Monday, January 31, 2011

Eve Makeovers: Voltairine Lion, Take 2.

I decided Voltairine needed to be more serious -- she's been out in 0.0 for a while now, under more hostile conditions, so she probably should turn more buttoned-up.

Also, the perkier version always looked kinda flat. This is essentially the same model as before, with different hair, make-up, and clothes, pose, and a slightly more pronounced chin.


Even before:

Elections Have Consequences

Jennifer Jordan for the ProJo:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Robert G. Flanders Jr., who has served as chairman of the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education since 2007 and played a key role in hiring Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, will be stepping down shortly to take a new job as receiver of Central Falls, according to a news release issued by Governor Chafee's office.

Flanders' departure signals a sea change for the state's chief education policy-setting board, which has supported a slate of aggressive reforms by Gist. ...

It is unclear when a new chairperson and new board members will be appointed, but announcements could come later this week, Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor said Monday.

Congratulations, Jack!

Greater City: Providence:

My Twittersphere and Facebooksphere have been lit up with talk about Jack Templin being nominated to the RI Economic Development Commission Board by Governor Chafee and with good reason. Aside from being a friend of mine, a great mind in the Rhode Island tech sector, and an all around good guy, Jack is a strong champion of healthy cities and the correlation between a vibrant city and a strong economy.

Jack famously (or maybe that is infamously) coined the term “Made, Paid, & Laid” as a formula for preventing the brain drain of our best and brightest university students. The “Laid” part is the part we are most interested in here (of course). Meaning, that in order to retain young people, we need to have a city that is vibrant, with plenty of social and entertainment opportunities. A city where a young person is not bored and yes, can find a mate, or two, or whatever, that’s personal…

Not All Nordic Countries Have Successful School Systems

Samuel E. Abrams:

The reflexive critique of comparing the Finnish and U.S. educational systems is to say that Finland’s PISA results are consequences of the country being a much smaller, more homogeneous nation (5.3 million people, only 4 percent of whom are foreign-born). How could it possibly offer lessons to a country the size of the United States? The answer is next door. Norway is also small (4.8 million people) and nearly as homogeneous (10 percent foreign-born), but it is more akin to the United States than to Finland in its approach to education: Teachers don’t need master’s degrees; high school teachers with 15 years of experience earn only 70 percent of what fellow university graduates make; and in 2006, authorities implemented a national system of standardized testing. The need for talent in the classroom is now so great that the Norwegian government is spending $3.3 million on an ad campaign to attract people to teaching and, last year, launched its own version of Teach for America in collaboration with Statoil—called Teach First Norway—to recruit teachers of math and science.

Moreover, much as in the United States, classes in Norway are typically too large and equipment too scarce to run science labs. A science teacher at a middle school in Oslo told me that labs are unfortunately the exception, not the rule, and that she couldn’t recall doing any labs as a student a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, much as in 2000, 2003, and 2006, Norway in 2009 posted mediocre PISA scores, indicating that it is not necessarily size and homogeneity but, rather, policy choices that lead to a country’s educational success.

Keep this in your rhetorical arsenal.

A Thoughtful Pause

Elisabeth Harrison:

Governor Lincoln Chafee has asked federal officials to give Rhode Island flexibility on implementing the part of Race to the Top that relates to charter schools.

Chafee has called for a “thoughtful pause” before opening any new charter schools.

“The main point here is let’s look before we leap,” said Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor. “Governor Chafee believes strongly that before there’s any further expansion of charter schools, we should use the existing 15 charter schools to do some comprehensive, evaluative study of their effectiveness.

Certainly Deb Gist did a lot to promote this idea by going after Highlander charter school last year. Her advocacy wraps all the way around to being indistinguishable from an attack.

What I'd really like to see is an analysis of Blackstone Valley's finances. Where's their money coming from, and what will the long term impact on Lincoln and Cumberland's budgets be? It is a big school in relation to those towns.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Please, Br'er Reformer, please don't throw me into that Finnish briar patch!

Alexander Russo:

Progressives might be feeling pretty good right now about the defeat or delay of various attacks (Waiting For Superman, the anti-strike legislation in Illinois, the parent trigger in Compton) and the emergence of several champions (Ravitch, Strauss).

But in my mind at least progressives are still spending so much time tearing down any and all possible examples of progress, a tactic that while useful may have reached its limits. There's always something wrong, or not good enough, or an extenuating circumstance or special treatment that can be used to explain things away. Where's the money coming from? What about the teacher turnover rate?

As you'll see below, I think it's time for a more positive, hopeful narrative, with a new set of examples and heroes illustrating an alternative path to success. But I'm not sure anyone's working on that.

This is tough, considering everything from NCLB, to the depredations of Broad-trained state and district administrators, to the confounding fact that most new progressive schools are charters.

Luckily, neo-liberal reformers have given us a great gift in raising social democratic Finland as an example. We should use it. And, frankly, we should get credit for using it; have you read The Flat World and Education? The former head of the Obama transition team's education working group lays out a US version of Finnish school reform. There it is! What's a gal have to do to get noticed around here?

Anyhow, I thought Kevin Carey's post today, commenting on Samuel E. Abrams piece in TNR, was a good illustration of the kind of pre-emptive strikes which lead to posts like Russo's:

Finland is an unambiguous success story and there’s a lot we can learn from them. The “Finland is homogeneous and thus has nothing to teach us” argument is, I believe, mistaken. Far and away the most Finland-like American state is Utah (white, mono-religious, few natural resources, strong cultural bonds) and their educational results aren’t nearly as good.

But anyone arguing that the evidence from Finland cleanly supports either side of the American education reform debate is being dishonest.

If Finland is the compromise, I'll take it!

Don't let them psych you out on Finland. Love it, live it. You are Iorek Byrnison and the Finnish education system is your armor. Force feed 'em shots of Finlandia until they suffocate on their own vomit. Pummel their weakest point from our strongest.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Have Fun at EduCon

I'll be completely missing EduCon this year, I think for the first time. It has been a good trip for me, in addition to the inherent value of the conference, because we could stay with my Aunt and Uncle in the suburbs and the kids could get a mid-winter visit with the grandparents. George and Susan have moved to Bridgewater, however, so I've lost that angle. Plus, I will soon have to make the great sacrifice of attending a week-long SchoolTool meeting at Critical Links' offices in Coimbra, Portugal. It will be a great sacrifice to leave these piles of snow behind.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Finally, a Chance to Make Separate but Unequal Work!

Wendy Kopp, quoted by Dana Goldstein:

“If you look at the data on the aggregate level, the achievement gap has not closed at all in the last 20 years. But I’m so optimistic,” Kopp says. “We have the chance to do something completely unprecedented in this country’s history and really the whole world’s history, which is to provide kids with an education that is transformational. We really haven’t done that, not on average.”

Thats... a really strange thing to say. We have an unprecedented opportunity to do what now? Educate poor kids while keeping them poor in such a way that transforms them into successful professional adults? It hasn't been done because it is a stupid, cruel idea.

I often get exasperated with teachers who have never done anything other than teach or go to school, but I think Wendy Kopp is worse. She's only gone to school and run TFA. She apparently has no perspective, historical, international or otherwise. She's like one of Frank Murphy's kids:

Earlier, Arthur had started a conversation with me by asking, “So Mr. Murphy, what do you have planned for our eighth grade trip? Are we going somewhere like New York City?”

“Where do you want to go? Where have you been?”

“I don’t know where I want to go. I’ve never been anywhere.”

When he said he hadn’t been anywhere, he meant it. Apparently his house and Meade school are the only world he has ever known. Cindy and friends drank away their lives in her living room while Arthur played with his games alone in his bedroom. The world he lived in was indeed small.

Unfortunately, Our (Low) Collective Math Proficiency Prevents Us from Correctly Interpreting Our Math Proficiency Scores (Part II)

Following up yesterday's overly verbose look at NECAP math scores and school improvement targets, today we'll take a comparative look at NECAP math used as a graduation requirement, a proposal currently under consideration by the RI Board of Regents. Happily, I came up with some rather straightforward graphs this time.

