October 30, 2009

Do Times reporters know the difference between percentages and raw numbers?

I suspect the following is an unfortunate placement by the reporter on a story about record high percentages of young adults in college (with an emphasis on percentages):

"What's behind this," Mr. [Richard] Fry added, "is that we have the biggest pool of young adults we've ever had who've finished high school."

I suspect that this is in reference to the growth of enrollment in two-year colleges, not total college-going. That distinction was not clear in the article.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 6:03 AM (Permalink) |

Florida Student Group Fights for Zombie Rights

Tallahassee, Florida (Dissociated Press) -- At an early-morning press conference in the state capital, five zombies attending Florida state universities announced the formation of the new organization Florida Upbeat Zephyr Zombies (FUZZ) to fight for zombie rights.

"There are organizations that fight for the rights of students to be free from discrimination on all sorts of grounds," said FUZZ President B. Ray Andy-Indira Nougat. "Until now, though, no one has fought for the dead and undead. That all changes today."

The leaders of FUZZ explained at the press conference that after the suppression of student zombies Wednesday at the University of Florida, and the discovery earlier in the month of a plan to fight zombies at the same university, there was a pressing need to act immediately.

"The official stance of the state's flagship university is anti-zombie, and that's unacceptable," said the FUZZ vice president, Yasmin Urgun-Morales. "There is a stigma that all undead students face in schools. But we're supposed to be educating all Floridians who can benefit from college." 

A staff member for Governor Crist said that he was unaware of any need for protection of zombies or other undead Floridians, though she admitted off the record, "Oh, what the hell. We have zombie mortgage companies, a zombie professional football team, and utilities that act like vampires. Why not a zombie student group?"

Later, the governor's office issued the following statement: "Governor Crist welcomes the productive contributions of all Floridians to the welfare of the state and looks forward to working with zombie students to advance the state's education system and economic development."

University of Florida officials had no comment for this story apart from a one-sentence statement: "The University tries to create an environment free of disruption, and the university will not tolerate actions by any student who threatens to eat classmates or any vital organs or significant parts of classmates."

In an unrelated story, researchers reported this morning that this reporter's brains are entirely unappetizing.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 5:36 AM (Permalink) |

October 29, 2009

Channeling Jerry Bracey on "proficiency": it's political, not scientific

One of the late Jerry Bracey's hobbyhorses was the pretense that the NAEP achievement level labels were scientific, as he argued in 1999: "The standards have generally been the object of scorn and derision from the psychometric community." He was fond of quoting the 1999 report on NAEP proficiency levels, esp. from p. 162: " Standards-based reporting is intended to be useful in communicating student results, but the current process for setting NAEP achievement levels is fundamentally flawed." So when NCES issues a report comparing the implied theta-values of cut-scores for proficiency on state assessments to the theta-values of cut scores for proficiency on NAEP and both Ed Week and the Christian Science Monitor report on the paper with a straight face, we're obviously seeing one place where Bracey's voice is already missing.

I think Jerry perseverated on this issue, to the detriment of a sensible argument about political judgments. The larger point which is inescapable is that cut scores are set arbitrarily, and there is no way to avoid that fact. Those who support setting achievement levels hope and pray that they're arbitrary in the sense of arbitration and careful judgment, not by being capricious. But they are arbitrary, and even moreso the labels assigned them. What we know is that someone who scores at a "proficient" level on NAEP is scoring higher than someone in the "basic" band. That's all we know from those labels: ordinality. Moses did not come down from Mount Sinai with NAEP scores carved in tablets. 

So what do we do with the inherently political nature of those labels? As I have argued in Accountability Frankenstein, the caution with which we use the judgments on cut scores should depend on the stakes of their use. If they're used to target resources, that's one thing (resources are going to be targeted in some manner), but the more that someone's job depends on them, the more wary we should be of how we set thresholds. 

Today, however, NAEP labels and cut-scores are serving a purely performative act, to stigmatize states for their political response to NCLB. I hereby propose that we have the following new labels for NAEP achievement levels: 

NAEP-achievement-levels.jpg

I think that's in the spirit of the day's report...

Correction: I assumed that NCES was using detailed data from the state assessments to estimate IRT parameters. Silly me. They were using distributional data for linkage. Oops... for me for forgetting the methods from the last such report. I'll let the measurement folks argue about the methods used here. 

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 1:02 PM (Permalink) |

October 27, 2009

Why unions need competent administrators on the other side

Dean Dad neatly explains why Southwestern College's leaders aren't even competent Machiavellian administrators. While I've occasionally heard from people that the best union recruiting tool is a horrid manager, life is more complicated. Yes, there are threshold effects of managerial incompetence and cruelty on organizing campaigns, but for an already-recognized union with plenty of duties, competence from most of management is far better, for a number of reasons:

  • Most union members--including most vigorous union members--do not want to spend their entire lives in conflict with coworkers (which most managers are, in terms of daily contact). Unions as advocates,  watchdogs, and the workplace equivalent of public defenders? That's a sustainable metaphor for what unions do. Us-Them metaphors can get people through a crisis, but not generally through an entire decade without some loss of integrity (see the great new book Staying with Conflict for more on the long game from a conflict-resolution expert's perspective). 
  • It's better to win grievances by persuading managers on most cases than be taking every issue to an arbitrator. In a large enough workplace, there will inevitably be contract violations, if for no other reason than because most managers don't understand collective bargaining agreements and there are many pressures to take short-cuts on process. Informal resolution of the vast majority of such situations is in the interest of union members, and you're much more likely to get that if the people on the other side of the table are sane and competent.
  • Competent and sane administrators are less likely to do extraordinary damage to your members. That's not a foolproof, money-back guarantee, since everyone makes mistakes (see the last point), but I'd rather save my resources and time for a handful of problems than try to address dozens of serious problems every year.
  • Competent and sane administrators can be engaged and taught how to improve relationships with the people you represent. Everyone has an ego, but I'd like to work with people where a solid majority can put aside their egos and ideas to learn how to work better. And where I might learn a thing or two in return.
  • Part of a union's job is to promote the careers of its members, and that may take them into management. Do you want managers who understand the needs of the people you represent? If you put a target on the back of every current manager, you discourage your coworkers from becoming sympathetic managers.

