March 30, 2010

Race to the Top winners and losers

So officially, Delaware and Tennessee won (note, Andy Smarick: I spelled both states and your name correctly). But in the side competition (including brackets and sidebar bets), who won and lost?

Those who predicted political decision-making were wrong. I know Mike Petrilli has wondered if politics has intervened in the reviewing process (and thought the secrecy of reviewer identity was political suicide). When New York, Ohio, and Illinois are frozen out, it's hard to spin the choice of Delaware and Tennessee as political (though Petrilli takes a half-hearted stab at it). Addendum: Rick Hess takes a firmer stab at it, though I think you could take any possible RttT awardee list and fabricate a post hoc "this was all politics" explanation.

Those who predicted a "low bar" in getting money were wrong. In the end, when Arne Duncan said USDOE would give the money to a small number of states, he meant it.

Those who predicted "reforminess" as the secret criterion were wrong. All the cool kids were assuming Florida and Louisiana would win because, well, they're the fair-haired boys this year. Wrong! While stakeholder buy-in (or the lack thereof by Florida's unions) was part of the reason for Florida's four-place finish, there were other ways Florida's application lost points, and Michelle Rhee's application for DC fell at the bottom of the Tweet 16.

Here's who won in the side competition: the reviewers. At least at first reading, the reviewers' comments on Florida's application were serious in comparing the application to the scoring guidelines. I'm sure you can quibble with scores here and there, but I think any sane journal editor might be tempted to kill to have this quality of effort from manuscript referees.

Especially in Florida, there's a great deal of second-guessing and spinning after the announcement of results. I'm tempted to pitch in, but I'll decline, at least for today.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:40 AM (Permalink) |

March 27, 2010

In #1b1t lies a proof of concept for microblogging for group annotation

Wired.com writer Jeff Howe has proposed a giant Twitter-wide reading experiment he's calling One Book, One Twitter, where everyone on Twitter (or a great big gob of people) read and tweet about the passages they're currently on. The topics code #1b1t (an example of a "hashtag") is Howe's proposal, and you can follow the latest discussion online if a series of disconnected 140-charater texts tapped out by people reading a book on their own is a discussion.

Ah, but the last clause is the key here: can Twitter or other microblogging services provide an opportunity for collective discussion of a text? In theory the answer is "sure, of course," but would that happen in practice? I've thought about this with regard to teaching, since the term "mobile learning" has usually had passive interpretations: listen to a lecture anytime! anywhere! Okay, I think, and where's the interaction? Oh, but we can do better: you can click on screens and get more lecture anytime! anywhere! Thanks, but that's not a substitute for intense discussion.

In the past few months, I've spent a bit of time thinking about the role of "collective exegesis/commentary" and possible tools to conduct it anywhere, anytime.


In theory, what I'd love is to see some capacity for a student who is reading some material (a novel, a primary source in a history class, etc.) to respond to questions using a cell phone and have that text message be collected for the class purposes, or to read the collective responses. Don't tell me that a smartphone can do that with browser capacities; most students don't have smartphones, and the interfaces are often clunky at best. I want any student with a dumb phone to be able to send text messages that can be collected by a secure service for a class and have some way for it to be sorted by text location (by the service or a relatively simple manual post-submission step).

There are at least two sides to that: tools and practices/culture.

Tools

What's needed in terms of tools is

  1. a way for a student to use either an SMS service or a simple browser interface to enter responses
  2. a way for teachers to provide prompts/some coding to tie comments to specific parts of the text or questions

I think the only SMS-to-secure-environment tool is ShoutEm, a proprietary microblogging site where you can set up private groups. (Several CMS packages such as Blackboard and Moodle have ways to broadcast text messages to students, but I'm not aware of modules that allow students to submit texts to Bb or Moodle modules. If I'm wrong, please let me know of the modules in comments!) Edmodo is the simplest CMS interface I'm aware of and has a good reputation for K-12; certainly it would be navigable with a smartphone, though there's no SMS-submission route that I'm aware of.

For the tagging/sorting, one could use two possibilities right now, either a hashtag system that a teacher uses tied to prompts or a set of QR-code symbols in the margins (or on a question sheet). QR codes linking to website URLs are reputedly very common in Japan, and if I remember correctly, you can construct QR codes that would start a text message (with the hashtag, yes).

Application: a student in a high school English class could be reading Hamlet at home along with a teacher's question sheet. Suppose the teacher has a list of questions ordered by scene, and I suspect most such sheets would inevitably have a question about the "providence in the fall of a sparrow" speech (act V, scene ii). Say it's the 11th question for that scene. Next to the question is a QR code and below it a hashtag: #hamlet5.2.11. The student opens her cell phone, starts the QR program, and takes a picture of the QR code. The cell phone automatically starts a text message to go to ShoutEm (or someday a CMS that allows incoming texts) with #hamlet5.2.11 already entered as text. She answers the question and sends it off. On the other end, a teacher looks in the entry box (whether it's a microblogging stream or a module inside a CMS). I could imagine teachers doing a lot of different things with the responses (probably starting with a simple sort by hashtag), and my instinct might be to pick a range of responses for a few questions and start out the next day's class with very, very different responses to several questions and asking students to decide who's right.

Or think of an undergraduate cultural anthropology class, where an assignment might require a student to observe a common gathering place on campus or in the community and answer a bunch of questions designed to teach students ethnography skills. Again, the answers could be in the form of microblogging, and that allows a student's growing field notes to be examined by a teacher between notebook-submission rounds.

Those are two possible uses, and they ignore the fact that U.S. cell phone users don't generally have experience with QR codes, QR programs are easier to find for some cell phones than others, and a lot of students do not have either cell phones or home access to the internet. And that raises the issue of ...

Culture

One critical question about such dreams is whether people will use the tools at hand, or whether a critical mass of people will. In observing how hundreds of students have responded to technology challenges in college classes in a wide range of ways, I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan that "digital natives" is a dubious concept, and the idea of having students send text messages as way of promoting engagement with text is something to be tested empirically rather than assumed.

First question: are there any such examples? I thought of two possibilities: discussions of Talmudic commentary and Protestant Bible study. It turns out that you can find services that will text you individual  lines from some Bible (if they're 140 characters or less!), but I couldn't find examples of people engaging in SMS textual engagement in the wild (so to speak). That was depressing; if a few long-established commentary/discussion communities had never experimented with SMS commentary (there's plenty of stuff on web pages, just not much microblogging), that didn't bode well for what I had in mind.

So One Book, One Twitter (#1b1t) is another proof-of-concept test, this time with a more highly-motivated group. We'll see (maybe) if #1b1t engages a critical mass of readers, engages them with something more than superficial text, and is a novelty phenomenon or something that gets repeated.

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Posted in Teaching at 12:54 AM (Permalink) |

March 25, 2010

Florida House committee chair calls security?

Wow: Florida House PreK-12 policy committee chair Rep. Anitere Flores apparently threatened to call in security when a Democratic representative complained that his amendments were not being heard or voted on, and at the end of the committee a group of Capitol security guards stood at the front of the room, between the audience/witnesses and the committee members and staff. This apparently after several hours of mostly hostile testimony on the House equivalent of Senate Bill 6.

