May 30, 2008


I am now accepting all donations of hours, days, and weeks. I'm afraid I can no longer accept donations of minutes because of the declining exchange rate between EDT and Work Completed. All odd minutes are good for is writing short blog entries.

And I would have created a clever "TimePal" icon as a PayPal parody... but I don't have the time.

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Posted in The academic life at 8:56 AM (Permalink) |

May 29, 2008

A boycott call by another name smells as daft...

British academics are at it again, and Chris Goff is right: the call for faculty "to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions" is a back-door way to call for a boycott without calling for a boycott. The University and College Union has never asked its faculty to "consider the moral" anything with regard to its other comments on international affairs.

As with previous shenanigans of this order, the reliable commentary comes from Engage Online.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 3:14 PM (Permalink) |

Joel Packer's blog

As Alex Russo noted, NEA's lobbyist/wonk Joel Packer now has a blog... or, rather, transcripts of a podcast series (which doesn't yet have its own feed, from what I can tell). Since the NEA's group blog on NCLB has been on hiatus since February, I'm glad to see that Packer's becoming active here. On the other hand, there's something a bit disconcerting when the title of the blog is "Joel Packer Has All the Answers." If he really knew all the answers, he'd be able to tell us if string theory is all a bunch of nonfalsifiable hooey, and if we should instead put stock in the conservation of curvature. For another thing, I bet he'd have to look up the final score of Nolan Ryan's fourth no-hitter (June 1, 1975). (I cheated; I was at the game.)

May 28, 2008

The test-prep nightmare

Over at Ed Sector's blog, former ES intern Danny Rosenthal describes how a test-prep nightmare unfolded in his Texas school. Towards the beginning of the entry, he writes,
I'm OK with test prep. When standardized tests are well-crafted, as they are in my state, teachers should use tests to shape their classroom instruction. Done thoughtfully, "teaching to the test" is a good idea. But at my school, and others in Houston, we execute test prep so poorly that it ends up hurting students more than it helps them.

The concrete description in the rest of the entry shows what happens in the school where he teaches:

... the sticker exercise told us little about our students' needs...

Mostly, teachers made worksheets with questions only loosely related to each other taken from previous TAKS tests, or, in some cases, from math textbooks that are largely unaligned with the TAKS test. Think panicked college students poring over Cliffs Notes for the wrong novel.

Sometimes, the school made all math teachers work off of the same worksheets, regardless of the fact that they taught different subjects....

Our test prep worksheets aim to review important skills. But oftentimes students have not learned these skills in the first place. And the worksheets don't fix that....

Students choose not to try mostly because they think they have no chance to succeed. That's not their fault. At Hastings, we are far too willing to exchange gimmicky test-prep and other instructional shortcuts for real teaching.

Rosenthal's vision of teaching-to-the-test done right is in line with the argument of Lauren Resnick, if TAKS were such a "good test" (many would disagree), and if that incentive pushed the type of instruction Rosenthal prefers (i.e., good instruction). But that's far too rare.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:37 PM (Permalink) |

"Survivor" director wanna-be kindergarten teacher reassigned

The Port St. Lucie teacher who allowed a kindergarten class to "vote out" a classmate has been reassigned, pending investigation. Mike Petrilli is correct that this isn't a criminal case, but an investigation from a district standpoint is absolutely warranted. The mother of the child involved thinks that administrative reassignment is "just a slap in the face," but that's appropriate from a due-process standpoint... as long as St. Lucie County doesn't have a rubber-room for employees on administrative leave, as NYC does.
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Posted in Education policy at 8:23 AM (Permalink) |

May 27, 2008

Who's right about Education Trust?

There's a clash of views over at the multi-author blog I participate in, Education Policy Blog, after a post by Jim Horn on how Education Trust staffer Amy Wilkins responded to fellow blogger Dan Brown at the Ed in '08 blogger summit, Philip Kovacs wrote about his concerns that Ed Trust was mostly for propaganda, I said that we need better research on the role of philanthropies in education policy, and Jim Horn suggested that we take Rick Hess's term "muscular philanthropy" seriously as the goal of the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations, but without Hess's positive connotations. Go read, decide who's right, and comment.
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Posted in Education policy at 8:16 AM (Permalink) |

Weighted student funding dies in DC

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has killed weighted student funding in DC. Whether you were skeptical of the funding system or whether you think this kills principal initiative, as Fordham's Eric Osberg fears, this is an important news story in education.
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Posted in Education policy at 8:07 AM (Permalink) |

Turning kindergarten into "Survivor"

According to the Sun-Sentinel Sunday and a South Florida TV news report yesterday, a Port St. Lucie, Florida, mother is complaining that his kindergarten student's teacher allowed the other children in the room to vote him out of the class. (Hat tip.)
After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn't like about [Melissa] Barton's 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo said they were going to take a vote, Barton said. By a 14 to 2 margin, the students voted Alex—who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism—out of the class.

If that report is accurate, it's a sign of serious problems with that particular teacher; you don't address behavior problems with votes of 5-year-olds. Moreover, since the district has to obey the same federal law on special education as everyone else, the district could be at legal risk of failing to provide positive behavior support for the child. I don't know what the obligations are for a student who is in the middle of the eligibility assessment process, but this is definitely a "what the heck is going on?" story.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:57 AM (Permalink) |

Sweet crude prices, exchange rates, and higher ed

Gas prices are rising above $4/gallon in the U.S., prices of crude are over $130/barrel, so what does this have to do with higher ed? First, in the U.S., it will affect the effective operating costs of universities, as they face higher heating/cooling bills and higher costs of living for faculty and staff (so either salaries have to rise accordingly or real wages fall for faculty and staff).

Second, it will affect commuting students, who will want schedules consolidated to reduce gas prices as well as job schedules, and who will put more pressure on costs they think should be more flexible (primarily textbooks).

Third... and here I am going to take a flying leap... it will dramatically change the calculations of students who might travel between countries for their education. Part of the rise in oil prices in the U.S. is because of the dropping value of the U.S. dollar against major currencies such as the euro. Exchange rates are an important determinant of the effective price of higher education when you cross borders. Looking just at exchange rates between the U.S. dollar and other currencies since the beginning of the year, I can group countries roughly by whether the value of their currency is rising, falling, or remaining about the same against the US$.

