Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Something For The Next Time Someone Asks You What's Wrong With "Teaching To The Test"

Marjorie Larner:

Here's a story about a school I worked in many years ago. Their test scores were very high. One year, all 3rd graders got a perfect score in reading, but the numbers for writing were weaker. In the following years, the district used this information to launch a required school-wide focus on writing. We gave the kids the message that they were weak in writing, and needed to improve. We also paid for a few released test items ($7 for one student’s response to one item), to analyze these weaknesses. We realized that the students were all proficient and advanced on the actual writing samples. It was the multiple-choice questions, where they had to choose an answer with no context, where they lost points. What did this tell us about the data we had used to “drive” our instruction for several years? They knew how to apply the rules to actual writing, but their actual “weakness” was choosing between tricky multiple-choice answers on isolated rules for writing. Should we spend less time teaching them to be writers, in order to work on testing strategies for multiple choice? Should we drill them on memorizing the rules? What would this do for them, in their lives as writers? What effect would this kind of teaching have on their skills and motivation for real writing?

Monday, March 30, 2009

How Would You Describe a School?


We're in a building brimming with women and thanklessness.

Perhaps some merit pay would help.

Greenfoot is Free Software

Greenfoot, "a live object world framework that supports many different kinds of scenarios," which means you can do various Karel the Robot, or StarLogo, or turtle graphics kinds of things, is now free software (written in Java). It had been one of the seemingly endless list in academic projects in licensing limbo that are neither free software nor a commercial product. Making it free is a good thing, and I congratulate the developers.

I don't expect anything dramatic to come from this, but that's not the point. What we need is a steadily growing ecosystem, some positive feedback loops, to reassure academics that nothing bad and a few good things comes from open sourcing, and establishing free software licensing as standard operating procedure for academic and foundation funded research in educational technology.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Visiting the Front

Glaring at each other.

After playing EVE Online over a year, I have finally visited "the front." That is, thanks to fortuitous timing of in-game events, alliance politics, Vivian's nap, and Jennifer's performance in the pit orchestra of a high school musical, I was able to make my way up to the site of an anticipated fleet engagement with major operational significance.

When I logged off last night I hadn't figured out that the timing would work out -- Ushra'Khan tends to time major operations to take place in European prime time, and I generally don't play during the day -- so I wasn't in proper position. It took me an hour to fly my stealth bomber up to the contested system, 48-U6U. En route I had narrow escapes from two ambushes, but my bomber's cloaking device did its job. Several of my corp mates weren't so lucky. I finally arrived to find 1600 active pilots in system. With a little bit of difficulty I managed to join the fleet and get voice and text comms working. This was primarily an Against ALL Authorities operation, which meant orders coming over TeamSpeak with heavy Russian accents.

After all that, there wasn't much of a fight. The picture above is a typical moment, a few of us, the purple boxes, glaring at the Goons, in red, sitting behind their station force field. We showed up in strong enough numbers that the Goons didn't waste their assets challenge our attacks on their stations, and today's victory should stop the Goon advance, at least temporarily.

Browsing Scrapheap Challenge, I see that the posters think the peak system occupancy of 1700+ is a record. I have to say the server performance was very good, very little lag, although not much actual shooting was going on, which stresses things quite a bit more. Nonetheless, technologically impressive.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This Is Not Your Neighborhood School

Downtown Express:

Ali bought into 200 Chambers St., which houses an annex for P.S. 234, so her daughter could go to school there, saving the family money on private school. She and her daughter walk past the school every day, and her daughter “constantly tells me, ‘This is the big school. This is where I go next year,’” Ali said.

Being placed in a different school, Ali added, “was never anything I thought would happen.”

But it did happen, to Ali and perhaps 50 to 100 other parents who put P.S. 234 or P.S. 89 as their first choice but were placed in either P.S. 276 or the Spruce Street School, which also opens this fall in Tweed Courthouse. The D.O.E. would not disclose the number of children who did not get their first choice, but several parents provided Downtown Express with estimates based on initial numbers released by the department.

Every time my two-year old daughter and I walk past the lovely new public elementary/middle school two blocks from my house and the kids playing in its new playground, and I have to bite my tongue from saying either "This is where you'll go to school," or bitterly, "This is where you'll go to school if we win the lottery," my enthusiasm for "school choice" dies a little. It isn't that I'm afraid that she won't find a seat in an adequate public school, but knowing there is a good alternative a five minute walk away will gnaw on me every time I have to get in the car to drive to school or walk to the bus stop, if we don't win the lottery.

Having some chance of getting into a good public school is better than having no good public schools, but that's not saying much. People don't like randomness, uncertainty and complexity, and it seems that NYC's choice system is bumping up against a tipping point in those areas.

via GothamSchools, natch!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How "Choice" Works in NYC

Number of 8th graders not matched to any high school of their choice (of up to 12): 7,455.

Total number of seats in NYC charter high schools (by my count from greatschools): 4642.

Number of parents of unplaced students who will be bussed to meetings testify about mayoral control in NYC: 0.

