Saturday, February 28, 2009

Herdict Web -- Mapping Web Filtering

Let me preface this by emphasizing that the subject of this post is of extreme importance to the implementation of all web technologies in schools, and to encourage my ed-tech colleagues to give this service some linky love. If you don't want to slog through my verbose rambling, just watch the video below.

Long-time readers with excellent memories may remember a little Python script I wrote a few years ago called Filtr Chckr, which basically just tried to access a list of URL's and printed out a report of which ones were blocked. I set up a list of about 100 sites, mostly made of news and blogs, and it would quickly map out which ones were and weren't blocked. Ideally, this would be the first step in getting a handle on what kind of blocking is actually taking place in schools. It never got beyond this step because:

  1. The whole project would be a lot of work.
  2. You would have to be some kind of respectable entity to get a lot of people to participate, as opposed to whatever kind of entity I prefer present myself as.
  3. I realized the right way to do it was using Javascript to access the sites from within a browser window, meaning the user doesn't have to install a script. But then I'd have to learn more Javascript.

Happily, some folks at Harvard, that most respectable entity, have finally realized my vision with a site called Herdict.

What we need people to do is use Herdict behind school firewalls to explore and report what sites are blocked. When testing sites you can specify that you're at a school, and add additional notes. Right now, nobody knows what sites are being blocked across the country, what the patterns are, how much political speech is being blocked, etc. Getting a handle on what's actually being implemented on the ground in schools is the first step.

In my initial fiddlings, the only problem I see is that it looks like some legitimate 404-File Not Found's, that is, where the site is not blocked but someone is looking for a file that isn't there, are being counted as blocked sites. Also, since getting on their list of sites to check will make a lot of people see your url, try it, etc., there is an incentive to spam your site onto the check list. Those are things they'll have to sort out.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Education as a Trailing Frame

I was thinking earlier this week about how George Lakoff's model of framing explains why people prefer certain types of school reform.

To review (from the Wikipedia):

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the "strict father model" and has a family structured around a strong, dominant "father" (government), and assumes that the "children" (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible "adults" (financially and morally responsible beings). Once the "children" are "adults", though, the "father" should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the "nurturant parent model", based on "nurturant values", where both "mothers" and "fathers" work to keep the essentially good "children" away from "corrupting influences" (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.

How this applies to school design and reform should be pretty obvious. In fact, when thinking about schools, it is less metaphorical than government in general, just moving from parenting to in loco parentis.

I would argue that the further a person is from hands-on implementation of school reform, the more "KIPP" or "The MET" or "Core Knowledge" or "Broader, Bolder" or "No Excuses" is really just a proxy for "strict father" or "nurturant parent." Of course, the signifier does not map perfectly to the signified, and one thing I've been trying to tease out lately is how much the reality of all these schools and programs diverges from their rhetorical use. What does it mean that music and field trips are important to KIPP? Is it only OK (to some) to have them at KIPP because there is a strict dad to use them as a reward or punishment?

On Tuesday, Lakoff came out with a new piece analyzing Obama's rhetoric and framing. Basically, he likes it:

President Obama’s second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy —- putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper”—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality — for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.

Yet, progressive educators are not feeling the love, at least not as much as some of us hoped for. We're still getting the bullshit economic competitiveness arguements, emphasis on charter schools, etc.

But we did get this:

And I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina – a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.

And this:

Is this boilerplate or changing the frame? I think more of the latter than most people realize. It is an emotional appeal to our collective responsibility to shell out for our less fortunate neighbors. It is about spending tax money on public schools, and a reminder that kids in charter schools aren't the only ones who work hard.

Some of Obama's education policy talk is distressingly close to Bush's but the framing in Bush's first State of the Union was quite different:

With us tonight representing many American families are Steven and Josefina Ramos. They are from Pennsylvania. But they could be from any one of your districts. Steven is the network administrator for a school district. Josefina is a Spanish teacher at a charter school. And they have a two-year-old daughter.

Steven and Josefina tell me they pay almost $8,000 a year in federal income taxes. My plan will save them more than $2,000. Let me tell you what Steven says: "Two thousand dollars a year means a lot to my family. If we had this money, it would help us reach our goal of paying off our personal debt in two years' time." After that, Steven and Josefina want to start saving for Lianna's college education.

Republicans are getting ready to walk away from education, but it is the last gasp of the DLC. It is going to take a while to walk back from where the Bush and Clinton years have taken us, and while I'd love to see Obama leading by directly refuting their legacy in specific policy terms, we may have to be patient. We've got an empathy deficit to pay down, and that may have to happen first.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

New CanDo Screencasts

David Welsh has created a new set of CanDo screencasts. David used to teach video production and is a born salesman, so these are quite good. The Introduction is, not surprisingly, an excellent 3 minute introduction to the application.

We don't yet have Ubuntu packages for CanDo, but we've at least got the source install documented finally, although we still need to upload a copy of the XML file containing the Virginia competencies before you can really get a feel for how it works on your own box (and to give you an example of the format to import your own competencies, if you've got 'em).

A Good Vision For School IT, Too

Simon Wardley

At Canonical, the company that sponsors and supports Ubuntu, we intend to provide our users with the ability to build their own clouds whilst promoting standards for the cloud computing space. We want to encourage the formation of competitive marketplaces for cloud services with users having choice, freedom, and portability between providers. In a nutshell, and with all due apologies to Isaac Asimov, our aim is to enable our users with 'Three Rules Happy' cloud computing. That is to say:

  • Rule 1: I want to run the service on my own infrastructure.

  • Rule 2: I want to easily migrate the service from my infrastructure to a cloud provider and vice versa with a few clicks of a button.

  • Rule 3: I want to easily migrate the service from one cloud provider to another with a few clicks of a button.

I would note that this model makes a lot of sense for school administration apps that could be run 90% of the time on locally hosted servers, with commercial "cloud" instances deployed only as necessary at peak times (enrollment, report cards, etc.).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Public Comments

Jennifer, Ben Gormley and a group of about seven students and their parents went to Monday's school board meeting to express their concern in the public comment period about the implications for FHS of new graduation requirements, curriculum alignment, the status of site-based management, and other obfuscated rules changes in the pipeline. Based on recent performance, I don't expect the board or administration to respond in any meaningful way, and it looks like they're going to pass a sweeping set of changes with little public notice.

I can't really guess to what extent this is going to blow up in their face when they try to implement it, in part because there is so much obfuscation, stalling, intimidation and outright deception going on, it simply isn't clear what they're really going to do. What is probably going to happen is a bunch of restrictive rules and policies are going to be very selectively enforced based on the influence of various parent constituencies. I don't know how long they'll be able to keep that up.

Watch Out for Those Parent Revolts

Nancy Flanagan on "standards-based grading:"

The article and the arguments are proof that what goes around comes around. In the very early 90s, outcome-based education was the hot new model: prove you’ve learned it, or go back until you’ve reached an acceptable level of proficiency. Parent reporting was a list of outcomes–kids didn’t know it, sort of knew it, had mastered it. The words are different but the processes and intentions described in the article are exactly the same. And on the face of it–outcomes-based learning and reporting is exactly what we say we want to happen: credible measurement of learning rather than hoop-jumping or gaming the system.

