Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Giant Pool of Data

I downloaded a podcast of This American Life which is
a.) cool
and then listened to it as I ran my daily jog which is
b.) double cool.
Don't know why it took me so long to glom on to this.
The first episode I received is titled The Giant Pool of Money, explaining the economic meltdown once again. Much of it I'd heard in general outlines: Money changers want money, little guy is played for willing patsy. Whole mess fails. Little guy holds the bag.
Yadda, yadda.
But this time Ira goes into more detail and starts explaining how the whole industry fooled itself by its heavy reliance on data. Data that kept saying everything is 'cool.' We can keep handing out mortgages to people without assets, or even a visible income, and it won't really hurt the investor's bottom line too much. Data which defied common sense.
The education community always lags behind the business community and now this love affair with data has invaded every level of our school systems.
Call me old fashioned, but when it comes to humans, I much prefer narrative over numbers.
The tests say: "are kids is learning" -- but at what cost?
When I invest my energies into making sure my students pass a multiple choice reading test, and they pass it, but I know they will have a hard time reading important documents like credit card agreements or a lease on an apartment have I done my job?
Data says yes! Gut says no.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michelle Rhee

The Washington Post Magazine launched a new look this week and chose Michelle Rhee as the cover story for their unveiling. She probably agreed to an interview with WP to repair her own look after the disastrous Time magazine cover featuring a stern looking Rhee wielding a broom.
After years of teaching The Crucible, I have a knee-jerk reaction to images of women with brooms... Ouch. Not good.
I took particular offense to the many witchy images of Hilary Clinton during her recent campaign, but after reading Rhee's mimicry of classroom teachers, making them sound like whiny complainers, I was inclined to see Rhee's portrait in the worst way.
She comes off a little better in this article.
Of course, she has a monumental job. It's clear that the white and middle class have abandoned the public schools of DC. Resurrecting schools that primarily serve impoverished children reveals the true extent of the charitable, dare I say Christian, inclinations of this nation.
You have to give Rhee props for trying. Too bad she chose to first lay all the blame for failure at the feet of the teachers, rather than including a public that continues to dole out a Darwinian justice.
Warren Buffet is quoted in the article. The captain of industry maintains that the only hope of reforming public schools lies in outlawing private schools.
Now there's a man who know the true root of the problem.
Money talks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What does testing test?

In the junior and senior year of high school we are awash in testing. The juniors take the whole alphabet soup: PSAT, SAT, ACT, SOL, AP etc. etc. But what is being tested? In the Washington Post last week, the Answer Sheet explored that question in regards to SAT testing. It's a pretty interesting conversation with an employee of Princeton Review, Edward Carroll, who sits for the tests regularly so he can better design the tutoring sessions.
I've always been interested in this one: what exactly do we know our students know when we are done with the testing? He says, what I've thought, "If you're brilliant but slow, you'll only get an average score." Every year I have several students who fit this description. And yet, all of the important college level testing situations come with a time limit.
Here's what I wonder: Do we want fast thinkers?
In terms of innovation, I don't think we do. Who is going to come up with the truly new ideas if we continue to reward speed?
In terms of EMT's, physicians, soldiers, police officers, we need fast thinkers. Or at least we need our technicians - who work within a finite information system - to respond quickly and efficiently.
The Answer Sheet does a great service in educating the public about the limits of the tests our students take. If parents want a real picture of their students' academic abilities they should consult with their teachers.
My daughter's kindergarten teacher was a highly experienced woman whose opinion came with far more weight than the standardized test she shared with me. She counseled me once to ignore my daughter's tests results, because she had observed her in the classroom and knew how she had thought herself beyond the limits of the readiness test. Now that was a well-rounded evaluation I could value.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Blogging Hiatus

I'll admit it. I've been ignoring my blog. I have failed in my self-imposed assignment to write at least once a week. I give myself a 'F.'
Here's why I've avoided the weekly summing up: It's been depressing out there in the world of political wrangling over health-care and education in the midst of a bleak economy.
In health care, I want it all: public options. For personal reasons as well as professional.
I want my son, a new father who works hard every day, to be able to have the peace of mind that health care brings. He's a breadwinner who has NO safety net. AND he works in a physically threatening job: landscaping.
I want my under served students to be able to eat and stay healthy. Their families should not have to choose between good health and food on the table or a roof over their heads. Those are pretty basic needs that our country should be able to offer. Many of the families I serve live under the stress of that threat daily.
In education, I want REAL reform. Not a new test, but a whole new way of looking at the work of teachers.
Following the political debating from day-to-day has been depressing. I needed a break.
But in the weeks of watching the arguing, I have found a parallel in the health-care/education realms.
It's all about the love.
I listened to doctors explaining how the corporate world of health-care for profit has changed the landscape of their daily work, and it reminded me of teacher complaints. We are in the same business: making people's lives better. How can wall street profit from that?
And yet, in both education and health care, other interests are making demands on our time. Doctors' work is translated into less time spent with patients (dictated by the cost formulas of insurance companies).
Teacher work is carved up into testing graphs, CFA's, curriculum maps, all to serve outside bean counters. Time is continually robbed from students by shifting teacher attention to work outside the classroom.
One doctor, at the end of a 45-minute documentary I saw about changing the focus of the entire medical profession back to the patient, expressed it as love.
In essence he said, "What we are really offering is love, not a product. When one person gives of himself to help another that is the basis of love. That is what healthcare is all about."
That is what teaching is too.
I had that notion confirmed today in this Washington Post review by teacher Nancy Schnog of Bel Kaufman's 1964 book Up the Down Staircase. I never read the book but I will have to get my hands on a copy. Bel, who Schnog had the opportunity to meet this summer, still says that all of teaching happens in the human connections.
The rest is just window dressing.