Upcoming films …

December 26, 2013

While I normally look forward to films, I suspect this is more and more becoming a list of films I will be lucky to see within a year of release, and films my friends-who-are-parents will be lucky to see sometime before social security.

December 27

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Once upon a time, Alec Baldwin was an action hero, and he played Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October.  He wasn’t bad, but when Harrison Ford became available, they moved him in, and he played a great Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  Making sure to neglect that Sum of All Fears, which threw the franchise onto the rocks was ever made, the time would eventually come for Tom Clancy’s everyman-millionaire stockbroker-former marine hero to make a comeback.  Who could follow up Han Solo in this role?  How about Captain Kirk!  Chris Pine plays Jack Ryan with Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Costner in support.

February 7

The Monuments Men

Loosely based on the real story.  As the Allies establish themselves on the continent of Europe, a secret team of U.S. Army art and architecture experts is sent in ahead of the military to determine targets that must not be bombed, and to find art treasures of Europe that have been looted by the Nazis.  It certainly sounds like it is not your usual military film, and the cast is strong:  George Clooney, John Goodman, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett.  That this film was moved from December to February might be saying that it is not as strong a film as original buzz was leading everyone to believe.

February 14

RoboCop

In future Detroit, lawlessness and poverty have taken over (maybe not so distant a future), and a corporation takes the dying body of a Detroit police officer and merges it with a machine to create the ultimate law-enforcement officer.  There is a compelling cast which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Micahel Keaton, Gary Oldman, and Jackie Earle Haley.  It very much looks like this RoboCop will not be walking at a snail’s pace as the action scenes looked ramped up.  The original film had a strong satirical streak regarding big business and violence in media, and I suspect that this will be missing in this film, which is a shame.

March 7

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Dreamworks finally gives the big screen treatment to that beloved and most intelligent of dogs and his pet boy as they travel in the WABAC machine to visit historic figures, only to find a need to repair history after it is damaged by Sherman and a girl he is trying to impress.  Rob Minkoff is directing, and the last animated feature film he made was called The Lion King, and that wasn’t too bad!  I have fond memories of Peabody and his pet boy, Sherman, and would love for this to be a solid film, if for nothing other than nostalgic reasons.

March 28

Noah

Take Gladiator and mix it with the Bible.  Heck, they already did that … it was called Spartacus, and it was awesome!  No … think Old Testament (to quote Dr. Ray Stantz:  real wrath of God type stuff).  Darren Arnofsky, the director behind the visionary short film Pi, and the only slightly less weird film Black Swan brings the Biblical story of Noah with 326% more kick-ass than you ever thought from a film based on the Bible.  Playing Noah is none other than Russell Crowe.  Anthony Hopkins takes the role of Methuselah, with Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson also starring.  I’m not sure that the Southern evangelicals will embrace this film which is (I am guessing) going to divert more than a bit from the Biblical story.  On the other hand, that crowd embraces NASCAR, so who knows?

May 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

While trying to fulfill the vow he took to the dying Captain Stacy, Peter Parker must try and balance his love and distance from Gwen while battling Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Rhino (Paul Giamatti).  I was fairly disappointed in the reboot a few years ago, and I am not sure that this will take the franchise back in a good direction, even though I will try and keep an open mind.

May 16

Godzilla

The last time an American studio tried making Godzilla, the result was putrid.  Perhaps they have learned.  Some of the design art released reveals that Godzilla will look a lot more like his traditional form than the American salamander version. Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are set to star.  One of the producers said that he wanted to take Godzilla back to its roots, and create him in the image of a force of nature, something like the vengeful right arm of God.  With the music for this trailer, I think they are trying to establish that (the music is the otherworldly singing used over the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey).   This finally could be the first serious treatment of the mutated reptile since the 1954 original, where Godzilla is a representation of humanity’s hubris rather than a monster version of the WWF.

May 23

X-Men: Days of Future Past

In a dark future (in which Professor X never died, apparently), the Wolverine is sent back into the past in order to convince the mutants of an earlier era to change history so that the dark future for men and mutants never occurs.  Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ellen Page, and naked Jennifer Lawrence are all back.

June 6

Edge of Tomorrow

A soldier preparing for a massive military operation has to try and warn his superiors that the operation will be a catastrophe because he he has relived it many times, each time a failure.  Did I mention they were attacking aliens?  Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt,and John Paxton star.

July 18

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After the critical success of the last Apes movie, they come back with a sequel starring Gary Oldman (and Andy Serkis back to play the Ape leader, Caesar).  Set some time after the events of the last film, the human survivors of the simian plague mass for a final battle against Caesar and his army of intelligent apes.  Should be a few monkey knife fights … with guns!

