Thursday, July 31, 2014

Slate Writer & Critic, Troy Patterson: An Interesting Dude

Sometimes there are people who just "know a lot," and they are the type of people who just naturally seem worth listening to. One of these people who is simply in tune with the contemporary world is Slate Magazine's Troy Patterson. Patterson writes the "Gentleman Scholar" column for Slate, and has generally been referred to as a "Writer at Large." That is a gig that many aspiring bloggers and writers would naturally say, "That's what I want to do." It's not easy, though, to do what Troy does. It takes a real eye for the zeitgeist, and an ability to distill the complicated to the accessible and find the interesting in the ordinary.

Troy's latest piece on how to be "Well Read without Reading" is just the sort of random topic that is both engaging and something most of us might ponder but rarely craft it into a piece of writing. Troy, however, has been doing that for quite a while. Working as a book and film critic for NPR, Spin, and Slate, Troy has crafted a niche market for his astute observations that can both engage and instigate.

You can follow Troy at @untitledproject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who's Responsible for Student Achievement?

Where do you stand on public education and teachers and education reform? That probably depends on where you stand on responsibility for student test scores. It seems these days that views on public education reform are entirely dependent on whether a teacher or a student is responsible for the student's performance on a standardized test.

And that's a problem.

In an era of increased hype around standardized testing - primarily resulting from continued emphasis in No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and PARCC/SmarterBalanced initiatives - the general public is forced to determine whether the quality of a teacher can be determined by how that teacher's students perform on standardized tests given by the state or private testing companies like Pearson and ACT. New NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia called the entire idea "stupid, absurd, [and] non-defensible."

There are certainly many reasons to cast "doubt on grading teachers by student performance." The public education system contains such disparity in the lives of students and the conditions in which teachers teach that it seems rather unconscionable to establish a standard test for all students to meet. Obviously, all students can achieve, and there is little doubt that some teachers are more effective than others at inspiring kids and improving achievement. However, there is little emphasis on how that happens and the significant role played by the kids - and even the parents, community, and environment - in that "equation." That said, certain hard realities indicate that specific populations will perform worse on specific tests in spite of the teaching. Motivation to take the test seriously can be a predominant factor, as can the overall state of mind for the students when they arrive at school - on test day or in general.

Thus, it remains a complicated issue - and ultimately un-definitive reality: "Should Student Test Scores Be Used to Evaluate Teachers?"





Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Community Schools - Should Public Education Provide More Than Academics

One of the primary arguments behind "ending summer vacation" and extending the school year to year-round schedules is that students lose ground when they are away from school. These losses are not just in academics, but also in the reality of providing structure to kids whose lives outside school can be quite chaotic. For many students, school can be the one place where they can count on a meal for the day, and it might be the only place they can access health care. So, there is a movement on the rise to create more Community Schools - turning school buildings into year-round operations that provide all manner of social services from health care to food stamps to family counseling.

Of course, doing so would obviously require much greater funding for public education - an issue that is certainly not a foregone conclusion. However, there is bi-partisan support in Congress for expanding the reach of "Community Schools," as explained in a recent column from Democrat Steny Hoyer for EdWeek.org. There is no doubt that opening schools year-round to provide all sorts of government services could dramatically improve the lives of children in economically challenged communities. And many private and charter school programs that do more than provide academic classes from 8-3 for a traditional year have proved the ability to make a difference. Geoffery Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is an example.


In "A Teacher's View," the only rule for improving education and achievement in the lives of kids is that it works. If expanding the reach of schools throughout the year to provide more support is successful, and it is the most cost effective way of doing so, then communities should pursue it. Of course, this approach should be pursued at the state and local level, and it should not be implemented as a standard for uniformity for all communities.

Whatever works.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Is STEM Worker Shortage Based on a Lie and a Scam

The debate over STEM education and an "alleged STEM-worker shortage" received another critical voice this week as Ron Hira and friends took to the pages of USA Today to challenge and expose "Bill Gates' Tech Worker Fantasy." Gates and his monolithic Gates Foundation have been the driving forces behind the obsessive focus on increasing math and science oriented students to fuel the tech sector's supposed need for workers. Proponents of STEM-education argue that the new technology-driven era will create an ever-growing demand for computer scientists and engineers to fuel the the economy ... and to fill the bankrolls of tech companies like Microsoft. However, critics like Hira challenge these absolutes and point to evidence of a "STEM-shortage myth" in light of the fact that many college-educated STEM grads are currently out of work or working in non-STEM fields. This revelation is bolstered by news of Microsoft's recent announcement of plans to lay off 18,000 workers. Stagnant wage growth in STEM fields and collusion by tech companies to suppress wages in the field also expose the problems of STEM-only focus in education.

