Friday, April 30, 2010

What Androids Have Been Dreaming

I've regained an interest in screensavers since the 27" iMac assumed a prominent place in our living room. So I figured I'd check in on the old Electric Sheep project:

Electric Sheep is a collaborative abstract artwork founded by Scott Draves. It's run by thousands of people all over the world, and can be installed on any ordinary PC or Mac. When these computers "sleep", the Electric Sheep comes on and the computers communicate with each other by the internet to share the work of creating morphing abstract animations known as "sheep". The result is a collective "android dream", an homage to Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Anyone watching one of these computers may vote for their favorite animations using the keyboard. The more popular sheep live longer and reproduce according to a genetic algorithm with mutation and cross-over. Hence the flock evolves to please its global audience. You can also design your own sheep and submit them to the gene pool.

The new animations are quite a bit different than what I remember from the turn of the century version of the project. Since users can now design their own patterns (i.e., math), it has shifted from being a pure experiment in using genetic processes to evolve art to a hybrid between genetics and user generated content. Basically, the graphics are more colorful, sharply drawn and symbolic (e.g., with a heart or infinity sign at the center of a mandala) now; less amorphously monochrome.

Regardless, they look awesome on a 27" iMac. Just note that from a power saving point of view, this is not the best screensaver, since your computer is churning away rendering frames to contribute to the animations while it is running.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cooley/PIAS Merging?

Word on the street is that "turnaround" high school Cooley Health & Science High School and the Providence Academy of International Studies (PAIS), which share a building, will share a single, new principal next year. This would seem to pave the way for merging them into a single 800 student high school. PAIS is one of the stronger small high schools; it is fairly traditional but attracted a strong faculty and has had relatively good numbers, particularly in 4-year graduation rate.

This would go along with the district's implicit anti-small schools strategy. I don't think this strategy has been publicly discussed, but then again, I don't think the original small school strategy was the result of much public discussion either, so it cuts both ways. How this will interact with the whole "turnaround" agenda under the state also remains to be seen. I'm not aware of it coming up in the discussion of turnaround options.

Tactically, it is hard for me to see how this is going to come out a winner for administration, other than saving money. I tend to think that the rule of thumb would be combining a strong school and a weak one will give you something closer to the weak one.

Achieve Illustrates How the Common Core is "More, Less Clear"

Achieve has put out a document aligning their draft Common Core standards to their American Diploma Project (ADP) standards.

Their main point is that the Common Core covers everything in ADP and a little more. That's mostly true, although they take some liberties, but more importantly, this document doesn't do a good job of convincing me that the Common Core is better than ADP, particularly in terms of Common Core's goals of being "fewer, clearer and higher."

Let's just look at an example from Achieve's document:

ADP H3. Interpret significant works from various forms of literature: poetry, novel, biography, short story, essay and dramatic literature; use understanding of genre characteristics to make deeper and subtler interpretations of the meaning of the text.

(maps to Common Core)

  • CCS.6.RL.9 Analyze stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries, adventure stories), comparing and contrasting their approaches to similar themes and topics.
  • CCS.11‐12.RL.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text (e.g., electing at what point to begin or end a story) shape the meaning of the text.
  • CCS.11‐12.RL.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms fictional source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare draws on a story from Ovid or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).
  • CCS.5.RL.5 Explain major differences between drama and prose stories, and refer to the structural elements of drama (e.g., casts of characters, setting descriptions, dialogue, stage directions, acts, scenes) when writing or speaking about specific works of dramatic literature.
  • CCS.4.RL.5 Explain major differences between poems and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., stanza, verse, rhythm, meter) when writing or speaking about specific poems.
  • CCS.3.RL.5 Demonstrate understanding of common features of legends, myths, and folk‐ and fairytales (e.g., heroes and villains; quests or challenges) when writing or speaking about classic stories from around the world.
  • CCS.9‐10.RL.5 Analyze how an author structures a text, orders events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulates time (e.g., pacing) to create mystery, tension, or surprise.

Their commentary on this:

Partially Meets ADP:

This ADP Benchmark has two parts. The first is matched by the CCSS explicit requirement of a range of reading that covers the forms described in this benchmark. The second part of ADP H3 addresses the ways in which an understanding of genre characteristics deepens interpretations of a text. While the CCSS refers to some genres at the elementary levels (adventure stories and folk tales), the finer distinctions that characterize more complex texts such as the eulogy or satire are not addressed by the CCSS.

My commentary:

  • In the CCSS standards above, I've put the grade level in bold. Take a look. That's right, they're really aligning a graduation standard to three elementary school standards.
  • What happened to the College- and Career- Readiness Standards? Aren't the CCRS the apples to apple comparison between ADP and Common Core anyhow?
  • From eyeballing the document, even when they don't align to elementary and middle school standards, it still usually takes three or four Common Core standards to cover one ADP standard.
  • Also fairly typical is the difference in style and breadth of the standards. This ADP standard basically lays out the "core" academic work one does with literature in the late secondary and early college English classroom: interpretation, and particularly interpretation displaying some understanding of genre. That's what you do with literature in English class. All the little "analyze this" standard tasks in the Common Core, they're just exercises to get you ready to interpret significant works. Leave that out of the standards, and it is all just academic foreplay. And it doesn't prepare you for college.

Ubuntu Netbook Edition

My laptop is a Lenovo X60s -- a 12" subcompact that four years ago was pretty l33t. It still works fine, and I'm hoping that by the time it croaks I'll be able to get the same performance and much better battery life from a netbook at about one tenth the Lenovo's original price.

Anyhow, when I upgraded to the new Ubuntu Lucid release I switched to the Netbook Edition. I'm happy with the switch, since I've taken to spending most of my time with Chrome taking up the whole screen anyhow, and I'm looking forward to the planned changes going forward for Maverick. I'm becoming extremely intolerant of interfaces that waste vertical space in small screens for an endless stack of bars and panels.