At this point in my career and union work, I am convinced that patience, a good ear, and large doses of self-deprecating humor are important tools of power for union leaders. Using them requires suspending a belief in the Force (which is required to believe in the Dark Side). As in all things automotive and judgmental, your mileage may vary.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 11:52 PM (Permalink) |

October 25, 2009

In no language either is there the phrase "as quiet as an airport"

Heard on the Philadelphia International Airport intercom. Or at least the small bits I could "understand"...

THIS IS A BOARDING ANNOUNCEMENT FOR 
PASSENGER GRISENSD PLEASE GO TO TRUMP ATE 
FERRITINOUS PAGING WE NEED YOU AT GATE 
WYNNEWOOD NARBUHTH ARDMORE HAVERFORD BRYN MAWR ROSEMONT
CODE PHILLIES WAITING RAIN
DELAY HAS WITHDRAWN FROM DANCING WITH THE
STARS SEEN ELOPING IN NEXT MONTH'S
PEOPLE ARE ACCORDING TO POLLS NO LONGER BELIEVING THAT
OBAMA ATTACKS FOX
NEWS EVERY THIRTY MINUTES ON THE
HALF HOUR UNTIL DEPARTURE PLEASE TAKE YOUR BOARDING
PASS GO COLLECT
TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS ONLY IF YOU ORDER FROM SKYMALL
CATALOG THE ERRORS OF YOUR WAY
WHILE AWAY THE TIME UNTIL YOUR FLIGHT
BOARDS AT GATE
TWENTY-THREE WEEKS OF CONSTRUCTION TO IMPROVE OUR AIRPORT. 
WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.
Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 2:57 PM (Permalink) |

Ted Sizer's push

It had instant credibility to the vast majority of readers who all probably shifted uncomfortably while reading certain passages, recognizing themselves. And the terms that came out of that project...

Classroom treaties.Tell me if you don't remember an entire class wheedling a teacher or two to change an assignment, to lower expectations a smidgen, and also reduce the teacher's workload. 

The anonymity of the high school student. Tell me if you don't remember the bright classmate hiding in the back of the class, never called on, never pushed to think hard, never affected personally by a teacher.

The shopping-mall high school. That was the title of one of the other books that came out of the same project, and while it had a bit more of an edge, it had the same subtext: we can expect more. 

Exhibitions. Most people call them portfolios, but he wanted them to be exhibitions in a more public sense, to get adolescents to be proud of their work, even if they were works in progress themselves (as are we all). 

I know that I'm going to read laudatory eulogies of Ted Sizer in the next month, and I hope they don't forget his strategic choices in the 1980s, as he put together the project that became Horace's Compromise, The Shopping Mall High School, and The Last Little Citadel. I suspect that while his own books will be emphasized, along with his Essential Schools project, there was a subtle and clever point about his focus on the plurality experience in suburban high schools after World War 2: "I'm talking about you. Not Other People who don't have your advantages. You. Your children. How we're not expecting what we can from teenagers in your life."

His underlying ethic was one of pushing teenagers in healthy directions. It's close to Deborah Meier's point about a small high school: adults are supposed to be "in your face" in the right ways, so adolescents don't disappear into the woodwork. It's a structure to encourage pushing without having to be pushy. "I love you and expect more from you." "No, you can't get away with that." "I know you can do more." It's not without choices, by any means, but the choices have consequences and need to be deliberate, not the first thought off the top of a teenager's head. "That's interesting. How else could you do that?" "How did that affect the people in your lives? What else did you think about doing?" It's about pushing teenagers into thoughtful independence. "Here's the end goal. How would you get there? What would be your first step?"

I'm at the History of Education Society meeting this week, and there are so many here who knew or worked with Ted Sizer, including Bob Hampel (who wrote The Last Little Citadel). Many of the historians of ed who knew Sizer closely have retired, and many of us (including me) are young enough and unlucky enough that we never met him. But we know both his scholarly contributions (the first serious historical work on the high school) and his contribution to serious reform discussions over the past quarter-century.

In lieu of sending flowers, don't let an adolescent get away with sloppy thinking this week. Push.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 7:14 AM (Permalink) |

October 22, 2009

Duncan's talk at Teachers College: first impressions

Some quick impressions of the text of Arne Duncan's speech at Teachers College today: 

Historical quibble: Duncan said he was speaking at a place where "giants like John Dewey played such a formative role." No, he didn't, or at least not at Teachers College. When Dewey moved from Chicago to Columbia, he moved from education to philosophy, which is south of 120th Street. At Teachers College at the time, Edward Thorndike was far more influential. And after Dewey left Chicago, Charles Judd ruled the roost there. Correction to the quibble: In comments, Aaron Pallas points out that Duncan's speech was sponsored by Teachers College but held in a lecture hall south of 120th St. (i.e., on the Columbia side of the Academic Gorge of the Upper West Side). I stand corrected.  Or I blog corrected.

Right: Duncan is correct that teacher education in the U.S. is currently inadequate. Duncan is correct that colleges of education do not teach everything that teachers need, and the reports he hears (about the inadequacy of preparation for classroom management and use of student performance information to improve instruction) is consistent with plenty of other information.

Wrong: Duncan wrongly implies that teacher education can easily fill the holes that teachers see from the classroom. Many years ago, I remember seeing the surveys for one absolutely solid program that taught about behavior management and using student performance data in a rigorous manner, and the primary complaints of alumni/ae was ... that the program didn't prepare them adequately in classroom management. On some things there is no substitute for experience, I suspect. 

Right: Duncan argues that teacher education programs (and states) have not looked sufficiently to what happens with their graduates and the students of their graduates. He points in contrast to Louisiana's longitudinal analysis of teacher preparation programs, and he is right to do so. In contrast with all sorts of self-aggrandizing projects, George Noell has built a team whose reporting is relatively careful with methods and conclusions.

Wrong: Duncan baldly claims that he knows what good teacher education looks like.  Dear Secretary Duncan: don't you remember the other part of the speech where you said that we don't look sufficiently at outcomes? Either we need to look at data carefully to figure out what works and what doesn't, or we know everything right now. I suspect that we know plenty of stuff that does not work, but that doesn't say much about the inevitable tradeoffs--whether it's more important to put resources into giving teachers detailed assessment classes or putting principal and specialist candidates through those classes, whether it's more important to make teacher-ed students spend their entire last year in schools (as happens with one of the programs Duncan praises), or make them spend more time learning content. By highlighting and praising a few current fads in teacher education, Duncan is falling into the same pattern he criticizes schools of education for. 