There's no claim in the Miami Herald blog report (linked above) that the audience was threatening any of the committee members, so I'm curious why the guards were there.  spent a few minutes watching passionate, civil testimony earlier today over the streaming connection from Tallahassee. The Florida Education Association had declared this a Rally in Tally Day (or Virtual Rally in Tally Day) and asked all teachers in Florida to wear red to protest Senate Bill 6, attacks on retirement funds, and budget cuts. Over the video feed, I saw several members of the audience wearing red shirts, and my guess is that Rep. Flores has had little experience with running meetings when substantial audiences didn't like what her side of the meeting was doing. 

I understand that last year, several thousand community members confronted Senator Mike Haridopolos in a town-hall meeting over expected budget cuts. I have no clue what the political consequences of Senate Bill 6 might be, but I have heard from a number of K-12 teachers that they see the bill (along with proposed changes to the state's retirement system) as a direct attack on them. 

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Posted in Education policy at 2:46 PM (Permalink) |

In better news, bipartisan bill passes Florida Senate reforming high school testing

In addition to Senate Bill 6, the Senate also passed an amended form of Senate Bill 4, which moves the state's high school testing program away from comprehensive exams in 10th and 11th grade and towards end-of-course (EOC) exams. Senators from both parties finally "get it" that the so-called comprehensive science exam was counterproductive, and a well-implemented EOC exam system is significantly better than the one-size-fits-none eleventh-grade test. But that doesn't mean the bill is perfect: FSU physics professor Paul Cottle has been diligent in explaining his concerns with dilatory clauses placed in the bill that eliminate any deadlines for physical-science exams.

It's important to keep in mind that only part of the purpose of these exams is to encourage students to go into STEM fields, though it's important to raise the floor of science courses students take in part to reduce inequalities in access to lab-based courses. The purpose of pushing all students to take more math and science courses is because they are going to be adults when they leave, citizens who vote on issues where they should be informed. I want elementary-school teachers to have stronger math and science backgrounds, and so should you. I'd like someone in charge of a venture fund or pension fund to be able to recognize fraudulent science claims without wasting other people's money. And when my oldest nephew finishes his graduate program in astrophysics, I want a ready source of groupies fanatics educated readers willing to pay oodles of money for listen to him to talk about microwave inferometers and the early universe.

Okay, maybe the last isn't a public purpose. But the rest is. We all benefit when high school students have a well-rounded academic education not only in "skills" such as reading and arithmetic but in history, literature, math, and science, and moving from the FCAT to EOC exams is the right step.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:26 AM (Permalink) |

Florida Senate overreaches on changes to regulation of teaching

Yesterday, the Florida Senate voted for Senate Bill 6, which would dramatically change the structure of teacher evaluation, contracts, pay, and licensure in the state. A few amendments were approved on the floor of the senate, but only three appear substantive, and the largest changes happened in committee, in part to address concerns about constitutionality for the initial bill. 

As the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss has, most observers have focused on the evaluation, pay, and contract issues, and that's because the intent of the bill is to elliminate any form of tenure, to reorient evaluation around student test scores, and to eliminate the ability of school boards to pay teachers in part based on experience. For a variety of reasons, legislation such as SB 6 is policy overreaching, and as it has in several other ways in the past decade, Florida has gone far beyond any other state in education policy. In part because it is so hostile towards the Florida Education Association, I suspect that some observers will praise the senate even if this turns out to be horrid policy. That way lies Thrasymachus, and it's not pretty.

SB 6 is overreaching. Instead of reducing the protections of tenure, it eliminates all meaningful due process related to job security. Instead of mandating that student outcome data be a part of teacher evaluation, it requires that test scores form the majority of any teacher evaluation system. Instead of moderating the influence of job experience on pay, it completely prohibits any such factor being used.

As a result of this overreaching, school boards are going to be motivated to work with teachers unions on workarounds for most of these issues. For each area where school boards and union locals agree the state has gone too far, they'll figure out another way to provide for some job security, to moderate the effect of test scores on evaluations, or to create a legally defensible proxy for experience in salary structures and call it performance-based pay. It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a few mechanisms for these issues, and I'm not nearly as clever as highly-motivated union officials and superintendents. But as a result, you're going to see highly variable treatment of teachers across the state, which I don't think is the intent of legislators.

There is only one area where the state has an undisputed right to regulate teaching, either in Florida or elsewhere, and that's in licensure. Regardless of what happens in collective bargaining at the local level, any state can decide who has the right to be licensed as a teacher, and at least at first, the part of SB 6 that is least amenable to mediating influences is in the requirement that teachers demonstrate effectiveness to have their professional certifications renewed. Does that mean that it will be tied closely to test scores? That's what I fear. While there's a substantial academic literature on the problems with using either test scores or growth measures, Daniel Willingham's video remains the clearest short explanation for a lay audience. But I'm sure there's going to be lots of testosterone-laced talk about getting tough on teachers, at least until the State Board of Education has to decide what proportion of experienced teachers it's going to non-renew licenses for... and wait for things like lawsuits and backlash from parents and districts.

I expect that I might find a few additional nuggets of unworkable details in the bill, but that's the big picture. If the Florida House passes SB 6 without substantial changes, there's going to be a great deal of turmoil in schools over the next few years, and until the questions raised by the bill are settled about local bargaining authority and the use of test scores in teacher evaluation, there's going to be a substantial cost of the bill in terms of instability.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:53 AM (Permalink) |

March 23, 2010

The sugar-daddy amendment to SB 6

Note (March 25, 2010): This entry was written on March 23, before the Senate adopted the Thrasher/Crist amendment. For my thoughts about the version that passed the senate on March 24, see my entry describing it as overreaching

.Among the amendments to Florida Senate Bill 6 filed today is a short amendment sponsored by John Thrasher (Jacksonville) and Victor Crist (Tampa) to address a concern I raised Saturday (and I assume others have also raised): As originally filed and then approved by state senate committees, Senate Bill 6 would essentially punish the Hillsborough (Tampa) school system for having won a Gates Foundation grant because the carving out a portion of teacher evaluation for trained observers would reduce the amount accounted for by student outcomes below the statutory minimum in the bill.

So along comes the bill with a possible solution to this individual problem: a school district can apply to the State Board of Education for an exemption if it's constructed in various ways that match Hillsborough's situation... including the first requirement: "Any school district that received a grant of at least $75 million from a private foundation for the purpose of improving the effectiveness of teachers within the school district may seek an annual exemption..."

In other words, only Hillsborough need apply. If you've got a sugar daddy, you're eligible for the exemption. If you don't, even if you're a school system willing to invest your own money in a similar system meeting all the other requirements, you can kiss any exemption goodbye.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:00 AM (Permalink) |

March 20, 2010

Would Florida SB 6 criminalize Gates grant to Hillsborough schools?

