Saturday, May 31, 2014

Math Teacher Explains Problems with Corporate Education Reform

Are America's schools failing?

That is what many in the education reform movement would like for you to believe. That claim - that US schools are "failing," that we are "falling behind the rest of the world," that American kids are "losing the ability to compete in a global market" has driven the education reform movement since at least 1983 when "A Nation at Risk" was published. And that claim drove the passage of No Child Left Behind, as well as the recent push for Common Core State Standards, PARCC and SB standardized testing, and the Race-to-the-Top school funding (blackmail) initiative. But what if it weren't true? What if it is more complicated than that? What if the proposed solutions do nothing to address, much less solve, the problem?

Mathematics teacher explains the reality in a must-see Tedx speech at the University of Arkansas.

In his criticism of the "toxic culture" surrounding education reform, Joshua Katz asks us to consider the realities behind the claims. The most interesting point for me was the connection to "The Incredibles" theory of villains, whereby a villain actually creates the problem that he will then be the only one who can solve. The idea that corporate education interests exploited the belief that schools were failing in order to push through legislative agendas that allow them to sell more educational materials and tests is not as far-fetched as many might think. For, there are many American schools producing world-class students who do not need new national learning standards and accountability tests in order to perform.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Scripps National Spelling Bee … And a Complete Waste of Time

So, what is the value of knowing words like kneidal, stromuhr, cymotrichus, or guetapens? What is the value in being able to spell them from memory? Especially, when the spell-check on my computer lists them as mis-spelled.

Of course, tonight was the national championship for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is broadcast on ESPN and is the Holy Grail for thousands of families across the nation. This year provided two champions, as two boys outlasted the list, finishing off with words like fueilleton.  Of course, like always, it is the strangest form of entertainment, providing many bizarrely memorable moments like these. This year Ansun Suejoe and Sriram Hathwar shared the championship of a trophy and $30,000 in prize money. And, I guess, the bragging rights.

But why is this worth it? Why does this matter?

As an English teacher of advanced students, and the parent of a gifted child who has advanced far in both spelling bees and math competitions, I have to admit that I can't quite fathom a more inane pursuit than the spelling bee. And don't bother telling me about the cognitive development or the inclusion of the vocabulary component. It is just the most useless form of trivia. And I am not arguing that all educational pursuits should be utilitarian.

But imagine if all the countless hours (and thousands of dollars) spent memorizing obscure and useless words ( most of which aren't even English ) was instead spent developing skills in math and science and the fine arts. What if kids spent the hours learning how to play an instrument or write a symphony or develop their hook shot or swim a faster quarter mile or study ecosystems or … well, you get the point. And, don't even get me started on the prize money. $30K?  Hell, I bet most families of top competitors spend thousands on tutors and travel and more. And the prize money doesn't come close to funding pursuits in college. Perhaps Scripps could pony up a real scholarship. Like maybe four years of in-state tuition for students who can write and develop arguments and feature stories on complex ideas and global issues.

That might be worth my time.

In all honesty, I used to intentionally fail at the spelling bee, so I wouldn't have to stand up in front of the class going through the charade. And that approach has been so perfectly captured by comedian Brian Ragan.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Michelle Obama's Food Fight

Michelle Obama - along with many others - is seriously concerned about America's weight and health problems. And she is committed to combating those challenges by focusing on children. It was with that focus that she led the food fight for increasingly rigorous nutritional standards in the National School Lunch Program. The primary focus of reform of school lunches is on reducing consumption of calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. While this approach/solution seems pretty straightforward to the casual observer, the issue of food quality and its connection to "weight" is far more complicated.

The problem with changes to the food program is, basically, that kids do not want to eat the food, and school cafeterias are losing money. This has led some schools across the country to "opt out" of the school lunch program. And they have made this decision knowing they will lose federal funding for meals and more. The reality is that schools will not stay with a program of meals that kids refuse to eat. And, despite what Michelle Obama likes to claim, students are still throwing away a lot of food. And now legislators are joining the cause, introducing a bill which would allow schools waivers from the new nutritional standards. The movement to delay and roll back nutritional standards is not simply a way of pushing back against the federal government and the Obamas … but it can seem that way.