Rising against the dollar: euro, Australian dollar, Brazilian real, Chinese yuan, Danish krone, Japanese yen, Malaysian ringgit, Mexican peso, Norwegian kroner, Singapore dollar, Swedish krona, Swiss franc, Taiwan dollar,

Stagnant: British pound, Canadian dollar, Hong Kong dollar, New Zealand dollar, Sri Lankan rupee

Falling against the dollar: Indian rupee, South African rand, South Korean won, Thai baht
When prospective students think about going to college or grad school in a different country, expected cost has to figure into it in several regards -- in the cost to families who are paying privately, or in the cost to governments (and the number of slots available) when the public purse is paying. In either case, I wonder what the swing in exchange rates will do to international enrollments. As the euro rises against the dollar, will American universities out-compete German universities? Will Chinese student enrollment in other countries rise and Indian enrollment fall with the difference in relative currency value for their countries?

It's already happening, at least in graduate school admissions. An April 14 IHE article on the slowdown in international applications to U.S. graduate programs notes the decline of applications from India and South Korea and continued growth (if moderated) from China without asking whether there is a link between these trends and the parallel trends in the relative value of each currency against the dollar. (There was also no mention of exchange rates in a November 2007 IHE article, though one comment writer mentions them.) The only other mention I could find in a quick search was the effect of exchange rates on U.S. students who want to study abroad, not students from other countries interested in the U.S.

Plenty of factors shape international movement in higher education enrollment, but I wonder if any institution will seize on exchange rates to reshape recruitment efforts in countries with rising currency values against the dollar.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:04 AM (Permalink) |

May 25, 2008

NPR's coverage of the Sichuan earthquake

Is there anyone else who wishes that the general public could nominate entries for the Peabody Awards for electronic media? National Public Radio's coverage of the Sichuan earthquake has demonstrated what a treasure the organization is. All Things Considered hosts Robert Siegel and Melissa Block were in Sichuan province so NPR could air features on Chinese society well before the Olympics, with a blog centered on Andrea Hsu's coverage of life in Chengdu. Block and Hsu were interviewing a Christian priest when the earthquake interrupted them, and the NPR staff spent the next 10 days covering the aftermath of the disaster in a way that is unmatched by any other North American news outlet.

I've listened to NPR since I was a child, and my 13-year-old son is now a news junkie, insisting that we turn on All Things Considered when I pick him up at school. Occasionally, I get irritated by this, since I have a parents' desire to talk with my children about what happens in school. But if it weren't for my son's insistence that we turn on NPR the day of the earthquake, I would not have heard Block's report May 12 from one of the many schools that simply collapsed, crushing hundreds of students my son's age. We listened in silence on the way home, horrified at the destruction and yet still glad that we were hearing about it from someone as professional as Block. Apparently NPR heard from hundreds of listeners praising the coverage, and I think what made NPR's coverage unique is that it personalized the quake's effects without sensationalizing them. In doing so, Block, Siegel, and the rest of the NPR team turned the audience from voyeurs into neighbors.

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Posted in Personal at 11:10 AM (Permalink) |

May 24, 2008

May progress notes

All May birthdays and the anniversary are now done, all but two of the musical events are done, and one of the two belt tests are done. We know roughly how many faculty are being laid off at my university (very few, which is good, but many staff, which is bad). I'm far behind on many things, but given that it's May and a May with budget cut plans, it could have been much worse on many fronts.

Thus far, plans for the June-July course are apace, and I'll soon have a sense of whether the logistical innovation I'm trying will change the dynamics of a graduate class with working professionals. I'm giving students a limited amount of "leave time" they need to accrue before they can use it to skip class time (roughly up to 8-9% of the total semester time). This switches attendance from an orientation I fear will remind them of undergraduate classes (lose too much, and you drop grades) to something they know in a professional context: you get leave time you can use any time you want, but you have to accrue it before you can use it. (I'm using things like taking quizzes early, spotting omissions or errors in the syllabus, and answering classmates' questions as ways to reward students for helping the class run smoothly.) Students still cannot pass the class if they miss half of the time, but they can take time off after earning the leave. There are other things I have planned that I'm excited about, but that's all speculative. From watching things thus far, it looks like accruing leave time is motivating a core group of students already, even though we haven't met.

Note: My thanks to CCPhysicist, whose comment on my last entry about policy (and specifically an interesting extension of Bayesian probability to matching personal judgments to predictions about a population's judgment) gives me some ideas on my own classes. There are apparently a range of techniques that try to match personal judgments to predictions of a population (e.g., the information pump technique) and now a paper called A Truth-Serum for Non-Bayesians. I love discovering and learning about this, but I have things I need to do... ah, intellectual distractions.

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Posted in Personal at 10:38 PM (Permalink) |

May 23, 2008

Default policy frames, rationality, and Mr. Bayes

About five weeks ago, Kevin Carey wrote a longish blog entry about null hypotheses, the status quo, and decision-making about policy. The gist of Carey's argument was that we should be willing to make policy changes with a preponderance of evidence in favor of change.

Carey claimed that academic skepticism aimed at various policy proposals was a legacy of frequentist notions of the null hypothes, where you have to prove that a result was unlikely to have occurred by chance (usually stated as a p < .05 threshold, though that's a value choice and convention, not carved into tablets). In contract, he said, policy options need to be chosen on an epistemological equivalent of first-past-the-post voting -- i.e., based on the preponderance of evidence on which was the best option at the time.

I think Carey has at least a few people pegged wrong in the reasons for skeptical views of reform, including me, and I think he has the causality backwards for the few social science-y folks for whom he might be right on surface rhetoric. The reason why the null hypothesis exists in the disciplines where it does is because academics (and I hope others!) are conservative in accepting new claims of Truth (or truth). We're socialized to be skeptical, to begin with the caveats as the main story, and the null-hypothesis framework is just one operationalization of that broader academic culture. (Minor bit of evidence: usually the first advice given academics in media training is to reverse the order of presentation, to start with a main positive claim and only later get to caveats.) Because academics are conservative on changing views about their disciplinary reality, the most popular type of article with a new factual claim is the plausible surprise, the small twist on disciplinary convention that makes the reader go, "Hmmmn.... not what I had thought, but I can see it." (There's also a danger in that socialization: a scholar can create a professionally attractive claim by heading for that plausible-surprise sweet spot. Witness the Bancroft Award given to Michael Bellesiles' Arming America before the fabrication/falsification charges were investigated, his resignation, and the embarrassed withdrawal of the Bancroft.)

