Friday, December 31, 2010

Two Year Bachelor Degrees

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Education News

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

What do you think

The Problems - Poverty & Crime

According to writer and teacher Pamela Kripke:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Love, Actually, Is All Around

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

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

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not Quite Adults

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pathetic Parents Doping Kids

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Culture of Average Education

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

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

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

But the culture remains the problem - Always has been.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

School Choice - All the Way Around

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Expensive Urgent Care

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

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

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

And that is the problem with American health care.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charlie Brown Christmas

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

For Profit College on Probation

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

Huge Fine for Private High School Recruiting

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Shanahan's Fault

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

BandAid for Christmas

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

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

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

Throw your arms around the world at Christmas-time.

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

This Christmas, believe.

Throw your arms around the world this Christmas-time

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Politics and the Economy

Received this from Darren at RightontheLeftCoast:

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

International Test Rankings, Again.

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Voucher Debate Going Forward

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

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

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

Skills or Effort?

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

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

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

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love Happens

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

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

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Parents and Education

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Education Reform Jumps the Shark

If you pay attention to the education reform game long enough, you will begin to seriously question the knowledge of the reformers and the naive gullibility of the public and the politicians they elect. Some critics have noted the problems such as Diane Ravitch in her book Left Back: One Hundred Years of Failed School Reform. It takes a knowledgeable historian to remind people there was never any Golden Age for education - keep in mind that Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955.

So the issue of education reform continues to go round and round, and some areas improve while many others stay stagnant. One former teacher and current education consultant argues that education has reform has "jumped the shark." His recent commentary in the Washington Post has a lot of compelling information and a copious number of links that are certainly worth investigating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Food Safety

Pass the F.D.A Food Safety and Modernization Act. Call your senators' offices and urge support of this comprehensive bill. It is really a no-brainer, as recent food-borne illness breakouts and revealing coverage of corrupt, or just dirty and ill-managed, food production facilities have made regulation of the food processors a common cause across party lines.

Alas, some - like the Glenn Beck's of the world - are resisting this common sense action out of naive ideological bias and irrational conspiracy's of government regulation. It is astounding that in nearly a century of existence, the FDA does not have the authority to test food for pathogens or require a recall. Seriously - the FDA cannot demand/force a recall of food products it knows to be dangerous, even lethal, to consumers. All food recalls are voluntary on the part of the industry. This is corrupt and dangerously foolish.

Two of our strongest and most eloquent critics of the food industry - Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser - have a well argued and succinct commentary on the issue in the New York Times today. It is well worth the time.

Pass the "Food Safety Bill."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Teenage Brain

The baffling and random behavior that comes from the incomplete wiring of the teenage brain is not news to any high school teacher - though even people who deal with teens for a living can always use more information to help understand "why they act that way." This Sunday's edition of Parade Magazine offers a concise and up-to-date summary of what science continues to learn about the development going on "upstairs" in the teenage years.

The most significant ideas are the lack of development in the dorsal lateral pre-frontal lobe - or critical thinking section - of the brain. Teens are, to put it crudely, very much still "brain stem driven cavemen" in the way the see and approach the world. However, the important information for educators, and the education system as a whole, is the understanding the complex process of synapses "pruning" that goes on in these years as the brain prepares itself for what it's actually going to need in life. Unnecessary, or under-utilized, skills and knowledge is shut down.

This "pruning" that will inevitably take place is the most significant argument for a well rounded classical, or liberal, education. However, more than simply exposure to the content, the teachers and the system need to do a much more effective job of explaining and teaching kids what is happening to their own brains and why we do what we do and why we expect what we expect.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Formosa Betrayed

Formosa Betrayed is an excellent political thriller about a country and an aspect of US foreign policy that Americans know far too little of. When I went to Taiwan to teach English in 1992, I knew almost nothing of the complicated politics surrounding this island nation of 23 million people - people who have never truly been free of control by greater political forces from the Dutch to the Japanese to the Chinese governments. Yet, amidst the turmoil, a thriving free market capitalist democratic republic has been carved out by the Taiwanese people under constant shadow of invasion by the communist government in the People's Republic of China. I really fell in love with this country and its people, and I hope someday Taiwan will be recognized by more than just 23 countries.

I highly recommend this film, and I applaud the performance of James Van der Beek. Who know "Dawson" had such range. I hope to see him in more films. Congratulations to Taiwanese-American producer Will Tiao for an excellent film and a story that deserved to be told.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The German Job Machine

As Ireland spirals into financial disaster, Dubai struggles with a $100 billion in debt, and the United States economy sluggishly drags itself back to life with the albatross of a 9.5% unemployment rate weighing on it, the German state has sprung to life with factories churning out products and the chancellor talking about the potential for full employment.

How has this German miracle happened, amidst a world economy in disarray? The reality is an effective blend of public and private investment, committed to building the whole economy. Many of the more astute pundits - such as David Brooks - have been pointing to the German model for years on everything from industrial policy to health care reform. And with good reason. The German government and people have made rational, at times tough, decisions concerning public investment and social welfare programs while trying to jump start the economy. And it appears to be working.

Of course, the most significant benefit of the Germans has been their ability to handle health care. Some American critics might like to credit the German turnaround with the Merkle government making painful cuts to "welfare." Yet the factor remains that German companies and German workers are not burdened with health care and insurance costs as a result of the most effective blend of national health care.