Criticism of the need for STEM workers has been building for years, as many researchers indicate the economy may have twice as many STEM workers as it needs, leading to wage decline and unemployment. The STEM push had been used by tech companies to increase the ease and availability for hiring foreign workers. But again, much of the propaganda for increasing STEM numbers appears to be based on myth and misinformation. Of course, there is validity to the need for STEM workers. And the argument that a shortage of technologically skilled workers is real and growing has plenty of support. No one would dispute that the world and the economy are becoming increasingly tech-linked. So it stands to reason that workers with backgrounds in the kind of math, science, technology, and engineering used to support that economy should be in regular demand. And STEM proponents argue that critics don't fully understand the numbers.

The problem, of course, is that no one seems to have a definitive answer that is not in some way driven by an agenda. Even the "experts" don't know if the shortage is real. But from "A Teacher's View," the impact on education is serious and significant, and it's worrisome that the push for students to learn is simply based on the premise of getting a good paying engineering job. For, what of the social-emotional side to society and the economy? What of the artists and creators and poets and writers and thinkers? What of the dancers?



Certainly, STEM is a need and a reasonable focus for education. But it can't be the only one.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Can Students Work Their Way Through College?

College is truly expensive, and it's becoming more cost prohibitive each year. There is no doubt about that. And students are graduating with record loads of debt, with the average kid starting post-graduate life saddled by almost an $30,000 burden. However, some recent education critics have argued that "Working Your Way Through College is Impossible." Is it?

According to recent graduate Ethan Smith, it is "mathematically impossible to work your way through college." Apparently that dream has been gone for more than a decade. He presents a convincing argument about the burden of working to simply pay for tuition, and the current minimum wage jobs that are workable by full-time students barely make a dent. Providing anecdotes from several students and crunching the numbers with info from the Student Debt Project, it seems reasonable that students simply can't accomplish what they did in the 1970s. That much seems obvious. Student worker Randal Olsen is another person who has crunched the numbers, researched the challenges, and blogged extensively on the financial challenges facing today's generation of college kids.

However, there are some caveats and other aspects to the story of spiraling student debt - and a "definitive answer" on working your way through college. College is truly expensive - but some places are more so than others. For example, Ethan Smith (who I am assuming is from Colorado) attended Elon University in North Carolina. Elon is a small, private, liberal arts college that is, by all accounts, a pretty good school. Yet, the tuition alone at Elon is $30,000 a year - and that includes nothing in terms or living expenses or travel. By contrast, the tuition at the University of Colorado - Boulder is roughly $12,000 per year. And the total on campus cost for a CU student is about $28,000. So, outside of financial aid, Ethan's entire year at CU would cost less than just tuition across the country at Elon. A question for prospective students is: Is an Elon education worth three times as much as a CU education? We know that's not true.

Granted, $28,000 is no small change, and it would be tough to work enough to pay that off and be a full-time student. That much is true. But there are many other in-state options. The tuition at the University of Northern Colorado is roughly $6500 per year. And, students who stay close to home have the option of limiting their living expenses. So, the issue of college costs is certainly more complicated than the blanket statements by students such as Ethan and Randal. That said, the counterargument shouldn't negate the criticism of rising college costs - and there is no doubt that as states continue to cut budgets, suffering under low tax revenue, the burden will increasingly shift to students. However, the greater question may be whether communities and students and employers begin to re-evaluate whether college is necessary at all.

Regarding college costs, though, the recent documentary film Ivory Tower sides with Ethan Smith.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Next Food Network Star won't be Emma Frisch

In a scene reminiscent of last year's Next Food Network Star competition when popular, sweet, genuine, and talented food blogger Nikki Dinki was basically shown the exit door by Alton Brown for not knowing what a pilaf was, the soft spoken, but engaging, all-natural food advocate Emma Frisch was eliminated from the Food Network competition last night. Emma's team in the competition to create a 360-degree "food experience" suffered from a poor vision and even worse execution. And because Emma was seen as the leader - and because her food disappointed - she was ousted. That left the brash personalities of Lenny and Loreal to survive another day.