Back to the core of Carey's argument instead of the straw-man argument he had created: Carey was responding to criticisms of value-added approaches to accountability (by the anonymous Eduwonkette, but I've made similar criticisms). Over at Eduwonkette's blog, skoolboy argued in rebuttal that policy conservatism exists because policies are always enacted in specific times and places, and the real costs of implementation as well as the existence of unintended consequences means that the a priori preponderance of evidence is not always a good prediction of what would happen in practice. This is very close to the default framework I remember from cross-examination team debates in high school, where the negative wins by default unless the affirmative team overcomes the predisposition towards the status quo. (For the life of me, I can't remember the early-1980s term used for this, though I think it started with a p.) But the default position in high school debate is a faux default created to hone the competition with ground rules rather than a great Rule in the Sky.

There are two broader perspectives I have on this question about warrants and evidentiary evaluation, and then an idea for someone else's dissertation. First, the status quo v. reform framework is itself fictive. There ain't no such thing as a monolithic status quo or monolithic reform, policy rhetoric is fluid, and evidence about practices isn't stagnant, either. I don't even think many people use that specific framework as the set of mental bins in which they store the various policy proposals floating in the ether. C'mon, Kevin and skoolboy, fess up: where would you slot "performance pay"? "Collective bargaining"? "High-stakes testing"? [insert whole-school curriculum plan here]? You can think of the counterarguments as well as I can. We can talk about the policy frameworks people work with, but they're likely to be much more earthy than "I work with a preponderance standard" or "I'm waiting for a representative sample before I'm convinced." Well, unless you're one of Russ Whitehurst's in-house methodological purists (and I doubt even Whitehurst is his own purist). That fictive framework doesn't mean that people don't ask questions about "school reform," but the more useful work takes the term as much as a problem as a foundation (e.g., Tyack and Cuban's work).

It may be useful here to separate the evaluation of factual claims from the evaluation of policy option. In my relatively limited experience in the world, both inside and outside academe people have separate ways of judging claims. In academe, these are very roughly divided into questions of procedural warrants and questions of substantive warrants. Procedural warrant debates are often called methodology, especially in experimental disciplines, but the procedural warrant does not always require a section called methods: the historian's standard procedural warrant is the footnote, and it's a pretty serious matter if you screw that one up (see the case of Bellesiles, referred to above). Substantive warrants revolve around the interpretation of evidence and how that dovetails with previous disciplinary knowledge and substantive frameworks (i.e., "the literature"). Herbert Gutman's response to /critique of Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross is full of such substantive arguments about what he claimed were Fogel and Engerman's misinterpretations of the evidence.

In a similar way, we can (and do) have all sorts of debates about what the right substantive questions are on policy as well as what evidence we will accept about a particular factual claim. The last time elected officials took a very-well-designed study as the sole basis for creating policy was California's class-size initiative. STAR was a great study. I suspect Kevin Carey would admit that California's policymakers didn't ask enough questions after being convinced of the factual claim that in Tennessee, a pretty-darned-close-to-random-assignment study documented both short- and long-term benefits to very low elementary class sizes.

So you know by now that I'm an advocate of separating the evaluation of factual claims from making policy. On the narrow question of evaluating factual claims, I'm going to be even more iconoclastic: there is a difference between confirmation bias and outright irrationality. We all have confirmation bias, and moreover, there's a pretty good case to be made that it's okay to have a confirmation bias if you're honest. I'm not much into Bayesian probability theory, but there's some pretty famous philosophical stuff which starts from the premise that we have preconceived ideas about what truth is before we come across any chunk of evidence pertaining to a factual claim. If I understand the Bayesian perspective, that's not irrational because our personal (or subjective) judgment about reality before we come across a chunk of evidence should be affected by the evidence to push us towards post-encounter judgments of reality (or, more formally, posterior probability estimates). Or, in more gutsy language, it's okay to have preconceptions as long as you're willing to change them based on the evidence. What's not kosher is to entirely ignore evidence that's been reasonably vetted. (Holocaust denial claims and the like can be dismissed because their advocates have violated this test of rationality.)

While I was driving around central Florida over the past few weeks, I've been thinking about the Carey-skoolboy posts and trying to think through a formal approach to work backwards from Bayes' theorem to an identification of assumptions, something like this: "After reading a lay description of research claiming benefits for prescribing watermelon juice to ADD-identified adolescent boys, a reader is still skeptical and believes that it's highly unlikely (say, only a 2% probability) that the claim is true. From that posterior gut-level belief and the research evidence, can we infer an a priori assumption about the claim?" Unfortunately, my glorious plans for a simple article that would win me the Nobel Prize for Mathematical Political Philosophy Written by Historians were chewed up by a rabid pack of math and common sense (to paraphrase Berkeley Breathed). (For this reason, please do not put me in charge of planning any post-invasion occupation of a country. Or planning the Great Hydrogen Economy. Or the Best School Uniform Policy. I tend to be... oh, yeah, academically skeptical.)

But in my late-night wanderings through lit databases, I came across a fascinating 2004 article by Drazen Prelec in Science that argues for a much better way of processing subjective judgment than well-known approaches such as the Delphi process. And then there's a more concrete demonstration paper he wrote with H. Sebastian Seung. Prelec's search for a "Bayesian truth serum" is wonderfully outlandish, but the basic stuff seems to be sensible, which is is to use an individual's own set of judgments as a filter with which to identify particularly common or uncommon judgments in a data set and particularly accurate or inaccurate judgments of individuals about the distribution of judgments in the population. That's pretty abstract, but it strikes me as a definite improvement on the Delphi process and possibly very useful for research on sociometrics... or subjective judgments of education. Last doc student in is a rotten egg!

