Monday, November 30, 2009

Apparently Someone Read the Damn Things


(NY Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl) Tisch said... New York should adopt standards that are tougher than the national bar. “We will reserve the right to increase the rigor of the standards and be at the top of the heap and not at the bottom of the heap,” she said.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ushra'Khan: Fighting Virtual Slavery with Internet Spaceships for Five Years

Ugleb, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, last Wednesday:

We are the Ushra'Khan, we come for our people.

For five years now that has been the cornerstone for all that our movement has done. It is is our purpose, our motivation. It is our compulsion, our definition. Despite all that has transpired in this half-decade of strife, we remain the Ushra'Khan. And all that we have done, we have done for them.

We are a movement founded with one goal; to break the chains of slavery that bind our kin. No matter the world of your birth, it is your right to live free. No matter the passage of time nor the light years that divide us, we shall see you freed. That was our promise then, and it remains our promise even today. You shall be free...

The work ahead of us remains vast, it is the undertaking of a lifetime, not mere years, but together we move forward. Today we remember where we have come from, where we have been. And as the sun rises tomorrow we look forward to where we shall go, together in unity.

With our fists raised high in salute to the rising sun and in defiance to the darkness we march to battle. This war has waged five years now for us, it has not stopped for a single day.

We are the Ushra'Khan, we come for our people.

We go on.

I've been Ushra'Khan for a bit less than two years; my only alliance in Eve. Eve alliances are weird institutions. As of today we've got 1082 members in sixteen corporations; that makes us the 26th biggest in Eve by membership -- we're also officially the oldest. Exactly how many people are behind those avatars, I don't know. I know I contribute three characters; I'd guess it is really 300 - 500 real people. Could be 150 or so active players total. I don't know, but Eve developers have speculated that alliances cap out around Dunbar's number in real players despite their count in game.

Anyhow... I could ramble on about this for a while, but let me say this: Ushra'Khan is extremely well led, both as freedom fighters and an online community. Our diplomats do an outstanding job. Our council is serious enough to make internet spaceships interesting and for Ushra'Khan to stand for something, but never too serious. The average age of our members is probably thirty, with a fairly even spread from 15 to 45. I certainly don't play a lot (nor am I very good) by MMO standards in general, but I can get exactly what I want from my experience without anyone ever suggesting that I need to make my gaming life a higher priority than my real life. We enforce high standards for our pilots, without becoming pedantic, and as such draw high quality, often highly experienced recruits.

What makes this unique though, is how impersonal Eve is. Space is big. And empty. And we're primarily a hit and run guerrilla force. So a lot of time I'm just flying around on my own. Joining up in a fleet with our premiere pilots, who I otherwise just follow on the forums and killboard, is a special event. If I find myself in a fleet with, say, Karn Mithralia (2205 kills v. 203 losses), his Aussie accent coming over Teamspeak from halfway around the world, well, that's extra exciting, in a way that is unique to a sandbox massively multi-player online game.

It is a lot of fun.

The Chromium OS Aha

I fired up Chromium OS from a USB key on my laptop yesterday. Works pretty well for kicks, except no wireless on my ThinkPad. The big Aha moment is when the initial login screen wants your Google ID rather than a local one, and then automatically logs you into your GMail and Google Calendar in the first two browser tabs. It feels like you're logging into your office LAN, except your office is now the internet. And it doesn't belong to your office, and not quite to you either.

It reminds me a little of the first time I used Office 95. Each part of it was reasonably well executed, but what was exciting was that Word, Excel, etc. were clearly meant to work together. At the time, that was a big deal. Chrome OS has that feel too... like the pieces are pulling together. And it does give you a little Microsoft-y chill... Google is selling you Google Calendar exactly the same way Microsoft sells Outlook (and Apple sells iCal). Of course, most of the above are "free," (as in beer) so it is a peculiar type of sale.

For schools that have already decided they're ok with using Google services for public business, Chrome OS devices will be a no brainer. Using the whole stack will really start to draw down the old TCO, in every dimension. I'm ambivalent about becoming too Google-dependent.

Friday, November 27, 2009



Good news. Starting on this week, longtime education industry insider Marc Dean Millot (pictured) is going to be posting a weekly piece on the education industry on this site. I've been a fan of Millot's for a long time, though we come from different ends of the political spectrum and don't always come to the same conclusions.

Excellent news.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is the Kind of Rhetoric you get with an Unlimited Budget and No Scruples

Harold E. Ford Jr., Louis V. Gerstner Jr., And Eli Broad:

(on Race to the top)... the administration must continue to hang tough on two critical issues: performance standards and competition. (emphasis added)

To many educators, one of the key issues going forward to negotiating "NCLB II" is whether or not there will be a role for performance standards and performance assessment in addition to standardized tests. This is pretty standard terminology, for example or this. In general, these guys are against what most educators are talking about when they say "performance standards."

So, if you've got a thousand well-educated monkeys in a dozen think tanks working on your op ed, you have time to think of things like "Let's start calling this thing we like by the name of something else we don't like, and since we've got a bigger megaphone, the next time our opponents start talking about what they want, everyone will instead think about what we want."

That's totally what's happening here.

Sounds Like a Plan


To the best of my understanding, nothing is stopping Rahm Emannuel from sauntering onto the floor of the Senate, murdering Republicans from states with Democratic governors in cold blood, having them replaced by new Democrats, and then getting a pardon from Barack Obama.

One Last Kiss from Dana Goldstein on Desegregation

While Dana Goldstein has sadly left the education beat full time, she still manages to work school desegregation in:

Critics contend the administration has ignored more difficult, yet proven school reforms, such as efforts to integrate schools, thus guaranteeing that fewer classrooms are overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty and racial isolation. Research by Cornell labor economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina ended a 30-year busing program and resegregated, the highest-performing teachers fled schools that became predominantly black and poor. Yet integration is seen as a pie-in-the-sky, old-school lefty goal by the venture-philanthropy crowd and has registered not at all on the Obama/Duncan agenda. It's not "innovative."

