Friday, July 31, 2009

Nothing Is Rotten in Denmark

A recent post in the New York Times' on-going column, "Happy Days: the Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times," writer Eric Weiner confirmed and reported on the fact that in many polls the country of Denmark is considered "the happiest place on Earth." Weiner's observations center around his theory that the Danes are such happy people because they have lower expectations of happiness. If you read the story, you'll find that's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. There is, quite simply, a real sense of pragmatism about what life should be and how they define happiness in Denmark.

The story generated quite a bit of reader response, which became its own follow-up column. The general consensus from many who had, at one time or another, lived in Denmark, was that the people truly are among the happiest, and they don't work that hard to make it so. It's simply the way they live their lives. The "lower expectations" seems to be part of it, only in that they are not generally motivated by the "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" mentality, and rather than dreaming of the happiness they'll have when they get the house they want, they quite simply make the house they have as enjoyable as it can be. And for all the rabid capitalists out there, I don't think this means they don't aspire to greater success. They simply enjoy all the levels along the way.

A bit of research on Denmark turned up information like this:

Denmark, with a free market capitalist economy and a large welfare state ranks according to one measure, as having the world's highest level of income equality. From 2006 to 2008, surveys ranked Denmark as "the happiest place in the world," based on standards of health, welfare, and education. One survey ranks Denmark as the second most peaceful country in the world. Denmark was also ranked as the least corrupt country in the world in the 2008.

One writer to the Times thoughtfully said, "The Danes work very hard at living well, rather than pretentiously. They aren’t interested in displays of ostentation or status. But they are masters of genuine good living, and work very hard to achieve it."

Another posited, "The society and government there actually work for most of the people. In my first visit, I learned that “poor” and “welfare” were not economic terms used to demean people, and that teachers and physicians actually have the same incomes and respect. Those things sound “simple” perhaps, but they create a world of difference."

And another offered, "The Scandinavian countries have high taxation but can actually see their tax dollars working in better infrastructure, education, health care, etc. As a Norwegian American I can say that I find a level of happiness (or I should say contentment) in Norway that translates to every day life. They are healthy outdoors people who also revel in nature. And of course oil revenues help, but they are smart enough to keep many of the proceeds from revenues for a rainy day."

That is some pretty lofty praise, and worth considering whenever we feel compelled to spend some time in national self examination.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letter to Oprah

As the country seeks school reform, and states scramble to qualify for more stimulus funding in the Race to the Top, I’d like to see Oprah regularly address "what works" and "what we should be doing" in schools nationwide. This should not be a one-time show, but a regular, even weekly, feature of her programming.

Oprah could organize a weekly segment entitled "Best Practice" - which is a buzzword for figuring out what works in the classroom. One week she could focus on literacy and reading instruction by featuring Cris Tovani's books, "I Read It, but I Don't Get It" and "Do I Really Have to Teach Reading." She could follow this with shows on Everyday Math and other controversial math programs, and the issue of a "national curriculum," as well as issues of standardized testing and how much they should matter. She could discuss teacher training, foreign education systems, the importance of arts and activities, and controversies like charter schools, voucher systems, and equality in funding.

Other shows could spotlight "college readiness" and the need for more associate degree seekers and career and technical education. She could feature Dr. David Conley, a Pew Center researcher and author of "College Knowledge" - another great Oprah Book Club possibility. Related to this, Oprah could highlight a reform study called Tough Choices, Tough Times, and spotlight the reforms happening in New Hampshire which may allow high school graduation at sixteen for students entering community colleges and technical schools.

With the theme of "Change" in America, Oprah offers an excellent venue for the regular emphasis that the system needs. If you agree, do me a favor and cut and paste this post into the "Show Recommendation" section of Oprah's website.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Is Discrimination Standardized

One argument against the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor centers around her ruling in the New Haven firefighters case - when she supported the city's decision to throw out the results of standardized test for promotions when only white firefighters passed. The white firefighters sued - and were eventually supported in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Thus, the big question is where the discrimination is happening .... and there are obviously two camps on this.

Mike Littwin of the Denver Post asks some good questions in this article:

This is not a new story. For whatever reason — skewed tests, too many failing schools, too many single-family homes, continuing effects of segregation, some other explanation short of a bell curve — blacks do not score nearly as well as whites on standardized tests.

If standardized tests play a key role in getting into college, in getting into law school, in becoming a lieutenant in the fire department, what are we, as a society that values opportunity, supposed to do if too few blacks and other minorities qualify?

One answer is to do nothing, except quote the Rev. Martin Luther King's line about the quality of our character — as if King wouldn't be on the side of affirmative action.

Another answer is to recognize the problem — as, say, the U.S. Army has done — and find a way to pick out otherwise qualified applicants.

New Haven clearly hadn't offered a test that was meant to discriminate. And yet, the test left the city, one with a majority-minority population, with a new class of nearly all white officers in its fire department. How do you resolve discrimination that isn't exactly discrimination?

There is validity to both sides. The white firefighters certainly don't deserve to have their results invalidated - we can and should be sympathetic to their cause. However, isn't there some pretty obvious problems with a test that seems to be systematically prohibitive to minorities.

Herein lies the problem with discrimination, affirmative action, and the use of standardized assessments.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Obama and Economics

While I am watching the government spending and deficits with interest - as I always have - I think it comes down to two questions:

One, with all we've learned over the past eight, and the past thirty, years: Do you really think President Obama and his economic team are just that stupid? Are they really that naive or clueless? Do people like Peter Orzag and Paul Volecker simply know nothing about economics? Could all their discussion and all their actions just be flat-out wrong?

Two, are you hoping that what the President and his team are doing doesn't work? Not do you fear it won't or think it might not or suspect that it wouldn't or know that it can't. But, do you hope it fails? Knowing that the action will be taken for the next two and four years - and knowing that voters will judge it then - do you hope it doesn't work? Is there something in your heart and mind that hopes two and four years from now the economy is in worse shape?

For my part, I am cautiously optimistic. I hope what the Obama Administration is doing works, and I will vote two and four years from now based on my conclusions about the state of the nation at that time.

Graduation Requirements Across States

The National Center for Educational Outcomes released a pretty comprehensive analysis of the requirements for graduation. Although this report is ten years old, I found it pretty interesting.

Another comprehensive analysis from the NCEST was published in 2004.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kentucky Reconsiders Diplomas

If a bill by State Senate Republicans passes in Kentucky, they will also be on board with New Hampshire and Louisiana. Why is no one talking about this in the national news?

FRANKFORT — High school students who complete required course work for graduation before their junior or senior years could enroll in college early and get state funding to help with tuition under a plan proposed by Senate Republicans. The bill also would reduce the 22 minimum credit hours for high school graduation to as low as 16, while candidates for early graduation would have to maintain a 2.8 grade-point average to go to a two-year college or 3.2 GPA to go to a four-year university in Kentucky. Students going on to a four-year university also would have to take at least two Advanced Placement classes, the bill says.

It sounds like some real reform is happening at the state level. Wonder what Arne Duncan thinks?

Career Diplomas in Louisiana

Louisiana is poised to join New Hampshire in plans to allow earlier graduation - specifically after sophomore year at the age of sixteen - for students who are not interested in attending four year colleges. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

High-schoolers in Louisiana will soon be able to opt for a "career diploma" – taking some alternative courses instead of a full college-prep curriculum. The new path to graduation – expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the coming days – bucks a trend in which many states are cranking up academic requirements. The legislation puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

Advocates of the new diploma option say it will keep more struggling students in school and will prepare them for jobs, technical training, or community college. Critics doubt the curriculum will be strong enough to accomplish such goals and say it shortchanges students in the long run, given the projections that a large number of future jobs will require a college degree.

While there is much to discuss - and a wide margin for error - there is a lot of practical wisdom in this action. The most significant problems are students who might change their minds later - as well as the notion that sixteen-year-olds might not make the "best" or most mature decision. And, of course, there is a significant chance that this will be disproportionately pursued by - and even recommended to - mainly poor and minority students.

I'd like to see the option available while resources are directed toward making sure each student makes his/her own best decision, and all students are guaranteed equal access to opportunities in education.

Millennials Struggling

According to this report:

The Millennial Generation, those born between 1976 and 1996, the heirs to our economic legacy and ultimately the bearers of our economic destiny, are being disproportionately affected by the crisis, but continue to go unnoticed. This is even though they face unemployment at a rate more than 8% higher than the national average, suffer under a crushing average of $27,000 in student loan, $2000 in credit card debt, and a healthcare crisis that leaves 30% of them without any insurance. In addition, as young people enter the workforce, they are being pitted against individuals with much more experience than they have for the same entry level jobs due to recent layoffs, making finding a job exponentially more difficult.

This perfect economic storm will have untold negative impacts if nothing is done by Congress to address these issues now by truly investing in the Millennial Generation.

Eliminating Seat Time Requirements

In the past year or two, I have come to question the concept of "seat time" or "contact hours" in public education, and I am more intrigued by a focus on accomplishment of core competencies. Earlier, I posted about the Adams 50 district in Colorado that was eliminating "grade levels" in preference for students progressing through skill levels or competencies - this has been found effective for struggling students and is in use at various alternative schools around the US. That, of course, leads me to question why it isn't being addressed at all levels for all students.

Interestingly, this issue came up in the most recent issue of Esquire where former governor Jeb Bush, who is of a similar mind, said, "We should have 'seat time' eliminated . . . You show up for 180 days, you graduate. It should be based on what you learned. People learn differently. It's a simple fact that our education system ignores." While that is a bit of an exaggeration, I was intrigued to hear someone talking about it. Certainly, it's not just 180 hours and a diploma - there are core requirements in those 180 days and thirteen years. However, there have been enough horror stories of illiterate graduates to indict the system for extremely low expectations of how that "seat time" is used.

After a little research, I learned that the state of Indiana feels the same way and has done something about it:

In its first meeting under the direction of Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, the State Board of Education approved a series of reforms aimed at facilitating student-centered learning and removing unnecessary regulations.

“Teachers and principals have repeatedly expressed to me their frustration with regulations that prevent them from delivering the best possible instruction to their students,” Bennett said. “The actions taken today by the State Board of Education are a first step toward eliminating unnecessary requirements that all too often get in the way of our primary focus which is the achievement of students.”

Among the actions taken by the state board today was the elimination of a requirement for 250 minutes of instruction per week to earn credit for high school courses. The removal of this requirement will give schools much needed flexibility in developing curriculum and creative scheduling options that best meet the needs of individual students.

“We need to measure success by what students are actually learning, not by how many minutes they’re sitting in a particular class each week,” Bennett said. “Principals, if they’re willing to be creative, now have a powerful new tool to help maximize educational opportunities for students.”

That sounds about right, and I am surprised there hasn't been more discussion of this type of change. It is an important part of the reform discussion, and one that I hope to see Colorado address this year as well. This scholarly paper notes:

The obsolete nature of current school structures is evident in the way large groups of students with the same birthdays move from subject expert to subject expert in incremental blocks of time, in the way success is measured by seat time and rote return of information, and in the way what is learned during the "school year" is lost during the summer, perpetuating the difference in learning levels for various socioeconomic groups. In this article, the author calls for a reinvention of how citizens are educated rather than continuously trying to improve the existing education "systems."

There is no doubt that students progress at different levels, and simply establishing thirteen years with a 1080 hours of teacher contact time a year as the standard model is nothing short of inefficient. As I've noted before, many of my AP students are certainly "ready" to start working on their bachelor degree - both in terms of knowledge/skill and maturity. Thus, there is little sense in restricting their ability to do that.

"Seat time" might need to become the next big discussion on the education reform stage.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Community Colleges and the Future

As I've noted before, the current emphasis on four-year colleges and bachelor's degrees is hugely inefficient, ignoring a myriad of realities in the US economy and education system. The focus is myopic at best, and it does an incredible disservice to many skilled students and workers who could be educated and trained in far less time for far less money with much greater success.

Clearly, many students do not need seventeen years of education - as most professions don't require it - and students should be empowered to get training and get on with their lives whenever they are ready. With many people never finishing bachelor degrees, the education system needs to re-evaluate associate degree programs. For, a student who quits a four-year college after two years has nothing, while a two-year program offers a degree and the option of applying the credit to a four-year degree.

Time Magazine is taking a look at this issue in this article, "Can Community Colleges Save the US economy?" My answer is yes.

Tech Free Vacation

For the past couple of weeks I have been out of the blog-o-sphere, as I was on vacation. Surprisingly, I was without regular access to a computer, and thus I gave up on blogging, though there was much to discuss. Perhaps I should just give in a get a Blackberry or iPhone - or not.

Several thoughts on my trip:

I love my Pontiac Montana. Six states, 4000+ miles, and running like a dream. Say what you want about American cars, but my GM is truly a fine automobile and I absolutely lament the loss of the Pontiac brand. Several years ago, they did away with the Montana - which is an exceptional mini-van (if it is even a minivan) - and my wife and I were truly saddened. And then it got worse. The new GM will not feature Pontiac - how sad.

Through no planning on my part, I was in Los Angeles during the Michael Jackson Memorial. In fact, I drove past Forest Lawn Cemetery, on my way to the Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, during the actual memorial. Luckily I missed all the hysteria, and traffic. The highlights of my time in LA included Santa Monica Pier's carousel, Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, and the La Brea Tar Pits.

There is a lot of space in Utah. A lot.