(No, not really, but if you can understand the math of both papers, there are some obvious applications here.)

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Posted in Education policy at 1:16 PM (Permalink) |

May 22, 2008

Baggy-pants bingo

Instead of ideas such as the bill proposed by Florida Senator Gary Siplin, who suggested making droopy pants illegal, I have a much simpler idea: peer pressure.

Blue1st PeriodGrayWhite2nd Period
3rd PeriodPolka DotsNike4th PeriodCartoon
"Mom"Girlfriend's nameLunchToyStripes
5th PeriodSports
Pink!Any URL
6th PeriodWarning7th PeriodOffice

For those who need to justify this with jargon, try "I am using negative-reinforcement shaping with advanced face-to-face social networking combined with vicarious spasmodic recognition signals and aural-mode synaptic connections." That is, maybe listening to the laughter following a "bingo!" call will... er... drop the incidence rate a bit.

Figuring out which box is for underwear color (or decoration), which for the time of incident, and which is for the consequence is up to the reader.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:55 PM (Permalink) |


My spouse and I will have been married 20 years, as of this afternoon around 2:30. My gift to her this morning: the complete Far Side collection. We couldn't fit it on the shelves upright. Ah, well.

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Posted in Personal at 6:37 AM (Permalink) |

May 21, 2008

Qualitative data on schools

Yesterday's story in the Washington Post (hat tip) on in-person reviews of schools by external committees is one step in the right direction for accountability: using in-person eyeballs instead of just statistical eyeballs to see what should be done. Rhee sent teams of people into schools she wanted to change. There are some questions I still have after reading the article: why only one- and two-day visits? what did the DC teachers union think of the reviews? what did other stakeholders think? But even if there were flaws with this process, having students, parents, and educators visit schools to provide a snapshot is dramatically different from just looking at test scores and prescribing a cookie-cutter "fix."

(Note: Ken DeRosa pointed out the false dichotomy I had when rushing this entry through yesterday, and I trust this is now more "just.")

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:42 AM (Permalink) |

May 20, 2008

What to do with scoundrels

Since Mike Petrilli's May 12 blog post, arguing that AERA should not allow Bill Ayers to sit on its executive committee, there has been a host of responses, criticisms of Petrilli from Eduwonkette and Marc Dean Millot, and then rebuttals by Petrilli, Diane Ravitch, and Jeff Kuhner. And don't forget the last Gadfly podcast, when Petrilli and Rick Hess debated the issue.

There are several side issues mixed up in this, from the partisan attempts to use Ayers against Barack Obama (how Ayers became a news item) to the terminology and legal issues (which Millot addressed) and the questions of private association rights (what Rick Hess argued), but let me focus on what Petrilli is arguing at the core: Ayers is a scoundrel making his living in academe. Strip away questions about whether we can apply the label terrorism to Ayers, and the charge essentially is that academics (and education researchers specifically) are letting Ayers live without the consequences of being in the Weathermen.

Couched in that form, we can put the debate over Ayers in a broader context. There is a long tradition in American political culture of resuscitating scoundrels and wondering what to do after their lives are back on track and their past laundered through some patina of establishmentarian approval. While Petrilli is focusing on someone associated with the left side of the political spectrum, I can name a number on the right who are in equal or far better positions than Bill Ayers: John Yoo is now a tenured faculty member at Berkeley's Boalt Law School, G. Gordon Liddy is now a major talk-show host, and Oliver North hosts a Fox News show.

I know that legally, all of these individuals have rights, and you don't have be Mother Theresa to have those rights respected. Socially, I know what Miss Manners would say. On the other hand, neither of those answers the question that Petrilli asks, which is about public, professional recognition. My thoughts on the subject are usually along the lines of, "Okay, what do I do if I meet Scoundrel X in Situation Y, where I know of some pretty disreputable private or professional behavior, but where there is some work to do in that situation?" And my general answer is that if Yitzhak Rabin could shake hands with Yassir Arafat, I should be able to hold my nose and work with a lot people. (Don't tell me about the results of that handshake. I'm talking about ethics, not a strict parallel on consequences.)

But saying that I will work with almost anyone to accomplish some good end doesn't really address Petrilli's question. I will confess that I have no good answers to the question of what we should do publicly with scoundrels. But I'm not sure Petrilli is willing to follow his own advice, either, because what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Will Petrilli read the riot act to scoundrels on the right, publicly denounce them, and distance himself and the Fordham Foundation from them? And if so, what happens if he decides later that he needs to work with one of these individuals?

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:31 AM (Permalink) |

May 19, 2008

On not beating around the bush in the classroom

Is there anyone else who winced at the following sentences from the Atlantic Professor X column, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower?
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them....

I knew that Ms. L.'s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn't tell her that she wasn't ready for an introductory English class.

Is there anyone else who thinks that English comp classes need to require writing from the very first week, and that faculty need to be proactive in taking students aside early where appropriate and telling them forthrightly that unless you do X and Y, you will probably fail the class? Beating around the bush talking about "skills deficits" (in the case of Ms. L., "computer-skills deficits") does not explain "the seriousness of the situation, the student's jaw-dropping lack of ability, without being judgmental." It's just beating around the bush.

And for the larger argument of the article, I will just advise that everyone read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which addresses many of the same issues in much more depth and with far more compassion.

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Posted in Higher education at 11:07 AM (Permalink) |

U.S. News story on graduation statistics

Almost 45 years, U.S. News first published a piece about dropping out, a short blurb titled "The Facts about School 'Dropouts'" in its August 26, 1963 issue (p. 11):
A high-school education is becoming more important. Each year, it becomes harder for a young person without a high-school diploma to get a job. And unemployment among the young is growing.
This was part of a broader concern with dropping out in the early 1960s. Then, the gelling of a stereotype about dropouts was the mirror of a developing norm of high school graduation. But it remains an issue, and U.S. News returns to the topic this week with a story about number-crunching: Keeping Count of Students Who Drop Out. The specifics of the story are about Florida's numbers, which I've written about before, and I talked with the reporter about both the issues with Florida (esp. the treatment of GEDs) and the history, and I only winced once:
Education Trust was one of the first groups to show how states were padding their graduation numbers.

