Sunday, February 9, 2014

Loss of Net Neutrality leads to Extortion.

I control your access.
Let's say that I run an internet service; we'll make up a name for it ... Infinity. You and your students design this really cool bit of software that allows any kid to practice their driving skills using a nearly perfect simulation. You include weather and road condition variables, radio stations and other distractions that need to be managed, random people walking in crosswalks. In short, you make this cool game.

Or you're Netflix. Or Amazon. Or a Hospital software company.

I purposely slow down the data from your servers going to anyone on my network, making it look bad, with jumpy video and poor response times. I program my servers so that data from my customers going back to your server is misdirected or slowed down as well. In fact, I slow it down so much that your software never catches on and your VC funding goes away.

Why would I do that?
Pay for the Fast Lane even though
I'm the one that dug
the potholes in the road.
  • It takes a lot of data and I don't like that.
  • I don't like that you are using my network and pumping tons of data across it and I don't get a cut of the income you're pulling in. Pay me 10% and I'll let it go unobstructed.
  • I just don't feel like going to the effort of upgrading my network.
  • A group making similar software is paying me and you're not. It's just capitalism, baby.
  • Maybe I just don't like you because you're Indian, or a woman.
  • Maybe you look like a sucker from whom I can extort money.
  • Maybe I'm going to take your idea and make it myself - I slow you down but not my affiliate.
We'll also charge our own customers in the same way, "Pay extra for higher speed Internet" even though we deliberately caused the slowdowns to give them an "incentive" to pay us more. Our customers don't have a choice, anyway; it's not like there's an alternative to cable for them.

Capitalism, baby.

Understand, you'll have to pay protection money to every internet service provider in the country, negotiate separate deals with each one, ... but I don't care. If you pay me, then my customers will like me more because this game runs better on my servers, I get more subscribers ... Capitalism, baby.

That's what Net Neutrality denies and forbids:  Internet Protection Rackets. Digital Extortion.

I'd call it organized crime, but the mob at least protects you from more than just their own enforcers. Sure, they'll break your front window if you don't pay them but they'll also keep other gangs from damaging your place.

INFINITY Internet services, on the other hand, can't even do that much. We are going to charge you extra so that your driving simulator doesn't get "damaged" by INFINITY's own deliberate slowdowns. We make no guarantees about preventing malware attacks or damage from other gangs.

We're making money by the truckload. You've already paid us plenty. We just figured out this way to get you to pay more.

Capitalism, baby. Screw you.

Ever wonder why Americans pay up to ten times as much as citizens of other countries, yet get service that's only one-twelfth as fast?

Capitalism, baby. Screw you.

That's why we need Net Neutrality.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We Must Be More Intelligent About Differentiated Instruction

There appears to be a rigidity of thought regarding sticking with "differentiated instruction" without any mention of what might happen if the difference in skills within a classroom turns out to be too great. I am speaking here for mathematics instruction, knowing that instruction in other disciplines may be capable of bridging a greater disparity, but we must acknowledge that there can be a breaking point where all the "professional development" in the world cannot yield appropriate instruction for all students.

Here's an example:

Let's say 24 faculty from my school enroll in a computer technology course, perhaps "How to Use a SmartBoard." Roughly half of the teachers are new to tech, and half are used to various technologies and use them frequently.

The high-use teachers have installed and learned to use software, are proficient with Office suite tools and are comfortable with running a piece of software and diving into it to learn how to use it. The low-use teachers are still working with Word without 95% of its features and have a very low comfort-level with being pitched into a new software without explicit instruction.

We all take the same course, in the same room, with one teacher. The topic of the course is a software package that behaves remarkably like PowerPoint.

I'm comfortable with PPT so I need someone to say "It's like PPT in the following ways, now let's do something you don't know, something for which SMB is different from PPT."  If the teacher attempts to do that, half of the class is still trying to get the software working and they have no idea about much of what I'm asking and get understandably snippy when I try to get clarification on some point that I'm curious about.