Right: Duncan did not try to point fingers in politically-convenient directions. He did not try to claim that all teacher-ed programs are alike in content or structure. In contrast to Arthur Levine's semi-ahistorical report, Duncan did not claim that a major problem somehow lies with those of us on the margins of teacher education (as if all colleges of education are run by philosophers and historians). He correctly pointed to the institutional environment within which teacher-education programs operate:

It is far too simple to blame colleges of education for the slow pace of reform. In fact, universities, states, and the federal government have all impeded reform in a variety of ways.

Minor quibble here: One could legitimately claim that colleges of education have been on the forefront of reform plenty of times in the past century, sometimes but not always on the side of  improving education. See my note above about Dewey, Thorndike, and Judd. And Diane Ravitch is correct about Teachers College in one very important way: William Bagley was on the right side in the early 20th century, against the conventional-wisdom of the day about reform. 

But the reasons why elite schools of education headed in the wrong direction at the time fits with Duncan's institutional context: for universities, the easiest money in the early 20th century was in collecting school administrators and administrator wannabes into graduate programs, at the beginning of a trend that no one who reads Duncan's speech text should be surprised about: for decades, education and chemistry regularly vied for the highest number of doctorates granted in the country. 

I teach at a college of education, one of the larger ones in the country. At first blush, Duncan's criticism strikes me on the whole as reasonable, and far more reasonable than the more venomous attacks I've seen before. I would love to trade the double standards and incredible micromanagement of programs we currently experience in our state (and I could tell tales of some of the idiocies we experienced in our last joint state-NCATE review--and this comes from one of the faculty members who had relatively little time sucked away for this) for a requirement to pay attention to what happens to our graduates and their students after they leave us. 

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 11:17 PM (Permalink) |

October 21, 2009

A gadfly remembered: Jerry Bracey

An e-mail from Kevin Welner yesterday announced Jerry Bracey's death Monday night. I only met him a handful of times in the past 20 years of his persistent, indefatigable efforts to poke holes in every public report or news story he saw as an effort to demonize public schooling. His Huffington Post column from September 25 is representative of both the topics that he addressed year in and year out and the disdain he felt towards those who he thought libeled and slandered public-school students and educators.

According to one online biography, he was an early-childhood psychologist at the Educational Testing Service and Indiana University before becoming a testing director for the state of Virginia in the late 1970s and then taking a similar position in a small school Colorado district in the mid-80s. At about the same time he moved to Colorado, he began writing columns on education research for Kappan magazine, and in 1991 he wrote a long article excoriating critics of public schools, primarily the authors of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and anyone who repeated the claims in that report.

He has spent the last 18 years writing detailed critiques of whatever target happened to catch his eye. I first met him when he visited the University of Delaware in 1992-93 as he was beginning his second career as a mythbuster. My impression at the time was that he was smart, detail-oriented, and tilting at a windmill. I think my judgment at the time has been borne out by his writings since then. For more than a decade, the Kappan magazine published his annual "Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," which usually praised a handful of individuals and dished out acidic criticism to those Bracey thought were fools or worse. For a few years, Kappan published his "Rotten Apple" awards with Bracey's annual report and then thought better of it once the first lawsuit threat appeared (when Bracey handed Willard Daggett the "No, you're not a ham, ham can be cured" Rotten Apple Award in 2000). Thereafter, every year at about the same time as his rotten-appleless report appeared in Kappan, Bracey would e-mail his annual Rotten Apple nominations to the world (or at least a long list of recipients), eventually publishing them and the annual report manuscripts online. Bracey was the Pauline Kael of education research.

Bracey was a true gadfly, a semi-retired professional who did his best to discomfit those who he thought were abusing their positions. He held no White House post, no political appointments in the U.S. Department of Education, no leadership spot in a well-funded think tank.

It is often the case that gadflies are ill-appreciated during their lifetimes, and often they pick the wrong windmills, or they tilt at windmills when they could be digging out the foundation instead. But Bracey was always there to respond to what he thought was poor reporting and sloppy thinking. There is probably no national reporter on the education beat in the past 20 years who didn't hear at one point or another from Jerry Bracey about Simpson's paradox or why NAEP's achievement levels were more political than scientific. Debra Viadero's blog entry today is very much in the vein I've read from reporters on occasion over the years: "He was, to put it bluntly, a thorn in our side. Once in a while, though, he had a point and I was awed by his tireless persistence and his willingness to heap criticism on government leaders from both sides of the political aisle, from Margaret Spellings to Arne Duncan."

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 11:53 PM (Permalink) |

October 18, 2009

The curious case of Larry Summers

Okay, maybe I can't let well enough alone on economics. About a decade from now, someone will have both the material and distance to write a fabulous biography of Larry Summers. On one level, he is a brilliant economist. At another level, he has been a total MF, and at Harvard the financial games and the Schleifer scandal are worse than his noncollegial style and tendency to say tremendously stupid things in public. I think he clearly has matched Bill Clinton on the "fast thinker with a deep mental problem" scale. The extent of all this is unknown at the moment. We have some interesting pieces by Ryan Lizza on his role on the White House economic team, Vanity Fair on the collapse of Harvard's endowment, and evolving coverage of what was clearly a bone-headed move in interest swaps* that the Boston Globe reported Friday but bloggers had uncovered in the summer (as Margaret Soltan explains). I know that Mark Ames tried to put things together last fall on Summers, but events move faster than journalists and sometimes you need a real historian and real time to put things in perspective.

When that time comes, you'll need someone with financial acumen and knowledge of higher education, as well as politics. That will be an interesting challenge, but I look forward to reading the Summers biography when it eventually comes out. If you're 13 years old and looking for a great dissertation topic, here's the one to keep in mind!

* In response to a colleague's concern many months ago about swaps, I looked at the interest-swap agreements of my own university. Mind-numbingly dull and mundane, they were the ordinary kind where the university bonded out debt at variable-rate interest and then turned around and agreed with a bank to pay the bank a fixed rate in return for the bank covering the variable-rate interest on the bond. It's a hedge against inflation, and because interest rates can't go below zero, the ordinary interest-rate swap looks like it has a limited liability. What Summers did at Harvard was different: Apparently Harvard agreed to interest-rate swaps on debts that Harvard would not incur for years and years. 

** The swap-swashbuckling was compounded by the other bone-headed move of investing operating funds in less-liquid, more-risky investments.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 8:45 AM (Permalink) |

October 17, 2009

An historian reads the business section (with apologies to John Allen Paulos)

I do not generally comment on economic matters, but I think historians of education can say something productive about the current myths plodding around the internet about the stimulus and the non-bank sector of the banking industry. First, some of the current discourse:

  • Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, is unimpressed with stimulus dollars being spent in Florida, arguing that to do much good, the money should have come in and been spent much faster.
  • John Quiggen is upset over at Crooked Timber over Goldman Sachs's profiting from risky ventures, or maybe upset that they're getting significant leverage over financial firms that have taken federal recapitalization and sat on the money, or repaid it to avoid additional regulation. I am not exactly sure how close Quiggen is to Krugman's being upset that we're not moving fast enough to regulate the unregulated (non-bank) part of banking.

These appear to be fairly standard concerns with economists. And I sort of understand that, except for a few perspectives from the history of stodgy institutions (schools):

  • Sometimes moving slowly is what's needed for longer-term needs. As other economists have pointed out, White House economist-in-chief Christine Romer's broader concern has consistently been with the general output gap over several years. In contrast with a mild recession where the output gap really is short-term, we're going to have problems with output for more than 8-12 months. So spending over more than 8-12 months is not a bad idea. This is about saving the entire country's economy, not just Florida or any single state.
  • Lots of institutionalized changes are hidden, and that's as true for the stimulus as it often is with education. For political purposes, the White House is now starting to highlight the jobs created and to a lesser extent the jobs saved by the stimulus. To my mind, it's the thousands of public-service jobs saved that are evidence of effective policy, but that's hidden because people have kept jobs (and it's hard to see non-change as a success). Similarly, part of the stimulus is the reduction in federal income-tax withholding. If I understand things correctly, that's more effective than a tax rebate precisely because it's not that visible, and people of low and moderate means are likely to take that extra money every paycheck and spend it on things they desperately need to pay for... and that keeps demand up. (Giving people a tax rebate may be perfectly justifiable public policy for other purposes, but I'm not convinced that it's effective for stimulus.)
  • Instead of hoping that we can fix those buggers so they can't game the system anymore (a common dream in accountability policy), maybe we should assume that the attempt to game the system is as much of a permanent feature of financial institutions as it is in schools. And maybe we should take a long-term perspective that we always assume there will be attempts to game the system and a need to adjust public policy on a cyclical basis to respond to such gaming. As many have pointed out, even if the bank-in-name side of banking has recovered and started to lend again (and I think it has), there is a huge hole where the non-banking side used to leverage itself out the wazoo to give out subprime loans, liars' loans, and the like. Yes, there needs to be better regulation of the finance industry, but we should assume it is always incomplete and never done. An example of where the evolution of financial regulation worked is in so-called peer-to-peer lending, where propser.com and lendingclub.com popped up in the wake of Kiva's charity microlending on a social platform. The difference between charity social-networked lending and social-network lending with interest is disclosure and risk. In Kiva, you're not expecting interest, and you know that your money loses value every day it's out there in a loan. But that's not a problem since your goal isn't making money. In 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled (properly, I think) that the Prosper and LendingClub operations were essentially securities and needed to be run as such. And both sites have now been approved and reopened as SEC-approved securities operations. This is where regulation works well to keep things transparent. This doesn't mean that P2P lending serves the functional role of putting money to its most productive uses, but I don't think subprime lending did, either, and at least the risks exist and are stated up front, while individuals have the power to make both wise and foolish investment decisions. 

And now, I'll crawl back into my HistoryCave, waiting for the next Little Red Schoolhouse silhouette to show up on the underside of my metropolis's clouds to signal another emergency requiring an Historian of Education.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in History at 7:35 PM (Permalink) |

New grading routine attempt... and why Blackboard 8 continues to be horrible

I need to crack down on myself today and spend all of it grading and doing other teaching-related tasks. Now that I have figured out an awful, awkward, arguably arbitrary workaround for an incredibly stupid usability problem with the Blackboard 8 Grade Center,* I know how students can access feedback I upload and can be confident that the students in my online class can access it. Yes, we're in the middle of the semester, and I had asked for some help with this weeks ago. But I don't blame the tech-support professionals at USF much, given that a power outage a few weeks ago crashed a disk with a key CMS database. Given that massive failure, Blackboard's ordinary, predictable stupidies are minor. And I usually can figure out workarounds myself.

In any case, the new routine over the past week: spend some time at the beginning of grading providing intense, line-editing feedback on a short passage for each paper in a batch. Take a break, and then read, provide feedback, and grade the substance of the entire paper. Yes, this is a standard writing across the curriculum division of writing vs. content feedback, except that I have a very hard time stopping myself from line editing everywhere. So let me see if this separation of tasks works for my time and my students.

* First, the Blackboard 8 Writing Center makes it very hard to upload files with feedback. In the Writing Center, you have to know to right-click in a cell, click on "Grade Details," wait for another page to load, know to click the "View Details" link in the middle-right of the screen, and then upload a file. Repeat for every student.

In addition, Blackboard 8 does not provide automatic links from a student's individual grade to the page where you can upload a file with feedback. Instead, students have to go back to the original assignment, click "View/Complete," wait for another page to load, and know to click "OK," the button that usually returns you to the prior page in BB but here sends you to a page where you can access a file that your instructor uploads.

And because many faculty who set deadlines for assignments ask Blackboard to make the original assignment link invisible after the deadline, my workaround is to modify the assignment entry so that it has a new title with the phrase now graded at the end and so that it is visible to students again.

Oh, yes, and because of the structure of the database with assignments, Blackboard does not allow instructors to create a folder labeled "Graded assignments" and move the assignment entry-points into that new folder. Noooooo... that would be logical, helpful to students, easy for instructors. Therefore, Blackboard makes it impossible.

Next predictable stupidity: Blackboard 9 and accessibility, since BB9 just expands the Javascript unpredictable-flickerable-on-mouseover feature from Grade Center to everything. The evidence on BB's understanding of Section 508 (and that's from 2008--I couldn't find anything more recent) is not impressive.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Teaching at 9:18 AM (Permalink) |

October 14, 2009

Don't exercise: you'll destroy the world

If you had asked me this morning what I expected from the latest round of NAEP math scores and what was going on in DCPS, I would have told you to expect NAEP math scores to increase at a snail's pace with loads of arguments about what that meant, that Michelle Rhee seemed to have decided at long last that working out a deal with Randi Weingarten was more important than a charismatic image, and that maybe we should focus on long-term issues more than evanescent news stories.

