Friday, April 30, 2010

Technolgy (Those Wonderful Toys.)

The problems with technology in schools start with its cost and a lack of intelligent implementation backed by science. It gets worse in that the purchase, support and decision-making are so fragmented.

The faculty end-users are usually not familiar enough with the products to be able to determine absolutely what they need or to determine the difference between a name brand (like Smart) and the generics which are often 1/3 the price. Most haven't used them much before getting them - at least not in any meaningful way. SO someone will scrape enough department budget money together to get one and then the teacher will leave it in the corner of his room propped against a filing cabinet because "he doesn't have time to learn how to use it" or "I'd need hours to set it up."

The tech brats might know what's best but don't ever ask the teachers for a list of needs. They couldn't be bothered to figure out for themselves which board is optimal. They're mostly interested in making their own job as easy as possible, meaning that standardization is a higher priority than cost or ease of of use. Laziness and a willingness to cry "I'm so busy" are the primary reasons. They also don't mind a 6 foot SmartBoard being unusable for an entire year because of a faulty cable. Fixing the obvious problem is not their concern - they acquired it, that's enough.

The financial people who authorize have no clue either. To them, it's a board that you "tap" to go to the next slide.

The administration who demands "more tech because I think it sounds cool" are no help. They like IWBs because the district tech person can stand by the board and tap it to get to the next slide. "We're high-tech here." So they fiddle with discretionary spending and equip a conference room off the main office with one that no one else may use. Maybe they'll put a couple into select brown-noser rooms to show how forward-thinking they are. At which point, the teachers use it as a projection screen.

The salesmen con the community into thinking it's for the good of the children and will "build learning opportunities for the digital natives, don't ya know" and the irony of the marching band equipment salesman takes another bump.

Meanwhile, those who might make something out of it continue with whatever old technology they could scrounge from what was lying around and are doing just fine, thank you.

But. What I could do with one ...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Censorship sucks

Puerile? Yup.
Irreverent? Yes.
Obnoxious? Definitely.
Dangerous? It's a cartoon.
Worthy of Death Threats? Huh?

Despite not actually having a picture of Mohamed,  a South Park episode was censored by the Comedy Central network - an amazing lack of understanding of the principles of the United States. There were no actual pictures of Mohamed in it. There was only a bear suit that they claimed had Mohamed in it.  Not only that, the show was censored and bleeped often. Kyle does his end of show monologue about intimidation and fear - the irony of that is one reason I watch this show.

South Park is a show with three possible formulas (1) silly and stupid, bathroom humor, tolerable and occasionally funny; (2) really biting satire that takes down some big egos a few pegs, not to be missed; or (3) gross to point of wondering why they bothered - this type is unwatchable.

The SuperBestFriends is type 2.

And there it stands. Censored "after a Muslim group warned the show’s creators that they could face violence for depicting that holy Islamic prophet." (NYTimes). 

On Thursday afternoon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone released the following statement:
"In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we’ll see what happens to it."
I hate this kind of censorship.  Judge a show on its merits.  If its stupid or offensive, say so. If it crosses the line, explain the line.  I may agree with you and then I'll apologize. I may disagree with you but that's my problem (or yours).  Threatening death is a bit much, n'est-ce pas?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

This is how testing should be used.

From Joanne Jacobs' Community College blog is this note about California's Early Assessment Program, meant to ascertain whether students are ready for college. Instead of waiting until after admission, they've decided to do it early, in the 11th grade. (DUH!) This allows students to pick up the pace in high school while there's still time to get these skills.
Most juniors who take the optional exam are told they’re not ready for college math and English, giving them an incentive to use senior year to boost their skills.

Forget NECAP, indirectly measuring teachers and punishing schools. This is testing that is useful and appropriate.
All agree on the value of eap (at Educated Guess Blog)
Here are some numbers:
"In 2009, 79 percent of juniors took the English exam, but only 16 percent of them were deemed ready. Last year, 36 percent of juniors took the math EAP. Of those who took the Algebra II test, only a quarter were deemed college-ready (20 percent conditionally ready, 5 percent fully ready; of those who took Summative Math, with of bits of Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra II, the results were better: 88 percent were ready (67 conditionally and 21 percent fully). The combined result for students who took either test: 57 percent (34 percent conditionally ready, 13 percent fully ready)."

Are you on track for college? (at CCBlog)
California’s community colleges want 11th graders to take the Early Assessment Program – EAP–  exam developed by the California State University system. Most juniors who take the optional exam are told they’re not ready for college math and English, giving them an incentive to use senior year to boost their skills. Until now, the state’s 112 community colleges have given their own exams to decide who needs remedial coursework, writes John Fensterwald on Educated Guess. Now 10 community colleges have agreed to use the EAP and 15 more are considering it. It’s a lot cheaper to catch up on academic skills in high school than to wait till college. In fact, higher education leaders want to get students on the college track in eighth and ninth grade.