EVE Careers Guide

I've been playing EVE Online for over a year, and the hardest thing about it is figuring out what I want to do with myself in the game. Even after I decided early on to join Ushra'Khan and devote myself to ending slavery in New Eden, I've not yet figured out the best way to contribute to that cause (particularly within the constraints of my limited play time). It is discomfitingly like real life.

So EON magazine has just put out an extensive EVE Careers Guide, in the form of the most elaborate PDF I've ever seen. It covers pretty much everything you can do in and around EVE. If you're interested in virtual worlds and simulations in education, it is worth a look, and would look good flashed up on the screen during your conference presentation. OTOH, I get the feeling EVE is considered "bad serious" by the serious games people, so it might not be a good idea.

New Neighbors: Armory Revival

Just found out that The Armory Revival Company just bought the vacant single family house house next door and the vacant carriage house diagonally across the street from us. This is good news; their modus operandi is fixing up old properties and selling them, so it is a good indication that things aren't going to go into free fall. The house next door has been vacant for a year. It'll need a ton of work, the plumbing's been stripped, etc., but you can also see the potential for turning it into a nice urban starter house. The carriage house has been vacant for about five years -- it is really badly sited as a residence, so I'm kind of surprised they bought it. It was looking like a candidate for the kind of program they have in Cleveland now -- just knock down the house and merge the lot into the neighbor's.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Definition IT

Definition IT is a new blog from New Zealand "dedicated to explaining, in non-journalistic words, the growing frustration I have with our modern technological world," although really it is about the author's frustration with IT, his career for the past 30 years. Free sample:

Don’t get me wrong I think the opportunities that cloud computing offers to businesses are huge but I think the industry's current rapid growth is more a reflection of the failure of “corporate IT” than it is of any intrinsic benefits that might be available to businesses.

It is good for people in ed-tech to read this kind of thing, because we've got an inferiority complex that makes us think that everyone else gets this stuff right. They don't. And that the next big thing will solve the problem. It won't.

via O'Reilly Radar.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So This Is EVE

The Mittani:

So this is EVE, a galaxy filled with socially inept spreadsheet nerds on the one hand and obsessive, ambitious griefers on the other. Resources are limited and must be fought over, and the only way out is to quit entirely.

Funny and interesting new column on Ten Ton Hammer by The Mittani of the infamous Goonswarm alliance.

Lately Ushra'Khan has gotten more involved in the Great War between Goonswarm and KenZoku (nee Band of Brothers), as part of our relationship with KenZoku allies Against All Authorities, from whose territory we've been basing our attacks on the evil slaveholders of the Curatores Veritatis Alliance.

Meanwhile, I've been too caught up with technical difficulties, illness and real life obligations to play much lately, but the news from EVE has been especially interesting.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Platform Trends

Sam Ruby:

...once upon a time the standard was LAMP: namely Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. MySQL is being eaten from below by SQLite3, and the time may be ripe for getting eaten from above. Over time PHP became “PHP, Perl, Python, and sometimes Ruby”. But the more interesting trend is that the language choice itself is no longer as primary as it once was, the real choices are increasingly drupal, django, and rails, with the language being a consequence of that choice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Nice Number for the Spring Choral Concert

Nina Sings "Copying Isn't Theft" from Reel 13 on Vimeo.

$132 Mobile Internet Device

Gizmodo reports (via Ben) that the SmartQ 5, a mobile internet device along the lines of the Nokia N810 or iPod Touch, will be priced at the equivalent of $132 in China. This device runs Ubuntu Linux, so running Wireless Generation's new Linux-based client applications should not be a problem (if this ever makes it to the US). Nothing like competition over open platforms to bring down costs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Incentivizing School Size

It is nice now to be able to easily look up objective and sorta-objective data on any miraculous or semi-miraculous public school you read about. One thing I've noticed lately is the schools with the unimpeachable numbers are tiny. Like, 60 per grade. On one hand this would seem to confirm my preference for small schools. And I definitely like high schools with 240 kids more than 2400.

But if we're thinking of this as one big incentive system, if you want to start a school that's going to get great test scores, and gain you bonuses and fame, you have no incentive to make the school any bigger than the smallest possible school. I like small schools, but I'd say a high-scoring school with 360 kids is better than one with 240, particularly if you figure that a strong principal is key to any size school, and that they are in very limited supply. Should a school get more credit in an incentive system for serving more kids?

Here's an abstract question: let's say you could either have a "B" scoring school of 1250 students or the same teachers and student randomly broken up into five separate schools of 250. You'll probably get a bit of a distribution of scores, right, like A, B, B, B, C? Is this better or worse, assuming that everyone is doing the same thing? Can you gain fame by showing off your "A" school and close your "C" school to show how tough-minded you are, even if all the variation is essentially random?

Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

Claus von Zastrow:

Still, schools cannot wall students off from the technologies and media that amplify both the best and the worst the 21st century has to offer. They face an important challenge: How do they help students use technology and new media responsibly? How do they acknowledge and incorporate 21st-century influences while promoting the value of a long intellectual tradition? How do they use that tradition to prepare students for the challenges they’ll face in the coming decades—some timeless and some quite new?