Note (March 25, 2010): This entry was written on March 20, about an earlier version of Senate Bill 6. Early this week, the bill was modified to allow Hillsborough to seek an exemption; the amendment was crafted so that no other district could apply, even if they replicated Hillsborough's efforts using local funding. For my thoughts about the version that passed the senate on March 24, see my entry describing it as overreaching.

In the past year, supporters of using student test scores to help evaluate teachers have expressed incredulity when some teachers union officials have been opposed to those moves in states such as California. "We're not even talking about having test scores dominate all evaluation!" has been the tone of such comments, "but student achievement should be one of the important factors."

Whether or not you agree with that position, it's intellectually defensible. This month, though, I suspect DFER members and Obama administration officials are going to do their best to avoid writing or speaking about Florida Senate Bill 6, which takes the approach that student test scores should be an absolute criterion for continuing professional licensure, and undefined "learning gains" should "comprise more than 50 percent of the determination of the classroom teacher's performance" (ll. 1197-1198 of the 3/19/10 version), no matter what subject the teacher is responsible for and whether anything like a value-added measure is technically feasible.

This majority-of-evaluation position is essentially what the state department of education wanted districts and locals to sign off on for Race to the Top, and Commissioner Smith's public support of Senate Bill 6's approach is inconsistent with his earlier claims in December and early January that the department would be flexible about how districts and unions could implement the RTTT MOU. As the head of the Florida superintendents association wrote in a letter to the commissioner, "you and your staff have emphasized flexibility in implementing these elements" (Bill Montford to Eric Smith, January 8, 2010).

In fact, Senate Bill 6 is less flexible than the text of the Memorandum of Understanding on the use of student outcome data for teacher evaluation. Here is the relevant MOU paragraph:

(D)(2)(ii)(1). Utilizes the Department-selected teacher-level student growth measure cited in (D)(2)(i) as the primary factor of the teacher and principal evaluation system. Primary is defined as greater than 50% of the evaluation. However, an LEA that completed renegotiation of its collective bargaining agreement between July 1, 2009, and December 1, 2009, for the purpose of determining a weight for student growth as the primary component of its teacher and principal evaluations, is eligible for this grant as long as the student growth component is at least 40% and is greater than any other single component of the evaluation.

The second sentence beginning with However appears to be framed specifically to allow Hillsborough County to participate; Hillsborough and its teachers union won one of the Gates Foundation multimillion-dollar grants in the fall, and one of the provisions of the grant is to construct teacher evaluation around three components: student data, an administrative review, and observations from a trained classroom instruction evaluator (the last part of the Gates initiative to develop such evaluation expertise). And in the January letter noted above, Montford wrote that all districts should be able to do what Hillsborough and its union had agreed to for the Gates grant.

So what happens if Senate Bill 6 passes?  Well, there goes any value of the Gates award in Hillsborough; the arrangement in Hillsborough would violate the law because less than 50% of the teacher evaluation structure will use student outcomes. Is this really what DFER and the Obama administration wants? Teachers union and district take a risky step in a joint commitment; state punishes district.

Keep in mind that SB 6 is a moving target: on Thursday, a state senate committee changed the bill to eliminate constitutionally-dubious provisions in the original that would have forced local school districts to raise taxes if they didn't do what the bill rquired and that would tie half of teacher pay to test scores. And thus far there is no House companion. But the teacher-evaluation and licensure components of SB 6 are based on a fantasy of assessment data and state authority that is unrealistic and is a slap in the face of administrators and teachers who are working at the ground level to develop better teacher evaluation systems. 

I can't expect Commissioner Smith to acknowledge openly that his public support of SB 6 is a political calculation that he has no choice if he wants to keep his job. His capitulation is sad, since I like Smith and he's done a considerable amount of work in the background to educate members of the state Board of Education and legislators. But those outside Florida are free to criticize overreaching on teacher evaluation proposals, and this is a chance for them to prove that they are not as absolutist as teacher union activists in California and other states claim. So, is anyone from DFER or the Obama administration willing to speak up against the excesses of SB 6?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 4:16 PM (Permalink) |

March 19, 2010

ESEA reauthorization blueprint, the CliffNotes version

I have several meetings today, but I want to write down my thoughts on Duncan's ESEA reauthorization "blueprint" before I forget them. As I wrote over the weekend, Mike Petrilli is reading the substance of the blueprint correctly; the Obama administration is proposing that federal policy walk back a few steps from NCLB's absolutist mechanisms and disentangle the different issues involved in accountability. Petrilli is also correct in seeing a connection between the administration's ESEA reauthorization proposal and the promises by both Duncan and Russlyn Ali to be more aggressive in the department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). That's essentially the implicit deal the administration is putting out for review by stakeholders: "We won't force states to label the majority of schools as failing, but we will require states to intervene in the worst 5% of schools in each state, and we will be aggressive in monitoring equity issues in other schools." 

At least in theory, this fits with my argument in Accountability Frankenstein that schools have three different types of challenges: the challenge of truly mismanaged schools in crisis, the challenge of inequality, and the challenge of making sure the next generation is smarter and wiser than we are. I argued that NCLB tried to address all of those challenges with the same mechanisms, and it looks like the Obama administration is recognizing that they need different policy approaches: requiring states to identify 5% of schools in crisis, using OCR to address inequality, and pushing for common curriculum standards for the next-generation challenge. 

That's not saying that the proposed mechanisms are going to work. I am less worried about using testing to screen for schools in crisis than others, but I agree with Diane Ravitch that educational euthanasia is a simplistic response. That doesn't mean that states should allow schools with deep problems to fester but that both states and the federal government need to be much more humble about their ability to "turn around" schools in crisis or even replace them with putatively brand-new schools. It's the proposed four-option turnaround mandate in the blueprint that bears the most resemblance to NCLB's cookie-cutter interventions, and that's a matter of deep concern for me. 

Then there is the effective-teachers piece of the blueprint, which is less bureaucratic than NCLB's "highly qualified teacher" approach and the trigger for NEA's and AFT's critical responses to the blueprints (though I think Andy Rotherham is correct that the Obama administration's pushing of a health-care excise tax, abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act, and passiveness with regard to NLRB appointments is definitely playing a role). The blueprint is very general with regard to its treatment of teacher effectiveness, and it could be consistent either with something like the Toledo peer-review system and Denver's ProComp, or with the problematic Senate Bill 6 in this year's Florida legislature. 

The generally positive response to Duncan's presentations this week (especially from rural-state senator Tom Harkin) suggests that Duncan's hit a number of right notes, at least politically. That's not the same as effective policy, but it's a long way from a 40-something-page document and a law.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:28 AM (Permalink) |

March 18, 2010

Constitutional questions on SB 6

Note (March 25, 2010): This entry was written on March 15, about a substantially different version of Senate Bill 6; the obvious constitutional problems were removed by an amendment late in the week. For my thoughts about the version that passed the senate on March 24, see my entry describing it as overreaching.

While the edublogule is chattering on about ESEA's reauthorization blueprint (which Cheryl Sattler and I agree is a misnomer), there's a battle royale in the Florida capital as former state House Speaker and new state Senator John Thrasher pushes S.B. 6, which seeks to take apart existing patterns of teacher certification, pay, and job security. 