Also, if you want to make a bootable usb stick for installation, you want to use usb-creator on Ubuntu. The download site points you to usb-imagewriter which didn't actually create anything bootable for me.

Foundations and Charters

The controversy over the role of foundation funding in the DC teacher contract is a reminder that in addition to whatever ideological biases drive foundations to promote the charter school approach, there is also a pragmatic, functional bias in favor of working with charters. They are simply easier for foundations to work with. That's not a good reason to shape public policy to favor charters, however.

Cory Doctorow on Utopianism


I think that in general we have a pathological response to anything we measure. We tend not to measure the thing we care about; we tend to measure something that indicates its presence. It’s often very hard to measure the thing that you’re hoping for. You don’t actually care about how calories you eat; you care about how much weight you’re going to gain from the calories you eat. But as soon as we go, oh, well, calories are a pretty good proxy for weight gain, we start to come up with these foods that are incredibly unhealthy but nevertheless have very few calories in them. In the same way, Google doesn’t really care about inbound links because inbound links are good per se; Google cares about inbound links because inbound links are a good proxy for “someone likes this page; someone thinks this page is a useful place to be, is a good place to be.” But as soon as Google starts counting that, people start finding ways to make links that don’t actually serve as a proxy for that conclusion at all.

I can think of another example of this phenomenon.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Short Bench

One reason I keep carping on the Central Falls is really small point is that it has more implications than are immediately evident for the success of reforms. For example, finding a principal. Normally when you're doing a turnaround or starting a new school in an urban school district, you've got a variety of current principals and assistant principals to choose from, both up-and-comers and proven successes, and you've got a variety of leverage, carrots and sticks, to get the people you want into the job. Maybe also you have the capacity to recruit from outside the district if you play your cards right, but if you don't, you should have somebody to slot in. In a 1.3 square mile city with one high school that's been running an administrative merry-go-round for years already, you got nothing. You'd better get lucky recruiting or you're screwed from the start.

Providence Public Schools: Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Negative


Although (PPSD Director of High Schools) Onye praised the positive changes at Hope, she said that the school's academic performance remains disappointing. Hope's attendance and graduation rates continue to lag behind the district averages and the school's SAT scores are not good enough to meet admission standards at either Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island.

"We've seen millions of dollars infused into Hope," Onye said. "Those funds were diverted away from the other high schools. But we did not see the gains we expected."

Actually, the gains seem pretty much in line with what you should expect if you take a low-performing high school and divide it in three. One school doing very well, one improving modestly, one more or less foundering. The question is, what do you do next? Build on your real successes or just call it a failure and scrap the whole thing?

When achievement scores go up in a high school, what do you do, praise them or bring up a new set of numbers to make them look bad? Do bad attendance numbers offset high test scores? What about vice versa? And aren't graduation rates inherently a trailing indicator compared to scores from tests given to juniors in October?

Or maybe you just stick to saying there isn't enough money.

Anyhow, once again kudos to Hope High students for questioning authority and finally bringing these issues to a wider audience in Providence.

Nice to have ESPEC chime in and even stick up for teachers a bit:

Harlan Rich, a member of the East Side Public Education Coalition, urged the School Board to come up with a compromise that would honor Hope's gains. He also said that the School Department has forbidden teachers to speak publicly about their profound concerns about the changes coming to their school.

Also, this "lost instructional time" stuff is just bullshit:

But Nikoli Onye, the director of high schools, painted a very different picture. Hope, she says, has lost 105 days of instructional time over four years because its classes meet every other day instead of daily. The six-period day, which has been adopted by every other high school, will allow students to take Advanced Placement classes and enroll in college classes.

But students said -- and teachers have confirmed -- that a block schedule allows a student to take 32 classes over four years compared with 24 under a six-period schedule. Students also said that a six-period day would limit the number of electives, especially in the arts, which make Hope special.

In other news:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The School Board voted 7 to 1 Monday night to close two schools, Perry Middle School and Feinstein High School, over the passionate objections of teachers, students and elected officials who represent those schools.

Actually, both went pretty quietly, as such things go. Both buildings do probably need to go. I just wish Feinstein in particular could have been closed in such a way that did not disparage the school's real accomplishments. It could have been done, there just was no will to do so.

And frankly, a little kabuki could go a long way here. Couldn't the city and the state make a show of asking the Feds to make Hope eligible for turnaround funds? Couldn't the city have asked the state to reconsider Feinstein's turnaround status after their test scores shot up? Even if it was all just for show and to make the students, teachers and citizens of this city feel a little better?

This Raise Brought to You By the Broad Foundation (Part II)

Bill Torque in Kaplan Test Prep Daily (via gfbrandenburg):

Private foundations pledging $64.5 million for raises and bonuses in the District's proposed contract with the Washington Teachers' Union have attached a series of conditions to the grants, including the right to reconsider their support if there is a change in the leadership of the D.C. school system.

Me, August 28, 2008, when the "green/red" contract was first proposed in this negotiation:

The DC government would be handing all the contributing foundations a virtual veto on their education policy for at least the next five years, the ongoing capacity to trigger a fiscal crisis in the District at their whim.

Five years, the proposed term of the contract, is a long time to our new power philanthropists. They have a short history, but they've already established a clear pattern of packing up and leaving when things don't go their way, including when the citizens of a city don't vote the way they like, or when democratically elected officials don't see things their way, or when the top down reforms they've imposed simply fail...

Mayor Fenty is currently quite popular (I gather), but if I'm reading Wikipedia correctly, he'll be up for re-election before this contract would be up. What happens to the money if he loses the election?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Nobody Could Have Predicted


In an interview, Gallo said that 28 candidates for the principal's post applied in the first round, resulting in two finalists. One, from out of state, dropped out for personal reasons, Gallo said. The second, who is from Rhode Island, met on April 15 with a large advisory group that is helping Gallo develop a new vision for the high school. Representatives from the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, the Central Falls Teachers' Union, parents and students serve on the advisory group. More interviews have been scheduled with the finalist, Gallo said.

