Friday, February 28, 2014

Chipotle is the Future of the American Economy

I love Chipotle.

Seriously, who among us, who has tasted Steve Ells' brilliant creation, doesn't love the carnitas or the barbacoa or any variation of the Chipotle burrito. Things like burritos and tacos have always been the perfect food for me. All food groups represented, delicious and easy, and, oh, so filling. However, Chipotle may be so much more than just a burrito. Slate's Matthew Yglesias wonders if Chipotle might be the future of the American economy.

While Yglesias is arguing that the low skill service work can't be as easily replaced as an accountant, I am more interested in looking at Chipotle as an incredibly well-run company that refused to accept low quality as a by-product of affordable. Like Robert Irvine on the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, Steve Ells can teach many people about the importance of high quality. When Ells first opened his burrito shop, he intended to simply use it to quickly raise cash to finance his dream of a top tier restaurant. As a unexpected result, he ended up sticking with his business model that changed the nature of fast food. In fact, he may be the pioneer of what is now known as fast casual, the defining characteristic is affordable, high quality fare.

Some people may worry that the future of the economy is fast food, even fast casual. However, if it's the work of visionaries like Steve Ells and Chipotle, that future may be brighter than we think.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Governor Brewer Vetoes Bill That Discriminates Against Gay People

Sometimes doing the right thing is just obvious. And sometimes people have to bend or even violate their principles to do what's right. Governor Jan Brewer did the right thing today by vetoing SB-1062, which would have basically legalized discrimination.  In a wise and astute bit of explanation, Brewer noted, "Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value … so is non-discrimination." Bam! What a powerful statement to those who so self-righteously attempted to enshrine hate and discrimination in the laws of the land. Being a pragmatic politician, Brewer did not immediately move to dismiss the bill, but instead gave the bill its process and carefully allowed the issue to develop. Both sides were heard, and then she moved to strike down the bill which never should have passed out of committee, never should have entered committee, never should have exited the mind of the first congressman who initiated it. This bill was just wrong. Despite any one person's feelings or values or religion or philosophy or experience, the bill was wrong on so many levels. It's nice to know that Governor Brewer agreed.

The Latest in the Common Core Controversy

Apparently, the Department of Education and the Governor's Association, along with the organization of school boards, have woken the sleeping giant - Common Core critics. They are coming from all sides in this battle which has managed to align the Tea Party with the teacher's unions. With that weird re-aligning of the planets, it would seem natural to take a step back and evaluate the situation before proceeding.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has been following the Common Core/PARCC testing debacle very closely, and he offers the simple pragmatic advice to "Not Fear the Moratorium." Common Core advocates are adamant that the standards be implemented and that testing begin as soon as possible. But, the recent drop in test scores in New York, and the widening of the achievement gap, indicate that being too hasty with the new standards and tests could, in fact, derail some pretty reasonable education reform.

And, from the teaching standpoint, it's worth being cautious about implementation, especially when new research indicates that many CommonCore-aligned materials are turning out to be a bunch of hooey. And, regarding class materials, the Department of Education can't even get the story straight, when people like Arne Duncan imply the standards won't impact curriculum. It seems like teachers are getting suspicious, especially when the teachers unions are starting to push back and ask tough questions. If you lose the teachers, and the parents, you're going to lose the argument.

The debate rolls on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writing That Perfect College Letter of Rec

It's that time of year again - high school juniors are beginning to cautiously and humbly approach their favorite teacher for that all important component of the college application process  - "The Letter of Rec." Even English teachers struggle with this assignment, for it's difficult not to become cliché. How do you get past talking about how the student is "a great kid" or a "deep thinker" or "a classroom leader"? This week in The Atlantic writer Andrew Simmons offers advice on writing the perfect letter of recommendation.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Retirement at 65? Or Never ...

Retire? Me?