Yesterday, the First Lady decided to fight back in the food fight. Mrs. Obama sought to make this all about the children, as she noted she will not back down on plans to bring "better" nutritional standards to school lunches. However, the battle over school lunches is not simply a matter of calories, fat, sugar, and salt. And there is certainly no value to serving - even force feeding - food that kids don't want to eat. Certainly, schools need better education on nutritional choices. And they need better offerings in the cafe.

But simply restricting menus is not going to do the trick.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Commencement Speech - Live Deliberately

Amidst all the commencement speeches making their rounds this May, I offer some thoughts from the original American original, Henry David Thoreau. As part of his Transcendental philosophy, grounded in a rugged individuality and self reliance, Thoreau recommended that above all we Live Deliberately.

School Lunch Program Makes Headlines

As I've almost helplessly watched my blog sit passive for the last month, I've come to realize just how hard it is to blog during the month of May. With AP exams and final units/projects and graduation and graduation parties and new projects for the summer, there has been precious little of value to check out on A Teacher's View.  Yet, I have not been idle, still reading and writing and posting. And, of course, tweeting out ideas on a regular basis.

For a more consistent feed on what ATV is doing, consider following me on Twitter - @mmazenko 

And, I am occasionally writing pieces for Yahoo Voices: Yahoo Voices Profile

Some of the ideas I have been working on and/or following lately are, not surprisingly, food related. As a teacher and administrator, the issues raised by the changes in the National School Lunch Program have been worth watching. Apparently, while most of us weren't looking, the federal lunch program and its new "healthy guidelines" has become quite the political issue.  With new nutritional guidelines making the food choices more restricted and less desirable, some schools have been considering "opting out" of the federal program. In fact, many schools already have, with notable ones being the Arlington Heights district in Illinois and the Waterford School District in Wisconsin.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Don't Go to Law School

"I'm going to law school because I like to argue …"

Blah, blah, blah.

If I had a dollar for every student who ever said he/she was going to law school because they "like to argue" or are "really good at arguing" etc., I would be retired by now. So, as a teacher, and a person who has heard from many attorneys, let me be the one to say, "Don't go to law school."

Effective and successful lawyers are not that way because they "like to argue." Successful lawyers are that way because they are good readers, good writers, good researchers, and very hard working. A person should become a lawyer because he likes to research, not because he likes to argue. For, a good lawyer will research for six weeks to argue for six minutes. In fact, lawyers will most likely never argue. They won't argue because they were so good at research.

But don't take my word for it. Here are/is:

Six Wrong Reasons for Going to Law School  by attorney Tucker Max.

An answer if "You Think You Want to Be a Lawyer" by Jennifer Shaw

The truth about "You Can Do Anything with a Law Degree" by Jim Saksa

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Green Smoothies & Sun Salutations

As the weather gets nice, and we wake from our post-holiday winter slumbers, it's time to start some spring cleaning, both physically and metaphorically. It's time to air things out a bit, and from a physical standpoint, it's time to sweep out the cobwebs, and get serious about feeling as fresh and healthy as the late spring weather. Fitness writer and "Mis-fit" Vicky Hallet of the offers two bits of advice for some some spring cleaning of your health:
In each of these pieces, Vicky offers some basic information on two of the easiest ways to jumpstart your health. Making green smoothies is a great way to get your RDA of healthy veggies, and you can amp up your metabolism and energy with plenty of kale and collards and spices and fruits. The "Green Smoothie" is a must for anyone serious about getting more "real food" into their diet. In the article, Vicky profiles the book and diet plan of nutritionist JJ Smith, who set herself a challenge to "detox." When many friends joined her, she turned the experiment into a diet plan.

And as you take care  of the body, it's imperative to look after the mind and spirit as well. Yoga is the time honored approach to that, and it's an activity and lifestyle that many people wish they could fit into their lives. I know that when life gets a bit stressful, the first thing that goes is my yoga and meditation. And the last thing that should go is my yoga and meditation. So, it's nice to get a reminder every once in a while about fitting a bit of "moving meditation" back into our days. The "Sun Salutation" is in many ways the baseline and the most accessible of yoga routines.

So, it's worth a little bit of yoga and a smoothie to head into the summer in great shape.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Yadier Molina - Best Catcher in Baseball

A catcher on a baseball team is undeniably the field leader. From game management to pivotal playmaking, the man behind the plate must be someone special. And Major League Baseball has had many talented, dare I say brilliant, men wear the mask and the big glove.