It’s certainly risky to treat the 21st-century as if it required an entirely new set of rules. Such thinking can deaden us to centuries of human achievement. But we shouldn’t dismiss all the 21st-century talk as mere rhetoric. In fact, such talk offers advocates for the liberal arts an important opportunity to stress their relevance in trying times.

It isn't that hard to hold both ideas in your head at the same time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Liberal Education, Corrupted

Dr. Florian Hild:

Does our century not need women as eloquent as Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, men as resourceful and civic-minded as Aeneas and Benjamin Franklin, creative forces like Beethoven and Da Vinci, men and women with the wisdom of a Jesus or Socrates? … Would we reject a young person applying for a job or college today if he had the political acumen of James Madison, the integrity of Abraham Lincoln, the passion and commitment of Jane Goodall?

Hm… so… “eloqence,” “resourceful,” “civic-minded,” “creative,” “wise,” “political acumen,” “integrity,” “passion,” “commitment.” About half of those are variations on the “21st Century Skills” as officially defined. The rest address “skills” that are traditionally seen as the goals of education for citizenship in a democracy, and the values of a moral education.

Instead of making this a bipolar struggle between “skills” and “content,” P21 could be framed as an updated, but somewhat corrupted, sub-set of the traditional goals of a liberal education, goals that are, I gather, shared by Core Knowledge, et al.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I'm Not Sure What Speech David Brooks Was Listening To


The reform vision Obama sketched out in his speech flows from that experience. The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

I don't know why Brooks chooses to imagine that there is something in Obama's education policy which is designed to forge stronger relationships between teachers and students, or, particularly, that making teachers fearful for their jobs or shooting for cash bonuses at the end of the year will make them forge emotional bonds with their students. Closing schools (whether they're traditional or charter schools) rather than fixing them is bad for relationships between teachers and students. Policies that move teachers to different schools, even if they are ostensibly higher needs schools, is bad for relationships.

Improving the relationships between teachers and students is simply not a priority in the Obama administration's agenda. It used to be a priority during the Clinton administration, but that was then, and this is now.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Business Model: Case in Point

Tom Geoghegan in Harpers:

First, we removed the possibility of creating real, binding contracts by allowing employers to bust the unions that had been entering into these agreements for millions of people. Second, we allowed those same employers to cancel existing contracts, virtually at will, by transferring liability from one corporate shell to another, or letting a subsidiary go into Chapter 11 and then moving to "cancel" the contract rights, including lifetime health benefits and pensions.

Havealittletalk's Blog:

PACT stands for Prepaid Affordable College Tuition. This program — until last week believed to be supported by the State of Alabama and certainly marketed as if — provides the opportunity to pay by installment or purchase outright a contract that will cover tuition and mandatory fees at an instate college or university [the same amount on average of these costs at Alabama state schools can be used at a private or other state institution] for a child who has not yet completed 9th grade. The idea is that the fund will invest the money over the years before the child enrolls in college in such a way that the money paid will meet future college costs. In the past year and a half, the fund has lost 46% of its value, and now it is beginning to look like the program will implode.

(via Avedon)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Geoghegan Blogging

Cory Doctorow incongruously dropped a very positive review of Which Side Are You On?, which I found particularly welcome since BoingBoing has a tendency to drop an incongruously anti-labor post in there about once every six months. Anyhow, nice quote:

It's hard to love imperfect things -- countries, movements, people -- but it's also fundamentally adult to acknowledge the imperfections in the things that matter to you, and to fight to improve them rather than writing them off.

For everyone who's ever retreated to the pat, easy position that "labor's gone too far," Geoghegan's book is an important, nuanced, gripping and immensely enjoyable rebuttal: proof that in many places, labor didn't go far enough.

Unfortunately, Geoghegan lost in his bid for Rahm Emmanuel's old House seat, spurring some debate over whether or not he was too much of a longshot to rally the netroots fundraising. Hey, sometimes someone you really love runs and you just gotta throw in $100. What are you saving it for, the next compromised half-measure fuckwad?

Also, Geoghegan has the cover story in the new Harpers, which is an updated article length treatment of some of the main themes in his most recent book, See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation. This is handy because I've been having trouble summarizing it. The nut:

... The problem was not that we "deregulated the New Deal" but that we deregulated a much older, even ancient, set of laws.

First, we removed the possibility of creating real, binding contracts by allowing employers to bust the unions that had been entering into these agreements for millions of people. Second, we allowed those same employers to cancel existing contracts, virtually at will, by transferring liability from one corporate shell to another, or letting a subsidiary go into Chapter 11 and then moving to "cancel" the contract rights, including lifetime health benefits and pensions. As one company after another "reorganized" in Chapter 11 to shed contract rights, working people learned that it was not rational to count on those rights and guarantees, or even to think in these future-oriented ways. No wonder people in our country began to live for the moment and take out loans and start running up debts.

And then we dismantled the most ancient of human laws, the law against usury, which had existed in some form in every civilization from the time of the Babylonian Empire to the end of Jimmy Carter's term, and which had been so taken for granted that no one ever even mentioned it to us in law school. That's when we found out what happens when an advanced industrial economy tries to function with no cap at all on interest rates.

