September 30, 2009

The Child has arrived!

This week I received my contributor's copy of The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion. I have a single entry (on dropouts), and it's clear there's lots of good stuff in it on a range of topics, including a substantial section with historical and social-science perspectives on families. I think the cost is about on par for academic encyclopedias ($75), and there's a 20% discount right now (or an after-discount price of $60). Disclosure: No royalties for me if you buy it, or don't. But you can definitely ask your library to buy it.

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Posted in History at 10:42 AM (Permalink) |

Looking forward to reading midterms

A few minutes ago, I finished preparing the midterm for my undergraduate history of education class, and I am looking forward to reading student responses.

For this semester, I decided to write a midterm that was entirely focused on historical documents in the form of primary-source identification items. The task for each item requires that students identify the item, place it in time (reasonably close), provide a little bit of close reading, and then explain at least two dimensions of broader historical significance. At the beginning of the semester, I was hoping that having this structure would encourage students to focus on the primary sources, and I think it is working reasonably well. But we will all see for certain after class tomorrow.

I am also shoving the midterm as close to the beginning of the semester as I can (this is our sixth week), so students have at least two key grades before the drop deadline. 

I think next week I will ask students what they've thought of the pace thus far in the semester. Because of a number of events this month, my sense of time is all messed up, and I have no solid feel for student perceptions. My rational guess based on prior experience is that students might feel a little rushed now but might appreciate the midterm timing later in October, as other assignments begin to pile up.  But that's why I need to ask; it's a guess and not firm knowledge.

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Posted in Teaching at 10:01 AM (Permalink) |

September 29, 2009

St. Louis University

I am certainly not the first one to point this out, but St. Louis University has shot itself in the foot by apparently attempting to cancel a David Horowitz speech. Its only (non-saving) grace is that it explicitly has a "we get to decide if your desired speaker says what we want" policy. Too bad that the university's idea of being "consistent with the mission of Saint Louis University" does not include discourse about controversy.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:06 AM (Permalink) |

September 24, 2009

Students can study more than one subject at a time

The future of our nation and world depend on our citizens' understanding of both how they interact with each other and how they interact with the natural world [emphasis added].
--FSU physicist Paul Cottle, responding to a critic who thinks we should be more worried about civics knowledge

As an historian, I agree with Cottle. I want my fellow citizens to have some grounding in more than one subject. I want my neighbors to know that a cookie contains more energy than an equivalent mass of TNT. And I want my neighbors to understand that Jehovah's Witnesses were the plaintiffs in the landmark 1943 case striking down a West Virginia law that mandated students say the pledge of allegiance. And I want them to have those small bits as part of a larger context from each discipline. I think it's possible to hold ideas in one's head from more than one discipline. More than possible: necessary.

Unfortunately, no one has yet taught high school students -- or college professors -- how to answer 80 e-mails in five minutes, which is why I now need to turn to my inbox instead of blogging about anything in depth. 134 e-mails. Yikes.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:17 AM (Permalink) |

September 18, 2009

Galileoscope constructed

It's been a frustrating week in some ways, so I took an hour off to look at the Galileoscope package that arrived a few days ago. Could a non-science person who is only moderately handy put a $20 telescope with supposedly great optical features together?

I guess he could. And then he pointed it at a neighbor's tree 150m away, held a point-and-shoot digital camera up to the eyepiece, and pressed on the shutter as gently as he could:

Squirrel privacy be gone! Now let's see if I can persuade either of my children to look at the stars through this tonight... if we don't have thunderstorms.

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Posted in Personal at 1:51 PM (Permalink) |

September 17, 2009

Serious science toy for the International Year of Astronomy: the Galileoscope

Galileoscope (not the ones in my house)

I wasn't going to mention it here until I got my hands on it, but the two Galileoscopes I ordered in the summer finally made their way to my house yesterday, so I can now tell you all: they're shipping! They're real! One is for us and the other is for a young man we hope to surprise with it (and not upset his parents by giving him an excuse to stay up far, far too late, as well as insisting that they drive him somewhere without light pollution).

