Wednesday, October 30, 2013

More Trouble with Common Core

Even as two-thirds of Americans remain clueless and aloof to incredibly significant changes to public education in the country, the troubling stories of the downside to the implementation of Common Core State Standards continue to mount.  In the latest anecdotal evidence of poor planning and shoddy implementation, child psychotherapist and parent Katie Hurley blogs for the Huffington Post about the absurd lesson planning in her six-year-old daughter's first grade class. Certainly, Hurley's post is simply one person's experience which is neither the intent nor the inevitable result of Common Core State Standards. However, her concerns should not be dismissed. The greatest problem with the Common Core is the myopic focus on basics of literacy and math and the overemphasis on standardized tests to confirm some nebulous concept of "mastery." The Common Core has been authenticated and implemented by states and public education systems with very little training and even less general knowledge of what the goal and intent and standards actually are. I remain baffled that something so significant could have passed all the screening without an incredible amount of training to avoid the inevitable misapplications of the like mentioned by Katie Hurley. This result is not good for education.

Oh, where are you John Dewey and Jean Jacques Rousseau and Maria Montessori and Sir Ken Robinson???

Halloween Is Not What Most People Think

Lisa Morton is no expert - or at least that's what she'll tell you - but she certainly knows more than most about Halloween, perhaps "the most misunderstood holiday."  As all our little ghouls and goblins - and probably zombies this year - prepare to suit up and storm the neighborhood front doors begging for a sugar fix, while threatening mayhem, Scott Pierce of the Salt Lake Tribune profiles the woman who has literally written the books on All Hallows Eve.

Among the revelations Morton offers: trick-or-treating is only about ninety years old, the connection to Satanic worship is thin at best (and probably linked to one man's shoddy research), there is somewhat of a relationship to the Catholic tradition of All Saints Day, the holiday is spreading outside the United States, and Halloween's colors used to be brown and yellow.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Are People Naturally Good at Math ... or Art?

"I can't draw."

"I'm no good at math."

Americans have long seen the world in terms of absolutes and natural ability, rather than an uncertain world of potential and possibility. And that naivete and prejudice has been one of the nation's greatest weaknesses. These myths are increasingly challenged by the likes of Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink and, now, Miles Kimball and Noah Smith who are writing about "The Myth of ..." being bad at math. As in Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code, it's becoming more clear that success has much more to do with hard work and the simple belief that ability is a result of effort and attitude. Of course, there is certainly evidence on the side of biology as well, and this is nowhere more evident than in David Epstein's fascinating book The Sports Gene.

One of the key components for improving performance in any task or skill is the idea of "deliberate practice."  This concept was well-extrapolated in Malcolm Gladwell's well known book Outliers in which he brought the concept of the "10,000 hours to true mastery" into the public's consciousness.  However, the 10K hours was only effective - or perhaps most effective - when it was deliberate practice.  That is, the practitioner challenges himself with the most difficult practice regimen with the express intent of "getting better."  Drake Baer of FAST Company summarizes a lot of this when he argues "Why Deliberate Practice is the Only Way to Get Better." Perhaps if we started focusing on these concepts in school, we might be much more effective in motivating students toward successful paths.

So, whatever we do know about skills and mastery, it's certainly not just nature or nurture - that much is true.

Are Standardized Tests and School Rankings Unreliable

The American school system is not "falling behind" the rest of the world - or if it is, we don't really have any reliable measurements to conclude that. For years, we have heard that American students trail many industrialized nations when comparing international test scores and test rankings.  Of course, most people don't have the slightest idea what they mean when they refer to such measurements. I've had too many conservations with educated adults who make these claims, yet have no idea what NAEP, PISA, or TIMSS are.  Those acronyms refer to some of the standardized tests by which some people like to compare countries.

That on-going debate continued this week with the release of a federal report that, according to some, indicated "most American states surpass" the scores of countries long believed to outperform America. By many measurements, American students in many states do outperform other countries. And, when American schools with greater than 25% poverty are removed from the equation, American students scores often lead the rest of the world, including countries like Singapore and Finland. The problem with any of these comparisons is the inconsistency in gauging student performance on tests that have no student accountability. Many have long argued that the NAEP is a rather weak indicator of American students' academic skills because American students simply may not try. And that's not the last word on the topic.

Education writer Marc Tucker has some more thoughts on the supposed NAEP-TIMSS study.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Best Analysis of Cardinals-Red Sox Bizarre World Series Ending

The Fall Classic has produced many bizarre and improbable games endings - from Bill Buckners' "booted ground ball" to Don Denkengers' blown groundball out to David Freese's late inning heroics - and many of them have included the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox ... or both. And the baseball folklore only added another twist and wrinkle that will be talked about for years after last night's bizarre ending with an infield obstruction call leading to the Cardinals' winning run in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win.  It's being called the "Trip-off Win," "The Classic Fall" and the "Walk-off Obstruction."