A few preliminary notes. The MCAS, NECAP and NAEP all use a four point scale where 3 is proficient. 2 is something below proficient, and 1 is the lowest score (4 exceeds standards, ofc). In the case of the MCAS and proposed use of NECAP for graduation, you only need a "2" to graduate, so I focus on those levels, rather than proficiency numbers as I did previously. All the percentages below are % at "2" or above. Also, I apologize for the lack of links and references for the numbers. Digging this stuff up is a nightmare of PDF's, and I just couldn't keep track. Everything is as up to date and accurate as I could make it.

The first graph shows 8th grade NAEP math scores in RI, NH, VT and MA. This is the best cross-state data we have, and it establishes a clear pattern: MA is tops (2nd in the US in this case), NH and VT close behind (ranked 6 & 7), and RI clearly lagging (38th).

At the right of the graph, we've got the "2" or higher rate for the MCAS (for MA) and NECAP (for RI, NH, VT). Now, obviously these are different tests. The point of this graph is not to compare achievement between the states, but simply to note that the pass rates diverge, with the NECAP states all going down while maintaining their relationship to each other.

One explanation for this might be that MA has had more time to adjust to their test than the NECAP states. Indeed, scores have gone up considerably and consistently over the past decade on the MCAS, including, for example a 20 point jump in the fourth year of the test's administration. So in the second graph we look at 8th grade MCAS/NECAP scores to see if they diverge like the high school scores due to 10 years of MCAS practice. They don't. They're consistent with the NEAP scores, except perhaps the 8th grade MCAS is a little tougher relatively (data note, this is aggregated grade 3-8 math for VT, because it is all I could find).

Perhaps high school math instruction does fall off a cliff, at an equal pace, in NH, VT and RI, compared to MA. The only objective indicator here I could think of was math SAT. This is noisy of course due to participation rates, test design, etc., but the basic pattern holds. MA top, VT and NH close behind, RI lagging. Note that VT had a four point drop here from the previous year, when they were just one point behind NH. So this suggests that high school math achievement in does not wildly diverge between MA and the rest.

I don't know what to conclude from the above other than the high school math NECAP is quite a bit more difficult to pass as a graduation requirement than the MCAS. Maybe this is because the NECAP covers more difficult math in some absolute sense, maybe it is some feature of the design of the tests, maybe the NECAP just diverges from the existing curriculum in VT, NH, and RI in a way that is difficult to adapt to, maybe it is just harder to prep for.

In a sense, it doesn't matter. From the point of view of a kid, teacher or school, the 11th grade NECAP is harder to pass.

This goes against what seems to be the conventional wisdom among Rhode Islanders -- that we went with NECAP as an easier alternative to MCAS. The data does not back up that view. I see no reason to not believe that if Massachusetts switched to NECAP, the percentage of students eligible for graduation would drop by about 25%, from 93% to upper 60's.

I don't necessarily disapprove of the difficulty of the math NECAP, but it renders it inappropriate for use as a graduation requirement.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Voice from Last Night's Regents' Diploma Hearing

I'm going to take the liberty of an extended snip from Jill Davidson's Providence Schools (and Beyond) blog:

I'm gratified to post a report on the evening from Aaron Regunberg. Aaron, a junior at Brown, is active locally in politics and education. He recently worked as an organizer on Angel Taveras' campaign and is actively supporting Hope students as they fight to maintain the schedules and structures that allowed them favorable conditions for learning. Here's his report:
What I saw at the hearing tonight was at the same time one of the most beautiful and the most frustrating spectacles I've experienced in a long time. On the one hand, it was absolutely inspiring to see so many different Rhode Islanders come together to fight for the type of education system they believed in. The PCTA auditorium was completely packed--there were students, parents, teachers, administrators, concerned citizens, black and white and brown, all protesting with one voice. That in itself should be pretty powerful evidence; one speaker said that he had never seen such a consensus, that he was there fighting next to people he had never agreed with before. And of course, it was particularly powerful to hear so many students committed enough to their education to come out on a freezing night like tonight to speak truth to power.

But as beautiful as the protest was, it was also immensely frustrating, because I had seen it all before. This was the third such hearing, not counting the initial mass protest in Narragansett at the beginning of the month. And none of these outpourings of anger, none of the valid and rationally articulated criticism had seemed to have any effect on any of the decision-makers. I was at the Regents' work session last Thursday, and listened as the Commissioner told the Board that nothing any of these different stakeholders had been saying was valid because it was all based on a belief that minority students are not able to achieve.

This shockingly ignorant statement allows these people to dismiss all of the arguments that students, parents, and educators are making--that tying graduation to a single test is horrifying; that even if it weren't horrifying in general, the NECAP is a horrifyingly bad test to use as it was designed specifically to not be used to test individual achievement; and that creating a tiered diploma system is inequality incarnate.

That's what everyone was saying. I just don't think the Regents particularly heard.

Unfortunately, Our (Low) Collective Math Proficiency Prevents Us from Correctly Interpreting Our Math Proficiency Scores

It may be impossible to understate the negative effect that the design of the NECAP math exam has had on the recent education reform discourse and policy in Rhode Island. It is not because NECAP is a bad test. It looks pretty good to me, but I'm not qualified to say.

Actually, the way it is scored and scaled is probably ok as well, aside from the fact that almost nobody, including RIDE, politicians at every level, the media, and of course the general public, is able to understand the rigor of the test and thus interpret the various proficiency levels -- and their legitimate uses -- correctly. This can be done by simply comparing the proficiency rates on various assessments used across multiple states.

First we will look at setting NECAP math scores as targets for school improvement, in particular with the new turnaround goals for the Juanita Sanchez Complex (i.e., PAIS/Cooley) in Providence. Their 2012 goals for NECAP proficiency are:

Reading: 70%, Writing: 60%, Math: 50%.

Now, one measure of a successful turnaround is to exceed one's state average for students with similar demographics -- just looking at poverty is most convenient. And that's enough really, over time, if you can pull it off. It is the kind of line business-model reformers love: "If every year we can turn 5% of our lowest achieving schools into above average performers, in 10 years we'll be able to invade Singapore with our minds." Anyhow, here's the 2009 RI averages for "economically disadvantaged students:"

Reading: 61%, Writing: 43, Math: 12%.

Which one of these is not like the other? The reading and writing gains required by Juanita Sanchez Complex are ambitious but doable. Another open-enrollment PPSD high school in the neighborhood exceeded them in 2009 (before being named "persistently low-performing" and closed).

Why is the math expectation four times the state average for low-SES?

Here's where having a multi-state test is helpful. Lets look at the overall (all-SES) NECAP math proficiency rates for RI, New Hampshire and Vermont (2007, 2008, 2009):

Vermont: 30%, 35%, 35%.

New Hampshire: 28%, 32%, 33%.

Rhode Island: 22%, 27%, 27%.

Juanita Sanchez 2012 Target: 50%

One thing that is particularly worth noting is that there is little of the steady upward trend typical of new standardized test scores in this data (including at the school and district level data I've looked at). NECAP reading proficiency rates have gone up almost across the board. Math has barely budged in fits and starts, so there is no evidence to demonstrate a route to rapid gains.

Getting back to cross-state comparisons, it is common knowledge that Rhode Island is an educational underperformer. What about Vermont and New Hampshire? Let's look at the "Nation's Report Card," the NAEP proficiency rates and ranks in math. NAEP only goes up to grade 8, so that will have to suffice.

Massachusetts: 52%, #1.

New Hampshire: 43%, #4.

Vermont: 43%, #4.

Rhode Island: 28%, #37.

From this data you see that Vermont and New Hampshire are high performers nationwide, and that the raw proficiency rate for 8th grade NAEP is in the ballpark of 11th grade NECAP rates.

Finally, let's pull all the way back to an international comparison. While it is difficult to believe that every child in Singapore or Finland would not be proficient with distinction on the NECAP, this analysis by Richard Rothstein et al provides some context:

We can compare performance in top-scoring countries with NAEP’s proficiency standard. Comparisons are inexact—all tests don’t cover identical curricula, define grades exactly the same, or have easily equated scales. But rough comparisons can serve policy purposes.

