Thursday, December 24, 2009

Find the Pattern, Ignore the Contraditions, Only Learn When Challenged

When experimental results appear that can't be explained, they're often discounted as being useless. The researchers might say that the experiment was designed badly, the equipment faulty, and so on.

It may indeed be the case the faults occurred, but it could also be the case when consistent information emerges, but these possibilities are rarely investigated when the data agrees with pre-existing assumptions, leading to possible biases in how data is interpreted.

. . . .

I was particularly interested to read that breakthroughs were most likely to come from group discussions:

"While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work."

Although it turns out that discussion with people from a diverse range of people is most important - having a room full of people who share assumptions and expertise tends not to lead to creative scientific insights.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let's face it, science is boring

This is why I bailed out of biology after completing the degree (okay, mostly). Fascinating to know. Stultifying to do.
It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is... well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring.

My own brief and undistinguished research career included its share of mind-numbing tasks, notably the months of data processing which revealed that a large and expensive orbiting gamma-ray telescope had fixed its eye on the exploding heart of a distant galaxy and seen... nothing. I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist's San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. "It achieved little," he confesses, "apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine." And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of "I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards," he says. "It was about that time that I decided I didn't want to be a working scientist."
However . . .
Boredom, it seems, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Scientists at the top of their game rarely become jaded, possibly because it is only the most tenacious individuals who ever succeed in research. Those with shorter attention spans - and you may pass your own judgement on the New Scientist staff mentioned earlier - are soon weeded out.

It's not all natural obsessiveness, though; there's an element of nurture too. Sulston points out that the most repetitious stuff happens only after years of working around a problem, trying to find a way in. By the time you are "strictly turning the handle", as he puts it, you may be the most skilled person at your chosen technique. Sulston ranked among the best in the world at keeping a close eye on slimy, grey microscopic worms, so using this skill became a pleasure.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ritalin Cures Next Picasso

WORCESTER, MA—Area 7-year-old Douglas Castellano's unbridled energy and creativity are no longer a problem thanks to Ritalin, doctors for the child announced Monday. "After years of failed attempts to stop Douglas' uncontrollable bouts of self-expression, we have finally found success with Ritalin," Dr. Irwin Schraeger said. "For the first time in his life, Douglas can actually sit down and not think about lots of things at once." Castellano's parents reported that the cured child no longer tries to draw on everything in sight, calming down enough to show an interest in television.

Have a Problem, Kid? Here, Take This Anti-Psychotic

New federally financed drug research reveals a stark disparity: children covered by Medicaid are given powerful antipsychotic medicines at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. And the Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.

Those findings, by a team from Rutgers and Columbia, are almost certain to add fuel to a long-running debate. Do too many children from poor families receive powerful psychiatric drugs not because they actually need them — but because it is deemed the most efficient and cost-effective way to control problems that may be handled much differently for middle-class children?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap

Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

College-educated black men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks for lives past and present

crossposted from Daily Kos

I was, perhaps appropriately, listening to a recording of the Brahms Requiem when I saw the email: Greg Kannerstein had passed away. Let me quote two paragraphs from Haverford College President Steve Emerson's ('74) email:
A mentor, student, teacher, colleague, coach and friend to thousands, Greg recently stepped down from his role as our Dean of the College after a 41-year career marked by boundless enthusiasm for Haverford. He had begun work on his new appointment as a Special Advisor to Institutional Advancement and Lecturer in General Programs when emerging health issues forced him to take a medical leave last month. His illness was diagnosed only weeks ago.

My heart aches at the thought of losing Greg. I believe it is fair to say that every Haverfordian who has passed through the College since 1968 has been touched by Greg’s spirit. Whether in his role as coach, teacher, Athletic Director, Dean of Admissions, or Dean of the College, Greg was always there for Haverford, and for everyone in the greater Haverford family.