But then, there's the St. Louis Cardinals' catcher Yadier Molina 

Best catcher ever? Maybe.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

David Lee Roth, King Solomon, Game Theory, & Freakonomics

Many 80's rock fans know the infamous story of Van Halen's contract rider that required bowls of M&Ms with "all brown M&Ms removed." While that seemed to be the perfect example of petulant rock star excess and extravagance, it turns out it was truly clever bit of gamesmanship.

When the M&M clause found its way into the press, it seemed like a typical case of rock-star excess, of the band "being abusive of others simply because we could," Mr. Roth said. But, he explained, "the reality is quite different." Van Halen's live show boasted a colossal stage, booming audio and spectacular lighting. All this required a great deal of structural support, electrical power and the like. Thus the 53-page rider, which gave point-by-point instructions to ensure that no one got killed by a collapsing stage or a short-circuiting light tower. But how could Van Halen be sure that the local promoter in each city had read the whole thing and done everything properly?
Cue the brown M&M's. As Roth tells it, he would immediately go backstage to check out the bowl of M&M's. If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn't read the rider carefully—and that "we had to do a serious line check" to make sure that the more important details hadn't been botched either. And so it was that David Lee Roth and King Solomon both engaged in a fruitful bit of game theory—which, narrowly defined, is the art of beating your opponent by anticipating his next move.
This example of "Game Theory" is at the heart of the latest book of scientific insight from the brilliant mind of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, along with Stephen Dubner. Levitt and Dubner are so apt at mining the research of things like Game Theory that they have been able to squeeze a third book out of their information on the laws of economics that impact our lives in ways we never imagine. And, now, with the book, Think Like a Freak, they are offering new insight and advice on how to game the world by "tricking the guilty and the gullible into revealing themselves."

Like their other books, and like many of the other "Ideas Gurus" like Gladwell or Pink out there, Levitt and Dubner have example after example and anecdote after anecdote of the many ways people have learned to game the system.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Louis CK, the Philosopher King

It's the comedians that put it all in perspective.

I've always appreciated the brilliance of comedians in contemporary society because they are doing so much more than entertaining us. It's often about so much more than just making us laugh. Basically, the best comedians are able to expose to us the absurdity of it all. Louis CK is one these humorous cultural critics. While I have been aware of him for a while, it was his guest spot on Conan O'Brien when he explained why he won't get his child a cell phone that made me pay attention:

Recently, Louis CK has made headlines with his long Twitter rant about his frustrations with Common Core State Standards after struggling along with his daughters in doing their math homework. The brilliance of Louis' commentary on the issue is that he wasn't speaking as a comedian, but simply commenting as a parent. There has been a lot of backlash against his criticisms of Common Core standards. And some of it comes, astutely, from teachers. But there has been as many people who appreciate his commentary and support him.

Louis CK is Right About the Common Core

The Trouble with Common Core

Louis CK Hit a Home Run with Common Core Criticism

Louis CK and the Common Core - Diane Ravitch

And, so, Louis is on my radar. And I am enjoying a season of his sitcom, Louis. And, as I look for more insight and commentary - and laughs - from a man who is being called today's "Lenny Bruce, or Bob Dylan, or a philosopher king," I was pleased to run across this really nice interview on Charlie Rose's show:

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Princeton Kid is, in fact, Privileged, and Rather Naive and Foolish

Mark Twain once said, "It's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt." A few years down the road, this advice might actually come to mean something to Princeton student Tal Fortgang.  Tal has become the poster child for the debate about "white privilege" after his op-ed defending his "success" was published. After opening by questioning "this phrase, check your privilege" that has been circulating around such privileged campuses as Princeton, Tal recounts how he is apparently not privileged because his grandparents struggled to escape the Nazi's during World War II. He then "concedes" that he is privileged to have been raised with values like faith and education, and that he will "apologize for nothing."

And, that is the basis of his problem.

Tal has been raised in the tradition of parents wanting their children to have a better life. And there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that in not wanting our children to want for or suffer from anything, we leave them with little appreciation for the hard work that has afforded them a degree of comfort. Tal is too blinded by his own upbringing to even understand that no one expects him to apologize - not for his success or his race or his parents' hard work or, even, his hard work. Nothing. The idea of acknowledging privilege is merely to understand that he has it. His life, born of the hard work and struggles of his grandparents and his parents, has given him advantages that he is unable to appreciate as such. That is why he could benefit from understanding the "veil of ignorance," an academic concept that was probably discussed somewhere in his high quality education. Alas, he won't be able to.