The district launched a second round and is now trying to whittle down a couple of finalists from a field of 18 applicants, Gallo said.

Off to a great start!

I Grew Up in a County with 20% Unemployment; I Don't Understand this Concept of "Recruiting"

Dara Lind:

Like Wall Street recruiters, TFA recruiters are “really in your face, and they make it very easy.” Like Wall Street recruiters, too, they soothe the anxieties of liberal-arts majors with one hand by promising that no prior substantive experience is necessary, while with the other hand they feed Ivy elitism by promising recruits they are uniquely qualified liberal-arts students. And both emphasize the skills recruits will learn for the rest of their careers — the ability to navigate the system — at least as much as what they’re actually going to do for two years, and whom it will affect.

The similarities between the ways elite college students are sold on managing America’s money and how they’re sold on managing its children tend to be pretty well accepted among people who’ve seen the recruitment processes in person. But it’s not the sort of thing most people outside elite colleges think about. I don’t think that public-school reformists will begin to fetishize complexity just because Wall Street financiers do, but I think it might be wise to think about the other problems that might develop from a recruitment process that tells the “best and brightest” that that’s all they need to be.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thinking About Clearing Out of the Silver City

No band has evoked the sound of my inner self in the past decade like The National, and Nicholas Dawidoff does a disturbingly good job of translating that back into words. Apparently the forthcoming High Violet continues the trend:

It’s the world according to a man who isn’t getting any younger, mostly wants to be a good father and husband and employee and friend — and might be happy, but for all that resistance he thinks he keeps tamped in his own head. He used to be the Great White Hope, the hero of his own box-size living room. Now he’s got a kid on his shoulder, lives on coffee and cut flowers while thinking about clearing out of the Silver City and going back to Ohio where life is simpler — until you get there and remember why you left.

Hopefully there is a track on there that addresses the particular angst of the lengthening moments between the point at which you think your plan to make a clean break and clear out is going to work and the point at which you know you can start to let go. 'Cause it is getting pretty angsty around here right now.

An American Examination System

I don't know how I feel about the details, but it is worth pointing out this paper by Lauren Resnick and Larry Berger, An American Examination System, simply because if such a thing must be done, I'd trust those two more than anyone else likely to do it. As usual, all the examples are math examples (they promise some ELA examples in another document), and they inherit the "English or literacy?" problem from Common Core. One gets the distinct impression that in the end whatever assessment system we get, it is still going to be all about math and reading.

Via Checker!

Teachers and Pediatricians


Teachers with a decade or two under their belts make far more per hour than I did as a pediatrician. Most do not have 6 figure debt at graduation, and their apprenticeship was a mere 17 weeks, not several years.

I went into pediatrics because I enjoyed working with kids, and I worked in the projects because that was where I was needed.

I presume you teach because you enjoy working with kids, and I hope you feel like you're doing something useful.

Yes, if you're going to get into an argument about whether we need more "ambitious" personalities getting into teaching, it is worth remembering that other professionals (doctors, laywers) who serve the poor aren't the ambitious ones either. I guess what is unusual about teachers is that in many cases -- particularly private schools -- the teachers of the wealthy aren't any better off than the teachers of the poor. No wonder it strikes financiers as a messed up system.

How to Make Money in the Charter Game


Imagine typically buys or leases buildings through a real estate arm, SchoolhouseFinance, and uses those properties to attract groups wanting to open charter schools that then pay to rent them.

Last year, Imagine sold 27 of its school buildings to Entertainment Properties Trust, a real estate investment trust that is the country’s largest owner of movie theaters, as part of a deal that won the company $206 million. The buildings that were sold were leased back by Imagine, which then subleased them to the schools that occupy them.

In February, the company sold seven more schools to Inland American Real Estate Trust for $61 million in a similar arrangement.

Mrs. Bakke said a portion of the proceeds from the sale of those buildings was used to pay off bank debt and construction costs, with the remainder going to buy or construct new buildings and into the operations of existing schools. But board members of eight schools said they were never consulted about the sales or the decision by Imagine to commit them to leases. In at least some cases, Imagine makes money on the subleases. Bronx Academy, for example, paid Imagine $10,000 a month more in rent than the company paid the owner of its building.

The rents the company charges schools it manages now are one of the things threatening to scuttle its agreements with the two schools it manages in Nevada, the 100 Academy of Excellence and Imagine School in the Valle.

Real estate. Also, selling "consulting" and other services. Both are easier if the school's board is your sock puppet. I tend to think this sort of corruption puts a hard cap on the size of the charter sector. Schools aren't prisons, people know and care about what happens there. There's only so much looting you can get away with before the exposes get rolling.

I guess the wild card is whether the conservative cranks that gripe over every line in the town education budget will suddenly not care when their tax money is stolen by an "entrepreneur" instead of a neighbor with a union card. I have a sick feeling many will be ok with that...

Sounds Like a Good Mission Statement to Me

Matt Yglesias:

I think humane and rational conversation is important and I like to think that plenty of the posts on this blog are dedicated to it. But there are also a lot of liars and idiots in the world and subjecting them to scorn and mockery is part of what you’ve got to do in life.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What Else is Going On in Central Falls?


CENTRAL FALLS — Facing what officials say is an enormous deficit caused by reductions in state aid, the City Council has voted to ask the General Assembly to enact legislation allowing Central Falls and other municipalities to file for bankruptcy protection.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What We Didn't Get: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Eben Moglen: Freedom In the Cloud: Software Freedom, Privacy, and Security for Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing:

The human race has susceptibility to harm but (Facebook creator) Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.

Because he harnessed Friday night. That is, everybody needs to get laid and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time”. And it works.

That’s the sad part, it works.

How could that have happened?

