Friday, December 31, 2010

Two Year Bachelor Degrees

Despite the feelings of Education Chief Arne Duncan to the contrary, for many students in the United States, the k-16 system is both too long and inefficient. It has always troubled me that I have students who take and pass four or five AP classes/exams during their junior year, and still have another year of school to meet state graduation requirements. That is not only inefficient and expensive, it's downright illogical and ridiculous. Thus, I have been pleased over the past two years as the state of Colorado has sought to expand dual-enrollment, which in many ways is a much better idea than even AP or IB. Though I still prefer the rigor of the College Board, I am miffed by the colleges who are increasingly stingy in what they will give credit for.

In some interesting news on this front out of the public schools in the nation's capital, two DC area schools are planning to offer, in conjunction with the University of DC, a two-year bachelor degree that students will complete after finishing a special program for the junior and senior years of high school. It's the basic idea of AP or dual-credit, in which kids take the rigorous general education requirements during high school - and get state graduation credit - and thus only have the higher level, degree specific courses. This is exactly the sort of forward thinking that the American education system needs - and which has been promoted by people such as Charles Murray, Newt Gingrich, and Jeb Bush.

Clearly, the DC public schools is really the last place I would expect to see this arise. It is obviously only for the most motivated students, and that is not most common on the lower socio-economic strata. Yet, if they find kids and teachers who can make it work - with no diluting of standards and expectations - this will be a good thing. And decreasing the overall cost for poorer kids is certainly an added incentive. Hopefully, this idea works and becomes a harbinger of change to come nationwide.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Education News

Here's a list of one writer's view of the Best and Worst of Education News in 2010.

What do you think

The Problems - Poverty & Crime

According to writer and teacher Pamela Kripke:

I think that Michael Bloomberg could put an air conditioning repair man in the chancellor's seat. Or a neuroscientist. Or, frankly, a university president. It doesn't much matter, and here is why: They do not know Miguel. Or Maria. They are just too far away. They do not know that these kids' survival, right now, is not derived from brilliant test scores or good grades, even. Or, the allocation of money from one place to another.

Today, if my students find their way to Room 146 with some peace, they are a success. If they make it into the building without a security guard hollering at them because their shirts are untucked, they are a success. If an assistant principal doesn't suspend them because their ID cards aren't hanging on their necks, well, it has been a marvelous school experience. If they can forget for 50 minutes that their brothers are in jail for selling cocaine at an elementary school, they are doing okay.

This public school district is not terribly different from other large urban machines, where kids are passed along without proper skills, ex-cops parade detention-goers through the campus like a prison work gang, and poorly paid teachers learn on Tuesday what a flawed curriculum says they need to teach on Wednesday, maybe.

An account worth reading. And a valuable perspective completely lost on people like Bill Gates. Consider this:

Of course, administrators will have you think the place is Choate Rosemary Hall, what with "Pre-AP" classes (entrance criteria: compatible scheduling, not academic ability) and college posters plastered on corridor walls. Work hard, go to Princeton. Dally amongst the Ivy. Aspiration is good, except when the goal is so utterly unreachable. Then, it is a tease, a reminder that the cycle is not nearly broken, that only 43 percent of students will graduate from high school, that repeat teenage pregnancy in this city is the highest in the country, that kids are not allowed to take home textbooks because the principal believes they won't come back.

In order to fix the schools, as is the common parlance, the Bloombergs and Blacks need to fix the kids. First. But this would require a tectonic shift in philosophy, from penal to uplifting, from frenetic to calm, from dictate to reality. For there to be any hope for true achievement, these kids need to feel safe, respected and secure before prepositional phrases and periodic tables can penetrate their bodies and brains. They need social workers and psychologists in every classroom, and teachers who resist screaming at children even when administrators tell them to. They need longer classes and fewer subjects each day. They need physical exercise, even if they can't afford the $10 for the mandatory check-up. The need hugs and cookies, yes, at 13. They need people to listen when they are told, finally, that their father was killed in a drug deal, not a car crash.

