That’s one way to do it …

February 24, 2010,8599,1967814,00.html

A small, impoverished town north of Providence, Rhode Island has a high school that is underperforming. About half of the students graduate.

Solution: Fire all of the teachers. The union is looking at their legal options. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has voiced approval of the action.

I am not a union teacher, and I have never had a problem with teachers who are really not doing their jobs being replaced.

However …

1. Who are they going to get to replace these teachers?

Let’s start with the assumption (and I think it is faulty) that the problem is the teachers, or mostly the teachers. The school’s administration chose this group of teachers, and thus has proven that they either cannot make good decisions regarding who to hire, or that they are unable to attract better teachers.

In either case, there are not many teachers I know that would go running to this district. Given that the most likely candidates would be inexperienced teachers, I find it unlikely that this will create any dramatic changes.

2. Given that this is an impoverished fairly urban community, and that most public schools in impoverished urban areas are not the best, could it be that the school’s failings are more a function of the local socioeconomics, and not so much the teachers? Either that, or we assume that virtually all of the bad teachers in the nation are attracted to or hired in urban public schools (likely a bad assumption).

Education in this nation has been undergoing reforms of one kind or another for the better part of 150 years. Virtually nothing has worked, and that is largely because no one wants to discuss the real issue: the local socioeconomics and culture from which students are drawn is a far better indicator of success in school than just about anything. It is not an absolute correlation, but it is a fairly reliable one.

On the other hand … perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures.

What some people won’t do for an “A”

February 21, 2010

Journalism students, like all college students, are under as much pressure as anyone else to establish themselves before graduation. Sometimes writing for the school paper just isn’t sexy enough.

Northwestern has a long history (like a few other schools, I’m sure) of engaging students in investigations of old criminal cases … nothing like a newbie journalist putting “investigation freed man from death row” on the old resume.

Unless, of course, the man you freed might not have deserved it:


A court hearing for Northwestern University journalism students whose grades were subpoenaed in connection an investigation of a decades-old murder case has been rescheduled for Monday.

Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Cannon changed the hearing to Monday morning from March 10.

Cook County State’s Attorney spokeswoman Saly Daley said Cannon instructed attorneys to be in court Monday, but gave no reason.

The state’s attorney’s office subpoenaed professor David Protess seeking his syllabus, grades and e-mails. That was after his classes said they had uncovered evidence that Anthony McKinney was wrongfully convicted for a 1978 murder.

Prosecutors claim students may have been under pressure to prove McKinney’s innocence for good grades.

Protess and the students deny that.

That is an interesting assertion by the prosecution … I wonder how this will turn out?

A visualization of time travel in fiction

February 19, 2010

It’s just kind of … cool.

If I were in charge of American education …

February 15, 2010

Education is at about as an all time low as it can get. I am not as doom and gloom as I sound: there are some schools that are weathering the storm, and even some private schools that have not compromised to keep numbers up … but in the public and private sector the number of good schools is dwindling: some due to economic factors, some due to sociological factors, others for political reasons. In most cases, some combination of the two.

So, if I had absolute control of the educational system:

1. Schools would be required to keep a 20:1 student:teacher ratio or lower, minus special education classes. One of the few factors that schools actually can control that affects student education is the number of kids that get shoehorned into a classroom. There have been an infinity-1 number of studies that show class size is one of the key factors in determining student achievement. I would legislate a 20:1 student ratio, with a cap of 24 students per class, with common sense exceptions. Many schools steer around this by having special ed classrooms of 2-3 kids while packing 40 into an English classroom. No dice!

2. If your degree is in education, you are not teaching beyond the elementary school level. In Illinois, this is not much of a problem, but I am shocked to hear the number of English, math, and social studies teachers that do not hold degrees in that field. This also reduces the number of people trying to enter the profession through fly-by-night “colleges”.

3. Mandatory pre-teacher training in modern techniques. All teachers, prior to entering the classroom, should be exposed to modern and diverse methods of teaching. This has gotten better, but I still think this has a long way to go.

4. Parents are held accountable for student attendance. Many people are not aware that under NCLB, the schools are responsible for low attendance. That is if a kid doesn’t come to school, or the parents decide to let the kids take a week vacation, that is the school’s fault, according to the federal government. In my model, schools become responsible for turning over parents/students who are not in attendance to the proper authorities. Students absent more than a certain number of days are also no longer to be counted against the school, in terms of detailing accountability on any assessments.

5. School boards are required to submit curricula for review, and can be overturned by state agencies which are not subject to voter recall. Call this my “Kansas Rule”. Attempts to circumvent the Constitution, attempts to put together watered down curricular options for the football/basketball/ etc teams are culled. Don’t even think of trying to get “equal time for Intelligent Design” or other pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo.

