Saturday, June 28, 2014

PARCC Test Losing More Support in Tennessee, Arizona, & New Mexico

So, what if they gave a PARCC test and no one came?

The Common Core aligned PARCC testing consortium took a few more hits in the past couple weeks as two more states withdrew from the group and in another state a lawsuit was filed challenging PARCC's legality and authority.  Tennessee is the latest to abandon the much-maligned and controversial testing group after the state legislature passed a law directing the state to quit the group. The anti-PARCC law in Tennessee follows a similar move last month in Arizona. Arizona's governor Jan Brewer wasn't explicitly opposed to PARCC, but she wants the state to avoid impropriety in the test selection process. That potential for impropriety is what prompted a lawsuit in New Mexico with charges of bid-rigging by PARCC and Pearson, Inc. to prevent any competition for the test and testing company. And, this challenge to PARCC's authenticity is also playing out in the South, as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is battling with his state education leaders over membership in and use of PARCC. Apparently, the imposition of a national test against the proper channels for competitive bidding is becoming an identifying characteristic of PARCC and Pearson, Inc. Now, the PARCC consortium is down to fifteen members, and these recent challenges indicate more trouble for PARCC may be on the way.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Common Core & PARCC Face Lawsuit Challenge in New Mexico

One of the keys to corporate education reform is that applying the rules of competition and the marketplace will lead to better results in schools. This is the theory behind vouchers and charter schools and anti-union and anti-tenure and national standards and standardized testing and value-added measures and a host of other reforms. Granted, there are numerous problems with applying competition and market practices to an institution that is not a market. And, surprisingly, some market-oriented conservative groups oppose the ability of the market to fix education through national standards. However, I can understand the simple appeal and basic motivation for reformers to believe they can do so.

And, I am pretty sure I've heard Bill Gates argue that competition and market policies are the key to improving educational outcomes. And, I'm also pretty sure Bill Gates never truly wants competition for any of his ideas. So, it's not all that surprising to learn that market forces and competition were ignored in the establishment of Common Core State Standards. And, it's not surprising that a scandal is brewing over the multi-million dollar contracts secured by Pearson, Inc. to draft and administer the requisite standardized tests for the Common Core. In New Mexico, the first legal challenge has been filed, as the American Institutes for Research has caught the ear of a federal judge who supports the claim of "bid-rigging" in securing the $240 million a year testing contract with states administering Common Core tests such as PARCC and SB.

Clearly, the issue of "school choice" is paramount in this argument, as schools should have more than one option for the tests of general standards. It would seem that competition between standardized testing companies such as ACT and SAT and AIR and others would produce the "best tests." But clearly, the people behind Common Core and PARCC are opposed to anyone competing with their "solutions" to public education.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Public Education Is Not Broken - And Bill Gates Should't Be Telling People How to Fix It

So, after I criticized Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation's disproportionate influence on discussions of public education, a friend asked, "But don't you agree that the system is broken?"

No, I don't agree that the system is broken - because public schools are not failing.

Most people criticize public education as a failure, at the same time as they praise their own kids' schools. It's the same story as Americans' faith in Congress - hate Congress, love their representatives.

American public schools educate a higher percentage of the population and send a greater percentage on to college than at any time in history. They do this as successfully as any other industrialized nation, and there is no shortage of college-educated workers for available jobs. And the United States does this with the most diverse population of any country in the world.

On standardized measures of comparisons, American schools are ranked number one in the world when scores are corrected for percentages of poverty. And, there is no evidence that public school systems in other countries are producing any better doctors or engineers or accountants or attorneys or entrepreneurs or salesman or financial analysts or …. well, you get the point.

The challenges faced by American schools are about equity of opportunity, and the problem of a one-size-fits-all system based on college degrees and Carnegie units. The economy and the public education is a complex emergent systems that requires flexibility and adaptability, and that very quality is being compromised by the push for uniformity and standardization from a corporate-model which prizes job training as the primary purpose of education.

It's not.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Alice Waters, Edible School Yards, & School Lunch Controversy

The recent controversy over the National School Lunch Program began with the belief that school lunches could certainly be healthier. If children were going to eat at least one meal a day for 180 days a year, then schools could certainly do better than pizza, french fries, soda, and cookies. And, there is no doubt that many school lunch offerings were atrocious in terms of nutrition, and kids were really being set up to make poor choices. Of course, young people are not going to make healthy choices just because the government tells them to, or seeks to restrict their choices to nothing but the parameters of the arbitrary federal guidelines for healthy eating.  The key to improving the health of young people through diets is to "cultivate" an appreciation for healthy eating.

Now, as schools and the association for school nutritionists push back against the restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, and sodium, Alice Waters - one of the premier voices in healthy eating and the Farm-to-Table movement - is responding with a passionate plea for schools to buy in, rather than opt out. Ms. Water, whose Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is holy ground for foodies devoted to fresh, natural, organic meals, became committed to the importance of school lunches years ago. She sees an appreciation for foods and cooking as paramount to our survival as human beings.