After I exercised midday ... and got dizzy and fainted slighty (I'm fine, don't worry, it's only a flesh wound) ... only one of those statements turned out to be true. Fortunately, it's the most important one. I wouldn't make too much of the NAEP trends from a single cycle, nor of the apparent resurgence of the image of Michelle Rhee the Warrior/Tyrant (depending on your POV).

But I've got to say I'm a little worried here. I partially lose consciousness, and a little bit of the universe's fabric frays. I've learned my lesson: I'll never exercise again, to keep the world and reality safe.

For those who are curious: probably a combination of too-little a/c in the gym and my body trying to fight off a virus. My daughter had a fever last night, and while I don't have a fever, I've been exhausted for the last 3-4 evenings. And the most embarrassing detail? It all happened at the leg-press machine. I mean, if you've ever looked at me, you'd say, "If that guy ever faints while working out, it'll be on upper-body work. No real biceps, and don't even try to identify triceps on the man. But the thighs and below? Not a problem." Apparently the large muscles in my body had a larger appetite for blood and oxygen than was healthy.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 8:19 PM (Permalink) |

The comparability fly in the Ouchi/principal-autonomy ointment

Yesterday from a "stakeholders" meeting (I think at the USDOE), Charlie Barone tweets,

Richard Laine of Wallace Foundation: forthcoming Rand study will show [principal] autonomy in hiring a key factor in student achievement.

I've been expecting something like this for a while, not because I'm connected to a RAND insider (I'm not) but because this is the obvious new version of decentralization form that would marry the 1980s-90s site-based management fad with new managerial fads in education.

To some extent I am attracted to Bill Ouchi's argument about principal autonomy leading to lower total student load. Ouchi's claims about total student load is essentially one of Ted Sizer's central arguments from Horace's Compromise, that the number of students a teacher sees is a key factor in the ability to push student achievement. But... and here's a fairly important but... Ouchi's work is tantalizing rather than definitive (because it has not be replicated substantially in terms of total student load), and the temptation to manage large urban districts as "portfolios" with quasi-independent school-level management may push a single form of decentralization at the cost of comparability in expenses and access to great teachers.

What the heck do I mean by that? In a sentence, we may not want principals to have complete autonomy in a task where they have relatively weak skills: knowing which novice teachers are going to be great teachers.


Everyone and her or his grandmother is focusing on the problem of where senior teachers work. This is an intellectual sleight of hand if you simultaneously argue that teachers with seniority are taking advantage of contracts with seniority privileges on transfer to avoid schools who need them and also insinuate that experience means nothing. Let me get this straight: we need to prevent experienced teachers from exploiting labor-market choice to move to schools with more comfortable teaching situations because... they're not inherently any better than teachers with only a few years of experience? This is an inconsistency ripe for Jon Stewart-like treatment.

More important than the intellectual sleight of hand is the way that this argument ignores an opportunity for a simple but politically sensitive intervention we could make that could simultaneously improve the lives of poor children and new teachers: create regional new-teacher clearinghouses and matching services. Here's the thought experiment: Far from decentralizing, I think it would be a healthy system for schools to require new teachers go into a large regional market where vacancies for relatively new teachers (e.g., those with fewer than three years of experience) would be balanced with a matching process akin to matching of med-school graduates to residencies. This would require collective bargaining and regional agreements between districts (or changes to statute), but here's the idea:

Brand-new teacher's perspective: A new teacher registers with the regional teaching market clearinghouse, with all of the stuff you'd want applicants to provide. The clearinghouse is directly tied to vacancies in the region, and that would probably include multiple districts in most parts of the country. The clearinghouse matches teachers to jobs for the first year. The teachers and administrators are told, explicitly, "This is a one-year arrangement. In the second year, the teacher is headed to a new school, and the administrator provides an evaluation knowing that the teacher is not coming back to that school until at least two years down the road." And that's what happens. At the end of the first year, the clearinghouse matches jobs to teachers who want to continue teaching and whom the first-year administrators recommend continue. Same with the end of the second year. And the clearinghouse's job is to make sure that by the end of a new teacher's third year, that teacher has worked in multiple settings, with different characteristics of students (at least within the range of the region), in areas of the teacher's documented expertise (i.e., no out-of-field matches). 

At the end of Year 3? Open market in the spring, in most places, and administrators wanting to hire on the open market must hire teachers with at least three years' experience -- in other words, teachers for whom there is a record of evaluations from different administrators and for whom there is a record of performance for students in different settings (within the range of the region's student population). Schools are allowed to hire teachers who worked in their schools before... if the now-third-year teacher wants to work there again.

Benefit to teachers: first-year teachers stuck with horrible administrators (or generally toxic environments) know that they'll be moving on if they survive. They'll get experience with multiple settings where they'll be able to demonstrate their chops. At the end of their third year, they'll have some variation in experience with administration to be able to judge people better when applying in an open-market situation. Disadvantage to teachers: if you happen to get lucky and get a great job in Year One, you have to move on.... and let another new teacher get the benefit of that experience.

Benefit to administrators: because new teachers are forced to move on after a year, honest evaluations are less likely to result in social backlashes. When you hire on the open market, you'll know you'll have evaluations and (where this is gathered) other performance data that is from school settings with a range of student populations. Disadvantage: you don't get to hire absolutely new teachers; you get whom you get, and if you were great spotters of talent, or you think you're better than the average principal at spotting good talent, you'll be upset.

(Personally, I think I would prefer this as an administrator: if you've read Moneyball, you know the sabremetricians' rule of thumb: you can predict a baseball player's professional performance from college experience, but someone straight out of high school is just a raw bet without college experience. Why would you want the authority to make hires in a situation where you're almost guaranteed to be a worse judge of talent/skill than any other personnel situation? Then again, I'm sure many principals think of themselves like the [very poorly-predicting] old scouts of baseball, making seat-of-the-pants judgments.)

Advantages for systems: See advantages for administrators above. In addition, you have lower risk with variation in administrators' skills in talent judgment, while principals would still have the autonomy to pick more experienced teachers, after they pick up enough of a record for administrators to see who has more talent. You could also get development of evaluation skills in a regional context without diseconomies of scale. If clearinghouses have to track teachers, they could also be tasked with additional evaluation responsibilities across a region. Advantage for relatively poor systems: you know that wealthier districts will not be able to be as much of a magnet for new teachers, because of regional rotation, and you could push administrators to do what is necessary to convince teachers that they want to return to your district after their initial three-year rotation is done. Disadvantages: there would need to be legal agreements to cover this, and there would be some logistical challenges in identifying vacancies (and making sure those vacancies are reported accurately and promptly) as well as the operation of a clearinghouse. School districts would have to delegate hiring authority for some of their jobs to a regional body, and if school systems really thought that they were hot stuff in terms of talent scouting, that might be hard to swallow. (See above and Moneyball on the egos of baseball scouts and possibly school administrators.) Disadvantage for wealthy districts: poof goes your advantage in recruiting brand-new and relatively-new teachers, because they'll spend some time in your districts but also some time in poorer districts.