Texas chef Sarah - who hasn't until last night actually shown any hint of what "Tastes of Texas" really means - led her team to victory, and they truly did put on a nice show. The problem, of course, is that none of these contestants has true star power, and it's clear that none is really ever going to be a "Food Network Star." There is no Guy Fieri or Bobby Flay or even Jeff Mauro in the mix. They are not food experts or great personalities or even exceptional chefs. There is seemingly less "star power" in each season of the Food Network Star.

As I noted last week, the "star" of the Food Network Star is the show itself, giving greater vehicle to the network and its icons like Bobby Flay. But it's not producing stars - because Lenny and Loreal and Nicole and Luca and Sarah are simply not that impressive. And they won't ever be. And here's another interesting thought: When did Alton Brown turn into such a total jerk? I know Alton has always been that sort of quirky personality that goes back to his breakout success on "Good Eats." And, he had a bit of an edge as a "food elitist" because he really does know his stuff. And I always enjoyed watching him. But Alton seems to have bought into the "caricature of himself," and he's made the mistake of not just being naturally quirky and curt, but going out of his way to be … a prick (pardon my language - it just fits here.)

Ultimately, the prize should probably go to …. oh, hell, I don't really care. Pretty boring people at this point. However, I will keep an eye out for the continued rise of Jeff Mauro. And a big congratulations to Michelle Ragussis, from two seasons ago, as she has secured a spot of NBC's new food show "Food Fighters with "Man vs. Food" Star Adam Richman. Can't wait to see it - a chef like Michelle and a foodie like Adam are what I think of when I think of "Food Network Stars"?



Saturday, July 19, 2014

Of Course "Big Food" is the Problem

In a classic moment from Morgan Spurlock's pivotal documentary on the processed food industry Super-Size Me, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers of American (GMA), Gene Grabowski says "We part of the problem." Spurlock could hardly believe his good fortune - and, interestingly, six months after the release of the film at the Sundance Film Festival, Grabowski "no longer worked for the GMA." The reality is that "Big Food," or the corporate conglomeration of processed food manufacturers play the primary role in what America eats. And, if Americans are eating excessive amounts of unhealthy, sodium and sugar-laced products that provide little if any nutrition, then the people peddling the goods are primarily to blame. We can't simply excuse the companies for "selling Americans what they want." The food producers have actually played the primary - and subversive - role in creating those tastes.

Thus, I was a bit dismayed when I ran across an article on Esquire.com in which professional chef and high quality foods advocate Chef Linton Hopkins argued "Big Food is not the Enemy." Well, of course they are, Chef. Granted, the word "enemy" is certainly a bit exaggerated - but if we are having a discussion about the poor health of Americans and the bad dietary choices they regularly make, we can do nothing else but point the finger at the people serving it up. We did not exonerate Big Tobacco, and we do not excuse drug dealers for peddling dangerous products. And, neither should we condone the abysmal quality of some of our most detrimental processed foods.



Friday, July 18, 2014

Kacy Catanzaro - First Woman to Conquer American Ninja Warrior

Anyone looking for a strong, positive role model for girls and young women needs to look no further than a 5-foot, 100-pound gymnast from Belleville, New Jersey, named Kacy Catanzaro. Earlier this week, Kacy became the first woman to ever complete a finals course for the popular adventure and endurance competition American Ninja Warrior.



The tasks completed by Kacy would break most athletes before they finished even a few of them. "Warrior" contestants, however, have to complete a course of seemingly endless physical challenges. And, up until this week, no woman had ever completed a finals course, which qualifies contestants for the national finals at "Mt. Midoriama" in Las Vegas. Only one woman had ever accomplished an ANW standard, the "warped wall," in which competitors must scale a 17-foot curved wall. Kacy was the woman who did it last year during qualifying. This year, she bested herself by completing the entire course to the cheers and astonishment of fans and commentators.

The tiny but powerful Catanzaro - who is trending on Twitter as #MightyKacy - was a Division 1 gymnast and NCAA Regional Gymnast of the Year for Towson University exemplified a strength and endurance that few believed women were capable of demonstrating. Clearly, young women like Kacy continue to challenge the conventional wisdom about what woman can and can't do, and she should likely become a role model for women and for healthy living and exercise.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Governor Jay Nixon Right to Veto "Teachers With Guns" Bill

"Arming teachers will not make our schools safer."