One of the most important parts of Alice Waters message - at least to me - is when she explains, "I don't want to tell kids what to eat. I want to win them over."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Did Dr. Oz Sell his Soul for Supplements?

For many years, Dr. Mehmet Oz has been "America's doctor," dispensing free advice on Oprah and then his own show, and publishing books about how to be the healthiest person you can be. Because of his impressive medical career and engaging TV personality, Dr. Oz has gained quite the following because people simply trust his seemingly no nonsense and common sense advice about health and wellness. And he seemed to have a knack for learning about the next big thing in health care, especially when it was information about some great new health approach such as Acai berries or the ancient Chinese practice of qi gong, or the benefit of chia seeds for something other than a "Chia Pet."

It all seemed so great - but Dr. Oz may have gone to far in his promotion of "magical cures" and "easy steps to weight loss." As many less-than-scrupulous marketers began using Dr. Oz's claims to sell potentially worthless supplements to a gullible public searching for a short cut to health, the "Good Doctor" sought to protect himself from companies using his image, name, and claims without permission. So, Dr. Oz went to Washington to let a Congressional panel investigate this issue. And for his trouble, Dr. Oz got an earful from Congressional leaders such as Senator Claire McCaskill who called the doc out for making some rather ridiculous - and unprofessional - claims.

McCaskill read Oz’s words from past segments of The Dr. Oz Show back to him with a clinical formality that underscored their absurdity:
  • “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: It’s green coffee extract.”
  • “I've got the number-one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat: It's raspberry ketone.”
  • “Garcinia cambogia: It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.
McCaskill continued, as if reproaching a child. “I don't know why you need to say this stuff, because you know it's not true. Why—when you have this amazing megaphone and this amazing ability to communicate—would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”

The doctor has some explaining to do in regards to his "flowery" language promoting miracle cures and supplements, which he claims was just part of the entertainment designed to engage an audience. In essence, Dr. Oz was challenged for making claims that he knew weren't exactly true, and Congress called upon him to stop promising miracle cures when he knows there aren't any. The most disconcerting part of this story is that it doesn't appear that Dr. Oz was profiting from the companies who were selling the products he endorsed. He certainly never promoted specific companies, and he wasn't selling his own products. It's almost as if the "good student" mentality led Dr. Oz's ego to a desire to be the guy with all the answers. If there was a miracle cure, then Dr. Oz wanted to get credit for turning the nation on to the information. Even if it was nothing but bad medicine.

There is not miracle cure, especially for weight loss. And while foods/drinks such as goji berries or green tea certainly have value, they aren't what Dr. Oz led people to believe. And, so, in the words of John Oliver, Dr. Oz needs to stop touting these "cures" on a show called Dr. Oz, but he could promote them on a show called "Check this s@#t out with a guy named Mehmet."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Soccer's Growing Popularity in America - World Cup

When I was a young boy growing up and playing soccer in the 1970s, I regularly heard that soccer was going to be hugely popular in the USA by the time I was in high school and college. With so many young people playing the sport, it would no doubt pass at least one of the four major league sports - MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL - and it would join its rightful place as the world's most popular spectator sport. Heck, Pele's popularity alone was enough to make this prediction, right?


For many reasons, soccer has never quite caught on with American fans, and it still trails even hockey in terms of viewership and revenue. In fact, years ago, I made a bet with someone that if soccer even surpassed hockey in terms of popularity in my lifetime, I would pony up big cash. And I've felt pretty confident for a long time that I would never pay up. But the World Cup this year has me thinking. Just like it had during the Olmpics in America in 1984 and 1996, and during the America-hosted World Cup in 1994, the country seems to be catching a little soccer fever.

Of course, whether that ever translates to regular viewership for a professional league remains to be seen. Major League Soccer (MLS) has had some great years recently, averaging about 18,000 fans in stadiums across the country. And in some places, the local teams are drawing as many as 40,000 fans like the Seattle Sounders, and that's probably sustainable to some degree. Of course, popularity is a complicated thing, and I would have to judge at least part of that by revenue - and TV revenue is king. So, the current average salary for a professional hockey player is $2.4 million while the average pro soccer player makes about $150,000.

So, there is still a lot of growth to come.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Next Food Network Star - Kenny Goes Home

Near the end of this week's "Next Food Network Star" on the Food Network, the viewer poll indicated that 75% of viewers would send Kenny home. Thank goodness Alton and Bobby agreed. The owner of a fast-casual Asian restaurant, Kenny Lao just could not compete on the show designed to "discover" a true celebrity chef in the making - a person who can just flat out cook and engage a TV audience while he or she does it. And the first rule of the Food Network is that you have to be a top tier chef. Kenny wasn't even close. In fact, I am curious as to how he ever became a finalist. Was the applicant field truly that weak.