After reading news coverage of the issue over the first half of March, I think the bill may have some constitutionality problems. I am not a lawyer, but it strikes me that the type of strong-arm tactics that the bill has may run afoul of several provisions of Florida's constitution:

  • Separation of powers: The bill delegates a task to the Florida Department of Education that may go beyond the agency's authority -- deciding whether a school district's teacher and administrative pay plan meets the statutory requirements (be performance-based with at least 50% of teacher pay based on test scores, and not use years of service or degrees in calculating pay). The consequence for failure to meet statutory obligations is the removal of 5% of the state's basic funding formula from a district a mandatory local referendum to replace that 5% with higher local property taxes. But with the exception of budgetary provisions tied to local tax rates (mentioned in the Florida constitution), I don't know where the state constitution gives an agency the effective power to direct tax rates at the local level. 
  • "Control" of  local school board vs. "supervision" by Florida Board of Education. S.B. 6 would direct certain actions of local school boards in terms of half of teacher and administrator pay and limits to job security for teachers (in an attempt to eliminate tenure). The question here is whether that goes beyond the legislature's authority in limiting constitutionally-defined powers. In 1998, voters approved a number of amendments, including the replacement of an elected state board of education (comprised of the governor and other statewide elected officials) with an appointed board of education, and the current language in the state constitution says that the state board supervises the state education system. But it also says that local school boards control education at the local level. In previous cases, the Supreme Court has decided that the legislature can carve out pay provisions that are not covered by collective bargaining (distribution of bonuses related to the state's accountability policy), but those are generally at the margins of pay issues. Would S.B. 6 go too far in encroaching on the constitutional powers of school boards to control local systems?
  • Right to collective bargaining. The Florida constitution grants public employees the right to collective bargaining, and in the 1970s it took a threat by the court to write the rules before the legislature finally wrote a collective-bargaining statute. Does S.B. 6 violate the collective-bargaining rights of Florida teachers? I suspect that the weakest provision of S.B. 6 in terms of the constitution is an attempt by S.B. 6 to determine half of teachers' base pay; that's far more than the marginal one-time payments that has previously been ruled to be outside collective bargaining. I don't know about the attempt to eliminate tenure. The legislature tried to do that a few decades ago, and the provisions were changed but due-process rights of experienced teachers were not eliminated. 

I suspect that the strong-arm tactics of S.B. 6 (and the state senate's greasing of the bill's path to the floor) may give school boards an incentive to work with teachers' unions to figure out workarounds if it does pass, and before any legal challenges are resolved. A far less radical bill would be a smaller legal target and be less likely to stimulate backlash by school boards. Later this month or in April we'll see what the House response is to the senate's choice.

Addendum: Obviously, since I am not a lawyer, I am not professionally qualified to predict how any court might rule on that or know offhand what precedents might rule. On the other hand, I suspect it doesn't take a jurist to know that S.B. 6 is heading into unique territory, recognized by the long passages of the Senate staff's bill analysis (beginning on p. 16) devoted to two constitutional issues (one of them collective bargaining). This also says nothing about the merits of any part of S.B. 6 (and there's a lot in S.B. 6 that didn't catch my eye in terms of potential legal issues).

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Posted in Education policy at 2:45 PM (Permalink) |

March 14, 2010

What the iPad will and will not be

Last time I wrote about electronic readers, it was before the announcement of the Messiah Tablet iPad. Well, it's Pi Day, and whether or not the circle has been squared, for the first time in my life I've given money to a Steve Jobs company for hardware. As I noted in January, I hate reading PDFs on my laptop, I can't read them comfortably on my Sony Reader, and I really need to read PDFs for my job or kill a lot of trees in the process. The iPad costs about the same as other devices that would do the job, and it'll be far more likely to just do its job. And that's the end of the story, at least as far as my purchase is concerned.

But since there is an enormous amount of myth and hype about tablets/larger readers from both technophiles and technophobes, maybe a little realism is in order. After watching the January 27 unveiling video (and tremendously enjoying the Doritos Canada parody--it shows you how far Lorne Michaels has fallen that something like this didn't appear on Saturday Night Live January 30), I've been thinking about what tablet-sized readers could do and what they cannot do.

First, some genres will do well with little additional effort or reworking of production systems. Comics are likely to be successful on at least one tablet/large reader, as is anything that is already produced for a large-ish page size. Some magazines will survive in this way, and I can easily imagine museums producing electronic catalogues. In general, image-intensive texts will benefit. All of this is easily encompassed within any ebook distribution system, but the more visually luscious books and magazines that will benefit from the iPad and other tablets are also resource-intensive to produce, either by artists or the publisher.

With some tinkering (and yelling and screaming), students will get what they repeatedly complain is lacking in ebooks: easy ways to highlight and annotate texts. The lack of annotation capacity in the EPUB ebook standard is a fixable problem, since EPUB uses xml. The ability to share annotations would be even better. I've written about my use of Diigo in teaching, but that's a workaround, and it's awkward every year that passes, with new versions of Diigo and new problems in sharing annotations.

Apart from annotations, it is not clear what interactive systems will work well on a large tablet that doesn't exist already on websites. There are some good tools for interactive exhibits, such as the Omeka package for museums (see its use in the Inventing Europe exhibit) or the WordPress Digress.It plug-in, which allows reader annotation of any paragraph. Omeka is interactive in a navigational sense. Digress.It is interactive with the content, but the paucity of comments on the Digress.It port of Ivan Illich's Deschooling suggests that it is largely theoretical. 

Craig Mod's essay this month on the infinite canvas (a la Scott McCloud) is interesting, but I'm not sure how that might translate into reality. There's an interesting alpha-level website called the infinite canvas that is infinite in the horizontal dimension. Its showcase includes a cute short comic by Neil Gaiman and Jouni Koponen, The Day the Saucers Came, but the interaction consists of clicking on forward/back buttons with simple PowerPoint-style slide transitions.

And then there will be plenty of resource-intensive development efforts that create one-off apps, many of which will be interesting pedagogically and culturally but will be one-time-only projects. If I were interested in managing the creation of an interactive project, I'd probably create it on a website using tools that I know the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad could read -- that is, no Flash and no Java. I know there's an App Gold Rush on, but the non-Flash, non-Java, smartly-designed website is going to be useful no matter what's in people's hands or on their laps or desks.

In other words, the iPad has one very obvious tool that's more than an ebook reader (anything that is visually intense), and there will be an obvious extension for tablets and readers in general (annotations), but the rest is not yet clear.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:48 PM (Permalink) |

Petrilli nails ESEA reauthorization proposal

After finishing the last entry, I realized I should write something about Friday's USDOE proposal on ESEA reauthorization. But procrastination is sometimes a serendipitous thing, thanks to the Fordham blog: Mike Petrilli's analysis is correct, at least on first approximation. A narrative framework is not statutory language, Duncan's proposal isn't George Miller's, and other Beelzebubs squatting in the filigree, but I had the same general reaction Petrilli did.

