November 30, 2007

More pure as the driven up the wall chart rankings

In commenting on the new U.S. News & World Report "best high schools" list  and comparing it with Newsweek's (aka Jay Mathews's), Alexander Russo says,

The Newsweek list is more pure, focusing on the rigorous and more uniform Advanced Placement courses and tests.

Never mind that AP courses evidently aren't as uniform as one might suppose. More pure? Didn't Secretary Spellings say something about 99.99% pure? Reminds me of the More Pure 80s collection (does anyone still listen to Tears for Fears or Culture Club?). Kudos and kumquats:

  • Kudos to U.S. News for trying to identify schools who did better than average for their students (overall and for historically disadvantaged groups).
  • Kudos to the newsmagazine staff for trying to figure out a better way to look at AP participation/achievement.
  • Kumquats to U.S. News for scaling the AP results to the 12th grade class rather than the enrollment; their measure still rewards schools with lower graduation rates.
  • One kumquat seed to Robert Morse for using the word methodology to describe the formula's method. (It's a minor gripe, but he's lucky that there's no 70s-hits collection with a title like Methodoxology. Hmm: that sounds like the title of a Thelonius Monk composition.)

I like kumquats, unless they're being thrown at me.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:40 PM (Permalink) |

November 29, 2007

Wherein we excoriate Everyday Mathematics and also demonstrate the plausibility of letting secondary-grade students use calculators

As Joanne Jacobs notes (hat tip), some of the questions on the NYC-used and Texas-rejected Everyday Mathematics series are just absurd: if math were a color, a food, a type of weather, or a political party, ... oh, wait. We have a mashup: if your political party were a color, what would it be?

I've never seen any of that particular series, but it was mentioned in a comment thread on an entry about communicating math standards (a post from two months ago). I wonder if the most vociferous ideological complaints about Everyday Mathematics are by folks who would disagree with letting kids use calculators on tests. I'm very sympathetic to that argument from one perspective: children should learn fluency in tasks such as multiplication. (We have a copy of Bill Handley's Speed Mathematics book in our house, and I absorbed a few ideas from Jakow Trachtenberg's book when I was a child.)

But at the same time, not having calculators leaves multiple-choice problems vulnerable to testwise strategies.  I don't know which states have exams with two- and three-digit multiplication problems, but the following is a fairly easy example of finding the right answer without doing the problem.

Consider an extreme example: 47,583 x 97,621. We know three facts about the answer:

  • The last digit of the answer is 3. (Multiply last digits.)
  • The answer is a multiple of 9. (Cast out nines from the two numbers.)
  • The first digit of the answer is 4. (Estimating 4.7*0.97.)

With that information, I probably don't have to perform any calculations other than addition and single-digit multiplication (1*3, 0*7, and 4*1). 

I wrote all of the above before calling up my computer's calculator. For those who are curious, the answer is 4,645,100,043. That happens to be 9*516,122,227, no remainder.

Are these really the type of skills such tests are designed to measure? I'm not saying the skills are bad to have: estimation is very important, and casting out nines is an excellent check on answers. But there is a rather romantic notion floating around that somehow, if we buckle down and remove calculators from the hands of kids in all situations, men will be real men, women will be real women, and international math and science scores will be real international math and science scores (apologies to Douglas Adams fans).

Somewhere between Everyday Mathematics and macho attitudes towards calculators, there must be sanity.

Addendum/explanation of why casting out nines works as a check on multiplication. Let X=9x+a and Y=9y+b, where |x| and |y| are the largest possible for a and b to be integers as well. (I.e., a and b are the ordinary remainders when you divide X and Y by 9.)

X*Y = (9x + a)*(9y + b) = 81xy +9(ay+bx) + ab. Since the first two terms are multiples of 9, the remainder of X*Y when divided by 9 will be ab. This works with any chosen number to divide everything by, but since we normally work in base 10, 9 is the easiest numeral to work with. (If your species generally had Z fingers and therefore used a base Z system, you'd probably be casting out Z-1's.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:05 PM (Permalink) |

November 28, 2007

Preparing for the Job Register

In honor of the American Historical Association blog's entry on the AHA annual meeting job register, a list of activities that graduate students can use to prepare for the cavernous hall of intimate cabaret-style opportunities to spend a few minutes chatting with search committee members who haven't told you that they have a raging headache from the environment, even after taking two naproxen tablets. (They took the naproxen. They'd offer to share with you, but then they'd have to offer one to each interviewee in fairness, and it wasn't on the search plan or in the dean's search budget. But if you mention it, they'll probably put it in the budget next year as a requirement for chairing another search.)

Note: Likely fictional items are marked with an asterisk.

