimistic future scenarios. In effect, "Are your children prepared for the coming techno-utopia?"

For example, if you are worried that the US's grasp on global hegemony in the 21st century may be following in the footsteps of the UK in the 20th century, you're being optimistic. First off, the UK ended up just fine, thank you, notwithstanding the lack of global empire, for which their former colonies are grateful. If you are asking whether or not the US will be a unilateral mega-power or one of several balanced super-powers competing as part of more or less the same global system as we have now, either way you're counting on a lot of stability and prosperity.

Put another way, if you're primarily worried about how we're going to handle information in the future, that implies that the physical world will be relatively ok.

I think the zeitgeist is going to flip, and we're going to start taking more optimistic angles on more pessimistic scenarios. We're increasingly confronted with the reality that a whole set of things we all know are "unsustainable" are ceasing to be sustained or sustain themselves, and we're entering a long period of overlapping, interlocking crises that will completely re-make our physical world and our place in it. I think we're about ready to stop running from cartoon phantoms and start facing real problems.

At least rhetorically, that is.

Realign Your Head

Mark Bernstein:

We had a failed realignment in 1968-1982 in which the Republicans tried to build an alliance between the bankers of 1932 and the embers of the Southern racial and sexual hostilities that drove 1860. It failed because those embers were too cool, and because the policies that appealed to bankers in 1932 didn’t really help bankers in a global environment. Wall Street bubbled and burst; the real winners were oil barons and connected outfits like Halliburton and Blackwater. (...)

But now, we’re going to have a realignment. Not because of the size of the victory, but because there’s no longer an argument for the losing side. There will be a new Republican party, perhaps with a new name, perhaps not. The old GOP will linger on for a decade or two; it might even win a few elections if it can find lucky and charismatic candidates . It’s a spent force.

There will be a new home for conservatives, but their alliance with the know-nothings and bigots has failed. It will be even harder to win with this formula going forward. It’s a losing strategy.

Teaching the Right Kind of Civics

The Edjurist:

So, I can't help but think there is an element of lipservice in O'Conner's civics education push. Yes we should teach our students about our democracy, but we have to realize that we are constantly teaching our students about our democracy every day they attend for 15-20 years. Justice O'Conner, in fact, has already taught our nation's students a lesson in civics ... and I have to say her lessons have been pretty harsh.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

My EduCon Proposal, More or Less


I believe that the school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form. Existing life is so complex that the child cannot be brought into contact with it without either confusion or distraction; he is either overwhelmed by the multiplicity of activities which are going on, so that he loses his own power of orderly reaction, or he is so stimulated by these various activities that his powers are prematurely called into play and he becomes either unduly specialized or else disintegrated.

I believe that as such simplified social life, the school life should grow gradually out of the home life; that it should take up and continue the activities with which the child is already familiar in the home.

I believe that it should exhibit these activities to the child, and reproduce them in such ways that the child will gradually learn the meaning of them, and be capable of playing his own part in relation to them.

I believe that this is a psychological necessity, because it is the only way of securing continuity in the child's growth, the only way of giving a back-ground of past experience to the new ideas given in school.

I believe that it is also a social necessity because the home is the form of social life in which the child has been nurtured and in connection with which he has had his moral training. It is the business of the school to deepen and extend his sense of the values bound up in his home life.

Discuss vis a vis social software in schools.

Thanks to Doug for the Dewey link.

The Pot and How to Use It

Roger Ebert on cooking. Brilliant and hilarious. Jennifer is giving me the stink eye while I'm reading this and snickering and she's trying to write her EduCon proposal.

At least I finally know what kind of rice cooker to buy.