August 7, 2010


As of tonight, the blog has moved over to a Wordpress installation. Go back to for newer entries.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 11:40 PM (Permalink) |

August 6, 2010

Moving over to Wordpress... theme ideas?

I've decided to shift my blog onto a Wordpress platform. That'll happen in the next few days (weekend project?), but if you're a Wordpress afficionado and have a suggestion for a theme, give a holler in comments.

And speaking of comments, one reason for the switch is the ability to get my comments off the JS-Kit platform, which I've come to hate. I don't know if I'll be able to attach the comments that currently exist: they may be lost. But I'll do what I can.

(The existing entries will remain where they are in the /mt/ directory of my website, so I'll just redirect the main page to the new WP installation.)

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Posted in Random comments at 11:12 AM (Permalink) |

August 5, 2010

"Overcaffeinated value-added enthusiasts" and the public

I've developed a fondness for Rick Hess's phrasing. Whether or not I agree with him, I have to smile when he describes advocates of value-added or bust as "overcaffeinated value-added enthusiasts." This is in the context of the back-and-forth over value-added measures in the District of Columbia teacher filings (see blog entries by Aaron Pallas, Hess, Pallas, and Hess, from which I drew the overcaffeinated term). What we're seeing here is the beginnings of a public dialog over the technical details of value-added measures, whether in DC or here in Florida (see today's St. Pete Times story on two audit reports over Florida measures, plus articles from Jacksonville and Miami over continuing questions).

Continue reading ""Overcaffeinated value-added enthusiasts" and the public"

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Posted in Education policy at 10:54 AM (Permalink) |

August 3, 2010

Anthologize: a blog-to-book tool

Thanks to the folks at George Mason U.'s Center for History and New Media, who put on the One Week | One Tool "digital humanities barn raising" last week, and the dozen digital-humanities coders and other scholars who worked hard last week, the world now has Anthologize, a Wordpress 3.0 plug-in that will allow someone to pull together blog entries for a book or book-like project.

This entry will discuss both the tool and the process I watched from afar (at least through the #oneweek Twitter entries).

Continue reading "Anthologize: a blog-to-book tool"

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Posted in The academic life at 3:17 PM (Permalink) |

July 30, 2010

You're telling me I can't teach everything I know in a semester?

I've been revising my plans for the upcoming fall undergrad history of ed class based on a bunch of things that have been percolating in my head this summer, including the need to recertify it for my university's gen-ed program (or at least apply for recertification), the Utah Tuning project in history and what we expect from undergraduates, some thoughts about formative assessment in history, and other items. As a result, I've tinkered with the major writing assignments and the exam item structures, linked some of the weekly work more tightly to a major writing assignment, changed how I address attendance, bit the bullet on students and laptops, and then realized I have 28 class sessions (T-Th class, so Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving are gone).

Hoo, boy, that's a limit. So I decided how I'd handle some of the longer primary-source documents, tied the shorter ones I wanted everyone to read to a calendar, and looked again. Still "hoo, boy." So I created a table to sketch out each day of class, the immediate upcoming assignments (i.e., how students might look at the near-term future for a class), and the theme of readings. In went the obvious topics I address every semester, at the logical locations. This morning, I did the rest: figure out in more detail than I ever have before what I could do with each class session--the stuff that will take up a whole class, the stuff that won't and what combinations would work where, the topics where simulation/debriefing would make sense, topics for "fishbowl" discussions, topics for certain types of structured activities, and one week where I'm not sure what I'm doing in detail but I know how to set up the intellectual puzzle.

Apart from that week in mid-October where I'm a bit at loose ends, there are still plans I need to make in the ordinary course of things: how to guide students for certain activities I haven't tried before, or haven't tried with a particular topic, how to set days up (with a motivating issue/puzzle, by foreshadowing something earlier in the semester, by tying it into a major course theme, by tying it to a major assignment, etc.), and so forth. Nonetheless, this is fairly detailed. I won't follow this plan to the letter, guaranteed, but this has been a very useful planning activity, in part to guarantee that as many loose ends are tied up as possible by the end of the semester. One of the conclusions I drew from reading the draft and final state social-studies standards a few years ago is that I share the "topic-a-week" symptom of my fellow historians: I'm competent at addressing the topic du jour, and I can tie things together impromptu when it's appropriate and obvious. But taking an intro/survey course and making those connections explicit, so that the intellectual core of a class is clear and the work for students is as easy as possible (and by this I mean easy to accomplish, not easy by lowering the bar)? I needed to carve out a few days and be selfish for that.