On a 1991 international math exam, Taiwan scored highest. But if Taiwanese students had taken the NAEP math exam, 60 percent would have scored below proficient, and 22 percent below basic. On the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, 25 percent of students in top-scoring Singapore were below NAEP proficiency in math, and 49 percent were below proficiency in science.

What does all this mean? It is reasonable to conclude that RIDE's statewide goal of 47% proficiency on NECAP math by 2012 would entail RI effectively jumping from around number 37 today to number 1 in high school math by the time test administration takes place in October 2012. Effectively, there is a year and a half of instruction left to make that goal. It is not going to happen.

Even less plausible is the goal of jumping from 3.2% proficiency to 50% in a high poverty school in that same time period. To even set that goal demonstrates profound innumeracy and incomprehension of basic educational statistics. This is not analysis, or leadership. It is magical thinking. Or it is simply setting up schools to fail.

In fact, moving the Juanita Sanchez Complex's NECAP math proficiency to 15% by 2012 would be a big victory. It would, literally, indicate that the school was in the process of turning around. Getting over 20% by 2015 would probably mean outstripping the math achievement among low-income students in Vermont (18%), New Hampshire (17%), or any other state in the union.

In part two, I'll continue the analysis to using NECAP math as a graduation requirement.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Like This

The Reflective Educator:

In December, I wrote about a few of the things that make my job difficult. There are so many more, though. It seems like incredible amounts of work are often sabotaged (intentionally and unintentionally) at every level of education. Moreover, teachers are regularly put in precarious legal situations that would make any sane person reconsider their job on a daily basis. The result is that I complete so many tasks that are a waste of my time because of incredibly poor organizational management and political ineptitude. Here are a few examples from my daily experiences.

It is kind of surprising to me that you don't see more posts like this. I suppose it doesn't seem like news to teachers, and they don't want to sound like whiners, but it is necessary because:

And to all the education pundits who've never spent a day teaching in a school like mine and like to argue that spending more money on education shouldn't be part of the answer, you can go fuck yourselves.

And this is in Joel Klein's 2011 New York, not Welcome Back Kotter.

Shielding Low-Income Schools from Layoffs

OK, I don't like courts overriding long established contract provisions and generally throwing the bargaining process into disarray, but as recent reform efforts go, providing layoff protection to teachers in unstable, low-income schools seems relatively benign.

I mean, you couldn't do it in Providence, since there are no non-low-income schools, but perhaps it makes sense for LAUSD.

On the other hand, they're almost certain to change the new seniority-except-for-poor-schools system to some bullshit that will fall more heavily on low-income schools as soon as possible. Particularly once middle-class parents realize what's going on. Imagine if the courts imposed a system on Providence that required the teachers at Classical, Vartan Gregorian, Nathaniel Greene and Nathan Bishop (i.e., East Side and gifted program schools (which still are high-poverty compared to the suburbs)) to always be put at the front of the line for layoffs.

Things Education Doesn't Understand About Its Data

Jon Udell:

  1. Be the authoritative source for your own data

  2. Pass by reference not by value

  3. Know the difference between structured and unstructured data

  4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions

  5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope

  6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber

  7. Reuse components and services

And you have to start with #1.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dropping the Ball on the Whole Graduation Requirements Thing

One of the reasons this blog is not called, say, The Rhode Island Education Policy Reporter is that I reserve the right to just take a pass on covering important issues if I don't feel like it. Like right now I'm not going to actually type the long, rambling post on the new proposed RI graduation requirements that has been running through my head.

Jill Davidson has a good rundown, however, including this video made by made by Mike McCarthy, a second-year student at College Unbound, which is essentially Big Picture's college experiment.

By the way, if anyone in RI ever wants help coming up with statistics, charts, talking points, etc., for this kind of resistance, don't hesitate to ask.

Down the Memory Hole

Julia Steiny discusses Gates Foundation small school reform in her weekly ProJo education column:

In 2008, quite unexpectedly, Gates pulled the plug. Test scores weren’t rising. According to the only measure it valued, the project was failing. Interestingly, Gates announced at the time “many (newly smaller) schools had higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers. While we were pleased with these improvements, we are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.”

There went baby and bath water.

You are not wrong, parents. Test scores rule.

Note to education industry: Your values are not in synch with those of the parents. Parents prize higher attendance and graduation rates because they prove that the kids want to go to school. Parents would love their kids to be academic stars, but are also painfully aware that the kid has to get there first and has to want to learn.

Here’s the kicker: The Gates-made-smaller schools did not revert to anonymity, but kept working.

And certain researchers continued to collect data on these schools.

So just recently, reports about the longest-established Gates schools in New York City and Oregon are showing that the schools are now making significant academic gains. It took a while, but in the end, the project worked.

Of course, there were a bunch of these schools in Providence, too, which were successful and are now almost completely closed or re-merged, but the ProJo has never really covered that as a story.

I can't even get mad about this one. I'm just baffled.

The Key to Closing the Achievement Gap is Lazy, Pampered Affluent White Kids

The entire concept of the "achievement gap" has always struck me as ill-conceived since if underprivileged youth managed to match their betters' achievement via hard work, long hours and superlative schooling, there is no reason to think the privileged classes would not respond by adopting the same measures themselves on top of their perennial advantages. Or, more likely, moving the goalposts, changing the rules or just undermining poor and minority kids directly.

But anyhow, that aspect of it never added up for me.

After Valerie Strauss's most recent gaze into Michelle Rhee's navel, I might understand better at least why Rhee thinks closing the achievement gap is a viable idea. If you think middle and upper class white kids are lazy, over-praised and undisciplined veal calves incapable of responding to hard working immigrants and striving poor kids, and you believe that a powerful, fair and objective technocracy will run education, then I guess you would think that the achievement gap is indeed closable.

They Are Who We Thought They Were!

Ben Muth:

(The Steelers') identity is a simple one: a juggernaut defense with a really good quarterback, big play skill players, and a really bad offensive line.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Post AFC Championship Thoughts

The key play was the almost-blocked punt that was a roughing penalty instead. I didn't think the Jets would win without a special teams touchdown or big play, and that was the difference.

I think Dick LeBeau knows how much time it takes to score more than 24 points against his prevent defense and a conservative Steelers offense, barring a turnover or special teams gaffe, and it is exactly 34 minutes.

That first half performance by the Steelers offensive line was the upset of the year within the game. Especially with Pouncey going out. And that's by far the best I've seen Mendenhall run.

The Packers should be heavy favorites going into the Super Bowl.

I think to understand long-term Steelers fans, or, at least, my attitude, you have to appreciate how good the Steelers teams of the early '90's were -- particularly at playing "Steelers football." None of those teams won a Super Bowl, and they suffered some painful collapses in multiple conference championships and a Super Bowl. But they felt like much better teams, mostly because they had great offensive lines. I'm convinced the 2008 Steelers had the worst offensive line to ever win a super bowl, and this year's Pittsburgh o-line is even worse, even with Pouncey healthy. It doesn't compute. According to the rules of Steelers football, this team should not be able to win.

So... Here We Go, Steelers! I don't know how they're doing it, but Yay!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Elevator Man

Ver-Men from Venus completists (you know who you are) will want to note that guitarist Daniel London performs a brilliant little solo set as Elevator Man in the middle of Emily Hubley's film The Toe Tactic (Netflix). Some band called Yo La Tengo provides the rest of the soundtrack. They might get pretty good too if they stick with it.

Ver-Men From Venus | Myspace Video

The rest of the film starts slowly, and I felt like turning it off after 15 minutes, but its worth sticking through. A very nice little film.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Eve Makeovers: Voltairine Lion

Voltairine is my trading alt. She's the daughter of a Gallente merchant with deep ties to Ushra'Khan and the Minmatar Rebellion and was roped by her father into spending some time after university helping establish trade in Ushra'Khan sovereign space, while we held it.

I'm happy with the model, but the pose and lighting make her look like a marionette. Later, CCP gave everyone a do-over on portraits made in the first couple days, so I toned down her makeup and hair color and came up with a new pose, which I'm pretty happy with. I don't have a copy of the first version and what you see above is the second one. Overall though, she has the "real estate agent in space" look I was going for. Doesn't she look like someone you'd like to buy a shipment of Shrapnel Bombs from?