I'll write more about ESEA reauthorization later in the week.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 1:06 PM (Permalink) |

Health care reform: how to save lives and money and maybe defuse debates about teaching

Another reason for the House to pass the Senate's health-care bill and both houses to pass a tweak through reconciliation: it would expand existing comparative-effectiveness studies. Currently, massive advertising by pharmaceutics is feeding Americans' existing tendency to ask for huge amounts of wasteful spending on imaging/testing, drugs, and surgery. While NPR has highlighted the cooptation of a research term (osteopenia) in the service of Merck drug sales, it's important to see drug advertising as taking advantage of a broader tendency to overtest and overtreat, not the sole cause. Some other examples: older men take protein-specific antigen (PSA) tests to detect prostate cancer though you'd have to test 1400 men and possibly treat and thus give more than 40 men a substantial risk of impotence and incontinence to save a single life (National Cancer Institute PSA fact sheet). And apparently every year 75,000 people have cement shot into their vertebrae though sham surgery gives close to the same results

The "safe" and thus ineffective way of changing treatment is to give the advice, "ask your doctor." Yeah, right: practicing physicians who see patients 40-60 hours a week are always up on the latest studies published in obscure journals every week or two, and everyone knows that a doctor's advice is always followed. Consider three effective changes in health behavior prompted by research: smoking reductions, switching how parents put their babies to sleep (in terms of positioning), and a reduction in the proportion of older women taking hormone-replacement therapy. 

For example, it took decades for research on the harmful effects of smoking to filter down to behavior. You want to know why my mother quit smoking before I was born? My older siblings told her that it was disgusting, and she became convinced that not only was it unhealthy, it also represented a character weakness. I'm happy that I wasn't exposed to smoking when growing up, and the beginnings of postwar research on smoking's harms was a part in that but not the whole cause. More recently, the Florida Truth campaign was reasonably successful in persuading teenagers that smoking was uncool. Unhealthy? That was going to change behavior on the margins at best. Another social-marketing campaign changed parental behavior on the sleeping position of infants. "Back to sleep" was based on solid research about the relative risks of sudden-infant death and hammered a simple, actionable message rather than talking endlessly about the research. 

If there is a case for research's changing behavior directly, it may be the reduction in hormone-replacement therapy as a result of studies such as the Women's Health Initiative 2002 report on relative risks of using hormone replacement. Even here, I suspect that the drop in use was both from changing recommendations of doctors (the first link in this paragraph is to an article that suggests that the drop in HRT was primarily among those at risk of cardiovascular disease) and possibly also older women's thinking of themselves as savvy consumers--and that can work both in favor of and against cost-effective medical treatment. Fortunately, there is some evidence that the drop in HRT use is leading to a decline in breast cancer. This is a substantial victory for large-scale public-health research.

Why then focus policy on comparative-effectiveness studies rather than rely on the existing hodgepodge system? Insurance companies already try to limit treatment, and they often rely on existing research to justify their decisions. Well, I've got first-hand experience of why bureaucratic mechanisms based in private industry are no more rational than public bureaucracies; though I have a family history justifying early colonoscopies, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida spent several months denying claims. More importantly, the evolution of private decision-making about treatment has led to a lengthy cat-and-mouse game that has not changed the basic tendency of American medicine to overtest and overtreat those with coverage while we fail to cover those who need preventive care and treatment. Then there's the problem with hodgepodge anything: there needs to be balance between investigator-initiated studies and a systematic program of research.

More broadly, there are several benefits of comparative-effectiveness research. First, it provides a level of transparency that industry-generated decisionmaking never can. This is highly dependent on how resistant a comparative-effectiveness program is to corruption, but the private-insurance cat-and-mouse game is a structure guaranteed to lead to distrust and extra costs of operating a system of benefits. The Women's Health Initiative study publication is a case study of why comparative-effectiveness research is not only important in controlling costs but also in saving lives. The WHI study was large and credible, and the reports were published broadly in the general press. Second, the results of comparative-effectiveness research can be the foundations of more secure efforts to change behavior. We're always going to have bad medical-research reporting (quick: is there a research consensus on the effects of coffee drinking?), but it is going to be easier to write guidelines, communicate a message, and gain funding for publicity efforts if it is clear and credible. (Small aside: that's an obvious and appropriate role for foundations, not to fund marginal research but to fund public education efforts based on a solid research consensus.)

Third, a comparative-effectiveness research program can lead to professional standards of care that are less susceptible to manipulation based on context. Yes, doctors will sometimes grump about that. But Atul Gawande might have a few things to say about the value of checklists and the dangers of assuming professionals can just "wing it" when in an examination room. In doing so, health-care reform will move us one step away from thinking about professionals as a hero-artiste, and in turn that will move us in the right direction on talking about teaching.

So, to teaching: Having professional standards of care/practice based on research is a reasonable alternative to either laissez-faire approaches to teaching or assuming that the black box of incentives will magically improve results. That doesn't mean that it's easy. Larry Cuban's response to the story Elizabeth Green wrote for the New York Times is correct: the history of micro-teaching advice is long and not particularly successful. And I have no illusions that just because you say you're in favor of professional standards of care and practice means that there will suddenly be a body of rigorous research.

But anyone who believes in the hero-artiste model of teaching in the public schools needs both a political and ethical reality check. If you're paid by the public purse, you have an obligation to the public. Public school teachers need protection from corruption, unreasonable demands, and retaliation in response to whistleblowing. But that protection doesn't mean that an elementary school teacher should be able to teach what he or she wants, when he or she wants, how he or she wants. The practical and political tradeoff for some autonomy in the classroom is the adherence to recognized norms of professional behavior. That includes how teachers treat students, how they respond to a formal curriculum, and the instructional tactics used.

It's the latter that Green's article addressed. My guess is that teachers can argue either that they should be evaluated based on results or based on professional standards of care/practice tied to research, including research in the future. But you cannot argue that there should be no professional standards, or that a good chunk of them should not be tied to research. The "incentives" focus of much current accountability puts instruction in a black box. I think that's inappropriate public policy, but there has to be an alternative for at least political purposes. Changing the talk about doctors, checklists, and comparative-effectiveness research is a way to show that professionals do not have to be hero-artistes, and that's a healthy direction for the country.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:02 PM (Permalink) |

March 12, 2010

Health care and financial-aid reform as a package

Wednesday's rumor has turned into Friday's semi-confirmation: Democratic leaders in Congress are looking very seriously at packaging together the changes to the Senate health-care bill with the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA) through budget reconciliation. SAFRA would end federal subsidies for bankers that initiate loans for college students and return an estimated $67 billion over many years to be used for better purposes, such as giving poor students Pell grants. Since taxpayers foot the bill for the banker subsidies that currently exist, students end up paying twice for their own loans, once in interest to servicers and a second time in taxes that go to banker subsidies. It's time to end the double taxation of students.

