Friday, December 09, 2005

Someone's been talking to W, but was it God?

From the Onion:

WASHINGTON, DC—Telephone logs recorded by the National Security Agency and obtained by Congress as part of an ongoing investigation suggest that the vice president may have used the Oval Office intercom system to address President Bush at crucial moments, giving categorical directives in a voice the president believed to be that of God.

Enlarge ImageVoice Of God Revealed To Be Cheney On Intercom

President Bush sits at his desk in the Oval Office, where he received messages from an intercom voice identifying itself as "God" and thought to have been Vice President Cheney (below).

While journalists and presidential historians had long noted Bush's deep faith and Cheney's powerful influence in the White House, few had drawn a direct correlation between the two until Tuesday, when transcripts of meetings that took place in March and April of 2002 became available.

In a transcript of an intercom exchange recorded in March 2002, a voice positively identified as the vice president's identifies himself as "the Lord thy God" and promotes the invasion of Iraq, as well as the use of torture in prisoner interrogations.

A close examination of Bush's public statements and Secret Service time logs tracking the vice president reveals a consistent pattern, one which links Bush's belief that he had received word from God with Cheney's use of the White House's telephone-based intercom system.

Gotta love the Onion. (Hat tip to Dan Froomkin of the Wash. Post.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Gimmicky solutions are no solutions at all

My dad pointed out this beautiful column by Newsweek's Anna Quindlen. She argues that, get this, teachers aren't paid enough.

While the idea is not unusual, the eloquence employed in its defense is:

In recent years teacher salaries have grown, if they've grown at all, at a far slower rate than those of other professionals, often lagging behind inflation. Yet teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students. I am a writer because of the encouragement of teachers. Surely most Americans must feel the same, that there were women and men who helped them levitate just a little above the commonplace expectations they had for themselves.

At the end of his book ["Teacher Man"; Frank] McCourt, who is preparing to leave teaching with the idea of living off his pension and maybe writing—and whose maiden effort, "Angela's Ashes," will win the Pulitzer—is giving advice to a young substitute. "You'll never know what you've done to, or for, the hundreds coming and going," he says. Yeah, but the hundreds know, the hundreds who are millions who are us. They made us. We owe them.

Amen. And it's not enough, Quindlen writes, to do what is presently fashionable and propose some modest, limited "merit pay" plan:

Unfortunately, the current fashionable fixes for education take a page directly from the business playbook, and it's a terrible fit. Instead of simply acknowledging that starting salaries are woefully low and committing to increasing them and finding the money for reasonable recurring raises, pols have wasted decades obsessing about something called merit pay. It's a concept that works fine if you're making widgets, but kids aren't widgets, and good teaching isn't an assembly line.

McCourt's book is instructive. Early in his 30-year career, he's teaching at a vocational high school and realizes that his English students are never more inspired than when forging excuse notes from their parents. So McCourt assigns the class to write excuse notes, the results ranging "from a family epidemic of diarrhea to a sixteen-wheeler truck crashing into the house." Pens fly with extravagant lies. You can almost feel the imaginations kick in.

The point about tying teaching salaries to widget standards is that it's hard to figure out a useful way to measure the merit of what a really good teacher does. You can imagine the principal who would see McCourt's gambit as the work of a gifted teacher, and just as easily imagine the one who would find it unseemly. Tying raises to pass rates is a flagrant invitation to inflate student achievement. Tying them to standardized tests makes rote regurgitation the centerpiece of schools. Both are blind to the merit of teachers who shoulder the challenging work of educating those less able, more troubled, from homes where there are no pencils, no books, even no parents. A teacher whose Advanced Placement class sends everyone on to top-tier colleges; a teacher whose remedial-reading class finally gets through to some, but not all, of a student group that is failing. There is merit in both.

Indeed there is. This column is a keeper-- one to come back to when making arguments for increased teacher pay and against short-sighted, quick-fix, widget-centered solutions.

Teachers need a better salary; spare the gimmicks.

Universal Pre-K

Too many kids -- especially poor and middle-class kids -- have very little stimulation when they're three or four years old. Their minds are absorbing everything around them; problem is, all too often there isn't much around them.