Claus has a more comprehensive review of Goldstein's piece.

SST Alumni Blogging

Chris Collins highlights the Maker/hardcore crossover:

further SST lore

SST Records has its roots in a small business called Solid State Tuners, owned and operated by Greg Ginn, which in the 1970s built equipment for amateur radio buffs. Black Flag/SST fan Jonathan Haynes, himself a radio operator and builder, had the savvy to snap these two shots of one tuner he encountered, the T-1.

Other SST alumni(ish) blogs:

I need some Slovenly blogging!

Upsurge in Blogger Comment Spam

I had essentially no comment spam for years here on Blogger. Now I'm getting an increasing torrent. I'd like to think it is because of the growing influence of the blog, but I suspect it is just because nobody at Google is paying attention.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

ChromeOS and Breaking the "Managed PC" Model in Schools

Jon Stokes on ChromeOS:

The custom firmware integrates some of the functions of a boot loader, so it's a bit more robust than a traditional BIOS. During the seven-second boot time, the firmware loads a series of kernel modules, all of which are signed; if the signature check fails at any point in boot-up, the machine will prompt the user for a reboot, after which a clean version of the OS is downloaded and the entire device is essentially re-imaged...

In my comments above on how ChromeOS works, I described user data as "locally cached"—with ChromeOS, all user data lives in the cloud. A ChromeOS device presumes that the canonical version of your data is the cloud version, so it caches this data locally for faster access, and when a user modifies it, the changes are invisibly written back out to the network. What this means in practical terms is that, while ChromeOS has a filesystem of some sort, you'll never see it. I, for one, couldn't be more thrilled...

Google will obviously target Intel-based netbooks at launch, but Pichai confirmed that the company will also target ARM. This was predictable, because ARM will probably make a better hardware platform for Chrome OS than Atom, especially when Cortex A9 hits the scene. The battery life will be better and, most importantly, the cost will be lower. I think it's possible that we'll see an ARM-based Chrome OS portable for $200 sometime next year. A combination of a $200 price point and all-day battery life may well put the device over the "it looks like a netbook but does less.. heck, I'll buy it anyway" threshold described above.

The first paragraph above might be the most important for schools. I've become convinced that growth in computer adoption in US schools is bottlenecked on support for each computer as an individual soup of applications and data sitting on a hard drive inside a computer that must be managed as an individual device -- as a managed PC. There was a window where thin clients were potentially a large-scale solution to this problem but as far as I can tell they've been swamped by multimedia on one hand and netbooks on the other.

But the answer is not just "Hey, store everything in the cloud." There has to also be changes in the design of the client to make it more robust, fool-proof, and, essentially, capable of being re-flashed to a default working state in minutes, as a ChromeOS apparently will do automatically. If nothing else, ChromeOS should challenge the hegemony of the "managed PC," its fundamental insecurity locked down by layers of Active Directory, anti-virus, technical servants, etc. To the end user, the result may be similar -- a fairly limited device -- but instead of a complexly crippled full PC OS, you'll have a simple, clean one.

I would just add the capability of running different OS images off USB keys to allow non-web apps to be run off their own stripped down (but non-Chrome) OS images (OK class, pop in your Sugar stick and reboot...).


Long time readers may recall my annoyance with the 2008 MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition. I've got other fish to fry right now, but I should note that their funding of ITC based participatory learning for indigenous children in Chiapas, Mexico seems like exactly the kind of thing they should be doing.

Mayoral Control: What if he Loses?

Adam Bink:

This is the first public polling I've seen on the race. Clarus Research Group (which is actually run by a former George Washington University professor of mine) has a poll out showing Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is up for re-election in 2010, at 43%/49% approval/disapproval and 34%/53% re-elect/someone else numbers. It also shows him losing 41%-37% to the DC Council chairman, Vincent Gray, but leading in a four-way race with Gray and two other DC Councilmembers.

It seems like the only thing holding Bloomberg and Fenty in office is lack of spirited opposition. One could speculate that this lack of opposition is also a major factor in support for "mayoral control" as a reform strategy. Nobody seems worried about what might happen if these guys lose someday.

A Good Rule of Thumb


As a veteran local school council member, I have learned that when someone complains that "you never talk about children," they're usually trying to shut you up because you're getting too close to the truth, and when someone asserts that they are only doing something "for the children," there are usually other agendas at work.

Random Intellectual Property & Teachers Thoughts

If you want to literally write a book that you will both use in your own class and sell, you should frame the task to say "I'm writing a book to sell, and I will also use it in my class!" rather than "I would now like to sell this book which I wrote as part of my job." I'm not saying this is airtight legal advice, but it couldn't hurt.

I really don't think lesson plans strictly defined -- the plan for how to combine different external content, activities, etc. -- are strongly copyrightable. Ideas are not copyrightable.

Specific content you create, images, photos, PowerPoints, online lessons, expressly for use in your classroom, I don't see how it isn't the property of your employer.

I'm not really making an argument in favor of the "work for hire" approach -- I'm just describing the current law as I understand it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Moral Rights of the Author

Just for reference, in regard to who owns lesson plans, some countries recognize the "moral rights of the author." Wikipedia:

Moral rights are rights of creators of copyrighted works generally recognized in civil law jurisdictions and, to a lesser extent, in some common law jurisdictions. They include the right of attribution, the right to have a work published anonymously or pseudonymously, and the right to the integrity of the work. The preserving of the integrity of the work bars the work from alteration, distortion, or mutilation. Anything else that may detract from the artist's relationship with the work even after it leaves the artist's possession or ownership may bring these moral rights into play. Moral rights are distinct from any economic rights tied to copyrights. Even if an artist has assigned his or her rights to a work to a third party, he or she still maintains the moral rights to the work.

The US, essentially, does not.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Regarding Selling Lesson Plans

If you write a lesson plan as part of your work, that is for your job, unless there is some other agreement with your employer, it is the property of the employer. It is work for hire. Period. It doesn't matter if you do it on your own time, on your own computer, at home, unprompted, on your own initiative, any more than a memo that a sales manager writes at home belongs to him or her, or an account manager that goes above and beyond on a sales PowerPoint owns it.