Good for the Germans. Any chance we'll ever learn?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teacher Pay and Master's Degrees

A column in the Huffington Post notes several shots taken at "teacher pay," notably criticism from Bill Gates that the linkage of teacher pay to graduate degrees is a waste of time and money, as tests have disproved any link between a Master's degree and better performance. While I agree with much of that sentiment, Gates does have a tendency to miss the mark through over-generalization when it comes to education. To be a truly accurate criticism, there should be criticism between the type of degree.

Master's degrees in content areas - English Language and Literature, Biology, American, European, & World History, Mathematics - are certainly going to inform teachers in a much more meaningful way than one in Education or Administration or IT, or any of a number of other nonsense degrees. The College of Education on most university campuses are mostly to blame - that and teaching associations - and don't even get me started on the University of Phoenix. For years, I have been annoyed and dismayed by colleagues who got the Master's in Education "just for the pay raise," and they are the worst in complaining about what a waste of time and money it was.

Scholarship is what truly guides a growth in education, and a program that lacks one is destined to be mediocre. To start with, the lack of a Master's Thesis, or the substitution of a "shorter" assignment of "three long papers" or a few "projects" is anathema to intellectual growth. If states want to clean up the system - and their payrolls - they ought to start with the Master's in Education.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Candy in the Classroom

When I first started teaching in the classroom, I used to have what I called "Tootsie Pop" Answers". Each year I would buy a big container of Tootsie Pops, and when a student offered particularly insightful comments in class, I might toss out a sucker to the astute scholar. In reality, I gave out no more than a couple a week. However, after a while I realized - after watching the kids come back from the cafeteria with copious amounts of candy and snacks - that the treat system really wasn't necessary. In the past ten or twelve years, I have provided no treats in my classroom, and it in no way decreased participation or effort or changed the demeanor of my class.

However, at the same time I have been shocked by the amount of candy and junk that is consumed by students in school on a daily basis. This revelation has been accented for me by also having two kids in elementary school now. My conclusion: there is too much of an emphasis on candy and treats in school. In addition to the candy handed out in classes for nearly every activity, students bring treats for their birthdays, and some classes even schedule "Cookie Fridays." Every fundraiser seems to offer a donut party for the winning class. There is near constant consumption of sugary snacks - and that can't be good.

Many people argue that this is "simply part of childhood." They believe candy is an integral part of being a kid. That's ridiculous, especially when considering the "ridiculous" amounts of candy and cupcakes that are being consumed in schools - from kindergarten to senior year - everyday. There is simply no reason for candy to given to kids for good behavior, and the constant parties and treats emphasize the wrong idea. Celebrating a birthday or a good grade or a school function shouldn't have to be about sugar.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teacher Training

Most teachers I know don't have many favorable comments about education classes. They may have had a class or two they enjoyed in college, such as Educational Psychology. But the vast majority argue that teachers learn to teach by teaching - and that doesn't mean student teaching/practicum. It seems most learned to teach in their first 2-3 years, and that probably explains why half of all teachers leave the profession after about three years. Thus, the question is how to "train" effective teachers - if that is even possible.

Colorado is joining a group of eight other states that are seeking to change the way colleges and universities train teachers, as they seek a way to produce an effective educator for every classroom. The focus is, of course, on the practice of teaching - notably expanding the in-classroom experience. The idea of teacher education as an "internship" seems to be relevant in this case. The plan reminds of a book I read a decade ago called The Conspiracy of Ignorance. The author called for the elimination of bachelor degrees in teaching and instead envisioned a Master's degree program for teachers who have completed a bachelor's degree in content. He also argued for higher academic standards for teachers, requiring that teaching candidates only come from the top third of their class.

While there are reasons to criticize this idea, it is more in line with teacher education practices around the world. I've argued before that there are only so many "Superman" teachers, and I really think an effective teacher is much more a natural characteristic than a taught skill. But that's not an absolute position. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wrong Approach to E.Coli

As the battle continues to improve food safety and decrease the number of food borne illnesses, it appears corporate America is going the more complicated route once again, as it only seeks the bottom line. According to this story, the Cargill Corporation is having some success with a vaccine against E. Coli for the cattle in its herds. After testing 85,000 cattle, researchers report the cattle have not reacted negatively to the vaccine. However, this could simply create more problems.

It's always been my understanding the E.Coli - the dangerous strand of of 0151 - is non-existent in grass-fed cattle. Thus, if cows graze and eat only that which comes naturally to them, they never fall victim to E. Coli and don't pass it on to consumers. It seems, in some ways, as if companies like Cargill, who raise cows unnaturally on massive feedlots, are actually responsible for causing the illness they are now trying to develop a vaccine against. Yet, if they simply changed their business model, they wouldn't need this vaccine in the first place.

Not dealing with geniuses here - just unthinking profit seekers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - Reach Out

It's a Friday, and I'm feeling like I need an interesting pop culture moment. So, here is a fascinating mix of movie clips from Will Ferrell's movie Stranger Than Fiction mixed with the song Reach Out. If you haven't seen the movie, you are really missing out. This will give you a great taste of what is truly a pop culture, existential masterpiece in modern film. If you have seen the movie, you surely loved it, and this clip will make you want to watch it again. Enjoy.