Now, the payoff in terms of debates about comparability: a regional new-teacher clearinghouse/matching process would instantly equalize a significant part of the teaching staff across a region, because of rotation among jobs and districts. Yes, there would still be an advantage of wealthier districts in attracting teachers with three or more years of experience, but poorer districts would know that they at least have a shot of persuading new teachers that they can make a good career inside a district... if the relatively new teachers have an experience that is supportive. 

Remember that this is a thought experiment: I don't know of any places with regional new-teacher clearinghouses/matching services, and I dreamed it up out of whole cloth (plus some inspiration from what happens with med-school students). But I think it points out a structural problem with giving principals entire autonomy: with complete autonomy, there is no balancing out of regional needs. Equality of opportunity would depend entirely on the skills of individual principals, and while principals are extraordinarily important, that's putting a heck of a lot of eggs in a single basket. If you care about making sure that a broad range of students have access to great teachers, there are serious dangers in the Ouchi principal-autonomy approach.
Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:19 AM (Permalink) |

R!

A graduate student in biostats here is willing to tutor me in R (the open-source equivalent of S-Plus). Yes, faculty need to learn additional things, and sometimes that requires tutoring/coaching. For me, those realms include music, martial arts, and now new stats packages. And because my college wants guinea pigs for its exercise-training classes, I'm doing that as well this semester.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Research at 10:17 AM (Permalink) |

Why you don't always need a statewide charter authorizer

I don't understand the obsession some people have with multiple charter-school authorizers. In Florida, it has always been the county school board since the charter-school law was first approved in the mid-90s. A few years ago in Florida, the legislature decided for some reason that not enough proposals were being approved and created (and spent gobs of money) on a commission that would be an uber-authorizer. To me, it looked like a giant loophole for low-quality applications and politics. Fortunately, the state court system struck down the law as an infringement on the constitutional authority of school boards. 

While there may be an apparent conflict of interest between an elected board and charter-school authorizer, in fact there has not been. And there is a need for people with at least some experience looking at schools to vet the proposals. In Manatee County, for example, staff are going to recommend that the school board reject 8 applicants to open charter schools, and at least from a Bradenton Herald article, the rejections would come for some fairly good reasons. There is no charter cap in Florida, and a number of school boards have no problems approving well-planned charter schools. In addition (and this is fairly important), we have a public-records and open-meeting statute that is rigorous, and the administrative rules in place in Florida make it difficult for a public agency to be arbitrary without being held accountable on appeal.

Disclosure: I have been associated with two organizations that have started charter schools... and then stopped running them. In one case (my university), it was planned in my first year and I would not have had the chance to participate in planning. The USF charter school was essentially turned over to the county public schools (and became a local public school within the system) some months ago. In the other (a non-profit organization), I expressed my concerns about organizational capacity from the inside, the charter school started operations, and I was no longer a member at the time that the school closed.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 9:37 AM (Permalink) |

October 12, 2009

News item: Boy Scout suspended for being prepared

The suspension of Zacharie Christie is the latest tomfoolery in zero-sense discipline policies, because the tyke decided to bring his Boy Scout cutlery to school. Next: Fox News special on the Evil Spork. And this brings to mind a parody of medieval-fandom-society "weapons at the door" policies:

A Bard was next whose goodly Voice has entertained us all
but he, too, was prevented from entering the Hall
and told he could not carry deadly weapons on the floor
he left his Voice and Harp among the weapons at the door
    -- Joe Bethancourt, "Weapons at the Door" (1974)
Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 9:57 AM (Permalink) |

"Timmy's legislator let him do it!"

I don't know what I'm more disgusted at, last week's dismissal of official-misconduct charges against Florida Rep. Ray Sansom, or news that something very similar has been happening in Virginia with state Senator Tommy Norment and the College of William and Mary and state Delegate Phil Hamilton and Old Dominion University (IHE hat tip). Hamilton apparently "did not recall getting into those in-depth conversations about the [teaching] center" that eventually went to Old Dominion, where he wound up getting a job.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 9:35 AM (Permalink) |

October 10, 2009

One Blog Schoolhouse: the PDF

Should've been done a few months ago, but if you want to read the entire text of One Blog Schoolhouse, it's now available as a nonprinting PDF. (I recommend that you click the "PDF" link in brackets, since I don't know if scribd will convert a nonprinting PDF.) The entire thing. Absolutely free to read.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life at 9:53 AM (Permalink) |

October 9, 2009

Outside cultural studies classes, "Love Boat" != instructional material

Apparently a University of Wisconsin-Madison business professor used state funds to purchase DVDs of various television series, including Love Boat, Family Ties, and Get Smart. (Hat tip.) The explanation was that he would use clips "to illustrate aspects of business and management."

Reality check: I use cartoons in lectures. I also buy the materials I use, whether it's the complete Far Side collection, the huge book of New Yorker cartoons, or Calvin and Hobbes books. And then I rely on my judgment and educational fair use. But it's my money that bought the materials, not the state of Florida. If my university buys instructional materials, it should be in the library or another collection for general use.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 9:38 AM (Permalink) |

And now, a break from the normal type of entry on this blog

Wow (backup for citation, since the Nobel's servers are slammed right now). In the perennial struggle to decide whether the Nobel Peace Prize should be a Courage Award or a Behavioral Reinforcement for Moving in the Right Direction, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee used the 2009 award for the latter. I think the prize committee gave the award prematurely, though, even given its tendency to want to reward positive motion. Don't you think they should have waited at least for the third miracle?

I apologize for the attempt to channel Peter Sagal, but since Wait wait! Don't tell me! is recorded on Thursdays for the Saturday broadcast, I either have to wait 8 more days for the Inevitable Best Quip on Obama, hope he puts something interesting into his Twitter feed, or make it up on my own. And I do think that the Nobel choice seems obviously political; the other two presidents who have received one in office (Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) had at least done some concrete stuff internationally. Never mind that Wilson's grand idea flopped on several levels, but at least he had done something concrete internationally. Obama's primary achievements thus far have been in domestic policy. I gave money to his campaign and worked and voted for him, but this seems, I don't know... a little too early to recognize what is thus far essentially a policy of "We're not John Bolton."