If you think teachers should be exempt from this you are arguing that teachers should have privileges that other professionals do not. The fact that teaching is generally a tough, underpaid, unrecognized profession does not enter into that basic fact.

The hazier question is actually "Are lesson plans copyrightable?" In case you forgot, I Am Not A Lawyer, and this one is tough to Google, since you tend to get lesson plans about copyright instead of information about copyrighting lesson plans. My guess is, however, that lesson plans should play out like recipes, copyright-wise:

Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.

Protection under the copyright law (title 17 of the U.S. Code, section 102) extends only to “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form (a copy). “Original” means merely that the author produced the work by his own intellectual effort, as distinguished from copying an existing work. Copyright protection may extend to a description, explanation, or illustration, assuming that the requirements of the copyright law are met...

Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form. Copyright protection does not extend to names, titles, short phrases, ideas, systems, or methods.

Along these lines, regarding lesson plans written for work, the teacher does not control the copyright of that particular expression of the ideas, ingredients, systems, etc. There is, however, no reason the original author, or anyone else, can't create another version of the same lesson and sell it online. For that matter, there is nothing stopping someone else from making another implementation of the lesson they buy online and doing whatever they want with it.

This makes common sense, fits with the way things actually work in the real world now, allows teachers or schools to pursue a moderate but not monopoly rent on the content, and seems perfectly consistent with a plain reading of the law.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Its not Easy to Focus on the Winner

Claus von Zastrow & Ashley Merriman:

Merryman:...So I was suggesting in my column that if we focus on the success of kids, which is actually the normative behavior, perhaps we can use that to further improve where we are going. Everybody loves a winner, right?

So focus on that success, even in the at-risk situations. Maybe that is sort of a way to improve without feeling sort of overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.

Public School Insights: But given that there are certain cities like Detroit, Michigan, for example, where not even half the students graduate….

Merryman: I live in LA, which is about at 30% and is considered one of the worst in the country.

Public School Insights: Yes. So can we really focus on the successes of the only 30%--or perhaps even fewer than 30% because the question of what those kids are doing once they graduate also looms large? Is there a way of creating a really strong sense of urgency there, while asking how we spread success to the more than 70% who aren’t succeeding?

The graduation rate in 2007 - 2008 in LA was 74.2%.

Of course, you can find studies that make things look much more dire -- pegging LA's "on time" graduation rate around 45%, but those studies use a ridiculously simple methodology -- comparing 9th grade numbers four years ago to the number of graduates this year -- that misses all kinds of tranfers, etc. Let me put it this way -- if "No Excuses" charters calculated their "graduation" rate this way, they'd be around 60% too at most sites.

Anyhow, I don't want to pick on Claus too much, as it is easy in conversation to flip numbers around. I did think it was pretty funny though.

And not to say drop-outs aren't a problem, but the fact that we're not really clear whether it is a 30%, 45%, or 75% problem shows just how fucked we all are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Providence, Catch and Ushra’Khan - a primer


I realise that people reading this pilot journal may not fully appreciate who’s who around the regions that we, the Ushra’Khan, fight in. In order to ease understanding, I thought I’d do a write up of who’s who in the area. Ushra’Khan’s history, and that of CVA’s is a matter of public record and better people than I have written about them, so I won’t cover that here...

All of the alliances in the ‘bad guy’ column are at best blue to each other, and at worst, neutral. As CVA enforce strict NRDS in Providence, this means they all get along.

At any time, we face up to 9,500 pilots in the ProviBloc.

Eve Online is a big game.

The Precedented Scale of Race to the Top

Tennessee -- eligible for $150 - $250 million from RttT:

The city school board is expected to sign an agreement today with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will funnel more than $90 million to Memphis for a plan to change how teachers are hired, placed, evaluated and retained.

Pennsylvania -- eligible for $200 - $400 million:

In what officials said would be the largest grant ever made directly to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered the district $40 million for sweeping initiatives to maximize teacher effectiveness.

Florida -- eligible for $350 to $700 million:

TAMPA — The finish line is in sight for the Hillsborough County School District, which agreed Tuesday to accept a $100 million teacher effectiveness grant if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers it.

And remember...

AUSTIN – For the $300 million spent on merit pay for teachers over the last three years, Texas was hoping for a big boost in student achievement.

But it didn't happen with the now-defunct program, according to experts hired by the state.

Second verse, same as the first...

Killing Two Birds with Binding Arbitration

Tom Sgouros:

The binding arbitration rules in, for example, Connecticut are quite clear about what are the proper reasons an arbitrator can use to rule one way or the other in a dispute. It's possible to draw those rules to favor unions, and it's possible to draw them to favor management. We should adopt binding arbitration, and then argue about what are the proper grounds for a ruling, but that's a far smarter course than just throwing the whole idea out the window.

So, right now we've got an overall impasse over teacher contracts in Rhode Island -- there is no process for resolving disputes (e.g., no strikes). The teachers' unions have finally started pushing for binding arbitration. Municipalities and the state are trying out unilaterally imposing new terms after contracts expire, or simply asserting that the state can order contractual changes based on NCLB and their interpretation of the new Basic Education Program. Burning contract law is a one-way trip though, which leaves no basis for compromise over mutual agreement going forward. The long-term implications may be grave.

Also, all of the above is currently in the courts, so who knows who will win.

But as Tom says, there is no reason the terms of arbitration can't be written out however we want. There is, in particular, no reason to think that compliance with the Basic Education Program would not and should not be considered as a basic principle of arbitration. There is no reason, thus, that binding arbitration cannot serve both consistent, steady school reform and preserve contract law as its basis going forward.

By the way, Tom Geoghegan's See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation does a good job of explaining business's assault on not just unions and collective bargaining, but contract law in any form.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Teach Math!