6. Standardized test scores would no longer be used to evaluate teachers/students. Schools that naturally get standardized test scores are under no pressure to improve them. Schools that aren’t getting good standardized test scores generally can’t. In Illinois, the ACT is the only measure of student success under NCLB, and there are no exceptions for language ability. This has not worked, and it will continue to not work.

7. Take the money used for standardized testing and create boards of review for schools. Boards of review can consist of college professors, retired teachers in good standing, retired administrators in good standing, and other professionals with background in education. Assessments of schools involve surprise inspections, routine and random examination of student work. Random interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, students. In other words: assess schools based on what is really happening. I have had people say that schools should be assessed like businesses are: look at the numbers and the bottom line. My response is: think of all the people who thought Enron was a golden child …. looking at the bottom line is not the end all-be all.

Besides, why should a business model be applied to a non-business? One might just as well start treating poorly performing businesses like schools. The business model is great for business (some of the time). It is not good for schools (which is not to say there is no overlap …. just not as much as you think!)

Imagine if, when you started a business, no matter where, no matter how small, you were immediately required to meet the same standards of profit and return as the smallest Fortune 500 companies, and then if you did, you then had to continually meet higher and higher goals until you failed, at which point the government would come in, throw out management, and take over the company. If it still functioned poorly, the workers would be fired, and replaced by workers fired from other failing companies. That would surely fix the companies!! (wouldn’t it??)

8. Administrators are required to spend not less than 5% of their time in classrooms; which must be verified independently. Too many administrators don’t know what is happening. They need to know.

9. One size fits all plans are permanently forbidden. This is what NCLB tried to be: one vaccination to fix all of the ills of the public school system. Not only didn’t it come close to working (the bad schools are still bad), but it actually forced some of the schools that were working to waste money on test preparation and in other areas that were not helping education.

10. Educational research would be subjected to the same rigor as scientific research. When I talk to people in the social “sciences” they talk about how their work is as legitimate as those in the natural sciences, except that they don’t have to submit to peer review. The invented term “scientism” has expanded beyond its original meaning “those who hold scientific philosophy to be the one true philosophy by which everything should be followed”, to now include anyone who advocates that non-sciences adopt the same rigor of research standards as the natural sciences have. While the government should not and cannot demand that researchers adopt any standard, the US Department of Education shouldn’t even touch a piece of research submitted by any researcher unless there is significant peer review, and examination of any substantial views that counter that. I am convinced that part of the reason that there is some truth to the idea that “all educational reforms eventually end in failure” is because there is not enough critical discussion on the limitations of suggestions that come from educational research.

11. There should be a critical re-evaluation of special education laws, particularly least-restrictive measures. Under the law, students are to be educated in their least restrictive environments. Compared to what happened in the past, that is a good thing (where anyone diagnosed with the least problem on limited data was relegated … I myself was relegated to the “slower” kindergarten class based on testing that occurred on one day because I didn’t test well. That changed quickly after I got into class and had caring teachers who saw I was capable of more. I still believe strongly in maintaining that kids are capable of far more than the 1950s mentality would have had us believe, but at the same time, I also see a lot of kids whose parents are not permitting their kids to be helped in the name of trying to give them “normal” life. Further, there are parents who far too easily game the system in order to give their kids a leg up … that is kids with borderline “conditions” which they grow out of with time and a little guidance are given a whole slew of benefits, including extended test time and extended time to complete assignments. Far too often I see these students going to advanced classes as seniors (this is good), but are buffered from the difficulty. I spend a lot of time wondering what happens when these kids get into the work world/college when that help is no longer there.

12. Schools would be restored to educating students, with significant decrease in their roles of doing ancillary things. Schools have been burdened with quite a bit over time … some of those things aren’t so bad, and are fairly or obviously appropriate ….. everything from exit exams on the US and state constitution and sex education and consumer education. Some things like having to spend money on hot lunches and checking students’ immigration status put a major crimp into school budgets. Further, while strongly support sports and activities as a part of the educational process, in some cases this part of the budget balloons out of control compared to the school budget that actually goes toward an academic education.

13. If you want to graduate, there are certain courses you just must pass. Plain and simple, there are too many loopholes that allow students out of particular courses. For example, some students can opt out of an English class to take a drama course or a film class. Biology has become optional, allowing students to take a different science course instead. To me, there needs to be a more strict accounting of what students are allowed to take. In southern Illinois, I was recently shocked to learn that it was very common to have students take the equivalent of one course in literature before graduating (with a bulk of English still reflecting outdated practices in writing grammar (some students still spend weeks learning how to diagram sentences!) They learn to write a little better, but are never exposed to a great deal of literature (British literature is unknown in vast swaths of the United States).