I've always joked to my students - and my wife - that I will be "pushing my walker" across the parking lot for as long as I am conscious ... and lucid. OK, maybe just conscious.  The idea of retiring just seems like something old people do. Of course, now, with the new economic uncertainty, "The Other Retirement Plan:" is to work past sixty-five. We've all seen the commercials lately - from every financial advisor in the business - asking us to guess the "amount of money" will need in retirement.  Few would guess correctly on how much that could be.

So, instead people must imagine that a life of leisure at sixty-five (of fifty-five for many public employees) just may not be in the cards. And, some may not want it to be - for, "there are only so many rounds of golf you can play. Is "75 the new 65"? It's possible that the Golden Age of the golden years may be past. And no one may ever retire again like the WWII generation and Baby Boomers were able to do.

And that's probably OK.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Amazing Race Is Back - All Stars 2014

Start your engines, Race fans, the Amazing Race is back in action with an All-Star cast returning once more to try their luck in a "race around the world." Season number 24 of the most popular and successful of reality TV shows kicked off tonight on the campus of UCLA and, after some brief drama and background, sent eleven teams off to GuaDong, China " in search of their next clue."

I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the Race is once again starting from Los Angeles. The producers need to mix it up a bit and consider some other departure cities. It's always fun to guess what Destination City will be, but it's become a bit tiresome for the contestants to always take off from LAX. As it stands, there was a bit of drama with one team facing a medical emergency to start the show. But how heartwarming for fellow Kentucky-an Mallory to join Mark after "Bopper" had to bow out for health reasons.

My early favorite is, once again, the Cowboys - Jett and Cord. They are fan favorites because they are just so darn sweet and such good competitors. It's been heartbreaking to see them lose twice. I was also thrilled to see the GlobeTrotters, Flight-time and Big Easy back. If they win, I won't be disappointed. Margie and Luke are also a heartwarming team, though Luke's emotional issues can be tough to watch when they weaken his chances. And, the father-son team of Dave and Connor would be a great win after they were forced out with an injury last time.

Leading the list of teams I don't want, the Sri Lankan girls met my hopes and expectations by going out in the first round. They are just so annoying and rude - I can't imagine why the producers thought anyone would want to listen to them "bitching" at each other for an hour every week. The Afghan-imals are also a bit crass and over-the-top. So, I won't be disappointed when their attitudes lead them to failure. Other teams like the YouTubers and the country singers are just so "ho-hum."

Regardless, it's nice to have Phil and the Racers back. Game on.

Is Walmart Calling for Higher Wages???

Regarding wages and the stagnation of the middle/working class, I once heard the most fascinating encapsulation of the irony that plagues corporate America:

Henry Ford knew he had to pay his workers well enough that
they could afford to buy a Ford;
Walmart, by contrast, pays its workers so poorly that
they have no choice but to shop at Walmart ...

And we could add to that, "draw food stamps and Medicaid." Is that all changing? This week, business writer Al Lewis investigates the strange and unexpected support of a hike in the minimum wage by retail behemoth, Walmart.

Note to the National Retail Federation: You can't keep fighting increases in the minimum wage and then wonder why consumers aren't spending more money in your members' stores.
"It's simple math--if the cost of hiring goes up, hiring goes down," said NRF Chief Executive Matthew Shay. He said this in a Jan. 28 news release opposing President Barack Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 by 2016.

But for low-wage retail king Walmart, it's not so simple. Corporate America, and many in the top 2%, have never seemed to understand that America is a demand driven economy, with consumer spending accounting for nearly three-quarters of the economy. Thus, if the bulk of workers don't have money to spend, corporate earnings will have to go down. And, while the top tier has been able to exploit and profit from low wages for decades, it may have reached the breaking point.

And, of course, this has huge implications for the education world as well. For, as schools and business leaders continue to promote a "College for all" mentality, voices are beginning to counter that "wisdom."  Millenial writer and social critic Matt Saccaro recommends that young people "not go to college," because the debt is not worth the payback. The argument for college has always been that college grads make more money.