  1. Go to the store and spend a good part of your monthly T.A. stipend on the following: a bottle each of pinot noir and white zinfandel, two pounds of dark-chocolate M&Ms, a pint each of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, a small corkboard, and a bag of hors d'oeuvres skewers.
  2. Apply to 64.7 positions, most of which are in your field and will each attract approximately 423 applicants, except for the position in Fairbanks, Alaska, which will only attract 279. (That position in Hawaii-Manoa has 1493 applicants, including one whose advisor raves about his sterling dissertation on the use of farm-machine imagery in Charlotte Forten Grimké's journals(*).)
  3. Drink half of the white zinfandel.
  4. Beg your advisor and other recommenders to write individualized letters for each position.
  5. Each half of one of the pound bags of M&Ms.
  6. Give up and just ask them to send form letters to your university's career center.
  7. Drink half of the pinot noir.
  8. Realize that the career center caters to undergraduates and slip a $20 bill to the work-study student so that she'll get your letters out that day, two weeks after your request.
  9. Eat half of the Cherry Garcia.
  10. Get told to read Ph.D. in History by a fellow grad student (the one who's been a Russian specialist for 10 years, though you suspect he's really a specialist in staying in grad school) and insist on a bottle of Sam Adams before reading the entry.
  11. Read the entry.
  12. Drink the Sam Adams.
  13. Pay the $65 annual-meeting registration fee instead of buying a few books that you really should read for the fifth chapter of your dissertation.
  14. Read Matt Groening's School is Hell and then the latest Ph.D. Comics.
  15. Eat that half a bar of halvah that you've been saving for a grading frenzy(*). (In truth, you need to go out and buy the halvah, because you finished it off after your college's board of trustees announced that the president's salary is over half a million a year, the football coach's salary is $4.5 million, and your stipend is... your stipend.)
  16. Purchase an airline ticket, because you're not in the region AHA is meeting in and you need the advantage of purchasing early. You don't know if you'll have interviews at the meeting, nor when the days might be, so you have to make reservations to allow you to be there for the entire convention.
  17. Find three other graduate students to share the $200 room for quads, because you don't have friends or family in the area to crash with. You'll all be staying for four nights because you don't know when any interviews might be, so it's as expensive as a solo room for one night.
  18. Buy earplugs because you know one of your meeting roommates snores.
  19. Discover plagiarism in student paper.
  20. Finish off that first pound of M&Ms.
  21. One of your promised roommates gets depressed about the job market and cancels.
  22. Make an "I hate the job register" dartboard with the corkboard, with hors d'oeuvres skewers as darts. The first skewer goes in the bullseye.
  23. Hey! Your apartment roommate ate the Chunky Monkey. Damn.
  24. Bullseye!
  25. Finish off the pinot noir.
  26. Go to the store to get another Chunky Monkey, a gallon of plain vanilla ice cream (for roommate, who will be going to the MLA), and a bottle of merlot. Some food goes with that, too, but you're focused on the job register requirements.
  27. Get a phone call from a search committee member. Score! Who cares if it's on a directional public university campus in the Northern plains with an average high in January of -20 (Celsius) and where the teaching load would be 3/4. It's a job possibility!
  28. Realize that it would be cheaper if you and the search committee who called you would just drive a day and a half towards each other and meet in a diner, than if you both flew out to the AHA annual meeting.
  29. Drink half the merlot bottle.
  30. Your sister calls and asks if you're free on the weekend of the AHA meeting. It's your niece's first communion.
  31. Bullseye!
  32. Go to your department's interview practice session. Get asked questions by your grad-school colleagues about Hayden White. Get asked questions by the faculty about your dissertation. Realize no one asked about teaching, though you're likely to be asked that at the job register.(*) (Oh, you will be asked about teaching at the job register. But if you're helping out at practice interviews, you'll ask questions on teaching as well, right?)
  33. Drink the rest of the white zinfandel.
  34. Check the price of airport transportation, which you forgot to do a few months ago. There go another few books or meals.
  35. Bullseye!
  36. Finish off the Cherry Garcia.
  37. Get calls from three other search committees, but the Perfect Job search committee never called. But hey! Four interviews are better than none.
  38. Your interviews are scheduled on Saturday. No, it's not possible for you to change airline reservations without spending an extra $350.
  39. Go to campus colloquium, "Fractal Nantotechnology in 19th century French Guiana Portraiture"(*). You are there for the most part because you need to eat some cheese cubes and drink nondescript white wine.
  40. Your mom asks if you could visit for the weekend, because your stepfather's not feeling well and she could use the company.
  41. Bullseye!
  42. Go read Invisible Adjunct's blog archive.
  43. Bullseye!
  44. Read Decline of the Tenure Track article in the N.Y. Times.
  45. Bullseye!
  46. Read Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie's plea for people to reduce the carbon footprint of academe. Realize you're spending close to a thousand dollars you don't have to pollute the environment and attend a conference you don't like to meet for a little over an hour altogether with people who don't want to be there for the possibility of taking a job that's not really like the job you're preparing for in grad school.
  47. Eat the Chunky Monkey and the other pound of M&Ms, and finish off the merlot.
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Posted in Higher education at 7:57 AM (Permalink) |

November 27, 2007

E-book versions of "Schools as Imagined Communities"

You can buy Schools as Imagined Communities as a Kindle e-book or through, with royalties going to non-profit organizations.

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Posted in History at 1:58 AM (Permalink) |

November 26, 2007

Florida DOE omits Patricia Polacco from holiday reading list

Missing from the state's list of Recommended Holiday Reading: Patricia Polacco, whose The Trees of the Dancing Goats and Christmas Tapestry are her typical tear-jerking, wonderfully-illustrated fare. The Trees of the Dancing Goats is also available through the Florida Braille and Talking Books Libraries.

I'm sure this is unrelated to the controversy over Polacco's "disinvitation" from the 2006 International Reading Association conference by McGraw-Hill because she opposes No Child Left Behind. Or to the fact that the books are explicitly ecumenical. But it's a shame nonetheless.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:42 AM (Permalink) |

Palm Beach Community College Trustees Prefer Pets

Absolutely astounding: Palm Beach Community College recently voted against extending benefits to domestic partners but are allowing a discount program for ... pet health care.

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Posted in Higher education at 8:30 AM (Permalink) |

Eduwonkette on NAEP Exemptions

It's not part of her theme this week (exploring Fordham and Ogbu's "acting white" hypothesis), but her post on Lies, Damned Lies, and NAEP Exemptions is still required reading, following up on Elizabeth Green's story in the New York Sun on the large number of exemptions in New York City's urban NAEP testing.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:26 AM (Permalink) |

November 25, 2007

Jaimita Haskell, five years later

Half a decade ago, Jaimita ("Jay") Haskell was upset about being tracked into the general curriculum at her Staten Island high school. She crafted a radio piece criticizing tracking, and in part because of her speaking up for herself, she was finally admitted into the honors classes she wanted. As she said towards the end of the piece, "This story is for those who don't have a mic or a big mouth... so scream, bring out your parents, be noticeable." Today, she's a student in Queens College, and you can read a follow-up interview from earlier this month on YouthCast.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:07 PM (Permalink) |

Guess who has poor information design?

Is there anyone else who is astounded that even after a redesign, the Educause Connect website is almost impossible for newcomers to navigate? I'm all for accommodating power users, but not on the face you show to the world, where you hope people will return after a first use!