Still later: I still couldn't stick with this, so I've given her a much more serious aspect in a later version, but I'll save this for historical purposes.

"The three things we as Americans worry about—education, retirement, and medical expenses—are things that Norwegians don't worry about"

Max Chafkin for Inc.:

...instead of some American version of European socialism, what if we got the genuine article? What if the nightmare scenario were real? What if you woke up tomorrow as a CEO in a socialist country?

To answer this question, I spent two weeks in Norway, seeking out entrepreneurs in all sorts of industries and circumstances.I met fish farmers in the country's northern hinterlands and cosmopolitan techies in Oslo, the capital. I met start-up founders who were years away from having to worry about making money and then paying taxes on it, and I met established entrepreneurs who every year fork over millions of dollars to the authorities. (Norway's currency is the kroner. I have converted all figures in this article to dollars.)

The first thing I learned is that Norwegians don't think about taxes the way we do. Whereas most Americans see taxes as a burden, Norwegian entrepreneurs tend to see them as a purchase, an exchange of cash for services. "I look at it as a lifelong investment," says Davor Sutija, CEO of Thinfilm, a Norwegian start-up that is developing a low-cost version of the electronic tags retailers use to track merchandise.

Sutija has a unique perspective on this matter: He is an American who grew up in Miami and, 20 years ago, married a Norwegian woman and moved to Oslo. In 2009, as an employee of Thinfilm's former parent company, he earned about $500,000, half of which he took home and half of which went to the Kingdom of Norway. (The country's tax system is progressive, and the highest tax rates kick in at $124,000. From there, the income tax rate, including a national insurance tax, is 47.8 percent.) If he had stayed in the U.S., he would have paid at least $50,000 less in taxes, but he has no regrets. (For a detailed comparison, see "How High Is Up?") "There are no private schools in Norway," he says. "All schooling is public and free. By being in Norway and paying these taxes, I'm making an investment in my family."

For a modestly wealthy entrepreneur like Sutija, the value of living in this socialist country outweighs the cost. Every Norwegian worker gets free health insurance in a system that produces longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than our own. At age 67, workers get a government pension of up to 66 percent of their working income, and everyone gets free education, from nursery school through graduate school. (Amazingly, this includes colleges outside the country. Want to send your kid to Harvard? The Norwegian government will pick up most of the tab.) Disability insurance and parental leave are also extremely generous. A new mother can take 46 weeks of maternity leave at full pay—the government, not the company, picks up the tab—or 56 weeks off at 80 percent of her normal wage. A father gets 10 weeks off at full pay.

These are benefits afforded to every Norwegian, regardless of income level. But it should be said that most Norwegians make about the same amount of money. In Norway, the typical starting salary for a worker with no college education is a very generous $45,000, while the starting salary for a Ph.D. is about $70,000 a year. (This makes certain kinds of industries, such as textile manufacturing, impossible; on the other hand, technology businesses are very cheap to run.) Between workers who do the same job at a given company, salaries vary little, if at all. At Wiggo Dalmo's company, everyone doing the same job makes the same salary.

The result is that successful companies find other ways to motivate and retain their employees. Dalmo's staff may consist mostly of mechanics and machinists, but he treats them like Google engineers. Momek employs a chef who prepares lunch for the staff every day. The company throws a blowout annual party—the tab last year was more than $100,000. Dalmo supplements the standard government health plan with a $330-per-employee-per-year private insurance plan that buys employees treatment in private hospitals if a doctor isn't immediately available in a public one. These benefits have kept turnover rates at Momek below 2 percent, compared with 7 percent in the industry.

Actually, Canada Ranks Even Higher


I was struck to learn recently that a Heritage Foundation / WSJ op-ed page survey decided Denmark has more “economic freedom” than the United States of America. Well, it also has taxes as a much higher share of GDP, much less inequality, stronger labor unions, and it’s dramatically “greener” in terms of per capita (or per unit of GDP) carbon emissions. It seems to me that all things considered, progressives would gladly make the swap. And apparently conservatives would, too.

In Which I Ride My Favorite Hobby Horse Over to Ed Sector

Ms Silva and Ms Headden,

After reading Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform, I noted with frustration your footnote: "7. The four 'restart' schools initially included a fifth, Feinstein high school, which was subsequently closed for under-enrollment." This is inaccurate in several dimensions. FHS was never considered as a restart. When it was named as one of the "persistently lowest-achieving" by the state, PPSD was in the middle of a process which would recommend closing the school because of inadequate facilities. There was never any indication that anything other than closure was on the table for FHS. However, it was not because of low enrollment at Feinstein, which had a wait list throughout the last decade.

I know Feinstein High School's story; I helped turn around that school in 2000; my wife worked there for 10 years, and we live in the neighborhood. The FHS story is relevant because it illuminates the spin, self-serving omissions, and inaccuracy of your report's analysis of the recent history of labor/management collaboration in Providence.

From your report, a reader would never guess that in that scary "67-page contract from hell," that there exist provisions for labro/management collaboration around site-based management, including have the freedom to obtain variances from other parts of the contract. Nor would you guess that there were several site-based schools in Providence, including the most successful neighborhood schools in Providence: Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, Charles Fortes Elementary, E-Cubed High School, Feinstein High School, and even PAIS. These schools were governed by a three-part panel comprised of representatives of the school, district and union. Another successful turnaround at Hope High School was administered by the state, but was fundamentally similar in approach to the site-based schools.

I've attached a graph showing the average proficiency rates across all three subjects on the NECAP exam administered in October 2009, including students who attended each school during the 2008-2009 "teaching year." This is the most recent and fair data available at this time. The graph just considers neighborhood high schools, where E-Cubed, Feinstein and PAIS were considered site-based by the district (according to the PPSD website). As you can see, the existing-site based school outperformed the others by more than 10 percentage points. I've also attached another infographic I created to illustrate the reading scores of Providence (and Central Falls) high schools, highlighting size and autonomy.

Reforming and Un-Reforming High Schools in Providence

The Brady administration was hostile to the site-based schools from the beginning, despite their relative success. The newly reopened Nathan Bishop Middle School was not allowed site-based status despite the community's preference. After Brady arrived both the administration and the union ceased the contractually mandated meetings and processes at FHS, and presumably at the other site-based schools as well. The administration never had the decency to officially end the schools' site-based status; they simply ignored it completely.

The real story of Brady's tenure in Providence, at least regarding the part I'm familiar with, high schools, is of dismantling successful collaboration. Hope Arts High School saw a 50% increase in reading proficiency over the last two years. That program is being taken apart.

In the year Feinstein High School was closed it already exceeded the PAIS/Cooley 2012 targets in both reading and writing. In writing, FHS completely eliminated the achievement gap in for black vs. whites statewide, hispanic vs. whites statewide and by low vs. high-SES statewide. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Feinstein High School maintained the highest rates of college enrollment and retention among Providence neighborhood high schools. Cooley and Feinstein were in the same neighborhood. FHS's reading proficiency exceeded Cooley's by 39%; in writing by 43%. Yet Cooley is open, and FHS is closed.

The reason for this, really, is control. Site-based management at Feinstein High School was much more assertive than either the PPSD or RIDE would allow in 2011, particularly in terms of curriculum. The same at Hope High. Today a restart school can do what they want, as long as it serves the needs of the Aligned Instruction System and the rest of the organized system under Brady.

Will this current round of restarts be successful? Probably on the whole just as successful as the last round, especially since many of the same people are involved, including turnaround Principal Janelle Clarke, whose previous job was Dean of Teaching and Learning at "Persistently Lowest Performing" FHS. The real question is whether or not ten years from now one of the young teachers now working in a Providence turnaround will be writing a letter exactly like this one, to the next generation of self-serving think tank wonks, acridly explaining that no, what is happening now is not new or unprecedented, but the same thing, over and over. And if only we could repeat the next cycle without first burying the successes of the previous iteration, maybe we could actually get somewhere for the kids in this community.


Tom Hoffman

Thursday, January 20, 2011

EVE Makeovers: Aex Vinox

I've begun the process of remaking my EVE characters with the new character creator. First in line is my industrialist alt. and Orca pilot, Aex Vinox.