Here's what happens: the financial sector bloats up...

We talk about the "business model" of school reform, but there are a lot of "business models." The one Geoghegan's describing is clearly recognizable in our current batch of "reformers." They aren't trying to turn our schools into GM, or even Google. The book is even relevant to understanding issues in ed-tech, which suffers a lot from the fear of lawsuits, which in turn stems from the capriciousness of tort law (compared to administrative and contract law, for example) and tort's prominence in our current legal system (due to an erosion of administrative and contract law). Anyhow, it is a great book (and I'm pretty sure that according to the Achieve standards, I'm not ready to graduate from high school).

Thinking Like Apple

In response to this post, Miguel comments:

Tom, you make some fascinating points, in particular, the UPS device. However, a UPS guy doesn't also have to do grades, track attendance, respond to email, keep notes, access a curriculum management system, etc....a teacher does. Why should districts buy a device for every purpose when they can buy one that simplifies things?

Well, it's a matter of priorities, isn't it? I'm not saying that every task deserves or requires a specialized device. In general, I'm in favor of an XO-style device (particularly for the kids) that can act as everything from an ebook reader to a video camera. However, in an elementary school, in 2009, tracking reading and math assessment is a special case. Whether or not it deserves the prominence it has is a separate question.

But, the fact of the matter is, in a very (painfully!) real sense, the job of the school is to create, track, and improve those numbers. And the worst possible world is one where data-driven instruction has bad data. And the first step in getting good data is getting data entered regularly and accurately. It is the sharp end of the spear. Get that wrong and millions of dollars downstream on analysis, storage, decisions based on data, school closings, people hired and fired, etc. all goes in the wrong direction. It is not the place to cut corners.

It's up to the vendor to make an assessment interface that meets District needs rather than have the District go bankrupt trying to buy and manage and support the device the vendor has decided will work best for their product.

I don't understand what "District" people perceive their relationship to vendors to be. Wireless Generation is an ed tech company that thinks like Apple. They compete on quality, maintain competitive prices without going after the bottom of the market, emphasize user experience, good design and smart technologists, and keep control over a full stack of services with as few outside dependencies as possible. If that's not what you're looking for, I'm sure someone else will be happier to sell you a cheaper product. Go buy something else. We need more companies like Wireless Generation in ed tech that set a standard of quality and usability and stick to it, even if there are users who'd prefer something crappier and cheaper.

By the way, crappier and/or cheaper is sometimes the right choice, depending on just how much crappier and cheaper it is, how sensitive the task is, etc. But overall, the problem in ed tech is not that there are too many expensive awesome products. It is all crap no matter how much it costs. That's the real problem.

Can Providence Get In On This?

Baltimore Sun:

Alonso says the role of the central office should be to support and evaluate schools, as the people closest to the children are making decisions. Each school would be assigned to a network of four administrators: two specializing in instruction, one in special education, and one in budget and operations.The administrators would be evaluated by principals - not the other way around - based on the quality of help they provide.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's Up With Aris Connect?

I ask in GothamSchools comments:

Do you know if any of the “web 2.0″ parts (blogs & other collaboration tools) of Aris are online/being used/work yet?

An Anonymous Principal responds:

The blogs, wikis, and discussion boards in ARIS have been operational for a few months now and appear to be used very little so far. Some principals may be using these functions but I personally don’t know another principal who is actively using them. None of the teachers in my school using these functions - or anything else in ARIS for that matter. I do use it to look up student data (attendance, exam scores, credits) but nothing else since it’s more user friendly than the other systems we use (ATS/HSST) and plays nicely with Excel when you export data.

If only there was some kind of publication which covered educational technology news.

Later... GothamSchools follows up.

Inconsistency Illustrated, II

You don't have to be Sherman Dorn to pick up on inconsistent arguments about school reform. Unfortunately I was not in the room yesterday to see a high school student explain to a district administrator in front of a faculty meeting that it was contradictory to argue that it is important for schools have to have the same schedule to prevent disruption to students if they transfer, yet it would not be disruptive to students to change the school's schedule next year. But I heard about it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Broad's Grand Strategy

The school department is rolling out a proposal to the small high schools in the city to move to a three period day next year. That would be three 110 minute blocks; one block each day would be split between Math and English, the rest would be classes that meet every other day. Most of the small schools currently have some variation on four 80 minute blocks per school day, but some have more traditional six period schedule.

I taught 110 minute periods at Brown Summer High School, in a team of three. I've also taught 80 minute blocks. That extra half-hour is a long time. Also, in the three block schedule, you get no break every other day. That's a recipe for some bad days.

Arbitrarily imposing block schedules is so 1990's ed school, yet somehow this is what we're getting from our Broad-trained military guy. Actually, they aren't necessarily imposing the three period block, they're presenting it, but not explicitly recommending it, and apparently there will be some kind of process for all the small schools to decide whether or not to all go to three periods or six periods next year. But they all have to do the same thing, and they can't keep four.

Since offering that choice makes no sense pedagogically, it seems like this is just about saving money. Which at least would make sense if they'd just be straight about it.