Small bits: gratitude through use and reciprocity

If you're the parent or teacher of an adolescent, or an adolescent looking for concrete study skills, the best way to thank the folks who put together James Madison University's Learning Toolbox is to use it. It contains a concise description of various study skills.

A different way to be thankful for opportunities is to reciprocate. I have absolutely no experience with the self-organizing conferences known as BarCamps, but an educational variant has sprung up, and I think the next one is EduCampNYC, December 1 in Teachers College. If you're attending, please tell us how it goes/went!

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Posted in Random comments at 11:20 AM (Permalink) |

November 24, 2007

Zotero - love at first byte

This tells you something about my semester: it's taken until this weekend for me to try out Zotero, essentially an open-source citation database system. (I do wait until others on the bleeding edge show a new tool is useful, but I try to be in the second wave of adopters of useful tools.) It's free, thanks to the Center for History and New Media, and while I have been frustrated with the expensive software that my university purchased a site license to some years ago, at first blush Zotero is elegant and workable, including things such as snagging citations from Worldcat and JSTOR and my own university's library catalog.

But it took me about 5 minutes to set up, 5 minutes to play with it, and four minutes to use it to send a citation to students this afternoon. There is nothing in Zotero that you couldn't do manually with about 10 times the effort. But in the same way that learning a word processor's style system eventually pays off in hours, days, and weeks of time saved, so will Zotero. Goodbye, EndNote and ProCite. I have forsaken you for Zotero.

(Extra credit: how many pop-culture references exist for that phrase in the title, love at first byte?)

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Posted in History at 5:29 PM (Permalink) |

November 23, 2007

Technology as culture, part 1

When the Honors College asked me to teach one of their lower-division arts/humanities classes this fall, I had two thoughts:

  • If I do run for the leadership of the faculty union chapter, it'll be an interesting semester. (For most faculty, an Honors College class is an overload, not part of the regular load.)
  • I'm in the social-science end of history. What the heck do I teach?

Because the Honors College classes have less structure than courses I normally teach (to wit, the start of this course's description is "An introduction to western arts and letters..."), I had both greater freedom to design my class and somewhat different (and greater) expectations. An introduction to western arts and letters! I'm an Americanist, and my strength really is in social science history. In the end, I decided to design an introduction to culture studies using technology as a centerpiece, using Thomas Misa's From Leonardo to the Internet and David Nye's America as Second Creation as nonfiction books and a few novels to round it out. My students would disagree with my judgment at this point: if/when I teach this again, I'll have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and William Gibson's Neuromancer as the fiction.

Having undergraduates write entries in a group blog about class sessions is working well in the last few semesters, giving me a good sense of what students are responding to. It hasn't worked as well in graduate classes, and perhaps that's a difference in the age of students or the frequency of classes.  But this semester, students' blogging has revealed where students are making connections I was hoping they'd make, where they are making additional connections that delight me, and where I've fallen through in setting up themes of the course.

I set up the first half of the course to undercut the technology-as-progress narrative most students brought into the course. Misa's conceit is that the uses of technology has varied among wealth-producing and wealth-consuming eras and places. But since Misa's first chapter focuses on Leonardo da Vinci, that gave me an avenue to ask questions about Renaissance art. As my friend and colleague Greg McColm reminds me, the cathedral in Florence is an opening to all sorts of topics, from winch technology to blueprints to ... well, the use of perspective in art, given the history of the cathedral dome (with Filippo Brunelleschi, who helped propagate ideas about perspective drawing).

In addition to readings and a few other matters, I made students try their hand at technical drawings of ordinary objects (one student had a mousetrap; I couldn't resist!) and then at perspective drawing, and they had to find a description of how European art acquired perspective. The majority of students found descriptions with a progress narrative. I noted the fact, and over the next month we talked about Misa's central question each chapter (was the technology in question wealth-producing or -consuming?). No connections made back to perspective drawings and the overarching narrative.

So we began reading some cyberpunk as a break between nonfiction books, and we had the completely expected discussion about the genre's being dystopian. Then several students complained that it was disorienting. Okay, I said, time to bring European art back into it (after making a few connections with some of the Misa chapters), and I brought out Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, a painting with multiple perspectives. The students were largely silent while I showed how Cezanne had different vanishing points for different parts of the painting, let alone the non-perspective way of showing depth in the apples themselves. Disorienting, I asked? Er, a little bit, came the general response, but we're familiar with it... though we're sure that it was considered odd at the time!  (That response was expected, though I should have pushed the parallel to the complaints about cyberpunk; are we disoriented whenever we're unfamiliar with a genre's conventions?)

After showing the class how subsequent artists took Cezanne as a springboard for breaking away from perspective, I asked the question I'd been waiting to spring on the class since the first day:

So if early 20th century painters broke away from perspective, why is the Renaissance use of perspective drawings considered progress?

There was a little bit of discussion on that, but not much. So I left class, wondering if I'd see any blogs mentioning it.

It's been several weeks, and not a peep. That part of the course design has now officially flopped. Other things have gone well, fortunately, and the blog entries show that disparate threads in the course are coming together for a number of students. I think I've convinced students that narratives of progress are limited, including with technology (that's a main argument in Nye's book), and while I wish I had nailed the perspective-drawing-progress item, you don't get everything.

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Posted in History at 11:40 PM (Permalink) |

Dabbling, and not too well

I'm trying to get a few things done today, here and there, and I think I don't concentrate that well when my family is in the house. Evidence: "historiography literature" in an e-mail I wrote, when historiography is the history literature (when it isn't the study of the history literature). Can I just crawl into a hole and die, now?

But before I do that, maybe I should use that as reason to be patient with things such as the draft Florida science standards you can review, which have attracted thousands of comments thus far because of a single word in the draft (evolution). I'm glad that evolution appears in the standards, but I am concerned that will overshadow some other issues that need discussion. As with the Florida math standards, the draft science standards tries to identify several Big Ideas per grade.  My concern is not only with some of the ways that the draft standards frame the "Big Ideas" but also with a small detail: If these are such big ideas, why is fifth grade stuffed with 12 of them?

