Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This election, let's ignore the "shiny objects."

With his winnings in the Texas Republican primary, Mitt Romney has sewed up his party's presidential nomination. The election craziness has officially begun.

Think the buildup to the Superbowl is crazy? The 24/7 news cycle has been building this contest since the day after election day in 2008.

Here's a suggestion: This time, let's have an adult conversation about what direction we want our country to take, and let's ignore those tempting "shiny objects" along the way.

By "shiny objects" I mean all those soap opera-like distractions that the media like to use to hype ratings or sell papers. They allow lots of bluster, but don't really address the fundamental issues.

Case-in-point: Today's news tells us that the Romney campaign has put an iPhone app up on the Apple site which misspells America as "Amercia." I'm sure that Mr. Romney knows the correct spelling, and I'm sure that he's not the one responsible for the misspelling. Shiny object sighting!

"Gaffes" are usually shiny objects. Someone who appears on TV identified as a party "strategist" will say something dumb and the opposing party will go into its high-dudgeon act demanding that the candidate disavow the statement.

The truth is that most of the pundits on TV identified as party "strategists" have no official connection to the party or the campaign. If they had a connection, they would be identified as a campaign manager or White House aide. They're just party members who  make part of their living by appearing on TV to give their personal viewpoint. Mitt Romney shouldn't have to disavow every stupid comment made by a Republican, nor should Barack Obama need to disavow statements made by individual Democrats who are not his official representative.

People the candidate knows are often shiny objects. Rev. Wright seems a bit off the wall, but so does "birther" Donald Trump. Neither Rev. Wright nor Donald Trump are running for office. Let's concentrate on the records of the candidates themselves.

 And while we're at it, let's leave religion out of it. Article VI of the Constitution couldn't be more clear: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." [Emphasis mine.]

What are the things that matter? Of course, there is the issue of national security. But that also involves the economy.  Thomas Friedman said that he wouldn't presume to give advice to Hillary Clinton, but if he had been advising her, he would have suggested that she tell the president that she wanted the TOP national security job: Sec. of Education.

Friedman identifies the five things that have made America great:

1) Education

2) Building and continually modernizing our infrastructure.

3) An immigration policy that brought the best minds in the world to our shores, educated them, then kept them here.

4) Government support for basic research and development.

5) Implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity.

These are the things I want to hear about from the candidates, not the shiny objects. Now you may look at this list and think: "We can't possibly do these things now, times are tough." Well, there was a time in our history when a president created the land-grant college system, built a transcontinental railroad and created the National Academy of Sciences. All during tough times. The president's name was Lincoln, and he did it all during a really tough time known as the Civil War.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The worst 8th-grade math teacher in NY City.

Her name is Carolyn Abbott and, according to recently published evaluations of NYC public school teachers, she is the worst 8th-grade math teacher in the city. Let's look at the rest of the story, then you decide.

Abbott teaches 7th and 8th grade math. On the grade 4-8 NYS ELA test, 32% of 7th grade teachers had students with lower "value-added" scores, and 0% of 8th-grade teachers had students with lower "value-added" scores. Not a single 8th-grade math teacher had students with a lower "value-added" score! What parent in their right mind would want their child in the classroom of such an incompetent instructor?

It might be reasonable to assume that Abbott teaches in one of those gang-ruled hellholes we all hear about as a NYC public school. But that would be wrong. Abbott teaches at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted and talented school on the upper west side. Incredible! She must really be a loser if she can't "add value" for kids who actually want to be in school and have a thirst for knowledge.

We'll pick up her story as told by the Sociological Look at Education blog of prof. Allan Pallas: "Using a statistical technique called value-added modeling, the Teacher Data Reports compare how students are predicted to perform on the state ELA and math tests, based on their prior year’s performance, with their actual performance. Teachers whose students do better than predicted are said to have “added value”; those whose students do worse than predicted are “subtracting value.” By definition, about half of all teachers will add value, and the other half will not."

"Carolyn Abbott was, in one respect, a victim of her own success. After a year in her classroom, her seventh-grade students scored at the 98th percentile of New York City students on the 2009 state test. As eighth-graders, they were predicted to score at the 97th percentile on the 2010 state test. However, their actual performance was at the 89th percentile of students across the city. That shortfall—the difference between the 97th percentile and the 89th percentile—placed Abbott near the very bottom of the 1,300 eighth-grade mathematics teachers in New York City." Well, perhaps Abbott didn't do a very good job of teaching the material on the 8th-grade test. Read on, grasshopper.

"How could this happen? Anderson is an unusual school, as the students are often several years ahead of their nominal grade level. The material covered on the state eighth-grade math exam is taught in the fifth or sixth grade at Anderson. “I don’t teach the curriculum they’re being tested on,” Abbott explained. “It feels like I’m being graded on somebody else’s work. The math that she teaches is more advanced, culminating in high-school level algebra and a different and more challenging test, New York State’s Regents exam in Integrated Algebra.” [Emphasis mine.]