Right now she's got a whole body model, clothes and everything, but in-game she's still just a portrait. Hopefully by the end of the year she'll be walking in stations!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Another Feinstein High School Success Story


Providence –– Noun by noun and verb by verb, Dominican immigrant Andrés Flores conquered the language of his new world in two years at middle school. He absorbed American culture, even as his family settled in Hispanic areas of the city. Spanish and lentejas (lentils) at home. English and fast food on the outside.

Flores said, “At home we had family duties,” and studies. But here, he said, “the kids acted free and more independent at a younger age. It was something to get used to.”

His was a fast trajectory.

Nine years later, Flores is a junior at Providence College, largely on academic scholarship, filled with ambition and shouldering his family’s future.

I Got the Same Email!

Scott James Remnant:

This will be my last week working for Canonical Ltd.

I joined the company almost seven years ago, right at its inception. I was contracting at the time and a member of the Debian project maintaining the dpkg package manager, when I received an e-mail out of the blue that led to a phone call with a South African I’d never heard of who wanted to offer me a dream job working on a Debian-based Linux distribution. Sadly I never kept that original e-mail, but I tried to replicate it from memory for Canonical’s 5th birthday:

Dear Friend,

How are you and your family hope fine?

I am Mark SHUTTLEWORTH, from the great country of SOUTH AFRICA.

Due to good fortune mine in business, I have come into money of the sum $575,000,000 (US).

I would like to with you discuss BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY, and solicit your confidentiality in this transaction.

Pleased to discuss by phone at your earliest convenience.

Ok, Mark wasn’t really a Nigerian 419 scammer, but some people did discard his e-mail as spam! The job sounded interesting, and I was largely waiting for him to stop talking on the phone so I could say yes. Even better, he was going to pay me up front for the first couple of months because the company hadn’t been formed yet let alone contracts signed and such. No, I didn’t have to send him any money first to make the transaction happen ;-)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Don't Feed the Chua


...the best way to troll your own blog is to criticize parenting...

Trying... to... resist...

Natural Sound Electronics Tablets

The more engrish the name, the more disruptive the technology.

Charbax has documented more varieties of these cheap crappy Asian tablets than probably he can even keep track of. This is what disruptive innovation really looks like.

Later... even better! Pierre Cardin Communication Electronics also called Shenzhen Vogues Industries: "Science and Technology show the characteristic of fashion completely!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Yes, There Was a Replaced Hip in the House

Two Crappy Tastes That Taste Like Shit Together

The SIF Zone - First Message sent over the new SIF SOAP Transport!:

The new SOAP transport will be released as part of SIF 2.5, which is getting close to release.

Simon Phipps - The End Of The Road For Web Services:

Web services as a strategy was fundamentally flawed in my view because it was so un-web. It took an idea that hardly worked on an Intranet - remote manipulation of tightly-specified objects - and tried to make it work on the Internet. It led to software applications that by default were complex, brittle and heavy. Although I know many brilliant software engineers who worked unexpected miracles with Web Services, implementation by the common corporate programmer was stodgy in every case I heard about. In the end Web Services became an intranet tool for most uses, rendering the "W" incorrect even if WS* will be with enterprise developers for years to come as a kind of architectural COBOL.

Whatever other origins it had, the whole movement was, as far as my own experience recalls, transmitted around the industry by a senior analyst from a large analyst firm visiting all the key players and asking them about their "web services strategy".  As a consequence they all assumed Web Services were a key strategy for their competitors and put huge effort into devising a strategy of their own, with the result that a mediating industry movement was created - with dodgy membership rules at the outset - as each corporation attempted to take the leading role.

The visit the analyst made to Sun was memorable and resulted in the abortive Sun One software product strategy which in my view was the fumbled ball that killed the company. I'll leave it to Anne Thomas Manes to tell the full story some time as she was heavily involved in trying to talk Sun off the course they eventually, fatefully took - yes, she worked for Sun back in 2000 and argued nobly against the tide.

Mmmmm... Cookies!

Joe Carducci:

As in business, Art was reconfigured by such decadent leveraging too. Here the loose capital was invested in mass higher education. With no strings attached students piled into film schools, comics studies, rock courses and the like, forgoing as kids will a complete meal and cutting directly to dessert. The skids for the current juvenilia were greased by the sour political cadres who long ago impuned Western Art right down to the oil in the paint and the pronouns in the texts. Nothing of any real politick remains of all that, but its remaining advocates don’t recognize its fallout as their sterile mule-child. I suspect there is some sort of American advantage remaining in Art as well, but it’s much harder to discern.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Kind of Manager Doesn't Try to Improve the Performance of Current Employees?

Liam Goldrick:

Proposed education reforms that do not imagine that current and beginning teachers can become more effective while on the job should be considered null and void. This postulation, if accepted, would direct Michelle Rhee's new StudentsFirst agenda to the nearest paper shredder.

Gates' Man in LA

LA Times:

In John Deasy, the Los Angeles Board of Education selected a new superintendent who is seemingly a man of contradictions.

He was raised in a strong union household yet challenges work rules fiercely defended by unions. He supports making it easier to dismiss teachers but also insists that a school system cannot fire its way to success.

He's going to be accused of being a tool of the Gates Foundation, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — he has associations with them all — but his career also encompasses a quirky independent streak.

That's one way to spin it. Deasy's career path is unusual, but mostly because he went from being superintendent of a rural/suburban district in Rhode Island where he brought in $2,967,640 in Gates money in 2000, to superintendent of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in 2001. That's not a typical career path.

And when things got hot for Deasy in Prince George's County, Gates gave him a nice safe exit path and time to rehabilitate his image.

If Deasy isn't a made man to Gates, who is?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Grimly Curious

Frank Murphy:

The School Performance Index (SPI) rankings for Philadelphia’s elementary, middle and high schools are now posted on the district’s web site. The unveiling of this information is a precursor to the upcoming announcement of schools that will be placed on this years Renaissance Eligible and Renaissance Alert list.

I'm not expecting any surprises on this year's list in RI, but what I'm really curious about is whether or not they'll repeat last year's performance and announce the turnaround schools before the new test scores are announced (without making clear whether or not RIDE has access to them early).

Also, you should read Frank's whole post.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Rector Drop-In Elbow Pads

While wearing pads has never been popular among skateboarders, back in the 80's there was no question that the grown-up part of the industry wanted you to wear safety equipment, and the big vert pros were always seen in at least knee pads. Particularly since in those days they were probably riding on a sketchy backyard ramp which may or may not be shedding nails and plywood splinters.

Since the 1990's street has been dominant, and in particular, slickly edited video has become the defining medium. Street pros are essentially stuntmen in plotless movies, and they can no more wear a helmet than Jackie Chan can. To wear a helmet while boardsliding down a 15 step handrail simply misses the point entirely.

The upshot of this is that it can be difficult to even find skateboard pads today -- you can literally go to multiple skate shops and only find a few odds and ends. Similarly, there's not a lot of commentary on the various options and their merits, especially for anything other than top of the line big transition pads. So, with that overly long prelude, here is my initial review of my new elbow pads.

The pad market seems to have three parts:

  • Low-end pads for people and institutions that just want something cheap. These pads seem reasonably functional; the basic design of a hard-cap skate pad is well understood by now.
  • The high-end big vert pads: Pain Cheaters, Pro-Designed, 187, Smith, etc.
  • Mid-priced low-profile pads: this seems to be Pro-Tec's market niche.

I'm just going to be skating 4" transition, but I've convinced myself I could break my elbow pretty easily in the process without some protection. On the other hand, if I end up armoring up for the local park like I'm getting ready to jump a mega-ramp, I'll be much more likely to decide I look silly, getting too hot, don't really need pads, etc. The best pad is the one you'll wear. So I fit into the third part of the market above. I'll pay a little more for a comfortable, low-profile pad that should bail me out of the relatively low-intensity messes I'll be getting into.

So... I ordered some Pro-Tec Double Down elbow pads, and yes, they seem like exactly what I had in mind. Part of the reason I've written this overly long, rambling review is that Pro-Tec's positioning of the Drop-In line is inconsistent. Occasionally they make it sound like this is their hard-core vert line. It really isn't, at least for the elbow pads. On the other hand, they're well made, nice fabric, fit the contour of your elbow well, good cap coverage, and still can easily be worn under a sweatshirt if you want. My initial impression is very good. Now I just have to slam onto one and see if they do their job.

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for this foot of snow to melt first.

Something New to Fear: Bufferbloat

Something today directed me to Jim Gettys' recent posts on what he calls "bufferbloat," which, he believes, is a pervasive and mostly undiagnosed problem which leads to our broadband networks functioning much more poorly than their original design and specifications would suggest. This is pretty technical, and I barely understand it myself, but let me try to explain, if for no other reason than to test my understanding.

When you access a web page over the internet (for example), your computer and the web server hosting the site you're requesting are exchanging "packets" of data. The original Brainiacs who designed the internet already knew that network congestion would be a problem, so the built into the system a feedback mechanism so that the rate at which both your computer and the web server would spew out packets at each other would adjust based on the speed of the connection or the number of packets lost somewhere in the network.

Basically, if the network is slow, both computers will slow down the rate at which the flood packets into the system, to help prevent a massive traffic jam. If it is a fast connection, they'll speed up to maximize the throughput.

The problem is buffers. Memory has gotten cheaper and more plentiful much, much more quickly than bandwidth, so there has been a temptation to add memory buffers at almost every point in this system. The basic idea is this: let's say you've got a steady stream of packets going between two computers at a given rate. Then, there's a hiccup and the network stops for a 10th of a second. What you'd like to have happen is that while the network is stopped, the flow of packets is stored up in a buffer, and then once the flow returns to normal, you start pushing the packets out of the buffer, and ideally, catch back up. Buffers smooth out the flow of data. It's a holding tank. Nothing too sinister.

The problem is, everything has a buffer now. Your operating system, your ethernet card, your wireless access point, your ISP's routers, etc., etc., and a lot of them are pretty big, because memory is cheap. So your computer starts sending out a steam of packets, and they're going really fast, and your computer thinks "Awesome, we've got a super-fast connection," and pushes out a ton of packets.

Unfortunately, it has really just filled up a bunch of buffers -- and the buffer in your home router/access point is likely a particular offender. So, for the sake of simplicity, just imagine that your computer has pumped ten million data packets into your access point as fast as it could for five seconds, thinking they were all flying toward another distant computer, when they were really just piling up in the access point's buffer.

Meanwhile the access point is pushing them out at into the ISP's network (cable, FIOS, whatever) at a slower rate. And to make things worse it turns out that there are some other problems further down the line, and some packets are dropped. So then the router lets the computer know that there was a problem with packet 10,273. And the computer says "WTF! You could have told me that before I sent you the other 10 million packets!" So then this mess has to be straightened out, things get out of order, blah blah, it is bad.

So the fundamental feedback mechanism that was supposed to make the internet degrade smoothly has been inadvertently circumvented. What you get as a result is a much "burstier" network performance. Things look like they're going fast, then they stop, then they go fast again. You are likely to see good performance or horrible, with nothing in between. This is bad for everything dependent on computer networks, particularly things like voice over IP, gaming and other technologies dependent on low latency and reliability; and it is worse on less reliable networks like cellular networking.

The whole thing reminds me of the Y2K hypothesis, that a simple, pervasive problem -- particularly one hidden in device firmware -- could cause unpredictable systemic problems that would be extremely difficult to solve. This one is particularly funny because the most important fix may be to just change the default settings on millions of computers and home routers.

Or, perhaps this is just way over my head, and I have no idea what I'm talking about. Stay tuned.

Risk Factors

Matt Yglesias:

The larger issue about Chua’s piece is that it just seems very strange for her to be so worried about this. On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”

Dana Center and other Gossip

I finally got a small batch of fresh PPSD gossip yesterday, most of which I won't share with you because... it's just gossip. Also, stuff related to specific schools is theoretically traceable, and I don't want to get anyone in trouble. One thing I heard, however, is that there was a lot of turnover recently at the Dana Center, or at least the part of it which works with RI and Providence, and a lot of the people there working with PPSD left. Is this true? I don't know. But the University of Texas-based Dana Center is a big part of PPSD and the RI Race to the Top (at least the first version) strategies.

I have been observing this game long enough to not be surprised if this did happen -- education consultancies have their own politics as complex and contentious as any other organization or market. If teacher quality is important, so is consultant quality, and if that's going down, it's going to have an impact on school reform -- and there is virtually no mechanism for citizens to know what's going on at that level.

Also, as far as I know, there is no public online source for district and school level gossip, and in particular the PTU seems to have no interest right now in fostering direct communication between teachers in different schools. Seems a little weird in 2010.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Regents FAIL

Linda Borg for the ProJo:

NARRAGANSETT — In a stunning turn of events, the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education dashed the dreams of student activists Thursday night when it postponed voting on whether to restore 90 minutes of teacher planning time at Hope High School.

The regents were expected to approve state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist’s ruling in favor of more teacher planning time because a three-member regents’ subcommittee had done so in late November.

Instead, the regents, led by Amy Beretta, delayed taking action until a report prepared by an outside observer is completed in late January. Gist recently appointed a special visitor to help the school redesign the schedule to accommodate the additional planning time.

For Hope students, Thursday night was supposed to a victory celebration, the culmination of nine months of protests, appeals and petitions, something their lawyer, Miriam Weizenbaum, called “an audacious leap of faith.”

Instead, students responded with anger, confusion and dismay.

“They took something great and turned it into something horrible,” said Angela Cruz, a senior. “It’s not fair. They’re trying to find a way out of this.”

When Weizenbaum tried to respond to the regents, she was promptly shut down by Robert J. Flanders Jr., chairman of the regents, who told her she was out of order.

“This is outrageous,” Weizenbaum said afterward. “This is an agenda item that they refused to act on because they don’t want to follow the law.”

At least Angus Davis expressed some qualms about this.

Jennifer Jordan for the ProJo, reporting on another agenda item:

“In my opinion, a three-tiered diploma system based on NECAP test scores is morally, ethically and pedagogically wrong,” said Amy Leonard of South Kingstown, an educational consultant.

Ken Fish, who worked at the state Department of Education and helped to develop the 2003 regulations, lashed out at the plan to weigh test scores more heavily.

The original vision for improving high schools rejected high-stakes testing. Instead, schools had to prove they had made a series of required changes by 2012, such as ensuring that all students has access to high-level classes and effective teachers.

But as of 2011, many school systems are lagging in making these changes. And thousands of students remain unable to reach proficiency.

“Why are we willing to hold students responsible for an education they have not received?” Fish asked the regents.

Some of the most impassioned protests came directly from members of the Class of 2012.

“Why should we be labeled by what kind of certificate or diploma we get?” said Jacqueline Lee, a junior at the MET School. “Society will look at me even worse than it already does today. No one in this room can say I won’t be successful in my future because of a test.”

Here's a good stat:

What percentage of Providence Public Schools 11th graders with IEP's taking the NECAP in October 2009 would be ineligible for a diploma this spring under these rules: 98%

Ultimately this system will be torpedoed by affluent parents outraged that their otherwise exemplary children are being denied "honors" diplomas solely because of NECAP math -- for example only 10% eligible in this year's class at suburban Barrington High. Well, either that or they'll just change the honors part and we'll have a big lawsuit about the rest.

Moving Away from Counter-Insurgency

Yglesias is right about this one:

The beginning of the framework is that we should reduce the scale of our economic commitment to the military, which over time means not just fiddling with procurement but actually doing less and having a smaller force structure. Less what? In particular, I think we should actually move away from the COIN/MOOTW paradigm and focus on the idea of deterring and defeating military attacks on the United States and sundry allies. It should be possible to do that without representing 50 percent of global defense expenditures, especially when the allies in question are generally the richest countries on earth.

I think COIN has a poor track record of success, a terrible track record in a cost/benefit sense, and that the self-conscious development of COIN capabilities risks inducing demand for military action. When someone asks “what’s the point of having this magnificent military if you’re not going to use it” I want the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to have a very good answer at his disposal like “it’s there so that we don’t have to use it” not “eh, maybe so.”