I wish I were that effective at mixing music and film. Have a great Friday.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Movies in the Classroom

Each time I'm teaching a new novel with a group of students, the question will inevitably come - "Are we going to watch the movie?" It is generally in the early part of the year, for as the year goes on the students don't even bother to ask. Are we going to watch the movie? In Class? After we already finished the book? The answer: Of course not. We're at school. It's not the weekend. It's not free time. It's not an hour to just kick back and veg out in front of the TV. It's school.

Occasionally, students will not ask, but "recommend" - "We should watch the movie. I've heard it's really good." In the case of a book/movie like To Kill a Mockingbird, I completely agree. I even tell them You're right. You should watch the movie. Why don't all of you get together at [Amy's] house this weekend and watch the movie. [Joe] can bring the popcorn. That's a great idea. They sneer as they smile back at me, not appreciating my smug recommendation. I sneer as I smile back, believing there is absolutely no reason to just "watch a movie" at school. It's not our job, it's not our purpose, and it is, in my opinion, a colossal waste of time and the taxpayer's money.

This is not to say, I'm opposed to using clips of movies to accent a discussion, or even using a film as a unit unto itself. I actually use a four-minute clip of The Jungle Book while teaching Lord of the Flies, and I have developed an entire unit on documentary film using Supersize Me. We watch the film, deconstruct the argumentative strategies, analyze it as commentary, take an objective test on the strategies and content, write an argumentative deconstruction of it, and develop our own piece of commentary about a social issue. That is a reasonable use of film in the classroom. Watching the movie for three days for fun after finishing the book is not.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teacher Contract Work Time

The issue of "work time" has reared its head in Aurora Public Schools after the school district voted to ignore a ruling from a non-binding arbitrator that the district violated its contract for requiring that teachers accept an additional period of classroom instruction. Clearly, the scores in the district indicate the students need more instruction - or to put it realistically more effective instruction. At the same time, the district can in no way afford to pay teachers for additional time. And, of course, some always argue that if the teachers really cared about the students and student achievement, they would accept the task.

That's a tough one. And teachers have argued that taking away a planning period when they could tutor and counsel individual students will be even more detrimental to students. I certainly agree with that point, as I teach five classes in an eight period day with one period for lunch and two for planning and conferencing. Even then, it's tough to get everything done, and I put in at least two hours after contract time every day. And that is for the kids. And that's at a high performing school.

No way the teachers can look good in complaining about this. And I have to disagree with the extreme behavior some took in response. No easy answer and an unfortunate conflict.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Teachers as Performers

My students often refuse to believe me when I describe myself as shy and rather introverted. Obviously, the classroom persona seems to defy any possibility of reserve or anxiety - in the classroom, I am extremely enthusiastic and energetic and, yes, very loud and outgoing. However, I explain, that persona is, in many ways, a show. It's a performance. It's the Mazenko Show - and it's on five shows a day, five days a week for ten months of the year. That's excluding test days - though even the handing out of the test has some entertainment value.

Interestingly, this is something people in "the real world" will never truly understand. Often, friends and acquaintances will talk about a "big presentation" they have coming up at work. And, I think, "so do I. All day. Everyday." To be on stage as much as teachers are, we really have to be performers. Yet, it's never a problem for effective teachers because they, in the words of Bob Dylan "know your song well before you start singing." Outside of the classroom is something altogether different. Outgoing teachers are often rather reserved in public and at social functions. They often get nervous giving presentations to their colleagues. They are often quiet when away from the classroom.

Marlo Thomas, who is doing interviews for her new book, recently spoke of a similar situation for entertainers. Comedians, for example, are often troubled by the expectation that they be funny all the time. And they're not. The show takes a lot of work, and it's not always so easy. In fact, in most interviews with comedians, they will reveal that they were not the class clowns or the life of the party. They were, instead, the observers. They watched very carefully what was happening, and that understanding of humanity is what drives their art.

This issue tends to come up regularly as I talk to student about the task of figuring out who they are. As teachers, these kinds of conversations are important to have. Even as we project confidence and knowledge in the classroom, we are still human, and it takes a lot of effort to put on the show each day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Cost of College

The College Board reports that the net price of college with tuition and fees is actually lower in 2010 than it was five years ago. The predominant causes of this drop are increased financial aid and lower inflation. In fact, the average price for a state school, including room and board, is about $10,000 per year. The average for private colleges is about $20,000. That is certainly reassuring.

Of course, the criticism I hear from my students is "OK, but what about the costs for a good school." Obviously, the prejudice against state schools will always be there, though many studies argue that the elite college prices are not always worth the excessive price tag. That has to be decided on an individual basis. The reality is higher education needs to be more affordable, and consumers need to be more practical about where they are choosing to invest their education dollars.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Magic of Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift rocks. That girl can flat out sing, and she's one of the few pop stars I don't mind my five-year-old singing along to. With the release of her new album the magic is back, and her new single "Mine" reveals the secret to her success. Like all great country singers, Taylor is a great "storyteller." It's the narrative component of Taylor that, as an English teacher, I can really appreciate.

However, as an English teacher, I do have a few criticisms. In the song "Fifteen," does she really have to sing "say hi to your friends you ain't seen in a while." Really? Try singing the song with the phrase you haven't - it doesn't mess with the cadence at all .... and it's grammatically correct. Is the use of the word "ain't" so important for realism? At my school it isn't. And of course, in the same song she sings "If someone tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them." It should be "he loves you ... believe him." And the idea of making the song appeal to both genders isn't relevant.