Also, teachers who've heard the presentation were told they couldn't talk about this publicly. Nice.

It is hard not to feel like this is just a prong in Generalissimo Broad's grand strategy. Train urban superintendents to do the opposite of what you propose for charters; take away their autonomy and impose arbitrary organizational changes with no basis is research or practical experience.

Maybe I'm paranoid. Then again, I'm not the one telling teachers that faculty discussions of public school policy have to be kept secret.

Jimmy Carter? Lyndon Johnson?

Jay Mathews provides an equally inaccurate counterpoint to Geoffrey Canada's historical analysis:

The speech puts Obama without any further doubt in the long line of Democratic party leaders who have embraced accountability in schools through testing, even at the risk of seeming to be in league with the Republican Party. His explicit endorsement of the tough Massachusetts testing system — a favorite of GOP conservatives — will irritate many teachers and education activists in his own party, but that group of Democrats has not had a champion who has ever gotten closer to the presidency than former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and we know how his candidacy turned out.

The Argument for Client Applications & Specialized Hardware

Miguel came up with some interesting news:

Wireless Generation announced today (03/05/2009) that their new handheld of choice--although they would continue to support the Palm and encourage purchasing of the Palm from two resellers--for their products would include the Nokia N810.

Miguel then muses over various facets of the decision, particularly whether or not in 2009 people would prefer the option of a web app running on a netbook.

Everyone is getting so web centric it is worth pointing out why a client app on a pen-based handheld makes sense. Teachers implementing a literacy program based on frequent formative assessment need to do a lot of formative assessment, in class, in the least disruptive and most efficient way possible. This requires a specialized, highly responsive interface. When a kid stumbles over a word, you have to note that while he or she keeps going. You can't stop to tab to the right place, wait for a page reload, wait until the network is back up, etc. You want to tap the word with your little stylus and move on. And you want to be carrying something you can carry around all morning, sit with at tiny tables and chairs, stick in your pocket, etc.

So no, a netbook running a web app is not as good, and Wireless Generation is trying to provide a high quality, vertically integrated service, not the cheapest possible crap. And the fact that they stuck with Palm OS this long, which has been obviously doomed for what, the entire decade, demonstrates that they're sensitive to not pushing schools onto a new platform just for the heck of it.

If there isn't sufficient funding after this giant stimulus, a nice chunk of which is going into educational data systems, to give teachers the best tool for gathering data about student progress in elementary literacy... I don't even know what to say. It will truly demonstrate how much we're living in a Potemkin village wrapped in a fraud, surrounded by a cloud of lies. UPS doesn't ask its delivery men to juggle Eee PC's with USB barcode scanners dangling off them. Walmart doesn't try and save money by putting a shoebox under a laptop and calling it a cash register.

Also, Miguel overplays the connection to the Nokia 810 hardware. The software runs on the open source Maemo platform, which is made up of most of the same components as the GNOME desktop (making it a cousin to Sugar). Making a port that will run on a Linux netbook shouldn't be hard (although Ubuntu Netbook Remix has drifted in a somewhat different direction because Maemo is optimized for pen input). Also, if appropriate Android devices come on line, they'll probably come up with a port. Maemo is not a slam-dunk choice right now, but all the current options have serious drawbacks.

I Can Google That For You!

Geoffrey Canada (via Paul Tough):

This president did something I have been waiting for my entire life, have a Democratic president that absolutely touched the third rail of Democratic politics. He said, our schools are failing. We’re going to hold teachers accountable. We’re going to fund education, but we’re going to expect results. And, if you don’t produce results, out you go. This has never happened in a Democratic president before. And I think we’re getting ready for change in America.

Bill Clinton, 1996:

First and foremost, he must continue to hold students, teachers, and school to the highest standards. We must ensure students can demonstrate competence to be promoted and to graduate. Teachers must also demonstrate competence, and we should be prepared to reward the best ones, and remove those who don’t measure up, fairly and expeditiously.

Background Radiation

Mike Fletcher:

We saw something similar a few months ago where a contractor burned literally days getting Ubuntu and PostgreSQL installed. We just assumed that a modern web developer knows how to get a Linux server configured for development work. It's just background radiation, not even something we consider a skill worth mentioning. Source-code-control usage is another one, "everyone" knows that.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"21st Century Skills" and the "American Diploma Project"

Checker Finn sez:

...speaking of 21st Century skills, the more I learn about this woolly notion, the clearer it becomes that this infatuation is bad for liberal learning; a ploy to sidestep results-based accountability; somewhere between disingenuous and naïve regarding its impact on serious academic content; and both psychologically questionable and pedagogically unsound. (For a terrific exposition of these problems, see here.)

And he states that:

Achieve's respected "American Diploma Project" (ADP) benchmarks--these are at the core of the common standards project.