This win - or whatever we call it - is truly one for the ages that will be fodder for sports commentators and fans for years to come. It was just such a bizarre play that will and should be replayed in the minds of all involved.  Of course, there really isn't that much debate because the general consensus is that umpire Jim Joyce got the call right.  There is, perhaps, no better explanation and commentary than the analysis provided by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci who argues, "Obstruction Wasn't the Rule that Cost the Red Sox." Verducci offers a step-by-step explanation of why the Red Sox objections don't hold water. But more importantly, Verducci indicts the entire American League for the use of the designated hitter as the reason the RedSox made many errors leading to their loss in the pivotal game six. Kind of reminds me of the beliefs of Crash Davis:

There absolutely should be a Constitutional amendment outlawing the designated hitter.  Because the mental game required of National League managers is the heart of baseball. The American League's silly little rule just ... isn't. The fans and the players and the commentators have been writing and talking non-stop on the issue, and certainly we have to start with the local sportswriters.  In St. Louis, you have to start with St. Louis Post Dispatch sportswriter Bernie Miklaz who coined the phrase "Classic Fall" deciding the Fall Classic.  Bernie sings the praises of Allen Craig who stumbled, hobbled, limped, and dragged himself to the plate for a run that had already been awarded. It was ... exciting to say the least. And, of course, it's important to give the Boston sportswriters, such as Dan Shaugnessy, to weigh in on the instant classic of game 3. Regardless of your point of view, this was a game not to have missed.

In the end, there is not much anyone else can do, other than to simply shake our heads and reflect. Sam Miller of Slate Magazine does his best to help us do that.

Game 4 on the agenda. Play ball.

Monday, October 21, 2013

President Obama - "The Insurance Salesman"

It is doubtful that when he was a young man studying political science at Columbia or law at Harvard that President Barak Obama was considering a future as an insurance salesman. Yet, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act - or Obamacare (note: Obama "cares") - and the recent challenges to it with the recent government budget shutdown, the job of "selling health insurance" is basically what Obama must do now.  At least that's the assessment of William Saleton, as he outlines it in a recent piece for Slate, "Barak Obama, Insurance Salesman: The President Peddles Health Insurance - and Pounds the GOP." This theme will probably run through the media for a while. Garance Franke-Ruta makes a similar claim for The Atlantic with his piece, "Barack Obama: Insurance Salesman-in-Chief." Clever guys, those media types.

The framing of the job as "selling insurance" is certainly an entertaining look at the health care battle, and it's not an entirely unrealistic or exaggerated claim.  The President's signature piece of legislation has faced many challenges, not the least of which was a challenge to the Supreme Court, which upheld it as a constitutional "tax." And, of course the persistent GOP-controlled House of Representatives has voted to overturn it some 200 times.  The budget showdown - and government shutdown - was Ted Cruz's attempt to make his political career by defeating it.  And, finally, the roll-out of the website has been plagued by mishaps and technical difficulties - which may be a result of its popularity, but don't make the President look good.

So, we will see how effective the President is at sales. And the 2014 midterms is probably the barometer by which we'll measure his "salesmanship."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Famous - or Infamous - "Artist" Banksy Tests Boundaries of "Art" in New York City

Is "graffiti" art? What if it's really, really good?

The world renowned artist - or "vandal" - Banksy has captured headlines and attention in recent weeks, as his artwork has been appearing around New York City in what The Guardian has called a "Guerrilla Graffiti Art Blitz." Apparently, the reclusive artist out of London is in the Big Apple and on one of his more well publicized campaigns to bring art to the masses, wherever he chooses to display it.  The artwork - like all graffiti - turns up on buildings and immediately creates a media sensation with people gathering and talks of preserving the pieces competing with the conflicted interests of the property owners.  Regardless of a person's view of Banksy and his work, there is no doubt it creates a buzz, and to possess a piece is a real treasure to some - especially if it only costs $60.  Or if you think it may be worth $1 million.

Banksy is an "urban artist" who gained prominence years ago after he was profiled in a fascinating bit of guerrilla filmmaking called Exit Through the Gift Shop.  

Like all things Banksy, the film was cryptic and controversial and in many ways created more questions than it answered:

Certainly, Banksy and the idea of "graffiti" versus "art" is complicated and controversial, and my conclusions on Banksy are still not fully formed.  The issue of vandalism and property rights in conflict with the creation of art is easy to decide - at least for me - when talking about something like "gang tagging"or other seemingly destructive pieces.  But it becomes more complicated when the art is just so captivating and, well, good:

Banksy, I think, truly serves the definition of artist in his ability to challenge the conventions of society. And that's probably a good thing.