Regardless of these weak points, though, Taylor still rocks. Here's the latest:

Enjoy a great story - a love story.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Voucher Debate in Colorado

After the movie Waiting for Superman premiered, I expected the "voucher debate" to resurface across the country. Obviously, the target for voucher programs has always been the schools and communities featured in Superman - poor and low performing areas. Strangely, in Colorado, the voucher program has reared its controversial head in the most unlikely of places - suburban Douglas county, one of the highest performing districts in the state and the sixth wealthiest county in the United States.

The push for "vouchers" in Douglas county is an extension of the issue of school choice that has been so prominent in Colorado. With open enrollment and an extensive charter school movement, Colorado has been a leader in school choice. In Douglas county, however, there is a small movement of reformers who are promoting reforms that will extend choice beyond the current status. The goal of this plan is to extend the "choice" to private, and predominantly religious - specifically Catholic in DC - schools.

Though a similar plan was shot down as unconstitutional in 2002 in Colorado because it violated local control, proponents of this new plan argue it will respect local control while still extending choice. It should be a fascinating debate - as the issue of "low performing schools" is not the issue. They literally want students and families to be able to spend their education dollars anywhere they want. The Denver Post has weighed in on its editorial pages, and columnist Vincent Carroll has commented as well, both arguing that it is at least worth the debate.

I've always felt that "whatever works" is the answer for any school reform. The issue is whether Douglas county seeks "reform" or just more freedom. And is that a problem?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Balzac in the Heartland

As always, I love the way David Brooks of the New York Times looks at the world.

In today's column, he addresses the problems for the United States in the lack of ideas for how to put blue collar, working class Americans back to work in "the Heartland." The reality is that since America lost its manufacturing base, this segment of the population has been losing ground. For that reason they voted in droves to oust the GOP in 2006 and 2008. However, since that time, they feel like they have seen no benefit - other than unemployment benefits - from the Democrats and the attempts to "stimulate the economy." Thus, they sent the Democrats home.

The reality is that we need skilled labor, and we need jobs for the laborers. The jobs need to provide a living wage for working class people, so they can buy houses and send their kids to college. Brooks addresses some of the irony of this demographic that struggles to pay the bills on $40,000 a year, yet seems to have an Xbox and a smartphone and cable. Of course, those items cost a couple hundred dollars, but health care is $12,000 a year, and college educations run into the tens of thousands.

Something needs to be done, and my feeling is that it will take a complex blend of taxpayer backed infrastructure and higher education spending, along with a tax code that frees up money for small business investment and the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that has always driven American society.

Here's hoping.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Shocking Stats about Education

The Accredited Online Colleges blog features a list of "Ten Shocking Stats on the State of Education." The list addresses issues on everything from literal and functional literacy to arts education to bullying to sex ed. Certainly, these sort of snapshots are interesting conversation starters, and the links are worth taking a look at.

The connection between these sort of stories and a student's ability to be successful "in college" is certainly the focal point of much education reform talk these days. At issue, as I've noted before, is exactly what sort of post-high school education most people need. The country's myopic focus on "seat time" and a k-16 system is a hindrance to any real reform.

Hopefully, more discussion of alternatives to the bachelor degree will surface as the education reform movement marches on.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

2010 Midterms, and the Republic Survives

Waking up on November 3, 2010 in suburban Colorado after the mid-term elections, I had only one question on my mind: Was Josh McDaniel re-elected as Broncos coach? I couldn't find the returns on this one anywhere.

Now that the elections are over, and my phone can stop ringing non-stop, and it's safe to watch a commercial again in between possessions of the Broncos games, it's time to be proud of ourselves and our democratic-republic. Congratulations are in order for the American people in once again making "democracy" work. Something that is so fragile and often chaotic worldwide seems so seamless and easy here, and we should never take that for granted.

The republic survives, and no one should feel to good or too bad about the results. For, despite all the rhetoric, Congress will still not tackle the deficit by making cuts in military spending or entitlements, and, thus, nothing will really change. National health care reform will not be repealed, but it will probably not survive its current form either. Hopefully, the major tenets desired by most Americans will survive, some untenable components will be reigned in, and some additions, such as easing "state-line" restrictions can be added.

Perhaps the Congress will begin to listen to the best parts of budget ideas from the Wyden-Gregg plan, as well as Paul Ryan's Roadmap. But I don't hold out too much hope. Perhaps some government spending will come under control, and we can reach compromise on tax rates. Perhaps dogs and cats will start living in harmony. Regardless, the republic survives. Feel good about that.

And, finally, in the words of Wil Rogers:

Don't vote for politicians - it only encourages them.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Early Graduation on the Rise

According to the New York Times, in 2011 eight states will begin offering the option of graduating after sophomore year for high school students who seek to enter community colleges, associate degree programs, and career education. This plan, which has been discussed in the education world but not enough in the media, is being promoted by the National Center on Education and the Economy, and was a key component of the study Tough Choices, Tough Times that circulated several years ago.

Starting next fall, students in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont will be allowed to "test out" of the remaining two years of high school. Students who qualify will be allowed to enroll in associates degree programs or technical schools. This is an idea that is long overdue, and one that I wish was the norm, as opposed to an experiment in a few states that will try to encourage some of their high schools to join. This very idea is the benchmark of countries such as Singapore, Finland, Germany, and practically every other foreign school system that are so adored by politicians and critics of American education.

What has taken so long? And how long before this becomes the norm?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tax Rates

I get the arguments on both sides of the '01/'03 tax rates. Lower tax rates can have a stimulative effect and they should be able to limit government spending in some way. At the same time, they were not asked for and were sold as both "refunds" from a government surplus and "stimulus" for a struggling economy. And the Tax Policy Center has pretty accurately explained how they are the predominant cause of both the expanding deficit and the astronomical debt.

So, here's an idea:

Extend all the tax cuts for exactly twelve months, and then let all of them expire, or "sundown," as they were supposed, but to with this caveat: Sundown the sundown of all the tax cuts after another eight years. Since this debate tends to swing back and forth with the decades, and tax rates go up and down as we seek "optimum rates," let's make that policy. The Dems agree to extend them for a year. Then the GOP agrees to let them expire, as they were intended. But the Dems agree to allow them to fall again in eight years - when the economy is in better shape and the deficit has been closed and the debt paid down.

Seems like a pretty damn good Ronald Reagan-Tip O'Neill compromise to me.

What do you think?

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Congressional Rep

The following is a letter I wrote which was published in my local paper about Rep. Mike Coffman, my representative for the Sixth Congressional District in Colorado:

After hearing Rep. Mike Coffman’s recent comments about furloughing federal workers and using tax cuts to “grow the economy,” I fear he’s become too comfortable in his safe Republican district. While I supported Mike in 2008 because he was a rational, pragmatic fiscal conservative, his lack of any real ideas for limiting the deficit and lowering debt casts doubt on his credibility as fiscally responsible.

It’s not simply about tax rates and public employees. Since campaigning to reign in spending and debt, Coffman has cut no spending, only recently proposing furloughs for federal workers. Prior to that, Coffman’s only significant stand had been to campaign for continued spending on NASA programs to the Moon and Mars. Clearly, those programs equal jobs in the 6th CD; however, they are simply “stimulus” based on government spending. One man’s “pork” is another district’s job. Does Coffman’s furlough proposal include private sector workers on government contracts? Does the proposal include suspending government payments to private companies with government contracts?

Additionally, despite concerns about jobs, debt, and deficits, Coffman seeks continued marginal rate tax cuts that produced no jobs in the last decade, but radically increased the debt and deficit. At the same time, he voted against tax cuts for small business and a stimulus plan that was 40% tax cuts. If Coffman wants to represent fiscal conservatism, he needs to cut spending – including his district’s projects – as well as pay down the debt by replacing lost revenue. At this point, I’ve not completed my ballot, as I am curious about candidate John Flerlage’s ideas. While Flerlage isn’t a guarantee on lowering the debt, Coffman’s recent commentary indicates he certainly isn’t.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thoughts on Teachers and Knuckleballs

I ran across a few interesting thoughts today, mostly on teachers and public employees. First, was this sarcastic sentiment from Thomas Friedman, whose latest column criticizes the current campaign of recycled bad ideas:

I confess I find it dispiriting to read the polls and see candidates, leading in various midterm races promoting many of the very same ideas that got us into this mess .... [Why don't we] kowtow even more to public service unions so they'll make even more money that the private sector workers, so they'll give even more money to Democrats who will give them even more generous pensions, so not only California and New York [and Illinois] will go bankrupt, but every other state, too.

Not what we normally hear from Friedman, and granted, much of the column dismissed the GOP's desire to recycle the same old policies of unpaid for tax cuts and economic policies. But a valid point nonetheless for anyone seriously worried about debt and deficits.

Additionally, a letter from to the Denver Post echoed a sentiment I've long had about this idea of "great teachers" and the mantra that we need a "great teacher" in every classroom. A wonderful utopian idea, but not very practical. Hell, we've all seen Stand & Deliver - how many truly great teachers like Jaime Escalante [and me :-)] are there? The letter finished with a joke: A factory owner was giving a tour of his plant and was asked, "How many people work here?" He replied, "about half."

Finally, a great baseball quote from Willie Stargel:

Throwing a knuckleball is like trying to throw a butterfly that has the hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's the Literacy

A recent blog posting posed the following idea: "It can't be a good thing when your child's math homework requires more writing than use of numbers."

I'm not sure I agree.

If you have followed one of the bigger stories in reform these days - the successful turnaround of Brockton High School in Massachusetts - you might consider the impact of improved literacy on all classes. This teacher-led reform centered around the basic concept of literacy in all classrooms.

If literacy skills are low, nothing else matters. And too many teachers in the content areas simply assign reading rather than teach it. English teachers in lower grades teach how to decode, then read. After that it becomes about content. Thus, at the upper levels, they teach the kids how to read various genres. Social studies teachers should do the same. And same with math and science. Once students have memorized the times tables and the formulas for basic math, it's about problem solving. That's why story problems matter - it's application of the abstract concept.

There is much to consider in reforming schools, and no single issue or reform is the panacea. However, the importance of all teachers "teaching reading" in all classes is pretty high on my list.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Parade Magazine this week features an interview with Bill Gates about education reform. Needless to say he offers a lot of condemnation of teachers - notably lacking any sense of student accountability or consideration of decreased student motivation in the stagnation of "test scores."

Parade also features a poll question: "Should teachers be judged on their students' test scores?"

Obviously, teachers shouldn't be absolved of any responsibility. Yet, most discussions of this idea outside of people in education ignore the responsibility of the students, parents, and communities.