These 25x telescopes were designed for the International Year of Astronomy (2009) to have much better optics than telescopes of similar cost ($20 per for small orders), and while I cannot vouch for their qualities (yet!), I am definitely looking forward to putting this together, putting it on a tripod, and looking up at the sky this winter (when Floridians can stargaze with some reliability). The people who are behind this project are dearly hoping that this will give kids all over the world an experience that helps teach them science and inspires some to go into science. I hope they're right!

The following is an image of the moon through a prototype of the Galileoscope:

A great site for astronomy photos if you can't stargaze today: APOD, or the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Today's is absolutely amazing (and that's going to be true no matter when you read this entry).

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Posted in Education policy at 12:42 PM (Permalink) |

In honor of rivalries

This afternoon my son will be on a bus with his marching band for a "road" game where his school's football team is playing my daughter's school's football team. Minor irony: I can't pick him up at the end of the game because he needs to go back with the band (to put away his uniform and equipment), though my daughter's school is closer. In any case, we'll probably be sitting in the home stands with the visitors' colors on. Let's hope we survive!

XKCD comic on pep rallies

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Posted in Random comments at 5:57 AM (Permalink) |

September 16, 2009

Pork-barrel airplane hangars or science?

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle has a wonderful way of comparing the state's science-education needs with what the state legislature's pork-barrel politics has produced in the recent past: think about the $6 million cost of the airplane hangar former House Speaker Ray Sansom stuffed into the budget a few years ago pretending to be a classroom building for Okaloosa-Walton Community College, and then figure out how many "Sansom Airplane Hangars" would be the equivalent of different options for science education. Cottle's list includes the following:

  • 4 Sansom Airplane Hangers = a comprehensive set of end-of-course science exams for high school
  • 5 Sansom Airplane Hangars = comprehensive professional development for science teachers across Florida

I'm biased: I have two teenagers in high school, I hate when politics distorts higher-ed governance, and want the state's economy to rely on more than tourism, cattle, and real-estate bubbles.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:26 AM (Permalink) |

September 15, 2009

And now, Harvard digs deep in the public interest--NOT!

Is there anyone else who read of Harvard's new tuition-free doctorate in ed leadership supported by the Wallace Foundation and first thought, "Oh, that's in competition with the Broad leadership indoctrination inbreeding mutual backscratching society training"? I know what faculty and administrators thought: if there's a (reputational) market for a tuition-free, glitzy finishing school for superintendents, why shouldn't Harvard get in the game? 

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Posted in Education policy at 7:37 AM (Permalink) |

Reality-check request

I have what should be a more long-lasting podcast that I'm starting for both of my classes this semester. It'll be a set of historical perspectives on education news, and it should be public-access, though it's hosted on a walled-garden CMS. Right now there are three podcasts, and I'd appreciate if someone could try to add it to your podcast aggregator (whether iTunes or something else) and let me know if you can grab the episodes.

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Posted in Teaching at 12:17 AM (Permalink) |

September 12, 2009

Whirlwind notes

Idiosyncratic comments of the week:

  • I found out about a death in the family last week. Fortunately, everyone on that side of the family is sane, so we only have grieving and normal headaches involved. I am going to be even further behind than I had already anticipated. Or I'll just have to put more perspective on things (including spending time remembering and missing the person who's gone).
  • In part because of this, I've already had more driving than even the heavy-driving fall I'd been planning for. My mp3 player is getting a huge workout, and I've already heard the entire unabridged Free by Chris Anderson. I think it's the Chronicle of Higher Ed tech podcasters who quipped that if the unabridged audiobook is free, and you have to pay a small amount to get the shortened audiobook, what'll he charge you for not listening to it at all?! Anderson shows his ignorance of psychology by using the long-debunked Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs towards the end, but there are some very useful bits in the book.
  • Academic bloggers Dr. Crazy and Tenured Radical have written entries recently on colleagues who are parents that look like they think seven wrongs make a right (i.e., see two colleagues in Demographic A who are slacking, start insulting everyone else in Demographic A). Uh, no. Slacking off is wrong. So are insults. I love your blogging, Dr C and TR, and you're wrong here in the generalization.
  • Last night I capped off the shortened week by trying to avoid the Drowned Rat Syndrome when the skies opened up before a high school football game. Son in band is good; going to band performance is good (oh, yeah, there's a football game in there, too, somewhere); cancellation is understandable, but why not before we had to drive back through flooded streets? 
  • This is the second weekend in which I'm handling my online class over the weekend, when it seems a plurality of them are active. Tomorrow: more following of the discussion board, recording of presentation, message to students that there are online presentations that I create for a reason. And see how much I can read of their papers (including the batch last weekend whose planned grading has been blown up by family emergency needs).