And what happened with outcomes-based education(and remember–this was a decade before NCLB)? Well, it got shot down violently and publicly in a couple of well-publicized “parent revolts” and kind of quietly faded from the scene, replaced by more emphasis (and argument) around “standards” (variously defined) and core curriculum and multiple measures.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Don't Scratch Too Hard

David Hoff:

But don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the consensus, Fordham President Checker Finn told me afterword. If you scratch "a millimeter below the surface" on national standards, significant differences emerge on who should set the standards, what should be in them, and other hot-button issues.

Praise for CanDo Pilot Training

To review, CanDo is a competency tracking application based on SchoolTool. Development has been driven by teachers from the Arlington Career Center and most development has been done by local high school students and recent alumni in collaboration with SchoolTool's development team. Arlington Public Schools, the Virginia Department of Education and Mark Shuttleworth have funded the project thus far, and because CanDo is open source, it can be adapted and used throughout the Commonwealth, country and world without additional licensing fees.

Anyhow, here's a nice letter on a recent training session which kicked off a statewide pilot of CanDo:

Dr. Robert G. Smith, Superintendent
Arlington County Public Schools

Dear Dr. Smith:

Thank you for your support of the partnership between Arlington's CanDo Project, developed and implemented in the Arlington Technical Education and Career Center, and the Virginia Department of Education, Office of Career and Technical Education. The partnership opens many exciting possibilities for other school divisions to track career and technical competency attainment, to prepare individual plans of studies for students, and to facilitate the integration of rigorous and relevant academic and technical instruction.

Last Thursday and Friday, the statewide pilot of the CanDo system began. Most important was the training of lead teachers in eight pilot sites representing each of the superintendent's regions. David Welsh led that training with assistance from Dr. Gerald Caputo. We witnessed some of the best training available in education. Instead of just technical training on the use of the CanDo system, David and Jerry offered excellent tenets of assessment and relevant instruction. Further, they modeled the concepts and techniques they promoted. The result was a very meaningful, entertaining training session. All participants left the session confident in their ability to implement the CanDo system in their locality and also with a better understanding of competency-based instruction.

The preparation beforehand, the training, and the offer of assistance after the training have all exceeded expectations. We are very, very pleased with the work of David Welsh, and we gratefully recognize your support and that of Dr. Johnson, Kris Martini, and Dr. Gerald Caputo.

We look forward to a continued partnership with Arlington as we work to fully implement the CanDo system statewide. Your successful initiative in Arlington promises great benefits for all school divisions across the Commonwealth.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth M. Russell, Director
Office of Career and Technical Education

Nobody Else Was Stepping Up Back in 2001?

Kevin Carey:

One could theorize that KIPP might not have been able to achieve the same results with a demographically similar group of students with parents who didn't give a damn. Maybe. And maybe, as Rich suggest, KIPP's results are further enhanced by students who can't handle the rigor and move back to other schools. But even if those things were true, so what? Nobody else was stepping up back in 2001 to help those students.

One very simple way to test the "Nobody else was stepping up back in 2001 to help those students" claim Carey makes is to read Jay Mathew's book, a review of which is the impetus for Carey's post. In the book, do our protagonists run into many teachers and administrators who are, in 2001, stepping up to provide a rigorous education for disadvantaged students? Yes! Do they not only find funding for their work, but find it from funders with a long track record of funding the same kind of methods? Yes! Does administration in multiple cities support their efforts and have a portfolio of similar projects? Yes! Most of their battles with administration is over space, which is genuinely constrained in an urban school district that's already loading students into portables.

Monday, February 23, 2009

True in Education Reform, Too

Yglesias:

I think one of the most dangerous things that happens to people in politics is that they start making pragmatic compromises because politics is the art of the possible, but then because they want to think the best of their own accomplishments they wind up confusing what they settled for with what they were aiming for.

The Future of College?

Kunstler:

In the folder marked "unsustainable" you can file most of the artifacts, usufructs, habits, and expectations of recent American life: suburban living, credit-card spending, Happy Motoring, vacations in Las Vegas, college education for the masses, and cheap food among them. All these things are over. (emphasis added)

This Might Explain Why I Can't Get Jennifer to Write Programs for Me in Lisp

Mark Guzdial:

The second piece of evidence is more research-based, but still anecdotal.  John Anderson's group at Carnegie-Mellon University has created several intelligent tutoring systems that teach Pascal and Lisp.  These have been found to be successful at teaching students the language.  However I noted that they never asked the question, "Can the students who learn Pascal or Lisp using the cognitive tutors program in those languages afterward?"  I asked Ken Koedinger this question once.  His answer was, "No way!"  The cognitive tutors lead students to write correct programs.  They never *run* the programs.  They never *debug* the programs. (Why would you debug something that's already right?) These students have a really good shot at writing a program correctly the first time. Any mistakes at all, and they're hosed. I know of no paper from CMU where they actually tested this claim and published the results.  (If you find one, please send me a link!)

Jennifer responds: "I did so have to debug Lisp, with all those damn parenthesis."

Cognitive Dissonance

Jay Mathews:

The KIPP formula includes energetic teaching, more learning time, music, travel and fun. But the most important reason why KIPP has succeeded, with 66 schools in 19 states and the District, is creative leadership. Each principal is carefully selected and trained and then told to go run his or her school any way that makes sense, as long as achievement rises significantly.

Linda Darling-Hammond:

(Joe Williams and I) note that many of the Core Knowledge schools of E.D. Hirsch, whom Madigan cites in her attempt to polarize, develop solid knowledge and rigorous thinking skills through a project-based curriculum, defying the silly idea that we can't develop both knowledge and skills in our schools.

We'd be making progress if people who like KIPP and Core Knowledge would also advocate for, or at least stop criticizing, defunding and closing, public schools full of energetic teaching, music, travel, and fun, that implement site and community-based management, and project-based curricula that develops both knowledge and skills.

Right now, you'd almost get the idea that people are mostly just using KIPP and CK as rhetorical clubs against unions, taxes and government spending, and that all the talk about pedagogy is just for show.

Either that, or they imagine that KIPP and CK schools are a lot more Dickensian then they actually are, that the actual schools are less Dickensian than their distant fans would like them to be.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Alan's War

I just finished Alan's War. It is a wonderful book -- I want to call it a "little" book, but it is over 300 pages, but 300 pages of not very dense or difficult comic art, so it moves quickly. I spent a lot of time talking to WWII vets when I was a guard at The Carnegie -- most of the other guards were retired steelworkers -- and I've read a fair amount about the post-WWII intellectual scene, when European expats got all jumbled up, American GI's went to college on the GI Bill, and how to not blow up the world was a prime concern. Emmanuel Guibert's illustrated biography of an American GI captures the spirit of his specific subject as well as the zeitgeist of the times.