Politically, the packaging is a good move for multiple reasons. Matthew Yglesias argues that putting SAFRA in with the health-care bill changes will reassure House progressives that one of their priorities will get a vote in the Senate, and it might get SAFRA over the hump of the small number of Senate Democratic naysayers who are siding with lenders over students. Last night, Sara Goldrick-Rab explained the shame of the anti-student bank subsidies, and it sort of burns me that one of the Democrats signing the protect-the-poor-bankers letter to Harry Reid is Florida's Bill Nelson. 

To be honest, I expect the package is more likely to attract support from the Nebraska Senator Nelson than Florida's Senator Nelson, because Ben Nelson (NE) now wants his embarrassing Cornhusker Deal for health-care off the table. But both Senator Nelsons are on the wrong side of the issue with SAFRA. I e-mailed Bill Nelson to that effect early this morning, but each time I've called his Washington office today, it's been busy and the voicemail is full. Time to call his local office on Monday...

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Posted in Education policy at 9:39 PM (Permalink) |

March 11, 2010

A health-care mandate for education

Over the next week I'll be writing a few entries about health care. Today, it's the benefit of an individual mandate for college completion. The individual mandate is the package deal that goes with universal coverage, to get healthy people into the insured pool, and it's also important to help college students finish. Every year, USF and every public college and university loses students because they get sick or have a financial crisis because they or a family member get sick. Even if imperfectly enforced, an individual mandate would give colleges and universities the political ability to require proof of insurance upon enrollment, and that would safeguard both the individual investment of the student and her/his family and the public investment as she or he starts college.

Yes, there are alternatives, but they're all bad: Many colleges offer a very high-premium plan for students because the pool they can compose out of their students (or a fraction of their students) is tiny. Together with the option to stay on their parents' plans until 26, an individual mandate would give college students more choice by letting them enter the exchange markets instead of having one horrid option for health insurance in college. An individual mandate would make sure that our public investment in higher education is not wasted by a spurious event that no one can control.

(Obviously, someone in the White House reads my blog because they're emulating thought of the same idea as they echo my uninsured-death-every-24 21-minutes entry in their final push, highlighting key numbers on the issue:  625 Americans who lose health insurance every hour, 8 health special-interest lobbyists for every member of Congress, 8 Americans denied coverage every minute either by loss of insurance or other means, and $1115 paid every month on average for a family premium.)

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Posted in Education policy at 1:30 PM (Permalink) |

Kristof and the public purpose of feel-good years

Charlie Barone is right: Nicholas Kristof's column yesterday comparing TFA and the Peace Corps shows the practical limits of TFA (as well as Kristof's ignorance about VISTA, but that's a different story). There's something important about consistently reminding reporters and other naive folks that TFA is not scalable. Regardless of what you think of it, there is a vast difference between the needs for a professional long-term teaching corps and matching up a few thousand new college graduates with positions that would be filled at best with long-term substitutes. There's nothing wrong with short-term backfilling (heck, that's what ARRA and other stimulus bills are for), but that's not a main solution for much.

Barone's point is not really about Kristof's central argument, which is more about how young Americans need to experience more of the world. Kristof is right about that, though maybe they should also see more of their own country? Nor is it about the side benefit of TFA participation in terms of giving a broader group of young adults experience in the public sector.

I think the last is the lasting impact of TFA. I look more favorably on TFA than a lot of other education researchers, not because I think there's significant evidence of great results but because a backfilling role in urban systems is acceptable and because social movements need well-off and well-positioned allies, people who had formative experiences that led them to empathize with others. In Inventing the Feeble Mind, for example, James Trent documents how WW2 conscientious objectors' experiences in state institutions helped lay the groundwork for a postwar change in attitudes towards cognitive disabilities. That's not a pre-law internship, as some accuse TFA of becoming; regardless of naivete, two or three years represents a serious commitment for someone who's 22. I don't know where TFA alums are going to be, but few of them are like Michelle Rhee either in temperament or future careers. Somewhere in 10 years, a TFA alum far outside public education is going to make a difference in a different sphere of life because of those two or three years.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:20 AM (Permalink) |

March 9, 2010

Florida v. Georgia -- in budget crises, not football

Today's revenue-estimating conference in Tallahassee is probably going to confirm prior state revenue estimates, which are slightly better for 2010-11 than 2009-10, but that's like saying two broken legs are better than two broken legs and a broken floating rib. The state revenues are still far below 2006, and there are three sources of pressure on the state budget: increased demand for Medicaid, the federal maintenance-of-effort requirement for education (even with the waiver for absolute maintenance), and declining property-tax collections that support K-12 school districts.

Last year we kept reminding ourselves that we weren't in California. And this year, Georgia's picture is worse. Plus a few other states I could mention. But that's cold comfort: Schadenfreude doesn't pay the bills.

Updated (5:45 pm): Yes, today's Florida state revenue estimates are almost identical to the last round.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:50 AM (Permalink) |

March 8, 2010

Sour-grapes agreement

Michael Olneck and Peter Sacks turn petty in letters to the editor about Diane Ravitch that the New York Times printed today. Wow. I agree with Ravitch on a number of things and disagree with her on a number of things, some of which is in our area of expertise (history of education) and some of which falls outside the history of education. But I'm not sure why Sacks in particular is turning on the venom spigot. Well, actually, I do have some hypotheses about general hostility to her I've occasionally seen (as opposed to disagreement): she caricatured the field of history of education in a sloppy late-70s publication sponsored by the National Academy of Education, and along with Patricia Graham she was a woman to get high-status national recognition in the 1970s for her work in education policy at the national level, which heretofore had been a male bastion. (Graham was director of NIE from 1977 to 1979.) The first is a seriously flawed work, but that's several decades in the past, and in any case, a particular work should stand or fall on its own merits. I've never seen the second item discussed or even acknowledged. 

There's a related issue here, which is Ravitch's position outside traditional faculty. As far as I'm aware, she's never had a tenure-track or tenured faculty position, and she's one of the few historians who can say that they published their dissertation commercially before receiving the Ph.D. (The Great School Wars was published in 1974; Ravitch received her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1975). For the most part, her books are far more widely read than those of us who have full-time faculty positions, and I think she and Graham are the only historians of education to have held political appointments in the federal government. That's an interesting combination of insider and outsider positions. 

When Meier and Ravitch started their joint blog/conversation three years ago, I briefly referred to this history in writing, "Regardless of various professional views of her scholarship, Ravitch is a recognized voice on education policy. There are plenty of people I correspond with who have fewer claims to expertise, so I can either have a snit-fit about that or deal, and at this point, having a snit-fit is darned close to sexism and uber-testosterone in education policy studies." I'm sorry Olneck and Sacks, and especially Sacks, have made a different choice.