There was no architectural reason, really. There was noarchitectural reason really. Facebook is the Web with “I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that?” It’s a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a panopticon built out of web parts.

And it shouldn’t be allowed. It comes to that. It shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at “spying all the time”. They are not technically innovative. They depend upon an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad.

I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists, we should fix it.

I’m glad I’m with you so far. When I come to how we should fix it later I hope you will still be with me because then we could get it done.

A bit over the top, perhaps, but essential reading. Also, Moglen and Downes seem to be on the same page regarding the importance of personal, portable web servers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tip. Of. The. Iceberg.

Linda Borg in the ProJo:

PROVIDENCE — Seven Hope High School students were pulled out of class Tuesday by a top school official who said she wanted to explain the changes coming to their school after students had protested the reforms at a public meeting the night before.

Nkoli Onye, the director of high schools in Providence, says she met with the students to correct any misperceptions they had about the impending shift from four 90-minute periods, called a block schedule, to a six-period day, which has been adopted by the other city high schools.

“The purpose of our going down there was to address their concerns, to make sure they had the proper information,” Onye said Friday. “That was the sole reason. We thought we were respecting the students by coming down the next day.”

But four of the seven students who attended the meeting say they felt intimidated by Onye, who was accompanied by another school official. The students, part of larger group called Hope United, say they felt that the School Department was trying to stifle their opposition.

“There was a big undertone that was like, ‘Let me give you the story so you can back off,’ ” said Raul Gonzales, a Hope senior. “We were acting like mature young adults….”

“And she kept calling us kids,” said Southavy Doeur, a junior. “When I got in the room, I felt like something bad was going to happen. It felt manipulative.”

Students weren’t the only ones who were upset by the meetings. Louise Tillinghast, whose son was at one of those meetings with Onye, said she worries that the School Department sent the wrong message: that it isn’t permissible for students to speak out...

According to students, Onye wasn’t entirely truthful in describing the impact of the schedule changes, especially on elective courses. Students and teachers say that the switch to a six-period day will limit the time spent on student “advisories,” and restrict common planning time for teachers — elements that fueled Hope’s transformation during the past five years.

Most importantly, students and teachers say, the new schedule will prevent students from taking four years of arts electives, because the school must follow a set sequence of courses, including four years of math and two years of a foreign language.

For once, the comments are entertaining and occasionally accurate, too. Werebat:

They're used to being able to lie about things to people's faces -- for example, "This reform is about improving the school, it isn't about saving money for the town." Most people in the system know that this is a line, but they aren't going to speak out about it because they care about their jobs and they don't want to rock the boat. The kids have no such inhibitions and they're calling things the way they see them, which in this case happens to be the truth -- or at least more truthful than the official admin story. Admin isn't used to being in the position of being called out on its B.S. and doesn't really know how to handle the kids; in this case it's first reaction was to try to treat the students the way it would treat employees who were calling it out, and it backfired.

That's about right. Unfortunately, my Nkoli Onye stories will have to be wait until either she or all my friends leave the PPSD.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Kinds of Applications I Use

Upon reflection, I realize almost all my computing falls into a few categories:

  • Web applications
  • Desktop applications on the Mac, either written by Apple or a first class Mac-only development shop.
  • Command line and basic text editor stuff.
  • EVE Online and related (mostly Windows) utilities.
  • Random applets, calculator, etc.
  • OpenOffice when necessary when I'm not on a Mac.
  • Random things for Vivian (Celestia, Stellarium, etc. on Mac or Linux).

But in the period last year when I didn't have a reliable Mac, I just stopped using desktop applications rather than using the non-Mac alternatives. This isn't really a planned or rational decision. I just can't be bothered to use non-Mac desktop apps if I can possibly avoid it.

So this would explain why I'm fairly blase about the iPhone/iPad being limited to... web apps and Apple development tools -- that's exactly what I would want.

ning Sinking


One month after long-time Ning CEO Gina Bianchini was replaced by COO Jason Rosenthal, the company is making some major changes: It has just announced that it is killing off its free product, forcing existing free networks to either make the change to premium accounts or migrate their networks elsewhere. Rosenthal has also just announced that the company has cut nearly 70 people — over 40% of its staff.

Presumably this will screw up some educators relying on free service from them.

Epitaph for the Last Decade of My Life

Emily Nussbaum on The Wire:

But at a deeper level, it built a case, dramatizing how each city system—the schools, the police, the mayor’s office—crushed individual attempts at change. Despite the show’s humanism (the way it lit up the lowliest kid dealers), The Wire was a very grim portrait of the city Simon loves—a pitiless exposure of “some shameful shit right there.”

What's usually lost in the portrayal of current urban ed "reform" is how much it has accelerated the above process. In The Wire there's an often brutal relationship between politicians, administration and the folks working in the streets. But there is a relationship, the people at least know each other. What it is really like now in urban schools is a season of The Wire where the entire administration of the police force has been replaced by guys from McKinsey, and instead of Jimmy McNulty getting screwed by his long-time enemies in administration and managing to maneuver around to work his way back into homicide though his connections and the begrudging recognition of his skills by the bosses, he's just bounced to the police equivalent of the rubber room and out of the force by people to whom he's only a number and part of the "old guard" and "status quo."

Apple Removes Scratch from App Store

I'm having trouble feeling any sympathy for the Scratch community over the news that Scratch has been removed from the App Store for iPhone/iPad, considering their own lack of good faith and transparency in licensing, particularly for a publicly funded educational project.

This certainly is an excellent example of why Apple's mobile devices aren't appropriate for schools. As a potential consumer, I don't really care. I didn't, for example, worry about whether or not my Wii would run Scratch before I bought it; I'm not concerned that I can't install it on my cable box. But there should be a huge difference between the requirements for educational and consumer computing.