Please take care. And in lieu of sending real or virtual flowers, please hug or call your loved ones.

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Posted in The academic life at 4:50 PM (Permalink) |

September 11, 2009

Health insurance reform and college completion

I have yet to see anyone discuss the obvious relationship I see between health-insurance reform and education policy: health-related financial crises and college completion problems. There are many reasons why students leave or switch colleges, but one of them is the financial fallout from health crises of students and their immediate family members. Over the years, I have known about a number of students who have either cut back from full-time to part-time status or left college entirely because someone got sick (either them or a relative) and that left a huge hole in the family budget. Especially for first-generation, older students, many of whom have children, many of whom are going to college to escape the dead-end, no/low-benefits jobs they're currently in, this is a nasty catch-22.

I do not know the extent of the problem, but the discussion within higher ed often runs something like this:

  • We know some students drop out because of health problems, either directly or indirectly from the financial fallout.
  • We have college-sponsored insurance plans, but either the premium or the coverage is lousy because the only people in the pool are the people most at risk of having problems.
  • Let's recommend mandatory health insurance for all students!
  • Oh, shoot -- the legislature is telling us we can't, in part because we're already in a financial hole and can't subsidize poor students.

That's what happened in Florida: one university started discussions about mandatory insurance, another (Florida State) took the lead and mandated insurance, a statewide group at the university level continued discussions, and the legislature (this year) banned any university but the first mover (FSU) from mandating insurance.

I don't know the exact extent of the problem, but this is one of the reasons why I am bewildered that major business groups continue to oppose health-insurance reform that would create nearly-universal coverage. With assurance of coverage, people can go out on a limb and start new businesses, something that business groups always claim they want to promote. With the dramatic reduction of health-induced bankruptcy and financial crises, more people would complete college, something business groups say they want.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:27 AM (Permalink) |

September 9, 2009

Bowling for senators, dominoes falling, or some other inapt metaphor

Alyson Klein is reporting that Chris Dodd is probably staying with the banking committee, which leaves the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) chair to either Tom Harkin or (if he doesn't take it) Barbara Mikulski. While the rest of the world (rightly) worries about Max Baucus's control of/chokehold on health insurance reform, the HELP committee is where Ted Kennedy held sway. For those who doubt the influence of the Kennedy family on federal education policy, ask yourself who started substantial federal funding in both education for students with disabilities and research into special education, who created the Special Olympics, and who insisted on annual tests in ESEA originally, as well as who helped shepherd many education bills through Congress in the 1990s and in this decade. The most influential single politician in education policy in the 20th century may have been Lyndon Johnson, but the most influential family was definitely the Kennedy clan.

So there are some mighty big shoes to fill, and as important as those shoes, some interesting relationships to negotiate. As many people have said for months regarding health care policy, Kennedy had enormous negotiating credibility, and whoever replaces him will have to work very differently, in addition to having different priorities and ideas. I am going to assume that some version of health insurance reform will pass this fall, and the primary question about education policy mid-fall will be whether higher-ed policy or K-12 policy is more urgent, and how those issues play out vis-a-vis other legislative priorities.