July 25

Jupiter Ascending

A young woman in Chicago not only learns that there is life in the universe more advanced than humanity, but that she is one of them … and that her life on Earth has been to hide her from assassins bent on killing her.  This film comes from the team of Andy and Lana Wachowski, and stars Mila Kunis and Sean Bean (I really liked her in Black Swan).

August 1

Guardians of the Galaxy

Kind of like the Avengers made up almost entirely of aliens, and not as well known … but Marvel films have been quite good, so I am willing to give this a chance.  Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, John C, Reilly, Vin Diesel, Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan, and Glenn Close (yes, that Glenn Close) all star.

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The whale in the room (second in a series of articles on problems in education)

December 25, 2013

Throughout various phases of history, there have been progressive movements that have tried to uplift society in various ways.  In the United States (and I know we are hardly unique), one of those long ago progressive movements added a new component to education … something that had not been there in force before, and something that irrevocably changed education.

For the first time, education as a whole was subject to measurement.

Certainly assessment (that is the new eduspeak preferred term for “testing”) has been with us for centuries.  That in and of itself was not new.  However, the extent of trying to measure educational success and progress began as never before.  Today it has evolved into entire new levels of being that have great effects on how teachers and students (and parents operate.  Here are a couple of examples:

*Rubrics.  For decades, when teachers assessed students subjectively, they kind of graded papers any way they wanted.  At best, it could lead to a degree of inconsistency, and at worst an unscrupulous teacher could grade certain students harder than others.  Rubrics were the solution for this:  a tool that forced objective grading of subjective assignments.

*Objective testing (multiple choice testing).  Multiple choice testing is a relatively recent idea in assessment.  Certainly, in the distant past, all testing was oral.  Later, all testing involved writing.  As schooling became more and more mandatory and teachers had more and more students to deal with, there needed to be a way to assess so many students in a relatively short time.  The nice part about multiple choice testing is that the test removed subjective decision making on the teacher’s part.  The bad news is that the lack of subjectivity relied heavily on how well the teacher was in crafting the questions.  Oh, and it is generally far more difficult to write multiple choice questions that  test higher level thinking (which prior to the 1980s/90s wasn’t such a big deal since very few high schools were doing anything that actually required higher level thinking).

*Norm based assessments:  These are your standardized tests that you have read about in the newspapers.  The idea here was that a single test would be administered to an experimental group to determine where students of various abilities should score, then the test can be released to test other students, who can then be properly measured to various benchmarks established by the creator of the test.  With its strengths, there come various drawbacks.  For one, it is very expensive.  For another, there is not a great deal of information released from the various companies regarding who is used to set the standards.  In all my years, I have never heard of any students anywhere being used as test takers to establish the standards for these tests.  Do they use college students?  Do they use only kids in Iowa (keep in mind that a non-zero number of kids in Iowa grew up and thought Rick Santorum was going to save the country … so I’m not sure they are the best choice for establishing an intellectual baseline for the entire country).

*International Testing: Because researchers will want to know how different nations compare to one another.   This is only a few decades old, but has become the virtual cornerstone for the “American education system” bad mantra that many are screaming all the time.  How are these tests given, and who is actually tested?

But I would like to put forward a conjecture that doesn’t come up much in education classes.

How do we know that education can be measured?  How do we know that all of this measurement actually does what it purports to do?  If it can be measured, how sure are we that it can be measured to the extent that we claim?  How sure are we that our measuring instruments (“tests”) are measuring what we purport them to measure?

These are critical questions given that so much of the current reforms and trends in modern education rest on the ability to gather data and use that data to inform instructors on how to proceed with individual students, and for administrators to decide which teachers are kept and which one are not.

My background is primarily in science, so I have a decent understanding of the concept of taking measurements and then analyzing those measurements to look for patterns.  I also know that, especially in an age where science is constantly under attack, that there is a compelling reason why we do science the way we do.  To put it simply, science works.  Science uses data and analysis to essentially predict the future, but unlike mystics who happen to be right about 50% of the time, science needs to be nearly 100% predictive, otherwise the model used to predict the future is thrown out and a new one is sought.  Imagine if science weren’t that close to perfection … that is, the data was not good about predicting future events.  People would need to seriously look at how science is conducted, and they would be right to question it.

Which takes us to education.

I think education has not been particularly good when it comes to predicting the future.  I would argue that very few human endeavors which claim to be data based are so abysmally poor at being able to help determine a future course of action.  If that is the case, then educational research, must be called on the carpet to explain itself.  Unfortunately, very few people are doing this, and the researchers vehemently defend their practices, despite a complete inability to explain why their plans don’t translate well into practice.

I’ll take it a step further:  in science, we can develop new consumer items (pharmaceuticals, additives for food, etc), but these things are not released for actual public use unless a battery of tests are performed, particularly in the area of “side effects”.  Not only doesn’t this happen in education, but quite a few people worry about side effects, and those questions are then filed under “resistance”.  We have instituted a system in our schools where students must be given the option to make up tests when they are unsatisfied with their results.  A number of teachers predicted that what would start to happen is that students would focus on one or two tests, and would tank the others knowing they could make them up next week when their schedule is more relaxed.  We were told “nonsense”, yet our students have already started to communicate that this is exactly what they are doing (they have no reason to hide this, they are simply taking advantage of a perfectly legal loophole in policy.  This may very well in fact make them better at learning the knowledge/skills being taught to them (I would argue that this simply makes their grade better).  However, what is the side effect?  Are our kids now so conditioned to this environment that being able to deal with academic stress is becoming a thing of the past?  What happens in a college setting?  A professional setting? Or, are we basically programming a lot of our kids to deal with low stress environments (read: colleges that aren’t too selective, and jobs that aren’t too selective either)?  These are some important questions that we (as teachers) know that the researchers have not contemplated.  Yet, this is being turned loose on kids with no real concern for what could happen.  These new ideas have not been subject to significant testing for “side effects”.

Last autumn, I took my first course in educational research.  I’ve certainly read enough if it in my life, but this was my first peak behind the curtains as to what these people at the colleges of education actually do.  It was the single most frustrating class I have taken in my post-undergrad career.  At one point I was sitting down across from the professor, and she noted that I was a science teacher, and that she didn’t understand why I was having so much trouble given that data collection and analysis should be so much a part of what I do.  She was right, but what was not a part of my experience was the (and I will clearly express an opinion here) unscientific manner in which educational data is collected and analyzed.  More than once I looked at that third story window and thought that it was appetizing.  For example, one study was attempting to validate the results of a test, and to do that, student grades were used as validation.  That is, if the test scores lined up with the grades, the test was valid.  I hope it doesn’t take too much intuition to see that this is making an enormous assumption:  that the grades themselves are valid (given the school where the testing was taken place, a low performing inner-city school, I could not see that the grades were valid milestones to measure the test with).  Real science does in fact need a certain degree of assumption, but only after those assumptions are shown to agree with reality are they usable assumptions … in education, the assumptions are made without such determination to see if they agree with reality).

It became clear in taking the course that data collection in education is based on a lot of assumptions that are not well founded assumptions.  For example, data in education is often collected only once.  In science the idea of data collected without repetition is problematic.  In education, the concept of repetition is that “you look at many students”, but given the numerous uncontrollable factors that can go into a student’s performance on a test, the students are not tested multiple times to establish a baseline.  It would be like testing an antibiotic on different strains of bacteria, and after seeing that it worked on two species, declaring that the antibiotic worked without repeating the experiment …. then claiming “I tried it once on 2 different species …. that is enough”.

The concept of control is also lost in educational data collection.

The most blatant aspect of educational research is how uncontrolled it is.  In many scientific experiments, especially those looking at cause and effect relationships, it is critical that you are more or less looking at only two variables, and that anything else which might affect the outcome of the experiment is held constant (controlled).  Educational research discusses control, but in fact often doesn’t come close to accounting for a myriad of factors that can effect the outcome of of their tests.  For example, I read a study where a particular teaching technique was tried, and was compared to classrooms where teachers were strictly lecturing.  The study controlled for student population in terms of gender and age.  Completely ignored:  educational level of the students (students in a particular class are often non-randomly grouped because of another class they are taking … such as when you have a lot of band kids in a particular math class), the years of experience for the teacher, the experience with each technique (was the lecturer a poor lecturer?), the time of day (was one class right after lunch compared to 7:30 am or 2:30 pm?).  These are just a few factors that can seriously affect outcomes, and they are generally ignored in educational research.

When you read a news article that makes claims about just about anything in science, you are generally reading an article about an ongoing bit of research that has not yet gone through peer review, and in that sense, you should have a bit of doubt about certain claims.  When you read about educational research;  research that is generally not subject to peer review, repetition, or even the standards of scientific research … you should know to be very skeptical about what you are reading.  It may be true … but it might not.  Flipping a coin is about as good a way as any to see which it is.