I don't need to sit and listen to someone explain how you can use the right-click "copy" or you can use ctrl-c, or if you're using a Mac it's option-c and that key over down there is the option key ... no, you have to hold it down while you press the c key, or you can highlight, drag and drop text into it, but the software will put a link to an image instead if you try. Here, let me help you ... oh, that's not the software we're learning, that's your browser and you can't do that to the browser, but you can from the browser, ... let me help you get the software running.  Wait, it's not installed on this computer ...." and we've been here for thirty minutes. (True story)

My half of the group doesn't need to have her tell us about "Adding a picture to the page", "Saving a file", "Layering objects", "Grouping objects", or any of the other things that I already know how to do. I need to have the differences and new things demonstrated. The others half gets nothing while I'm interacting with the teacher and my half gets nothing when they are interacting with the teacher.

What's wrong? Take what are widely accepted principles of educating students
  • working from the simple to the complex, 
  • working from the known to the unknown, 
  • and starting each lesson near each student's current level of achievement. 
The idea of individual "readiness" makes for a good summary of these principles, an appropriate "chunk".
  • If one-half of the room is "ready" for what you want to do and the other half is not, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap. 
  • If the "simple" start for one group is too complex for the other, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap.
  • If "what is known" is too different, differentiation is futile. Those who start out ahead are held back and those who start behind are constantly trying to keep up, repeatedly reminded that "Masahiro and his friends" are the smart ones and that there is no point to trying to learn; one can only cling by the fingertips and hope for partial credit.
What results is two classes, held separately but simultaneously, both called "algebra", and neither one doing as much as it should or pushing students as far as they can and should go. That's why math courses should be split into groups whenever numbers and the ability of the scheduler allow.
The weaker math students need and deserve
  • more teaching of background knowledge 
  • more practice with each concept to develop to automaticity
  • more time to develop their understanding, 
  • more time to consider things without interruption, 
  • simpler examples that have an easier entry point
  • and RealWorld applications ... their RealWorld
The stronger math students need and deserve
  • less teaching of background knowledge because they are already at automaticity
  • all of the same concepts but fewer practice to reach understanding
  • teaching of extension topics, the understanding of which is so important in later courses that weaker students will never reach in high school or may never reach at all
  • new ideas and challenges, and complex tasks that lead into STEM careers.
A weak student surrounded by kids who all seem to pick things up quickly soon realizes that he is ALWAYS the slowest kid in class.  Every single day, every single question, someone else has the answer first and more clearly ... our kid focuses on THAT fact instead of the question.

He always has that bad feeling, as expressed to me by a student just after an honors assembly in which a large part of the school stood up for something ... "Here are all the smart kids in school ... and none of them are you."

A weak student surrounded by other similarly weak students soon realizes that he can learn things, can be successful, and can feel good about himself ... because he isn't constantly being reminded of how stupid he is. Everyone around him has a problem with this new idea. Everyone in the room has trouble with fractions, or scientific notation, or reading the text book, or, or, or.
Curriculum should be adjusted to the ability levels of the students. Classes should be comprised of students with similar ability and who are similarly "ready".

If you have a small school with one section of 25 algebra 1 students, you're out of luck. Your options are constrained by the reality of your school. If, on the other hand, you have 5 sections of algebra 1 and two teachers who teach it, why not group them by ability? The assumption behind ability grouping is that the curriculum should be adjusted to the ability levels of the students - why not adjust it for the whole classroom at a time?

Schools that propose an "Embedded Honors Credit" are taking the lazy way out. Offering "Honors" to a kid who does one extra project or who builds a model of the LHC is not offering that kid any extra learning, just requiring more work.That kid still has to sit through class and plow through something "extra" ... and will probably be done with that, too, before the other kids in the room are finished with theirs.

Offering "Honors" to a kid who completes a section of Khan Academy is likewise offering little new.

Additionally, consider that students who pass Geometry are considering vastly different options for furthering their math education:
  • tech center: mechanic, forestry, videography, or hospitality services
  • algebra 2, but that's it ... wants to major something without much math
  • pre-calculus, then to a non-math oriented STEM
  • or calculus, and then to a math-oriented STEM.
Those are different kids, with different needs. Even though they're all in Geometry, they're not in the same course.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Americans Aren't Engaged in their Work

On average, some 100 million Americans were employed full-time in 2010-2012 — and 70 million of them either hated their jobs or were simply "checked out," according to a recent Gallup survey of America's workforce.
And edujokers get pissy that all students need to be engaged in their schoolwork ... my answer to all that is "Yeah, Right. They're just as human as everyone else."