Teacher Quality Study

Via Joanne Jacobs, via Reuters, from Science comes a twin study on teacher effectiveness.

I’d be interested in the criteria for “strong” teacher and “weak” teacher. If the “strong” one is defined (as the linked article seems to imply) as someone whose 20 students did well on a single reading test, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that one of those students did better on a test.

At least this study seems to be comparing teachers within the same building, using twins. That’ll help control for income and such. I’m not as convinced that a single measure of just one skill is a particularly good way to differentiate, however, though my expertise is certainly not at the k-3 level. Assuming that you can even separate the discipline at this level I have to wonder: if one teacher is better at science or math while the first is only good at teaching the reading skills needed for that one test, the differences could be enough to label one or the other as “deficient” and that’s not a good way to do this.

I’d also like to know how the kids were placed in the various classes. If it’s random, then this study has more credibility, but if the placements are done for reasons of ability or behavior, then that test is measuring too many variables to definitively say one teacher is better than the other.

I'm sure the researchers tried to control for this, but schools do tend to separate kids on purpose and that will skew the study. If a weaker student is intentionally placed with teacher #1, then it shouldn't be surprising if the teachers show a difference.

All in all, a good study. Hopefully it's not taken directly to the Congress as the article suggests - it's way too early for that and the Congress would probably try to apply its lessons to high or middle schools and it's way to specific for that.

BTW, the photo that accompanied the article showed a child using an abacus during a national math test in India. If one of our teachers used an abacus during teaching and the other used a calculator, that would definitely change the results.

Article below the jump

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stupid Politicians

I sure hope this was taken out of context. If this is how she thinks, she is suffering from a severe case of cranial-rectal inversion. From the Doonesbury site:
"You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I'll paint your house. I mean, that's the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I'm not backing down from that system."
-- Sue Lowden, U.S. Senate candidate in Nevada
When was the last time you showed up at your doctor's home with a dead chicken swinging from your outstretched hand wanting care for your colicky baby?

If it were me, I'm backing away from the door and grabbing a gun.

Value-Added Teacher Evaluation

The Value of Value-Added By Rick Hess Original
I've been meaning to do a longer postmortem on Florida's Senate Bill 6. As I've noted before, I enthusiastically supported it even though I thought it a deeply flawed bill. The flaw? Its ham-fisted attempt to strip out one set of anachronistic strictures (governing tenure and step-and-lane pay scales) only to replace it with a set of test-driven processes that were almost equally troubling.
Don't you love it? He spends most of the post pointing out flaws but he was for it anyway. I can almost hear him say "Yes, Russian Roulette is a dangerous game, but let's play anyway. Here's my automatic. You go first."

Actually, Rick, I have a better idea. Let's run this model on your paycheck first. Then we can talk.

Euphemism in the News

I had to laugh when I saw this idea on Joanne Jacobs. The newspaper's choice of words is a real hoot, isn't it?
"Program gives students GPS devices to help stop truancy
In Texas, some students who excessively skip school are being strapped with GPS devices. It's part of a controversial program called AIM, Attendance Improvement Management. The GPS device is small enough to fit in a pocket or purse and is kept with the student at all times. Students punch the device four to five times a day: one time on the bus, at school lunch, one off the bus and one at curfew. The AIM program is paid for by federal money recovered from student attendance funds."

"Program gives students GPS devices ..." like this was a happy, fun-filled birthday present instead of a device that amounts to a court-ordered (read mandated or "wear it or else") ankle bracelet.

I'd also love to know how well this works. These teenagers have already proven they can't be expected to keep current on anything so why are we setting them up to fail at this? What if they don't press the button at the appropriate time or do it too late? (As if teeenagers don't forget things). This should have been an automatic thing that the kid just wears under a sock or something.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tenure and The Bogeyman

In a response, of sorts, to Joanne Jacobs's note that tenure protects the bogeymen - the "bad" teachers - whether they be senile, incompetent, mean, racist, overly religious, megalomaniac, stupid or just plain lazy. Well, no, tenure doesn't protect really bad teachers. These administrators can't evaluate their people properly before they're hired nor evaluate them while they're on the job. Why should we expect them to be able to follow the steps outlined in the contract to get rid of someone?