One of the highly annoying problems about all education babble is the extent to which there are a number of highly bifurcated divisions, and all too often we don't even mention which half we're talking about. Elementary or secondary? e.g., reading Core Knowledge people is really confusing for a high school person -- they don't even have a high school curriculum. Low income or high income schools? Totally different situation in the US. Math vs. everything else?

These are tough times to be looking for work as a teacher.

Unless, it seems, you're hoping to become a math teacher.

That's the conclusion of a recent report, which finds that nationwide demand for teachers has fallen in all 60 fields examined over the past year. Only one subject area—math teaching—was found to be in "considerable demand,"

As you might have noticed, I tend to be TFA and alternative certification skeptic, but that doesn't really extend to math. I've personally buttonholed likely looking geeks in bookstores while looking for math teachers. I'd support math teacher press gangs. Whatever it takes. Particularly in low-income high schools we desperately need passable math teachers. It is ridiculous. My former school has all kind of strengths but it will probably never consistently make AYP because of math, and it isn't really a mystery -- they can't find math teachers! It isn't a subtle problem.

Larry Ferlazzo Listens Closely to Meet the Press

Do Teachers REALLY Come From The Bottom Third Of Colleges? Or Is That Statistic A Bunch Of Baloney?

I’ve heard this kind of statistic about teachers coming from the bottom third of something or other before (though never about the bottom third of classes — I don’t know where he got that bizarre statistic from), and just ignored it. But hearing it on Meet The Press, from the director of a private school, got “my dander up” and I decided to look into where those numbers came from and how valid and reliable they were. It was quite a ride on a Sunday afternoon…

What Newt Gingrich Thinks Students Should Learn

REP. GINGRICH: Well, Jefferson said that religion, morality and knowledge being important, we need schools. That’s the Northwest Ordinance. So I’d say the first thing you need to know is about yourself and your own values and your own concerns. The second thing you have to know is a good work ethic and a ability to be honest. And the third thing you have to know is how to learn whatever you’re going to need to be successful.

Now, can he tell us how those qualities are assessed by the standardized tests used to evaluate schools now and would be used to determine the teacher merit-pay he supports?

Reform, Narrowly Defined

Normal E. “Sandy” McCulloch Jr.:

To reduce the problem to its most basic form, our quality of life depends on education and jobs, and I believe one leads inevitably to the other. Since the early 1970s, my passion has focused on education — both private and public. In 1992, when I turned over the reins of Microfibres Inc. to our son Jim, my wife Dotty and I established a charitable foundation primarily to focus on educational issues. Since that time, we have distributed funds to a wide variety of schools. Our hope has been that many of the innovations and best practices at these institutions would be adopted by the larger public primary and secondary school world...

In the 17 years our foundation has focused on educational challenges, I have never seen the stars in such favorable alignment. I can almost hear that pony whinny.

I'd take September of 2000 over the fall of 2009 any day. Riding a long period of relative peace and prosperity nationally, with a forward-looking, technically astute Vice President leading in the polls, with the first and most energetic, rather than the fourth, reform superintendent in Providence, bringing in RttT sized foundation grants and an influx of administrative talent (building on homegrown administrators, like Fran Gallo (now everyone's favorite as supe of Central Falls), a growing network of successful site-based schools in the district working out sensible and innovative compromises on work rules,hiring, and innovative practices, The Met taking off as a model for cutting-edge schools around the world, and we had a clutch of promising first-generation charter schools.

We had an excellent state-wide technology training program for teachers, we had a reform-minded commissioner with an array of innovations in established under his leadership, from the SALT school surveys and school inspections, to the Rhode Island Writing Assessment (scored by local teachers, the advantages of which were discussed last Friday at the RttT assessment meeting).

Some of the above we still have, some is being phased out or ignored, some is long gone. On the other hand, now we have a superintendent in Providence and a Commissioner at RIDE who are asserting their right to abrogate teacher contracts, and a new law that allows charters to be managed by companies outside RI, free from prevailing wage and pension requirements. So check two for "innovation" in 2009, but it is a very specific type of innovation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Scale of Race to the Top (in the Smallest State)

ED via Eduflack:

More importantly, though, we now know how much money each state can potentially receive. Officials over at ED have divvied up our great 50 states (and DC and Puerto Rico) into five categories. The $4 billion in Race money will be divided based on the following designations:

... unimportant large states ...

Category 5 — $20-$75 million:

* Alaska

* Delaware

* District of Columbia...

* Rhode Island

Providence, September 6, 2000:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -The Providence School District, Coventry School District and The Big Picture Company will receive grants totaling $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the creation of smaller, personalized learning environments that help all students achieve. The three grants will be the first in a series of education grants announced by the Foundation this week.

So in Providence in particular, we already have a pretty good idea of how much, or how little, can be accomplished with RttT kind of money. We opened a nice clutch of new high schools, which have as of this year now been stripped of any unique features of their original design. I don't think there is anything left at the district level from that period. And it is not just gone, it is forgotten.

OTOH, Big Picture is chugging along. In some cases, there is a real ideological bias toward charters for various reasons, but Providence is a good illustration of why big foundations come to support charters on practical grounds as well -- you don't have to worry about KIPP being taken over by a series of itinerant superintendents who couldn't care less about the previous supe's pet projects you underwrote. Ten years from now, the only thing people may remember about RttT is the charter schools that are opened.

What's Next for Common Core in English?

My read on the newly announced work and feedback teams for Common Core English Language Arts standards is that this doesn't look like a group of people who will pay much attention the College- and Career-Readiness Standards. It is too broad a group for that. If you limited the scope of the preceding curriculum to the CCRS, these folks would revolt and demand additions to the CCRS, which would throw everything off schedule.

Also, they're still calling them "English Language Arts" instead of "Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking." And I seem to recall that they were going to start at the lower grade levels rather than working backwards.

So my prediction is that we'll get some kind of national graduation test based on CCRS, but a more conventional set of K-12 standards, which, frankly, would be an improvement in this case.