If Harkin decides to drop the leadership of Agriculture for HELP, he is going to be a tough negotiator for the White House on NCLB/ESEA. Part of that comes from what I gather is a close relationship with Iowa's teachers, and part is probably from his status as a rural-state legislator (and wanting to protect federal funding that would normally go to Iowa in formula-driven processes but might be diverted in a discretionary program). In the end, I suspect he'll stick with Agriculture because he is from Iowa, but even if he is not the HELP chair, he'll still exert influence because of his seniority and the way the Senate works.

I don't know much about Mikulski and education policy, except that from her senate issues site, her focus is on higher education (and that is consistent with whatever vague impression I've had). If she were HELP chair, she'd probably push the higher-ed priorities, probably leading to K-12 issues (NCLB/ESEA) being left for late in 2010 or even 2011.

This just in: the Baltimore Sun's Paul West is reporting on the paper's political blog that Harkin is hopping from Agriculture to HELP. Wow. If that report is true, the USDOE's legislative liaison job just got about three times more interesting.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:30 AM (Permalink) |

September 8, 2009

Rebuttal to the president and the extension of the silly season

One of my Chicago friends, author and professional smart aleck Adam Selzer, has the best rebuttal to the President's school comments today. The theme? "Responsibility is for squares. Slack off, buster!" (taken from one of Adam's FB notes--not in his rebuttal, but it captures the essence)

In the nutty wing of the loyal opposition, the next criticisms of the president:

  • Republican Party of Florida chair Jim Greer will criticize Obama for "socialist breathing." Then, when he is presented a tape of what Obama actually sounds like when asleep, will proclaim, "Oh, it's okay breathing, but he changed his respiration to acceptable, American breathing after my criticism!"
  • Radio/tv show host Glenn Beck will attack Bo as "the most racist dog in America, or at least the most vicious Portguese water dog in America, and probably an illegal alien as well. Maybe a Muslim terrorist illegal alien Portguese water dog who is waiting for us all to fall asleep."

The most serious (and legitimate) criticism I expect of the speech: too long. He was lucky he was in front of high school students, though fourth-graders would also have sat for the entire speech. But kindergarten students or seventh graders? He'd have had no chance.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:21 PM (Permalink) |

September 5, 2009

Alterknit educashun polticks

In the alternate reality where pundits and talk-show hosts live, Barack Obama is not going to say Tuesday that students have a personal responsibility to work hard in school. Somehow this is indoctrination, or maybe unseemly politicking for all the 7-year-olds who will be voting in 2012. Though Richard Whitmire and many others are scratching their heads on this one, putative social conservatives evidently don't want to echo the fundamentally conservative point Obama will make: put yourselves to work and get a stake in society. 

Do I really need to explain why the paranoid style of education politics is supremely nutty?

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 8:28 AM (Permalink) |

Rising health-care costs are all my fault

It's true. See what this "friend" wrote me some weeks ago:

Oh, so you're the guy who's driving up everyone's premiums with your insatiable demands for weekly colonoscopies.

Don't worry: the TMI in the full entry is about insurance companies, not what the doctors found.

Thanks to family medical history, my regular doctor and I had decided early this year that a colonoscopy was warranted at the tender age of 44. Not exactly fun, from everything I'd heard, but I'd rather have a day or two of inconvenience than colon cancer. So I [the details of the procedure have been redacted except for this completely accurate depiction by Dave Barry for reasons of national security; trust us on this one, you don't want to know--your neighborhood NSA guys]. No problem--benign! Okay, I'll have to return in a few years.

A few weeks later, I received an explanation-of-benefits sheet from my insurance company saying they had paid $mumbledy to the place where I had my colonoscopy. (By the way, did you know that March is Colonoscopy Awareness Month? I always wondered why that's the first half of the regular Florida legislative session.) Okay, I thought: that's the facility. What about the doctors?

No problem! A few weeks later I received another explanation-of-benefits sheet, with no payment to the GI. None. Zip. "You're too young to know," was the explanation at the bottom. No, it wasn't: they said that they wouldn't cover preventive colon care before I was 50. A few days later, another nonexplanation of nonpayment, this time to the anesthesiologist.