More importantly, tenure doesn't just protect bad teachers. It also protects the good teachers
  • who dare to disagree with the "Administrator of the Year." (by which I do NOT refer to any award, but only length of service), who find said admin's pet theories to be absurd, who resist the ridiculous reforms that said admin is championing and who happen to know the correct way to teach. Regardless of merit, the "nail that sticks up is hammered down." Students and education are not part of the consideration.
  • who happen to be staunchly Republican in a faculty that is not. As the wit has it, "the reason educational politics is so petty is because the stakes are so small." I am dismayed to admit it, but more often it is the liberal side of the hallway that collects like piranha, trying to get the unwanted declared incompetent. (This is probably because more faculty are liberal than not) Allow the students to badger any opinion out of you and someone will find offense.
  • who happen to be devoutly religious (any flavor) and hold those feelings and opinions dear. Again, faculty have what seems a unique tendency to discover and grossly (if not grotesquely) magnify small "slights," opinions, habits or improprieties that offend the collective. If I were being cynical, I would assume that many teachers are vampires or the undead when I consider how much they hate the sight of a cross.
  • who happen to be pro-military. Some leeway is given to mothers of soldiers but rarely to veterans themselves or members of a military family. Salute the wrong President, face the music. Likewise recruiters. I even witnessed an alum being denied entrance to the building to visit a teacher - because "he was in uniform and that promoted guns and violence." Gob-smacked, I was.

Let's think long and hard about tenure before we all dismiss it.

AFD Hoaxes

Two of my favorite BBC hoaxes:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trebuchets. Technology for the Last Millenium.

The Great Northern Medieval Faire is coming up soon. (well, June 3rd). There will be trebuchets throwing cabbages. Yours truly will be there. We're looking for targets. Just kidding! But if you're willing ... Still kidding! "Students seeking volunteer hours for a credit are welcome." Normally, I don't like required volunteerism, but this is a pretty cool way to work off that indentured servitude, if you ask me. More below the jump. and pictures.

Gender and Achievement

In his article "The Boys Have Fallen Behind", Nick Kristoff makes a case for why boys are doing worse than girls.

The average boy has a lower GPA (-0.23), is 2x as likely to be suspended and 3x as likely to be expelled, and 25% more likely to drop out, earn fewer degrees and do more poorly on achievement tests. Add in that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and you get an almost "perfect storm".

I think that what we have here is a change in the focus and attitude of classrooms and schools in general - more "sensitive" and less competitive, more inclusive and less exclusive. Teachers cannot be sarcastic or mean, or even critical. Bullies are immediately squashed or there's hell to pay. Letting "Boys be boys" is a no-no. Literacy across the curriculum. 21st Century Skills. "Show your work" has become "Write a report that includes ..." English teachers are assigning Flannery O'Connor and Maya Angelou instead of Hamilton's Mythology.

  1. The move to limit bullying is a good one, of course, but there does need to be some discretion to say, at times, "Tough it out, kid. That isn't really bullying."
  2. Teachers shouldn't be mean, of course, but there also shouldn't be a total ban on pointing out errors or letting the class trade papers to correct each other's work.
  3. Kids should learn to write, of course, but the math classroom isn't necessarily the best place for that.
  4. There's nothing wrong with one right answer.
  5. AP and Honors classes should have prerequisites. Hard and fast ones.
  6. Challenges work for boys. Competition is an incentive.
  7. Single-sex classrooms are AN answer.
  8. Sometimes, "The Answer" is sufficient. You don't always have to get an explanation of the blindingly obvious. The "AFCS Proof" is acceptable.
  9. Shakespeare is rude, crude, but strangely acceptable.  Feel free to point all that out.

Incentives and Achievement

"A multicity experiment to test the effect of paying students for performance succeeded in increasing achievement when the payments were tied to specific behaviors related to learning, such as reading books, but not when the awards depended directly on test scores, new findings show."
“Providing incentives for achievement-test scores has no effect on any form of achievement we can measure,” wrote Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer in a working paper published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research."
I can't say that I am surprised by this. Tests seem to be out of the student's control and out of mind quickly. The feedback on tests is too late to be tied to the achievement, while the monetary payoff for reading and such is much more direct and seemingly more in the control of the student.

It may also be an additional explanation why high school students don't score as well on these tests as might be expected from all the other measures of their ability - the reward payoff is delayed so far that the effort simply isn't put into the test. NECAP tests were in November, scores are returned in March/April and school AYP determinations are delayed until May.

One more nail in the coffin of "Merit Pay Should be Based on Test Scores."

Monday, April 12, 2010

And there's that metric thing.

Other than in the picture ... Can you spot the error?

Event encourages interest in science
By Rachel Warren

Published: Sunday, March 28, 2010

About 125 people enjoyed an afternoon of kid-friendly activities Saturday at the Highland Road Park Observatory as part of NanoDays, a nationwide festival of educational programs.

The events are organized by participants in the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network and will take place in more than 200 museums, research centers and universities this year, according to the NanoDays Web site. The event in Baton Rouge was hosted by the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Center for Computation and Technology.

Juana Moreno, physics assistant professor, said the event was organized to inform the general public, not just children, about nanotechnology — the science of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale.