My EduCon 2.2 Talk

Zapping the Buzzwords: "Disruptive innovation," "the widget effect," and more:

Conversation Description: We've got a new generation of educational bureaucrats speaking to each other in management and economics informed language that they understand, but outsiders, particularly teachers, may not. We'll start with a prepared look at a few key terms, and then open up the floor for discussion of suggested buzzwords from a list provided or from the imagination of the audience.

Also, thank god Will has finally moved on to this:

The Greening of Learning: Online Networks for Learning AND Saving the World

There's no question that each of us has a role to play in overcoming the environmental challenges that face us. But while we are at a most perilous moment in our history as humans, we are also at a moment when more people are connecting and working for good than at any other time. Paul Hawken calls it "Blessed Unrest" and he suggests that our ability to use social networks online to connect globally and support local action will have a huge impact on what the future holds. Daniel Goleman talks about an "Ecological Intelligence" and the complex environmental information literacy that we'll all need to develop if we are to fully understand our impact and our ability to create positive change. Clay Shirky talks about the potential for "collective action" and the power that social tools have for forming passion based groups and movements. All of which begs the question, what are our roles as educators in preparing our kids (and ourselves) for a world where global, passion-based activism using social tools is commonplace. We'll have a conversation about using social tools for social good and what the implications are for our roles as teachers and, perhaps, activists.

Looking forward to it.

Notes on my RttT Comments

The comments.

  1. I heartily endorse FairTest's broader critique, I just felt like in this context I should try to say something narrow and authoritative. A general comment would be largely ignored.
  2. I did almost all the specific research for the talk Thursday afternoon and evening.
  3. As you can hopefully tell, I'm very impressed with the way NIH runs its research. The step up in quality from education discourse is striking; it is like the NIH is run by real scientists or something.
  4. This was tough to boil down to five minutes; now I have something I feel like I can scale up to a sexy conference presentation very easily the next time Gov 2.0 rolls around.

RttT Input Meeting Impressions

So I went to the public meeting in Boston for feedback and expert commentary on the Race to the Top assessment program. This is the "$350 million to get people to shut up about the fact that our assessments aren't currently good enough to serve as the foundation for the other $4 billion we're putting into RttT" part of the program.

Writing my comment was difficult, because you don't want to sound like a random obsessive compulsive crank, but obviously only an obsessive compulsive crank would show up at one of these things by his or her own free will. So I took a hyper-bureacratic and hyper-technical point of view, and actually ended up with something that I really like. It doesn't directly address my overall anger and dissatisfaction with the whole endeavor, but ultimately it served as some kind of emotionally satisfying, if oblique, performance art. To me, at least.

Anyhow, when I got there I immediately ran into David Niguidula, and a few minutes later the two of us were having breakfast with Linda Darling-Hammond, with David and LDH chattering away about digital portfolios and performance assessment. So immediately my expectations for the utility of the trip were greatly exceeded.

Subsequently, I sat through the long expert panel on Technology and Innovation in Assessment. It was a long miasma of boredom. Tom Vander Ark should have been forced to sit though it. I certainly didn't leave feeling like we're on the cusp of a revolution.

One thing that was talked about quite a bit was the problem of "comparability." What if your online assessments consistently produce different scores than your paper ones. How do you know if it is a bug or a feature? I'm happy to allow this to be someone else's problem.

Eva Baker from CRESST did talk about "ontologies" in assessment, which I anticipated after looking at some of her other presentations, so that helped me make my pitch in five minutes without getting hung up on trying to define the term.

For the public input section, there were about 10 of us with reserved five minute slots: David, Larry Burger from Wireless Generation, someone from some other vendor, some guy from Connecticut who made an open source/Moodle/Elgg pitch, some grad student from the Education Department at Brown who made me think they must have added a new program in being an arrogant asshole, and the balance people advocating for specific kinds of accessibility and accomodations.

Larry's talk was interesting; he talked about the need to accommodate more agile development strategies, finding the balance between openness and proprietary solutions, and the problems created by complex procurement laws. I managed to get my talk in exactly on time. Larry said "nicely done," and Dr. Baker was pleased that someone other than her was talking about ontologies for once, and didn't seem to mind that I'd tweaked CRESST a bit.

I stuck around for LDH's afternoon presentation on international perspectives on high school assessment. Her line of argument strikes me as airtight and devastating, striking right at the heart of the whole "competitiveness" premise for reform. The school systems around the world that are outperforming us (supposedly) simply aren't anything like the one that "reformers" are advocating.

When you read about the Department of Education "standing up to the establishment," understand that in practice this means "ignoring comprehensive, authoritative arguments from the established experts in the field."

Also, the thread of open source conversation was largely "We know what it is, we know we want some, but how much?"

My Public Comment on Race to the Top -- Technology & Innovation in Assessment

My name is Tom Hoffman, from Providence, Rhode Island. I am a technology consultant, specializing in student information and assessment systems. I am project manager of SchoolTool, an open source administrative platform for schools. I also work with the CanDo project, which is an open source competency tracking application used by Career and Technical Centers in Virginia. I am a former English teacher in the Providence Public Schools with a Masters in Teaching English from Brown University.

I would like to recommend some specific facets of the technology platform for assessment, particularly in reference to Race to the Top Criteria:

B.(C)(2) Accessing and using State data: decision-makers in the continuous improvement of efforts in such areas as policy, instruction, operations, etc...

B.(C)(3)(iii) Making the data from instructional improvement systems, together with statewide longitudinal data system data, available and accessible to researchers...

These requirements suggest a high degree of data portability, interoperability, and integration, with aspirations for complex data warehousing, business intelligence and inferencing expert systems.

One of the technical foundations of this type of platform is the development of ontologies, defined as "a formal representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts." (1) Dr. Baker introduced this concept earlier.

The potential role of ontologies in educational research and throughout the implementation of educational technologies and data systems parallels to their growing role in biomedical research.