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Posted in Education policy at 3:28 PM (Permalink) |

November 21, 2007

Being thankful for the Supreme Court's protection of free speech

As FIRE's William Creeley notes, not only can we be grateful for Supreme Court decisions protecting speech, such as the 64-year-old West Virginia v. Barnett case on the pledge of allegiance, but we also have an interesting retrospective on the case, including the two children (now much older, of course).

I need to finish editing and uploading an MP3 for an online class presentation, and then it's time for me to head home. If you're in the U.S., have a great holiday tomorrow!

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:11 PM (Permalink) |

Clinton pulled towards culture

The headline for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer run of an AP story, Clinton raps teacher merit pay, is apt in one way: While I don't think you'll ever see Senator Clinton rapping, she is running towards her husband's small-to-vanishing idea of focusing on culture rather than policy. She backed away from performance-pay ideas and talked about broadcast-media violence and school uniforms, both staples of the Bill Clinton presidential discourse. The research on all of these ideas (including performance pay) is mediocre at best in terms of any consensus for policy, but it'll be interesting to see if she continues shifting towards the culture theme.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:24 AM (Permalink) |

November 20, 2007

Far behind and loving it

I'm still in post-travel work-lag, which for me lasts longer than jetlag. Not including personal projects I have student work to read, journal editing to do, union stuff, university governance projects, follow-ups to this weekend's conference, several side projects (one of them suggested by someone who wants me to be more effective at journal editing-thanks for the mixed messages!), and a bunch of writing that I'm looking forward to in the spring (including a new idea for a grant proposal from the weekend).

As I tell colleagues and friends when they seem stressed, every project I'm not doing now just means I won't be bored for the foreseeable future.

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Posted in The academic life at 2:23 PM (Permalink) |

November 19, 2007

Richard Vedder's manifesto

Richard Vedder's "report" Over Invested and Under Priced will probably get some play in the press over the next few days (though the short Thanksgiving week will probably swallow most education stories this week), and in my view it is probably best to see it as Vedder's manifesto: what's wrong with higher education and what he thinks should be different. Some of his concerns are correct but not analyzed cleanly (e.g., with the non-instructional staff: how many are related to research or graduate education, and how much are related to areas such as student affairs or athletics?). And some are just wild: his citation of Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve as if it was self-evidently true, or his use of the Griggs v. Duke Power case, where the Supreme Court said that employers could only use bona fide tests of competence, not poor proxies such as IQ tests.

But if you're interested in higher ed politics, read the piece. It's Vedder in a nutshell.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:43 PM (Permalink) |

November 17, 2007

The gender of early social-science clientele(s)

Some of the discussion on the "Social Reform and Social Science in Chicago and Beyond" panel focused on the relationship between social sciences and social reform movements. Neither Jane Addams nor Myles Horton did their work as disinterested social scientists—far from it. Addams may have been a sort-of-elitist social progressive, but she used city residents in gathering data on garbage collection in Chicago (as another audience member at the panel pointed out). Horton was more self-consciously deliberate about countering myths of social-scientific expertise. In the Addams case and Chicago, what is clear is that she relied primarily on women, in a way that was growing less common as social science faculty began looking towards powerful organizations as the clients for expertise. As Kurt Danziger has noted, U.S. psychologists switched from parents and teachers as clients to school administrators as clients. But what also happened is that the shift was between women as clients to men as clients.

Given Mary Ann Dzuback's work on women and social science in the early 20th century, I am cautious about this impression, but I'll put this out as a hypothesis, and perhaps a suggestion for an interesting dissertation.

(Other dissertation ideas to come out of my listening to panels: the need for an international history of curriculum and curriculum policies, and the need for a serious history of cosmetology as a curriculum subject.... And now someone will accuse me of taking listening- or thinking-depressing drugs this morning.)

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Posted in History at 11:23 AM (Permalink) |

Needed: a model of peer-reviewing interactive projects

One of the sessions at the Social Science History Association was organized by several members of the H-Net Council about Web 2.0 and the teaching of history. I was the chair and had a marvelous time listening to others and serving as traffic cop an identifier of speakers. (I also got my two cents' worth in, too.)

One general point of agreement was the need to figure out how to make work in this way recognized in a professional sense. It's not too hard to add an open-access model of publication to older models of publication—get a grant or other set of resources and do work in return for that work's being available to the world, and one program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities confirmed that NEH is moving more towards giving preferences to projects with open-access outcomes.

The problem is how faculty who work on such projects can gain professional respect and reward for such work. As one colleague in the room noted, administrators will often support externally-funded projects, but if peers will not value a project, faculty will not have a great incentive to engage in such work, especially tenure-track faculty, even in primarily teaching institutions.

The key lever is how to provide peer judgment on such work. Faculty are reasonably comfortable with the work of peers in new realms if there is some method of peer review, ... But how is an interactive activity reviewable? I can imagine how technology can be used to engage in all sorts of reviews (that's how a growing proportion of journal manuscript reviews happen, electronically), but what if you don't control all of the material? That's a problem even with reviews of primary document collections: selecting, editing, and annotating primary documents is hard work, but the recognition and evaluation of that work is different from the review of original writing.

Maybe librarians and archivists can help think about reviewing work that is interactive. They have to become engaged in that collaboration with existing documents and imagining what other people will do (users!) all the time, and they have to evaluate such projects.

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Posted in History at 11:07 AM (Permalink) |

Chicago and social movements: blogging a conference

This weekend I am at the Social Science History Association, and the current session on Chicago and social-science research is one of the sessions that combine a national academic conference with a local context. After all, we're meeting in Chicago this weekend.