Puzzled, I called my insurer. The explanation: "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense." I suspect the real explanation was three times as wordy and I have shortened it as a result of the lasting mental trauma I experienced. I explained in response: I've got a family history that justifies a colonoscopy. "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense, and you've got an ugly nose, too." I explained a little more: not only did I have a family history, but the GI removed a polyp. How could it be unnecessary if they found something? "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense, you've got an ugly nose, and your sister's one, too." I explained further: not only did I have a family history and the GI removed a polyp, but the insurance company had paid for the facilities charge. "Oh, yeah, and see if your doctor can change the diagnosis code."

Well, that went over like a ton of Rush Limbaugh with the accounting department in the medical group. "So they're asking us to commit fraud?" was the response. We talked for a few minutes, commiserated, and then I sent in an appeal to the insurer. I explained that few people volunteer for colonoscopies, I sent a copy of a report from one of my close relatives that triggered the decision for me and had the handy notation right in the report to the attending physician, "Make sure that all of this patient's close relatives get a lifetime supply of MoviPrep because they'll use it," and to make sure that they ignored my appeal with full knowledge, I triple-checked the right address before mailing it in.

And in a few weeks, regular as clockwork, the post office delivered a new explanation-of-benefits charge with a payment to the GI. Woohoo! Except not so fast! There's this small matter of the anesthesiologist, who for some strange reason had his own accounting department. (I'm beginning to think that this is the result of midlife crises for doctors. "What'd you get, a Porsche?" "No, an accounting department." "With racing trim?")

So I thought a bit and asked some friends: what is the rationale for an insurance company paying for a surgical procedure but not for the anesthesiology? That's like listening to Sean Hannity without earplugs or watching the Miami Heat last year with any knowledge of how one should play the game called "basketball." I called up the insurer (yet once more) and after a bunch of "get them to change the diagnosis code" calls and a few detours, the customer service rep put me on hold for, oh, 40 hours. Okay, about 40 minutes instead. And said that he'd fixed it. I obtained some critical details and then called up the anesthesiologist. I talked with the accounts receivable staff, commiserated, and then passed along every bit of information I could so she could file the second appeal (which she volunteered to do). And now, finally, everything is paid.

... but for a few salient facts, such as the time I spent resolving this, the time two doctors' offices spent, and the fact that I was able to appeal successfully because I know how to work a bureaucracy. And in a just world, you should not have to have a graduate degree and several books that touch on bureaucracies to have it all work out in the end.

Coda (Italian for "tail"): I would have published this entry yesterday except for a family emergency. Two points about that: 1) I am therefore still justified in classifying this as an "out of left field Friday" entry; and 2) a family emergency will often involve much less trouble than getting insurance to pay for a medically-justified procedure.

Finally, please get your own tail to a colonoscopy if you're over 50 and haven't had one yet, or if you have the family medical history to justify one earlier. Colon cancer is preventable, but only if you're willing to get your insides checked out.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 7:06 AM (Permalink) |

September 2, 2009

"Lake Wobegon" Klein

From pp. 68-69 of Accountability Frankenstein:

The complexity of an accountability system can also help muffle opposition to accountability if it gives a reasonable chance for students or schools to be successful in the system's labeling... the political potential to muffle opposition within a system may be more important than the technical qualities of a system, for schools typically trumpet any positive label on any website, pamphlet, or streetside marquis. All three of these states provide evidence of the capacity for complex systems to muffle dissent. In North Carolina, the majority of schools have received some recognition award in every single year of its accountability system's history. In Florida's system, 13% earned recognition in its first year, 1999, but that proportion rapidly grew, and a majority of schools received recognition awards in each of the years from 2003 to 2006. In California, 47% of California's schools earned statewide recognition in 2002, and two thirds of the schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District earned recognition.

I don't know why anyone would suspect that there is any political convenience involved in having the single letter grades assigned to a whole slew of NYC schools jump to A, but it's not isolated to New York. It's just that New York has overtaken Lake Wobegon as a symbol of overestimation of results. Then again, since Garrison Keillor spends several months a year in New York, maybe it's highly appropriate.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:47 PM (Permalink) |