I would specifically propose funding the creation of a National Center for Educational Ontology, modelled on the National Center for Biomedical Ontology, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The goal of the Center is to support biomedical researchers in their knowledge-intensive work, by providing online tools and a Web portal enabling them to access, review, and integrate disparate ontological resources in all aspects of biomedical investigation and clinical practice." (2)

The Center is funded by the NIH Roadmap for Biomedical Research's Bioinformatics and Computational Biology initiative. The Roadmap "was launched in September, 2004, to address roadblocks to research and to transform the way biomedical research is conducted by overcoming specific hurdles or filling defined knowledge gaps... These are programs that might not otherwise be supported by the NIH ICs because of their scope or because they are inherently risky." (3)

With a consistent, ongoing commitment to the development and use of ontologies, the National Institute of Health's Recovery Act fund is already supporting 61 current research projects using or contributing to biomedical ontologies. (4)

By comparison in education, despite contributions from a disparate set of actors including the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA and Jes and Co., a 501c3 education research organization, there is no central hub for research, development and use of ontologies, individual projects tend to emerge and disappear, and in particular there is no commitment to the kind of open and collaborative environment that now typifies biomedical ontology.

For example, the National Forum on Educational Statistics at the Department of Education has created a National Educational Data Model. It is similar to an ontology, but the data model is more constrained and potentially much less rich and powerful than an ontological approach. However, it would be an obvious foundation for development of a subsequent set of educational ontologies.

CRESST has developed several detailed domain ontologies for specific subjects such as Algebra as part of their research, however, unlike their peers in biomedical research, publishing, collaborating and promoting those ontologies does not seem to be a priority, which limits their influence and impact.

Similarly, I can see from their presentations that CRESST have developed a tool called CRESST Knowledge Mapper that looks quite useful, but does not seem to be publicly available, either commercially or for free, and thus does not contribute to or promote further development of domain ontologies in education. In contrast, the National Center for Biomedical Ontology's Protege editor is an active and prosperous open source software project that has become an industry standard application.

As was the case in the biomedical field, an investment in educational ontology is relatively high risk and does not fit obviously into existing programs. If we don't start the process while we have this unique stimulus windfall, I don't know when we will.

Be assured, however, that this is essential foundational research. Given the vast ambition for educational data systems, ontologies will become as integral to educational research as they have become in the biomedical field, and sooner or later the value of our solutions will be bottlenecked by the quality of our ontologies.





Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Problem with Teachers' Self-Reporting on their own Innovativeness

Larry Cuban really nails a real annoyance-slash-structural-problem with teacher blogging about practice, particularly their own, particularly about technology:

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, Smart Boards, and other high-tech devices have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using Smart Boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches. That is not what I encountered in classrooms.

I'd add that there seems to be a corollary to this theorem, that I've always thought progressive-leaning but essentially hybrid-model teachers *cough Glogowski *cough* Richardson *cough* unconsciously overstate how traditional they were prior to the introduction of the-new-technology-that-changed-their-practice. It isn't a huge problem but it does skew the discourse.

Tautology Much?

RttT Guidelines:

In response to commenters’ concerns pertaining to “unproven” interventions in the Race to the Top program, there is ample evidence, for example, that high-performing charter schools can significantly improve the achievement of high-need students. Likewise, the research supports that effective teachers and principals are essential to improving student achievement; accordingly, the Department believes that identifying, recruiting, developing, and retaining effective teachers and school leaders is critical to creating high-performing schools and a world-class education system.

Given that they define "high performing schools" and "effective teachers and school leaders" as those that "improve student achievement," this isn't saying much. Anything really.

It is like saying "high performing abstinence programs substantially lower the rate of teen pregnancy among participants." Yes, but how many are "high performing" and do we know how, why, or how to make more?

And yes, that's the entire response to the substantive critiques over the lack of evidence for the efficacy of RttT's approach.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Granting Commit Rights

Jacob Kaplan-Moss:

Django’s open source debut was in the summer of 2005. At that point, we had three full and one partial committer. Since then we’ve had major contributions from hundreds of developers, bug fixes and patches from thousands, and input and engagement from tens of thousands. Yet last week we added only our fifteenth full committer.

A "full committer" is someone who can add/change/delete code to any part of the project by themselves. This illustrates how collaboration around a major open source project is different than, say, a wiki, where often everyone is a full committer.

I think open educational content should be handled more like software than a wiki.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shipping Software Appliances

Miguel de Icaza:

Today is a big day for the Mono team, we just released the Mono Tools for Visual Studio. The goal of this release is to make it simpler for Visual Studio developers to deploy their applications on Linux. ASP.NET, Windows.Forms, server and console applications are supported...

And finally, one of the most exciting features in this tool: go from shipping applications into shipping appliances in minutes:

You use our wizard to prepare your appliance, select a base operating system template (Server, Client, and base operating system) and off you go.

Once your appliance is built, you can test it and apply the finishing touches over the web (using a Flash applet that connects to our virtual machines in our data center) and when you are happy with the results, you can download and redistribute your appliance to your users


Earlier this year I wrote about Novell's SUSE Studio our hosted service that helps developers create ready-to-run appliances.

Today, as a .NET developer, when you distribute your software to your users and customers, you probably have a list of requirements that goes like this:

  • Install Windows XXX, Reboot.
  • Install security updates A through Z, reboot as many times as needed.
  • Install .NET runtime, reboot as needed.
  • Install SQL server, reboot as needed.
  • Populate database, reboot as needed.
  • Install third party tool, reboot as needed.
  • Just to be sure, reboot.

Then your users can start installing your software. At that point, you initiate a series of support calls that go like this:

  • Did you make sure that .NET xxx.yy was installed? Ah, so do that and resume the steps.
  • Wrong databases, uninstall, reboot, reinstall database, reboot.

And repeat the above process for every single one of your users.

Basically, every user has to repeat the same steps. Everyone has to assemble the solutions made up of the operating system, various pieces of dependencies that you have and your software, like this:

The experience today is like trying to buy a car by buying the individual parts:

We believe that for a class of developers there is a better way.

We believe that we can help you put together the full car, and deliver the car in a single piece.