That's true if you only start looking in 2003. It's not true if you go back a few decades...

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Posted in Education policy at 10:20 AM (Permalink) |

Small irritations when reading blogs

Not aimed at any specific blog, and if you think this is about you, you're probably wrong, but if the following discourages you from any of these practices, ...
  • If you invite comments, why are you asking people to register using a system that doesn't work?
  • "This" is obscure text for a link, makes it difficult for readers to decide whether to follow the link, and in general is not reader-friendly. Same with "that."
  • Your snark isn't nearly as funny as you obviously think it is, and it's going to be less funny tomorrow.
  • Scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. Scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. Scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. Even my (Neolithic version 0.01) blog puts the content first on a page to be mobile-reader-friendly, not behind N kilobytes of navigation/fluff. Several news-outlet blogs fail that simple test. (Tell your webmaster to use CSS properly, so the left-strip navigation can appear after the content in the HTML but on the left side when rendered for desktops.)
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Posted in Random comments at 8:57 AM (Permalink) |

Political science/political philosophy and education policy

I was going to spend some time last night connecting my weekend entry on hubris to the debate over whether a preponderance-of-evidence standard is right for policy, when I discovered that the macrotheoretical gap had already been filled by Leo Casey's point about seeing like a state, not like an educator. I'm expecting two quick-tongued responses today from other bloggers, but I hope that there is more than a fast wit applied to an argument about the way that states behave and how that shapes education policy debate. I didn't use James Scott's book in Accountability Frankenstein, but I easily could have (and probably should have).

That's probably one logical direction for some good academic work to head in, after the solid work done by Manna, Mcguinn, and Debray (three new scholars: go buy their books!). Education governance is such a complicated mess for some who think about school reform, it's thus a wonderful place for academics to play.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:34 AM (Permalink) |

May 16, 2008

The ethics of expert mumbling

I started this entry a few days ago, when I wrote, "I probably should be doing something else," and obviously I did. But now that I'm back for a few minutes, I want to think aloud (or in text) about policy hubris. I've been batting a book idea back and forth recently, based on the encouragement of a series editor, to explore how a school system has responded to growing demographic diversity over several decades. Like many school systems I have encountered or studied, its key officials have been and are fairly proud of the work the system has done. But while that pride was justified in some circumstances, pride also became a substantial blind spot, allowing officials to ignore problems that festered and to lash out at critics. Pride became institutional hubris.

When we talk about hubris, it's usually in a personal context. Some weeks or months or years ago, I listened to a key legislator or legislative aide talking about education policy. She was sharp: smart, knowledgeable, and quick-witted. How she used that tremendous skill set bugged me; while listening to her respond to questions from the audience, I thought,

She's immersed himself in the reports and materials available at the 40,000-foot level. She knows all of the arguments, and she knows the counter-arguments to push back at others in the conversation. She's cocksure and unaware of where she might be terribly wrong. And she's alienating almost everyone in the room.

I'm obscuring her identity to protect the guilty, but the hubris I witnessed in the room is a personal version of the institutional hubris in a large school system. No one should be allowed to be that cocksure without an occasional whack upside the ego, for the good of the individual (or school system) as well as the world. There's a point to all of the Shakespearean tragedies: hubris hides your flaws, including flawed reasoning.

Some weeks ago, I heard a scientist interviewed who explained his professional epistemology on being open to evidence. He took some of his reasoning from Karl Popper, the giant "science is falsifiable" philosopher of the twentieth century. But falsifiability was not just a stance about testing hypotheses, to this scientist. It was a matter of ethics: you have to be willing to be wrong to be a good scientist.

I think that's true of most disciplines. If you don't get some sense of wonder when a small fact turns over a preconception, you shouldn't call yourself a researcher. If you only go out to prove a prejudice, you're not a researcher. If you ignore evidence that undermines your claims, leave the field.

Unless, of course, you're one of the exceptions whose life story is going to leave me wondering if I should have been so definite in that last paragraph. There's always that possibility...

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Posted in Research at 5:03 PM (Permalink) |

May 13, 2008

Now I'm in trouble as a blogger...

The first time someone else treated me as if I were not only an expert but the expert on any topic, I wanted to look around the room to find some ballast. I think I do good work, but gravitas is a bit too solemn for me. Now Alexander Russo is calling me one of the "grownups" in education blogging. That's okay. As my parents taught me well, I can't really be hurt when someone calls me names.

The Ed in '08 Blogging Summit is Thursday, and I won't be going, because... well, I have a few prior commitments. If you're headed to DC for the event, say hello to Ken Bernstein, Russo, and everyone else there, and tell them that I am much wittier in person. After what Russo said about me today, I need an alibi.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:15 PM (Permalink) |

May 11, 2008

Sterility or psychodrama vs. untimed engagement or intellectual drama

Margaret Soltan is not a Luddite—far from it, she has used her University Diaries blog to become one of American academic letters' premier public intellectuals. But as an observer of college life, she has a well-reasoned hatred of what she calls technolust. She regularly links to stories about students who abuse cell phones and laptops in class and professors who abuse students with PowerPoint. Her argument is that at its best, the classroom is the best environment for the drama of learning, and that technology is too tempting a draw for poor teaching: focus is not on occasional courses in which clever and restrained use of this and other visual technologies makes a better class. My focus is on student (and other audience) response to PowerPoint in general, and on the clear trend toward the overuse of this technology and other technologies in settings in which direct human interaction should be primary. [emphasis added]
I assume that she is working off the same mental model of intensive interactions that's in my head: you walk into class, and you cannot wait to see what ideas suddenly come into conflict, which people realize what's happened to the ideas they've always held, and who change their minds as you watch and participate! ("Survivor" and other reality shows have nothing on a great seminar, because involvement of the audience on a "reality" show is vicarious at best.) To Soltan, presentation software, clickers, and online course management systems are the processed carbs of higher education: easy to digest, but not very nutritious. [The extension of this metaphor to identify academic equivalents of fiber, proteins, fats, and MSG is left as an exercise for the reader, who should instead read Howard Becker's warning about metaphors in Writing for the Social Scientist.]