Then, perhaps, they can learn to write a paragraph. Or dream about a place like Princeton.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Love, Actually, Is All Around

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually is all around.

Each Christmas Eve, after we've put the kids to bed and finished wrapping presents, my wife and I sit down to watch the movie Love Actually. This monologue is from a voice over by Hugh Grant at the start of the film. It's a really great film to watch at the end of the year and get some perspective on the world.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not Quite Adults

Interesting new book called Not Quite Adults about the latest generation to reach adulthood - or perhaps reach a new definition of adulthood. The book's subtitle is "Why 20-Somethings are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It is Good for Everyone." The book focuses on young people who are delaying marriage, child-rearing, home-ownership, and even careers as they approach adulthood in a more calculating manner. It seems that, at least in the new economy, that boomerang children are not necessarily a problem, and that the image of the slacker living in the basement is far from reality.

Some interesting arguments made by the authors - which are really quite logical - have to do with the rigid paths society has set for defining success and careers and the negative perceptions we have about "involved parents" and "boomerang children." For example, the criticism of "helicopter parents" is misplaced in an era when un-involved disconnected parents do far more harm to their kids and society. As a teacher, I see the wisdom in that. Given a choice between a parent who cares too much or not enough, it seems like a no brainer. Additionally, the stereotype of the slacker kid living off of mom and dad while playing HALO in the basement is not the norm. Many, if not most kids who return home, are instead using the time to not only establish some financial security by paying down debt, but they are helping out mom and dad as well. In many ways, it can be good for a relationship with all parties seeing each other on a more mature level playing field.

Additionally, the authors address a topic dear to my heart - society's misplaced emphasis on bachelor degrees and a diminished appreciation for trades. Society has declared to young people that their only viable options are a high-paying bachelor degree job or "working the line at Arby's." Instead, we need to provide a more honest and realistic portrayal of alternative routes to careers. We have nearly destroyed career and technical education at a time when those areas are where the economy is growing the most and in most need of skilled workers. From health care technicians to electricians and plumbers, the economy is in need of exactly the sort of labor we are turning kids away from. And at a time when half the kids entering college won't finish, this is a nearly unforgivable error.

Wake up, America, and take a realistic look at the world and the young people emerging into adulthood.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pathetic Parents Doping Kids

The Slacker & Steve Drive Time show on 105.9 Alice in Denver featured a troubling discussion yesterday during one of their "Other People's Problems" segments about parents using OTC drugs such as Benedryl to "quiet" their kids during long flights. It began, as many of their conversations do, with the bachelor Steve advocating this idea and upsetting the parent Slacker who thinks Steve and many adults are simply clueless on what it means to be an adult and a parent. Disturbingly, several callers and comments on their page endorsed the idea, even arguing that they did so on "doctor's recommendations."

This disturbing trend - and discussion - is at the heart of the cultural troubles of America. And it is related to my recent posts about education failures being more about parenting than about schools. The box of Benedryl clearly states DO NOT USE TO MAKE CHILDREN SLEEPY. Anyone who has done so is, in my opinion, shockingly negligent in their roles as adults and parents. And these parents ought to be ashamed of themselves. It is especially disturbing to hear people arguing that they did it on "doctor's recommendation." Doctors are not infallible, and they can be pathetic parents just like the rest who would "dope" a child for peace and quiet. These doctors should have their licenses re-evaluated.

This issue is a broader perspective on the rise of diagnosis of emotional and psychological problems in children as young as three years old. The rise of ADD, ADHD, and other "conditions," is much more a reflection of inept parenting and immaturity than it is about actual medical conditions. The more I teach - and raise my own children - the more I realize how immature and incapable many adults and parents are.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Culture of Average Education

This was my recent comment on RightOnTheLeftCoast about the struggles of students even qualify for the military:

Every release of PISA scores is a measurement of a culture's seriousness about education - or simply about testing. Far too many people simply allow kids - and themselves - to "get by." When you can get in to college with a D average or no diploma - and you still think you should go - there is a problem with the culture.