The first paper by Victoria Brown was about Jane Addams and is part of a biographical project beyond this paper. I came late, so I won't summarize it. Laura Westhoff's paper is about Myles Horton's education in Chicago. The idea of Horton being educated in part in the Park School of Sociology is ... fascinating. I am not sure what I think of it, except that we need to rethink both Horton and Park as a result. Is this democratic social knowledge? How much was Horton using his education or mapping it onto preexisting ideas... And how much did Park promote a particular view of a functioning society or educate students who then could go do what they wanted, later? Hmmn...

Disclosure: I've had two cups of coffee, something I don't usually have in the morning. So I've had listening-enhancing drugs.

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Posted in History at 10:41 AM (Permalink) |

November 13, 2007

Squeak if you gave one to/got one from OLPC

I have an agreement with my family: I don't work on holidays. I can do lots of fun or worthwhile things that are tangentially connected to work, but nothing that really could be considered work for something I am assigned.

But I did something a little before 6 am yesterday morning that was both civically engaged and something tangentially related to work (i.e., education): sign up for the One Laptop Per Child give-one-get-one program for the OLPC's first computer, the XO (or is it the X0?). Much has been written about Nicholas Negroponte's utopian/moonshot project, and most of the fanatical enthusiasts should probably read Larry Cuban's history and friendly criticism of technology and education. Or you can, to keep your life in balance between the technophiliac ying and the technoskeptic yang.

While I agree with many of Cuban's cautions (something I point out when I teach a course called Schools and the Future*), there is an interesting tool embedded in the XO, a program base called Squeak, an object-oriented programming language that children and even adults can use.

Over at Squeakland, you can find a variety of utopian enthusiasms, but (after installing the plug-in) you can also find some interesting tutorials (scroll down to find the basics on the tutorials page). There are already a variety of programs/objects that will probably be dramatically expanded.

I have no idea how children are going to use this laptop, but my adolescent children were interested in the Squeak environment, at least enough to go through much of the second tutorial on viewing a drawing as an object with characteristics. This is a far cry from math, despite what Squeak's patron saint Alan Keys might say, and it's also a far cry from unified modeling language (what I gather is one meta-language overlaid on top of object-oriented programming). But it does put some engineering tools in the hands of children, and it might be a tool for teaching serious science and math (much like other games might be, even if that claim has rarely panned out).

Yet the utopian views of Alan Keys in the documentary Squeakers are an interesting entree to discussing the curriculum. He thinks Squeakers teaches math. I disagree and think that it's a programming language, which might be useful in itself but isn't really math. But he is correcting prodding us to recognize that the disciplinary structure we inherent is not carved in stone. Math could easily be different, and many argue that our standard sequence through calculus might be better geared around statistics. Should the math curriculum be different enough to encompass engineering principles?

Enough highfalutin' speculation. I'll let everyone know when the green-and-white not-a-toy gets to our house.

* The second time I taught the course Schools and the Future (an advanced graduate topic I use to discuss demographic, economic, technological, and organization arguments about schooling), I was in a classroom with an overhead projector rather than an LCD projector, so I prepared some overhead sheets. At the beginning of the first class, I pressed the projector's on button, and the projector bulb immediately blew out with a loud crack. I smiled and turned to the students: "Welcome to Schools and the Future."

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Posted in Education policy at 6:51 AM (Permalink) |

November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

My father was a veteran, the base pediatrician for George AFB in the late 1950s. My maternal grandfather was a veteran, cooking for troops in Europe after the WW1 armistice. 

I'm not a veteran, and neither are any of my siblings or my cousins. We came of age in Vietnam and then held our breath through much of the 1980s. Like many of our same-age peers, our distrust of government was coupled with a sense that there were no good wars. We never thought about the consequences of the all-voluntary force except that we would not be cannon fodder as a result.

Except that there are some social consequences of the all-volunteer force in a long war. I know plenty of those in one of the military services or reserves, or a veteran, but my family is not at risk of being sent overseas, at least not without a draft. I don't remember where I heard the following notable fact this week (probably listening to the podcast of the political roundup on the PBS NewsHour), but the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are the longest wars since the 18th century when there hasn't been a draft. As a result, there is no sense of shared burden. Tax cuts are our burden, and we are urged to go spend money this and next month, else the terrorists win.

To our nation's shame, we are in our first credit-card war.

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Posted in History at 11:08 PM (Permalink) |

November 11, 2007

Finger-pointing 101

Charles Barone responds to news of the delay of NCLB reauthorization with a lament that (at least in his view) unions are crowing over a political victory. He broadens the field a tiny bit and then engages in a touch of nostalgia for times that never were: the education arena, there was a time when the mantra was that "politics should stop at the schoolhouse door." No one ever reached perfection on that. But it was aspired to or at the very least given lip-service. Now, however, such principles are dismissed with impunity. Politics, campaign contributions, and interpersonal feuds have taken over the entire schoolhouse and are staging a sit-in.

If one defines politics entirely as partisanship in an electioneering context, Barone might be partially right. There are plenty of examples of bipartisan support for various education policies in history. But he might be wrong even in that vein: witness bipartisan support for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act.

As important, though, is the fact that Barone views this issue ahistorically and narrowly. Since the Progressive Era, the cry "get politics out of education" has been a common rhetorical trump card that has often meant "get all the political views except mine out of education." For that reason alone, I am skeptical of various claims on that front.

In this particular context (reauthorization arguments), Barone is engaging in a fairly unsubtle form of finger-pointing: who's to blame for the death of reauthorization? I'm unconvinced that Miller-McKeon was enough of an improvement on virtually any front to rush it through. But beyond the issues, if you really want to point fingers, there are a few complicating factors. First is the distribution of blame: if one wants to call NEA obstinate, one has to explain why Educator Roundtable has rounded on NEA, why Ed Trust doesn't deserve equal blame for appearing equally obstinate, Bush for his Department of Ed appointments who allowed cronyism to poison the waters (Neil Bush and COWs, the inadequate control of conflict-of-interest issues with Reading First, etc.), etc.

Even if one wanted to get around the finger-pointing, there remains the fact that the political landscape of accountability has changed: Parents are changing their views of teaching to the test. Any reauthorization that does not address that issue will be politically risky, because most parents really do not want schools turned into test-prep factories (a term Diane Ravitch uses).