The first big problem is that too many students are encouraged to "think outside the box" before they know what's in the box and use their "high-tech tools and knowledge" before they can use low-tech ones, while teachers are ordered to "keep them engaged and make it interesting."

If you really want to "engage" the students, the first thing you need to do is stop trying.

And. Just. Teach. Math.
  1. Teach the basics first.
  2. Build / scaffold from there.
  3. Show the RealWorld problem after the students understand the abridged version. 
  4. Don't fall prey to pseudo-context.
Disengagement is sometimes a lack of confidence, sometimes a bad problem statement, sometimes a emotional one caused by typical teen angst and love, and sometimes the kid just doesn't like you.

I think of a problem as a wall, with the solution being to get to the other side. There are lots of ways to get to the other side and there's lots of "other side" to get to ... it's not one specific place. The "other side" includes the spot within arm's-length but it also has that spot way over there across the next hill. Some kids will accomplish one, others will go further.

If the problem isn't very difficult, the wall isn't very tall. If they need an inspiration, a specific skill, or a bit of knowledge first, then that's a step in the stile. I think teaching is a lot about giving them those steps in the stile.

If you can't get over the wall and you don't seem to have a stile that will help, most students quit. If they think they can get somewhere by trying this approach and that one, they'll continue BUT NOT if those steps don't seem to be getting anything accomplished. That's one place where disengagement happens.

Not even math teachers can stand this one.
If you as teachers fall prey to the pseudo-context, your problems have a pretty picture but the math is so far away from reality that no one could ever possibly care whether or not there's an answer.

You might have a question such as this one at right (loading ramp) that counters any knowledge the student may already have, such as the actual height of loading ramps in this country, or the fact that the slopes of such ramps would be equal regardless of which side you picked. And there are probably some restrictions on that slope for safety reasons.

Although solving for x is a matter of multiplication and then factoring, there's no particular reason for this. It would be better for all involved if this problem were simply stated as algebra, with no picture or "context", just "Solve for x".  There's the second place that disengagement occurs.

PseudoContext is an infection. It festers in the minds of the students. "Why? That's so stupid. Who would ever DO that?" If not excised, it turns gangrenous and can taint everything around it with its stink.

What to do in math class?

Let them feel the accomplishment of mastering the basics first. Small quizzes of 15-20 points that can be retaken until the student is satisfied. Problems are the same each iteration, but the numbers vary.

Continue with the more complicated problems. There will be fewer questions here, with more steps apiece.

Finish with the Real World ... if the RW is appropriate ....  and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, the next chapter IS the "RealWorld Use".

Some Thoughts for the Real World Problem:
  1. If you can't find that Real World question, please don't fake it and put in pseudo-context. Pseudo-context makes everything you've tried to accomplish into "I'm Never Gonna Use this Bullshit and You Can't Convince Me Otherwise."
  2. Be sure they can solve it before you give it, and that you've taught the necessary preliminaries.
  3. Know what answer you'll accept, but be ready for another.
  4. Guide, nudge, and hint broadly. Let them Google.
  5. Don't get specific and don't answer the "I wanna be lazy so tell me the answer?" question.
  6. Don't force collaboration. 
  7. Don't allow Copy-laboration.
  8. Be ready to use the entire period for one question. Tell your AP to go pound sand for a while if he objects to the time spent.
  9. Shut up and let them work.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Teachers deserve a pay cut?

Budget votes are coming.

'Tis the season for letting people go (RIF - Reduction in Force) and for the general public to vote on the school budget and to elect someone to the open slot on the school board. The community is very close to the process here in the Great Northeast, but this direct involvement doesn't mean our citizens are any more well-informed than yours are.

The local real estate group is bitching about how incredibly expensive taxes are up here, and how the costs of schools are skyrocketing. "We should fund schools by income taxes instead of property taxes; and then we should cut taxes!"