"We can't do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves."
— Banksy, Wall and Piece

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lakewood High School's Roar Impresses Katy Perry

It was the Roar heard across Colorado and across the country. That was the moment when Lakewood High School students burst into celebration after Katy Perry announced that LHS won Katy Perry's high school lip dub contest - with the prize being a private concert at the school next Friday on Perry's birthday. The contest was put together by ABC News and Katy Perry as a way to promote the song and album, as well as promote school spirit and a sense of community.  Certainly, the kids of Lakewood met that expectation.

The lip dub phenomenon is a simple but engaging concept that simply means to develop a sense of spirit and community, as kids come together in fluid continuous video lip sync. There have been some pretty impressive examples which have gone viral. And it's often inspiring to see kids come together around a singular activity that simply exists to bring people together.  Often, the format is to take a popular song, like Katy Perry's Roar and put images to it.

The contest was a great idea, though is isn't the first time Katy Perry has done something really cool for kids. Perhaps you remember Katy Perry's surprise appearance on the Oprah show to join a group of kids from the choir at PS 22 in New York who had performed Perry's "Firework" the night before on the Grammy Awards.  Perry flew in from London for the day to film the version with the kids before hopping right back on the plane to London where she had a concert that night. It was a pretty cool moment, even for Perry who said, "When Oprah calls and tells you to get on a plane, you do it."

Katy Perry represents many of the good things about the entertainment industry that is far too often considered a negative influence on kids. Perhaps Perry's model will inspire more positive behaviors, like the high school lip dub fun.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Guinness Beer Wheelchair Commercial Everyone is Talking About

Every once in a while, one of those commercials comes along that makes us pause, smile, maybe even tear up a bit because it so aptly and poignantly frames the human condition. And, often the message seems to resonate far more than the product. In fact, the connection may even seem misplaced or ironic. Yet it doesn't matter because the commercial's message is worth the thoughts and discussion it creates.  Such is the case with the Guinness Wheelchair Commercial everyone is talking about.

The final thoughts are: Dedication, loyalty, friendship. The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character. It is a wonderful sentiment - even if it doesn't have anything to do with beer.  As Money magazine notes, it doesn't need flashy graphics, but instead leaves us with a "touching sensation." That sentiment is a strong statement about friendship. And, as people often "drink beers" as a ritual of friendship, there's certainly some legitimacy to the message.  Any commercial that can portray men "as much for their kindness as for their strength" is all right by my standards.

And for this marketing magic, we have to give credit to BBDO.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

LA Dodgers Falling Short of Bid to "Buy a Championship"

Though the West Coast is the origin of "Moneyball," the latest story on the influence of finances in professional sports comes with the attempts by Los Angeles teams to "pull a Yankees" and buy a world championship in major league baseball.  The policy has failed miserably with the Angels who have dropped hundreds of millions on underperforming superstars like Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, and Josh Hamilton.  Those three, by the way, must be enjoying the surf in LA because they certainly aren't enjoying the league championship series.  And things are faring much better for the payroll-bloated Dodgers who now trail the mid-range Cardinals 3-1. Here's an interesting meme:

And one final note: Major League Baseball and TBS have made an atrocious scheduling decision to force LA and St. Louis to play Game 5 of the NLCS - which could clinch the pennant - on a weekday afternoon. What moron thought that was a good idea? Would, perhaps, some St.L fans who have jobs like to watch their team win the pennant?

Way to go, Bud. You screwed the pooch on this one.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Does Teach for America Work?

The problems of the American public education system are not a mystery to anyone - poverty equates to miserable school performance, and schools have been woefully inadequate in teaching children to succeed in spite of all the factors working against them.  One organization that seeks to address the inequity and improve student achievement in spite of poverty and all the associate social ills is Teach for America. TFA is the brainchild of education reform darling Wendy Kopp, and it has a very basic premise: recruit the top minds from colleges and train them to go into the toughest and lowest performing schools in the country and teach kids to be successful.  This is, of course, a gross simplification of what TFA does. And, of course, many veteran teachers and educators would claim that TFA's model is a gross simplification of what education is all about.

Plenty of controversy surrounds the model of TFA, and the most notable is that the demands on teachers are unsustainable - a reality born out by the fact that few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment. This particular issue has been born out many times in blogs and columns and newspaper op-eds. The most recent piece to catch critics's attention is Olivia Blanchard's piece for The Atlantic, I Quit Teach for America.  This dark secret has been born out in other places such as Peter Hirzel's piece for Salon, Teaching Ate Me Alive. Hirzel's piece was one of the first to pull back the curtain on the corporate school reform movement.  However, I'm not one to quickly turn on this organization that is making a good faith effort to at least provide an opportunity for a few kids at a time.