Hmong Locavores

Pha Lo:

I grew up in Del Paso Heights, a mixed-race inner city of Sacramento, Calif. -- the kind of neighborhood that had just two grocery stores between endless fast-food and liquor shops, and where we all paid for our groceries with food stamps. It was where we grew organic food and raised chickens in our backyards to survive. And where we did it in secrecy.

Like most Hmong in the United States, our community was from Laos, transplanted here after an alliance with the CIA turned our isolated tribe of farmers into mercenaries -- a failed secret war against the Communist Vietnamese that left Hmong as the targets of ethnic cleansing. Lifelong farmers-turned-international refugees, the older generation was ill-prepared to thrive in modern America. They settled into inner cities where many turned to social services as safety nets.

I remember watching grown-ups lose their identities and self-worth, slip into depression and cycles of poverty, illness and suicide. These were clan leaders who once commanded the respect of entire villages, tough guerrilla soldiers trained by the CIA -- like my father -- and proud providers who had, without writing, committed to memory centuries of the best farming practices. And they were humbled, receiving welfare and food stamps because there was no opportunity then in urban America for their main skill. Still, they farmed in the city for two necessities: food and a wistful connection to the old way of life.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Also, We're Getting the Band Back Together!

Pearson's Outlook Depressingly Good

Bill Fitzgerald:

And it's fun watching the music industry and the publishing industry flail about, largely because the textbook industry is next. The textbook industry has been able to buffer their fall because they have a captive audience. Textbook industry involvement in the development of new standards can be seen as a way for the industry to play a role in designing the cages in which they want to lock districts, schools, teachers, and learners for the next several years.

But the internet solves many of the logistical issues related to distribution. And people can learn without traditional textbooks. And people are voting with their feet - by running away, fast - from delivery models that tether content to a specific channel or distributor.

The problem with this -- at least as far as ELA goes -- is that the value is not in either novel content or the delivery system, but the scoring algorithms, copyright clearance of source material and metadata. And, in particular, if the metadata part was easy to get people to do collaboratively over the internet, it would have already been done, but it clearly hasn't been.

In the future there is no English curriculum. There are texts, there are eight analytical academic writing tasks to apply to the texts, there is scoring of those tasks, there is tracking of the scores, and there is selection of the next set of texts and/or instructional interventions.

Poisoning the Ed Tech Well

Like Rick Hess, my visceral reaction to recent stories about schools in Detroit or North Carolina using stimulus funds to buy iPads or computers is... meh. But Rick and I are both big advocates for using technology to innovate in education (albeit in different ways). And, upon further reflection, nothing has really changed about my feelings about the value of giving kids computers.

I do think the aggregate push on teacher quality, "no excuses" charters, emphasis on testing, etc. has had an effect on me though, and I doubt I'm the only one. There are a lot of people in the business-model reform movement -- not to mention ed tech vendors -- who are ready to pivot in a more tech-oriented direction, and I think they're going to find the well has been poisoned for that more than they might think. In particular, switching to nationwide computerized, year-round high-stakes testing will take a much bigger rollout of new technology than most people seem to realize. It will take a lot of money, and these things always run late and over budget. Whatever cost savings may be incurred by building out new infrastructure will only accrue in the long run.

So... we'll see. Not to mix metaphors, but I think we may find reformers have painted themselves into a corner.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

"thoughtful readings (of) student responses (were), frankly, the bane of my existence as a trainer"

Todd Farley:

I recall once, for example, a Reading test asking fourth-graders about a passage they'd read about the human tongue and taste buds. One question asked the kids four distinct things (their favorite food, its flavor, where on the tongue that flavor was found, and how the taste buds work), with the original scoring rubric (established by classroom teachers) instructing the scorers to dole out one point for each of the four elements listed above. The teachers writing the rubric imagined straightforward answers like "my favorite food is popcorn, which is salty" (two points!) and "I like apples, a sweet taste found on the front of the tongue" (three points!), a scoring system that worked fine at least until theory turned into practice. Once it did -- once those intransigent schoolchildren started swamping us with all their unusual and unexpected answers -- then the scoring philosophy of those schoolteachers had to be laid to rest and the genius of the testing industry could be brought to bear.

The kids, you see, weren't just saying they liked to eat "apples" or that apples were "sweet." The kids were saying their favorite foods were "grass" and "water" and "Styrofoam," too, and even when they were identifying normal foods like "pizza" as a favorite they were then saying it was "salty," "sour," "bitter," and "sweet" (a.k.a. the entire spectrum of four flavors the human tongue can recognize). Furthermore, the students would often list a favorite food with what seemed an incorrect flavor ("my favorite food is ice cream, which is salty"), and then they would say they tasted that flavor on the tip of their tongue, which is not where one would taste "salty" (the side of the tongue) but is where one would taste ice cream, assuming it was sweet. The first couple hours of this scoring project, in other words, were pretty much total bedlam, massive disagreements within the group of employees I was training about whether "toothpaste" or "ice cubes" could be counted as favorite foods ("no" to the former and "yes" the latter), or "bitter" could be counted as the flavor of pizza (originally "no," at least until we considered toppings such as anchovies and artichokes, so then "yes").

Amid all that arguing ("I refuse to accept ice cubes as a favorite food!"), amid all that bickering ("no, I would not call pizza sweet even if there is pineapple on it!"), I realized I would have to do the same thing I always did. The only way I could ensure those 60,000, fourth-grade student responses were scored by my fifty temps in a standardized way was to establish scoring rules so firm, so rigid, so absolutely unyielding, that we would eliminate from the process any element of humanity.

It wasn't so hard. I did so first by making an exhaustive list of anything that could be counted as an acceptable favorite food (pizza, popcorn, Kool-Aid, water, salt, grass, Gummi worms, etc.) and anything that could not (dirt, plastic straws, real worms, beer, wine, etc.). Then I established that any flavor a student identified would be accepted in conjunction with any favorite food. Ergo, a student identifying "pizza" as a favorite food would be credited for saying it was "salty" (of course), but also for saying it was "sweet" (the pineapple?), "sour" (anchovies, onions, etc.), or "bitter" (anchovies, onions, etc.). Enough kids said that ice cream tasted salty (pistachios?) or sour (lemon sherbet?), and enough kids said that potatoes were salty (uh-huh) or sweet (sweet potatoes?) or sour and bitter (sour cream?), that ultimately I decided we just had to accept 'em all, adult logic be damned. I was also pretty lenient on how the group should award credit regarding the location of the four basic flavors on the tongue, ultimately deciding to accept answers both when the kids identified the correct placement of the flavors (sweet in the front, salty on the side, etc.) and when they did not (sweet on the side, if talking about popcorn, which really would have been tasted on the side, it being salty and all...)


To reiterate, teachers and ex-teachers made bad standardized test scorers because they actually gave a damn about the students, while my scoring projects were usually better served by people who cared a little less. Ironically, that means if test scores do end up being used to evaluate the jobs being done by American teachers, those people who "cared a little less" will end up assessing the jobs being done by those classroom teachers who really are invested in American education.

The Blinding Pace of Technological Change

James Turner:

XP, however, is still holding on to more than 50 percent of the Windows market. Not bad for a nine-year-old OS that isn't supported by Microsoft anymore.

I think next year we should all predict what's not going to change in 10 years.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Geoffrey Canada (quoted in Ticket to Teach from DfER):

“We say to these young people, ‘We’re going to make a deal with you. We are not going to pay you a lot of money, but we are going to give you a lot of time off.’ It’s a terrible message we’re sending.”

Aside from the fact that these days it ends up being less free time than you'd think, exactly why is that a terrible message? Is there something morally wrong with preferring free time to more money?

SchoolTool in Nigeria

David Ally (pictured above) set up a meeing:

The meeting started as usual with brief prayer by two volunteer participants, this was followed up by the introduction to the high table some project stakeholders. The speech by the Acting Director General of NIEPA is enclosed, this was followed by the brief overview of other efforts in the education sector and how they relate to the SchoolTool Nigeria Project.

Dr. Akinsolu (a member of Ad-hoc project Team), NIEPA SchoolTool Nigeria Project Coordinator made her presentation on SchoolTool Overview emphasizing the usefulness of Cando and Intervention components. This was followed up with a tea break which lasted for forty five minutes.