With those wise and rational words, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a "Armed Teacher" bill from the over-zealous Missouri legislature. The bill - which is clearly a knee-jerk reaction to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and Arapahoe High School - would have cleared the way for school districts to assign certain teachers and administrators as "school protection officers"and arm them after they undergo "special weapons training." This naive response to the threat of gun violence is a terrible idea, and teacher and law enforcement associations should do everything they can to defeat any measure that intends to put guns into schools.

The only personnel who should ever carry firearms on a school campus are School Resource Officers, who are trained and experienced police officers who are assigned to school campuses as part of their normal patrol routines. The ability to use a gun in a crisis is an incredibly delicate and complicated issue, and it's not something regular citizens can do with a few hours of special training. And, gun zealots in the United States are dangerously naive to believe that armed citizens will responsibly and effectively handle a gun and defuse or defeat a live shooter situation in public. Police officers train regularly for such instances, and they still do not perform - or shoot - with precision all the time. The idea that a fifth-grade science teacher can calmly react to an active shooter with professional precision is dangerous and irresponsible.

Putting guns into schools will not solve the problem of school shootings. It will, more likely, increase the incidences of accidental shootings and violence. If communities are fearful about guns on campus, they should very simply budget for a school resource officer in every school. That is a what sane and responsible society would do.





Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lil Buck & Jookin Are an Artist & Art Form You Should Know About

As my young daughter gets more into dance, adding aspects of jazz and hip-hop and ballet and tap and even gymnastics into her routines, I am ever entertained by the beauty and art of dance. So, I was fascinated to learn last week about a performance of a unfamiliar style of hip-hop dance called Jookin that originated on the streets of Memphis. Lil Buck is a professional dancer who teamed with Yo-Yo Ma at a conference in a beautiful melding of music and movement, and the moment was caught on cell phone camera by none other than director Spike Jonze.


The continuous evolution of dance is a source of beauty and poetry in motion. And Lil Buck is an artist who challenges our conventional wisdom about talent and education and, well, dance. Going from the streets of Memphis and dancing at a performing arts school, Lil Buck has developed his craft to a point where he has merged the world of ballet and hip-hop, dancing with the New York City Ballet. The performing arts never cease to amaze me, and I could watch people like Lil Buck all day long.




Monday, July 14, 2014

Next Food Network Star Sends Chris Kyler Home in Las Vegas

What happens in Vegas usually stays in Vegas. But on the Food Network's Next Food Network Star, caterer Chris Kyler will not be staying in Vegas, having been eliminated in the seventh episode after repeatedly failing to meet the expectations of his point of view. Chris is certainly an engaging personality and a reasonably competent cook. However, his plan to "elevate" comfort food for the masses never caught on, and he ultimately was sent home for being as inconsistent as his food, the overdone tenderloin being the last chance.

The loser could easily have been Sarah Penrod, the chef from Texas, who somehow comes across with a bubbly personality, but has never accurately met the expectations of her point of view about "Texas cooking." Whether she's mistakenly making a "Texas rub" pork tenderloin or trying to pair Texas and baby food, Sarah has regularly proved why she was eliminated in a previous season before ever making the finals. Sarah, in my opinion, is a less competent chef and personality than Chris or others who have been eliminated, but somehow stays around. She won't be the Next Food Network Star.

For my money, the clear winner at this point is the all-natural, easy-going, Farm-to-Table chef Emma Frisch. Emma has clearly had some hiccups, and she isn't an over-the-top personality like some. But she is the most consistent and competent chef. At the pool party in Vegas, she won over the crowd to be sure, but lost out in the chips contest because a bunch of young Vegas partiers didn't want to create their own satay. They wanted burgers to be sure - a fact that served Lenny well, but doesn't truly indicate that he was the best of the day.