With appliances you can ship a pre-configured operating system, pre-configured database and every service pre-configured and installed together with your software to deliver a full package, so you prepare your software for distribution once, you configure the database once, and then you give your users a ready-to-run virtual machine, CD-ROM or USB stick:

SUSE Studio has been used to build Linux based appliances (over four thousand per week), and now we are making it easy for .NET developers to take advantage of one of Linux's strengths: it is free, it is open source, you can shrink it, you can grow it and you can ship your own version (and yes, we do provide the updates for all of the core components that you pick).

This is essentially my vision for distributing SchoolTool on Ubuntu, albeit with a less slick toolset. We're not literally an appliance yet, but closing in on it. The recommended way to install SchoolTool is to create a new Ubuntu instance on a real or virtual machine, add our package repositories, and 'apt-get install schooltool' That gets you a running instance on an environment identical to our developers'.

The Kind of Thing to Keep in Mind if you think WoW is a Model for 21st Century Schools


The influence of time spent on rewards and thus social status in MMORPGs has led to a curious reversal of how people regard time spent: In other forms of entertainment the time spent in the entertainment activity is a gain, in a MMORPG time spent is often considered a loss, a cost. If you paid $15 for a movie ticket, you'd be seriously annoyed if the movie lasted only 5 minutes, because you counted on having paid for something like 90 minutes of entertainment. In MMORPGs, if it would take 90 minutes of killing monsters to do a quest and get a reward instead of just 5 minutes, you'd complain about "the grind". Any time spent in a MMORPG in an activity that doesn't give a reward is considered pointless, and any addition of a reward even as silly as an "achievement" to a previously pointless activity will make players pursue it.

One Million Dollars

Oregon math experts predict middle school math achievement will continue to surge now that new textbooks are in place. Most middle schools chose a widely praised series called Oregon Focus, written by six Oregon math teachers specifically to teach Oregon's new math standards to middle schoolers.

We need to get to the point where the obvious next step, particularly if scores do continue to go up with these new texts (whose quality I cannot comment on), is the state or federal government stepping up and just offering a big check to the authors to make the texts open content. They seem to be more or less self publishing anyhow. They could continue to sell printed books, consult, further develop the texts, whose influence would expand even more than if they were selling them one by one, and get a nice fat lump sum. I don't know how much money they stand to make selling copyrighted books, but I think the government could make them an offer they could not refuse -- and "incentivize" other teachers to take the same approach.

One Problem with the "No Excuses" College Prep Strategy

Matt Yglesias:

Interactive feature from The New York Times lets you see the unemployment rate for different demographic subgroups. The feature is labeled “The Jobless Rate for People Like You” so I checked and saw that white men aged 25-44 with college degrees have an unemployment rate of just 3.9 percent. Even if I reclassify myself as Hispanic it’s just 4.8 percent. Fortunately, I’m also allowed to see how people who aren’t like me are doing. Thus we learn that for African-American men aged 15-24 the unemployment rate is a staggering 30.5 percent. Even for the subset of young black men who have college degrees (which has to be a pretty tiny slice of the 15-24 set) the unemployment rate is 12.7 percent. (emphasis added)

At a certain point, you have to give up on wrapping social services into charter schools and improve social conditions in general.

Monday, November 09, 2009

How Little $300 Million Will Get You: a Race to the Top Preview

Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN – For the $300 million spent on merit pay for teachers over the last three years, Texas was hoping for a big boost in student achievement.

But it didn't happen with the now-defunct program, according to experts hired by the state.

Repeat that a few times across the country on a somewhat larger scale, there goes your $4 billion.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

This is Strangely Similar to my Ideal System of Teacher Preparation

Martin van Creveld:

The organization of training in the German Army had a threefold purpose; namely to relieve the Field Army of this task; to simulate, as closely as possible, the actual conditions of the battlefield; and to constantly introduce the most recent combat experiences into training practice.

To achieve the latter two of these aims, very great emphasis was laid on maintaining close connections between the army's two parts: not only were officers constantly being rotated between front-line duty and training units, but each of the latter was in addition tied to one or more divisions. Officers of the training unit and its parent division were expected to know each other personally and to exchange frequent visits and correspondence. Often it was recently wounded personnel, recovering from their wounds, who trained the replacements of their own division.

Well, except for the wounding part. Perhaps you could substitute "maternity" there.


The U.S. Army, by contrast put technical and administrative efficiency at the head of its list of priorities, disregarded other considerations, and produced a system that possessed a strong inherent tendency to turn men into nervous wrecks.

That's just how we roll.

Maybe it is the Technology

I ruminated a bit over these Scott McLeod questions over at Doug Johnson's blog, and basically, if we still need this kind of technology boosterism in 2009, we have to consider that the problem might be in the technology and its implementation. That the reason teachers apparently require more exhortation than other professionals is that, compared to other enterprises, they have been uniquely failed by industry, government, taxpayers and administration. Also, they are a somewhat stubborn lot. But let me know when every teacher has a laptop, like any other comparable worker in America, and then you can re-start the exhortations.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Now I've Gone and Done It...

I've got a (first come, first served) five minute slot of time to make a public comment about technology and assessment in Race to the Top, next Friday in Boston. Now I just have to figure out what I'm going to say. I might take a passing shot at the Common Core ELA standards, but I'm really there to talk about technology. I'll probably focus on the need for a "National Center for Educational Ontologies," modeled on the National Center for Biomedical Ontologies, and then talk a bit about open source strategies and possibilities.

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Manufactured Optimism and School Reform

Barbara Ehrenreich in In These Times:

Couldn’t this positive thinking be what corporate culture wants everyone to believe, but at the top, people are still totally rational?

That is what I was assuming when I started this research. I thought, “It’s got to be rational at the top. Someone has to keep an eye on the bottom line.” Historically, the science of management was that in a rational enterprise, we have spreadsheets, we have decision-trees and we base decisions on careful analysis.