So, perhaps the discussion should be about wages .... and not educational credentials.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is ADHD Even a Real Condition - Or Is It Just Over-Diagnosed

No one who works in schools or has children is very far removed from discussions about Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.  In fact, it has become a common excuse or punch-line for just about any instance of absent-mindedness or carelessness or shortcoming. It seems these days that nearly everyone has ADD or ADHD, and that's not too far removed from the truth. For, diagnosis of these conditions related to lack of concentration or focus have skyrocketed in recent years, especially among boys. And some are wondering if the education system is to blame.

As the diagnoses continue, and the research continues, and the problems continue, and the pressure to succeed in an increasingly standardized school system continues, Alison Gopnik, who writes the Mind & Matter column for the weekend Wall Street Journal, is wondering "Are Schools Asking to Drug Kids for Better Test Scores?"  This conclusion results from the increasing criticism of excessive diagnosis of young people. And, of course, most of the problems seem to be related to kids not "being able to sit down and pay attention" in school. Wow, this is new? That's actually a medical problem? Apparently, every boy between 4 and 18 has ADHD. Or so could be the conclusion that not toeing the line in school is a disease, or worse a mild form of mental illness.

The research on both sides is extensive, and it would take a MD and PhD to sift through it all and make sense of it. Which is exactly what Stephen Hinslaw and Richard Scheffler have attempted to do in their new book, The ADHD Explosion.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Capitalism with a Human Face - Some Work for Others

"But wouldn't you rather own your own business?

Those future-killing, dream-draining, naïve words represent some of the worst counseling I have heard given to young people in their formative years. Basically, students who have an interest - such as fixing cars or painting houses - are told that their goal is insufficient because they aren't going to be their own boss. So, instead of graduating high school and going to work full time in the area they enjoy, the students are shamed into enrolling in college classes that they have no interest in taking. It's not enough that a kid wants to be a mechanic - he has to get a business degree, so he can own his own shop. And, certainly, there is an argument to be made for inspiring kids to want a bit more. That shop owner will almost certainly make more money - and in some ways, I guess, not "work as hard."

However, this advice ignores some serious realities of the labor market and our economic system. Not everyone can own his own business, or all businesses would fail. There just isn't enough "business." And, so, advisors to young people should realize - and must understand - that the market will decide who rises to management. There are countless quality workers who would, and do, make terrible bosses and businessmen.  David Brooks of the New York Times develops a side of this issue in his discussion of "Capitalism for the Masses." Brooks uses the story - and the philosophy - of American Enterprise Institute president Albert Brooks to argue as he long has that business leaders have a moral responsibility to provide for the people who man their shops and factories.

Not everyone can or should be the boss. However, the foundation of capitalism must be that an individual can earn a decent living by have a valuable skill and working hard. It must not be that to be successful or prosperous or even moderately get by that everyone has to "move up the ladder." We know, or we should, that while the CEO who guides the company and the talented programmer/designer/engineer who create the products are of paramount importance, the people who actually manufacture, sell, deliver, and repair the devices are equally valuable.  The problem, of course, is that Dickensian business leaders have always seen the lower cogs as replaceable and, thus, not at all valued.

And that's a terrible model. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

College, Academic Standards, Welding, & Wages

"College graduates make more money than high school graduates."

Sadly, that is the one regular argument that schools, teachers, counselors, parents, business people, and the press make to students today. They should pursue a post-graduate degree because they will make more money. So, then, perhaps the problem we should be discussing about schools isn't really about schools at all. Perhaps the problem is about wages.  Of course, that means the conversation should shift - as so many have tried to do - to the value of skilled labor.

Wages are high when the work is skilled, in demand, rare, or highly valued. Thus, it's not that we should be encouraging students to "go to college" because that will earn higher wages. For, if we had countless, trained doctors and lawyers and accountants and programmers and statisticians and engineers, then the wages would no longer be so high. Simply going to college isn't going to guarantee anyone the higher wages that will lift them out of poverty. It's acquiring skills and knowledge and becoming valuable that will do that.