The reward for students should be a better course. The immediate reward for me: in addition to generally liking teaching this class, I've also got something very specific to be excited about for every class.

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Posted in Teaching at 4:26 PM (Permalink) |

"Pushback" week

It's almost as if Nick Anderson and Ruth Marcus worked at the same paper, because "pushback" appears to be the talking point of the week on education policy. Yesterday, Anderson reports, President Obama "pushed back" against some civil-rights groups' criticism of Race to the Top, and Marcus applauded him when the president "took the opportunity to push back." Oh, wait: they do work for the same paper. Well, at least we know that at the Post, some colleagues talk with each other, unlike the one who fired Dave Weigel last month and the other who hired him this month. Then again, the fools at the Post, Inc., appear to be management and bull-male columnists, not rank-and-file reporters.

There are four major stories that dominated national education news in the past week, at least as far as I was paying attention:

  • The drama surrounding the civil-rights group report and non-presser and the two major education speeches this week by Duncan and Obama.
  • Continuing problems in trying to attach state aid to federal bills (after the emergency war appropriations, there's the inability to break the small business aid bill, which had jobs money attached).
  • Michelle Rhee's plans to fire several hundred teachers based on the IMPACT evaluation system.
  • The New York state testing cut-score embarrassment.

Pushback was used in the Post's coverage of the first story, but I think you can say it's a theme for the week. House and Senate members are now in almost open warfare over education jobs riders to bills (possibly extending to the FMAP aid to states on Medicaid, stuck in Congress since early this year). There is debate over how many teachers Rhee is firing and how bad a system IMPACT is. And Joel Klein is twisting himself in knots trying to explain how the mistakes in proficiency rates that he used to puff up his record really isn't a problem and, uh, Lady Gaga shows how good the New York City schools are. I'm half-expecting him to talk about New York's smog swampy beauty, the East River though, doesn't it split the Park Slope from the Palisades? Someone get Bill Shatner to read Joel Klein's ratiocinations!

Some things behind the headlines that seem obvious to this historian:

  • Part of the loose (and fragile) coalition criticizing the Obama administration's turnaround policy stems from unions concerned about due process for employers and community-based organizations worried about the closure of public facilities in poor neighborhoods and the role of public employment in providing a leg up to the middle class. That's not new, and it's complicated. The civil-rights group interest in public employees can be salutary (my understanding is that Black teachers were a solid core of local NAACP chapters in the mid-20th century) but sometimes at cross-purposes with other interests: I heard informally from some observers that part of the pushback against the decentralization of Chicago schools in the late 1980s was the role of the central school bureaucracy in providing a leg up into the middle class, and the reduction of the central bureaucracy threatened those positions. Today, the invisible risk is the position of minority teachers' aides and other non-certified employees. My guess is that they've been disproportionately affected by school-system layoffs that try to hold onto classroom teachers.
  • I still don't have a clue how much test scores played a role in the firing of DC teachers, and my guess is that you don't, either. IMPACT included test scores, but you'd have to look at the details of individual employees to know whether an individual firing is a case where all the indicators (including the required five observations) pointed in the direction of an incompetent teacher or whether test scores trumped supervisory judgment for any. Normally employers have broad discretion in evaluation systems, but the failure to bargain IMPACT may put the DCPS in some jeopardy of an unfair labor practice finding. (That depends on both the structure of DC collective-bargaining law and the details of what happened with IMPACT and WTU's requests for bargaining.) Double jeopardy for Michelle Rhee: the inclusion of the pseudoscientific "learning styles" in the IMPACT observation system. My guess is that the AFT (the national affiliate for the Washington Teachers Union) can quickly get their hands on well-known psychologists to rip that to shreds for any teachers where the tipping factor was a supervisor's judgment that they didn't cater to student "learning styles."
  • Joel Klein's dancing around the cut-score fiasco in New York illustrates once again that the performative setting of cut scores is often a result of the tension between bravado and "reform testosterone," on the one hand, and politically acceptable failure and the political need to game the system, on the other. We'd like to think that cut-score setting is arbitrary in the sense of arbitration, but it's too often arbitrary in the sense of caprice and politics. Two years ago, Jennifer Jennings and I wrote a commentary for Teachers College Record ($$ required) about the dangers of trusting threshold-based proficiency percentages as opposed to central tendencies such as means and medians, with New York City as the object lesson. She's too mature for this, but I have no such reticence with the last week's revelations: nyah nyah nyah, we told you so. And from those of us who warned years ago about the fragility of growth/value-added statistics? same message.