Before you nod your head like a bobblehead doll, consider that Vermont has no industry to speak of in these little towns. The only money available to pay for schools is in land. The wealthy second and third home owners would LOVE this change ... because they have no income in Vermont. Boom, there goes 30% of the tax base.

The leaders in Montpelier have little to offer this whole debate except complaints that people are voting in budget increases they're not responsible for, which is kind of silly, since voters make enough noise you have to accept that they know exactly who's paying for it. They do have a proposal, which I'll include in its entirety:
The mayors want the state to create an education cost reduction commission that would have the administrative authority to seek consolidation of schools and districts, Hollar said. Any savings could be reinvested in pre-k education.
So that's not solving much. I find it interesting that they'd like to combine districts and schools ... forgetting that doing so is already in the plans where it's feasible, but that's not very many places. In Vermont, it's just too difficult to close a lot of these small schools. The town of Plymouth, for example, continued operating its school for several years even though it had fewer than a dozen students.

This is not teaching.
You can't replace teachers with technology.
There are, of course, options. Maybe we could close the schools and switch entirely to online education. Judging by what I've seen on these Internets, English grammar and writing ability is not necessary for adults. Nor, apparently, are research skills or mathematics.

Okay, seriously. The big deal du jour is that the teachers are asking for a contract. Again, before you go and decide that this is a big deal, consider:

  • How many of you are willing to work without one? Didn't think so.
  • Yes, it's a multi-year contract, but we sign on the dotted line every year. From the teacher's perspective, it's a one-year contract, renewed each year. From the school's perspective, it's a known quantity that allows for intelligent budget decisions.
  • Teachers want a long-term contract so they don't have to deal with the negotiations mess again for a while. That only means that everyone will know what's what. They already agree on the terms and percents - this is about the paperwork that goes with it. How stupid is that?
  • Teachers asked for a raise. So? Everyone wants a raise and most people are getting one because the CPI is steadily increasing at 2.5%. 

So, about that money

Why should teachers meekly take a paycut, anyway? Do you renegotiate your wages up or down every year based on the whims of a petulant population? If a company in any other business is losing money this year, all salaries aren't cut ... that would be suicide.  All of the people would leave.

If the company is going down the tubes, sometimes everyone accepts a cut or sometimes the company closes.

Big, Bad Unions

Unions are supposed to look out for their members. This one is doing what it can. You might not like it, but that's too bad.

The flip side:
  • The teachers are NOT allowed to negotiate on an individual basis: The great ones can't get a signing bonus and the math or computer wizard you desperately need can't be lured in with cash or benefits or anything. 
  • That engineering major science teacher gets the same deal as the education major teaching history or the PE teacher -- and the salary schedule is set for the education major, not the engineering degree. 
  • The state requires that teachers join the union ($550/year) or pay the agency fee ($450) if they don't.  That's the law. Doesn't make sense, does it? That's the way it works in this state. 
  • Can't work without a license, either. Can't get one without jumping through the hoops. That's not the NEA, that's the State.

Limited mobility

So why not quit and work elsewhere if you're unhappy with your contract? You can't. The state has rules about that, too. You lose your license if you quit after you've signed your contract for the year.

On top of that, unlike all other jobs, this one has a very limited hiring season. Miss it and your chances of being hired drop to almost nil.  You are basically praying that someone else left their job first.

Joining a school after it begins is likewise very difficult for all involved - it's almost better to continue for 7 months with a loser than try to change mid-year.

As a result, teachers tend to stay - fortunately, because those who stay maintain the school, its traditions and its culture.


If teachers leave anyway, are there any qualified candidates for teachers showing up when the jobs are advertised? Not really. When you advertise, you get literally hundreds of people clicking on the "submit" button. Of that, maybe ten are minimally qualified and of those, you hope the one you like will take the job.

We aren't doing anything special, so we're not "heroes" or any of that rot. We don't need accolades, but it'd be nice to acknowledge us. We're not going to grovel at the feet of the local paper's forums and I won't give thanks for every paycheck because I earned it dealing with a difficult job that very few people are able to do, fewer are willing to do and fewer still understand.