This week's episode of FNS was framed as an episode of "Cutthroat Kitchen." And, that was only mildly entertaining to me - for the concept behind these intense food competitions and the added element of "sabotaging the other contestants" just doesn't indicate great culinary skill to me. That's the problem with trying to keep a network and a series fresh - they have to keep pushing the envelop to fined new forms of entertainment. And it simply becomes too gimmicky at that point. In this week's episode, the challenge of cooking with chocolate bacon or grinding meat in a snow cone machine didn't do much for me. Well, that's not entirely true - because the chocolate bacon worked in favor of Emma, who I think would make a great Food Network Star.

Christopher survived this week, and even thrived. But he will not be a FNS, for he is just too milqutoast to entertain and hold his own. Chris continues to struggle, which is a shame because he is in many ways very entertaining. Sarah didn't annoy nearly as much this week. And Lenny actually really struggled in the food category. It was quite a shock to see Bobby Flay spit out food. I can't imagine what that sopapilla must have tasted like. Of course, Lenny has reined in the crass comments and seems truly humbled. Ultimately, Lenny should not be the next FNS, for he really brings nothing new to the table.

Still like Nicole and Emma the best.

The Spurs Re-Defining Success in the NBA - Owning the Heat

In the NBA playoffs, it's pretty clear that in forty-nine states people are rooting for Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. And then Miami Heat fans are, of course, casually but not devotedly cheering on Dwayne Wade's Miami Heat, featuring the services, or "talents," of Lebron James. It's been so easy to root against the Heat because of the feeling that this "Dream Team" with a "Big Three" was put together to provide Lebron with a championship team that he could never develop on his own. And the dependence on the "Greatest player on the planet," but one who will never be as good as Michael Jordan, does not endear the team to true basketball fans.

That dependence on a superstar is why the last two victories by the Spurs have been so enjoyable - they represent basketball at its purest as a team game. Certainly, the Spurs have a genuine team of superstars built around a mega-player in future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. But watching the team play as a unit that passes and passes and passes, but never over-passes, until they get a shot has been so satisfying in the way that would do Hoosier's coach Norman Dale proud. And the team magic of Coach Pop and the Spurs provides hope for NBA fans that the Spurs dominance will lead the NBA in a new direction, away from the Lebron/Carmelo-style, and toward the purity of a Tim Duncan led team.

This idea was well developed in a "hopeful" piece by Denver Post sportswriter Chris Dempsey who is "Hoping the Spurs Spark Better Basketball."

The Spurs play a beautiful game of passing and movement, a work of art worthy of inclusion in The Louvre. It's FC Barcelona, circa 2012. It's jazz. Basketball, as the Spurs have put on display in a demolition job of the defending champion Miami Heat thus far, should look just like that.
And yet their brand of basketball, a free-flowing, constantly moving ballet is the exception to the rule the NBA is transforming into. The game is pushing more toward pop than jazz, steering itself into a formulaic game. Shots should be taken from here, here and here, not there or there. Players should be played in these combinations, not those. 
No exceptions. No improvisation. No jazz. Just pop.
So, here's hoping.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Banksy Returns with a New Documentary - or Does He?

The internationally known and vastly popular graffiti artist Banksy always seems to be one step ahead of all the forces that are interested in his work. The enigmatic artist and filmmaker first fascinated art fans - and frustrated critics - with his Oscar-nominated film Exit Through the Gift Shop. He then responded with a month-long series of "art showings," or publicity stunts, in New York City, which included selling originals of his art work for as little as $60 on the street. The works could actually sell for tens of thousands. And, now, he has teased us again with a short documentary film recounting the New York project, which he posted on his website, implying a longer film was coming.

Now, it's time to wait and see what comes next.

UPDATE:  Banksy is undoubtedly a significant cultural phenomenon, and many people may be intrigued about this fascinating artist. A great resource is the Banksy Art page from a group known as Artsy. 

We strive to make all of the world’s art accessible to anyone online. Our Banksy page, for example, provides visitors with Banksy's bio, over 250 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Banksy exhibition listings. The page even includes related artist & category tags, plus suggested contemporary artists, allowing viewers to continue exploring art beyond our Banksy page. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Is Common Core about to Become "Gates-gate"?

Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation seem to be doing some quick damage control lately regarding the Foundation's connection to Common Core State Standards. After a year or so of backlash from parents, teachers, education researchers, and conservative pundits, the pro-Common Core Gates Foundation took the surprising position recently of calling for a two-delay in the use of Common Core-linked tests as measures for teacher and student accountability. The Gates Foundation director apparently conceded the frustrations from groups critical and suspicious of "the Common Core" when she wrote in an open letter to the New York Times:

“ … the best new ideas aren’t self-fulfilling; they have to be put into practice wisely.” She added: “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback.”
The timing of the public statement conveniently coincided with a critical Washington Post story by Lindsay Leyton who sought to explain ("expose"?) "How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution." The implication in the title - and, of course, fleshed out in the story - is that the establishment and promotion and adoption of the "national standards" by forty-five states was the brainchild and pet project of Bill Gates, a billionaire computer mogul and philanthropist who has no educational background or credentials other than having gone to school and dropped out of Harvard. The not-so-subtle criticism of the story is that the Common Core standards, contrary to the all-out PR effort of the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration, were not "states-led" but, in fact, "Gates-led.

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality. Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interests that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower administration.
The story has picked up steam and has been repeated and extrapolated on by many Common Core critics who question the validity of the process by which the standards came to embed themselves in school districts across the nation, even as criticism grew. Teacher and education blogger Mercedes Schneider, who has been tracing the corporate forces that have pushed the agenda, has been critical of Gates' seemingly excessive influence. And, after the WashPost story was published, she asked,
Why Would the WashPost Wait Three Months to Publish a Gates Interview?" There seemed to be more powerful forces at work on a project that by many accounts should have been far more inclusive of teachers and school communities. And the charges of manipulation by Gates and his Foundation extend beyond the simple question of 'backing the standards. In funding PBS programming devoted to promoting the Common Core standards, Gates may have been using the movement to sell software and educational materials. That charge of creating and exploiting a "crisis in education" as a way to hedge the market on materials is the concern of teachers like Joshua Katz who warn of the "Toxic Culture of Education."

Now, the questions about Gates' influence could stretch all the way to the White House, as conservative critics of federal influence on local control of education begin to question whether any laws were broken in the promotion and possible coercion that led to the adoption of the standards across the nation. Stanley Kurtz of the National Review is asking whether it is "Time for Congressional Hearings on Common Core." If the federal government has had any undue influence on establishing learning standards and curriculum for the nation's public schools, then President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan may find themselves in the middle of "Gates-gate," as that action is specifically prohibited by federal law. And, of course, the president and his billionaire buddy will be targets for criticism on a personal level when they have to explain why Common Core standards are necessary for America's children, but not for their own.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Student Loan Debt - The Scam of the Ivory Tower

Long gone seem to be the days when students could pay their way through four years of college by working full-time during the summers, part-time in the summer, and perhaps assuming a little student loan debt. Now, with the cost of college having gone up by almost 1200% in three decades - more than any commodity or investment - Americans are beginning to ask questions about sustainability. And, for the first time they are beginning to ask "Is College is Worth The Investment?" That question gets some support in a new documentary Ivory Tower from director Andrew Rossi.

Certainly, the American belief in the value of higher education and a college degree is an ingrained value and tradition. However, as more and more students are burdened by crushing debt for degrees (some from for-profit colleges who have exploited student loan policies to coax poor and minority students into pursuing potentially worthless degrees), the policies and costs of higher education are becoming more suspect. And, even as President Obama and congressional Democrats attempt to offer a solution, many argue the efforts are too little and too late - and won't solve the problem anyway.

The suspicion of the system and the belief that the President can do little to alleviate the problems are rooted in the flaws inherent in the system. The problem of rising college tuition is the fault of the colleges themselves, argues Thomas Frank who believes "Colleges are Full of It."As the colleges have competed with each other for an ever more valuable slice of the college student loan debt pool - now valued at a staggering, bubble-busting $1 trillion - they have exploited the country's faith in the value of a degree, and have convinced millions of students to leverage their futures on a piece of paper that may not prepare them for the workplace, won't necessarily guarantee them a job, and which they may never be able to pay off. And, for years there has been evidence that "College is Not Worth the Cost."

As far as plans to fix the problem - no easy task - Jordan Weissman believes that students, and especially Democrats, need to forget the claims and plans of Elizabeth Warren and President Obama and instead give credence to "The Best Plan to Fix the Student Loan Debt Crisis" from a little-known Republican congressman from Wisconsin named Tom Petri. For anyone following the issue, or God-forbid planning on incurring tuition costs in the near future, it is worth doing the research on not only the schools but also the issue of student loan debt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do We Need Gifted Education?

In an era of standardization in education, in which all kids must learn and accomplish the same skills/knowledge at the same grade level in all schools from Anchorage to Albany, parents and teachers of "exceptional kids" have reason to be concerned. The issue of advanced learning for "gifted" children is one of those areas where kids who operate outside of the standards could be restricted by the push for standardization and uniformity. The issue gained some national prominence via the New York City schools after commissioner Carmen Farina intervened by diminishing, if not demeaning, the practice of "gifted education." So, the question that follows is: "Do We Need Gifted Education?"