New Eve Intro

This is what you'll see when you start playing the upcoming EVE expansion (you should click play and then on the up arrow in the lower right and select HD for the full effect):

It captures the game pretty well -- those are in-game graphics, although you need a pretty high-end machine to make it look that good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ending "Bumping" in Providence Schools

So, Education commissioner orders Providence schools to end seniority bumping. This is, in the aggregate, probably for the best. It is tough to develop a school in Providence when all your new hires keep getting bumped out of the system when staffing is cut in the district or other disruptions occur. Instead of people working in a school they believe in, you get whoever sits in the chair when the music stops.

There are potential bad side effects and unintended (or intended?) consequences, particularly when it comes to shutting down failing schools. If when a school is closed or reconstituted the staff does not have the right to a job elsewhere in the district, that is a powerful disincentive to working in a low performing school. We may re-create NYC's ATR mess. Depending on how this is implemented, it could reinforce the tendency for kids with the highest needs to get the least effective teachers, and generally make teaching in low-income Providence neighborhood schools even less desirable than the suburbs, high performing charters, magnet-y programs, etc.

Still, bumping got pretty insane, so... perhaps this will be for the best. I'm at least relieved that this is not going to be a special measure reserved for certain schools. To be sure, this is not seen by the district administration as "punishment." OTOH, it would be curious to see what would happen if this actually worked and Providence was taken out of "corrective action" status and this order went out of effect. Would we return to status quo ante?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I am not Completely Unsympathetic to All of Joel Klein's Ideas

GothamSchools:

“When [superintendents] stopped talking to me about bulletin boards, my scores went up 50 percent,” one principal said. (This principal told TC that he didn’t want his name in the press.) “The data speaks for itself.”

America : EU :: Minnesota : Finland

Also, on the subject of national standards, the correct analogy is not that the US is like Finland, and therefore should have national standards like Finland. The US is like the EU. Minnesota is like Finland. Expecting Minnesota and Alabama to have the same standards is like expecting Finland and Albania to do the same.

Good Luck Selling That!

It seems that national standards advocates are feeling their oats enough to start talking about which standards they like. Randi Weingarten:

Here in the United States, students in Massachusetts, which has been recognized for setting high standards, scored on a par with the highest-performing countries in both math and science on a recent international assessment. After Minnesota adopted rigorous math standards, students there ranked fifth in the world on the mathematics portion of that assessment. Academic standards for students in the rest of the country, unfortunately, are a mixed bag.

Yes, good luck selling Alabama, Utah, Texas, Kansas, Alaska, etc. on the idea that they should take the advice of the head of the teachers' union and model their curriculum on Massachusetts and Minnesota. That's going to go over really well. The reality of our current political situation is that we have a socially conservative, obstructionist Southern regional party and everyone else. I don't see how we're going to get to national standards in that climate. The problem is, however, a good distraction though for people who might otherwise find more effective ways to screw up public education.

For the record, this is my view of how standards should be determined and organized, in order of preference:

  1. Local/community standards;
  2. Regional standards (i.e., about five different sets for the country);
  3. State standards;
  4. National standards.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Graduate Requirement Obfuscation

At this point, the only thing I'm certain about the impending changes to Providence's graduation requirements and core curriculum is that what the administration is telling principals and teachers in the district, what they're telling the press and other people outside the district, and what's in the actual proposal before the board, are all different. This makes it rather difficult to generate a counter-argument. Given that they want the new graduation requirements to take effect for the current school year, leaving a very short time to explain what the real plan is once the board signs off, it is hard to see how this ends well.

Is That Your Final Answer?

Roy Pea in the "Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies toPromote Children’s Learning," report released Friday:

Android is what both the industry and the academic development community are most enthusiastic about, and rightly so.

Eric Zeman, today (via DF):

We're only halfway through the first day at Mobile World Congress and already things are looking bleak for Android. Many of the major manufacturers have already announced their new products at the show, and not one Android handset has been seen.

Wow.

Mobile World Congress 2009 was thought to be the real coming out party for Google's Android mobile platform. So far, it's a bust.

Down-To-Earth Innovation

Sherman Dorn makes some excellent points:

But I'm going to ask something different: what are the standards that we should expect for any "innovative" project? Here are some down-to-earth ideas that could easily be the standard:

  • Development of software for formative assessment should prioritize the fast, frequent, flexible, and simple: see my February 6 entry on periodic assessment for why.
  • Local infrastructure standards that minimize the time wasted by teachers and others waiting for software and servers to respond. Right now in one Florida school district, the software/hardware for scheduling students is so horrible that counselors are waiting 30 minutes for the server to process all the tasks for a single student for one semester. The IEP-drafting software for a Florida school district is likewise a good time-waster for special-education teachers, being so modular that almost every operation requires a click and then waiting for the next page. If it wastes teacher time, it should be cut out.
  • Evaluation does not mean a single organization collecting and analyzing data. Evaluation with federal dollars should mean collecting data with some quality and then letting a variety of people have access to it.
  • Development of longitudinal databases need to be accompanied by auditing mechanisms, not just consistency and sense editing. Hire a data-entry clerk for each school, as Florida does, and you still have a massive editing task by school districts. And even after that, researchers occasionally find data quirks such as 26-year-old first-graders (i.e., birthdate entered wrong). And that doesn't address issues such as marking dropouts as transfers.

Socialize Medicine

Yglesias:

It’s important to understand that when people say that a move to a single-payer health care system isn’t politically feasible, they don’t mean that it would be unpopular. They mean that our political system is too broken and corrupt to deliver one.

Tell Us What You Really Think, Titus

Titus Brown:

As of about a year ago, virtually everybody I talked to was shocked and stunned at the poor quality of the OLPC code base. My personal encounters with the code left me frustrated at the poor Python style, angry at the simultaneously over- and under-engineered build process, livid at the poor quality control, and blue about the long-term prospects of the OLPC software. I was not alone, although most people were polite enough not to be a jerk about it like me. (Looking back, perhaps if more people had been jerks earlier, things could have improved. Or not.) (...)

But... what went wrong, anyway? I don't know. I'd guess that the OLPC software development team was overmatched from the beginning: responsibility of developing new software for a novel mix of hardware, together with a novel GUI interface, in an environment of much enthusiasm and relatively little funding, is hard. Add to this the enthusiastic but not very disciplined-sounding roadmap, as well as the unrealistic deadlines set due to PR and political considerations, and it's a recipe for disaster. When you also throw in an overwhelmed OLPC management team, I don't think you can expect anything but disaster.

So, looking back, I think the OLPC was probably headed into a mess from day 1, and while the fubar'ed software development process didn't help, it was at least partly driven by circumstances outside the control of the software developers. The software developers were hamstrung from the get go. And in that environment, turning the majority of your software development over to someone else -- someone not under your direct control -- may in fact be the best option.

Hot Tubbing

This is not a new observation (actually it is from 1999), but it is a central pattern in understanding social interactions online. Caleb John Clark:

Later that night my friend told me about the hot tub. She said it had been around for years and at first there was no gate. But then a few incidents happened. Negative things, like drugs or violence. So a gate was installed with a code. The code was then given out to only a few long time users of the hot tub. They in turn shared the code with close friends they trusted. Eventually the code would spread over the years and something negative would happen. Then the code would be changed again. This had happened a few times in my friends long experience with the tub.

I took this over to email mailing lists and thus we have "hot tubbing".

When a list gets too big, has too many flames, and won't respond to cries for sanity from it's core members, hot tub it by doing this:

1. Send out a well subject headered message saying something like: "in 24 hours this list will end. A new list will start up. The new lists' address will be given out at local meetings in person only. If you want to start your own local list, please do so. We are sorry for the this but this list can no longer support the number of people on it."

2. Kill the list.

3. Start a new one.

4. Give out the address at an in person meeting.

5. Your core group will immediately subscribe to the new list and email out their close friends the new address. In a few months you'll have a good list again, albeit much smaller.

Note that the point at which a lot of school teachers know about the hot tub is usually close to the point where the code needs to be changed. Also, reading the whole post makes the hot tub analogy more memorable.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mike's Wacky Face Experiments

There are a couple little articles in the ProJo about my buddy Mike's face research at Brown:

Apparently it is a hot topic.

Letter to the Editor

Linda Borg's February 13 article "Providence schools develop new graduation requirements that will do away with the district’s fragmented curriculum" reports that the Providence School Department's "...chief academic officer Sharon Contreras said, the days of allowing schools to pursue their unique brand of education are over."

As the parent of a toddler, I am already starting to worry about whether we'll literally win the lottery necessary for her to attend Highlander, the unique charter school two blocks from my house. It is not the only good school in the city. Like most local parents, I would be comfortable with my daughter attending Charles Fortes Elementary, Paul Cuffee School, Meeting Street, or Times 2, and eventually The Met, Classical, Community Prep or Feinstein High School, to name a few.

I don't know which of these schools will be the best fit someday for Vivian, but I am comforted by the fact that there are so many unique, successful schools in Providence.

So I am confused and discouraged by Ms. Contreras's enthusiasm for uniformity. I would like to know more about how the new curriculum and graduation requirements will affect existing programs. Will Classical still have honors classes for sophomores and juniors? Will the gifted program at Nathaniel Greene continue and will the special programs planned for Nathan Bishop Middle School be implemented? Will the Providence Academy for International Studies still be able to require international studies courses? Will Feinstein High School be allowed to include standards-based portfolio evaluation as a graduation requirement?

Ms. Borg's article suggests the answer to all these questions is "no," but clearly more information is needed.

Tom Hoffman
Providence, RI

Moving the SchoolTool Mailing Lists

SchoolTool is moving its mailing lists off our crufty old spam-ridden Mailman server to Launchpad.

If you're interested in joining, follow the links below. If you do not already have a free account on Launchpad, you'll be prompted to create one. Each list is associated with a Launchpad "team." More documentation on joining Launchpad lists can be found here.

"SchoolToolers" -- this is the general non-technical discussion and announcement list.

"SchoolTool-Developers" -- the more technical development mailing list.

Work Hard. Be Nice.

I got my copy of Work Hard. Be Nice. yesterday and decided I'd better plow through it as quickly as possible. It is a pleasant enough read, but doesn't answer many questions for me. I really need the next book about KIPP, which Mathews is working on, covering KIPP's expansion. This volume focuses on the early days, in fact it seems like most of the book is about the days when the KIPP founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, aren't even running a whole school.

They seem like great teachers, but there are lots of great teachers and reading about teachers is like reading about a rock band. A description of the performance only takes you so far. What makes their system work? You won't really learn that in this book. I was somewhat relieved that all the characters in the book are very familiar types. They aren't aliens. But then again, if they aren't so different than people I know, what explains KIPP's success?

It seems to me that Feinberg and Levin were the leading edge of educators that, from the beginning, accepted without dissonance that test scores were the measure of their success. Reading this book is helpful in getting into the headspace of this generation of reformers. This is the wave that stopped asking first "What is the purpose of school?" and just said "How can we get these scores up?" And they and their system thrive under that incentive, and then people like Jay Mathews have a clear benchmark for saying "these are the best schools."

Put in specific terms, Feinberg reminds me a lot of J.H., a former teacher at Feinstein. Same unstoppable macho mother-bear thing. Similar learning collaboration with an older female teacher, high standards, same big year-end trips, etc. The difference is J.H. didn't give a damn about test scores. Not that he was any less focused on his kids learning. He, and most of the rest of us, just didn't think the tests were very important or a necessarily valid measure of what our kids knew and were able to do. So our scores weren't as high as they could have been. I can imagine a test score focused J.H. Picturing that juggernaut is a little frightening, frankly. But I can see how it would work, and that's how I picture the genesis of KIPP.

Anyhow, I'm not worried about KIPP schools themselves. They seem like extreme data-driven parochial schools with ex-TFA-ers playing the role of highly energetic nuns. There are many, many worse things to be, especially if you're an urban middle school. I wouldn't send my kid there, but if my neighbor said "My kid got into the new KIPP school," I'd say "Good news!" Make of that what you will.

What does worry me is the political matrix that KIPP is embedded within. Is what is good for KIPP good for all schools? Trips, both local and national, are a big part of KIPP culture. That's great, but none of Providence's last four reforming superintendents has brought in a program to take kids on trips. I don't get the feeling that KIPP supporters will be pushing for a tax increase to fund field trips for all students. There is a lot of conflict with administrators in the book, but when you step back, what are they fighting about? Space! Nobody in administration (or philanthropy) seems that worried about their program -- they just don't have space for it. So, you might imagine that people supporting KIPP-style reform would be pushing for more school construction in public schools to make more space to accommodate alternative programs. I wouldn't hold my breath for that. KIPP schools don't take in new students at higher grade levels. Would you pay more so that every school could have that advantage? Or, stating it as an example: a federal program to ensure every kid in the country who needs glasses has them = bad; a philanthropic gift to ensure all KIPP-sters who need glasses have them = good! At least that's how it reads from my point of view.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Arlington Sprint Report

We held a three day SchoolTool sprint at the Arlington Career Center last weekend, Feb. 6-8. In attendance were Ignas Mikalaj┼źnas, Alan Elkner, Douglas Cerna, Filip Sufitchi, Chris Carey, Jason Straw, Matt Gallagher, Jeff Elkner and Tom Hoffman. These events are getting pretty routine (in a good way). Everyone knows the application and sprint processes very well, and we're able to get right down to work and keep rolling straight through the weekend. The only snafu was a rather comprehensive failure of the school district's network Saturday night. We ended up relocating to the Straw family dining room, and we all appreciate Jason and his family's hospitality and tolerance.

We hit our major development goals:

  • Flexible Demographics -- Ignas, Filip and Alan implemented a new demographics system that is customizable through the web by a site administrator. This is what everyone wanted all along, but I didn't want to promise it for 1.0. Turns out that if you're going to allow any customizability at all, it is just as easy to go all the way. The biggest headache is what to do when a user decides to edit an existing schema. Basically we're leveraging our spreadsheet import/export, so the workflow will be: export your existing data > change the demographic attributes in SchoolTool > rejigger the columns in your exported spreadsheet to match what's now in SchoolTool > reimport your rejiggered data.
  • Contacts -- Contact information (i.e., parent address, phone, etc) is now stored as separate objects from the student, so you can have multiple parents, etc. per student (Ignas).
  • External Activities -- Douglas finished his work for Jeff on connecting CanDo to the SchoolTool gradebook. You can now pull activity scores from CanDo into SchoolTool.
  • Gradebook Simplification -- We spent a while discussing the nonsensical math of grading systems. For example, if a student has three scores, an "A," a "87" and a "Pass," what's the average? We decided to limit the 1.0 version of the gradebook to numerical scores to keep it transparent and predictable for everyone. Alan implemented this change.
  • UI -- Chris Carey made SchoolTool gradebook use consistent colors via CSS when they do score validity checking. He also added the timetable ID to the timetable view (needed for section imports).
  • Section Resource Booking -- Chris added basic support for reserving a resource to every meeting of a section.
  • Documentation -- Tom and Jason re-organized the SchoolTool Book. Tom created an annotated import spreadsheet.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

EVE/Windows Banalities

It turns out that to get my NVIDIA 6200 AGP video card working under Windows 7, I need to use the 5200 driver. Once I do that, I get the same graphical glitches with EVE Premium graphics as I do trying Premium under Wine & Linux. But with the Classic graphics I get a noticeably better framerate than under Linux (about 30 instead of 20). What will happen when Classic is discontinued for Premium-Lite next month, I don't know.

Later... Actually, the Classic performance under Windows for me is more or less exactly the same as under Wine. Windows seems more stable though.

National Security Through Obscurity

Lituanica:

MP Karosas, the Deputy Head of the Parliament’s Defence and Security Committee said that there are two possible consequences might come out of this Lithuania’s move. On one hand acceptance of the (Guantanamo) inmates would strengthen USA Lithuanian partnership, on the other hand the fundamentalist terrorists might notice Lithuania, hence its security would be jeopardised.

On the third hand, wouldn't this be doing a favor to the inmates? Perhaps some Saudis will slip into Vilnius and commit some random acts of kindness.

Here's a Radical New Idea: Standards-Based Reform

Christian Science Monitor (via GothamSchools):

WESTMINSTER, COLO. - School districts across the US are trying to improve student performance and low test scores. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50.

For starters, when the elementary and middle-school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels – or traditional grades, for that matter. And those are only the most visible changes in a district that, striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate, is opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, rather than the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.

The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new "standards-based" educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district.

This is pretty much how we designed Feinstein High School ten years ago. And it constantly amazes me that well into the second decade of a concerted nationwide push for "standards," while all the pundits and politicians are firing up the mighty Wurlitzer for "national standards," that it is still an unconventional idea. To do "standards-based" reform in schools that don't actually organize evaluation, reporting, promotion and grouping based on standards is... how should I put this... total fucking bullshit.

And it isn't that radical. What you're talking about is going from an American factory model to a Japanese factory model. But you know, if you're not talking about creating your perfect little hippie school or alternative, that's is enough. If you're trying to move public school districts in the right direction in a sustainable way, this is the way to do it.

It would be interesting to read a good insiders analysis of why the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition isn't raking in all the press and big foundation bucks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Creating a Disciplined School Environment

I'd like to see more discussion of instituting what Democracy Prep calls its "Respectful School Culture and a Disciplined Environment," (and the equivalent in other "no excuses" charters) in regular public schools. I mean, it isn't like nobody has thought of teaching this to sixth graders before:

Preparation Academy includes direct instruction in academic and study skills including how to: organize binders, come to class prepared with necessary materials, take notes, put a proper heading on papers, raise hands in class, submit homework assignments, study for a test, ask respectful questions, etc. Preparation Academy also includes social lessons as basic as how to walk in silent lines in the halls, hold the door for a classmate, say please and thank you, give a firm handshake, make eye contact, apologize for mistakes, and leave a place cleaner than one found it.

And it is not as if doing more of that is controversial in most communities, is it? And if you go down the rest of the page, there is nothing here that's really shocking or challenges the traditional structures of schooling. So what's the problem? Teachers' unions are always worried about the lack of discipline. If the charters have figured out a better way of teaching and handling this stuff, exactly what is stopping other schools from doing the same?

I mean, I'm not arguing that I think this approach is the best way to educate 12 year olds, but I've seen worse. I'd just like to pin down why this is a "charter" thing.

Later... I guess this might provide an opportunity to compare and contrast.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Deadwood Superlatives

Dan:

I revisit David Milch's interview at MIT on a yearly basis1. Milch created Deadwood, the notoriously profane Western, and John From Cincinnati, which none of us really got, right?

I'm not sure which of my regulars might be into this. Dina, maybe, who oughtta dig his condemnation of "the shaping of human experience in distorted forms."2 Tom, maybe, who has seen Deadwood, at least.

Well, I consider the first season of Deadwood to be the best single season of any television show ever, Al Swearingen to be my favorite character in all of literature, and the cancellation of season four to be the beginning of the end of the golden age of television (we're pretty much at the end of the end now). And the documentary on, iirc, the season two DVD's on Milch's creative process is my favorite DVD bonus feature evar, for what that's worth. And I think I have mild PTSD from the mid-season three fight between Dan Dority and Turner.

So yes, I will check out the interview.

I did not, however, get John from Cinncinnati.

CCP Drops Linux Support for EVE Online

CCP Whisper:

I am sorry to have to announce that from the 10th of March onwards CCP will no longer be officially supporting the Linux operating system. The low amount of users of the Linux client did not justify the degree of additional complexity having three operating systems imposes on our development and release schedules. There is the matter of maintaining the hardware infrastructure to facilitate the development work, spending man-hours on testing and diagnosing faults in the client as well as regression testing. While we did embark on this project with the aim of being one of the few MMOG’s on the market offering a game client for all of the major operating system architectures, we feel that the time and resources that were being spent on the Linux client would be better utilized in areas where more players would benefit from them.

Linux support was one of the reasons I started playing EVE, and I mostly play it on my desktop Linux box. They never had a native Linux client though, it was via Transgaming's Cedega, a commercial version of Wine. Unfortunately, this approach was always at least as buggy as just using the standard Windows EVE client with standard Wine. Usually a bit worse. Also, the comparisons are confusing if you don't know what a reasonable baseline of crashes on a regular Windows box is for comparison.

The bottom line is most people who run EVE on Linux now don't use the "supported" Linux client, just the regular Windows one. I understand why they're punting on this, and since they'll still be supporting a Wine-based port for Macs, it seems reasonably likely that EVE will continue to more or less work under Wine. The problem is that the nature of EVE play is not tolerant to either poor performance or lags between the release of a new version and Wine's support of it. So... I'm evaluating my options.

On a slightly related note, my initial impression of the Windows 7 beta is meh. The GNOME desktop seems more professional.

Later... Shockingly, I can't get the correct video card driver working on Windows, thus EVE won't run. If Windows is going to make any inroads against Linux, they're going to have to work on driver support. In the meantime, it would be very helpful if I could at least find out how well EVE runs on this hardware -- it was mediocre on Linux, but most people reported significantly better performance on Windows. Eh...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sometimes Dreams Do Come True

Matthew Fulmer:

Squeak 4.0 will be the first official squeak release with no code under SqueakL; everything in the .image, .changes, and .sources files will be under either the MIT license or the Apache license.

The Reason Proposing a Cap on CEO Salaries is Brilliant...

...is that it gets them to write op-eds like this:

I’M the chief executive of a publicly traded company and, like my peers, I’m very highly paid. The difference between salaries like mine and those of average Americans creates a lot of tension, and I’d like to offer a suggestion. President Obama should celebrate our success, rather than trying to shame us or cap our pay. But he should also take half of our huge earnings in taxes, instead of the current one-third.

(via Sheila).

Friday, February 06, 2009

Stupid GPL Tricks

James Farmer goes on a somewhat wide-ranging, and a few years too late whinge over the GPL and its application in Wordpress. Basically, I think he's running into a legitimate area of edge-cases -- redistributing plug-ins, themes and styles for a GPL'ed web framework. The spirit and intent of the GPL is clear from the GPL (2.0) FAQ:

If the program dynamically links plug-ins, and they make function calls to each other and share data structures, we believe they form a single program, which must be treated as an extension of both the main program and the plug-ins. This means the plug-ins must be released under the GPL or a GPL-compatible free software license, and that the terms of the GPL must be followed when those plug-ins are distributed.

The FSF wants you to write GPL plug-ins for GPL apps. I find the text of the license to be less strident:

These requirements apply to the modified work as a whole. If identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works. But when you distribute the same sections as part of a whole which is a work based on the Program, the distribution of the whole must be on the terms of this License, whose permissions for other licensees extend to the entire whole, and thus to each and every part regardless of who wrote it.

As far as I know, there is no caselaw going down to this level of detail in interpretation of the GPL. My "I am not a lawyer" interpretation is that this is "you probably won't successfully be sued for distributing your non-GPL Wordpress plugin."

Now, for real businesses, this is not sufficient, so they tend to avoid GPL software if they're getting into this ambiguous zone. I had a discussion once with Zope Corp. about integrating SchoolTool with a product they were developing for the State of Virginia. Because SchoolTool is GPL, they didn't want to get in any situation where by the strict interpretation of the linking and plug-ins clause, they'd be obligated to GPL code they didn't want to. And this is from a company that open sourced their crown jewels (Zope) over a decade ago, under a permissive open source license. IBM, as another example, uses and distributes a ton of open source software, but they avoid the GPL as much as possible.

What businesses want is open source software licened under a more permissive license, like the BSD License or MIT License, which are designed to let James redistribute modifications the way he wants to with no ambiguity. The GPL's intention is to not allow it.

Most open source web infrastructure, Apache, PHP, Python, Ruby, Rails, Zope, Django, etc., is under a permissive license for this reason. In practice this has worked out fine. People outside the open source software development community seem to overestimate developer affection for the GPL. A lot of developers avoid it, and many of the most successful projects would never use it.

But the GPL does what it does is meant to do, it protects the free software community. The restrictions it creates are features, not bugs. I certainly believe that without an indigestible core of GPL-ed free software projects the entire movement would have been swallowed up a long time ago. GPL is one of the most brilliant, unintuitive inventions of our time. People will be talking about the significance of the GPL long after every piece of software you use has been forgotten.

So... in summary: real business don't sell things that are GPL edge cases and ideally James would go back in time and pick a BSD-licensed platform to build upon.

Which Side Are You... Wait, Do We Have a Side?

Dan gets at the meta issue behind my post on the lack of reaction to Obama's visit to a local progressive school:

Tom Hoffman calls out the entire edublogosphere in the sort of post that has nudged me incrementally toward a different (or at least more nuanced) definition of "reform" than the one I've claimed on this blog for, like, ever. For whatever it's worth.

It is hopelessly exasperating to those of us who have been working on school reform for more than a couple years, a category which includes pretty much all the people I "called out" yesterday, that the "reformer" label is now routinely applied to a different set of folks, with quite different goals. Even worse, the two sides of the overall education debate are now defined as "reformer" vs. "teacher's union." Or "school reform" vs "broader, bolder reform," but the idea that there is a larger, long-running debate about what kind of schools we want, of progressive education vs. more traditional schooling, is lost in the public discourse.

My contention is that if Obama's first school visit was to a KIPP school, for example, there would quickly be dozens of blog posts, press releases, and probably op-eds saying, essentially "Ka-ching! Score one for our side, for the school reformers!" In contrast "our side" seems to not even exist. Of course, we do exist. Expeditionary Learning Schools is almost three times bigger than KIPP. The Coalition of Essential Schools is around ten times bigger than KIPP. The other side has certain structural advantages, more money, a clutch of agressive think tanks, sympathetic newspapers which also happen to be test preparation vendors, etc.

But it isn't really clear that there is a "we" that has a side at this point. Who are we? Do we assert that we exist? Is there a big tent we can all crowd into?

Agile Formative Assessment

Sherman Dorn:

Consider reading fluency, for example. (I'm not saying that fluency is more important than comprehension. I just have the experience with this to imagine what I'd do as a principal.) Teach a paraprofessional to have every first- and second-grade student in the school read to them one minute a week on a sample reading passage (there are sets of roughly equivalent passages one can purchase for this purpose). Have them enter the data through a Google Docs form, a SurveyMonkey survey, or some other tool that will send the data to a spreadsheet. Get someone to program the results so that you can show data per child with trend lines and sort by grade, classroom, etc. For a few extra lines of code, you could add locally-weighted regression trends to be really fancy, but that's beside the point.

Here's the point: this is not rocket science, this does not require a gazillion-dollar software package from TestPublisher Inc., and it's very different from the type of quarterly testing that superintendents are buying into in a big way (including that gazillion-dollar software package from TestPublisher Inc.).

Or perhaps use a free, customizable student information system.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is "No Comment" the Best We Can Do?

At the EduCon Sunday morning panel, at some point Gary Stager said something like "Obama's goal should be to give every child in America the same kind of education his children will get at Sidwell Friends School." Fair enough, although if Obama set that goal I'm not sure how how seriously it would be taken. But he arguably did the next best thing yesterday: the President, the First Lady, and the Secretary of Education went to Capital City Public Charter School, a well-funded, public, progressive charter school in DC, an Essential School and an Expeditionary Learning School, and the President said "This kind of innovative school…is an example of how all our schools should be," which is pretty much exactly what Gary wanted him to say, minus Sidwell's ivy and inner light.

The Expeditionary Learning folks managed to get out a press release, and I goaded Jill into getting something up on essentialschools.org, but overall, the educational blogging community, including progressive bloggers, have all but ignored this statement, despite the often frenzied tea-leaf reading regarding President Obama's views on education.

That opponents of progressive education have not brought up the philosophy of the school the President praised is not surprising; that advocates of progressive education have also not brought it up is discouraging. Doyle isn't happy that he picked a charter with many upper-class kids and lots of outside funding. I'm not sure if that's everyone's concern, although it puts one in a bit of a pickle for figuring out exactly what kind of school it is ok to praise. Do you have to find one that gets no special funding, has exactly the same resources and population as the urban average and is unusually successful? There aren't many of those and then what does that prove? That the status quo is alright if we work harder? Certainly one necessary step in increasing school funding for all schools is going to well funded schools and pointing out how successful they are.

Regardless, nothing from Gary, or Sylvia, Clay on education.change.org, Will, or David, or Chris, or Scott or Steve or Miguel and Wes is sort of off-message. Nothing from either Klonsky, Public School Insights, Doug, or Schools Matter. Is there something about this school that I'm supposed to know? Is it heated with a kitten-fired furnace or something?

I'm not saying this means I'll love everything Obama does in education, but for the past few years we've only been hearing about how awesome "no excuses" reform is and how we just need to crack down and TEACH HARDER. It has been a long time since a President has praised progressive schools. We need to embrace this moment and use it.

Sidebar: I suspect one reason they went to CCPCS is because the family seriously considered it for Sasha and Malia, and if that process went very far I would imagine it would start to take up some serious time for the school staff and faculty. And I also suspect that it would have been impossible for the girls to attend the school in its current location -- the upper school at least, which is located above a drug store. That's not really going to work for security purposes, and while the school could and probably should be moved, that would drag the family into the middle of an ongoing DC city political dispute. So anyhow, a presidential visit would seem to be the consolation prize.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Obama: "How our schools should be" = An Essential School

So Obama made a surprise visit to a DC charter school yesterday. Unless you're fighting a rear guard action against the very idea of charters, or perhaps if you're convinced despite all evidence that charters are the answer, the fact that it is a charter is not hugely significant in 2009. The more important question is: what kind of charter is it? Is it a pre-NCLB progressive, child-centered, community-driven charter, or a post-NCLB, philantropy-driven, test-score focused, franchise model?

The answer is decidedly the former: The Capital City Public Charter School is a Essential School and an Expeditionary Learning school:

Capital City Public Charter School was founded in 2000 by a group of D.C. Public School parents working with teachers and other education professionals to create a school dedicated to the best practices in education reform.

Mission statement:

To enable a diverse group of children to meet high expectations, develop creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, and achieve deep understanding of complex subjects, while acquiring a love of learning and a strong sense of community and character.

I imagine they don't have a union, which isn't that surprising considering the historical weakness (i.e., corruption) of the DC teachers' union, but they do have something you don't see much: one of the founding teachers of the school (as well as a social worker from another school) on the Board of Trustees. That is, in my book, a big deal.

Obama didn't go to a KIPP school, he didn't go to one of Michelle Rhee's schools, he didn't go to TJ; he and his wife and his Secretary of Education went to a small, progressive, community-governed urban public school, exactly the kind of school I love and advocate for; he planted his feet and said "This kind of innovative school…is an example of how all our schools should be." I couldn't ask for a more clear statement.

And it isn't surprising, Capital City is just the kind of small school promoted by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, of which Barack Obama was Chairman of the Board of Directors. We've been told not to read too much into that somewhat cermonial position, but how could it not have a big influence on his thinking about school reform? And it isn't surprising because Barack and Michelle Obama can't help but look at DC schools as parents and think about what they want for Sasha and Malia, and somehow I doubt that maximizing their test scores is at the top of that list.

So... could we have a little horn-tooting about this please? It is a big deal. Maybe add it to the news on the CES website? Perhaps bug Capital City for a CES badge or something on their website? Could we make a little hay over this please? 'Cause you know if he went to a KIPP school first we'd never hear the end of it.

Concord Consortium Blog

The Concord Consortium is rebooting their blog, which is a good thing, as they're one of the few groups who understand how STEM curriculum, technology, open source, teachers and public policy all intersect. You should subscribe, in the meantime, you can read these newsletter articles: Perspective: An Open Letter to President Obama, and Community-Authored Resources for Education.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

It's a Simple Argument, Really: Take II

John Thompson:

Imagine a war on cancer where one set of researchers believe that eclectic treatments are necessary while the other camp is committed to a single therapy (radiation, chemotherapy, surgery or whatever) and it refuses to cooperate with anyone that seeks another approach.

It is a Simple Argument, Really

Diane Ravitch:

The unions don't seem to cause low performance in the wealthy suburban districts that surround our city. They don't seem to be a problem for the nations that regularly register high scores on international tests. If getting rid of the unions was the solution to the problem of low performance, then why, I asked him, do the southern states—where unions are weak or non-existent—continue to perform worse than states with strong unions? And how can we explain the strong union presence in Massachusetts, which is the nation's highest performing state on NAEP?

It is almost as if people have some more general, self-interested reason for opposing unions.

Undoing Performance-Based Graduation Requirements in Providence

Jennifer Jordan for the ProJo:

WARWICK — Despite mounting pressure to adopt more rigorous academic standards, some high schools continue to offer watered down math courses and others are barely complying with a new requirement that seniors complete portfolios and projects before they graduate, says Education Commissioner Peter McWalters.

Time is running out for these lagging schools, McWalters told an audience of about 250 superintendents, principals and teachers yesterday morning at the Airport Sheraton.

Education officials hope the majority of schools will be on track with the new requirements by 2010, but school districts have a grace period until 2012 before they face penalities — including not being permitted to award diplomas. The intent is to ensure that no student graduates without being able to read, write and compute at a high school level, officials say.

Currently, most districts have received “preliminary approval” for their efforts to adapt to the tougher graduation requirements. Just Burrillville, Cranston, Providence and a state-run school, the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, have failed to earn this level of approval.

Feinstein High School was reconsitituted in 2000 with the specific goal of creating a high school in the Providence School Department where advancement would be based not on seat time or credits but on the achievement of standards. This was formally laid out in a contractually-binding site-based governance agreement between the school department, union and school. All along FHS's design has been in clear alignment with the RI Department of Education's plans and intentions, leading the way.

Now, however, as Providence as a whole struggles as one of the remaining districts in RI to achieve even "preliminary approval" to meet new standards-based graduation requirements, including "complet(ing) projects and portfolios to prove they have mastered material in a variety of subjects before they graduate," the Providence School Board and Brady administration are taking aggressive steps to end standards-based portfolio graduation requirements at Feinstein High School.

Why? It is a little unclear because no explanation has yet been given to the school community, but essentially it seems that it is better to have all schools not in compliance in the same way than to have any variation in compliance. Or something. After four months of requests from the school, there is finally going to be a meeting on the matter next week, but at this point it is nearly a fait accompli, as the measure will be voted on by the board later this month.

On one hand, it seems like the school has a good case. On the other, the school department has many other weapons to bring to bear and has already demonstrated a vindictive streak, so any victory here may be a phyrric one for the school. Retaining portfolio evaluation for graduation, losing funding for after-school programs and gaining a hostile principal would not be a good trade off, as a hypothetical example.

The clear lesson for faculty and staff is keep your head down and wait for better days and more enlightened leadership. Unfortunately for the school, once achievement of standards is disconnected from advancement and graduation, the culture of the school will very quickly regress to the mean. It takes a long time and consistent effort to make faculty, parents and students believe that you're really and truly doing something different than "school" as it is usually played. If you switch back to business as usual, the effects will be immediate, and not easily undone. Fool me once...

But it is no wonder that, as Comissioner McWalters says, "All of you are working in places where you have some teachers just hoping all of this will go away." The clear lesson from Feinstein High School is that teachers who lead in innovating practice in the Providence School Department will, sooner or later, be kicked to the curb by administration. Waiting out each successive reform is a more rational long-term strategy than getting on board.

The Foundation of the Entire Edifice

Miss Brave scores NY state ELA exams:

And then there were the more serious transgressions, the ones that had us worried about the actual integrity of the test grades. If, for example, you were about to give a student a 2 on one section of the test and happened to notice that another grader had given the same student a 4 on another section (as 4 is the highest grade you can receive, this seems like a substantial discrepancy), and you voiced your concern, you were told to (exact words) "MYOB." (Listen, lady, I'm not being a nosy parker here, this is my first time grading a very important state exam and I just want to make sure everything is copacetic.) If you and all the other graders at your table happened to notice that the essay appeared to be written in two very different handwritings, as if it sure looked like the teacher had made a few changes, and you voiced your concerns, your objections were dismissed. I don't know what teachers at other grading sites experienced, but I have to say that I was treated with less respect than I typically try to treat my second graders, and that had me worried for the validity of the scoring.

If you do it right, having teachers score some state tests can be excellent professional development. I learned a ton scoring the old RI writing assessment through a process which was very well established and executed. Sounds like New York is flailing a bit.

What you have to remember is that well designed, administered and scored tests are the foundation of the entire edifice of data-driven reform. If this isn't done right, all your "scientifically-based" research is invalidated, you're hiring and firing and giving bonuses to the wrong people, opening and closing the wrong schools, giving cash bonuses to the wrong kids, etc., etc.

And remember, we haven't just started giving kids exams. We've been doing it a long time. If we aren't doing it right now, it isn't because we just haven't had a chance to figure out the processes.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Ask Me About My Neti Pot

I have officially joined the cult.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Early Baseball at Roger Williams Park

I got this postcard today:

rw-park

Some initial Googling indicates that the same publisher, Jessie D. Allardice, put out color tinted postcards of the park around 1915. If I really wanted to date this I'd probably have to start digging through the ProJo archives, since the photos are copyrighted to the paper.

my initial guess is that the field was above where the Temple to Music is now:


View Larger Map

That's the only place that I can think of that has that natural amphitheatre shape, but they've probably moved a lot of dirt around in that park in the past 100 years or so.

One particular feature that is interesting to the vintage base ball player is the amount of space behind home plate, or the lack thereof. We fret over the fact that 19th century fields generally had more room in foul territory -- in part I suspect because baseball evolved from bat and ball games where the ball could be hit in any direction -- than modern fields, especially the softball fields we often end up playing on. I wonder when playing in smaller lots like this became more common, and how common it was in the 19th century.

The Dog That Has Not Barked

Mary Lou Jepson:

We have been feverishly working on designing our first screen product We will be sampling our 10″ screens this spring and plan to be in high volume mass production this summer. These screens have an epaper state that rivals the best epaper on the market today. What’s different: unlike the other epaper products where one must wait a second or so to change the screen - we provide video rate refresh. Also, while we have a high resolution paper-white black and white, we also provide, in the same screen fully saturated color fidelity - the same as a standard laptop screen - same color, contrast resolution, field of view etc. Our screens consumer 25%-50% of the power of a regular notebook screen in their power savings modes and will be in available at comparable price points and volumes to standard LCD screens this summer. In addition, by integrating the screen with the electronics driving the screen a 5-fold increase in battery life between charges can be achieved.

Even absent every other aspect of the OLPC project, just getting these displays into student laptops will be a big breakthrough. Kind of crazy that you still can't get this on a regular commercial laptop.

School Libraries and the Short Tail

Doug Johnson:

Old collections demonstrate a lack of professionalism as much as a lack of funding. It costs nothing except an hour or so a week to weed out old materials. Each week pick one section of bookcase and look at each book. If it is less than ten years old or has been checked out within the last three years, keep it. If not, toss it. Dump duplicate copies unless popular. Toss anything that is worn-out.

When people started talking about the "Long Tail," I asked myself, "OK, if Amazon's the Long Tail, what's the Short Tail?" Thinking like this is a 21st Century Skill. My answer to myself was "a school library."

Let's pause for a moment to note that this does not represent a criticism of school libraries, but an attempt to help you understand the concept of the Long Tail. Thank you for not freaking out.

Because in many or most school libraries, the not very carefully maintained ones, and probably particularly high school libraries, you've got some books that are checked out constantly, a block that are checked out a couple times a year or so, and many, many books that are likely to never be checked out or read again. You've got a short tail, whether or not you keep the books on the shelf or weed them. It would be a Long Tail if everything was checked out occasionally, and you'd have a Long Tail business model if keeping all those rarely read books around was cheap enough that you could still make money off very rare use.

What's the difference? Compared to Amazon, or a public library, you've got a small pool of people using a school library. I would guess that a lot of books in a school library go stale quickly -- kids probably don't want to read middling young adult fiction from 1995 or 1985, moreso than adult fiction -- and a lot of the science and reference books get out of date quickly. Areas not covered in the current curriculum would be left behind.

The other side of the equation is that the cost of keeping books in the school's collection is high, particularly compared to Long Tail businesses that only store and ship bits. Those extra books in the school collection take up space, as Doug points out can make it harder to get money for new books, make it harder to find books, and generally have to be maintained.

So... school libraries are short tail. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Retention

In lieu of a longer post, I'd just note that the retention issues Dan isolates here are in my observation the force that bends teachers in a more progressive direction over a long career (noting that inertia is generally very, very strong in teaching practice). You get down the process of navigating most of your kids through the courses you're assigned to teach, everything seems fine, then at some point you realize it doesn't really stick, and small tweaks don't help. This is when you start understanding how important "less is more" is, question the balance between covering content and things like "habits of mind," see how interdisciplinary work can reinforce and recontextualize important concepts, etc., etc.

OTOH, if we start paying teachers bonuses or firing them based on test scores at the end of the year, we're pretty much establishing as policy that retention doesn't matter.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

One for the Other Hand

I believe the '09 Super Bowl champs will go down as the team with the worst offensive line ever to win it all. Bruce Arian's play calling in the first half was the best Steeler fans have seen in a long time. Good thing it gave them a little cushion.

Whew.

Ushra'Khan Victorious in Second Qualifying Round of Alliance Tournament

If you go to the YouTube page and select hi def, it looks great.