She said she organized the event at the University of North Dakota when she taught there, and this is the first time she has put the event together at LSU.

The event hosted two speakers, Jayne Garno — a University chemistry assistant professor — and Kristen Buchanan from Colorado State University. Garno showed the audience images of nano-objects captured in her lab, and Buchanan discussed “nanomagnetism” and its application to hard drives.

University students also volunteered in demonstrations of nanoscience at tables set up throughout the observatory.

The interactive displays allowed children to play with liquid crystals, dissolve effervescent tablets to learn about surface area and pour liquid onto fabric to show how nanotechnology can be used to protect clothes from stains.

Rebecca Ringuette, physics graduate student, said she and the other students volunteered for the Society of Physics Students. She said the group is dedicated to public outreach and getting people excited about science, and it puts on as many events like NanoDays as it can.

“The next generation of scientists will not be there if we don’t get them interested in science,” she said.

A child’s interest in science is strongly influenced by the enthusiasm of the teacher, Ringuette said.

Will Heitman, a 9-year-old student at Bernard Terrace Elementary, discovered at the event he was 490 billion nanometers tall. His favorite demonstration was of the liquid crystals, which respond to temperature change by changing color.

Heitman said he attended the event because he loves science. He is especially interested in robotics and wants to be a roboticist when he is older.

Christopher Kersey, manager of the observatory, said it’s important children be introduced to physical science as soon as possible. He said the events of the day were geared toward children, but adults learned as well.

“Adults are interested because these kinds of things weren’t around when they were in school,” he said.

original here.

Testing, Testing ... 1, 2, 3?

Up here in the great white north, the math & English tests are given in Nov of junior year and the scores are returned to us by march - maybe. We (and many other schools in this state) are on a block schedule so any student who has English or math during first semester is done by the time scores are returned. For the 40% of the students who had English and/or math in the fall semester of sophomore year then not again until spring of junior year, there is a gap of nearly a year between their most recent relevant class and the tests that measure "the students" - go figure the intelligence of that idea.

The science tests are given in May of the junior year and the scores returned to us in the fall of the senior year. Not very helpful either.

The upshot is that the scores cannot be used to measure the students, only the school and the teachers. Likewise, we cannot use the scores to help the students who earned them by giving them remedial classes or somehow making guidance decisions based on the results. Only the curriculum and the teachers can be affected.

Of course, the idea of basing anything on a test that so few take seriously is pretty silly, too. Why should they care, after all? No one gets to see these scores and nothing goes on a transcript.

It's obvious that neither the students' benefit nor their measurement is what is at stake here. This is, purely and simply, an anti-public school, pro-voucher, let's-find-something-to-hang-the-teachers-with idea.

An interesting, though only partially related, opinion in the mid-Vermont newspaper the other day. Full text below the jump of an English teacher's take on some of these issues. One of the hot-button topics up here is the consolidation of districts. We have one or two towns per district - making them all pretty small. The Commish wants to consolidate to save money but there isn't any real chance of saving money this way.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Professional Development Hell

I had to do some PD the other day and was once again stunned at the limited knowledge of so many math teachers. TI-inspire had some terrible little app running that didn't really work properly but was purportedly able to help students correct their misunderstanding of some simple math ideas. One of these: what happens to area when you double the radius? Take a 7 inch circle and drag the radius out to 14 inches and see what happens to the area.

"I don't get it. What's that mean -- area = 1.66E+2 inch² - what's the E thing?"

I guess we know why so many students have misunderstandings about math.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fallacy of Relevance - Ad misericondium

When arguing a point, attempting to get out of a traffic ticket or scraping together a passing grade, an appeal to pity can sometimes be effective. Other times you just look stupid.

Case in point, a Yemeni man is held in Guantanamo Bay and the Obama administration won't release him. He might have had a chance but the Christmas day bomber-moron tried to remove himself from the gene pool and take others with him.
"So a Nigerian man tries to set off a bomb on an American plane, and they punish my brother for this?" says Hila's sister, who did want to be identified.
An excellent point, even if she does forget to mention that the Nigerian trained in Yemen. (BTW, the 'I don't want to be identified' part is pretty funny if they mention she's his sister - sign of things to come?) Now the appeal to pity:
"His mother died, his father died, his two sons died, and now his uncle has died," Hila's sister says. "Do they want us to all be dead before they bring him back home again?"
It's a fallacy of relevance because the death of the relatives has nothing to do with the reasons for jail. Still, it can be effective unless you take this fallacy so far. Too much detail tends to ruin the weepy feeling and harden the listener. "Crash!" goes your argument:
"She says the family has endured enough trouble already. Last year, Hila's two young sons died when a grenade they were playing with exploded."
If your two young kids played with a live hand grenade and killed themselves, you're a terrorist. Dude, your unidentified sister is making this too easy.