Once Again, Jay Matthews

A TFA teacher asks for lesson plans and guidance on how to run a classroom. "How are they supposed to know what works when they have so little experience? Couldn’t the experts get together and give us the best possible guide?"
An excellent question. Education theory runs rampant with this idea that experience taking classes is equivalent to experience teaching them.

So why not tell the new teacher what to do? The answer is, of course, that the new teacher's creativity might be stifled.
"He learned that many teachers, and the organizations that represent them, don’t want ready-made lesson plans. They feel it limits their creativity and turns them into robots doing whatever their department head or the district curriculum chief wants."
AnyQs? Not sucky.
I personally think this is utter crap. Robots? Hardly. When you don't tell people anything and barely train them, you get wishy-washy or useless garbage or dull and dreary. You get barely remembered tactics ("Don't smile before Christmas.") or silly uber-liberal dreck that doesn't work.  You get KIPP drill teams and 10-hours days.  You get "Learning Styles" and Small School Initiatives. You get cooperative learning that never results in learning and assessments that never measure anything. You get "fresh, new ideas" that upend a US History II course to the point that it only covers 1870-1960 for the course. "But they made a wiki" is not an answer.

Normal teacher prep programs give a lot of instruction on how to run a classroom, set up things, deal with students. Despite the fact that I think they're focused on the wrong things, at least they try. There's the six-month student-teaching with an experienced teacher to help sort many of those things out. It's not great but it's better than TFA's 6 weeks in the summer.

You need to help out the new teachers, give them materials and ideas, and essentially walk them through the course.  You can't just HOPE they can come up with good stuff.

A commenter on a previous post said "Questions that fascinate and practice that doesn't suck? You sound like the typical math reformer who holds procedures in disdain, and wants kids to understand what math is REALLY about. How about starting beginning piano students with the Moonlight Sonata?"

When you don't read carefully, you can make the same mistake that "J.D. Salinder" made.(Other than being too clever choosing his "name".)

I believe in practice that doesn't suck ... but I still believe in practice. Drill is useful and valuable, in soccer, music, math, art, handwriting and pretty much any field. Mindless repetition is just that, but practice to the point of correct automaticity is priceless.

Learning is not practice, but practice helps learning. Learning can't begin with Moonlight Sonata because the Moonlight Sonata isn't happening without learning which keys are which, i.e. scales, and learning rhythm and timing, and learning to read music.

You can't start by dropping the TFAer into the deep end of the pool with no training -- sure, some people learned to swim that way, but others simply drowned and their students got crap.

Questions that fascinate are an equally important resource. If they fascinated students last year and the year before, they will probably do so again. They may be pure, raw math and still fascinate. Those UVM problems are not ones that I created, but it sure would have been nice if I had had them early in my career.

I've hated psuedo-context since high-school and so my math classes had tremendous amounts of chemistry and physics in them (I'm a mechanical engineer), but again needed someone like Dan Meyer to clarify and put it into words. Dan Willingham studies and teaches neuro-science. Listening to him has meant that I now have a better sense of why I hated learning styles.

Now we get to the paragraph that got me started. Jay Matthews (right there, you know this isn't going to end well) says in this article,"If you are like me, and preferred learning your job by doing it rather than being told what do to, you wonder why Friedrich didn’t appreciate the freedom of making his own choices."

Why? Why shouldn't the teacher "learn on the job" like the education writer for the Washington Post did? Because the Post won't go bankrupt or fail if Jay writes a crappy column or if he espouses wrong-headed reform or if he promotes KIPP to the exclusion of systems that would actually work for all public school students. Rather, the Post probably loves Jay for his idiocy. It brings more comment, more notoriety, and more readers.

"Maybe Bruce Friedrich raised the lesson plan issue because he was so out of sync with the recent college graduates who were the other Teach for America instructors at his Baltimore high school. He was 40." Maybe, he raised the issue because his preparation was lousy but unlike the other TFAs, he realized it. This, for me, is the true indictment of the program.  TFA preparation is considered perfect unless you've got maturity and knowledge. It's just that the rest of them don't realize how bad it sucks to learn on the job without real help.

Why shouldn't I learn to be a teacher on the job?

Because they're not my kids. This is their only chance of getting high school right.

Forget that at your students peril.