The reality of instruction is far more diluted: even in a small seminar, the great, life-changing moments are rare. To her credit, Soltan recognizes that but holds up the ideal as the standard against which parallel-play* online classes, reading from PowerPoint slides, and constant-clicker lectures are found wanting. No shinola, Sherman. Take the worst from any format and it will be found wanting against the best of another format. The worst of online classes is the electronic equivalent of a correspondence class, where students proceed at their own pace in their personalized and isolated bubbles, at best watching their peers in an adult form of parallel play. The worst of either bad PowerPoint or bad clicker-based lecturing is a sterile reading of bullet point and faux interactivity. But the worst of in-class drama would also cause Soltan to cringe: the unprepared/psychodrama professor leading her or his students through a semester's equivalent of drowning in emotions, an academic waterboarding.

Maybe a better comparison is among the everyday exchanges in a highly-competent class taught in different formats. In the hands of a skilled lecturer, a PowerPoint or a clicker is a tool used to keep the class engaged, not a crutch for bad teaching. For decades, Bryn Mawr professor Brunhilde Ridgeway kept her beginning archaeology classes engaged with the old set of lantern slides, chugging through centuries of sculpture until, just as she was pointing out the development of articulated knees carved in Greek funerary sculpture, onscreen would appear Magic Johnson, larger than life, running downcourt with... superbly articulated knees. Everyone laughed, the point was carved in our brains, and she moved on. No one took her class expecting to fall asleep, and I suspect today's skilled equivalents of Bruni Ridgeway use PowerPoint stacks in similar ways.

The everyday exchange in a competently-run small discussion class is what Soltan claims it is, an intellectual drama. The adrenaline isn't pumping every minute, but even when the tension ebbs, there is always a flow, a set of themes that the faculty member reinforces through the term, the possibility of a quick turn of thought, a sudden connection with material remembered from several weeks before, and regularly a softly-spoken "aha!" that marks a minor epiphany.

The problem with online education is not that you can find bad online classes, because you can run a poor class in any environment. The problem with online education is that we don't have a strong sense of what broad engagement looks like online. I've been struggling with this issue for some time. When I can make the class synchronous (an awful term implying that we're somehow in our bathing caps and in an Olympic pool), there is some drama that helps, but synchronous online classes have to be pretty small to work well with equipment commonly available. Asynchronously? There's the great challenge, and the fact that I don't have an answer may mean that Margaret Soltan is right: Maybe there is no way to engage students consistently in an online class that doesn't have a live (synchronous) component.

But I suspect that there is a way to have an engaging intellectual exchange online. The terms social presence and transactional distance are awkward ways of talking about how to engage students outside a live setting. It would not be the same thing as a face-to-face seminar, but it may have some compensating advantages: the student who participates more when she or he has more time to think through a response, or the working parent who is able to take the class and thereby injects a mature perspective that changes the way 20-year-old classmates think about the world. Those changes are more likely when the message comes from a peer instead of a teacher. It would not be the live intellectual drama that Soltan and I value, but it would not necessarily be of lesser value.

I am certainly not There yet. I am not sure if anyone is in terms of deliberate course design, though I am certain it appears in spots and for some students. But it is incorrect to assume that distance education is technolust just because faculty are not practiced in a relatively new format in the same way that they can be in a centuries-old format.

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Posted in Teaching at 8:21 PM (Permalink) |

On call for Mother's Day

Material gifts: a magazine and Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (hat tip). Non-material gift: we do all the chores today. I didn't quite catch my spouse before she did a few minor things, but we've gotten to six tasks before she got there.

We don't do the breakfast-in-bed routine for Mother's Day, especially not with adolescent children who sleep in and my spouse who wakes up before dawn regardless of the rest of the schedule. But she was able to get a few hours of writing time in before the offspring woke up, so maybe that's another gift. ;)

We also have opened up the house, and I think I can go without asking that we close it up again and turn on the a/c until this evening. As long as it's 80 F. or lower when I go to sleep, I'm happy.

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Posted in Personal at 12:25 PM (Permalink) |

May 10, 2008

Give children the vote?

While I'm doing some journal editing tasks and catching up on more than 100 e-mails that have lain unattended in the last mumbledy days, I'll offer you the following provocative proposal: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recommends that we Give Kids the Vote! (Hat tip).

Before you answer, I should warn you: I have adolescents at home, they want to vote, and they are shrewder and have sharper tongues than I do.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:57 PM (Permalink) |

Summertime freedom ... sort of, and not quite yet

I've spent much of the last week tying up odds and ends, from my part in our department's annual reviews to finalizing a syllabus and looking at some data. Now it's into the summer... sort of. I am relieved that my class this summer is an all-day Saturday affair in June and July, not because I love teaching all-day sessions but because I'm not starting my classes in the crazy month of May, when I have the birthdays of both offspring, Mother's Day, and our anniversary, not to mention the end-of-school concerts and other stuff. Let me just mention the end of the upcoming week: on Thursday is my daughter's chorus concert. Thursday is also my son's harp recital at school. Friday is my son's harp recital for his private harp teacher (but he's also playing oboe there). Friday, I'm also supposed to be in Orlando for the FEA governance board meeting. Those of you with children know the routine: my spouse and I split the Thursday concerts, and I don't head to Orlando until after the recital. Saturday night, I return after the governance board meeting, because Sunday afternoon is the concert for the youth orchestra my daughter's in. I'd also like to go to the Florida Orchestra concert next weekend, but there's no chance of that. Add in other school-related events, private music stuff, the birthdays, anniversary, and Mother's Day, ... and I'm glad I'm committed to a formal exercise program, or I'll go crazy.