Also, I find this kind of amusing from the perspective of Mark Guzdial's concerns about usability and open source software. Certainly Scratch does not respect Apple's UI design of the iPhone/iPad, and maintaining high standards of usability and consistency across apps is one of the main reasons to exclude alternate methods of writing apps for the iPhone/iPad.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another Place I Used to Live

US News:

WILKINSBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Police say a third-grader in Pennsylvania handed out more than 60 small bags of heroin to his classmates before his teacher discovered them.

If you did some data mining correlating the places I've lived with heroin availability, you'd probably conclude I had a high probability of being a heroin addict, especially if you cross-referenced it with a rock discography. Why else would someone live in both Wilkinsburg, PA and Willimantic, CT?

Also, Wilkinsburg was the site of some early school privatization efforts. It is like a bigger Central Falls, a heavily blighted area stuck between the real city and the suburbs.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You Would Think I'm Too Cynical To Be Shocked By Anything Michelle Rhee Could Pull; I'm Shocked.

Conducting the Inner Light:

But I do know this – despite the pleas of George Parker and Randi Weingarten – signing a contract, a binding legal document, with someone who plays with the truth as easily as does Ms. Rhee is nothing if not insane. I’d rather ink a deal with Satan, at least then I know where my soul is going. VOTE NO.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Providence Campaign is Over

In the two and a half months since we kicked in the door at D-GTMI, the rotting edifice of CVA has come crashing down. There were no major fights after the first one. It has been one long mop-up operation, and even I've managed to get into my battleship and answer the call to arms when it falls in my timezone and blow some stuff up.

The whole chain of events is rather startling though -- as of last November we were facing a 9500 pilot coalition that maintained Pax Ammaria in the Providence region for two solid years -- then... poof!

Now comes the next step, moving back into Providence...

The Hope Donut Hole

One unintended(?) consequence of the wording of the federal rules for spending ARRA and RttT funding for school improvement is (by my amateur reading) that you can use it for turning around failing schools or supporting turnarounds started in the past two years but no older. So Hope High School falls just outside that scope, and there's no money to sustain their block schedule, and in turn, all the other successful programs based around it. This is what happens when you try to manage schools from Washington.

Well, that and the fact that the district doesn't really want to sustain their reforms anyhow. Aren't you filled with optimism for the next round of innovative district/union collaboration on school turnarounds?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Quasi-meta-sorta Control Study for Incentives

I like Claus's analysis of Fryer's initial "pay-for-grades" study. I think you sort of have to set aside your normal squeamishness about the policy itself, and recognize that it is a necessary, and possibly benign, exploration in the larger development of "business model" reform.

First off, look at it this way, if instead of all the crap the Gates, Broad, Walton, etc. have directly and indirectly (and via ED) foisted on the schools in this city and my neighborhood, they'd simply been passing out money to kids for high test scores, good attendance, whatever, I think we'd all be better off.

More realistically and concretely, the entire premise of many of their strategies (ostensibly) is that they've got a better handle on what motivates teachers, students, etc., and by adjusting rewards, punishments, etc., we'll get the results we want. I don't really agree with the premise, but I also don't agree that their models of actor motivation are correct, and that seems easiest to test if you just look at "what if we give people X dollars to do Y" instead of or in addition to more traditionally structured and indirect reforms and incentive structures.

If you aren't highly attuned to this discourse, you won't realize how significant it is that, as Claus highlights, Fryer suggests that rewards for "process" may be more effective than ones that only look at "outcomes," or test scores. This is heresy in many circles today.

Improbable Experiments

Question: if I make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with clarified Irish butter, will I get a better result?

Answer: apparently yes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Reigning Bourgeois Ideology

Doug Henwood:

Before playing the interview (with Diane Ravitch), recorded earlier in the week, I want to underscore a couple of points. First, while the whole testing and choice agenda, one that ultimately tends towards the privatization of the public school system, was once a Republican obsession, it’s now become a bipartisan affair. The Obama administration hasn’t merely continued the Bush education agenda—in many ways, they’ve intensified it. With the Republicans, it’s all-too-easy to be scandalized by the notion of eduation policy being set by absolute yahoos, who not only don’t read books, but are suspicious of those who do. (And by that I don’t mean to deny that there are serious conservative intellectuals—there are. I’m thinking srrictly of politicians like George W. Bush and his cabinet, and most of the Republican Congressional delegation.) But Obama is far from a yahoo, and so too most of the people who surround him. So why are these non-yahoos pursuing such a yahoo agenda?

Though not yahoos, they are a bunch of centrist technocrats. Technocrats are usually obsessed with what they like to call “metrics,” but they’re pushing policies, like school choice, charter schools, and vouchers, that have absolutely no support in experience. There’s no evidence that they imrpove educational outcomes. The only reasons I can think of for this now bipartisan consensus is that privatizing schools is a way of saving money, and that the whole notion of choice and competition fits in nicely with reigning bourgeois ideology. Note that the business and political elite that is pushing this agenda doesn’t, for the most part, send its own kids to these public schools. They send their kids to private schools, with rigorous traditional curricula, and, in many cases, a “progressive” approach to education. A regime of basic skills and military discipline isn’t good enough for their kids—just for the masses. Maybe that’s another reason for this agenda: producing better cogs for the economic machine. But it’s going to make us dumber...

And second, Ravitch writes and talks about the central role played by a handful of very rich foundations in pushing this agenda. The sinister role of foundations, unaccontable bodies run by rich people and their hired hands, in public life, is rarely talked about. Part of the reason for that is that many of the people who might talk about them, and many of the forums that might publicize their talk, are on the foundation dole, or would like to be. I’m not. And I’ll never miss an opportunity to point out how toxic these things are.

Friday, April 09, 2010

We Owe You Nothing

Surprising Suggestions from Google Reader

Has anyone else noticed that Google Reader seems to suggest feeds based on your search behavior? For example, I read no blogs about skateboarding or Civil War re-enactment, but I have been doing searches related to them, and now Reader is suggesting feeds related to the Civil War and skateboarding.