The political fallout from this is entirely unknown, but I can hardly wait for the talk-radio reaction as well as the reaction from those who feel as if they should have gotten it instead. On my drive to work, I heard a big bang that sounded like it was coming from very far away. I'm not sure if I was hearing Glenn Beck's or Bill Clinton's head explode, but someone is surely going apoplectic this morning.

And there is no truth to the rumor that the following was part of the internal correspondence for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee:

Dear Thorby,

I think we need a more honest citation than the second draft you circulated yesterday, something like the following: After giving due consideration to all the nominees who had given their freedom or health for the improvement of their fellows, or who had accomplished amazing acts of diplomacy, we have decided to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to someone who is just too cool to ignore, an American President who mesmerizes us with complete sentences and proper grammar in his own language, who remembers books he has read, who understands that international diplomacy requires as much seduction as force, who probably knows that a real ranch has to have cattle and not just a bunch of dead bushes to clear, and whom we really, really hope will play hoops with us when he comes to Oslo in December. We even promise to clear the snow off the court.

Oh, and can we have the Ceremony this year with everyone in Speedos?

I stand corrected on one important item: Obama did have this small achievement in July. But that's not mentioned explicitly in the Nobel citation, probably because they didn't want to let the Guy Who Is Not Putin share the award. And reducing nuclear warheads is not nearly as important as being able to hit net at 25 feet. Er, 8 meters.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 7:47 AM (Permalink) |

October 8, 2009

First, find me a box of cereal that squirms and drips snot in winter

Congratulations to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who knows a critical rule of politics: declare victory whenever you can, no matter whether you were right. I am quite serious about his political acumen: his push of a system that assigned letter grades to schools was ingenious politics. And Bush deserves credit for supporting a research technical assistance center in Florida as well as funding for reading coaches. But Jeb Bush's comments to the Jeb Bush Celebration Conference this week had an interesting quip:

Frankly, if Walmart can track a box of cereal from the manufacturer to the check-out line, schools should be able to track the academic growth of a student from the time they step in the classroom until they graduate.

I am firmly in favor of using longitudinal data, but this comment is cheerleading and not serious discussion. There are significant challenges in the creation, maintenance, and use of longitudinal data systems, and Walmart-style tracking logistics don't touch the greater ones.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:07 PM (Permalink) |

October 6, 2009

Dozens of Veblens, a handful of Heckmans, not one Keynes

Skimming the Ryan Lizza portrait of Larry Summers, reading Paul Krugman's focus on the size of the stimulus, and listening to Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics while driving around Tampa this week makes it clear to me that outside the bubble that is Fox News and talk radio, Krugman, Romer, and a number of other liberal economists are at heart technocrats: when they looked at the Great Recession, they saw an output gap that government could and should fill. This isn't socialism; this is Keynes. (As Krugman notes in passing in Return, Keynes was someone who believed in capitalism, in contrast to plenty of others who thought differently in the 1930s.) When you think there's a technical fix, you're not a revolutionary. And Krugman definitely thinks there's a technical fix to be had here.

Despite whatever else one might say about the dominance of economic policies by anti-empirical rationalists, freshwater Austrians, and other odd critters, Gertrude Stein's quip doesn't have a foothold: there is a there there somewhere. But we are far from there in education. There are a number of erudite, smart commentators on education, and while I try to learn from all of them, there is no Keynes. There are a number of technical savants in different corners of education, the education equivalents of James Heckman (and, heck, Heckman's helped out with small heaps of his talent focused on education), but there is no Keynes. And there are people who would like to or pretend to be systemic analysts like Keynes, but there is no Keynes. 

In part as a result, when people debate education policy, it quickly slides into attacks on politics and posturing and whatnot. Now, of course people criticize Krugman for his politics and accuse him of posturing, but it's easy to see his technocratic leanings and from whence they come. There is no equivalent in education. Maybe there shouldn't be, but at least as a consequence, maybe we should stop pretending that there is a macro technocratic field in education. There just isn't.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 1:11 AM (Permalink) |

We could do without all the excitement, thank you

I was off campus by 12:30 yesterday afternoon, so I didn't have all the fun of several reports of gunmen on the USF campus in Tampa (student-run USF Oracle, Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, CNN). As the press representative of the campus police noted, you can't ignore called-in threats or reports, even if you think they're false. My thanks go to the law-enforcement personnel who responded quickly, and I'm glad that there was no serious threat.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 12:59 AM (Permalink) |

October 4, 2009

Power outage

Some things you just have to laugh at. I charged out of the house this morning to get the car's oil changed and head to my office to chug through teaching and other work stuff. In the last five hours, I've spent half of the time waiting for the car (and trying not to grit my teeth at the television blaring in the waiting room) and then I saw the lights dim in my office 20 minutes ago as the power went out. I hear the generator outside my office keeping the HVAC minimally operating, and I can run this laptop on batteries for a few hours, but I think this is a signal (like the fire alarm a few weeks ago) that maybe I should shift to where I can get some work done, if not the work I intended to do (such as record a presentation or three). 

I think I'll prep a few things for another location and then head out.

So what has been the greatest (or funniest) frustration for you this week?

Update (8:45 pm): It was a power outage throughout the Tampa campus, and some side effects knocked out the university's course management system (Blackboard). Ironically, as my colleague Kathleen de la Pena McCook (who cowrites Union Librarian) this morning was the day that Kevin Carey's Washington Monthly prediction of an online higher-ed future appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life at 1:36 PM (Permalink) |

October 3, 2009

Child murder, Chicago style

Chicago teacher Deborah Lynch pointed out in a Sun-Times opinion piece yesterday that one of the Chicago schools' "turnaround targets" this fall has been Fenger High School, near the gang fight that led to Derrion Albert's death and the school where she implies many of the combatants attend. (Hat tip/alternative source.)

I am not saying that knowing the kids better could have averted the melee and tragic death of last week, obviously. But trouble had been brewing at the school even before last week. Staff reported a riot the previous week inside the building, involving teachers being hit, and that two different police stations had to be called in to quell the disturbance. Those are the times when the staff members draw on their relationships with kids to urge restraint, to urge calm and peace, to try to talk things out rather than fight things out. Those are the times when a seasoned staff can identify strategies and resources to address and prevent further problems.