Years ago, Bill Gates argued that 80% of students should earn a bachelor's degree. And that just seems like an absurd statement for brilliant businessman. Clearly, the economy doesn't have that many high education jobs for that many people, and their knowledge and talents would simply be wasted. Instead, people should be responding to the market. That will prove to be more successful.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Gifted Kids - Are They Being Left Behind?

The basic premise of the Common Core national standards - and the associated national tests created by PARCC and SmarterBalanced (not the vegetable spread) - is to create common grade level expectations for all students to ensure equal access to a high quality education which will prepare them for college and careers. At least that's the premise. Of course that commonality and "standardization" is troubling to some in the education community, especially those who exceed the standards. Clearly, the quality of schools across the country - and even across cities and districts - has been varied. And there was a good chance that if a child moved schools, or states, he would arrive either behind or ahead of his peers. The problem, on the other hand, is that not all children arrive at school at the same levels, and not all children learn at the same pace.

One common mantra in the current controversy and debate about Common Core is that the standards are designed to "create a common floor," not a common ceiling. However, the standards in practice were bound to create challenges for sub-groups outside of the basic age-level expectations. This conflict received a sensationalized exposure in the past week after Chris Weller for Newsweek offered this claim: "America Hates Its Gifted Kids." The premise is that schools working toward the Core are inevitably going to slow down advanced learners. And, it's tough to argue that isn't happening as schools begin to move away from tracking or clustering of kids and instead maintain heterogeneous classes with the expectation that a teacher will "differentiate instruction" to meet all kids learning needs. It is a wonderful goal and theory, though some argue that differentiated instruction is dog that won't hunt.

Ultimately, kids don't arrive at school all at the same level, and not all arrive ready to learn. Certainly, not all learn at the same pace. And it's tough to argue for holding some learners back, or limiting options for advanced learners to progress. Certainly, people are aware of the controversy over where Common Core stops - algebra II.  That limit is what led Stanford math professor James Milgrim to refuse to sign off on the standards - because they do not prepare kids for top tier colleges and STEM careers.  I know as I began to prepare for state testing this week, I had to laugh at preparing basic level tests for students to take when they were clearly beyond them. For example, many middle school students are ready for - and even succeeding in - high school level math classes like geometry, algebra II/trig, and calculus. And, it is simply silly - and a huge waste of time - for ninth grade students taking calculus to waste their time doing a state or national test geared toward algebra and lower. They should be exempt. For, the only people their grades should be truly accountable to are their parents. So, while Weller is certainly over-the-top with his title, I am not so sure that CommonCore and PARCC aren't going to hold kids back and waste their time.

Who knows?  Age level grouping may be the next big challenge in schools.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "Hechinger Ed" Look at Education

I am generally well-informed about the world of education policy, including the prominent voices in the discussion. From EdWeek to EdNext to Edudemic to HuffPo/Atlantic/WashPo education pages, I listen to many voices, and I often try re-frame and inform others from what I've learned. So, I was a bit surprised to discover another education voice offering an interesting perspective on the comparison of America to the schools of other nations, particularly Asian, specifically Singapore. Thanks to a tweet from edu-writer (and edu-punk) Anya Kamenetz, I've discovered the HechingerEd Blog, featuring the Hechinger Report. Check it out.

Monday, February 17, 2014

STEM Needs Help - STEM to STEAM

The value of the arts, design, innovation, creativity, and right brain thinking gets a boost this week in The Atlantic as education and parenting writer Jessica Lahey argues "STEM needs another letter." While STEM - the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - is getting all the press in education these days, many voices are beginning to raise the profile of the arts. The STEM to STEAM movement argues for a re-evaluation and re-organization of standards and pedagogy to promote an infusion of right brain thinking in a left brain education world. Ideas guru Daniel Pink has exquisitely articulated this in his best-selling non-fiction work A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will [and should] Rule the Future.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Is Six Years of High School the Answer?