I don't have a problem with this per se, but it is a little surprising because in general, Google seems to have gone out if its way to not foreground sharing of things like this across your Google interactions, presumably because the potential creepy-factor is a greater threat to them long term than the small benefits of "synergy."

Nobody Could Have Predicted

Minnesota Public Radio:

"Minnesota had an outside consultant to do our application, and still we had a sloppy application," Greiling said. "They said it was vague. It was kind of horrifying to see that we had people coming in and helping us with the application, and we did no better than that."

The state paid McKinsey and Company $500,000 to prepare Minnesota's application. Most of that money came from private sources.

Look at it this way: if you wanted a clear and specific business plan for a consulting shop you were opening up, would you bring in some education experts from out of state to write it? What if they were education experts from a highly regarded university or CMO?

Lawyers: Not Enough Reform Lawsuits

Russo says there aren't enough leaks in education policy and its reporting.

I'd add that there aren't enough lawsuits either in response to the new layer of federal regulations and competitive grants. Somebody should have threatened to sue the Department of Education over the Race to the Top scoring for all states that propose to use the Common Core standards over the bogus "international benchmarking" in ELA. Or for that matter, over the confusion over whether or not there are "college- and career-ready" standards in English Language Arts (or are they "Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening" standards). I wish there was somebody threatening a lawsuit over the state and district's inability to send every student at Feinstein High School to a higher achieving school next year, after closing the school under state and federal rules which require it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Hands-On with the iPad

I figured I should actually touch an iPad, since I've been ruminating about it. I'd say my main impression was that it was heavier than I was expecting. I was imagining it more like a Kindle. I'm not sure I want to hold my web browser all the time, and if I do, perhaps it should be smaller. I don't do that much work standing up.

What if the Data Shows Teacher Quality ISN'T the Problem?

Robert Pondiscio on Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin's finding that it’s the weaker teachers who tend to leave underperfoming schools:

I also wonder what this study means for champions of performance pay. The logic of merit pay suggests successful teachers need an incentive to stay put. The study suggests they’re already doing so.


One has to think that in the medium term we are going to get better data about what actually happens in schools, and in the process, many of the naive assumptions of the reformers currently pushing for better data will be overturned. "Good" teachers will be moved into "bad" schools and become "bad" teachers. Then what?

Last Night's Menu

I've been in a cooking slump, particularly the first grilling attempts of the year, so I'm trying to get back in the groove. Last night's dinner went quite well.

Made the Pork Tenderloin with Burnt Brown Sugar, Orange (I used lemon) Confit, and Thyme from Seven Fires. My ersatz chapa was a big stainless steel griddle sitting on top of my Weber grill. Unlike my previous attempts at Mallmann's burnt/carmelized technique, I actually got the thing hot enough this time and was really happy with the results. Mine looked pretty much like this person's. I put it in a 350 degree oven for about five minutes between the grill and resting to make the color a little more acceptable for the rest of the family. It's tasty and dramatic when you get it right. Also, once you've got the right weather, some fresh herbs and the lemon confit handy, you can practice through several different variations in a week: chicken w/rosemary & lemon Thurs., lamb with oregano & lemon Fri.

I also made the Butter-Braised Radishes, Kohlrabi, and Brussels Sprouts from Ad Hoc. Like all the vegetable sides I've tried from that book, the results are worth the moderate fussiness. Braised radishes are surprisingly mild.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Apotheosis of Edu-Punk: Dave Rat

He's got his credential hanging there over his head.

Another Way the iPad is "in between"


So while I don’t believe Nintendo should worry about the new business model behind the App Store, what they SHOULD worry about is all these new game studios turning out actually interesting, innovative games on a platform that is not nearly as restricting as the current console space, and how favorably their products might stack up by comparison. (emphasis added)

Less open than a PC. Somewhat more open than a game console.

It is a Narrow Path

LouV S's review of Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College:

EVERY STUDENT appears to be in grades 3, 4, 5, and 6. There are certainly no high school students in any of these videos. Again, Mr. Lemov rarely mentions how best practice might vary as a function of age, with one exception: he mentions his "Age plus 2" rule, according to which a student's attention span equals their age plus 2. Thus, according to Lemov, a 12-year-old has an attention span of 14 minutes. Lemov shows no awareness of research demonstrating that girls have a longer attention span than same-age boys, indeed he has no interest in gender differences - which is strange, considering that two of the 14 schools in the Uncommon Schools network are single-sex schools: a girls' charter school and a boys' charter school, both in Brooklyn. But he never considers any of the arguments against single-sex schools, e.g. that the single-sex format teaches students that segregation is OK in public schools. He shows a complete lack of interest or awareness of any gender issues whatsoever.

Don't Underestimate This

Marc Hedlund:

Apple does a fantastic job -- better than anyone -- at providing development kits that make developers' work look beautiful. They model the best experiences in the apps they ship, and provide tools that allow any motivated developer to make similarly beautiful experiences for their own apps.

It is hard for non-developers to realize how awful almost all the tools are for making client applications, particularly cross-platform ones. That's one big reason why the web has only grown and "rich internet applications" didn't take off 10 years ago. All the native options are so ugly and horrible, you might as well just use the web, which is both wonderful and an ugly kludge. The web's main benefit, in this context, is simplicity.

It is hard for developers to recognize how awful everything is because they're used to it and most have grown up with it.

Mac OS X (and Next...) has always been somewhat of an exception to this, but stuck in a niche. The iPhone has gotten developer juices flowing and now people seem primed to exploit the expanded possibilities of the iPad. But the difference is in the potential aesthetic quality of the end product.

Common Core -> New Tests -> Curriculum Aligned to Tests

E.D. Hirsch:

If textbook publishers hear the message “more nonfiction” instead of “coherent curriculum” then the effort will have come to little. Slapping random nonfiction (duly tested for complexity) into existing textbooks will be no more effective than the reading of random fiction has been.