Bottom line here for administrators: test-based measures should only be used as a case to fire teachers or administrators where they strongly point in the same direction as observation-based evaluation instruments that are developed with some common sense, with unions and excising crap such as learning styles.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:58 AM (Permalink) |

July 26, 2010

"Opportunity to learn" revived?

As Ed Week's Michele McNeil is reporting, a coalition of civil rights groups has issued a white paper today through a (new?) organization, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Last night, Diane Ravitch was tweeting her reading of the paper as a gentle but firm rebuke of the Obama administration's approach to accountability. To some extent, I think she's right: the 17-page report briefly referred to the inappropriateness of judging schools and teachers primarily by test scores, but that was a brief reference.

For the longer and more committed passage criticizing policy prejudices towards school closures, I read the argument differently, because of the other arguments in the paper in favor of more money for early childhood education, wraparound care programs, and NCLB's public-school choice provisions and against budget cuts. And then there's the name that's a throwback to early-90s arguments in favor of opportunity to learn standards. To me, that all looks like a straightforward community-civil-rights approach more than an argument against high-stakes testing. In that context, the argument against school closure is an argument against withdrawing resources from a community institution that may be one of the few public facilities in a poor neighborhood.

That also fits with how the coalition's paper addresses Race to the Top: don't withhold resources or programs from poor children. Instead, combine formula grants with conditions. Notably, the paper states that a limited competition is acceptable, suggesting that the constituent organizations would not directly oppose Race to the Top as long as its structure does not permanently replace formula grants in ESEA. I know what others are going to say in response: we have plenty of conditions on federal funding, but the federal government almost never penalizes states for falling down on the job.

To a great extent, the politics of and posturing around education reform are all depressing to me: education reform policies are dwarfed by the state of the country's economy right now. In fact, that's a crucial part of the argument of the Broader, Bolder Approach. So you should maybe focus your efforts on the national economy right now? Or if not the national economy, maybe focusing on states, where the real action is going to happen over the next few years?

I think the coalition is moving about 15 months too late, if the key movers intended to shape federal policy. It's very likely that there won't be more RTTT, there won't be ESEA reauthorization, and there won't be a heck of a lot of things that should be happening from the perspectives of a variety of people on different sides of this debate. I wish I had been been wrong a month ago, but it looks more and more that I was right in predicting that David Obey's gambit last month was a stupid gamble instead. I was wrong in guessing that Obey would be frustrating George Miller, but I think I'm right on the general picture. To be clear, it's far from the biggest SNAFU of the Congressional session: that's the too-small size of the stimulus in early 2009 and the failure of the White House to nominate (or recess-appoint) enough Fed governors. But I'm still depressed, and puzzled by the strategic choices.

(One final puzzle is the group's website. The contact information is for the Schott Foundation in Massachusetts, which is consistent with the few blog entries (written by Michael Holzman) and the press-kit stuff. But there are no staff members or individuals listed on the website, just organizations. The whois entry for shows that the domain name has existed since sometime in 2009, but it's registered through a proxy, and the Internet Archive has no history of the website (blocked at the site). This is all perfectly legal, but it's odd.)  

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Posted in Education policy at 3:15 PM (Permalink) |