The New York Times took up the debate in its Room for Debate opinion page, presenting arguments on both sides of the issue. Policy writer Hailey Potter sees "gifted and talented education" as nothing short of segregation, and she presents some compelling evidence about the racial disparity in the gifted track of New York schools. Certainly, the disparity she presents is disconcerting, and economist Darrick Hamilton sees the need for "gifted education for all students." Of course, that perspective denies the reality of "giftedness." If everyone is and can be doing it, then it really isn't an exceptionality. And that is the important distinction to be made in education. Just as a special education learning disability requires a different approach, a truly advanced student needs accommodation as well - and has legal right to it.

The counterargument to Farina's and Potter's dismissal of "gifted ed" is presented by Rick Hess. Hess and Bruce Sacerdote acknowledge the existence of giftedness and promote the value in understanding that a ten-year-old who is performing higher level math like Calculus or reading/understanding/conducting research on stem cells or reading and understanding Crime And Punishment is simply "not like other kids," and his education should honor that exceptionality. Certainly, as Mr. Hamilton notes, all kids deserve access to the quality education, and every kid should be encouraged to achieve at the highest level. But if every kid is doing the same thing, it is no longer an exceptionality, and that simply defies reality.

School districts have begun to move away from "tracking," and instead promote more inclusiveness in the advanced classes. And improving the way giftedness is identified and honored is certainly a step in the right direction. But it's important to note that gifted kids should spend their days with age-level peers for many reasons, while at the same time they should be allowed to pursue academia and their intellectual interests to their highest degree. And that can only happen in a system that maintains "gifted education." For, not every kid is going to play varsity, but every kid should be able to play.

And gifted kids should be allowed to excel, for it is in our interest to meet their learning needs, even if those needs are not "Common" or standard. Giftedness is a reality, and acknowledging and honoring it is the right approach for education.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Coke is not "The Real Thing" - Some Negatives on "Buying the World a Coke"

I always really liked Coca-Cola. It wasn't just soda that I enjoyed - because Pepsi did nothing for me, and I would only occasionally go for a 7-up or A&W Root Beer. But Coca-Cola was something special. It may have been that unique flavor that wasn't entirely sweet - but was probably the commercials. No one had a brand like Coke:

Though I rarely drank more than one at a time, I enjoyed Coke so much that I bought stock in the company. This decision was made when I was traveling in some far corner of Vietnam, and I realized you can buy a Coke just about anywhere on Earth.  However, Coca-Cola is a company of much myth and lore, not the least of which is unflattering. There are some pretty disturbing claims made about the ingredients in Coke and their effects on the body. In fact, many people have offered strange, but practical uses for Coca Cola that have nothing to do with drinking a refreshing beverage. And now, a YouTube video from "Crazy Russian Hacker" has gone viral with "What's left when you boil down Coke":

So, it's definitely worth some consideration of just what soda companies - and Coke is the Big Dog, no doubt - are doing to the health of their consumers.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Next Food Network Star 2014, Luca Loses Out

OK, as I noted last week, the primary and non-negotiable component of being a "Food Network Star" is that you have to be able to cook. And Luca Dell Casa could do that. But Kenny Lao proved twice tonight that his skills in the kitchen are suspect. Yet, Luca was eliminated because he "never looked at the camera." That's a bit of a shame because Kenny really should have lost out and gone home in Episode Two. If a man does not know how to cook a roux, and creates such a mistake that the next contestant had to fix it - as Areyan had to do - then he certainly can't make another mistake like not heating his pan until he has five minutes left to cook a fish, and still be allowed to continue. Period.

A quick note on the mistake that Areyan had to fix: yes, Lenny should have helped her when he knew how to fix the mistake. The poll on screen that had 60% of respondents saying "no" is sad - it's not that kind of "Survivor" mentality, and Lenny didn't lose out by helping her. Certainly, when both Bobby and Alton praised her, Areyan could have done the polite thing and acknowledged the help she received. But that doesn't mean Lenny was cheated or should avoid helping a chef in need. That's simply kitchen etiquette.

And what was with that obsessive focus on Sarah Penrod in the first half of the show? For some reason - probably because she is blond and attractive and "pageanty" as Alton called her, or maybe because she exudes "drama" like Demaris did last season - the camera was fixed on Sarah. In fact, for the unfamiliar viewer, it seemed as if Sarah was actually the narrator of the show. Of course, I guess she has her fans back in Dallas. But while Sarah improved from last week, it wasn't by much. The presentation of "turkey burger meat loaf" with a side of potatoes as a "date night meal" was about as bland and disappointing as any presentation I've seen on NFNS.