And, of course, the system is way too lenient and lacks serious competition at all but the elite levels. This is why I was recently writing about whether "school choice" advocates should also be arguing for the right to not choose education. Allowing earlier graduation or competency-based rather than age-based education or a la carte choices on curriculum or simply much high standards and requirements to access state-funded higher education might bring about some change.

But the culture remains the problem - Always has been.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

School Choice - All the Way Around

School choice advocates are seriously committed to the idea that parents and children know what is best for them in terms of their education - at least when it comes to choosing a school and where they want tax dollars allocated. The logical extension of this is the right and authority to choose how much or how little - or if any - school they want. And, there is something, maybe "ethical," in nearly all of us - save the most liberty-oriented of libertarians - that is reluctant to make schooling completely optional. And I wonder about that.

When I first entered public education, and began encountering issues of student motivation and truancy despite the best efforts of committed teachers and counselors, I briefly entertained the idea that schools need to back off on forcing education upon anyone. Of course, the benefits of a well-educated population and the responsibility of adults to guide children to the best long-term decisions are nearly indisputable. Society certainly needs to encourage - and perhaps at times require - that parents and children submit to mandatory education not only for "their own good" but for the good and stability of society.

But how much to "mandate" is the issue. It's no secret that I believe high school "graduation" should come at the age of sixteen, with the final two years of education reserved for academically motivated students. The expansion of career and technical education should become much more prominent, and the number of students who qualify for taxpayer-funded higher education should be limited based on much higher standards for admission into bachelor and master degree programs. Beyond that, I wonder about core requirements in middle and high school curricula.

Think about school choice. How serious are we? Should education be much more a la carte?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Expensive Urgent Care

Several years ago, I took my family off my employer-sponsored health care because the premiums had become astronomical. Even with the district sponsored contribution, my out of pocket expenses for my wife and two was exceeding $12,000 out of pocket. And my family doesn't consume much health care - often not much more than our yearly check-up and immunizations. Thus, we pursued a catastrophic plan for them - with $7000 deductible. So, over the years we have saved a lot in premiums, though we haven't actually had "extra" money to put into the HSA that we qualified for.

It all came around this month when my wife sliced her finger while cutting vegetables. It was bare a half inch long, and not that deep, but it would not stop bleeding for nearly forty-five minutes. So, after a call to the doctor - it was a Sunday evening - we headed off to the urgent care clinic for five stitches. Initially, the clinic was deceptive, as always, about the cost, but we made our insurance situation clear. The clerk took our insurance and said it looked like we simply had a $100 co-pay for this procedure. That would have been nice.

The clinic's bill came this week - the bill is $1,500. For twenty minutes in a room and five stitches. And that doesn't even cover the doctor's bill - we're still waiting on that one. We haven't begun to negotiate, but conventional wisdom says they'll shave off 10-15%.

And that is the problem with American health care.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charlie Brown Christmas

Tonight ABC will air the holiday classic A Charlie Brown Christmas at 7 pm, and it is definitely worth an hour of time, regardless of your age or denomination. The cartoon has enjoyed popularity for nearly fifty years, and it has lived on despite the simplicity of the presentation and story. In an era of Disney/Pixar cartoon extravaganzas, the pure and profound creations of Charles M. Schultz stand out as simply classic. To put it all in perspective - and offer a bit of interesting history - Michael Cavna of the Washington Post recently published an insightful feature on the enduring quality of this holiday treat. It's worth reading before you watch the show.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

For Profit College on Probation

It was only a matter of time before a plunging economy and employment scene mixed with an irrational emphasis on college and bachelor degrees for everyone would lead to a corruption of higher education. In Colorado it has become an issue as the state looks at for-profit universities who are misleading applicants in terms of the "value" of high priced degrees. Recently, the state of Colorado put Westwood College on probation after it became clear that recruiters and advisers at the school were misleading students about their credentials and job prospects after graduation. Westwood seems to be developing a reputation for this problem, and their online programs have actually been banned in Wisconsin and Texas. This corrupt business practice is a problem that is only going to get worse if we continue the "college-for-all" and the "college-as-the-key-to-all-our-problems" mentality.