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:33 AM (Permalink) |

Who will defend faculty on a non-ideological basis?

Erin O'Connor  has rightly criticized the assignment of an associate provost to watch a class in a blog entry titled How to destroy a teacher. She frames it as "a caricature of how the campus thought police destroy the learning environment for both students and teachers."

In a comment I left on the entry, I had asked her whether she would similarly criticize an administrative observer if the case had been a faculty accused by teachers of political indoctrination. She hasn't made my comment public, nor has she responded to the issue. Let me be clear: it's her blog, and she can follow a screening/moderating policy if she wishes. I just think it's a fair and relevant question: are we going to criticize administrative interventions based on the political issues of the day, or are we going to have some basic principles that we follow regardless of the issues du jour?

Update: In a comment, O'Connor notes that software sometimes eats comments. True enough, and I'll try posting the comment again.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 10:15 AM (Permalink) |

November 9, 2007

Janie's mother endorses cliff-diving

"You're too young for make-up, Sweetie. Wait 'til you're sixteen."
"I'm not Janie's mother. I don't do this to be mean."
"If those clothes fit any tighter, you would bust out every seam!"
When did my mother slip inside of me?
--- Brenda Sutton, Mama's Hands

For those of you who truly wanted a test of the famous parental Socratic question--"and if Janie jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"--we now have a natural experiment. The University of Wisconsin system has committed to the Voluntary System of Accountability, including standardized testing of learning outcomes (hat tip: Zach Blattner).

The Voluntary System of Accountability is a joint effort by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges to respond to pressures for accountability in higher education. Much of it makes sense except for a rather premature (even nuttily premature) inclusion of standardized testing as a proxy for learning outcomes. Only one of the VSA "learning outcomes" tests has been reviewed by the Buros Mental Measurements Yearbook, and the one that was reviewed (Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency) had a fair assessment ($$) from the standpoint of the VSA:

The validity section of the technical manual is quite brief, and the data provided are not particularly encouraging. There is no information with regard to content validity except the suggestion that each institution should conduct its own content validity assessment.... A major concern regarding content validity of the CAAP relates to the coverage of the CAAP to what is taught in college.... There are skills measures that are certainly important to the social sciences, but the work and tools of the social scientist (hypothesis generation and testing, interpretation of statistical data, the search for alternative explanations of findings, etc.) are fundamentally absent from the assessment.

Less than a few weeks after Miami Dade College's internally-developed portfolio system received positive attention from Margaret Spellings, Wisconsin is essentially drinking the Kool-Aid of poorly-constructed standardized testing as a proxy for accountability. When a young friend of mine had to choose between two schools where she was interested in a performing-arts major, she visited the schools, sat in classes, talked with students, and watched performances. Despite Kevin Carey's desire that she and her family use someone else's ranking to make decisions on college, she used the criterion that made sense: see what students are doing in the field she intends to study. AASCU and NASULGC have made a poor choice that risks the waste of millions of dollars poured into the companies that produce those tests and do little to bring serious accountability to higher education.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:53 PM (Permalink) |

Assistant provost, or ad hoc class observer

When I wrote a few weeks ago about the dangers of ad hoc investigations of student complaints, I didn't know that I would have a specific case from Brandeis to illustrate my concerns. Accordingto the IHE article, an assistant provost is sitting in on Donald Hindley's political science class (or maybe classes) after students complained that he had used the term wetback in a pejorative sense (rather than in the sense of describing historical racism, which is his claim). Hindley made the investigations and observations public, the faculty senate expressed its concern about procedures, and the department chair was clearly on the defensive when called by the reporter.

The lesson I take from this: folks, you have to talk about what to do before allegations surface, or you will be forced to invent investigation procedures that are inherently flawed because they are ad hoc.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:35 AM (Permalink) |

November 8, 2007

The Bloomberg-Klein attack on Diane Ravitch

The key clause from Diane Ravitch's reflections on the smear campaign aimed at her recently:

... if they could silence me, I would serve as an example to anyone else who criticized them.

Ravitch is is right: as a well-known, respected, and outspoken critic, she is the safest of Klein's critics. A visible attack on her is an attack all who are more vulnerable. In addition, the sad fact about attempts to intimidate people is that an unsuccessful attack on Ravitch still accomplishes part of the end, by making other critics think twice or three times before opening their mouths.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:21 PM (Permalink) |

November 7, 2007

Hug Threat Level: Orange

In Mascoutah, Illinois, Megan Coulter was suspended for hugging a friend. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the military quickly suspended its new program begun October 1 to welcome new soldiers with a hug. Hugging is dangerous stuff, whether in the military or in schools.  Apart from the documented threat that teenaged huggers will spread dangerous diseases such as the tendency to say "like" repeatedly in sentences or the even more life-threatening Leo Buscaglia Syndrome, there is surprisingly little research on hugging as it pertains to education policy.

Therefore, I hereby announce my policy recommendations on hugging:

  • Hugging should be a matter of choice. I don't particularly care whether this is a public or private choice, but as long as there is no money attached to hugging, I don't think anyone would care.
  • Performance pay for hugging is right out. Don't even think about it.
  • The ordinary rules of expression in schools should apply to hugging: schools may put time, place, and manner restrictions on hugging, but in general, as long as it is nondisruptive, it is absurd to ban hugging.
  • Hugging is not the same as freak dancing. Anyone who confuses the two (whether student or educator) needs to get a life or take a cold shower (depending on the circumstances).