Lynch's argument is interesting and plausible. I'd be cautious of taking it at face value, but don't toss it out the window. As far as I am aware, there is nothing either to contradict or to support the claim that the length of time a staff (as a whole) has spent in a school is predictive of the general school environment. I suspect it depends on the staff; experienced good teachers and staff are going to have the types of relationships with students that Lynch describes.

But there is another important limit to Lynch's argument, and I'm thinking about the debate that's usually focused on academics rather than violence: the relationship between schools and the rest of students' lives. I suspect that if George Schmidt is correct, that the police congregated around Fenger rather than following potential combatants, any immediate investigation needs to focus largely on the tactical decisions of the police. It's possible that no matter what happened in the school, the gang fight would have occurred unless police decisions had been different.

The murder of Derrion Albert is representative of one fact: in violent neighborhoods students are usually safer in school than out of school. A skilled set of professionals can make it so kids are safe in school, safe enough to focus on school. And it's much harder to bring peace to a violent neighborhood without involving schools. What happens inside the classroom can change the conversations that happen outside school boundaries, but there are no guarantees. What if Fenger had not been the target of a turnaround effort: would Albert still be alive? I don't know. 

Update (October 7): More on MSNBC, and more focused, on the rearrangement of enrollment patterns.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:53 AM (Permalink) |

October 2, 2009

Pausing to find my bearings

It's been one heck of a month. As I noted a few weeks ago, I had a death in the family at the beginning of September, but for some reason I did not mention in that entry that my mother-in-law was the family member who had died. Because my wife is Peggy's executor, we've had mourning and also business to take care of. While one of our pets is sitting with me at the computer this morning, I'm taking a few minutes to put some thoughts together.


When my father died five years ago, everyone in my family knew that was coming because he had had Parkinson's for 14 years. I told my students that there would probably be some time in the semester when I'd be out of town for 4-5 days, and after performing vicious triage on my obligations, I recognized I would still be behind for the entire semester and started grading student work at a nearby coffee place so I wouldn't grumble at my family to keep quiet so I could work. I probably kept a number of baristas in their apartments that year.

But while my father's death was hard for my children at the time, I'd done most of my mourning before he died, during the few months he was in full-time nursing care. I had planned to fly out to visit my parents a few days after his health suddenly turned worse in late 2003, and as a result I helped my mother visit a few nursing homes as she realized she could no longer care for my father at home, even with assistance. That was enormously hard for her on several levels, and I had that experience and some anticipation of his death to think about for a few months. When my father died, I spent time writing down some memories, and his funeral was full of wonderful stories told by many people. I've missed him terribly, but there was no surprise, and I had almost 39 years with a fabulous father.

Peggy's death was sudden, and that's more complicated as a result. I am relieved that she was highly competent, and at least on the business side there is nothing more than the inevitable headaches that come with being an executor (or an executor's spouse, for me). But even a highly competent adult leaves loose ends that have to be tied up, and that hangs over things. I've kept in mind that it is an act of love to do for someone what they cannot do for themselves. One of the highly-competent decisions Peggy made was picking a few great professionals to work with, and they've taken a lot of weight off my wife's shoulders. Still, my wife and I have probably lost at least a week of time just in going back and forth to where Peggy lived, a few hours from Tampa. That's just life, but it adds to the juggling act in the last month.

My colleagues have been very supportive and forgiving as I've been late on a number of things this month, and this forgiveness reminds me that the jobs of full-time faculty are not easily amenable to cross-training. We can pick up for someone else when there's an emergency, and anyone is replaceable in one large organizational sense, but it's just not possible for someone else to step in and do precisely what I'd do if I had had more time this month. What happens is not that someone else completely fills in the gap I've left but that people are more forgiving about what's dropped between the cracks. That's inevitable in small organizations, and it should remind us that in many respects large universities are confederations of the types of small organizations that don't adjust easily to personnel turnover.

More importantly, there's the support we've provided for our children, who have lost three grandparents in the last decade. They're teenagers, but they're our children, we worry about how they're doing, and it's a parent's job to worry about that sort of thing. (It's in the small print of our parent's contract: "You shall never stop worrying about your children.") And then there's the act of mourning as an adult. When you're in your 40s, the death of someone in your parents' generation should not shake your basic sense of reality, and you've gone through the death of relatives before. But there's always an effect. Peggy was a good friend and a wonderful grandmother to my children, and while I haven't started dialing her number by reflex (yet), I have had more than the usual share of distracted moments (or half-hours) in the last few weeks. The tsunami news coverage in the last few days has been a bit disorienting as a result, because in addition to thinking about the terrible loss of life I feel stupid for focusing on our family's loss while thousands of people lost their loved ones. Great for the ability to focus, to feel guilty for mourning. It's not a serious problem, but it's one of those moments in life where I wonder what evolutionary quirks led human psychology to be so strange.

I've had enough distracted moments in the last day to realize I needed to sit down this morning and shuffle through things, because I haven't had much of a chance to do that in the last month. So with a small set of errands to run this morning, a to-do list for when I return, and some thoughts written down, I'll head out in a few minutes.

Finally, for the record, a bearded dragon is as soothing to hold as any mammal. At least in our household, he has had a very productive career in beardie therapy.I highly recommend them as pets and think my son (the beardie's primary human) was very wise to suggest one several years ago.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life at 8:58 AM (Permalink) |

Whitmire and Rotherham fall prey to faux-trend fallacy

If I were a union activist without an historical perspective, I'd say ouch with Richard Whitmire and Andy Rotherham's WSJ opinion piece proclaiming a trend in news reporting on education and teachers unions. Or, to put it another way, there's an op-ed in Rupert Murdoch's new plaything proclaiming that a dying industry is giving birth to another trendlet about something, and we should therefore pay enormous attention?

Pardon my skepticism, but since I cut my teeth on documenting how one issue became a visible, recognized social problem in the 1960s (and the broader historical picture thereof), I have at least a little background to comment. I'd be cautious of making much of a handful of stories in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post. Most of the issues Whitmire and Rotherham mention have had small blips of attention over the past few decades, and you would expect there to be such blips in any year simply by random chance, with the only question being what issues pop up on the collective radar screen of journalists. 

The bigger issues here are ... well, the bigger issues, or long-term trends in coverage. I'd wait a year or two to see if there is still a trend that anyone thinks is starting now.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |