Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 10:14 pm

The Atlanta schools and crimes against children

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 10:14 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Defendants reported to the Fulton County Jail today for booking on charges of racketeering, theft and making false statements. And because I’m deeply immersed in a management course this semester, I guess I have been led inevitably to wonder: Did the test-score scandal now unfolding in the Atlanta Public Schools (and, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution data analysis, likely going on in other large school systems as well) result from public schools trying to perform too much like a business — or not enough?

My sense is that under the No Child Left Behind Act (which was never funded at anywhere near the levels the Bush administration assured Sen. Edward Kennedy it would be; without that assurance, Kennedy and other Democrats would never have supported the act), test scores, which used to be used as only one tool in assessing students’ academic progress, became an actual proxy for learning. Legislators convinced themselves that they were buying learning by buying test scores, and so that’s what they paid for. And the Atlanta Public Schools, at least, decided to supply what its customer had said it wanted.

This was not a victimless crime. In one case, a child who changed schools was found to be unable to read. His counselor eagerly awaited his test scores, assuming they’d be low enough for the child to be given special help catching up. Instead, when the scores arrived, they showed not just scores too high for help, but scores classifying the child as gifted.

Did teachers and administrators break the law to do what they were trying to do? So they stand accused. Did they misuse money for personal gain in the process? So they stand accused. Did they lie to officials in the process? So they stand accused.

Is this different from what happened when nonbank mortgage lenders, security ratings agencies and investment banks blew up the economy in 2008? Only in that in the Atlanta Public Schools case, dozens of people stand accused.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 8:51 pm

For-profit education: The “bugs” are features

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 8:51 pm
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I’m not saying for-profit education can’t benefit students. It probably can, if investors are willing to bake that feature into their business model. But I’m pretty sure that that feature is not baked into any existing model:

By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.

Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States. …

The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.

Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.

Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.

A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

No one could have predicted, right? It was absolutely inconceivable that private, for-profit companies would take tax money and not act in the public interest. It would have been impossible to see that coming. But we want to drug-test people getting unemployment benefits.

“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”

Because that worked out so well and all.

Look, folks, this might be the most important, overarching issue of our time in this country: The IGMFY folks want to steal everything. Everything. And they’re using the power of government to do it. They stole our retirement, they stole our home equity, they’re doing their damnedest to steal our Social Security and now they’re going after the money we spend to educate our children. Enough is never enough with these people, and this crap will keep on until they have taken everything we have or until we bust them in the chops hard enough to make them stop and send them whimpering back into their corners.

And even if we can do that once, we’ll have to watch out forever. Because they will be back. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and that vigilance needs a 360-degree field of fire.

Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:08 pm

Quote of the day, War on Education edition

Notes from the front lines of the war on education, by Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, writing at TruthDig:

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.

It’s interesting to see and hear how many backers of immoral corporate interests use essentially these same concepts, but do so in contexts, such as rejecting the notion that a liberal-arts education remains worthwhile, that indicate that they have fundamentally misunderstood the very concepts they invoke. They get the words but not the music. And they are a clear and present danger to our remaining the kind of country we set out in 1787 to be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:36 pm

Why everyone ought to take a creative-writing course

True story: I’ve written for money for more than 30 years.

Equally true story: In more than 40 years of trying, I’ve never crafted so much as a single page of what I believe to be credible prose fiction. To the extent that I have any gifts, and to the extent that I have been able to hone my craft without breaking either the stone or the blade, my gifts and my craft lie elsewhere.

Nonetheless: If it were practical and affordable, I would drive down to Columbia, shove some ingrate undergrads out of my way and sign up right now for Elise Blackwell’s fiction-writing workshop (depending on your IP address, this may be behind a paywall). I have no idea how good a teacher of fiction writing, per se, she is, but I know for a fact she knows what she’s doing and why it matters:

As a form of world-building, fiction stimulates imagination, makes students ask “why? and “what if?” I’m not naïve enough to argue that writing fiction makes someone a better person—I know far too many misanthropic, narcissistic, besotted, and otherwise atrociously behaved writers to make that case—but the attempt to create original fiction encourages students to imagine in detail what it might be like to live another life. This form of role-taking can foster their capacity to engage other people with imagination, openness, and empathy.

Writing workshops also give lessons in group dynamics, self-control, delivering and receiving well-intended criticism, and building an atmosphere in which good work happens painlessly. Due to the relatively small class size and fact that the students themselves produce the texts under discussion, the students have one of their most intimate and interactive college experiences. It’s not just that the professor knows their names but that they know each other’s names—and much more. When students with divergent backgrounds and sensibilities respond to each other with generosity and intelligence, much is learned not just about fiction but about living well in a world populated by other people. (Potential employers take note: Students in workshops report a sense of responsibility to the group to show up prepared and meet their deadlines.)

Perhaps most valuable, if hardest to pin down, is this: Writing and discussing literary fiction can shake loose the conviction that life operates by clichés and that human behavior follows simple psychological formulas. Milan Kundera has argued that the novel is the art form best able to depict ambiguity and that its spirit of inquiry is its great value. The scholarly study of literature teaches ambiguity, too, and well, but writing students tend to engage with their own work and the unpublished work of their peers more personally and with a great sense of contingency. When I hear a student in workshop say, “But that’s not what I would do in that character’s situation,” it always means the student’s critical vocabulary needs sharpening and it often means the story up in workshop has an implausible plot or unconvincing characterization. But sometimes it also signals a nascent understanding of human difference and complexity.

When I hear a student point out where another’s overextended metaphor stumbles, I hear someone discovering that language can mislead. When another says, “So she got the guy, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story what comes next?,” I hear a student realize that  marriage is about more than wedding planning. And when I hear a student who is asked whether his narrator is “bad” or “good” answer “both,” I recognize an increased tolerance for answers that aren’t easy and a real effort to understand the human condition.

I’ve recently blogged, and engaged in some online discussion elsewhere, about the value of a liberal-arts education. That value? This stuff right here.

Monday, May 9, 2011 6:31 pm

“Also, avoid radium. Turns out it kills you.”

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 6:31 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Zombie Marie Curie weighs in on women in science. Teach your children, yo.

Friday, May 6, 2011 7:56 pm

Quote of the day, value-of-a-liberal-arts-education edition, with elaboration at no extra charge.

… from commenter “Jes St. Lawrence” on the Inside Higher Education website, where the value of a liberal-arts education is being hotly debated in light of movements in some states to tie college/university funding to job placement:

Yes, the job market is changing rapidly, so what we really need are more narrowly-educated people. Brilliant.

The Liberal Arts have always been a tough sell because the name of the degree isn’t the name of the job. Some people can’t get past that, and by “some people” I really mean “stupid people.” Recognizing the skill set involved in a major called “history,” for instance, and connecting that skill set to appropriate jobs, is apparently too complicated to explain to a governor.

Amen. When I was starting to look at colleges almsot 35 years ago, my parents told me that no matter what I thought I wanted to do when I got out of college (at the time, be a DJ), I ought to get a good liberal-arts education because, although it might not prepare me for that job, it would prepare me for a career.

And so it has. The job I wanted, I actually got well before I finished my bachelor’s; indeed, that DJing helped pay my educational bills and kept my student-loan levels manageable. But I’ve had, by my count, five distinct careers in the 29 years since I graduated from college, including one in a field that arguably didn’t exist for almost 15 years after I graduated, and that liberal-arts background has been valuable — no, invaluable — in all of them.

In my current line of work, I tell kids that a rigorous liberal-arts education will prepare them not only for the jobs they want to do but for the jobs they will want that don’t even exist yet. And I know it’s true, because that is exactly what my liberal-arts education has done for me.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss how well our colleges and universities are doing their jobs, and for public institutions to have their funding tied to that outcome. But for that process to achieve its desired outcome, we need define those jobs better. What do we expect our colleges and universities to do for their students — to prepare them for a job? A career? Citizenship? What are the criteria for assessing progress toward those goals?

And before we can do that, we need to decide what we want our kids to be — not do, be — when they grow up.

Here’s my vote:

Lots of people can, to use one example of a currently marketable skill, build, maintain and query databases. I want American kids to be able to do most of the following, find someone who can do the parts they don’t know how to do, and to understand the need for all of it: Query a database. Know which databases to query. Know where and how to get them. Know what kind of queries will tell them whether the college president, or the corporation president, or the U.S. president, is a criminal, and how to prove it. Know why it’s important to prosecute him if he is a criminal, and what bad things are likely to happen if he is a criminal and we don’t prosecute him. And be able to explain to someone else why all of this is important.

I want citizens in full, because the kind of country we chose in 1787 to be demands that we have them. And if we want nice things, we need to pay for them.

Now we just need to figure out how best to get them. Let’s get started.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 9:13 pm

Shorter Eryn Green: “Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!”