It seems to me that students need four years of English to learn not only about reading and writing, but to get some exposure to literature (US. British, and World). In the sciences, biology, chemistry, and at least basic physics are required. US and world history, especially aspects of such that influenced the US, and which the US influenced, are needed. A background in a foreign language is important. Use of technology should be covered. Some background in basic economics is important.

14. There would be a public acknowledgement of what everyone thinks, and no one says: there is only so much schools can do; the socioeconomics of the area the school draws from more often than we want to admit, have a strong influence on what happens to students. When the area does not take education seriously, you could open the Boston Latin school in the neighborhood, and it would indeed fail miserably. Schools should indeed be held accountable for trying, and they must show real efforts in terms of trying to constantly improve whatever it is they need to improve (and with different schools, it is different things), but schools need to be freed from the blame of what they cannot control.

Earlier this year, some local pastors attempted to lead a boycott against the Chicago Public Schools and enroll their kids at New Trier High School (the swanky gold coast public school in Winnetka that has a longer list of prominent alumni than any school in the Chicago area — private schools too!) It was a wasted effort. If the kid comes from a family that supports good education, it would work. If not, all of the money on Earth will do nothing.

Example: Adults screwing up education

February 15, 2010

One of the things that really bugs me is when a few parents don’t realize that what is best for the whole is not necessarily best for their kids, and use that as a way of gumming up the system. Take a recent case in Seattle:

One of the biggest pushes in math/science education recently has been a move to inquiry based education. It is not without controversy because students end up learning less content, but are forced to examine how they learn and how one solves larger scale problems. This is more difficult for students because simple tricks of memorization don’t readily work. Parents who are good at memorization find themselves in a quandry because they cannot so easily help their students with work. Since most tutoring revolves around giving kids techniques for remembering, tutors are often at a loss. I am a big supporter of inquiry based education, and employ the modeling method of teaching in my physics classes.

Oh yeah … the other trick is that this method does not exactly lend itself very well to being tested by standardized tests, which are the cornerstones of NCLB.

Back to Seattle: The Seattle Public Schools recently (May, 2009) adopted a new math textbook which is one of the very few that compliments inquiry based learning (I should have mentioned, most textbooks do not meld well with this method of learning). This is a great step, few large school districts are moving quickly in this direction.

Then the lawsuit came … and not one that can be so easily thrown away because it is a civil rights case. The lawsuit claims that the SPS broke state laws “by adopting a math textbook series and implementation plan that has failed to address the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and non-economically disadvantaged students, between non-Caucasian students and Caucasian students, and that has proven to be ineffective in teaching basic or advanced math skills to a large percentage of the student population served by Seattle Public Schools at the High School level.” The claim is that inquiry based learning is discriminatory, and direct instruction (where students are told exactly what to do and given all of the answers) should be the only pedagogical mode of instruction.

The data being presented is somewhat selective (read: cherry picked) in regards to presenting their case, however in the education system, the merit of the case is largely irrelevant. Once school districts become aware that they can be the target of civil rights lawsuits, they will likely start dropping inquiry based instruction. To say the least, a lot of people are watching this Seattle case very carefully. Some school districts might still be able to go with inquiry based instruction, but if there are any diverse districts with disgruntled parents, they could soon be armed with means of molding education into something that works well for them, but not for their kids.

This past week, a judge ruled against the school board. While courts have routinely issued ruling on content (like not teaching intelligent design in biology classes), this is the first I’ve personally heard of a court handing down a decision on a methodology. The bad news is this sets a legal precedent that arms parents who just want things to be the same as it was when they were kids, and allows them to keep any new ideas out of a classroom. Instead of helping kids to understand not only how they think, and to introduce them to solving higher level problems, we are back to 1950s education.

I liked the one comment that a woman made on the blog below, essentially back in my day, math was hard. She’s never been to my class: the kids beg for me to take it easy on them with things like “lecture”.

Another bad day for education.

More info:

Some dance related items …

February 7, 2010

I’ll let you reach your own conclusions regarding how good/bad my mc’ing was … despite predictions of eminent disaster, the kids really seemed to like it. The link to the “highlights” (which I have never seen):

On a side note, out school was one of four in the nation chosen to be visited by student representatives of MIT for a presentation on women in the sciences/engineering. I had a few students attend, and while they didn’t feel they got a lot out of it, one (a basketball player) did account an amusing anecdote.

At one point towards the end of the Q & A, someone asked about sports at MIT. One of student reps said that she didn’t know too much about sports at the school except for the ballroom dance team. My student said that there was some laughing as “ballroom dance is not a sport”.

Needless to say, I set her straight with tales of my friends in Seattle, and the value that can come from engaging in ballroom dance.

edit: I neglected to mention, but the students did vote to have the teams of Sinclair/Young and Shi/Arguello dance off for the championship some time in the spring. It was a tough call, but these two pairs deserved it.