In some test formats, such as AP and IB, it is certainly reasonable to consider teacher performance. The key is that the test must have buy-in and accountability for the students, as well as the teachers. That is often the key for charter school success as well. If the student has some incentive, or more importantly, something to lose, the test will certainly have greater validity.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Job Growth in the Last Three Years

I'm not entirely sold on the argument being made here; however, it seems like it has data that is definitely worth discussing, debating, considering, arguing, weighing, etc.

I'm not committed to anything that is going to exacerbate the debt or deficit. But, I am certainly not committed to any policies which fueled a decade of zero job growth and ballooning debt.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oligarchy and MLB

It doesn't matter who the opponent is, I have to oppose the Yankees every year in the post-season because they simply aren't good for baseball. It's not enough to say the Yankees simply buy their championships - for in many ways, all teams are seeking the same goal. But the Yankees symbolize something far more serious, far more sinister.

The Yankees represent oligarchy - rule by a dominant, wealthy elite. They marginalize the common man, blue collar, raise-yourself-up by your bootstraps spirit that is integral to America's game. Walt Whitman once said, "I see great things in baseball." This man of the people would be nauseated by the undemocratic spirit of the game today.

Granted, success by smaller market/payroll teams like the Twins and the Rockies and the A's are testament to a degree of parity. And Michael Lewis effectively argued this in his excellent baseball treatise Moneyball. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. The Yankees' dominance is the rule, and the size of their market and their exclusive TV rights and their merchandizing and their payroll rule the post-season year after year.

MLB can and should learn a lot from the NFL, and I still can't fathom why the bottom 2/3 of MLB teams that never compete simply don't demand some parity and revenue sharing in a market that depends on them. It seems logical that the next time the contract comes up, the owners in Colorado and Kansas City and Toronto and Oakland and Pittsburgh and the others should simply say "No. We are not going forward and we will not play in a league where the Yankees can always outbid us for players we have brought up through effective farm systems and skilled management."

Let the Yankees go play with themselves.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Education Funding Silliness

Former Education Commissioner of Colorado William Maloney published an op-ed in the Denver Post in which he called for a review and change in the way public education is funded. As evidence he argued that parochial schools educate their students for 2/3 the cost of public schools and Asian schools cost about 80% of what American schools do. The following is my response, a shortened version of which was also published in the Post:

While William Maloney correctly asserts that Colorado needs to re-think the way it funds education, his reasoning behind the need for change is fundamentally flawed, and his naïve comparisons to private and foreign systems will produce no practical solutions. Certainly, there has been incredible growth in funding and staff in the past thirty years. Yet that mostly reveals expanded mandates and an increased efficiency in reaching under-served populations that were long neglected.

Mahoney notes that parochial systems operate on 2/3 of public school funding. However, he fails to mention that they do not provide any special education or English to non-native speakers. In fact, they use the public system to meet those needs, and the public schools are mandated to provide the services. Private schools don’t struggle with the same discipline and security needs as public schools, and they don’t require the cost-heavy administration that comes with meeting requirements under NCLB legislation. Additionally, parochial schools aren’t mandated to accept all students regardless of ability. Thus, you won’t find any Catholic schools educating many, or any, autistic children or mentally/physically disabled students. Parochial schools also aren’t required to assign caseworkers and establish specialized education programs for students of special needs. Thus, while Catholic schools are successful with the students they admit, there is much they don’t do.

Additionally, Maloney’s praise for the lower costs in Asia ignores the fact that foreign systems don’t compare to America’s in many areas. They do not have large immigrant populations, and thus do not have to provide any native language instruction. They do not provide special education on the level of the United States, and they are not under mandates to provide fair and equal access to all students. They do not optimistically seek to educate all students for college, and thus a considerable majority of their students are graduating and entering trades or vocational schools by the age of sixteen. Maloney also seems to target PERA pensions as a conflict for funding. Yet, he ignores the high taxes and retirement systems that are prevalent through the foreign systems he praises. Clearly, those systems provide more benefits, national health care among them, not less.

Most education researchers are acutely aware of the flaws of comparing the U.S. to foreign systems, and I would have expected Maloney’s tenure as education commissioner to provide him with a wider and more credible understanding of the problems. Perhaps having such misinformed people in charge is indicative of America’s problems. Yet, Maloney is correct in a need to review funding. Colorado should follow the lead of education reforming states like New Hampshire and Louisiana by allowing students to graduate at sixteen and enter vocational training or associate degree programs. In a state that has large numbers of students successfully completing college-level classes – AP and IB programs – state schools should expand dual credit courses to allow advanced students to begin college early and complete bachelor degrees in less than four years.

Clearly, the system has a considerable degree of cost inefficiency, and the reason is the public’s unrealistic and fragmented understanding of the goals of public education. We need to re-think our obsessive focus on “seat time” and a K-16 system that seeks bachelor degrees for all students regardless of interest or ability. Mandates for individual and specialized education and expensive accountability testing are not going to change. But Colorado can change its preconceived notions of what education means, and that can lead to a more cost-efficient, productive, and high quality system.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ten Yards for Holding???

The NFL has to change the rule on holding.

Ten yards for holding is absolutely ridiculous. Always has been, always will be. Ten yards is an absolute drive killer, and it completely slows down and decreases enjoyment of the game. And I get that the O-line has the benefit of knowing the count. But defense has too much advantage these days when the offense can barely touch these incredibly big quick defensive players who are infinitely more athletic.