And that is why the backlash and criticism of Tal has been so swift. As in this note To The Princeton Privileged Kid, by Violet Baudelaire. Or the sentiment from Mary Elizabeth Williams who simply wants Tal to know: "We Don't Need Your Apology, Princeton Kid." Sadly, Tal seems to be a pretty bright young man who wants to think about big ideas and engage in serious conversations. Yet the immaturity with which he defended his privilege - even though no one asked him to - will probably tag him as the "Poster Child for White Male Privilege" for a long time to come.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Problems with PARCC and Pearson

Again, it's not really about the standards (Common Core State Standards CCSS) - though there should be an understanding of why people are weary of the standards that were adopted by states via their governors and state officials without consultation with their teachers, teachers association, administrators, and parents.

The more serious and substantial concerns are coming from parents and educators who challenge an increasingly intrusive and burdensome system of state (and federal) mandated standardized assessments. More and more parents are taking the serious step of "opting their kids out" of the state assessments, as Kristin Kidd of Colorado recently did when she "Let My Kids [Play] Hooky from School Tests." Of course, it wasn't all tests: her kids took tests like MAPS, DRA2, Explore, and others which did not intrude as much on instructional time, and which aren't being used to create a more collective system of accountability. And, perhaps as important, those tests weren't the sole control of Pearson, Inc.

Despite the claims by Bill Gates and other reformers that the new system of assessment would open up a field of competition to create the best tests, the huge multinational testing corporation (out of Great Britain) has basically devoured the PARCC testing consortium. With dozens of states testing millions of students, this contractual victory is worth billions of dollars to Pearson. And critics are calling foul over the lack of oversight and accountability for the test. Basically, people are wondering who is going to evaluate the tests and their reliability. Because Pearson has more than a few problems in its past regarding the authenticity of its tests.

The reality is that this PARCC testing system (and SmarterBalanced for other schools preferring a vegetable spread to a standardized test) has become a behemoth of control over the nation's schools. And that has happened with very little transparency regarding the tests. As some states have withdrawn and asserted autonomy over their tests, other states like Colorado have faced very close party-line votes that ultimately left the PARCC test and Pearson in control.

Of course, that doesn't mean that students and parents like Kristin Kidd won't fight back next year - and the nation could see a massive parental opt out movement, the likes of which has never been seen.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

It's about Sugar & Carbs, not Fat

As I've noted on this blog before - Sugar is the Devil.

As Americans continue to struggle with expanding waist lines - and the heart disease, diabetes, and other associated health risks - it is ever increasingly clear that America's health problems are not about fat. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal reports today, fat in the form of meat and dairy is actually part of a healthy diet. And the weight and health problems arise from sugar and carbs.

This is, of course, not new. For years now, "Scientists have said carbs - not fat - are the biggest problem with America's diet." And while I can recall the "War on Fat" from my childhood in the Seventies and Eighties, I learned very early about the low-fat and fat free scam. When huge and powerful food corporations remove the fat from foods, it seriously affects taste, which they then compensated for by replacing the fat with sugar. The problem is that the body turns the sugar and carbs into fat.

One of the biggest sources of the problem is the corn and grain industry that have successfully become financial behemoths with the inclusion of High Fructose Corn Syrup into nearly every processed food. And they have reaped billions of dollars in profits and government subsidies. Thus, if Americans are really concerned about the state of their health - and corrupt business/government alliances - then they should radically decrease their consumption of processed foods.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bikers Against Child Abuse

Have you heard of BACA?

I never had either until my daughter came home from school today, and told me about Bikers Against Child Abuse - and organization doing some amazing work for children - "to empower children to not be afraid of the world in which they live."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

You Won't Make Great Money as a Novelist

Writing the Great American Novel (the GAN).

It's a dream for many an English major and English teacher. We all see the huge contract with a generous advance, as well envisioning publishing parties in New York with hip people like Michael Stipe and Malcolm Gladwell in attendance. We also envision being able to stop working - teaching or bar tending or landscaping or working in sales - because we all know that published authors make millions of dollars.

Alas, it's really not so.

This week on "bestselling author" Patrick Wensink comes clean about how little money he made for his independently published book which spent weeks atop the Amazon bestseller list. In reality, publishing is a complicated industry, and there is really not that much money to be made by selling books.