One specific example of the educational research two-step:  a few years ago a piece of research came out showing that students who took Algebra II were much, much more likely to pass standardized tests than students who didn’t.  It did not make a difference the grade:  even failing Algebra II meant higher test scores.  Result:  more than 15 states passed a law requiring students to take Algebra II as a graduation requierment.  Many states require three years of math, but requiring a specific level of math be taken was new:  even if you were severely mentally handicapped, and reading at a second grade level:  you were taking Algebra II.  In 2013, as a part of the same piece of legislation that lowered Texas’ mandatory standardized tests from 15-per-year to 5, Algebra II was finally removed as a graduation requirement for students.  I can’t believe I am saying this, but Texas actually got the message:  There is no reason to make all kids take this course.  Yet a single study was enough to send legislators scrambling to force kids to do this.

As a nation, we need to be very cautious about accepting the results of educational research, and even more cautious about allowing that research to guide public policy.  It is not science, and it does not have the track record of success that the physical sciences have assembled.


It is finished …

December 15, 2013

I have a lot of big profound life-changing events in the past three years (heck, the last 7 months).  I had another one at 10:16 this evening.

At 10:16, I clicked “submit” for my final paper in my Supervision class, and thus brought to a close my formal schooling.  This will conclude my second Masters degree.  I have thus decided to adopt the title “Grand Master”, so please be sure to begin addressing me as such in all future correspondence.

I started formal schooling at age 3 … a pre-school class in the basement of a church.  A few months ago, I even found the class photo.  It very much looked 1970s: loud garish colors … one of the teachers even wore bell-bottoms in a non-hipster way.  After we moved, I did another year of pre-school at the local park-district.  My formal schooling continued unabated from 1974 through 1994.  I took four years off before I resumed my schooling, and finished my first masters in 2000.  This last time was a longer wait, but a shorter time span (January of 2013 through now).

Schooling is a measurement of time … in 1974 we thought we were taking the next steps as a nation in space … we had a space station called Skylab.  Nixon resigned that summer.  Charles Lindbergh died.  In a brief memo among users of the primitive ARPANET, someone decided to shorten the word “Internetworking” to just “internet”.  I remember reporting to the University of Illinois in 1989, and being told that we would be the first freshman class to have an “e-mail address”.  No one knew what that meant, and I don’t remember actually seeing e-mail until my last year there.

I recall back in 1995 being sent to a conference by my school to learn about this internet and see how this might change education.  I’m not sure I ever gave a satisfactory answer, and I remember the older teachers thinking this would be a fad.  I’m not sure we have fully plumbed the depths of how this will continue to effect education.  That was 19 years ago, and it seems like a lifetime ago.

The world of today is so vastly different (I’ll contend that people aren’t all that different) … it changes subtly and slowly, and you don’t often notice it until you take a step back and see what has happened.  Things move a heck of a lot faster, and they show no signs of slowing down.  As I was reflecting on this, I recalled the beautiful film The Shawshank Redemption.  Brooks was released from prison, and saw that the world had left him behind.  He didn’t react well to that.  Later in the film, Red too sees that the world is faster and has left him behind, however, he had an alternative plan.  As I said, I think people haven’t changed while the world has … I suspect that a lot of the problems we have are people being unable or unwilling to adjust.  These adjustments can be troublesome.

I am grateful for my education, because a well rounded education can be like a vaccine against being unable to deal with change.  I don’t even like to think about how I would have turned out without studying science and Shakespeare and Seurat and just about everything else I got to study.

I need to keep this in perspective.  I was asked if I was planning  a party, but I replied that this was ultimately just a degree in education, and not really a cause to celebrate too much.

Winter Break starts at the end of the week.  It is going to be a weird one this time.  After a few particulars, I am devoting a lot of time to cleaning my condo (it still looks like a storage bin, and has since late August). Because Scott and Pepper have different schedules with their respective spouses, I will not be doing much of anything on Christmas this year (we are getting together on early January for our family Christmas), and we will have our annual January 1 get together to commemorate dad and now mom.  I had thought about raveling this Winter Break, but I have too much work to do, and have been far too busy to plan anything.

I should close here by saying a hearty “Thank you” to everyone who put up with me being unavailable or putting things off because of my focus on this degree program.  If all goes well, I will never use it … but the way things are going right now in education, one never knows.

Merry Christmas (Happy belated Hanukkah for at least one of you), and a very Blessed New Year to you all and your families (make sure to give the kid sand your spouses and kids a hug from me).