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea — Lex @ 9:13 pm
Tags: , , ,

Slightly longer Eryn Green: “We are not a culture inclined to the confrontation of our own delusions.” (See also my previous post.)

Random observation: Some of the posts on Esquire’s political blog — and I guess I knew Esquire had a political blog, but I only tonight looked at it for the first time — are quite good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 9:29 pm

Persecution

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of this story is that the N&O had to shut down comments on it because they became so abusive:

A Wake County middle-school teacher may be fired after she and her friends made caustic remarks on a Facebook page about her students, the South and Christianity.

Melissa Hussain, an eighth-grade science teacher at West Lake Middle School in southern Wake County, was suspended with pay Friday while investigators review her case, according to Greg Thomas, a Wake schools spokesman. The suspension came after some of Hussain’s students and their parents objected to comments on her Facebook page, many revolving around her interaction with Christian students.

Hussain wrote on the social-networking site that it was a “hate crime” that students anonymously left a Bible on her desk, and she told how she “was able to shame her kids” over the incident. Her Facebook page included comments from friends about “ignorant southern rednecks,” and one commenter suggested Hussain retaliate by bringing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster to class with a swastika drawn on the NASCAR driver’s forehead.

“I don’t defend what the kids were doing,” said Murray Inman, a parent of one of Hussain’s students. “I just couldn’t imagine an educator, or a group of educators, engaging in this kind of dialogue about kids.”

Hussain did not return calls and e-mail messages Monday.

The Wake district doesn’t have a policy on the use of social networking sites, Thomas said. But the district, North Carolina’s largest, does have a code of ethics for employees that the school spokesman says applies to social networking. The code says employees’ conduct “should be such as to protect both the person’s integrity and/or reputation and that of the school system.”

Teachers across the nation have been suspended or fired because of questionable material posted on their Facebook pages and other online social networking sites.

Other thoughts:

  • The first rule of blogging about the day job is don’t blog about the day job. What the teacher did was stupid.
  • The second rule of blogging about the day job is don’t blog about the day job (unless blogging about the day job is part of your day job).
  • Commenters on one’s Web site/Facebook page can and will say all manner of stupid, objectionable stuff. While I would argue that one may have a moral obligation in some cases to take down such comments, I wouldn’t argue that one has any legal (or regulatory) obligation to, and I sure wouldn’t fire someone for comments someone else posted. In other words, whatever was posted in response to the teacher’s postings ought to be irrelevant for purposes of this discussion.
  • One irony about this case is that under current First Amendment law, government employees and non-government employees have roughly equivalent levels of freedom and risk with regard to speech about their respective employers, but the practical result is that government employees have less protection under the First Amendment itself, which protects citizens from government interference in their speech, than do private-sector employees.
  • The district’s employee code of conduct says employee conduct “should be such as to protect both the person’s integrity and/or reputation and that of the school system.” To the extent that this phrase even has any meaning, that meaning is BS. The school system cares only about its own reputation, and it cares about the employee’s reputation only to the extent that it is perceived to reflect upon the school system’s reputation. Moreover, who decides what actions do or do not damage one’s integrity or reputation? If, say, a war criminal like Dick Cheney claimed that I had a lousy reputation and no integrity for criticizing him, I would interpret that as proof that I had an outstanding reputation and a great deal of integrity, and so would many other people. I am not defending the teacher’s postings in this particular case; I’m saying that the code of conduct appears to be meaningless and therefore useless and irrelevant to this case.
  • If Murray Inman can’t imagine teachers “engaging in this kind of dialogue about kids,” then Murray Inman isn’t very imaginative. Everybody in every line of work imaginable says disparaging things about his/her customers from time to time, and teachers are not immune. If Inman meant he couldn’t imagine anyone would do so publicly, well, all I can say is that no level of human stupidity should be unimaginable; as a species, our capacity for Teh Stoopid approaches infinity. Some stupidity is fatal, and evolution is our friend in this regard, but it’s a long, slow process.
  • What the teacher did was stupid. It bears repeating.
  • What the children did was both stupid and cruel, which is worse than stupid alone even allowing for the fact that we’re talking about kids. These are middle-schoolers, not kindergartners.
  • What the parents who are defending their kids’ behavior and arguing for punishment for the teacher are doing is less teaching the teacher that actions have consequences, although it is that, than teaching their children that stupid, cruel behavior can and should be rewarded.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 11:04 pm

Hooper v. No Child Left Behind, cont.