And that got me thinking about the thanks I want to offer -

Greg and I did not overlap as students at Haverford - he was class of '63 and my original class was '67. But when I returned in the Fall of '71 he was already back as a fixture on the campus he loved, and where he would spend the rest of his life. Greg was a friend for almost 4 decades. Two others I did not know as well also passed recently, Gerald Bracey and Ted Sizer. I knew both through their writings, Jerry much better through electronic exchanges over more than a decade and the occasional phone conversation, and Ted through one long conversation several years ago in Providence when we were both there for a conference on education.

Bracey could be acerbic. He was a brilliant man, and did not tolerate fools and idiots when it came to matters of educational policy. He could totally devastate the kind of sloppy thinking that has unfortunately so shaped our educational policy in recent years. His writings over the year pointed me in the direction of research I needed to absorb. Our last exchange is when he arranged for me to get a copy of his final book, Education Hell: Rhetoric versus Reality, which may be the best single book on education policy I have read in several years. I did not get around to writing an online review before Jerry passed, but I was so impressed I bought a number of copies to give to Members of the House interested in education with my strong recommendation that they read it. As part of my thanks for his life and work, I promise I will review that book here before the end of the year.

Ted Sizer was one of the most generous spirits I have ever encountered. He was a consummate educator, usually of other educators. His book Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School laid out clearly one of the real crises in American education. That and his subsequent work led to some of the most meaningful reforms in American education: The Coalition of Essential Schools, which is largely based on his insights and work, and the Forum for Education and Democracy, of which he was a Convener, are illustrative of his positive influence.

I am thankful for men such as Greg, Jerry and Ted, who cared deeply for others, for education, and who served as mentors and inspirations for so many.

Which makes me realize how thankful I am for something else - the students with which I am blessed each and every day. The inspiration I received from Jerry and Ted would have far less meaning were I not able to live it, to pass it on to others. The model of service to others that Greg lived similarly is something I feel honor-bound to pass on by attempting myself to live it. And I am blessed because each day I enter my classroom I am presented with a multitude of opportunities through the lives of the young people before me.

I am thankful that they are willing to trust, to allow themselves to be challenged, push, provoked, and that they trust me not to abandon them, to encourage them, to comfort them when they struggle. That requires me to go outside of myself, and certainly makes me more humane, or if you prefer, allows me to begin to realize my own humanity.

There will be many other things for which I will offer thanks, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year.

Greg's death reminded me of the importance of thanking him for sharing his life with so many of us, and that I need to say the same of Jerry and Ted.

There is an ancient Buddhist saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So perhaps it was for me when I got to know Greg - who was very much a teacher, not only as a coach, but in the classes he also occasionally taught, having himself seriously studied literature at the graduate level. And certainly reading and later knowing Jerry and Ted helped shape my own teaching.

Realistically, one only teaches with the cooperation of the student. So for me, when the student appears and is willing to travel down the road of mutual exploration and learning, that is when the teaching begins. Without the students I am not a teacher.

Thanks for these lives, the three recently passed, and the 180 currently on my roles who represent present and future, and the several hundred still in our building who have previously shared the experience of learning with me.

I am truly blessed.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Creating a Democratic Learning Community

is the focus of a new book by Sam Chaltain, National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. Sam previously worked with the First Amendment Schools Project, an experience that helped shaped this book. He is also founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which is a community educators, students and citizens committed to First Amendment Freedoms, democratic schools, and the idea that students should be seen and heard (and of which I am a member).

American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community has a Foreword by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor - herself long committed to a revitalization of civic education - and is valuable both as something to read to provoke one’s thinking, and as a resource for further exploration of the topic, especially for anyone concerned about preparing our students to learn to be citizens of a democracy.

While I want to concentrate on what Chaltain himself has written, it is worth noting a brief part of the Foreword by O’Connor. She writes on pp. xvii-xviii:
Ensuring that young people acquire the skills democracy imposes on us will require a concerted effort in school districts, at statehouses, and by the federal government. The pending congressional reauthorization of NCLB and the inauguration of our forty-fourth president make this an ideal time for American Schools to arrive, and for us all to remember that the primary purpose of public schools in America has been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge, the skills, and the values needed to sustain our centuries-old experiment in liberty.
As Sam Chaltain makes clear in the pages that follow, we can’t expect our schools to become more democratic if our school leaders don’t understand how to create more equitable school environments. And we can’t expect our democracy to perform well if our students do not learn about basic concepts of government or receive meaningful opportunities to exercise their rights responsibly.
Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene [ool. Every generation has to learn it, and we all learn best by doing.

In his own introduction, Chaltain equates being an American with the word Freedom and then tells us on his very first page
In that one word we capture the historic, partly fulfilled promise of the United States. And we name an irresistible, universal human impulse - to be in control of our own destiny, to feel visible to others, and to have a say in determining the shape of the world around us.

Those three ideas - control of our destiny, being visible to others, and having a say - are key ideas that run throughout the book, and undergird Chaltain’s understanding of the purpose of education, and hence how it should be structured.

He acknowledges the need for different degrees of freedom and the need for structure, but reminds us of the need to be attuned to the different degrees of freedom so that
we create the types of schools that confer not just academic diplomas, but also “degrees” of individual freedom, of civic responsibility, and of shared respect for the power and uniqueness of each person’s voice.

The book begins with the aforementioned forward and Introduction, those two sections bracketing a brief list of acknowledgements. It also contians a Prologue with the title “Ways of Seeing (and of Being Seen): The Art of the Democratic Learning Community” in which Chaltain shares some of his own teaching experiences, both in China and in a large public New York City high sc hool. From these experiences he offers what is for him an essential lesson if our learning environments are to be democratic, that the students feel that they are visible. From my standpoint as a classroom teacher in his 1ifteenth year of public school teaching, I found myself nodding my head at his criticisms of a structure of school that dissuades the development of long-term teacher-student relationships, and his recognition that a result can be that teachers and other leaders wind up not trusting, not having “opportunites to recognize the true worth and potential of the fellow human beings we are supposed to serve” because “we manage each other as we would manage inanimate things.” (p.6). One other passage from that Prologue also struck me, on the following page, where he writes
...if there is only one thing I would want schoosl to guarantee, it would be to help all young people acquire the skills and self-confidence they need to be visibie in the world.

The rest of the book has two main divisions. The first is labeled THEORY and includes chapters with titles that can be condensed each to one or two words: Reflect, Connect, Create, Equip, and Let Come. Each of these is parenthetically expanded, for example:

Connect (or, make the connections that let you “see the whole board”)

Each of these chapters thoroughly albeit briefly explores the concept and how it applies to the school setting , is well documented from the literature and often from schools Chaltain has visited, and offers resources to further help one explore the concept.

The second section is labeled PRACTICE and explores three schools Chaltain got to know from his days working with First Amendment Schools, a chapter each on Fairview Elemenatry in Modesto, CA; Nursery Road Elemnetary in Irmo, SC; and Mondanock Community Connections School in Swanzey, NH. We learn from the extended experiences of the three schools, which also gave Chaltain access to internal communications, contemporary news coverage, and a variety of other resources that enables the reader to go beyond Chaltain’s description and make her own evaluation of the experience of each school. For anyone contemplating making a commitment to making one’s own school more democratic, this represents an invaluable collection of experiences.

Finally, there is an Epilogue of about a half dozen pages. It has the title Ways of Seeing (Teec Nos Pos, Arizona) and is based on Chaltain’s visit to a schoo on the sprawling (almost 27,000 square miles) Navaho Reservation in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. My first encounter with the book was at a book party at the home of Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, with whom Chaltain has served as a co-author and who served as both boss and mentor for him. Chaltaiin chose to read from the Epilogue at the event, which after reading the entire book I can say was an appropriate choice. The brief pages present quite clearly the issues of democracy and freedom in our school settings, and will challenge most readers with the implications of what it means to be in a democratic learning community.