SchoolTool Nigeria Project was presented immediately after the tea break, this session introduced the components of the entire program touching on SchoolTool application, rapidSMS application and EMIS. And showed how each component fulfils it objectives in the entire program. Much emphasis was on SchoolTool and how the modules that relate to teachers and students in SchoolTool modules help in solving some of the present problems faced in the data management efforts in the education sector. Participants were also notified that in order to undertake deployment in their states, that there are still financial gaps to fill in providing other resource components not covered by the present grant. Screen shots were presented during this session. This session lasted for an hour thirty minutes.

Lunch break was between 2pm and 3pm.

The breakout session comprised two groups in a round table having deeper look at the SchoolTool application and making inputs for any areas of deficiencies. The UNICEF Education Specialists pointed out the adequacy of the data kept on Teachers and suggested we leave that particular module as it is except for some few additions, other participants from the states also notified us of some policy framework in their states that would make implementation of the policy statements enforceable via software. There were contributions in this session bothering on development and bugs corrections. A separate list of input would be provided for the developers to work on. Apart from some bugs discovered in the demo application, other input requirements are for Teacher module, Year Posted to School, Photograph, State of origin, id-card, Salary Grade Level, etc

At the end of the break out session we got inputs from the two groups which form parts of pending development work to be sent to developers, some of the inputs relate to easy of use and layout of views but in all participants were happy about SchoolTool's feature sets. There were also comments on some related activities going on in some states but none of the on going efforts addresses the software need of the deployment but rather computer labs using solar, more than two states have this program going on now.

In other news, we got word that our colleagues in Cambodia are hiring a local manager to unstick our somewhat stuck initiative there.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Quiver: Old and New

I'd like to meet the non-existent demand for an overview of my skateboard collection, spanning the mid-1980's to 2010, with nothing in between. From left to right:

  • Powell-Peralta Rodney Mullen freestyle deck, circa 1985. Indy freestyle trucks, Bones freestyle wheels. All original (presumably the nose skid is around here somewhere). I rode this a ton, but religiously restricted to freestyle on a basketball court or other smooth surface, so it is in good shape. Note the vintage Geek Attack 'zine sticker on the tail. This is the jewel of the collection -- Rodney Mullen is the most innovative, influential skater of all time. Freestyle skating ceased to exist soon after this point, but everyone soon realized that it had devoured street skating from the inside out.
  • Fountain of Youth shop deck, circa 2010. Thunder trucks, Autobahn wheels. I picked this up at Donny Barley's shop in Providence. I picked it up when Vivian started riding her tricycle around the local basketball court, so I figured I should try a little neo-freestyle to occupy myself. I got hard (97A) little wheels on this thing which renders it nearly unridable on the rough streets and sidewalks around here, so this board hasn't quite found its niche.
  • Walker Street Classic, circa 1986? Indy 159's, Kryptonics Pro III 92.5A wheels. I'm doing a public service here because I can't find another picture of or reference to the Walker Street Classic on the web. This followed my pattern of selecting obscure street decks with functional shapes from non-California companies. Perhaps of some interest to the Walker completist. Also note the Neil Blender sticker. This was the board I was riding in college as my interest in skating gave way to spending all my time at WRCT. It is a 9" deck and the one I've been using at Neutaconkanut Park. I need the extra wood under my feet if I'm going to skate a concrete park.
  • Skull Skates BA. KU. Depth Leviathan Dweller deck, circa 2010. Ace 55's. Rainskates Killer Bees. Rock 'n' Ron's Rockets bearings. This is the ultimate over-researched new old-school or old new-school transition deck for the rider with a taste for obscurity, small skater-owned companies, monsters from the deep, and Satan. 9" wide, tall-ish hard Alaskan wheels, a broad expanse of truck for grinds. After receiving it at Christmas, I tried it a few times in the park in Huntingdon, and I'm quite happy with the choice. I'll be stopping tomorrow at Neutaconkanut on the way home from pre-school with the Dweller, a broom, a shovel, and a heart full of hope (and thanks to my ever-tolerant wife).

2011: The Rehabilitation of Wikipedia

OK, here's my one non-obvious prediction for 2011: this is the year Wikipedia's reputation among teacher and librarian types will turn a corner. The reason for this is the proliferation of demonstrably crappier content farms and their success in poisoning Google search results. People will realize you can do way worse than Wikipedia as a starting point for research.

On the other hand, the "wiki" in "Wikileaks" may confuse people enough to forestall this for a while.

We Can Hope

Mike Loukides:

The return of P2P

P2P has been rumbling in the background ever since Napster appeared. Recently, the rumblings have been getting louder. Many factors are coming together to drive a search for a new architectural model: the inability of our current provider paradigm to supply the kind of network we'll need in the next decade, frustration with Facebook's "Oops, we made a mistake" privacy policies, and even WikiLeaks. Whether we're talking about Bob Frankston's Ambient Connectivity, the architecture of Diaspora, Tor onion routing, or even rebuilding the Internet's client services from the ground up on a peer-to-peer basis, the themes are the same: centralization of servers and network infrastructure are single points of control and single points of failure. And the solution is almost always some form of peer-to-peer architecture. The Internet routes around damage -- and in the coming years, we'll see the Internet repair itself. The time for P2P has finally come.

Actually, this is a pretty safe prediction. Centralized and decentralized services will swing back and forth in hype and popularity for a long time to come. We're hitting one extreme right about now.

We've Got Good Test Scores, Now What?

Michael Goldstein's blog, while often exasperating, is the most candid view I've found into the mind of the thoughtful side of "no excuses" school reform. Today he features a long email from Spencer Blasdale, former leader of the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter school:

I took another look at Lemov’s book last night. I was struck by the notion that kids can pay attention for “age + 2.”

That means that a 12 year old 7th grader has a 14 minute attention span. That, in turn, means that you have to pace your 60 minute lesson in quick chunks.

If they are to succeed in college, however, students need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and persist with difficult texts (and math problems and artistic challenges).

What no excuses school is creating this type of environment and these types of demands on students? Few, if any.

What can I learn from my own kids?

My first and third grade daughters are in a Montessori school. They have a three hour work period in which they are expected to concentrate on challenging tasks ranging from Mad Minutes and silent reading to writing an autobiography or an essay about three stories that they have read. The skill of persisting through challenging work is taught in different disciplines.

They can each talk about a “great work” that they are producing. My first grader is in love with writing stories. My third grader is trying to solve “the longest long division problem in the world,” for example.

If this independent school for upper middle class students had a “student attention metric” it might look like “age x 5” instead of “age +2.” That is, a 10-year-old could focus for 50 minutes, not 12 minutes.

What does this mean for no excuses teaching and schools?

What I typically see in no excuses schools is that less than 10% of teachers are able to get kids to think, persist, create, express, evaluate, etc.

There are a number of things you can take from this and the whole piece. First off, pointing out posts like this is probably a good way to convince people to not be so candid. Second, it is still hard for me to believe people really send their kids to Montessori schools and run "no excuses" schools for other people's children, but there it is. Of course they do. And their friends send their kids to suburban International Baccalaureate charters and private schools. Third, perhaps the only hope for high school reform is to just sit around and wait until these people re-learn, what, the lessons of the '60's? At this rate they might get there in 10 more years.

The problem though is that Common Core and other current initiatives will tend to lock in the "status quo" and forestall such "innovation." Let's review, for example, IB's definition of "international education:"

  • Developing citizens of the world in relation to culture, language and learning to live together
  • Building and reinforcing students' sense of identity and cultural awareness
  • Fostering students' recognition and development of universal human values
  • Stimulating curiosity and inquiry in order to foster a spirit of discovery and enjoyment of learning
  • Equipping students with the skills to learn and acquire knowledge, individually or collaboratively, and to apply these skills and knowledge accordingly across a broad range of areas
  • Providing international content while responding to local requirements and interests
  • Encouraging diversity and flexibility in teaching methods
  • Providing appropriate forms of assessment and international benchmarking

Common Core, Race to the Top, etc., takes us further from that vision, not closer.