 As some people talk about the idea of limiting seat time and not promoting college to all students, other people are exploring the idea of extending high school beyond the traditional four years. With concurrent enrollment opportunities expanding in high schools, more students are discovering the opportunity to graduate from high school with college credits, or even an associates degree. The next step is a model by which community college and high schools are joined in a single program. In the city of Chicago, major tech companies are joining forces to support six year high schools.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

In Praise of Michael Sam - a Model NFL Player

It was a triumph of courage last week that Missouri defensive lineman and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam publicly announced he is gay. Sam, who is expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft next week, has shattered an illusion and a barrier about homosexuality. And one of the nation's most intolerant clubs - the NFL - will soon have to face the issue that many thought might never happen. A gay man will be - publicly - in a professional locker room. There have, no doubt, been countless gay men in all levels of locker rooms before … and this should be no different. Alas, there is "controversy."

Perhaps the two best responses to the announcement that I've seen have come from broadcasters unafraid to speak the truth. First this from Daily Show host Jon Stewart:

And, then there was an even more powerful statement out of the heart of Texas:

Dale Hansen said it all when he addressed the hypocrisy of a sports world that believes there is no room  for a gay man.  The NFL has long had a problem with the criminal, violent, and inappropriate behavior of its players. It is a problem they have attempted to address, though it's been slow going. And then some have the audacity to believe and even articulate that the presence of a gay player in the locker would somehow be destructive and inappropriate because it would make people feel "uncomfortable."

And that must change.

Congrats to you, Michael Sam - a man among boys.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Colorado, PARCC Tests, & ACT Aspire

Another recent piece for the Denver Post:

Colorado Should Replace PARCC Test with ACT Aspire

Replace PARCC with ACT Aspire

In Colorado’s rush to judgment in an attempt to Race-to-the-Top, it’s time to put PARCC testing in park.

Following seven other states who adopted Common Core standards, Colorado should immediately withdraw from the PARCC consortium until the state has a chance to publicly review, evaluate, and critique Common Core standards and PARCC. As an alternative, Colorado could put a moratorium on standardized testing, or it could continue with its own test, the CSAP/TCAP. If a test is deemed necessary, and TCAP is considered insufficient, there is a better option.  In place of PARCC testing, Colorado should instead contract with ACT whose new Aspire program is aligned with state standards, as well as college readiness measures, and is available for grades 3 through 11.

One of the primary problems with the PARCC test is the mystery and ambiguity of both the organization and its assessments. PARCC, which stands for the Partnership to Assess Readiness for College and Career, is an un-proven standardized test created by a private consortium that has provided very little information or transparency on what their tests will look like. On the other hand, ACT is a familiar, trusted, and time-honored testing service that has released as many sample items in the past six months as PARCC has released in more than two years. ACT is a known entity with a proven track record, and ACT’s tests actually mean something to parents, students, and, perhaps most importantly, colleges.

From a purely financial standpoint, choosing ACT or even maintaining TCAP is preferable to spending Colorado’s tax money on tests created by a nebulous unproven organization. Currently, PARCC tests are estimated to cost roughly $30 per student, whereas ACT will do it for $20.  And with PARCC, states still don’t really know what they’re paying for. The problem with PARCC is most evident in the scant materials it has released to the public. Having watched numerous presentations on Common Core and PARCC, I’ve seen the same tired and limited sample questions again and again. It’s simply not enough information. And while people are fairly confident about what established tests like ACT tell us, no one knows if PARCC questions or scores mean anything at all. While proponents argue that PARCC offers a more rigorous test of critical thinking and application of knowledge, there is no comparison by which to draw that conclusion.

An important consideration in choosing a testing program is to consider what colleges expect. ACT is a classic benchmark for college readiness. In fact, ACT scores are one of the primary measures Colorado uses to rate schools on college preparation. And colleges actually trust and care what ACT results reveal. No college intends to use PARCC scores for college admission – and our students must still take the state-mandated ACT.  ACT’s Aspire program is specifically scaffolded to prepare students for the ACT, even as the ACT evolves to meet changing needs and expectations of colleges and careers. Regardless, the ACT and its program matter to colleges in a way that PARCC doesn’t.