The LA Times ran an Op-Ed today from Professor David L. Kirp today that cites a new study from the National Institute for Early Education Research:

The research examined the effect of a good preschool experience on the academic skills of children entering kindergarten in five states representing a cross section of the country. Its findings are eye-opening.

On vocabulary tests, children who attended state-supported preschools scored 31% higher than a similar group of youngsters who didn't participate — the equivalent of three months of learning. On tests of early math skills, the state preschoolers outscored their peers by 41%. A recent study of state pre-kindergarten classes in Tulsa, Okla., showed essentially the same result.

Kirp also cites research from a longitudinal study of a preschool program in Michigan:

The landmark study of Perry Preschool tracked a group of poor African American youngsters from when they attended pre-kindergarten in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s until they were well into middle age.

The findings are astonishing: a $17 return to the individual and society for every dollar spent on their early education. Those who went to Perry were considerably more likely than children who didn't attend preschool to have graduated from high school and married, significantly less likely to have gone to prison multiple times and to have been on welfare. They're earning an average of $20,800 a year. That's 25% more than similar children who lacked the preschool experience — enough of a difference to lift them above the poverty line.

Given the hundreds of billions spent on education every year, the few billion it would cost to give Pre-K to every child in America hardly seems like a lot. And the return would be astounding.

Universal Pre-K is the single most affordable, practical, and smart policy that could be enacted to improve education in America today.

Something's got to give (or the budget blues)

The Heritage Foundation released its latest budget analysis last week (executive summary here; hat tip to the Dish). According to the conservative think tank, federal spending under Republican leadership has gotten out of hand. (Surprise, surprise-- where were these guys four years ago?) And of course, tax breaks for America's beleaguered billionaires didn't help the situation.

If you rely on government spending for anything at all -- and if you think you don't, you're wrong -- you had better brace for bad times. Something's got to give.

One curious quote from the analysis:

The 2006–2050 budget picture is even more dis­mal. Because of the cost of fully funding Social Secu­rity, Medicare, and Medicaid, leading long-term budget projections have calculated that federal spending will increase from the current 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to a peacetime high of nearly 33 percent of GDP by 2050.[1]

Peacetime high? What's to suggest that we'll be in peacetime in 2050? Given recent speeches by prominent Republicans (and some prominent Democrats for that matter) it sounds like we've reached a century of Orwellian permanent war. Forget federal spending on education, national parks, highway infrastructure, or health care. We won't get it if things continue. War is expensive. Permanent war is crippling, both to soldiers and to our long-term national economic health.

All of this impacts education directly because as the deficit rises and as the costs of foreign wars continue to escalate, our schools will lose out. If that happens -- that is, if this country doesn't change leadership at the ballot box soon -- the knowledge and skills of our citizenry will decline and as our citizens go, so goes our country.

Court Watch

The Supremes ruled that a part of Social Security checks -- 15% -- can be withheld to pay student loans.

They also heard arguments about a case that has received a lot of ink lately. They will have to decide if law schools that have anti-discrimination policies for employment recruiters must let military recruiters in to their job fairs. The feds claim they can withhold funding if they do not. All sorts of issues are tied up in this -- free speech, gay rights, privacy, disrimination in the military -- so it should be especially interesting to follow.

Preliminary analyses based on lines of questioning point to a decision in favor of the military.

Measuring progress

Jenny D wanted someone to explain the controversy about growth models. It seems she thinks that measuring progress in schools and districts makes more sense than establishing a benchmark that all schools must meet no matter where they started. How crazy!

Just kidding. In fact, it's the only approach that makes sense. I've advocated it for a long time. Recently, the Spellings Education Department apparently came to its senses and announced that the growth model will be used in 10 states to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Jenny D points out some research that shows that measuring improvement works quite well. Go to her post for more info.

New Advocate is up

Joe at Shut Up and Teach posted the newest Advocate Weekly. As always, informative stuff and excellent highlights from some of my favorite blogs. Thanks for keeping up the good work, Joe.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Lord hates idiots

A professor who planned to teach that -- gasp! -- creationism is wrong received a fairly un-Christian rebuke yesterday.

To the attackers: I'm fairly certain the Almighty hates your guts as much as the rest of the country does. Morons.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is the iron in our food a metal?