Hirsch doesn't seem to understand the plan being implemented. There's no pretense of going from standards to curriculum to assessments of understanding of the curriculum. There are the standards, there will be assessments of the standards -- of the enumerated standards, not Common Core or anyone else's commentary on the standards, not of knowledge of the recommended texts. There will be curriculum, textbooks, etc. aligned to the assessments. There will be increasing emphasis on online assessment which is detached from the rest of the curriculum, e.g., sign up for this module of you need reading social studies 4. There will be increasing use of regular diagnostic tests at higher grade levels for specific reading standards, e.g., this group needs to work on comparing structured poems to free verse, while this one works on analyzing how a dramatic production of a work departs from the original text. There will be standards-based assessment, where the standards are not "understandings," "skills," or "knowledge," but tasks.

That's the plan, and it ain't a secret.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What's a Standard?

E.D. Hirsch:

A second advance this document makes over existing ones is to recognize its own limitations.   A whole section is devoted to “What is not covered by the Standards.”   This turns out to be a lot, including teaching methods and the curriculum.   But the concession is critical.  The word “standards” has misled the public into thinking that these documents represent curriculum guides.  Yet not even the best of the current state standards defines a curriculum.   This document is, I believe, unique in stating that it is neither a curriculum nor a curriculum guide.  Rather, it concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”      This is a welcome acknowledgement that only a cumulative, grade-by-grade curriculum, focused on coherent content, can lead to the high level of literacy which the nation needs.

This is kind of like saying "What I like about this law is that there is a whole section in it devoted to explaining the difference between a law and a regulation. A lot of people get confused about this so it is helpful to embed a reminder in the law itself." Um... ok, but the professionals who use these documents (a category which does not include E.D. Hirsch) already know the difference.

And the reason "the public" are confused is mostly because of E.D. Hirsch and his colleagues who call for "rigorous content standards," which suggest that they are some kind of curriculum guides but which by my reading, aren't very different from the evil "skill-based" standards.

Also, that "only" is a crock -- plenty of people become highly proficient in reading and writing without a cumulative grade-by-grade curriculum. You might argue that on a systemic level, that is the only method of assuring proficiency in the most students, particularly those from impoverished homes who do not pick up rich academically-useful background knowledge informally, but it is not the "only" way.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Willing to Relocate

My wife's personal statement for a recent job application:

Speaking with a Providence colleague recently about changes to our city schools, he shook his head sadly and said “it isn’t like the Bil Johnson days anymore.” In 1999, I came to Providence, inspired by the work Bil was doing at Brown with student teachers and by the similar reforms working their way through the district. By 2001, we were able to open a small site-based school, designed around Coalition principles, serving 360 urban students who used the school primarily as a neighborhood school. Over the years, we formed multi-grade teams, wrote our own interdisciplinary curriculum, created a gateway process, designed rubrics and portfolio requirements, created a flexible block schedule, sent kids on internships, camping trips, community service projects, and finally to college. We sent as many kids to college as the city’s exam school, and more importantly, as many of our kids were staying in college as were graduates of the exam school. We grew more confident and began to trust each other more. We began writing curriculum that was not only interdisciplinary within each of our four teams, but that was united around a school-wide theme and essential questions. Now our work became very public. Student exhibitions became such the norm; clearly high standards were expected of everyone, teachers and students alike. All students entered their senior year confident in their writing, presenting, and problem-solving skills, and all students graduated knowing they were well prepared for the world beyond Feinstein High School.

That is, until a new superintendent ended our program last year in an effort to standardize programs across the city. Suddenly, the scramble for “credits” began. A student who refused to complete an academic defense could not be held back from graduating, because she had enough “credits.” This year I have students who became seniors by credit rather than gateway; the skills these students are lacking are palpable, as more importantly are the strategies to become more independent learners they did not have time to develop. Since I don’t have a team, I have no one to turn to for my own strategies I can use to help these students. Since I don’t have a flexible schedule, I can’t have a student come see me twice in a day to check in on his progress.

The difference between our old program and our new one is at least as striking with my freshmen. There is little motivation to do better, since all one needs to “pass” is a D-. I have no older students in the room to provide positive role models, leadership, or insight into my expectations. I am so isolated from other teachers this year that I had to ask the freshmen to write a reflection describing the kinds of learning they are experiencing in other classes so that I could provide more appropriate scaffolding. I am still culture shocked this late in the year; recently a student asked if he needed to save an assignment. I opened up a file drawer full of student work going back several years and gestured at it, not even sure how to respond.

If nothing else, this year has provided me with concrete evidence that the Coalition principles are best practice not just for me, because they are “convenient” or because I am used to them, but they are also best practice for kids. In October, one senior reflected that the school was now all about grades, and that he appreciated my class because he was still building on the same reading, writing, and problem solving skills he began with three years ago. Another student reflected recently that without a school-wide theme this year, he was having trouble identifying what he had really learned. And every day when the bell rings after 54 minutes, we still all groan and ask “is that it?”

I have decided that can’t be it. And so I am seeking a place to teach where the process is still as important as the product, where the voices of both students and teachers count, and where the spirit of Ted Sizer lives on.

Equity Red Herrings


Education Trust has released another BIG statement about an issue that I would argue is a minor distraction – at best. At worst, this issue becomes a major policy distraction, diverting attention from far more significant equity concerns.

Education Trust’s summary bullet points for their new report are as follows:

  • Federal law permits hidden funding gaps to persist between high-poverty schools and more affluent counterparts within the same district.
  • These gaps occur partly because teachers in wealthier schools tend to earn more than their peers in high-poverty schools and because of pressure to “equalize” other resources across schools.
  • By closing loopholes in the comparability provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress could promote funding equity within school district budgets.