And, Lenny continues to rub me the wrong way for a variety of reasons. First of all, any chef who regularly combs out his facial hair in public is a tad too … unsophisticated, if not actually disgusting, to be a culinary model. Lenny, that is simply gross, and you have lost a lot of favor with me for that. Truly, Lenny can cook. And his lamb burger presentation was something I would have tried for sure. That said, selling burgers to a Vegas pool crowd is about as tough as selling cheap beer at the ballpark. It really didn't prove he was the best - simply that people wanted burgers. Beyond that, the belly flop in the pool was … too much. While it may have been funny, Lenny needs to develop a bit of modesty and not unbutton his shirt (twice on this show!) and act as if people watching a culinary show want to, or should, see that.  I love Emeril and Mario's cooking and personalities - but I never want them to go shirtless. And they have enough class not to do that. Now, I understand the challenges of weight loss, especially in the culinary world, and I am not "fat shaming" him here. But, Lenny, don't take off your shirt in public …. ever.

Other contestants continue to be adequate. Lucca returned to the cheers of his fellow competitors … and the swoons of the female pool party guests, including the giddiest of all, Giada. But he won't be able to sustain a show in any reasonable way. Nicole continues to be pretty good, but made a foolish mistake in substituting prosciutto for sarrano ham … and inexplicably not telling the audience. What were you thinking, Nicole. It would have been an easy teachable moment. I think Nicole is a lot like Season 9 finalist, Stacey Poon-Kinney - polished and effective, but ultimately just not right for a show. Loreal Gavin is also just sort of not all there. She is entertaining enough - but I would never actually watch her show.

And, speaking of watching the winner's shows, have you ever wondered what happened to Season 8 winner and fan favorite, Justin Warner?  What ever happened to his show? The reality is that it seems the Food Network is not actually in the business of creating new stars or developing their shows. The "Show" to find a Food Network Star is actually the star - and ratings grabber - itself.  Truly, other than Guy Fieri, the show has never been designed to or succeeded at finding and producing talent. Truly, the Sandwich King has been reasonably successful. Jeff Mauro is truly a Food Network Star, and could be as successful as the network wants to make him.  But people like Demaris Philips or Arti or Justin or this year's winner are not being set up for a chance at culinary stardom. The Food Network is not as much about the culinary arts, as it is about a network making lots of money - a point well-researched and examined in the following book - From Scratch:



Saturday, July 12, 2014

To Become Popular in the USA, Pro Soccer Needs These Changes

As the World Cup draws to a close, and American soccer fanatics are left with Major League Soccer and its low-status on the hierarchy of professional sports in the United States, many will question if soccer can maintain its popularity. Some will argue that this World Cup was the tipping point, as America "finally fell in love with soccer." Certainly, there was a lot of national unity this time around, as groups as large as thousands gathered in public places to watch the USA play on soccer's biggest stage.

Alas, the moment will be fleeting.

Soccer will not maintain the hype of the World Cup any more than professional skiing or swimming or track and field does following the Olympics. It was the hype of a once-in-four-years event that truly prompted many Americans who "never watch pro soccer" to tune in to the games. I am one of them. I played year-round competitive soccer for many years, and I have never been to a pro soccer game. This is the reality, despite living in Colorado with a popular team that draws respectable crowds. For, while more American kids play soccer than any other sport, few youth soccer players turn into true pro soccer fans. Soccer is just  not that popular in a country that has so much other sports entertainment.



However, a few simple rule changes could change America's feelings about soccer:

  1. Get rid of off-sides - Off-sides is the most useless penalty in soccer, and a primary reason games are low scoring and "boring" to non-afficionnados of soccer. Ending off-sides would lead to many more goals and breakaways and one-on-one match-ups.
  2. Injury Box - There is nothing more annoying to casual soccer fans than the "flopping" and writhing on the ground for phantom fouls. And the imposition of "injury time" which is only known by the ref is so frustrating. So, if a player goes down and stays down long enough for a stoppage in play, he must leave the field - and be subbed for - for a period of five minutes.
  3. Instant Replay Challenges - Teams need the ability to challenge plays, especially anything leading to a penalty kick in the box. Those fouls are game changers and can be game deciders. They must not go completely unchallenged.
  4. Continuous Subbing -  The limits on subs is booooring. Soccer needs regularly fresh players like hockey to keep the action at a higher level.

And for more thoughts on soccer's popularity:

http://time.com/2864483/world-cup-2014-soccer-brazil-america/

http://www.cracked.com/funny-3432-5-reasons-americans-dislike-soccer/

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/no-record-breaking-world-cup-ratings-dont-make-soccer-a-mainstream-us-sport/373216/