Huge Fine for Private High School Recruiting

The controversial issue of private high school recruiting for athletics has reached a high point this year in Colorado after the big school 5A football championship game was played between two private schools - Mullen and Regis Jesuit. For the last decade, Mullen - a small Catholic school - has dominated the big school football scene. And, obviously, it has been a target of recruiting violations, as it really seems to pull a lot of kids from city schools and provide "scholarships" to what is arguably an expensive private education. Regis, likewise, has long ruled some sports such as swimming and basketball, and recently rose to the top of football as well. In response, Regis was recently cited by CHSAA regulators for illegally recruiting for its football program.

Public schools are understandably troubled by this skewed emphasis on sports and questionable tactics by private schools to recruit for sports with little regard to their educational role. The most recent case is a huge fine against a Florida private school for recruiting violations. Mandarin Christian high school was fined $142,000 for 25 violations of illegal contact with student athletes. While the excessive nature of the fine is of concern, I applaud the Florida system for taking such a serious interest in a serious issue. The problem with this issue is it is so hard to prove, and thus, when they can, I believe regulators really have to make it hurt. Colorado did not do so with Regis, thus basically condoning the behavior. Florida may have gone a bit over, but hopefully schools will rethink what has become a really ridiculous game.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Shanahan's Fault

Who knew the Denver Broncos, the once proud championship NFL franchise, could fall so low. Yet, with the meltdown of the team this year - the second in the tenure of now-fired coach Josh McDaniels - Denver is setting a new standard for miserable on the Denver sports scene. The Broncos haven't been this bad since 1971, and with a blowout by Arizona following the firing of McDaniels, there seems to be no end in sight.

So, what happened? Well, here's a theory. This is all the fault of former Denver coach Mike Shanahan. Shanahan the long-time Denver coach, and leader of two Super Bowl Championship teams - albeit with John Elway at the helm - led to this caused this meltdown with one naive, wimpy act in in the 2007 season. That mistake? Bowing to pressure and benching Jake Plummer for NFL neophyte and Jeff George impersonator, Jay Cutler.

The Broncos were 7-3 at the time, and their quarterback Jake Plummer - who led them to the AFC Championship game the year before losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh - was the third highest ranked QB in the league (behind Manning and Brady). If Shanny doesn't bench Plummer and instead makes a few changes on defense - which was and has been Denver's problem all along - then the Broncos arguably still make the playoffs. That gives Jay Cutler one more year of grooming, and without disrupting team unity, Jake Plummer is allowed an out as he seeks a new team for his services.

Thus, in the off season, the Denver Broncos make some necessary changes to their defense, which includes excusing Mike Shanahan of personnel duties - a task he was never suited for and continues to flounder with in Washington. After Shanny gives up some hubris and control, the Broncos can bring young Cutler in a more reasonable manner. They keep the high powered offense, Brandon Marshall is still catching passes, 1000-yard rusher Peyton Hillis is chewing up ground for Denver instead of Cleveland, and the Broncos make the playoffs for the past three years.

But Shana-who? screws it all up, a testament to a monstrous ego that never truly understood how much his success was linked to a guy named John Elway. And if you doubt the size of Shanny's ego, there is a 35,000 square foot house in Colorado and a new over-the-top steakhouse in the Denver Tech Center - which is more glitter than good food - which are evidence of an ego gone wild.

Thanks a lot, Shanny. Think how nice things would be in Denver if you had just grown up four years ago.