But then all that was swept aside for a new notion of what management is about. The word they use is “leadership.” The CEO and the top people are not there so much to analyze and plan but to inspire people. They claimed to have this uncanny ability to sense opportunities. It was a shock, to find the extent to which corporate culture has been infiltrated not only by positive thinking, but by mysticism. The idea is that now things are moving so fast in this era of globalization, that there’s no time to think anymore. So you increasingly find CEOs gathering in sweat lodges or drumming circles or going on “vision quests” to get in touch with their inner-Genghis Khan or whatever they were looking for.

This is yet another thread on the "understanding business model school reformers" theme.

For all the emphasis on data, there is a strong strand of "the power of positive thinking." Faith that students will magically rise to meet higher standards. Focusing inner city kindergarteners on college uber alles will raise them to prosperity. Professional development -- and hiring practices -- based on teachers being true believers that "all children can learn" (exactly what that phrase connotes is a research project in itself).

Unfortunately, in education, this optimism has a monstrous side -- if we really, truly believe that all kids need, and indeed, the only thing that will help them is a great school, then we don't need to worry about inequality, poverty, discrimination, urban public policy, access to health care, malnutrition, etc.

Regardless, this doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from the ideology of the business world.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Traditional or Progressive? Your Basic Framework for Understanding American Schools

Larry Cuban:

For over a century, there has been conflict among public officials, researchers, educators, and parents over whether traditional or progressive ways of teaching reading, math, science, and other subjects are best. Nowhere has this unrelenting search for the one best way of teaching a subject or skill been more obvious than in the search for “good” schools. Such debates have masked the unadorned fact that there is more than one kind of “good” school.

What follows is a verbal collage of two elementary schools I know well. School A is a quiet, orderly school where the teacher’s authority is openly honored by both students and parents. The professional staff sets high academic standards, establishes school rules that respect differences among students, and demands regular study habits from the culturally diverse population. Drill and practice are parts of each teacher’s daily lesson. Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. A banner in the school says: “Free Monday through Friday: Knowledge–Bring Your Own Container.” These snippets describe what many would call a “traditional” school.

School B prizes freedom for students and teachers to pursue their interests. Most classrooms are multiage (6- to 9-year-olds and 7- to 11-year-olds). Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects and trusts children to make the right choices. In this school, there are no spelling bees; no accelerated reading program; no letter or numerical grades. Instead, there is a year-end narrative in which a teacher describes the personal growth of each student. Students take only those standardized tests required by the state. A banner in the classroom reads: “Children need a place to run! Explore!” This brief description describes what many would call a “progressive” school.

Both schools A and B are “good” schools. What parents, teachers, and students at each school value about knowledge, teaching, learning, and freedom differs. Yet both public schools have been in existence for 25 years. Parents have chosen to send their children to the schools. Both schools have staffs that volunteered to work there. Annual surveys of parent and student opinion have registered praise for each school; teacher turnover at each school has been virtually nil; each school has had waiting lists of parents who wish to enroll their sons and daughters.

Understanding this dichotomy, its history, and its limits as an analytical frame is essential to undertanding American schools. It should not be the end of your analysis, but it should be part of the beginning. And while the basic concepts here are familiar to most Americans, surprisingly few seem to grasp that the conflict between these points of view goes back at least a century, each side has successful schools and smart theorists on its side, and neither is ever going to completely "win," take over, or go away.

You need to keep this frame in mind to understand how people react to different ideas, and how different ideas and programs become lumped together. I don't understand why Core Knowledge people are very pro-phonics, other than that they are both "traditional." P12 gets hung up trying to pretend the argument doesn't exist, while at the same time they're attacked as a stalking horse for progressives.

We're living through a period of test-driven, business-model reform which doesn't really suit either side, but ultimately is more compatible with a traditional school model than a progressive one. But at the same time, this is presented as some kind of radical, disruptive change to the system, where all change is good, so the way we talk and think about it is fundamentally muddied.

XO 1.75 on ARM

NN on

(XO) 2.0 has been replaced by two things: 1) model 1.75, same industrial design but an ARM inside, 2) model 3.0, totally different industrial design, more like a sheet of paper....

[Editor's comment: By "model 1.75," Negroponte is referring to an upgraded version of the current green-and-white XO laptop with a different processor inside---a faster chip made by UK-based chipmaker ARM. The Generation 2.0 XO laptop was to be a book-like pair of touchscreens, but would likely have been too expensive to build. OLPC has not released further details about the paper-like "3.0" model Negroponte describes.

I never took the 2.0 vision seriously and will take the same approach to XO 3.0. However, a 1.75 with an ARM processor sounds like the right move.

olpc and Sugar are doing a good job of keeping the ball rolling, doing real deployments, keeping the XO in production and shoring up the software stack. Don't be shocked if there's a real breakthrough in XO sales two or three years from now. I'm not saying it is likely, but it is certainly possible.

via OLPCNews.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Reforming Teacher Education: What's the Budget?

If I wanted to set the tone for a national discussion on teacher education, the first thing I'd do is define the budget. How much money do we have to spend per teacher external to the system -- from philanthropy or state and federal grants, how much should a teacher candidate be expected to kick in, should teacher education programs run a "profit" benefiting their parent organization, how much, if any, should districts taking in new teachers be expected to spend on their training and development, how much free labor should teachers in training provide to districts?

Right now, the way the money breaks down in traditional and alternative teacher education is completely different.

Traditional = little external money / lots of candidate expenditure / often operating at "profit" for a university / little specific expense to districts / up to a year of free part/full time labor for the district.

Alternative TFA-style = LOTS of external money / no candidate expenditure / no money going out as "profit" / little specific expense to district for training / full time labor cost for people essentially learning on the job.

Residency: popular idea now (with good reason) but where's the money going to come from?

If we could start by saying, say, the federal government will kick in $30,000 per teacher, and that's your budget -- now what? We could have more of an apples to apples comparison about optimal teacher training systems.

Why don't people have to pay to get into TFA? Actually, that's a damn good question. There's excess demand. They should charge more!