As far as the others: I am not as annoyed by Cowboy Lenny as I was last week, and he doesn't seem as crass as Rodney "Pie-in-the-Face" Henry was last season. But I don't think the Food Network needs another personality like Lenny. They already have enough over-the-top man personalities on the show, especially those that cook and promote unhealthy foods. That said, his crab cake and Waldorf salad looked quite divine, and he should stick around … but tone it down, Kenny.  Nicole Gaffney continues to impress with her quality skills and easy going nature. I'd sit around her kitchen, listening to her talk food all night. The same goes for the farm-to-table voice of Emma Frisch - she is so easy to listen to, and even Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli said she was just "so easy to listen to and follow." I disagree with the criticism that she was too soft and lulled people to sleep. TV chef Sarah Moulten has made a career  with that easy going, almost toneless, instruction - and Sarah has a much whinier voice.

So, Luca was not meant to be a FNS - apparently "looks aren't everything on the Food Network." And Kenny is pretty obviously going out next. Stay tuned.

Capitalism, Market Forces, and Education Reform

Education is not "a market." And that may be the key to conflicts in the education reform world.

For far too long, earning potential has been the primary justification used for education and education reform in American society. It has driven the "College Degrees for All" push, and the emphasis of STEM subjects to the exclusion and diminishment of the Humanities, and the argument for Common Core State Standards, and the calls for accountability, and the extreme influence of billionaire philanthropists on the crafting of education policy on a local, state, and national level. And the application of capitalist tendencies and market forces to the education is "a disaster waiting to happen," argues Eric Levitz in his interview with education professor David Blacker who recently published his warnings in The Falling Rate of Learning and the NeoLiberal Endgame.

The primary target of my critique was large-scale educational reform, the systemic movement. The goals of which, my heart is with: unionization, desegregation, inclusion. But I think my conception of fatalism is that the institution of education is so deeply, structurally tied to a certain trajectory of capitalism that it’s not amenable to structural reforms. So that’s where my pessimism comes from. I think that that kind of mainstream liberal activism, at best, has the effect of softening blows that are almost inevitably coming.

The criticism of market forces in education was challenged by writer Matt Bruenig who warned that reformers' naive focus on education in Finland was a misguided approach to the problems of the American education system. A lack of understanding for how Finland applies egalitarian ideals to its education system and social welfare leads reformers to believe that Finland's emphasis on teacher quality will not only solve students' academic shortcomings but will also solve the nation's inequality issues. This is, of course, fundamentally not true. But that won't dissuade a billionaire like Bill Gates who has decided - with little evidence or reasoning - that 80% of Americans need bachelors degrees. In believing that because college-degree holders earn more money that simply increasing the number of degreed citizens will magically raise wages and decrease income inequality, Bill Gates has abandoned all the critical thinking that is supposed to be at the heart of the Common Core revolution.

Yet, the power of market forces has led to Bill Gates' ability to almost singlehandedly wage a "coup" in the education world.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bob Mould Still Bringing the Punk Rock Ethos

It was 1979 that Bob Mould helped put together Husker Du, the seminal punk band that paved the way for some of the best rock music of the 80s and 90s. And long after many of those pioneering a powerful rock sound have faded away, Bob - post-Husker, post-Sugar, post-grunge, post-alternative - continues to plug along making good music. He's back this summer with a new CD, Beauty and Ruin. Check out this perfectly framed piece of music and commentary called "I Don't Know You Anymore":

And he's profiled in a great piece on, where else, NPR. Take a look at Bob Mould's Beautiful, Ruinous Life in Punk.

On a new record called Beauty & Ruin, out this week, Mould looks back on his life and long musical career, both of which were profoundly influenced by his father — a music enthusiast who bought him records and guitars, but could also be cruel. In a conversation that covers Mould's entire artistic life — from playing along to Ramones albums in rural New York to building a DIY touring network with Hüsker Dü, through sobriety, sexual self-discovery and the death of his father — the elder statesman of alt-rock tells NPR's David Greene that at 53, he's finally starting to have fun.

You know, we fell into this hardcore punk sound, and we quickly moved away from the dogma — the strict sort of anarchy-slash-destroy-the-government thing. By 1985 with New Day Rising, as a songwriter I was already trying to be a bit of an older soul. I started thinking about time, the temporal nature of relationships, opening myself up more personally. By the time we got to "I Don't Know for Sure" off of Candy Apple Grey, punk rock had become "alternative rock"; it was on MTV all the time. It was just a natural progression.
Having said that, as far as people accusing Hüsker Dü of selling out or whatever, it was a pretty ferocious live band. If the records had been softened even one bit, all anybody had to do was come and see the band live and they'd recognize that there wasn't anything soft about it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Truth About Sugar

Sugar is sweet, and sugar is toxic. Sugar is pure, and sugar is the Devil. As Americans continue to struggle with weight and health, the myriad of quick fixes to an unhealthy of diet only serve to complicate the issue. And when even the experts seem to change their mind, and the standard arguments don't provide clear solutions, it's difficult for a consumer to make a good decision. Certainly, we know that eating sugar and empty white carbs is not good for us. This was well argued by Dr. Lustig in his landmark speech:

And, the simple answer of everything in moderation is insufficient advice when it clearly doesn't work that way.  Add to that the Atkins diet with its emphasis on proteins and fats, and combine it with a healthy dose of Sugar Busters, topped off with news about the Big Fat Surprise, and the world of food seems so complicated.  So, what's the deal with sugar and carbohydrates? Well, for those interested in a great piece of work from a man with the credentials to know, check out thoughts on "BEING HAPPY WITH SUGAR" by James Hamblin, MD, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Hamblin runs through all the available information from the experts, exposing the back tracking of Dr. Oz:

“Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly concerned about a sweetener that I’ve recommended on my show in the past,” Mehmet Oz lamented in an apology earlier this year. Oz, the practicing cardiac surgeon and professor at Columbia University who hosts an eponymous daytime-television extravaganza, is given to emphatic food recommendations. Either run and buy something, or throw it away. Throw it as far from you as possible. “After careful consideration of the available research, today I’m asking you to eliminate agave from your kitchen and your diet.” That’s a stark difference from 2011, when fans of Oz’s show listed their “all-time favorite tips” from Doctor Oz, and number one was “Agave Nectar as a Sugar Substitute.” Number one. Agave flooded “natural” food aisles. By 2012, agave nectar sales were projected to double within the decade, as they had the decade prior. America’s Doctor was at the helm.

And, he offers insight on Lustig, too.

The concern is that when a person consumes too much fructose, their liver gets overwhelmed and converts some of the fructose into fat that ends up in their blood as small dense LDL that lodges in blood vessels, causing atherosclerosis and, subsequently, heart attacks. Lustig is a gifted talker, and he has his points down. He has called sugar “the Professor Moriarty” of the obesity epidemic, before upping the metaphor and calling fructose “the Darth Vader of this sordid tale, beckoning you to the dark side.” It’s this narrative that emerged as the backbone of the documentary Fed Up, which premiered at Sundance in January and is now in widespread release. Produced and narrated by Katie Couric, the film takes us through interviews with more than 20 nutrition experts, basically a who’s who of New York Times Magazine nutrition articles in the last decade—Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Gary Taubes,Michael MossMichele SimonDavid Ludwig—and others who constitutewhat Times food columnist Mark Bittman calls “the professional sane eating brigade.”

There is no easy answer, but there are some pretty obvious truths about diet and health. Hamblin offers some nice perspective on those truths.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Who's Who Behind Attacks - or "Reform" - of Public Education

For as long as I've been paying attention, public education has been one of the primary concerns of the voting public, and it has been an endless source of "reform movements." Starting with A Nation at Risk in 1983, and continuing through the turn of the century with No Child Left Behind, Americans have perceived problems in need of serious reform in the nation's public schools. The movement behind Common Core State Standards and the push for national standardized assessments is only the latest outgrowth or development of that perception. Of course, there is plenty of misinformation, and people are constantly asking me to explain the Common Core, PARCC, NCLB, accountability, etc. And I try to do so with as little bias as possible. But we all have an opinion.

The latest voice to enter the murky world of public education reform - especially the corporate movement behind the establishment of national standards and assessment - is a teacher and education blogger with an amazing knack for statistical analysis and an ability to dig up the bones on education. Writer, teacher, researcher Mercedes Schneider began making a splash at her blog about a year and a half ago, and she has been one of the most prolific in tracking down the truth by "following the money." Now, she has compiled all the research into a fascinating expose of "Who's Who in the Implosion of Public Education." The use of the word "implosion" certainly does not hide Schneider's criticism of and contempt for the people behind the corporate education reform movement. And, it's not, as Anthony Cody notes, for the "faint of heart" in education controversy.

But it appears to be a pretty compelling and informative look at the past decade or so of changes in public education.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Meat & Fat are Healthy & Nutritious Foods

Despite what the American Heart Association - and Michelle Obama - like to believe, eating meat and foods with saturated fat is not unhealthy. And meat and dairy are not the villain in America's battle with expanding waist lines, diabetes, and heart disease. At least that's what most of the research shows, as collected and artfully presented by health writer and investigative journalist, Nina Teicholz in her new book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.

Americans have been fighting the Battle of the Bulge, and equating the enemy with meat and milk for at least fifty years now. At that approach is mostly likely based on flawed data and the mistakenly belief about what causes the body to put on weight in the form of "body fat." Teicholz, who has been writing about health and nutrition for years, began to investigate America's "issue with fat" when she was assigned a story by her editor at Gourmet to report on the trans fat problem in processed foods. She began to learn just how much mis-information led to "How Americans Got Red Meat Wrong." It's pretty clear that there is no causation, and not even any real correlation between meat consumption and America's weight and heart disease crisis.