Friday, December 10, 2010

BandAid for Christmas

It's Christmas-time. There's no need to be afraid.

At Christmas-time, we let in light, and we banish shade.

And in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy.

Throw your arms around the world at Christmas-time.

I remember first hearing this in my homeroom class freshman year in 1984 ... and it still gives me chills every time. It was a time when I began to be filled with an infinite sense of hope - hope that we could, a small group of people could, change the world. From BandAid to the 9/11 benefit concerts to the relief efforts for the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, I still believe.

This Christmas, believe.

Throw your arms around the world this Christmas-time

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Politics and the Economy

Received this from Darren at RightontheLeftCoast:

Last week the American Enterprise Institute convened a debate between Rep. Paul Ryan and New York Times columnist David Brooks on the subject of limited government. As advertised, Rep. Ryan was to deliver the case for limited government and Brooks was to counter with the case for "energetic" government. The debate was triggered by the Wall Street Journal column co-authored by Rep. Ryan with AEI president Arthur Brooks and David Brooks's column responding to it. (Rep. Ryan continued the exchange here. Charles Murray commented here.)

As is clear from many of my links, I'm a big fan of Brooks, and I think people like Ryan and the AEI tend to way overshoot on "free market paradise." They also overestimate American's knowledge of just what they are voting on when they say they want "limited government." Without doubt, the Democrats way over-extend the reach of government and the welfare state. At the same time, the GOP's faith in the market and limits on regulation is so pie-in-the-sky that it puts a level playing field, the opportunity to compete, and quality of life for average Americans at serious risk. I simply don't trust either of them, as their ideologies blind them to hard core reality of everyday life. But I'd rather have Social Security, public pensions, Medicare, public education, school lunches, the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, PBS, and a well-funded infrastructure spending than not. At the same time, there is much frivolous spending that could be reigned in, and both the states and the federal government have to be rational about entitlements - and that includes public employee pensions that are far too generous.

At this point, I am rather disappointed in a deal that continues to hold down revenue and increase spending after all the hysterical campaign talk about the debt and deficit and sticking our grandchildren with the bill. In terms of tax rates, I would argue that 39% is too high for the top bracket, but that's only true if people are paying them - and members of the top tier have the greatest ability to lower their tax burden through deductions. So this argument about "rates" continues to be disingenuous. Thomas Friedman weighs in with a pretty succinct explanation for how we are still in the hole and we "keep digging." Both the White House and the GOP ought to be ashamed of themselves for this senseless inaction.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

International Test Rankings, Again.

The PISA test results are out, and once again the critics will note that American students are seriously lagging the rest of the industrialized countries in academic achievement. I would of course qualify that our students are lagging others in test scores - and what that actually means is what the real discussion should be. Certainly, some critics like Bill Gates or former Colorado Education Commissioner are going to argue this is a "wake up" call and a catastrophic moment in America's history. These cries have been the same since about 1983 with "A Nation at Risk." But, then, of course, the slacker American youth went out and invented the internet economy and participated in two glorious waves of economic expansion. At the same time, the rest of the world started to catch up to America economically, and passed America in test scores.

Certainly, these results of mediocrity, in which Americans are so completely average, are disturbing. And there is no doubt that American schools are lacking the rigor and effective instruction that many Finnish and South Korean schools exemplify. Much of this has to do with the entitlement of public education here, and a lot has to do with the conflict of skills versus effort that I mentioned in a previous post. Certainly, there is much we can and should do. Yet I am always suspicious of standardized test evaluations, knowing many American students asked to take the test simply don't take it seriously. My experience is the our best still compete with the best in the world, and even if they trail in test scores at fifteen, our top students are still turning into top doctors, engineers, scientists, inventors, businessmen/women, humanitarians, activists, parents, neighbors, and citizens.