The question we have to ask ourselves, as people like Blanchard and Hirzel offer their criticism, is whether Teach for America does any good. For, despite the hardships and struggle, there are many TFA teachers working hard every day - even if it's only for a year or two.  That's the story this month in The Atlantic from Eleanor Barkhorn who admits I Almost Quit Teach for America. But she didn't. And that can't be bad, right?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Amazing Race - NFL Players Lose Out

The Amazing Race teams finally left Chile this evening, but it was one of the most arduous country exits I've ever seen. In fact, I can't recall a time that twenty-five minutes of the episode had passed before the teams even made a flight and arrived at their first task. It was ... interesting, I guess. However, the drama of the airline reservations was not the stuff of an exciting Race episode. And, this was the second time this season that contestants were severely knocked off their game by a reservation mix-up by third parties. This time, however, it proved to be the undoing of one team - the former NFL players Chester and Ephraim. And that was a real shame.

Having come in first the previous week, Chester and Ephraim had a great lead going to the airport and were supposedly on the first flight to Portugal, a flight that no one else could get on and would arrive five hours earlier than other teams. However, when the ER doctors managed to book the same seats, the fiasco began to unfold. The travel agent had apparently booked the NFLers on a different day, and now they faced the later flights. Which they accepted. However, bad went to worse and worse became a disaster as the travel agent literally called them at the airport and booked them on another flight with two connections through London. Chet and Eph could have declined, but as they walked off they acknowledged the risk - a risk that eliminated them from the race.

It was truly sad to see Phil meet the men at the airport as they raced off ready - finally - to begin racing. Alas, it was all over, and those of us waiting to hear the words "non-elimation round" were sorely disappointed. That may be the first time I have seen such a travel disaster, and I can't recall Phil meeting a team at the airport and eliminating them before they ever got the chance to play.  It was a sad exit - a truly shocking first to worst - and a poignant goodbye for a really good team who got dealt a really bad hand.

Oh, that it could have been "The Exes."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

School Sports and Homework in The Atlantic

Time. Despite living in an era with more leisure time than at any time in history, Americans are constantly complaining about how busy they are and how they have no time. For American students, the two primary issues that take up their time are athletics and homework. The debate over the benefits of both sports and homework are endless, and this month magazine version of The Atlantic investigates both topics.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

State Concerns about Common Core

60% of Americans have little-to-no knowledge of the new academic standards and expectations that are being implemented in nearly every state across the nation.  The Common Core State Standards are a new set of guidelines for academic expectations that were developed and implemented by a consortium of state governors, education researchers, and business-oriented foundations.  The goal was to guarantee some minimal level of grade-level competence for math and literacy with the intent that no child would be denied access to a quality college prep curriculum as simply a result of geography - i.e.. where he lives.

Of course, this is not without controversy. Conservatives and the GOP - when they're not busy shutting down the government to prevent the implementation of a law - are challenging the Common Core as an unnecessary and unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government into education, which is the business of the state. In fact, the Common Core is not "Obama-Core," as the current administration had nothing to do with drafting or implementing the standards. However, the feds have strongly encouraged adoption of CCSS by linking Race-to-the-Top and NCLB funding to it.

Other opponents are criticizing various components of the new standards, with the teaching of math being the biggest target.  Common Core alleges to move children "beyond computation" to guarantee students understand math on a "conceptual level." However, the practice of that is upsetting many parents and kids, and this issue most recently raised its head with the posting by "South Dakotans Against Common Core."  As you can see in the homework below, a child is given almost no credit and the lowest grade possible because he doesn't display the "conceptual side" of 25 - 6 = 19. As he notes, "he found it out in his head."

Certainly, there is a lot more to the issue worth investigating. And parents and students should have serious interest in understanding the Common Core.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Government Shutdown Should Shut Down Congressional Pay and Benefits

As recent as fifteen hours ago, my students and my son asked me if I thought the government shutdown was going to happen, and I answered no.  My reasoning? They're not that stupid. Alas, Congress proves me wrong again. And, of course, I took to the social media waves when I realized that Congress will still be paid during the shutdown. That is ridiculous. They are federal employees. And if 800,000 other federal employees are locked out of their paychecks, that should extend to those responsible for making it happen. But I will go one step further - Freeze Congressional health benefits immediately. Because this whole ridiculous debacle is related to health insurance, Congress should lose access to health benefits until it is resolved. The Treasury should not pay their premiums and they should shoulder all medical costs out-of-pocket until they open the government's doors. And, to hear the news of Congressman being basically shit-faced drunk during the run-up to the shutdown, they and their livers may be inclined to solve this more quickly.

Ultimately, this attack on the very existence of government is unconscionable, even to those who sympathize with concerns about budgets and government overreach. And no one articulates that better  at this point that conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan.

But there is something more here. How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections  -   think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way on universal healthcare now? I see no quid pro quo even. Just pure blackmail, resting on understandable and predictable public concern whenever a major reform is enacted. But what has to be resisted is any idea that this is government or politics as usual. It is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States.

It's just sad.