"Because student performance on the state ELA and math tests is used to calculate scores on the Teacher Data Reports, the tests are high-stakes for teachers; and because New York City uses a similar statistical strategy to rank schools, they are high-stakes for schools as well. But the tests are not high-stakes for the eighth-graders at Anderson."

"By the time they take the eighth-grade tests in the spring of the year, they already know which high school they will be attending, and their scores on the test have no consequences. “The eighth-graders don’t care; they rush through the exam, and they don’t check their work,” Abbott said. “The test has no effect on them. I can’t make an argument that it counts for kids. The seventh-graders, they care a bit more.”

"The state tests, she believes, are poorly equipped to assess real mathematical knowledge, especially for high-performing students. “They’re so basic; they ask you to explain things that are obvious if you’re three years ahead,” she says. The Anderson students “understand it at a different level. They want to explain with equations, not words.” But the scoring of the free-response items on the tests emphasizes a formulaic response, with the scoring instructions often looking for a single keyword in a response to garner credit. They’re not accepting answers that are mathematically correct,” Abbott notes, “and accepting answers that aren’t mathematically correct.”

"How do her students perform on the content that she actually does teach? This year, the 64 eighth-graders at Anderson she teaches are divided into two groups, an honors section and a regular section. All but one of the students in the honors section took the Regents Integrated Algebra exam in January; the other student and most of the regular-section students will take the exam in June. All of the January test-takers passed with flying colors, and more than one-third achieved a perfect score of 100 on the exam." [Emphasis mine.]

Yet Carolyn Abbott has been publicly shamed--teacher evaluation scores were published in NYC newspapers and other media--as the worst 8th-grade math teacher in the entire city. Even though her principal, her students and their parents know her as a great teacher, Carolyn Abbott is leaving teaching and entering the Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall.

Way to go New York!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Firing back at our grenade-throwing governor.

Heard enough about how New York's public schools are an expensive disgrace filled with inept teachers who only care about their paychecks and pensions? Me too.

Fred LeBrun comments on education matters for the Albany Times Union, and filed a column today titled Throw grenade, walk away. Here's how he begins: "Public education has been a disaster for Andrew Cuomo, and vice versa....In two years of nastiness from his bully pulpit, he has derided teachers, their unions, administrators and school boards, and made them out to be barely competent. Yet, with ashes in his mouth, he portrays himself as the state's No. 1 advocate for students. And his tearing apart teachers helps students how, exactly? His favorite statistics, to support his education-bashing, have been that New York pays more per pupil than any other state, yet has a 38 percent graduation rate." [Emphasis mine.]

Strangely, the governor leaves out what the late Paul Harvey would have called "the rest of the story."

"Those statistics are galling because they are highly misleading. New York yearly jockeys with Connecticut and New Jersey for the highest per pupil cost. They are neighboring states, you'll notice, a factor that has a bearing on high costs. The low graduation rate is dictated by New York City, where 140 languages are spoken and that has challenges and hardships completely alien to upstate and Long Island education." [Emphasis mine.]

"Far more typical is this year's Education Week national ranking of statewide New York public education as the nation's third-best, behind Maryland and Massachusetts. By nearly every meaningful measure, New York is in the top handful in the country, year after year. A far cry from the governor's self-serving propaganda of derision." Now that seems strange. Most governors brag about accomplishments such as these. [Emphasis mine.]

LeBrun then addresses the new tax cap: "Out of the gate, he rode a popular political hobby horse and got passed a 2 percent cap on school taxes. He strutted over that. But he made no progress on what was supposed to be the matching piece — mandate relief — which if it had gone far enough would have made the cap workable for local school districts. In addition, state support of public education, at his direction, is $1.1 billion less today than when he took office....The state's 700 school boards have two sources of revenue: state aid and local taxes. So, he's decimated the first and put a ceiling on the second and instilled terror in the hearts of school boards across the state with his bombast. And as a result, by gosh, the governor has been successful in creating the disaster for public education he said was there in the first place, but wasn't."

"A growing number of school districts are now out of reserve funds. A local school board member told me that a third of the state's school districts will be insolvent in three years at the present rate. A true crisis looms. What happens then? No one is quite sure, but you can be pretty confident it won't be good for the taxpayer, or for public education." [Emphasis mine.]

Later in the column, LeBrun identifies another problem: "...a widening gap between state funding to needy school districts and wealthier ones. In a Rutgers University study, New York ranked near the bottom in equitable distribution of education funds. That disparity is the equivalent of unequal opportunity. That is wrong, not to mention contrary to the spirit and language of our state constitution, and is going to come back to bite the Cuomo administration in the tail unless there's a dramatic course correction." [Emphasis mine.]

LeBrun finishes by pointing out that the governor has appointed a blue-ribbon commission to come up with an action plan for public education. "Never mind that the constitution I keep referring to puts the responsibility for that sort of plan in the hands of the Board of Regents, not the governor. For some reason, wiser heads long ago felt education ought not to be victimized by the whims of political opportunists." [Emphasis mine.]

"But wouldn't it have been both sweet and fitting if he had done so before advocating absolutely for a 2 percent tax cap, before making teachers and the state's public school system perpetual objects of ridicule, before putting school boards in the awful position of having to make choices that can only hurt education in their district? Before inciting the public over supposed shortcomings in our current education system. You know, putting the cart before the hobby horse." [Emphasis mine.]