OK, good. I like it when people in favor of national standards point to actual standards. Now, let's see how many "21st Century Skills," which Finn dislikes, are in the "American Diploma Project" standards, which he likes:

  • Creativity and Innovation: bzzt! Can't find it.
  • Critical Thinking and Decision Making: "Critical Thinking and Decision Making" is one of the "cross disciplinary proficiencies... embedded in the ADP benchmarks." Pretty close. Also there is a whole section on "logic" in the English standards, which sound to me like the kind of thing Stephen has in mind when he says:

    ... from where I sit, a proposition is a proposition, whether expressed in history or literature, and modus ponens still holds among such propositions no matter where they're expressed.
  • Communication and Collaboration: Again "Communications and Teamwork" is an ADP "core proficiency" and you've got the "Communication" English standards and the "Work in Teams" benchmark.
  • Information, Media and Technology Skills: In ADP English you've got "Informational Text," and "Media" and "Media and Technology" is a "cross disciplinary proficiency."
  • Life and Career Skills: Most of these are covered in the standards listed above (e.g., "Communications and Teamwork").

I'm not even sure what to make of this. Have the 21st Century Skills people already rotted out the core of Achieve? There absolutely is real difference between the two documents, but why would people like Checker Finn, who is a proponent of national standards, and many of his allies, exaggerate the differences between these supposedly opposed camps? If you want to see national standards, shouldn't you be building a big tent? I don't get it.

The most plausible explanation is that the can't resist making fun of DFH's and can't be bothered to actually read standards documents and try to come to consensus.

What's Driving "21st Century Skills?"

There's fodder for a week's worth of posts in Checker Finn's "Can we get to national standards, considering the pitfalls?" (via CK). Here's an entry point for something I was thinking about all weekend:

Second, speaking of 21st Century skills, the more I learn about this woolly notion, the clearer it becomes that this infatuation is bad for liberal learning; a ploy to sidestep results-based accountability; somewhere between disingenuous and naïve regarding its impact on serious academic content; and both psychologically questionable and pedagogically unsound. (For a terrific exposition of these problems, see here.) Yet I don't think the NEA is the only member of the "common standards" partnership that's smitten.

The whole traditionalist critique of "21st Century Skills" that really burst forth last week seems to mis-understand the source of this "notion." It seems pretty straightforward to me:

  1. High tech businesses realize that standards increasingly drive what kids know and are able to do when they graduate from high school.
  2. Businesses know what they're looking for in applicants coming out of school (college).
  3. Businesses get together, write down what they want applicants to know and be able to do (or, what they think they want them to know and be able to do).
  4. They get together with like-minded education groups and crank out the proper bureaucratic documents.
  5. They (pay someone to) put in the hours sitting in endless, odious committee meetings with such exciting groups as ISTE, AASL, NCTE, and 50 state departments of education.
  6. Given that preparing students to work in the aforementioned high tech businesses is a top education priority of government at every level, they find many receptive audiences, and make considerable headway in seeing their concerns reflected in official standards.

Critiques of pedagogy implied or suggested as a result of these standards are valid, but beside the point. The community, including business, sets the standard. It is the responsibility of schools to figure out ways of meeting them. How else is it supposed to work?

Now, if you want to argue that business should have less influence, fine, I like that argument, but it is a different argument.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

SchoolTool Back On...

...Tim O'Reilly's radar.

The Only 21st Century Skill That Matters: Figuring Out How To Not Destroy Everything

Maciej Cegłowski:

We are facing an economic crisis that is within our capacity to solve, and an ecological crisis that we lack the political means to prevent. It's only by failing at the former that we might have a chance at surviving the latter.

The Un-Popularity of Massachusetts's Standards

In the conversation about national standards, one state that receives some praise is Massachusetts for its curriculum framework. It is worth noting that in the past couple years, three states bordering on Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire, have adopted a common set of standards (NECAP & GLE's) -- which are not Massachusetts's standards. Maine has announced it is joining the NECAP group.

I haven't really followed the intra-New England politics on this, but if Massachusetts's smaller neighbors decided not to use Mass's standards, it seems pretty unlikely that Texas will jump at the chance. And I don't see the Bay State relishing following Texas or Rhode Island or Alaska's lead in education.

I just don't see how this is going to work.

Finnish National Standards

I've been spending some time perusing the Finnish National Core Curriculum for Basic Education lately and finding it quite pleasant. It is hard not to like a set of standards that puts on page 2:

The pupils will learn to recognize the importance of aesthetic experiences to the quality of life.

"Quality of life!" That's a difficult concept to articulate in American education. We've pretty much got a choice of:

  • Don't talk to me about art until everyone's up to grade level in math, reading, science, and (once we write the test) technology literacy (NCLB-ism).
  • Art, your pathway to a creative class job (P21-ism).
  • Eat your art, it's good for you (Core-ism).

Understanding Senate Moderates


A “Senate moderate” is someone who takes his party’s proposals, objects to them, waters them down a bit, and then congratulates himself on a job well done. Which is great if his party’s proposals are unduly immoderate. But it’s big-time trouble if his party puts a reasonable, moderate agenda on the table.

After all, you don’t maintain the painstakingly achieved Nelson/Bayh “Senate moderate” brand by clapping politely. You need to bitch and moan and be quoted in inside-baseball only media outlets that none of your constituents pay attention to, and hold conferences and have meetings at the White House where people hold your hands. You need to be praised by the opposition party, and extract your pound of flesh from the proposal. Then when it looks like it might go down to defeat, you can vote for the somewhat-watered-down version and be the hero who saved the day and nobody will mention that you saved the day from yourself.