The problem, of course, is that Americans love to latch on to a narrative, and will firmly believe it even after evidence exposes its flaws. And that has driven the low-fat and non-fat craze in food production - a movement that has done nothing to decrease America's health issues. And now that issue is invading the public education reform movement, as the new healthy lunch standards limit kids to skim and non-fat milk for no good reason. This sort of misinformation spread by deceptive organizations like the USDA, and naive campaigners like Michelle Obama, is doing nothing to address health issues, and will only seek in driving high school kids away from the federal lunch program.

It's worth noting just how misguided we have been about health and diet, as evidenced by the realization that even as Americans increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, the weight problems continue to grow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mathematical Thinking & the Keys to the Future

In the era of big data and standardization and accountability and an ever increasingly complex economy and business environment, the skills of numeracy and mathematical thinking could not be more important. And that is a problem in a country where people habitually shrug off science and mathematics by saying, "Oh, I'm just not good at math."

Of course, it doesn't have to be that way, and it's never to late to start. In fact, once people become more successful with those skills and concepts that seemed so foreign and useless (When am I ever going to use this?), they become more empowered. And they are less likely to pass their apprehension on to their children. Additionally, they may become more astute in areas of consequence such as personal finance, voting, and predictions. Now, the issue of mathematical thinking gets some clarity in an accessible new book from University of Wisconsin math professor, Jordan Ellenberg. The book is:

Sarah Gray of talked with Professor Ellenberg about "The Hidden Power of Math: On Politics, Uncertainty, and the Rare Talent of Nate Silver."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Public Schools Aren't Failing - They Outperform Private Schools

The primary narrative behind the establishment of Common Core State Standards and national assessments  such as PARCC and SmarterBalanced is the "claim" that "American schools are failing" and that "American students are falling behind." While there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, and plenty of information about how the conversation is much more complicated than sound-bites, it's important to consider the reason and motivation behind these myths - and the impact they have had in literally altering education policy. Basically, the concern of public education advocates, and the motivation for the changes, is a belief that private schools are better than public ones. And there's the claim that if public schools were privatized - namely out from under teacher associations - then the school system would miraculously solve all social ills and America would have the top schools in the world.

But what if private school superiority were the myth?

That is the conclusion of perhaps the most important new book on education policy, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. The research of Christopher and Sarah Lubienski from the University of Illinois compiles extensive data for not only the strength of public education, but also for understanding why the "public" has long believed private is better. The reality is far more complicated than any book or review can explain. America has some fantastic schools and world-class students, and it has some schools and communities where the system is pathetic. Poverty seriously impacts student achievement - but it is a cop-out to simply use poverty as an excuse for failure. Poor kids can achieve, and the success of some charter and magnet schools should not be dismissed. At the same time, the charter model is no panacea, and it is not the only answer to poverty-stricken communities where kids struggle to even become proficient students. Regardless of the causes and the people behind the solutions, no progress can come if people are under mistaken beliefs about the current quality of public education.

Certainly, America's public education is far from flawed. But at the same time, public education is definitely not in a state of ruin.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Food Network's "Next" Food Network Star Returns

After the dismal 2013 season of the Food Network's Next Food Network Star which awarded the title to "Paula Dean Wannabe" Demaris Philips, the star-making show that gave us people like Guy Fieri and Jeff "The Sandwich King" Morrow returned tonight with twelve new Food Network hopefuls.  Our celebrity chef hosts Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and Giada DeLaurentis return to guide the aspiring stars through weeks of trials where they will prove not only their culinary chops but also their star power and the ability to engage an audience in front of a camera. Having that coveted "point of view" which can be marketed is the key. Of course, the primary focus of this opening show is "Can They Cook?" Certainly, time in front of the camera can be awkward and take some practice. But if someone can't cook, that person can't be a star on the Food Network.

In the opening episode, the contestants were given a shot to offer their point of view in a minute or less - and that went well for some and not for others. You would think they would expect this, but it apparently caught some off guard. That said, it's not worth talking about how bad some where. Because the next task was to prepare their own "perfect bite" and then sell it in a red-carpet affair with celebrity host, E's Ross Matthews. This format is an imperative, with some really shining or redeeming themselves, and others struggling to connect. It was a perfect window into the potential of this year.

My personal bias is against the "Cowboy Chef" because while it was clear that he can cook, I am not a fan of the over-the-top, loud and crass personality that reminds me of last year's debacle of a finalist, Rodney "The Pie Guy." I really hope the "farm-to-table" girl Emma gets a chance to re-deem herself, because her message is real, and the hosts were too critical of the all-natural message. It is not too tired or cliche, and we need more press about it. Chris Kyler has a lot of potential, and I am impressed with the food of both Kenny and Chris. But it was definitely time for Donna to go home, and Sarah is not long for the competition.

Can't wait to see how it all turns out. My early predictions are for Loreal and Nicole. Luca and Rubin will be good challengers as well.