For the record, Sacks is factually wrong when he states, "Dr. Ravitch fashioned herself into the Ayn Rand of educational policy and rose to fame as a result of a free-market ideology that came into fashion in George W. Bush's administration." Ravitch's appointment was during the first Bush administration, and whatever you might think of Ravitch's historical arguments in different books, she's a much better writer than Rand.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:09 AM (Permalink) |

March 7, 2010

Historians' automaticity, part 1

Concerns with science and math education are nothing new, and although the rhetoric today focuses on saving the planet and the economy, the argument for urgent intensification of STEM education is remarkably similar in structure to the Cold War era debates in the 1940s through the early 1960s: our country is in crisis, we need science and technology to solve the crisis, and so we must reform education. A 1959 forum about science and math education at Woods Hole was summarized by Jerome Bruner in The Process of Education (1960), which essentially was an argument about education in the disciplines. (Bruner later was instrumental in creating Man: A Course of Study [MACOS], and fellow Woods Hole conference participant Jerrold Zacharias was a key mover in MIT's Physical Science Study Committee, whose materials were used by my high school physics teacher.)

For a number of reasons, MACOS flopped as a curriculum project, but the central question raised at the 1959 Woods Hole conference remains: what's necessary for students to be successful at learning disciplinary thinking? Several of my colleagues at USF (Will Tyson, Kathy Borman, and others) have been involved in NSF-funded work studying recruitment to and success in undergraduate STEM education, including preparatory math and science work in high school. In lower grades, the National Math Advisory Panel made some suggestions about curriculum in primary and intermediate elementary grades that would be prerequisite for success in algebra, including work with fractions. (Speaking of which, check out this very cool Java Spirograph simulation. Yes, it's connected to fractions... or rather the nature of reciprocal relationships between frequency and wavelength.)

And somewhere along here, along with debates about the purposes of various proposed curricula, we generally get debates about which is more important, procedural fluidity or conceptual understanding. My answer: yes. They are. You need both "content" and "process" (and we'll get to the problem with those terms shortly), and I am generally sympathetic to arguments that getting to the point of automaticity with core skills is a part of getting ahead in conceptual understanding and also needs to be matched by teaching of concepts. (See my entry a few years ago on how to explain the more recent and reasonable NCTM curriculum framework materials.)

But there is something about the term automaticity that itches inside my head, because it sort of gets the idea right but is not entirely persuasive... and the places where it is not persuasive are troubling in a subtle but very important way. Let me explain why I can fluidly pull out material from my memory that looks remarkably like the standard definition of automaticity and yet really isn't like that at all. 

First, a digression: with apologies to Douglas Adams, the process of doing history is almost but not quite entirely unlike what Sam Wineburg describes in his research. Wineburg's writing is appealing to historians because it focuses on precisely the discipline-based processes that Bruner discussed 50 years ago in his book, and Wineburg's message is flattering: "academic historians, you have interesting ways of thinking, and here is what I see as a cognitive researcher and why high school history teachers need to pay much closer attention to what you do." And to be honest, there is some part of his work that has all sorts of interesting detail on the level of nuance and sophistication with which people try to commit history (such as the research on how people from different fields read primary sources about Abraham Lincoln and slavery). But Wineburg is enormously popular because his intended audience has a confirmation bias that leads them (us) to agree with someone who comes along and tells us we're special and intellectual. Wineburg weaves a story of historical thinking's exceptionalism... and there's the rub. As an historian, I'm supposed to be wary of anyone talking about American exceptionalism, and here comes this cognitive psychologist trying to seduce me with glorious tales of my discipline's exceptionalism, how difficult it is to be an historian, and so forth.

Pardon me, but I'll take the interesting cognitive questions without the side dish of (probably unintentional) pandering. A good bit of Wineburg's efforts have been to parse out how people read primary sources, and they generally focus on the level of ambiguity people read into primary sources: ambiguity about intent, background, effect, and so forth. And that's all fine and good except for two problems: Wineburg's work in this vein has generally been with adults, and they generally ignore the process participants use to put the primary source in context. The second is the part that troubles me most as a teacher, because the place where students in my undergrad history of education class first fall down is typically in putting a primary source in a broader context. It's not the most difficult task I put before students: usually the most difficult task in the semester is asking students to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue. But the difficulty of putting material in a broader context is a fundamental barrier to success in my class.

That sounds remarkably like students who are not yet at the level of history automaticity, whatever that might mean, and one would be tempted to refer to Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's argument from the late 1980s, that American teenagers don't know enough history. But focusing on factual recall is begging the question: what does it mean to have sufficiently fluid mastery of history to put a primary document in context? Something about factual recall is helpful, but is that enough, and is that what successful students do? 

It might be helpful to explain the type of task that is not hard for students: confronting people whose glib brutality stands out of the page. That characterizes the very first primary source I use in my undergrad history class (printed in Jim Fraser's education history primary-source collection), instructions from the London Virginia Council to the colony's governor in 1636. It reads in part,

And if you find it convenient, we think it reasonable you first remove... [Native American children] from their ... priests by a surprise of them all and detain their prisoners... [and] we pronounce it not cruelty nor breach of charity to deal more sharply with [the priests] and to proceed even to dash with these murderers of souls and sacrificers of gods' images to the devil...

With 17th century texts, the first challenge is simply to understand what the source says, and that's a bit of skill in language, but the students usually figure out this passage soon enough, and their eyes open a bit wider: the official supervisors of the colony sitting in England were telling the colonial governor to kidnap Native American children and beat (or kill) the elders. That type of detail sticks with students, because it engages their emotions and sense of what a society is supposed to be doing (as well as what colonists did). It's not that any student is exactly surprised that English colonists in Virginia were patronizing and occasionally brutal, but there is something that takes them aback in the casual way which which colonists and English elite discussed their goals. 

I wish that all of history was that engaging, but that's just not true, and there is a good bit of background context that students need to pull out to put any primary source in context, and when you get to material whose explicit text is boring but is still important, students cannot rely on the immediately-engaging story to "get it." Instead, most primary sources require a student to identify at least one salient context that is not immediately apparent, and they need to be able to identify a relevant context (or more than one) without a huge amount of effort. If there is an "automaticity" to a professional historian's thinking, it is that: where does this primary source or other detail fit in a large scheme?

That larger scheme can start with "issues of the day," whatever the time and place. To be successful, you need to know what was happening at about the time of the primary source/event. You start with the year, go back and forth a few years, and think about possible connections. So when you look at the last of Horace Mann's annual reports on the state of education in Massachusetts (in 1848) and read the following passage, what pops out as contemporary and possibly relevant?

Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor in different classes are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor in the same class are essentially fraternal.

That's from the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. So when I ask a class about the relevant context, some students look at servility and suggest slavery as an issue, point out that Mann was writing for an audience in the North, or ask whether Mann was anti-slavery. (No one in my classes has mentioned the compromise of 1850, but that would fit with this tentative reach for context.) Few of them would have heard of Eric Foner's book on free-labor ideology, but I can probe a bit: slavery's part of the picture, at least in rhetoric, but there's something else there. What were some of the concepts used in the North to discuss slavery? I wish that probe worked more frequently than it does, so I usually point out the "different classes" phrase and ask what else was happening in the U.S. in the 19th century. At least one student usually mentions industrialization. So what's Mann arguing, I follow up? More faces light up at that point.