Somewhat more seriously, stories about students being suspended for hugging friends or bringing ibuprofen to school illustrate a level of rigid regulation that can easily rise to absurdity. Schools should be able to ban necking without banning hugs, and schools should be able to create a drug-free environment without banning students from bringing tylenol or ibuprofen to school.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:40 AM (Permalink) |

November 6, 2007

Stunning defeat for vouchers in Utah

In one of the most conservative states in the country, with about half of the precincts reporting, it looks like Utah voters are rejecting a statewide voucher plan by a 2-1 margin. There are several small counties that have not yet begun reporting, but thus far, I don't see a single county with more votes in favor of vouchers than against.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:59 PM (Permalink) |

What not to do on pay-for-performance

A new report on pay-for-performance plans (by Joan Baratz-Snowden) was released by the Center on American Progress, and if you strip out all the political and other analysis, here's the gist of the report: We know what not to do on pay for performance. That's important: I'm glad to see my state described as the poster child for ill-advised impositions (we've had several), but Baratz-Snowden's acknowledgment of the thinness of research is reflected in her references, which have only a handful of refereed articles or other similarly-reviewed research papers. That's not her fault: it reflects the simple fact that there is little professional research documenting salutary effects of any pay-for-performance policies (regardless of details). Until we get something on that order, any prescriptions for what to do in a positive sense is foolhardy, let alone inserting any oxymoronic phrase like "proven" strategies into NCLB (from the Miller-McKeon draft language on performacne pay). It's a little tough to mandate "proven strategies" on performance pay when there aren't any.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:40 AM (Permalink) |

November 4, 2007

A twofer on Delaware student program and social justice, or "Let's not confuse institutional prerogatives with students' propensity to make mistakes"

I normally don't waste bytes just to point to someone else's blog and say, "What (s)he said!" In this case, though, Timothy Burke's engagingly garrulous entry on the University of Delaware student orientation controversy serves double-duty to describe the obvious about the University of Delaware program and also help explain my discomfort with official statements by colleges of education that they want students to foster social justice:

... with the Delaware residential life program, there's nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. That is, nothing wrong if that's a sly or mischievious aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word 'heteronormativity' actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there's some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma.

Burke is putting this observation in the context of a nuanced discussion of the institutional context of resident student activists and the role of college as a place where young adults learn by being bold and frequently making mistakes. What makes sense for student activists or activists engaged in civic life often becomes self-parody when oversolemnified in an institutional context.

Such oversolemnification is all too typical in the debate over dispositions and social justice in teacher education. In several contexts, I have heard colleagues in social foundations or my institution upset at the attack on the demand that students display a disposition towards social justice... a term now closely associated with the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Because NCATE referred to social justice in a glossary item that mentioned it as a potential disposition that colleges might assess students on, and because some colleges did some patently stupid things when students expressed dissenting political views, that term became a magnet for critics of college policies that appeared to infringe on students' rights to political expression. Respondents in education have sometimes interpreted that attack as a neoconservative attack on teacher education more broadly.

The truth is that the attack on social justice and dispositions is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Some of those who have attacked teacher education's and NCATE's move towards dispositions have been social conservatives upset with the nature of teacher education. At a June 2006 hearing in front of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, critics of NCATE included the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. But that's not the entire picture. Critics also have included the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (see FIRE's statement on NCATE and dispositions). FIRE's staff and supporters have included conservatives, but they have also included people from across the political spectrum, a group of those who are reasonably described as academic libertarians.

Academic libertarians focus on campuses as a site of debate, where the job of a university is to encourage a discourse of disputation. In this environment, assessing the alignment of one's thoughts with any template with ideological overtones strikes academic libertarians as obnoxious, an affront to students' freedom of thought. While many defenders of assessing dispositions point to the evaluation of behavior rather than thought and the interplay of that behavior with professional expectations, critics are skeptical, especially when some places (such as LeMoyne College) have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar... or the brains of their students.

The vulnerability of teacher education to such criticism is not just the visibility of a few outrageous idiocies by specific teacher education programs. To some extent, the coalition between social conservatives and academic libertarians has focused criticism in a way that often dissipates when the criticism comes from just one quarter. But the internet is also partly responsible, because that copper or fiber-optic cable is a double-edged sword, bringing visibility in both good and bad measure. In addition, teacher education is more vulnerable because of the historical disrespect for teachers in general and for teacher education within colleges and universities.

But there are a few other issues to consider, issues that schools and colleges of education control. One issue under the control of teacher education programs is the way faculty and administrators address the inherent tensions of trying to stuff a professional preparation program into a relatively short period, at most three or four years in an undergraduate program. We'd like teachers to leave college with a fantastically well-rounded liberal-arts education, professional information about educational psychology, historical and social-science perspectives on education, professional ethics, assessment, teaching the methods of their field, content expertise in their field, something about the practical matters of running a classroom, field experiences while learning everything else, and a capstone experience with a final internship and structured feedback and reflection.

To put the problem bluntly, if you can do all that for all students in undergraduate teacher education, I also want a pony. The telling choice is what you give up in professional programs, more than in almost any other type of education. That's not even considering the newer demands in areas such as special education, where "highly qualified teachers" now have to demonstrate content expertise in every curriculum area. So the curriculum discussions in teacher education inevitably revolve around the desire to somehow stuff more into less. If someone could extract the essence of half of our curriculum and put it in a pill, I know a bunch of education deans who would be very happy.

In the midst of this perennial stretch, teacher education stakeholders and institutions talk about accountability as outcomes. Outcomes? Sure. We'll be responsible for what happens with our teachers. So what does that mean, in an era when tracking graduates is a bit tough? Well, we'll certainly be responsible for the passing rates for graduates on state exams, and their meeting our state standards, and ... hmmn... something else. Someone must have suggested dispositions (the history of that would be a great dissertation topic!), and the idea met multiple needs. Stakeholders in the NCATE orbit were reasonably satisfied that teacher education programs were at least addressing accountability. Within teacher education, dispositions met several needs, and it could be used both to justify keeping some things in and removing others out of the curriculum, depending on how one phrased one's goals and preferred dispositions.