The material in the book covers only bit more than 150 pages. It is not a long read, but it is certainly worthwhile. There will be parts that you will want to ponder. Perhaps you will encounter passages that will make you want to argue - I found a few, and thus my copy is quite marked up with margin notes as I wrestle with the ideas. I have not yet fully explored even those of the resources that would be most applicable to be as a classroom teacher, one of more than 150 in a large suburban high schools. It is comforting to know that I can return to the book and explore ideas as occasion may warrant, even though I did choose read through the entire book in the two days after I purchased it at the book party, an event that included many people whose professional lives have connected with Chaltain’s, including a well-known Congressman and his spouse.

I’d like to offer a smattering of some the quotes that caught my attention as I read this work. (the page numbers are in parenthesis at the end of each blockquote).

Whether we teach, run a business, or make art, the work we do - if it is to be truly fulfilling - must connect in some way to a larger vision we find meaningful. (18)

Nothing undermines the creative and participative processes more than the naive belief that all a good vision needs is implementation and rollout. (18)

.. my daily goal is to model the behavior I want to see in others. (18)

Until implicit goals are recognized, any change or reform effort is essentially doomed to fail. Implicit goals are almost always a vivid reflection of the quality (or lack thereof) of relationships among the people who make up an organization. (44)

... for meaningful change to occur, the organization’s shared vision should not be seen as the property of any one person. (58)

The fact that so many schools struggle to change core behaviors or processes is particularly troubling when one considers that in essence, learning itself is change. But the greater truth is that people don’t resist change. They resist being changed. (70)

Having given you both a sense of the structure and a taste of the author’s thinking (and Chaltain has told me that the quotes I selected are a fair representation of his key ideas). let me explore a couple of points in a bit more depth.

Besides the descriptions of the three schools that Chaltain gives us in Part II, in Chapter Four (“Equip”) he presents us with a hypothetical 5-year case study of school taking on the process of change to a more democratic learning environment. This is one of the most useful sections of the book: Chaltain provides outside resources that can be used in such a process and shows how they might apply. As he tells us on p. 82,
Although the specific story of Roger Williams Middle school is fictional, all of its insights and challenges come from real schools that achieved real improvement in student learning using a similar approach to whole-school improvement.,
This section helps provide us with a framework to see how it all can piece together, and school leaders can begin to change the culture of their schools to something that is more reinforcing of the democracy that should be a principal part of the purpose of our public schools.

Chaltain makes reference to the work of the great Chilean educator Paolo Freire, who as much as anyone is responsible for our understanding that education is not merely a question of peeling back the scalp of a student and pouring in the knowledge, what Freire referred to as the banking model of education. Chatian notes that Freire believed educators were “particularly burdened” by the idea of change, in large part because of what he saw as the fear of freedom. On p. 88 Chaltain notes
What unnerves us most about freedom is the same thing generations of scientists were unconsciously ignoring about the universe - its unpredictability and capacity for disorder. In the classroom, this fear of the unknown has misled many of us into thinking that the relationship between freedom and structure is an either/or proposition. As educators, we’re either providing good, structured instruction, or we’re refereeing spitball fights. But here’s a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian...
and he notes that Freire explores this issue, as does contemporary American scholar Linda Darling-Hammond (who is a Convener) of the Forum for Education and Democracy, for which Chaltain serves as National Director). Chaltain quotes her:
”The middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism,” she says, “is authoritative practice. Authoritative treamtent sets limits and consequences withing a context that fosters dialogue, explicit teaching about how to assume responsibility, and democratic decision-makings.”

Let’s consider for a moment that the creative tension described applies generally in American society. It was certainly a part of the 1960s, and again was part of the context of the past administration in a time of international conflict and fear of further attack. It should not be a surprise that it also occurs within the context of school as well.

The distinction between authoritative and authoritarian is crucial. An insistence upon order at all costs is crushing of the democratic spirit in our politics. It is even more so of any attempt to develop the skills to be a participating citizen of that democracy when it supersedes the kinds of explorations necessary for students to develop the skills expected of such a citizen. As a teacher I would argue that it is equally crushing of real learning, in which the student must at some point find a way of connecting the material with himself, of assuming responsibility to some degree for his own learning.