"Instead, for reasons that remain a mystery, the governor opted for his version of thoughtful public policy. That is, throwing a hand grenade at a thorny problem, walking away, and seeing who and what survives. He does like the show, I notice."

Sometimes it's nice to read the newspaper!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Medicate, educate and incarcerate.

Last December, I did a post called Have Grandchildren? Give their parents this book! I implored you to read Thomas Friedman's new book titled That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. If you didn't have time to read the book, I said, at least invest an hour in watching the video of Friedman discussing his book (which is part of the blog post). If I had one hour with the attention of the president and congress, this is the video I would show them.

Friedman wrote an earlier book in 2005 titled The World is Flat. On his book tour for his latest book, he likes to talk about what's happened between 2005 and now: "When I wrote The World is Flat, Facebook didn't exist, twitter was a sound, the cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking place, applications were what you sent to colleges and Skype, for most people, was a typo. That's how much the world has changed in just a few years."

Friedman wrote a column in today's NY Times titled "Do you want the good news first?" He writes about the tremendous amount of innovation happening today in America: "Facebook, which didn’t exist nine years ago, just went public at a valuation of nearly $105 billion — two weeks after buying a company for $1 billion, Instagram, which didn’t exist 18 months ago." He speaks of other innovation leaders, naming "Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Zynga and Twitter...all headquartered in America." Then he spells out the problem.

"...we’re leaving an era of some 50 years’ duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we’re entering an era — no one knows for how long — in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take things away from people. And if we don’t make this transition in a really smart way — by saying, “Here are the things that made us great, that spawned all these dynamic companies” — and make sure that we’re preserving as much of that as we can, this trend will not spread as it should. Maybe we could grow as a country without a plan. But we dare not cut without a plan. We can really do damage. I can lose weight quickly if I cut off both arms, but it will surely reduce my job prospects." [Emphasis mine.]

"What we must preserve is that magic combination of cutting-edge higher education, government-funded research and immigration of high-I.Q. risk-takers. They are, in combination, America’s golden goose, laying all these eggs in Seattle and Silicon Valley. China has it easy right now. It just needs to do the jobs that we have already invented, just more cheaply. America has to invent the new jobs — and that requires preserving the goose." [Emphasis mine.]

"It is terrifying to see how budget-cutting in California is slowly reducing what was once one of the crown jewels of American education — the University of California system — to a shadow of its old self. And I fear the cutting is just beginning. As one community leader in Seattle remarked to me, governments basically do three things: “Medicate, educate and incarcerate.” And various federal and state mandates outlaw cuts in medicating and incarcerating, so much of the money is coming out of educating..... A new report just found that federal investment in biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health has decreased almost every year since 2003." [Emphasis mine]

"This is not a call to ignore the hard budget choices we have to make. It’s a call to make sure that we give education, immigration and research their proper place in the discussion....As I've said, nations that don’t invest in the future tend not to do well there." [Emphasis mine.]

Let me say it one more time, at least watch the video. It's non-partisan and you will enter this election season with a better understanding of the real problems facing America. Here's the video:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Somebody needed to say it.

Charles Blow is a columnist for the NY Times, and his mother is a teacher. Last Friday, Mr. Blow wrote a column about his mother called Teaching me about teaching, and it contained some thoughts that apply to every teacher.

"Through her I saw up close that teaching is one of those jobs you do with the whole of you — trying to break through to a young mind can break your heart. My mother cared about her students like they were her own children....She wasn’t just teaching school lessons but life lessons. For her, it was about more than facts and figures. It was about the love of learning and the love of self. It was the great entangle, education in the grandest frame, what sticks with you when all else falls away. As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

"She showed me what a great teacher looked like: proud, exhausted, underpaid and overjoyed. For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference. But hard work deserves a fair wage." [Emphasis mine.]

And then Blow addressed the current attacks on teachers:

"That’s why I have a hard time tolerating people who disproportionately blame teachers for our poor educational outcomes. I understand that not every teacher is a great one. But neither is every plumber, or every banker or every soldier. Why then should teachers be demonized so much?"

"I won’t pretend to have all the policy prescriptions to address our country’s educational crisis, but beating up teachers isn’t the solution. We must be honest brokers in our efforts to fix a broken system.... [it is] just as important to address the poverty, stress and hopelessness that some children bring into the classroom, before the bell rings and the chalk screeches across a blackboard."

In attacking teachers, Blow realizes that we are laying the groundwork for a continuing decline in school performance:

"A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it....starting teacher salaries in 2010 averaged $39,000 a year. Let’s assume that federal, state and local taxes eat up a third. That would leave a take-home pay as low as $26,000. However, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success, a college senior graduating that year carried an average of $25,250 in student loans. The math just doesn’t work out." [Emphasis mine.]

"If we want better educational outcomes, we need to attract better teachers — and work to retain them. A good place to start is with respect and paychecks."

Thanks, Mr. Blow. Somebody needed to say it, and more people need to listen.