But you really do need to do that stuff. You can’t just say “well, this is a reasonable proposal so I’ll back it.” Then your moderate license gets taken away.

When the Foundation Says "Jump!" the Grantees Ask "How High?"

Sylvia links to the Moving Learning Games Forward white paper from MIT, whose intended audience seems to be funders, particularly foundations ("The Role of Foundations" is the climax of the paper). I have, as you might imagine, a number of nits I could pick about this paper, which I'll keep to myself in the interest of your and my time. They do give "open"-ness more attention than most of the works in this genre, although they do it with all the verve and clarity of a student completing a punitive essay in detention hall, e.g. (p.44-45):

Open Source Engines
This idea takes the engines built on open standards and APIs a step further by open sourcing the code to the game engine itself. This provides a low cost way to both develop and distribute educational games, avoiding (for the developer) the purchasing of engines that can be very costly, and further avoiding (for the end user) that cost being passed along to them. Open source products have been a remarkable success in particular success – the most famous of which is the Linux operating system, but also includes applications like the Firefox web browser. Several open source game engines already exist (e.g. Ogre), but their popularity has been limited, perhaps by the tradeoff between price and functionality/ease of use, which has suffered in many open source products.

Pros and cons – One may ask the question about why such a product (or products – game engines for different genres) don’t already exist. Perhaps (like Firefox) they need a formal organization/foundation that can not only sponsor their initial development but sustain the community of developers and users. It may also be, from the commercial games industry perspective, that such an approach is unnecessary – that most of their development goes into assets and novel additions to game play that this approach would not help. But such an argument is not likely to come from the learning games community, where many developers would likely be happy to build on a solid set of shared features, concentrating on asset development, and content, contributing code when they are required to change the engine itself. However, unlike Linux, the end user community (teachers and learners) are unlikely to care about the product being based on an open source engine vs. something that is merely free (and closed source).

The very tricky thing they do here is restrict the discussion of "open source" to the "engines." That is, they completely elide the more important question of how the game itself (that is, the work done by the game development team, as opposed to its technical infrastructure; or put another way, the work the funder is paying the team to do) is licensed. It is great if both are free software, but of the two, I'd rather have the game logic be open source than the engine.

I don't have time to go on and on and on about this, but here's my recommendation to foundations and the government:

Require any software written under your grants be released as free and open source software.

The grantees will figure out the rest. They're not going to quit and go home or take up another occupation. They're smart guys, they'll make it work on those terms, and you'll get much better value for your investment when their work can be freely used, studied, modified and redistributed.

It is that simple. High expectations! No excuses! Quit coddling MIT developers!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I Would Have Liked To Have Seen Her Face When She Found Out What The Hammer Is

Vicki Davis discovers Dr. Horrible.

Forging a Personal Relationship with Stimulus

I must admit the promised Stimulus Watch website is more interesting than I would have thought, although primarily because there are quite a few proposals to address longstanding annoyances in my neighborhood, like repaving Huntington Avenue, and Roger Williams Park Road, which is so disintegrated in places it's not safe to ride your bike around the loop. I hit a bad stretch too fast one day and instantly flatted both tires. One big reason people don't support government spending is they don't see the connection to their daily lives -- if you live in south Providence, the potential benefit is quite clear.

One thing that is striking is that several of the local facilities up for renovation were originally WPA projects; I know Mount Pleasant High School and the Japanese Garden and pond at Roger Williams Park both have WPA plaques.

The interactive parts of the site, I'm a little dubious about. It is a wiki, and you can leave comments and vote. Thus far it seems to mostly be attracting anti-spending cranks. This modest proposal to improve safety in Laurel, MS's housing for the elderly is an example of their ire.

I would, however, encourage you to go right now and vote YES for "warm, safe and dry schools" in Providence. Right now, many of them aren't.

Foreign Aid and 21st Century Skills

Right now the discourse over "21st Century Skills" reminds me of polling in the US over the correct level of foreign aid. This is a pretty old example, but you'll get the point:

Among the 801 people surveyed, 15 percent was the median figure given when Americans were asked about how much of the budget went to foreign aid. Other recent polls, including a Harris Poll in November 1993, indicated that Americans thought the Government devoted 20 percent or more of its spending to foreign assistance.

The figure is about 1 percent of the Federal budget. Total foreign aid -- military and non-military combined -- is now about $13 billion a year. About half that, devoted largely to human-development programs relating to health, family planning and economic self-help, is administered by the United States Agency for International Development.

When asked about an "appropriate" expenditure for aid, respondents to the January poll said about 5 percent of the budget, or about five times what is spent now.

Beyond that, if you asked Americans what "Democrats in congress" want the share of the budget devoted to foreign aid to be, they'd probably say 30%.