    The report is grounded in this premise:

    Many states have made progress in closing the funding gaps between affluent school districts and those serving the highest concentrations of low-income children. But a hidden funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools persists between schools within the same district. District budgeting policies frequently favor schools with the fewest low-income students. This undercuts the aim of Title I and robs poor children of funds intended to help them.

    The layers of problems with this premise and Education Trust’s major conclusions are downright baffling. I am not suggesting that we should not be concerned with inequities that might occur between schools within districts, inappropriately as a function of district budgeting practices or teacher assignment practices. These are a concern. They are just not the major equity concern du jour. And further, while Title I funding might be leveraged better to correct this concern, the role of Title I funding in improving equity overall across states is minimal.

    Read the whole thing. Also, beyond all the above problems, I have trouble imagining how this would be implemented in the real world of politics. Are you really going to move the best teachers out of high income neighborhood schools and into low-income, low-performing schools? Would the author's of the study be ok doing that with the teachers in the school their child attends?

    Because All Proprietary Vendors are as Tasteful as Apple

    Joe Clark:

    The foregoing explains why open source has nothing to teach literature or indeed any artistic creation, since talent doesn’t scale as you give more and more developers check-in access to the version-control system set up for your novel. It further explains why one’s inability to hack an iPad means precisely nothing. Nobody needs to program an iPad to enjoy using it, except those who have no capacity for enjoyment other than programming and complaining about same.

    This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

    The foregoing point about the limitations of open source development would be more convincing Apple was only one of many proprietary vendors creating beautiful, elegant, commercially successful, mostly closed systems. For better or worse, Apple is sui generis.

    The Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology

    Steve Jobs is the master salesman, but he shouldn't be the only guy who can communicate this concept: Liberal Arts and technology.

    One of the nice things about reading the "21st Century Skills" vs. "Core Knowledge" argument is that it makes me feel like a uniquely sensitive genius who has the unique capacity to hold two not-actually-contradictory ideas in my head at the same time.

    Of course, many other people in the US get this, although it can be hard to tell how many since people tend to pick up on the obfuscating rhetoric, but the best way to clean your mental palate is to do a little "international benchmarking," for example, looking at British Columbia's ELA "Integrated Resource Packages." See, whole provinces and countries understand there is no reason the two can't fit together perfectly well. In fact, there seems to be a global consensus on the issue. Only the U.S. is tying itself up in knots.

    On one hand, I agree that we probably don't need national standards at all, but frankly, most other countries have literature and language arts standards that are pretty good, they're just nothing like the ones people advocating for national standards in the US want us to have. It is worth pointing that out.

    Thursday, April 01, 2010

    My Official Feedback on Common Core ELA

    The Common Core draft English Language Arts standards are not internationally benchmarked. Nor is it likely that they can be with any integrity, for several reasons.

    First, the goals of the CCRS are fundamentally different and more limited than those of high-performing countries, none of which conceive the purpose of primary and secondary English Language Arts instruction as limited to “college and career readiness.”

    Nor do any of them perceive the role of subject area standards as primarily a specification for an assessment; the Common Core standards seem to be written primarily with this aim. High-achieving countries use standards to define each discipline and guide instruction, not simply to design tests.

    In many cases the Common Core ELA standards specify very specific assessment tasks which educators in high-performing countries would not consider standards. For example, “Compare a poem with a conventional structure, such as a sonnet, to a poem without a proscribed structure, such as a free verse poem,” would not be considered a standard in any high achieving country. It might be an indicator or a performance example, but not a standard in itself. This task cannot be validly benchmarked to a complete content standard. Further, grade-level standards made up of specific tasks such as this will narrow the curriculum within English classrooms and institutionalize a test-prep approach to instruction.

    In other ways, benchmarking is hindered by imprecision and a decision to not use the academic and professional language of English Language Arts teachers and academia, to the extent that “genre,” an absolutely fundamental tool in the analysis of texts, is not directly addressed. For example, in first grade, students should “Distinguish major categories of writing from each other (e.g., stories and poems), drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.” A first grader doesn’t need to know these “categories” and “text types” have a collective name in the discipline of English, “genre,” but standards writers should know and use the term. Similarly, the reading and writing standards place a heavy emphasis on arguments, but do not use the language or concepts of the discipline of Rhetoric. These are useful, proven tools that both college- and career-ready students and standards writers should be able to understand and use.

    The process of international benchmarking is further complicated by the idiosyncratic and highly redundant organization of the standards, particularly in Reading, where each CCRS is recapitulated four times at each grade level. No high performing country organizes their standards this way. The CCRS do not provide a conceptual framework for the discipline of English that allow the clear separation of concepts.

    For example, “Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and explain how specific word choices shape meaning and tone,” should be two standards, “interpret words and phrases...” and “explain how specific word choices shape meaning and tone,” because they are two separate skills. Meanwhile, in seventh grade, for example, this standard is repeated four times in different places with identical wording.

    What is most baffling about the draft Common Core ELA standards is how clearly inferior they are to Achieve’s American Diploma Project benchmarks, which mostly avoid the issues lifted above. For Achieve to spend 14 years building toward the goal of clear, rigorous, aligned nationally adopted standards only to turn out this steaming pile has to go down as one of the great choke jobs in the history of American non-profit organizations.


    In case you're wondering, we're safe and dry on high ground here in Elmwood, but folks have gotten hammered just south of here. Since I haven't gone out rubbernecking, or intentionally driven into the middle of one of the nightmare traffic jams which might be common for quite a while, it all seems a little unreal atm.

    Life in the City as a First Generation American

    Sometimes when one wins acceptance to and a substantial scholarship from a prestigious small liberal arts college in Amherst, MA., the next step is to convince one's mother that attending the school is, in fact, a safe and prudent step for a young woman in America to take.

    Just Think How Well She Would Have Done in a High Performing School

    I've just heard a senior at a certain persistently low-performing high school due to be closed at the end of the year has been accepted to Hampshire College with a $24,000 scholarship. Congrats to student and teachers!