For the rest of the summer, it's a more relaxed schedule for my family. As usual, I'm not sure I really get a break. Yes, I'm not teaching until June, and it's one course only, but there's union stuff, journal editing, and my own research. Throughout my university, summer this year is going to involve more free time for USF faculty and students, because USF distributed less money for summer teaching than it did last year. Most tenure-track faculty will use the extra time to do research, and maybe relax a bit. Unlike Margaret Soltan, I don't think most new faculty can look forward to a relaxed life. But that's a complicated subject, it may reflect the different institutions where we teach, and if faculty are busy in the summer when not teaching a full load, it's because of self-imposed discipline.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:19 AM (Permalink) |

May 7, 2008

Summer syllabus finalized

In between bits and pieces of other things, I've finalized the syllabus for the class I start teaching in June. This is a topics course on education reform (history and social-science perspectives on), and I probably didn't take many risks in setting up the summer course. We'll just see how it goes. Four books in common, one independently chosen and read... I'm fairly happy with how I'm using the gap between the fourth and fifth class sessions, but that's before we get into the course. There are a few other ways I'm trying to manage the time (all-day class sessions), and I hope it keeps student interest and motivation high.

And I'm trying an avatar before the course. (If you can't see the Flash avatar box below, you'll have to click through to the entry on my webpage to see it.) We'll see how it goes...


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Posted in Teaching at 3:17 PM (Permalink) |

May 6, 2008

Reading First analysis, the Boring Version

I've got to stop being even slightly witty, or I'll continue to be quoted slightly out of context, but in this case, it's entirely my fault for being all "meta" on Mike Petrilli's defense of the Fordham Foundation's defense of Reading First.

So let me try to address the substantive policy issues. No Child Left Behind created a large program (Reading First) to give money to states that promised to adopt early-reading programs with significant research support. This came on the heels of a National Reading Panel report that emphasized the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction to early reading, among the focused questions it addressed.

For now, let me skip the question of the NRP report, since I'm not a reading research specialist (see completely ambiguous disclosure at the end of this entry). Instead of looking at the reading research base, I'm going to make the point that at least the implementation was bollixed up. The Department of Education's appointees to various pieces tied to Reading First were often tied to people at or from one institution (the University of Oregon), and the Inspector General's report was concerned about both conflicts of interest and also the way that many states felt pressured to adopt a specific curriculum/reading program.

I don't have much experience reading program audit reports, but from the few I have, there's an understated quality to most of the language, and it's not clear from the outside whether the muted tones necessarily mean, "Well, someone complained, and there are minor problems," or whether they mean, "I'm going to be very polite, but at least one person screwed up massively, and the only reason why no one's being prosecuted here is because there's no covering statute or the threshold for conviction is pretty high--but since I'm an auditor and not a prosecutor, I'm staying well out of that territory." I'm on the outside, so I have no clue which is which with the Reading First report, though I looks like it shaded into at least minimal corruption.

So it's possible that the Congressional bristling at appropriating funds for Reading First may reflect some informal briefings about the extent of problems. But it's not that simple, either, since Reading First appropriations may also be the way that Congressional Democrats can exercise limited authority over the Bush administration scandals: it may be possible that since Democrats can't punish the DoD or key administration figures over Halliburton the way they'd like, they're going to Make Damn Sure that other shenanigans are shut down (or programs they perceive to be shenanigans). Whether that shades into partisan battles probably depends on your partisan leanings.

... or it may be the standard legislative Scandal Fatigue: "We're not sure exactly what the problem is, but something's wrong, the program evaluation doesn't appear to look good, and maybe just wiping the slate clean is best."

... and wiping the slate clean may be best, both for state officials who want funding for reading programs and also for children. There will probably be a new reading program, with several new statutory requirements to prevent a repeat of what the IG found (or what Congressional leaders think the IG found or are concerned about because of the report or what their staffers think is a good idea in response to the audit report or...).

Whatever federal program comes out of the ashes of Reading First may be as closely related to phonemic awareness and phonics as Reading First, but it may not. The evaluation cracks open the debate over teaching reading that the NRP never really closed. I'm not sure it's that controversial that fluency is important but not sufficient to guarantee comprehension. But Big Bucks are involved, so everything gets magnified. The corruption in Reading First hasn't helped that, either.

(And now the disclosure: My experiences are firmly on the side of phonemic awareness's importance: I was a postdoc with a fellow postdoc who was a firm advocate of Direct Instruction (with capital letters), and I've seen similar stuff work with struggling young readers. And one of my children clearly learned to read relying first on phonics and classic blending instruction (together with individualized picture mnemonics to learn the ball-and-stem letters' sounds). But my DI friend's roommate was a comprehension researcher who teased her friend, "So after your kids learn to sound out words fluently, they need to come to me to learn what the stuff means!" The struggling readers I mentioned earlier also had the benefit of engaging text. And my other child clearly was a print-convention person whose learning of reading didn't appear to need phonics instruction, as far as I can recall. Go figure, but if you can find an ax I'm grinding here, you're pretty creative.)

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Posted in Education policy at 7:38 PM (Permalink) |

May 4, 2008

Agreements with Fordham

Lest readers assume I disagree with Mike Petrilli and Fordham colleagues on everything, let me give them full credit for standing on the right side of science education in Florida, where they were ahead of the curve several years ago in criticizing the state Department of Education's cowardice on science standards, supported the new standards, and criticized Florida Senator Ronda Storms's efforts to couch religious and political intrusions into science education under the misleading term of academic freedom. I'm a supporter of academic freedom, but Fordham and I agree that many Florida legislators need a bit more education on the concept and on what science is.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:35 PM (Permalink) |

Extra credit assignment for grad students

2 extra points, a gold star, and a free hall pass to beginning scholars who can spot the flaws in Mike Petrilli's defense of Reading First. It's clear that the Reading First program administration was corrupted, and reading Petrilli's blog entry looks like it's really a knee-jerk defense of Fordham's previous defense of Reading First and about as credible as Hillary Clinton's defense of her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:32 PM (Permalink) |

Desegregation history

Eduwonkette made me wince a few weeks ago with her entry, Did School Integration Really Do Much Good? She quoted a relatively new economic study using Louisiana, but there's a fairly sizable literature on this already, including classic works by Roz Mickelson and Jennifer Hochschild, among many many others. Yes, there is evidence of cognitive (achievement) effects of desegregation that are not attributable to better funding. Not everyone agrees with those evidentiary claims, but one of the consequences of NCLB on research is that accountability has sucked the air out of all sorts of questions, including the consequences of ending effective desegregation in dozens of our large metropolitan areas.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:12 PM (Permalink) |

A thoughtful debate on curriculum

One of the greatest sins of the Joel Klein administration is engaging in Stupid Ed Tricks that distract Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch from thoughtful debate on Bridging Differences, such as the discussion they have been engaged in recently on curriculum:

Here we see two articulate educators defend very different views of the Good Education--not philosophical questions but the policy question of whether a centralized curriculum is appropriate for a state or country. Ravitch favors a centralized curriculum that is less prone to what she sees as the weaknesses of localism. Meier favors local choices that can reap commitments greater than central control.