Part of the problem here is that Mann's argument is too familiar, a little too close to a human-capital argument for students to realize how new this was. (Maris Vinovkis credits Mann with that early human-capital argument.) Part of it is also that students don't have a visceral sense of the simmering conflicts in Northern cities, even after hearing about the religious conflicts in Boston in 1836 or Philadelphia in 1844 (the latter so-called "Bible riot"). Because all of that was also related to social class, industrialization, and immigration, I can almost feel Mann's sense of urgency here in promoting mass education ("common schools") as a cure-all for social conflict. But most students usually can't. The prose is too prosaic and the context insufficiently emotional to engage students in the same way that happens in response to the "kidnap the kids and eliminate the elders" instructions from the 17th century.

There's an additional layer to this context, because 1848 is a signal year in European history: revolutions galore and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To a literate, well-connected American, Europe was dissolving in chaos in 1847 and 1848. What could prevent the U.S. from doing the same? There is no evidence I am aware of that Mann was explicitly referring to European events, but it would have been in the air in the same way that natural disasters are "in the air" around the globe today after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Even if he was not consciously constructing the passage above to respond to European events, it would have resonated more for someone concerned about social stability in 1848. 

There is nothing special about what I do in class: I take a simple question of context to push students about the importance of something Horace Mann wrote. And there is nothing particularly hard about asking what else was happening at the time. But while it's an easy task for me, this task flummoxes a lot of students. That task of pulling relevant context out of one's memory is the closest thing I can think of for the historian's automaticity, and looking for contemporary events and issues is the most obvious (but not the only) way to cut the issue. One might want to call this type of context affinity in time. I can think of other affinities which I might explore in other entries, but the key thing here is that this task is extraordinarily difficult for students. 

Why this is difficult is an interesting, substantive question beyond the usual "fact-process" dualism. You need a mastery of chronology to pull context out of your head, but to build that mastery you need a way to put the details into your head in a way that's not "one damned thing after another"--i.e., a mental scheme. And while I wish I could look inside my head to see what my internal schemes are, I suspect any attempt at reflection is going to fall far short. I suppose one metaphor might be a "thick" timeline of issues and events and trends inside my head, so that when someone says, "1848," I can think of a bunch of things (as described above). Or if someone tells you that the Little Rock crisis was in fall of 1957, you just might think of Sputnik and ask whether there might be a Cold War context to Eisenhower's decision to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and send in the 101st Airborne.

In addition, you need to be able to filter out nonsalient issues. What else was going on in 1957? Let's see: the Ford Thunderbird that year was a particularly popular "muscle" car. And the Dodgers were planning to move away from Brooklyn. The Communist party won elections in the Indian state of Kerala. ABC started national broadcast distribution of American Bandstand. On the Road was published. You can find more details at the 1957 Wikipedia page, but going to an almanac-style "here's what happened" listing is an incredibly inefficient way to put something in context. But to be honest, I wish I had the problem of students who found too many potential contexts where I had to suggest filtering. Usually the problem is a lack of candidate hypotheses about context.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:30 AM (Permalink) |

Spring break

Classes are not meeting next week, many students are away from campus, and many faculty are as well, so it's time for me to get stuff done. Certainly not as much as I'd like, but this is an opportunity to... well, maybe move from a molasses pace to a sludge pace on some projects. At least, I hope there are fewer fires to put out.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:36 AM (Permalink) |

March 4, 2010

Every 24 minutes: why it's time to vote on the health care bill

Two years ago, a friend I've known for more than 40 years who works at the Urban Institute updated the Institute of Medicine's estimate of the annual excess deaths in the U.S. due to lack of insurance. In 2008, the updated estimate was 22,000 annual excess deaths. That's an average of one preventable death about every 24 minutes.

Every time that a Republican talks about "starting over," think of how many 24-minute chunks of time that would involve. Every 24 minutes of delay = one more excess death. Every time that an overly-righteous proponent of the public option talks about "being slapped in the face by the White House" and (again) starting the debate over, think of how many 24-minute chunks that would involve. Think of how many 24-minute chunks have passed since 1993 (the last time a major health-care initiative died). 

It's time for the Senate to vote on amendments to its bill using reconciliation, and it's time for the House to pass both the Senate bill and amendments.

Updated: Families USA has calculated that it's now a preventable death every 21 minutes.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:51 AM (Permalink) |

PolitiFact Erratum

The St. Pete Times's PolitiFact comes down today with the same ruling that I would on Governor Charlie Crist's statement that the high school graduation rate in the cohort just graduated last year is the "highest it's ever been." They rate the claim as Mostly True, and I agree.

And their reporting of my remarks when called by the reporter on the story is similarly Mostly True. (For the record, that's the way I'd rate most good reporting.) The ruling says in part, "Dorn says the state should not count students who received a diploma even after failing the FCAT three times." It is true that I pointed out that the number of students who receive an academic diploma using the SAT/ACT exemption path has ballooned in the last five years and corresponds very neatly to the rise in high school graduation over that time. However, I never said that the state should not count those graduates, and if I remember correctly reporter Lee Logan never asked me that directly in the phone interview.

On Tuesday evening, Logan e-mailed me, and after I replied with my cell phone, I pulled up the spreadsheet I'd downloaded from the FLDOE site in the fall. The state reported three different measures: the official Florida graduation rate it's used for a decade, the measure used for NCLB purposes, and a measure defined by the National Governors Association in 2005. The last addresses the concerns I and others raised 4-5 years ago about the exclusion of the dropout-to-GED path from the cohort base and the inclusion of GEDs with regular diplomas.

The SAT/ACT exemption is different. On the one hand, the idea of an SAT/ACT exemption flies in the face of the point of a graduation exam, since college admissions exams do not test what a student has learned from the high school curriculum. On the other hand, it's a political and practical safety valve since it gives students more opportunities to qualify for an academic diploma. I wish that the state had chosen other options because of the SAT/ACT-curriculum disconnect, but when faced with education policy problems legislators tend to reach for tests, some test, any test.

Trying to look at the NGA rate with/without the exemption category (WFT) is also trickier than with the GED data, since there could be a number of reasons why the use of that exemption has ballooned. Maybe there are now 9,000 high school students each year who are directed towards the SAT/ACT who really would not have graduated without the exemption, and if so the rise in the NGA represents students who would have been on the margin of receiving a standard diploma without that option. But maybe the rise is a consequence of more Florida districts paying for students to take the SAT, where students would have taken the FCAT but didn't because they had qualified through the SAT. From a student perspective, if you've failed to pass the diploma threshold in prior FCAT tries and suddenly you have an SAT score that qualifies, why take the FCAT again in your senior year? Or why try hard at it when you do take it? 

Then there's the more important question: where should we be with high school graduation? If you agree that we should include the students who qualified with an SAT or ACT score rather than a curriculum-based test, about three quarters of Florida ninth graders are graduating within four years. Using the NGA rate, of the African American students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2005, about 65% of them had graduated with a standard academic diploma by the summer of 2009. Even if you are skeptical about the inherent value of a credential, high school diplomas do serve as credentials for the job market and colleges, and someone without that credential faces significant institutional barriers to doing well as an adult. 

Update: The PolitiFact page has changed to reflect what I said more accurately. Thanks!

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Posted in Education policy at 8:10 AM (Permalink) |