Similarly, listening to one set of critics of "21st Century Skills," you might get the impression that schools are spending a lot of time teaching analysis, synthesis, critical thinking in isolation from content knowledge. I'm sure some do (there are a lot of schools!), but if you wanted to do some data-driven analysis, and actually go into classrooms and record what was happening, you'd see very little evidence of this practice. I've seen enough of surveys of teaching practice to know I'm right, I'll leave the Googling as an exercise for dubious readers.

And while this idea of teaching thinking skills in isolation from content is not a 100% straw man, there are a hell of a lot more classrooms in the US where the opposite extreme is true, and decontextualized content and procedure is taught in isolation.

There is a consensus you have to be able to do both, and to teach both together. And if you'd ask opponents of "21st Century Skills" how much time should be spent teaching "thinking skills" or whatever in conjunction with content knowledge, I'm sure their recommendation would be significantly more time than is actually spent on these things in real classrooms. There are differences about balance, breadth vs. depth, etc., that will never go away, any more than people will stop arguing about what the prime interest rate should be or what the best marginal income tax rate is. But this idea that in our schools--nationwide, not at locally--we're already spending a lot of time on "21st Century Skills" that are driving out content, and likely to see "21st Century Skills" become dominant is just fantasy. If anyone has data on classroom practice that contradicts me, I'd like to see it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Brookings Goes a Millimeter Deep

As Checker Finn said last week, after you go "a millimeter below the surface" on national standards boosterism, you confront the grim reality that people don't agree on what kids should know and be able to do. One nice example/preview comes from this bit from Brookings about what they perceive as bias in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Specifically (p. 15):

PISA asks students if they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Industries should be required to prove that they safely dispose of dangerous waste materials.
  • I am in favor of having laws that protect the habitats of endangered species.
  • It is important to carry out regular checks on the emissions from cars as a condition of their use.
  • To reduce waste, the use of plastic packaging should be kept to a minimum.
  • Electricity should be produced from renewable sources as much as possible, even if this increases the cost.
  • It disturbs me when energy is wasted through the unnecessary use of electrical appliances.
  • I am in favor of having laws that regulate factory emissions even if this would increase the price of products.

The four-point scale consists of strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. PISA assumes through its scoring rubric that students agreeing or strongly agreeing with these seven policies possess “a sense of responsibility for sustainable development.” Students who do not agree or strongly disagree with these policies are considered lacking such a sense of responsibility.

One of the policy statements is innocuous—being disturbed by the waste of energy—but responses to the others are reflective of political judgment. There are arguments on both sides of public policies and responsible citizens can, armed with facts and reason, come down on one side or the other...

Consider the policy statement, “Industries should be required to prove that they safely dispose of dangerous waste materials.” What does it mean to be required to prove? What kind of proof? Is the standard of proof reasonable? Are penalties involved if industries do not meet such a standard? What is safe disposal? How is safe disposal defined? How are dangerous waste materials defined?

OK, fair enough, but by this standard, you couldn't ask any questions about policy. In the abstract, none of these statements is actually controversial. There is no scientific argument that endangered species should not protected. Nor, for that matter, does anyone seriously make the argument that despeciation is not a problem. They do argue that, "Perhaps this particular little fish is not as important as the dam I'm trying to build," or that "Polar bears are doing quite well already, thank you very much."

But anyway, lets assume that we don't want to put any of these statements on a standardized test, and we also won't put "Property rights should be protected by the force of law," or "Thou shalt not steal." on the test either. Fine. But where does that leave us in an environment where people are increasingly hesitant to adopt or create academic standards that cannot be objectively tested? Are we going to write national standards that exclude all controversy, all moral and ethical education? In what way is that progress? How does it prepare our students to make informed policy decisions?

Ooh... Shiny

Leonard Richardson:

For instance: underneath the Launchpad web service is a generic library that lets you create a web service from your existing data objects by annotating the Zope interfaces. All this code lives in LAZR: the only web service code in Launchpad has to do with Launchpad’s web service specifically. We’d like you to reuse the LAZR webservice code in any project that uses Zope interfaces to describe its data objects.

We had to walk away from SchoolTool's initial implementation of web services because it created too much additional development load. Perhaps LAZR will help us get web services back with less work.

Institutional Memory, Or the Lack Thereof

Sharon Higgins:

So, after years of being slowly starved to death and then getting blamed for not accomplishing more, school districts like mine, the ones most abandoned by the middle class, were then targeted for outsider-led “school reform.” These days, staff turnover in Oakland Unified is higher than ever before, being both a consequence, and the cause, of widespread system disarray.

Once upon a time, even urban public school districts had a precious commodity called institutional memory, something which had built up for decades. When the reformers arrived, this long-term memory was quickly wiped out. And now on an ongoing basis it seems, any short-term memory is, too.

Because so many schools are opening and closing, and everything between, and because so many people are constantly new to their positions, no one remembers what happened before, or what was once tried and what might have worked, or not. Few people remember how certain things are done, or know the people to ask who might be able to help them. Sometimes people have no idea where important light switches are. These days, urban school district life is a never-ending attempt to reinvent some sort of wheel.

This is becoming acute in Providence as well. So many waves of out-of-town superintendents washing in with new and different sets of out-of-town consultants, every three years.