So, Arne Duncan can call it a "wake up call," but he can't change the culture from Washington. That happens on a small scale with committed communities and individuals.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Voucher Debate Going Forward

The issue of allowing parents to receive a percentage of state funding to use at any school - public or private - of their choice continues tonight as the Douglas County School Board opens discussion and consideration of the issue. As I noted before, the location of this recent voucher issue is generating some controversy, as vouchers have always been touted as a way for poor kids in struggling schools to escape those conditions - by contrast D.C. schools are some of the wealthiest and most successful in the state.

Interestingly, an earlier law in Colorado was struck down by the state supreme court precisely because it violated constitutional rights of local control. Because this would be decided at the local level, advocates argue it would pass constitutional challenge. The initial school board meetings were largely attended and hotly debated, as some people argued for the right to use their tax dollars as they see fit, while others protested taking away money from public schools to support more exclusive private ones. People could reasonably argue that perhaps the individual can only request a voucher for the amount he paid in taxes, as opposed to being able to use state and federal funds as well as dollars paid by other community members.

Because Colorado has open enrollment, there has been less apparent need to push the issue of school choice. Thus, this does seem to be simply an ideological battle. And, of course, some have amusingly speculated that the debate would immediately be squashed if someone were to open a muslim school teaching sharia law in the district. That's an interesting qualifier.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Skills or Effort?

It's not unusual, it seems, for kids to move through American schools with adequate to above average grades only to discover in outside assessments that the kids really don't know what they're talking about. It may be B+ students in class who perform below proficiency on state tests, or it's often college students who seemed to breeze through high school with A's, B's, and C's but end up failing or in remedial classes in college.

The New York Times profiles this issue in an article about schools in Minnesota and administrators who began to seriously, and rightly, question the discrepancy in results. It seems that we are developing a population of kids who are quite adept at "doing school." They do their homework, take notes in class, get by on tests, and (in my opinion) earn "extra credit" for work not indicative of true knowledge or skill - the EC for a box of Kleenex is one of the biggest abominations of grades.

Thus, it's no surprise that half the students who go on to colleges and universities don't actually earn a degree. Clearly, the issue is "rigor" or more specifically a serious lack of it in the classroom. My students have long complained about how hard it is to get an A in my class, and it often seems they expect the A, or at least a high B, for effort. That's simply should not be the case - and it will have huge ramifications for them later on.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love Happens

While I don't have any recollection of it being in theaters, I recently rented the movie Love Happens, starring Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston. The description on the RedBox from where I rented it described the movie as basic Romantic-Comedy, and I thought it was worth at least a buck and a half hour of my time. Yet, as the film developed, I realized this is more than the average Rom-Com - it's a truly meaningful movie that grows on you as it reels you in.

This apparent Romantic-Comedy that seemed to get little press turns out to be so much more, and it surprised me in a way movies don't often do anymore. If you're looking for an entertaining couple of hours, I highly recommend giving this flick a try.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Parents and Education

There has been much talk recently about the role parents play in the academic success of their kids. JoanneJacobs has recently posted about this, and Geoffery Canada continues to call on families to step up for the good of their kids. For, it's pretty clear that regardless of changes made to schools, if the families are not buying in, the changes will not ensure success.

Thus, it's refreshing to see the approach taken by the inspiring leader of a long-struggling school in Denver. Principal Antonio Esquibel is exactly the type of leader needed in a school like Abraham Lincoln High School of the struggle Denver Public Schools. Reform efforts in Denver have begun to key in on the importance of parent buy-in. And when Esquibel can report that Parents' Night which used to draw fewer that 100 adults is now pulling in 1,500, we know he's on to something.

Of course, the argument has always come - but what if the parents simply don't step up? What about those kids? Are they destined for failure? While there's a lot of evidence for that, it is simply unacceptable to abandon them. Schools need to do everything they can to help kids succeed in spite of their home lives. But if the emphasis on academics begins in the home, it will be all the more likely the schools will succeed.