The Washington Post highlights a really cool service from something called the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It's a website called Ask a Scientist. Students can submit science questions to scientists and researchers and get a reply. Very cool.

(By the way, the question in the title of this post is one that was submitted to the site. They're working on the answer.)

Virtually worthless

Think virtual schools are a good idea? They may prove to be. One thing they aren't -- at least for the moment -- is profitable. I think it's a highly questionable proposition that they will ever be profitable, but for now, they're nowhere close. From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

With a contract to open the first statewide virtual high school before them, the mood of the members of the Waukesha School Board at their January 2004 monthly meeting was effusive.

A cost simulation showed that the school - called iQ Academies at Wisconsin - could start generating as much as $1 million for the school district by the 2006-'07 school year.

School Board members gushed.

"Pretty sweet," board member Daniel Warren said about the numbers.

A little more than a year into the iQ's operation, however, the school has yet to come close to matching the board's high hopes.

Expected to run $1.2 million in the red by next summer, the school faces possible closure unless administrators show they can stop the financial bleeding.

"There are not a lot of options," Warren said in a recent interview. "One option is to not proceed in the third year, to shut the program down because it's not working financially for us."

What has happened with the Waukesha school caught not only its board members but other school officials in the state off-guard.

And it raises questions about a previously uncontested notion about virtual schools - that they save money.

"I think the assumption was everybody saw it as a quick way to make a dollar. And it's not," said William Harbron, superintendent of the Northern Ozaukee School District, which runs the Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

There's at least one company that still thinks virtual schools will eventually make money and is banking a lot on that theory: K12. Formerly run by Bill Bennett (till the outcry over his suggestion that aborting black babies would reduce crime rates forced the company to break ties with him), the company is still trying to turn a profit off of on-line classes:

As it has expanded to become the country's largest operator of online public schools, K12 has yet to turn a profit, said Jeff Kwitowski, the company's director of public relations.

But much of that is because the company is still developing its product, a full K-12 online curriculum with associated materials, he said.

"We're not looking to make profit off the management side," Kwitowski said. "Our product is where we're going to eventually be successful. . . . Then we're going to, I think, see our product kind of take off and sell itself as districts are saying, 'Hey, this is great stuff.' "

It better be really great stuff or K12 is in really big trouble. I think there is a market for virtual classes, but I think that market -- for now -- is very small. The K12s of the world are trying to create a market with their product rather than creating a produce for a market that already exists. That's hard to do. There is very little demonstrated need for virtual classes no matter what K12's PR people say. The numbers don't lie. Districts should absolutely hold off on developing anything more than extremely small-scale pilot projects until there is no doubt that there is a need for the product.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Voucher money stolen... oh, and they don't work even when they're not stolen

The NASB reports on theft of voucher funds in Florida and a report in Ohio that shows vouchers students scored no differently than their peers in public schools.

Can we please put this half-baked, overly simplistic, illogical, ideological, lunatic scheme to bed and focus on real substantive educational issues?

High stakes testing... in England

Seems our friends across the pond are struggling with the implications and consequences of high-stakes testing, too. The results of the national exam in England were recently published leading to near-universal condemnation of the practice from teachers.

A sample from the article on the BBC website:

The head of the General Teaching Council, Carol Adams, said: "We know from our discussions with parents and from research that many parents feel that league tables are irrelevant in helping them judge how well the school is meeting the needs of their child.

"Yet the high stakes of testing and league tables mean that it is difficult for teachers to take a rounded approach to learning."

She called for "a radical overhaul" of the current assessment regime.

The Teacher Support Network charity said 70% of primary school teachers who responded to a survey it conducted said league tables had a negative effect on their wellbeing.

Nine per cent said they had a positive impact, however, by giving them goals to work towards.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said they would stay.

Martyr teachers, by definition, don't last

Don't miss Ms. Frizzle's excellent rumination on KIPP schools and teacher-martyrs. (Via Tim at Assorted Stuff.)

Essential reading

There's new blog in the progressive edusphere (new to me, anyway). It's from the Coalition of Essential Schools, one of my favorite organizations that works for educational change. Their blog is a collaborative one called, simply, the Essential Blog. Time will tell if it lives up to its name.

(Hat tip to Practical Theory, which has also been added to my blogroll at right.)
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