The organization of Colorado moms, who initiated a bill calling for a timeout on Common Core and PARCC testing, have reasonably questioned the validity of PARCC. For, in a country where roughly 60% of adults had little-to-no understanding of Common Core and PARCC as late as last September, it seems foolish to proceed with implementation before the involved parties fully understand it. Though Senator Michael Johnston has argued that people simply don’t understand the values and benefits of the test, he fails to concede that very misunderstanding necessitates a “time out.” And, as the Denver Post recently reported, the vote by the Colorado State Board of Education to adopt Common Core and contract with PARCC was made by a slim 4-3 margin. That represents a disconcerting “consensus” and demands further discussion and review.

While Common Core proponents confidently claim 45 states have “adopted” the standards, they don’t acknowledge that as many as seventeen have serious misgivings, including discussions of withdrawal. If that’s the case, and states are bailing out of the PARCC test, then Colorado should certainly not accept the role of guinea pig for an unpiloted test with serious transparency issues. While the state claims to be piloting the tests this year for implementation next year, that schedule is simply irresponsible. After a pilot year, the people of Colorado need time to review the tests, the results, and the conclusions drawn from the data.

Opposition to PARCC testing is not about opposing high standards. Many teachers, parents, and students accept the new Colorado Academic Standards and Common Core. The standards are not the primary concern. The problem is a high stakes test by an entity that has no track record, no transparency, and no connection to Colorado. Douglas County School District, which opted out of Common Core, recently passed a resolution opposing state and federal testing. It also requests the right to opt out of mandated testing without penalty. DCSD’s motivation is grounded in opposition to tests that do not meet their needs, arguing PARCC is not an “authentic assessment.” Numerous states agree. Kentucky – the first state to fully implement Common Core – has withdrawn from PARCC, following Massachusetts, Florida, Oklahoma, Utah, Alaska, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Alabama, who are all pursuing alternative tests.

The Colorado State Board of Education will soon need to make a decision about renewing the contract with PARCC. Until we know more about what the full test looks like and what the results actually mean, Colorado should not renew PARCC. 

The State Board of Education will meet on Wednesday to discuss renewing with PARCC.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

(Don't) Follow Your Passion

Here is my most recent piece of commentary for the Denver Post:

(Don’t) Follow Your Passion

“Follow your passion? That may be the worst advice I ever got.”

This insight from Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs runs counter to every bit of advice teenagers receive from parents, teachers, and counselors.  Yet, it may be the best and certainly most honest guidance they hear. Now that high school seniors have filed their college apps and patiently wait to see which school will make their dreams come true, and high school juniors plan for the ACT and choose classes for senior year, it may be time to reflect on the belief that our jobs should make us happy and that college majors and career decisions should be based on ambiguous and nuanced ideas like passion.

Recently, Mike Rowe has been focused on promoting the value of skilled labor in a world that no longer appreciates it. Currently, there are roughly 3-4 million unfilled jobs in skilled labor, yet students are racking up a trillion dollars of debt for degrees they may not need. And, while there is certainly value in a liberal arts education, many students “follow their passion” to degrees which provide few of the skills they need for a career. Even in colleges the focus on “passion” has shifted. AP reporter Beth Harpaz explains, “While some top-tier schools can still attract students by promising self-discovery and intellectual pursuits, many colleges have changed their emphasis in the years since the recession hit. Instead of "Follow your passion," the mantra has become more like, "We'll help you get a job."
Writers and researchers like Daniel Coyle and Cal Newport agree with Rowe’s suspicion about following passion. In his book The Talent Code, Coyle recommends that students work on developing skills and talents rather than pursuing ideas like passion and personal happiness. In the real world, most people aren’t passionate about work or filled with zeal during the daily-ness of their jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Additionally, following passion is a challenge for young people, many whom don’t have a passion, or at least not one easily linked to a career.  Cal Newport concurs in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, titled after a quote by actor Steve Martin.  A prominent entertainer and pop culture icon, Martin has written numerous best-selling books, an award winning play, and is considered one of the premier art collectors in American society.  He is also a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.  Steve Martin is just so good at what he does.  So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That advice – focused on developing skills and talents – is far better advice than pursuing “passion.” 