Among the graded papers Hooper brought home today was one in which he was asked to infer and provide the meaning of a bolded word in a sentence by examining the context. The sentence was: “I pleaded with my dad for a $2 raise in my allowance.”

Hooper hadn’t the first idea what “pleaded” meant, but he offered this substitute: “did chores.” Which I thought was a pretty good guess for an 8-year-old, particularly given how things work in this house. The teacher, not so much.

The sentence also conjured in my mind this short courtroom scenario:

“How do the defendants plead?”

“Dad and I plead guilty, Your Honor.”

“The plea is accepted, and I hereby sentence you to a $2 raise in your allowance.”

Maybe it’s stuff like this that makes Michael Barone so hostile to manipulating words.

Friday, September 25, 2009 10:45 pm

How to Fail With Dignity

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 10:45 pm
Tags: ,

(Original author unknown; passed on to me via my mother from a guy she taught in high school in the late 1950s.)

I think it’s entirely possible that I’m having WAY too much fun blogging this month.

I’m not sure how he and standardized testing are going to get along

Filed under: Hooper — Lex @ 6:05 am
Tags: , ,

Two episodes during Hooper’s reading-comprehension homework this week have led me to think he might not be the poster child for No Child Left Behind-approved standardized testing.

In the first episode, he read a segment about how the ancient Norse celebrated some festival or other having to do with elves they believed lived in the forest. The question, intended to make the reader regurgitate a sentence from the selection, read, “If you were [a member of this group], how would you celebrate [this festival]?” Hooper wrote, “I would thank God and dance with the elves.” The teacher marked it wrong, and I felt compelled to write on the paper, “Well, it DID ask how HE would celebrate it … “

In the second episode, he read a passage in the form of a letter ostensibly written from a girl at summer camp to her parents back home, listing the things she had done. The question was: What was the author’s purpose? Hooper wrote, “To tech [sic] you how to undrstand [sic] what you read.”

I said, “Buddy, that means the author of this section, the girl. What is HER purpose?” And he said, “NO, Daddy, she’s not the REAL author. The REAL author wrote the page. The REAL author is trying to teach you about reading.”

So at the age of 8, he’s already going meta on me. And unfortunately for Hooper’s teacher, I’m finding it harder to argue with him about this than she probably cares for.

Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:02 pm

Predicting job success when it counts most

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 3:02 pm
Tags: , ,

How do you tell when someone you’re thinking about hiring will succeed in the job you’re hiring for? In my experience hiring reporters for the paper, past success — as measured not necessarily by awards and prizes but by the caliber of work done (including but not limited to the four or five clips we typically ask for from applicants) and the creativity and leadership shown in past problem-solving — usually is a very good indicator. And even that package of attributes is not totally reliable.

And even in my line of work, a lot is riding on the outcome. Recruiting and hiring for an open reporting job costs a significant percentage of what we pay in salary and benefits in a year. In some other lines of work, it can run 40 to 50 percent of the position’s annual compensation.

So imagine the kind of money riding on the choice of a quarterback for an NFL team. And then imagine the nonfinancial but infinitely more important issues riding on the choice of a teacher.

Malcolm “Freakonomics” Gladwell didn’t just imagine it, he went looking for the recruiting answer in both lines of work. And in those lines of work, he found, predicting success is a whole lot more of a crap shoot than in my line of work:

[Pro scout Dan] Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary [quarterback] draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Because the game of pro football is so much faster than the college game, particularly on defense, it’s much harder for quarterbacks, even the best in the college game, to succeed in the pros. Part of that difference, he observes, has to do with the offensive strategies college teams typically employ as opposed to the pro teams. But those strategy differences are driven by the speed of pro defenders — even the big, heavy ones. And you don’t have to be a football expert, or even to watch a lot of games, to see the difference.

In teaching, where the stakes are immeasurably higher even if the money involved doesn’t suggest so, there’s good news for parents, teachers and students: We’re learning a lot more about what is likely to make a successful teacher than pro scouts are about what makes a college QB likely to succeed in the NFL, as this examination of a recording of a teacher in action shows:

Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which [Bob] Pianta [the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education] said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that [previously examined] subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.

Writ large, the inability to predict success accurately during the hiring process is probably a significant drag on the economy. But if you’re a parent, you probably care a lot less about that than about how well one or a handful of teachers can help your kids learn (and learn how to learn). And if we’re not expert, at least we’re getting better.

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