Dispositions have also neatly coincided with a psychological approach to education. Kurt Danziger has explained how the history of psychology is intertwined with the bureaucratization of public schooling in the early 20th century U.S. That psychologization continues, far beyond the knowledge of educational psychology that is the bread and butter of my department colleagues. (As my fellow historian Erwin V. Johanningmeier has noted, there is some considerable irony in the fact that one of the most well-known educational psychologists, David Berliner, has written more about the social conditions of schools in the last 15 years than educational psychology.) I am not sure if any professional field outside education or social services would ever frame their competencies as anything close to dispositions -- do business, legal, medical, engineering, or architecture programs have anything similar? Part of the difference is the much shorter formal apprenticeships that teacher education has, but some is due to the role of psychology within education.

Both the University of Delaware residency program and the existence of dispositions border on a therapeutic approach to education, implying that part of the job of college is the reconstruction of behavior and personality. I am not one to believe in the fairy tale that education only touches the intellect; college is a life-changing experience, no matter the outcome. Yet there are reasons to be very cautious about how we engage in the deliberate process of social engineering that is inherent in education.

To some extent, I am sympathetic with part of the idea of dispositions: it is extraordinarily hard to assess the fit of a student with professional expectations, and at some level one has to find proxies for professional competence while people are still in the program. The notion of assessing dispositions is an attempt to find some proxy for that fit apart from course grades. And given the relative flexibility of dispositions, some colleges of education do a much better job of treating them reasonably than other teacher education programs. But there is a foundation of psychological assumptions behind them, and the same flexibility that allows reasonableness also allows LeMoyne and its ilk.

Given that set of psychological (and almost therapeutic) assumptions, a set of dispositions geared to social justice is an oxymoron. Any definition of social justice I have seen talks about the social context, the broader structures of society. To imagine that one can accomplish social justice by changing the personalities of teachers ignores the theoretical arguments involved in social justice. To change the broader structures of society, you have to change the broader structures of society, and teacher goodwill doesn't really enter into it (though teachers' acting ethically towards their students does matter, just in a different sense). Mandating that students demonstrate a disposition towards social justice is likely to be a sloppy description of an institutional mission at best and an effective generator of cynicism at worst.

There is some other stuff that needs to be said here, about how an ethic of teachers' being at the heart of social justice is a potential form of exploitation. (Brief form: those who think KIPP schools are the solution for education and those who want teacher education programs to revolve around social justice have the same assumption about the broader role of teachers.) But this entry is far too long as it is, and I should just finish with this: I desperately want the world to have more justice, and I work towards that end, but I am a better teacher if I model those beliefs than if I try to get my students to parrot them.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 3:04 PM (Permalink) |

NCLB reauthorization dead until 2008

One Nevada newspaper is report that the Senate Won't Take Up NCLB this year (hat tip: Michele McLaughlin). This wasn't hard to predict, to be honest. Once we get into 2008, the legislative calendar will become increasingly bogged down with other matters, and while individual legislators (including chairs) may have an incentive to move bills, an increasing number of legislators and advocacy groups will want to wait until after the 2008 elections.

In many ways, the Senate's move may make George Miller's job easier in the House, since the debate becomes more about long-term questions than short-term (and jerry-built) fixes. I'll keep my prediction from 2006: by the end of next year, growth models will look much less like a "fix" than they were at the beginning of this year.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:19 AM (Permalink) |

November 3, 2007

American Journal of Sociology review of "Schools as Imagined Communities"

I just found online the book review of Schools as Imagined Communities that Scott Davies wrote in the American Journal of Sociology. It's positive, and it includes the following in the conclusion:

As a whole, the book offers sociologists several themes to ponder, such as the uneasy relation between ideals of school community and formal equality, the tension between legal initiatives and subjective experiences of belonging, and the meandering path from political battle to institutionalized practice. This Canadian reader was particularly alerted to the tacit influence of the American Civil Rights movement and its legal landmarks, such as Brown v. Board of Education, on contemporary notions of educability and rights that are spreading around the globe.

For a variety of reasons, I'm very happy with this review: getting some confirmation from academics you've never met is always pleasant (the ego part), I can see about putting it in my promotion file (the professional part), and the visibility in one of the top sociology journals means that it is more likely to be purchased and assigned in courses, which will propagate the ideas and lead to royalties going to the non-profits that are benefitting from the book (idea and professional society nachas part).

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Posted in Research at 7:07 PM (Permalink) |

November 1, 2007

Social annotation for teaching how to read difficult material

A few days ago, I raved about the possibilities of social annotation. What I barely touched were the teaching purposes of social annotation. Let me provide an example from my masters course in social foundations of education. Below is the root to a discussion thread over the past week on the Seattle and Louisville desegregation cases that the Supreme Court ruled on this spring. The following contains my comments to students, links to the opinions that have my annotations (hold your cursor over the underlined passages to see the annotations), and a few starting questions.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) was as fragmented as the Gratz and Grutter cases. Below are links to the annotated pages of the opinions.

Roberts's opinion is called a plurality because a majority of justices agreed to the decision but only four agreed (Roberts and three others) agreed on the same reasoning; Kennedy agreed with the decision but for his own reasons. This is a particularly difficult set of opinions to read -- in this case, it is Breyer's dissent that is long-winded (not Thomas's), and then the plurality opinion and the concurrences both refer to the dissent.

A few questions:

  • Does this case shut the door on voluntary desegregation? If not, what other options are available?
  • Regardless of whether there are options available in the future, the decision will make districts think three or four times before including racial classifications in formal plans to create more diversity in schools. Is that a good or bad outcome?

In my during-semester survey, a few students offered the following comments about Diigo when asked what had helped them learn in the course:

  • The Diigo annotation technology has made reading the court cases far more enriching. It as though you are in the room while I am reading the cases.... I wish there were a way you could do the same for all the other readings.
  • It really helps to bring clarity to the court cases by reading your comments. I would be confu[s]ed on some judgements or miss important points without the comments. It is the next best thing than [to] sitting in a lecture and discussing interpretations.

Let me be honest: providing this annotation requires a lot of time, and that is time sucked away from other activities (being more proactive on the discussion board, or creating more formal presentations). But I know from prior experience that some readings such as court opinions desperately require some assistance for students, and I was gratified to have my judgment confirmed by students who felt the effort helped them.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:07 AM (Permalink) |