I think we can take the strengths of each position for granted: Meier has run several schools with very local missions, and she has done so remarkably well. Ravitch points to situations where a centralized curriculum has strengths (such as Finland).

What neither addresses very well are the weaknesses of their own positions. I think Ravitch has a point with the weaknesses of localism: while Meier and many other educators can and have constructed unique curricula that serve students and the community well, there are plenty of cases where localism led to low expectations or just nutty ideas (my phrase, not Ravitch's). And Meier and other critiques of a centralized curriculum have a point: there are plenty of centralized curricula that fetishize knowledge and discourage in-depth probing of key questions.

But those same weaknesses are also often true of each advocate's preferred choice: institutional inertia can easily turn centralized curricula into whatever was gong on in the status quo ante, and local curricula can fetishize factoids as easily as a centralized curriculum.(And don't tell me that a national test will do much to discourage either problem: no test does more than lightly sample any curriculum, and the most easily testable parts of that curriculum.)

What Ravitch and Meier show is that the debate over the curriculum is not just over the stuff but also the how and who and all sorts of meta-issues that focus on control: should a state or country's political leadership (or bureaucratic leadership) decide what children learn, or should teachers and communities (the local bureaucratic and political leadership)?

If you're wincing at that expression, I've made my point: this is the wrong debate to have. Yes, control is important, but whatever level of government/institutions make curriculum decisions, there needs to be regular discussions about what children should be doing and learning. To be honest, neither world-class standards nor community needs cut the mustard with me, because they're shortcut jargon. Here's a challenge: start with a single student's work and go from there. Since history is my discipline, we can use an essay by any student in middle or high school and ask the question: Is this what students should be learning about history and doing in a history class?

Then get a batch of student work with ranges in skills and purposes (of the assignments). What looks "right" to you? Are most students at that point, and what would be necessary to get more students there?

Then look at the discipline more broadly: how much of the thousands of books written in U.S. history in the past few decades is enough stuff to learn in secondary school? What would be embarrassing for students to graduate without knowing? Then, a second look: how many winces can we stand on that point, because adolescents are remarkably forgetful about history?

Then a third look: how would the teaching of history have to change to get the minimum number of winces? How would professional development look? Can the state or country pay for that? Can we afford not to pay for it?

In history, I don't believe anyone's gone through this type of iterative process for K-12. Some parts of it, certainly, but not all of it, except for higher ed. And with due respect for one of my national affiliates I'm embarrassed that the AFT gave Virginia's standards a "100%" for its standards. (That curricular micromanagement is an embarrassment to the discipline.)


The semester has ended, the graduation I attended is over, the legislative session has finished, and the Crazy May events (multiple birthdays, recitals, concerts, etc.) have not yet begun. I had some bureaucratic stuff to do over the weekend that would have been Very Nice to have done a week earlier, so I celebrated the end of the legislative session by doing morning stuff just for myself (yard work, two exercise classes), and then heading into the office to finish up the Late Bureaucratic Stuff.

I am tempted to comment on a bunch of items in the news, and I may in the next few hours, as relaxation, distraction, and celebration. I also need to work on the next English EPAA article, write a few disposition e-mails, herd a few cats (reviewers), finalize the summer class I'm teaching in June and July, schedule a talk with a coauthor, decide if I'll write the book prospectus I was speaking with a series editor about in the last month, write a note to a research group I'm facilitating, Do Union Stuff,... and have a life.

But today is a bit of an in-between moment, with some shepherding of my children to events and small stuff. Too bad blood donation rooms are closed on Sunday, because I haven't given in a while. (I'm eligible, and I have veins the size of superhighways, relatively speaking.)

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Posted in The academic life at 7:40 PM (Permalink) |

May 2, 2008

Sins die

Sine die* is one of the few Latin expressions known or used in the Florida statehouse, and it marks the end of a session (technically adjourning indefinitely). 6pm EDT was the scheduled close, and when the traditional handkerchief dropped a few minutes afterwards, the legislature had wreaked havoc on the state budget, blown apart the merit-evaluation process for $85 million in start-up funds for large research centers, ... but failed to act on two foolish educational ideas, one the misnamed "academic freedom" bill that would undercut the science standards and the other a constitutional proposal that would strip the state's Board of Governors of all authority to manage the state's universities except what the legislature deigned to give it.

In both cases, there was a broad array of opponents, though the bill to undermine science standards was far closer to passage. In the case of university governance, the state's university faculty were joined by the editorial boards of major daily newspapers, the state's Chamber of Commerce, a business development group called the Council of 100, and a former private-university president who is now a state-house representative. Everyone who opposed the proposal deserves credit for killing it.

* The pronunciation is commonly "sigh-nee die," though purists would probably prefer "sin-ay dee-ay." I still like "sins die," but maybe that's because I'm now completing my 12th year in Florida.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:37 PM (Permalink) |

May 1, 2008

The rest of the story on the excessed teacher controversy

I had been wondering what else was going on with the controversy over the excessed teacher pool in New York City. The politics here just seemed as if something was missing. Leo Casey calls it a naked political power play and lays out UFT's perspective, along with a trail of specifics. The core of the allegation is that

... when UFT President Randi Weingarten blew the whistle on the DoE's wasting of taxpayer funds at City Council hearings, the DoE retaliated by publishing the New Teacher Report it had been holding for this moment...

So part of this is the question of substantive policy, but another piece is the allegation that the NY DoE was being manipulative, essentially making policy by press strategy.

Incidentally, we'll now be able to judge the UFT's details by the city Department of Education's response. Here, remember the adage about what lawyers do: If you have the facts, pound the facts. If you have the law, pound the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, pound the table.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |