Thursday, April 30, 2009

SchoolTool 1.0 Out NOW!

Who would have believed that I'd spend nearly five years of my life (and who knows how many more) being paid by a South African cosmonaut to develop free software for schools. Who would have dreamed not only that it would take this long to get to "SchoolTool 1.0" -- even more that Mark and I would stick with it? Over the years I've not only repeated all the standard mistakes in software project management, but created some new ones in trying to figure out how to get open source developers and K-12 schools to work together.

What's kept us going is the belief that if we could just get the software written, the demand would be huge -- not so much in mainline US school districts, but there are lots of schools in the world that would benefit from free, easy to use, reliable administrative software.

So now things will get interesting... and fun.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Periodically I Try to Remember This Exact Quote and Find Its Source

Mr. Jalopy:

Everything you love, everything meaningful with depth and history, all passionate authentic experiences will be appropriated, mishandled, watered down, cheapened, repackaged, marketed and sold to the people you hate.

Except I remembered the last part as "marketed and sold back to you by the people you hate." via Boing!Boing!

MBAs: Who ARE Those People?

This ABC Radio (Australia) show "MBA: Mostly bloody awful" is a much more critical look at the management culture in the US than you'll get from mainstream media here. Not really new, but very helpful in reminding you of where a lot of the ideas driving business-model school reform come from, and why the people driving it seem to think they're experts on everything. Entertaining. via Cory.

Friday, April 24, 2009

When To Fork

Bradley Kuhn:

I have faced with much trepidation the news of Oracle's looming purchase of Sun. Oracle has never shown any interest in community development, particularly in the database area. They are the largest proprietary database vendor on the planet, and they probably have very simple plans for MySQL: kill it.

That's why I read with relief this post by Monty (co-founder of the MySQL project) this week, wherein Monty plans (and encourages others, too) to put their full force behind a MySQL “fork” that will be centered outside of Oracle.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shorter Last Night's Rant

I've seen no evidence (and McKinsey provides none) that any country has closed an achievement gap tied to income equality as large as the US's.

I've seen no evidence (and McKinsey provides none) that any country has closed an achievement gap tied to inequality in overall measures of human development as large as the US's.

I've seen no evidence (and McKinsey provides none) that any country has closed an achievement gap tied to historically enslaved, oppressed and marginalized minorities.

I've seen no evidence (and McKinsey provides none) that any country has closed an achievement gap between recent immigrants from less-developed countries and native populations.

I see no direct tie between achievement gaps as measured by standardized testing and per capita income at the state level or state GDP, and no reason to think that this holds at the national level either.

Claus Makes a Good Point (and I Ramble...)

Public School Insights:

Matthews' instinctive reaction to the "bubble kids" phenomenon is fairly common: "A good principal...would put an end to such nonsense." This response certainly carries genuine emotional weight. Still, it puzzles me that so many DC policy wonks invoke it in defense of No Child Left Behind in its current form.

What, after all, is the point of a policy that creates poor incentives and encourages perverse behavior? If we can rely on everyone to do the right thing regardless of consequences, then we hardly need accountability systems in the first place

Also, am I the only one creeped out by Mathews's tendency to say things like this:

That Salcido and her team hired Fine, one of the best writers I have seen among full-time teachers, indicates their good judgment. (emphasis added)

Aside from being condescending, there are over six million teachers in the US. To understand "teachers" is to appreciate the vast unknowableness of the profession.

Also, the column he's praising seems to miss the point of its own situation. The problem isn't "bubble kids," and NCLB -- it is that DC has a terrible special education system, and it isn't getting any better under Rhee. If the teacher writing the column has only worked in DC, she wouldn't have enough perspective to see that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

McKinsey Goes Skin Deep

This McKinsey report The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools is odious in the way it shifts between comparing US schools to foreign schools, and comparing the achievement gaps within the US, without comparing the amount of inequality in the US to that in high-achieving countries, or looking at measures of child welfare in the US vs. high-achieving countries. If you point out that the amount of variance in achievement based on income in Iceland, Finland and Canada is much less than that in the US, without pointing out that the reason for that is that there is less variation in income, you are peddling propaganda.

Of course, these comparisons are difficult to make, because there isn't another advanced country that does not provide health care to all its children, so we don't know if they do a better job of education sick kids than we do. You can't check to see if another country does a better job of educating a population that was brought to the continent in bondage, enslaved until 150 years ago and not granted full voting rights until 45 years ago, because we're the only ones who have done that. You can't see if other countries have higher achievement with similar incarceration rates for low-income populations and minorities because nobody else matches us. You can't compare how we do with other countries that rely primarily on local property taxes to fund education because there aren't any.

On the other hand, the Czech Republic beats us on PISA scores, but as of 1995 "In the Czech Republic, 46.4% (other estimates place this at around 75%) of Roma children are in special schools for the mentally handicapped" and "The German education system fails to provide adequate language training for children who speak non-native mother languages and shows a strong tendency to reproduce social inequality." These comparisons are much more complex than McKinsey would lead you to believe.

I could go on and on of course. You can say:

By comparing several neighboring-state pairs with similar demographics, we can see how dramatic this disconnect can be between overall achievement and the racial gap. New Hampshire and Connecticut, for example, have similar overall fourth grade reading scores; yet the gap between white and black scores in Connecticut is more than twice what it is in New Hampshire.... State variations in the racial achievement gap cannot be explained by the proportion of blacks and Latinos in a state’s educational system, furthermore, although school-level segregation may play a role in influencing outcomes.

Well... yes, but what are you supposed to do with that. Connecticut is an extremely inequitable and segregated state (I lived there for a while):

Between 1991 and 2002, the increase in the average annual income of Connecticut’s wealthiest 20% of families ($35,093, i.e., from $109,867 to $144,960) was nearly double the average total annual income of Connecticut’s poorest 20% of families ($21,003). Indeed, the growth in the gap in income between the top 20% of Connecticut families and the bottom 20% of families (as measured by the change in top-to-bottom ratio) was greater in Connecticut than in every state except Tennessee.

Even Connecticut’s middle income families (those in the middle 20% of families) have experienced income growth that pales beside the growth experienced by the top quintile. Over the 1980s, middle-income families saw their incomes increase by 15%, compared to an increase of 44% for very high-income families. By comparison, between 1991 and 2002, middle-income families again saw their incomes increase by 15% while the incomes of very high income families increased by more than twice this amount (a 32% increase).

And that's before the Connecticut hedge funds started their pillage of the past seven years. So you can scratch your head and imply that Connecticut's schools are to blame, but presumably McKinsey are paid to do deeper thinking than this.

Last point -- the premise here is that the achievement gap(s) cost us money -- which I'm sure they do. But if the effect was as strong as this report argues, wouldn't there be a bigger economic upside to individual states that seem to be doing better on closing the gap in test scores? Why are DC and Connecticut at the top in per capita income, with Florida and Texas sitting at 18 and 32?

Ultimately, the bottom line here is that McKinsey sees educational attainment, or lack thereof, as simply the cause of social problems -- lack of education causes health problems. The real world is considerably more complex.





SchoolTool Release News...

The planned release date for SchoolTool 1.0 was Thursday, April 23rd, to coincide with the release of Ubuntu Jaunty.

Good news! The developers delivered -- we met our goals for the release on time. It is packaged and in our Launchpad PPA to be installed or fetched via apt-get update.

More good news and another delivery! My second daughter arrived Sunday morning, healthy and three weeks earlier than expected.

Bad news -- I've still got a number of things on my project manager TODO list for the release, including deploying a new website at and updating documentation.

So, rather than having a discombobulated release this week, or neglecting my family, I decided to slide the official release to April 30th.

In the meantime, please try out the current release and FILE BUGS.

I'll Take the Starter Edition Please

Since I find myself using Windows as a shell to launch EVE Online, the Windows 7 Starter Edition would be perfect for me. I don't even need to run three apps at the same time. Two is fine! Can I get 33% off the already low, low price?

Those Young Idealists

Tom Friedman's column from yesterday on education is perverse in every facet, but this line made me smile:

With Wall Street’s decline, though, many more educated and idealistic youth want to try teaching.

Ah yes, those "idealists" who were in recent years going to Wall Street, for idealistic reasons, and have now thought better of it, on equally idealistic terms. Can we have some of those?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Aneesh Chopra is a Rock Star"

I'll let Tim O'Reilly sing his praises, but if Tim's right, Chopra's appointment as Federal CTO may do more good for educational technology than any appointments in the Department of Education.

Title For A Talk I'd Like To Give Someday

"Open Source Venture Philanthropy: Community, not Keiretsu." That came to me while mulling over a proposal for Gov 2.0, but it is off-topic for me and the conference. It came to me even before I read this.

The starting point would be Dean Millot's series last year on "Deconstructing a 'Social Keiretsu' in Public Education Reform." Rereading that post it is a little scary how much things seem to have accelerated since then. He doesn't mention Broad, which a year later seems to have taken control of the marionette strings.

Dean's absence from blogging has left a hole in the discourse -- I hope he's ok and will make it back soon. We can't keep losing as many experienced and authoritative voices as we gain.

Whether or not anyone else would want to hear me give this talk, or give me a place to do it, is another question. In the meantime, blogging will continue.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

First Photos of Julia...



Julia Geller Hoffman...

...popped out a few weeks earlier than expected but happy and healthy this morning at 4:59 AM at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence. Six pounds, eight ounces. More details to follow...

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Mother-In-Law, With Pie

Sun Journal:

LEWISTON - Anne Geller was one of the first through the door at U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud's office Thursday morning toting a blueberry pie.

Geller's daughter, a freelance violinist in New York City, makes a good living but dropped health insurance when she couldn't afford it anymore. When the Farmington mother found out, she and her husband bought a policy to cover their daughter.

"It really hit home," Geller said. "If our daughter needed care, we would pay for it and it could wipe us out. She said, 'Oh, I feel so bad that you and Dad have to do this,' and I said, 'But we would take care of you no matter what.'"

She walked down Lisbon Street as part of the Service Employee International Union's Change That Works campaign. Its "Recipe for Recovery?" Better health care and more unions. That message was delivered with pie across Maine on Thursday.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

This Is Not Going to Fly

NYTimes (via NYC Public School Parents):

The Shapiro twins were among about three dozen children put on a waiting list at P.S. 290 in what parents and public officials in some of New York’s priciest precincts fear will become the first season in which Manhattan children will be turned away from their neighborhood schools. The combination of overcrowded classrooms in neighborhoods newly inundated with young children, a recession that is causing some families to rethink expensive private schools, and a new citywide admissions process that requires people to sign up for kindergarten earlier has spread fear of lotteries and rejections across playgrounds and online discussion groups.

“In the past there was anxiety on the part of parents who had a zoned school they considered not desirable,” said Robin Aronow, who runs a school admissions consulting firm, School Search NYC. “Now that anxiety has stretched its way to even the families who have a desirable option, about whether that option will be available.”

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Digg It!

John Gruber:

Digg can send a tremendous amount of traffic to sites that make it to the top of their front page, but it’s the worst kind of traffic: mindless, borderline illiterates.

Ubuntu Easter Eggs

jonathan carter:

In GDM, the Ubuntu login screen, type “Require Quarter” and press enter. It will return back to the login prompt as if you haven’t typed anything at all. When the next user comes to log in, the system will display a prompt that says “Insert 25 cents to continue…”

A good prank for the terminals a school...

Phi Delta Kappa Drawn into the Broad Axis?

Susan Ohanian's piece "PDK Publishes a Love Letter to the Broad Foundation" is helpful in pulling together some of the various forces at play in Providence's schools right now. One thing that caught me off guard here is that the current drive to abruptly undo a decade's worth of various reforms and local initiatives was instigated by an analysis of the district that carried the respected (by me, even) Phi Delta Kappa seal.

It is all this kind of stuff (from the Kappan article):

We know from research that teachers' actions in the classroom have the greatest impact on student achievement, so the Broad finalists' right focus on curriculum that truly guides teachers 'work, approaches to instruction that help teachers adjust to the needs of each student, and assessments that help teachers understand student learning is a powerful triad of support. (emphasis in original)

Yesterday Jennifer and I were discussing how "non-negotiable" is our district administration's new favorite word. Apparently it is not a conicidence:

Both Miami-Date and Broward County give schools nine-week plans with nonnegotiable expectations of what will be taught.

A few particular points are striking: the extent to which all this is not backed up by data, and how different it is from Broad policy on charters and other issues. I don't know if Broad is making big conributions to PDK, but then again, does it really matter? People sell out for free all the time.

Capital W, Capital S?

The SIF Zone:

We held a Tech Board meeting, where we discussed 2.4, SIF Zone Services, and a few other issues. We prioritized, once again, the list of projects we are working on for the "Columbus" project and came up with a very good shortlist of critical projects. We made a lot of progress on brainstorming solutions for end of year. We also talked about the seperation of Infrastructure and data model, which will be a crucial component of Columbus. Finally, we talked about Web Services (yes, capital "W", capital "S"), and I think we have a great strategy for moving forward with our spec in the Web Services space. All in all, definitely a very profitable day from a spec development perspective.

The timing is about right considering the WS-* stack increasingly carries the stench of death. Of course, "web services" can mean a lot of things, so we'll see...

Visting W-Space

As you've no doubt heard by now, unstable wormholes have been popping up in systems all over New Eden. I spent some time Monday and Tuesday stealthily exploring for one behind the lines in Sev3rance space. We really ought to be able to figure out a way to use these hidey-holes in our regular hit and run raids.


Just before bed, I finally found one. My sensors indicated that it wouldn't stay open long, but I said "to heck with it" and jumped through to the weird triple star system beyond, took a picture, and shut down my ship's systems for the night.


Tonight I powered up my Cheetah and started looking for a way out. The wormhole I came in on had collapsed. I didn't pick up any other normal ships on scan, but I did almost die when my ship was uncloaked as I tried to sneak a peek at a "Sleeper" installation. One glancing shot knocked off my shields and a third of my armor, but I managed to warp off, which is a good thing because otherwise I would have been trapped indefinitely with no sensors to find my way out.

I then got lucky, and as the first anomaly I scanned down was another wormhole, through which I could see the green spacescape typical of Caldari space. I jumped thorough to a system in The Black Rise, from where I could begin a long journey back to my regular stomping grounds.


Next time, I'll have to bring a ship capable of tangling with the Sleepers and some friends.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Thomas Toch:

But the division between paternalism and progressivism is not a bright line. As Jay Mathews makes clear in Work Hard. Be Nice, public schools are hardly dominated by romantics who think students can teach themselves. And the new urban schools Whitman admires embrace a range of progressive priorities, from educating the “whole child” to building field trips into the curriculum.

If a good school is like a finely shaded drawing, the nth generation replication of the school's original idea is like a xerox of a xerox of a xerox of the drawing. That's more worrisome than whatever critique you might have of the original.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lawsuits to Look Forward To

Here's a junked-up diagram of the legal proceedings around the dismissal of one Colorado science teacher, who apparently refused to teach the curriculum mandated by the school. I'm not saying that the teacher was right, or that Colorado's laws are appropriate or not. I would note briefly that the union's role in all this is not stated, so is presumably minor. Also, you'll note that there is nothing here about performance or student achievement, just compliance with administrative orders.

I don't think it is too hard to see where this kind of thing goes if teachers start losing money and/or their jobs under performance evaluation. Let's say the teacher in the above case relents and teaches the proscribed curriculum, and his students' scores go down, because the curriculum isn't aligned with the tests, isn't backed by good research, the district doesn't actually provide the resources required by the curriculum, etc., and he loses money or his job because of that. Then you've got just got a different lawsuit. Except this time, if you've changed the administrative law around instead of a hearing you have a tort and a jury trial. Maybe he'll subpoena the superintendent and the head of curriculum of instruction. How much money are you saving then? Who's gonna win that one?

Admitting Failure

I'm happy Mark Ahlness is having success with Sugar on a Stick in his classroom. However, it is important to keep in the back of our mind whenever we think or talk about students running their operating system off a USB key, or searching the web on cell phones in class becoming the default, or a school system moving all their documents onto Google, that these actions all indicate the failure of traditional IT in schools.

Sugar at least is designed for kids, and if fully implemented and widely adopted would be an unambiguous step forward beyond the status quo. But if you got in a time machine and went back to a technology planning meeting in 2002 and told the director of IT (if there was one...) that by 2010 the school district would just give up and throw all their documents on Google, you would get a pretty sour response. This is not the future they thought they were creating.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Whose Job Is It To Do This For Schools?

Federal Computer Week:

The General Services Administration has signed agreements with Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo and that make it possible for federal agencies to use new-media tools while meeting their legal requirements, GSA officials announced today.

Under the agreement, agencies can immediately begin using new-media tools that let people post, share, and comment on videos and photos on the Web. Individual agencies must decide which tools their employees may use and how they may use them.

GSA and a coalition of agencies have been working with the new-media providers for some time to develop terms of service for federal agencies. The new agreements resolve legal concerns associated with many standard terms and conditions that pose problems for agencies, such as liability limits, endorsements and freedom of information, GSA officials said.

Apparently, it is nobody's job.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Unfortunately, the Opposite is Happening in Providence

City Newspaper:

Competition from area charter schools and increased parental demand for a wider range of educational choices are pressing the Rochester City School District to create additional nontraditional schools.

Oddly, Rochester's supe is also a Broad alum. What do they teach these guys? Why is our Broad-ian forcing a traditional model on our less-traditional schools?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Dana Goldstein asks "Is Merit Pay a Distraction in the Fight for Meaningful Education Reform?"


This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

Rhode Island Getting Reformier?

Deborah Gist, the "state superintendent" in DC, is going to be our new education commissioner. It is an interesting step, from being state superintendent of what is really a fragment of a city and not a state at all, to being commissioner of the smallest state. I'm not going to jump to any conclusions. Pro: teacher for 8 years. Con: Broad-ian. The most certain thing is she'll get along well with Brady below and Arne above. I'm truly not sure what it is in her power to do; she's got an opportunity to redefine the position. McWalters was here a long, long time. Time will tell what a new up and comer can do with the position.

One thing that bugs the crap out of me is that Providence and Rhode Island seem to be enamored with hiring education leaders from the South. I don't get that. We don't like anything else about the South, why would we want our schools to be run by people from the South?

In other local news, in a small victory for sanity, the plan to impose a three period day on small high schools has already been scrapped and replaced with a plan to impose a six period day on small high schools, undoing the established four period blocks at several of them.

Common Sense Reform for Teacher Preparation

LDH and David Haselkorn lay out the common sense (and data-informed) argument for improving pre-service teacher training:

Fortunately, value-added studies conducted in several states have begun to identify the features of teacher-preparation programs whose graduates have strong positive impacts in the classroom. Effective programs build on solid content knowledge with pedagogical training that offers concrete, research-based tools for practice. This coursework is tightly linked to student-teaching with expert practitioners in carefully selected placements that reflect the kinds of settings in which candidates will later teach. Candidates are assessed on their performance, receive detailed feedback, and learn to evaluate their teaching in relation to student learning.

Key to these and other powerful programs, including the best of the new urban residency models, is strong clinical training—at least a full academic year of apprenticeship in the classrooms of excellent practitioners who model sophisticated strategies with students having a wide range of learning needs. This allows novices to integrate theory with practice as they develop the complex skills needed to plan and adapt instruction, assess student progress, diagnose learning difficulties, and meet student needs.

As I see it:

  1. Get everyone together and specify a new model for high-quality teacher education. I actually believe a broad spread of stakeholders could find common ground around the specifics. The general idea, that teachers should be well trained and empowered is the actual problem.
  2. Create rigorous program to certify programs in ed schools (or other types of partnerships) that meet the above design.
  3. Provide full scholarships, including health care and stipends for time spent teaching, to at least a significant sub-set of teachers accepted into the above programs for students who agree to teach for at least five years in a high-poverty school district.

It seems pretty obvious to me.

btw, Teacher U is not teacher prep, it is for in-service teachers.

Elementary Schools, Charter and Otherwise

Regarding my feelings as a parent about charter and neighborhood schools, I've realized that I have a different attitude about this at different levels of schooling. I'm not that concerned that my children might go across town to get the right fit in a high school. Not only will they have a higher capacity to manage the commute themselves, but my children probably be a clear rationale for their decision. They'll be going across town for a reason, to attend a program that fits their specific needs.

In elementary school, you don't need a specialized academic program, although it is nice to find one that fits ones attitudes about parenting and learning. But what really bothers me is the aggregate inconvenience of getting elementary school kids to and from a school outside walking distance. CVS Highlander is a K-8 school two blocks from my house. If my children attend it, and we stay in our current house, which we certainly will unless we should have to leave Providence, that would be about eleven years of piling into the car or walking to the bus stop twice a day, or at least taking a longer and more dubious walk to more dubious schools across Broad Street, or, just skipping around the corner to Highlander. Having that come down to random chance is going to be excruciating. Unless we win the lottery, then it will be awesome.

Oh Wait, I Forgot Some of the Students Not to Get Placed in NYC High Schools Would Be White

Since the process that place 8th graders in (non-selective) NYC high schools have a high degree of randomness (by design), apparently some white kids are screwed too. So you can put their picture in the paper and generally get some mileage out of the story. Yay randomness! Equal opportunity mis-placement.