Certainly, defense wins games, and I love impressive defensive stops. But killing a drive on a holding call is not good defense. It's handicapping the excitement of the game, and it's just boring. Five yards is plenty. Or create two levels of holding. Five for the basic hold, and ten for the ridiculous tying up of opposing players.

And I'm not just saying this because Denver has had three drives killed - including a thirty-five yard pickup - today versus Baltimore for almost nothing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No more Ds in School

Interestingly, a school district in Mt. Olive, New Jersey has decided to eliminate the grade of D in their system. They noted, "no one wants to be examined by a grade D doctor, no one wants to fly in the plane of a grade D pilot, and no one willingly chooses grade D restaurants." Thus, it seems rather inappropriate, if not unconscionable, to offer a diploma or endorsement of educational progress for students who do grade D work.

Thus, grades will now be A, B, C, and F. In the past, students could earn Ds for work that received between a 64-69%. Not anymore. Anything below a 70% is failing. However, the school is supporting academic interventions - any student who receives an F will have three days to improve the grade to passing, and the school will offer increased resources for remediation.

While I understand some criticisms of this plan, I have to say that my gut tells me this is a good thing.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Consumer Watchdog

Nearly ten years ago, I remember watching a Frontline episode about problems with banks, credit card companies, and corrupt corporate leaders. The show interviewed a rather soft-spoken but straightforward Harvard professor who articulated the problems and solutions far more succinctly than I had ever heard. I remember thinking, "Hey, yeah, everyone, and I mean everyone, listen to this woman.

That woman was Elizabeth Warren, the appointed watchdog for TARP funds, and the only logical nominee to lead the new consumer protection wing of the federal government. This issue is well explained in an LA Times profile.

Anyone who doesn't listen to this woman and endorse her for a regulatory role in the federal government is either an idiot, an ideologue blinded by naivete, or an immoral or amoral corporate shill.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vocational Ed Gets the Ax in AZ

Apparently, a 2009 bill in the Arizona legislature cut $550 from the state's Department of Education. That included reducing funding for Career and Technical Education (CTE) from $11 million down to $57,000 - a 99.9% reduction. This is truly sad, and it continues to reinforce how clueless Americans, and especially elected officials committed to low taxes/limited government, are when it comes to the actual needs of the education system and necessary reforms.

While schools and politicians continue to appease voters with increasing test scores and college admissions, ignoring college graduation rates and the needs of the workplace, the area that gets neglected is good, old-fashioned vocational education. This is the aspect of the system that needs the most focus and reform.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Just Showing Up and Living Deliberately

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a friend who works in a supervisory position, and we discussed the absolute rarity of consistent self awareness and a reasonable work ethic. Occasionally, her employees will note how "things just seem to run so much more smoothly" when she is there. Amazingly, it is lost on these employees that the situation is true precisely because she actively makes it so.

Because there is a sales and customer service component to her job, we discussed how important it is to pay attention to detail. People, be they customers or colleagues, like to be acknowledged, and something as simple as using someone's name or creating comfort out of shared interests can be so important. This is something I learned growing up with a personnel director as a father, as well as working in restaurants. If I heard a customer's name mentioned in passing, I could use it when I delivered their food. If someone was wearing a Cardinal's shirt, I could comment on the game. It is simply called paying attention.

This was reinforced to me when I took the kids to a rock climbing gym the other day. The manager was so attentive to our needs, regularly using our names when she saw us. Of course, we go there regularly, but we also hand in our ID cards each time ... so she knows who we are, and she lets us know that she knows. It's a nice touch that is the sign of a well-run business. And, it's not only natural - though that helps - it comes from working hard at the job and "paying attention to details."

I try to impart similar lessons to students - for, regardless of our subject, effective teachers know that so much of what we do is imparting knowledge and skills on "how to live." Much of life is "showing up" and being self aware. Being organized and self motivated is so important. I tell my students what a special commodity they will be if they simply show up on time each day and do their jobs on a regular basis without having to be reminded. Surprisingly, that is so uncommon.

This extends to the concept of self awareness, paying attention to details, or what Henry David Thoreau liked to call "living deliberately." Early in the year, I have a variety of activities in class focused on teaching students to pay attention to details and become close readers. We look at visuals and key in on details before interpreting them. I encourage students doing research to spend copious amounts of time simply reading. That way they know what they are talking about before they sit down to write. This is what Bob Dylan meant when he wrote "know your song well before you start singing."

From reading literature to conducting research to performing computations to public speaking to interviewing to meeting new friends or asking a girl/boy out, kids need to be taught those basic skills that come from living deliberately.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Super Average Tuesday

In the forty years I've lived, Americans have preceded practically each national election with the mantra and pledge to "throw the bums out." This year the Tea Party hysteria was lauded as the force that would bring that "change." And while there have been a few notable upsets, the reality is that while America has contempt for "Congress" and "government," they don't really have a problem with "their congressman" or "their government." Most of the challenged incumbents retained their seats in the primaries, and the reality is that the country and the world is not nearly as terrible as the pundits claim.

Monday, June 7, 2010


I was happy to see the Celtics even the score on Sunday night because Kobe Bryant just whines way to much for me to hear about him winning his fifth ring. Kobe has definitely got game - but I'm not really interested in hearing the Jordan comparisons, or the Magic comparisons for that matter. So, as Augustana sings, "I think [we'll] go to Boston, I think [we'll] start a new life ..."

However, let's hope the referees learn to swallow their whistles. The excessive fouls and calls - especially the bumping off the ball - is really annoying, and it is killing the game. Garnett and Odom and Perkins and Gasol with three fouls in the first half? That was ridiculous. They're big boys - let them play.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Primary Boredom

Democrats hold Senate 52-48 (with two Ind.) In the House the Dems lose 20-25 overall after picking up a few unexpected. It will be pretty standard for a first term mid-term. Of course, coming off an economic catastrophe and into two unfunded, poorly run wars, that'd be a pretty impressive showing.

I concede many criticisms of the Democrats and the Obama Administration. However, as an independent, I don't see the reason for overwhelming faith that the GOP can effectively run the government, especially with the loss of people like Bennett in Utah and Crist in Florida. At least they still have people like Lindsay Graham and Olympia Snow, and someday Paul Ryan will be worthwhile when he grows up.

I'm no apologist for Pelosi or Reid, but McConnel and Boehner bring nothing to the table.

"Republicans run on the premise that government can't work, and then they get elected and prove it." - PJ O'Rourke

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Loss for Moderate Pragmatism

The first casualty in the "tea party" hysteria about incumbents is the loss in the primary for three-term, moderate, bi-partisan conservative William Bennett of Utah. This is a true shame. This kind of reaction is not even rational, and it doesn't bode well for the country.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Responsible Republicans

Great piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate today about the loss of responsible government among Republicans. It was last prominent in the early days of the Reagan presidency and last practiced by the responsible Bush presidency - that was the first one.

Responsible conservatism is so important in our democratic republic, and it is a shame that the moderate voices of the GOP have been so crowded out. Hopefully, the Lindsay Graham's and the Judd Gregg's become the new leaders of the party.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tax Reform that Works?

Congressmen Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Ron Wyden of Oregon - two of my favorite pragmatic and rational problem solvers - are proposing a serious, and I mean serious, tax reform bill that makes so much sense, it will never pass. They propose to simply the tax code, eliminating thousands of deductions and offering three simple, progressive brackets. It also proposes lowering the corporate tax rate to a flat 24%. I am definitely intrigued.

However, while it proposes to be a deficit neutral bill, that quality will do nothing to alleviate a trillion dollar deficit and a $12 trillion debt. Additionally, the GOP-side continues to push the corporate rate change on a comparison to other countries - even though, because of deductions, most American corporations pay almost nothing in taxes as it is now. I don't see corporations giving up all their deductions and increasing their tax liability to 24%, but we will see.

With those problems, I don't see a lot of hope. But it's better than the status quo.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Teacher Pay

Teacher pay was addressed in two entertaining editorials in the Denver Post recently. First, libertarian talk show host Mike Rosen offered this piece comparing teacher pay to that of professional athletes. No fan of teachers, Rosen called out teachers for complaining they should be paid as well as professional athletes (a dubious charge that I have never heard a teacher utter). Rosen's piece was followed by this one from a former teacher and guest columnist Mark Moe, challenging Rosen's accusations and breaking down the flaws in Rosen's criticism of teachers.

Moe's response is an effective and thorough deconstruction of a standard Rosen commentary. Of course, it's worth noting the unique twist on Rosen's two subjects - professional sports and teaching. Rosen's piece, like the sports world, is meant to entertain, not to educate. Mark Moe provides the insightful anti-thesis.

In twenty years of teaching, I have never encountered teachers who argue they should be paid like professional athletes. However, I regularly hear that suggestion from others outside teaching. When people discuss education with me, they will inevitably lament the fact that pro athletes and movie stars are paid so much, while teachers aren't. I'm not so outraged, as I know it is basic economics.

Pro athletes are paid as they are for one simple reason - the money is there. Advertising for popular sporting events generates huge revenue. And I do not fault athletes for earning the money they do. By contrast, teaching generates no advertising revenue. Though, I am intrigued by the idea.

Perhaps, teachers could wear corporate logos on their shirts, as well as post ads around the room. Teachers could hand out tests and quizzes "sponsored by Subway or Nike." I envision coupons at the back of the textbook, encouraging students to do well and support the companies. Incentives for achievement could be provided by corporations. The highest test score could receive $50 off their next purchase of Reeboks. And the best teachers who hosted the most popular classes and produced the greatest results could generate even more endorsement deals. This could radically restructure school funding, and might even solve many of our budget issues.

Hmmmm. Rosen might be on to something.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Mandates and the Constitution

Upon the passage of the health care reform bill, the opponents are already planning to file lawsuits or seek repeal based on the idea that the American people don't want the bill and the mandate to buy insurance is unconstitutional. Certainly, I don't claim to speak for the American people, as it is a varied voice. It's the last part that has me a bit baffled.

While the government has passed reform based on the ability to regulate inter-state commerce - certainly a reasonable idea considering the GOP always offers "buying across state lines" as the panacea for reform - critics argue that citizens can't be forced to buy insurance. They claim it as a "tax just for living." They argue that is unconstitutional, and that it will not stand up in court?

Just how do they explain FICA? What about Medicare and Social Security? Citizens are already taxed to participate in an insurance program - one is medical, the other retirement. Citizens are already automatically enrolled in federal programs as a matter of birth. Clearly, the requirement that citizens participate in these insurance programs has been upheld as constitutional for thirty-five and seventy-five years.

Am I missing something here?