Incidentally, Newport’s book is subtitled, “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work We Love.” As a computer science professor at Georgetown, Cal Newport advises young people to work on simply being good at what they do. And rather than compare themselves to others, they should seek instead to understand themselves and develop individual strengths.  For those wondering what they want to do with their lives, he offers this advice: “Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable in the world.”  If people continue to grow and learn and develop talents, they will find their passion and success.

Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society urged students to “Make your lives extraordinary.” And many are doing exactly that. However, beyond that maybe we should advise students to “Make yourself indispensable.” The best way to secure a career is to have talents the world requires. In the first episode of the HBO show Girls, Hannah is fired from her unpaid internship, only to learn her replacement is actually being paid for the job. When she adamantly confronts her boss, he says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.”  While Hannah may tell herself, “I can learn PhotoShop,” the reality is she didn’t.  Thus, the point is to advise kids to be the kind of person who learns Photo-Shop. Hannah is a classic example of a person waiting for passion to lead her to happiness – and it never happens. Successful people by contrast are the ones who work hard and do what needs to be done to get want they want and need.

Of course, students don’t only go to college to acquire job skills, and society suffers from such a utilitarian approach. As Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating teaches the young men, “medicine, law, business, engineering – these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.” And, woe to the society that promotes only skill-oriented education at the expense of the arts and humanities. That said, the arts and poetry – those things that often fuel our passion – don’t have to be the source of employment. For as contemporary sage Robert Fulghum has said, “The hardest thing for most people to figure out is that it’s really rare to do what you love and get paid for it. It’s almost better not to because you end up hating the thing you’re doing because you have to do it. A lot of people would be artists if they didn’t also have to make a living.”

As a teacher, I followed my passion. And I am fulfilled emotionally by the very thing that pays my bills. A friend of mine majored in finance because she is really good at math, but she is not passionate or fulfilled by her job. In fact, it can be quite annoying and rather mundane. However, it affords her a great life with her family, which is truly her passion. Another friend makes a great living managing operating systems for a multinational firm. He is not a computer geek by any stretch, but when we were in college, computing was simply a skill he acquired, and he followed it to success in the tech revolution. So, one us followed his passion, another followed her skills, and the third just followed the market. That’s the full story that should be told in advising students on college and career choices.

Michael P. Mazenko works at Cherry Creek High School and blogs at Email him at

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kentucky the Latest State to Withdraw from PARCC Common Core Testing

Is PARCC a political and educational house of cards that's destined to crumble?

That may be the case for the most controversial education issue of the last two decades as the state of Kentucky - the first state to embrace and implement CommonCore - has officially voted to withdraw from the PARCC testing consortium. Like numerous other states (Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Utah, Kansas, Utah, Alaska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts), leaders in Kentucky are seeking alternative options for testing the newly adopted CommonCore standards, as they acknowledge considerable unease about the testing process. This problem with PARCC has much to do with the simply lack of transparency about the actual tests, and concern about the tests' ability to reveal evidence of their students' achievement. At this point, Kentucky plans to take bids from testing agencies - including PARCC - for the opportunity to administer state tests, and being a PARCC member could represent a conflict of interest. One of the potential bidders for Kentucky's business (and it's a business worth potentially billions in taxpayer funds) will certainly be ACT which has established a testing system to challenge PARCC and the SmartBalanced consortium. ACT's program, called ACT Aspire, is a comprehensive testing service for grades three through eleven. For an excellent comparison of PARCC vs ACT Aspire, consider this analysis from Dr. Steve Cordogan of Township High School 214 in Illinois.