There are other ideas in the book well worth pondering. In a review of this length I can only hope to give you a sense, to whet your intellectual appetite and to invite you to explore further on your own. As I hope I have made clear, I found it a more than useful read, and expect to return to it with some regularity as I continue to reflect upon ideas that matter to me, which intersects with my own concerns about the shape of American education as it is now, and work to help reshape it to something I think would be more productive and effective for our students and for our society.

It is worth noting that Chaltain explores the use of systems thinking. In the chapter titled “CONNECT” there is a section titled SEEING THE WHOLE BOARD: SYSTEMS THINKING which begins with words from Peter Senge about how we are taught to break apart problems, “to fragment the world.” Chaltain immediately offers us this:
This reflex makes complex tasks seem more approachable. But the truth is we all pay a price for deluding ourselves into thinking that everything can be broken down into cause and effect, accurately measured, and sufficiently addressed. Indeed, in the same way a reassembled broken mirror cannot yield an accurate reflection, “we can no longer see the consequences of our actions.” Absent that capacity, “we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.” (pp 37-38 - the additional quoted material is also from Senge)
Chaltain warns us that the tendency cited by Senge can too often lead to seeking a solution to address symptoms rather than addressing the whole within the concept of system. One paragraph clearly illustrates the dangers of this:
In fact, NCLB is an archetypal system structure that arises whenever people treat symptoms of a problem and then become increasingly dependent upon their own “symptomatic solutions.” Rather than tackle the myriad issues that exacerbate the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students (an extremely worthy goal). what we’ve done instead is isolate one easily visible symptom of “school success” - in this case, student test scores and schoolwide annual yearly progress (AYP) reports - and then prescribe a a cure: an increased emphasis on testing and accountability. But just as we must resist the urge to solve new problems with old thinking, we must beware of the symptomatic solution. (42-43)

For those who, like Justice O’Connor, consider preparing our students to be participants in a democratic republic, there is little doubt that we need to rethink how we do our schooling. For those who have not yet reached that conclusion, perhaps if you would read and consider what Chaltain offers in this book, you will also begin to move in that direction. I certainly hope so.

Wherever you may be on that issue now, I can assure you that reading this volume will be time and effort well spent. You will have a better understanding of some key issues in education, and will experiience an effective way of addressing them.

I strongly recommend this book. But then, considering how much of the words of Chaltain I have already shared, my high opinion of the volume should be apparent. I hope that after you read it you will agree.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Feeling Technical?

I have an enormous problem communicating with the academic liberals--particularly the social scientists. I'm not talking about the sociologists who have creative, seminal minds like David Riesman or Robert Park. I'm talking about the ones who are just sort of electronic accessories to computers. They suffer from verbal diarrhea and mental constipation--I don't know any other way to describe it politely.
--Saul Alinsky, Quoted in Horwitt
Someone close to me is in a Ph.D. program that essentially drives their students into the ground with work (50-60 hours a week). The stats classes are actually a class and a half squeezed into one without any pretense of actual pedagogy. ("Here's another powerpoint, and another, and yes another. See how they relate? Good. Moving on . . . .) This is the usual approach of many in lower-level universities (like mine) that have to prove their mojo by making their students suffer.

Seems to me like this is likely to produce technicians, not scholars.

Another reason why social foundations are important: to defend the world against academics created in programs like this.

Talk amongst yourselves . . .

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An open letter to President Obama on schools, education and teaching

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you as a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who voted for your as President even despite my concerns about your approach to educational policy. You were not my first choice, precisely because I, like many educators I know, were concerned both about your approach to some educational issues and some of the people advising you. Nevertheless, we all enthusiastically supported your candidacy, in many cases before you clinched the nomination.

I will not speak for anyone except myself. Others are also writing open letters, as you can see at this website.

My focus will be on this - that the educational policy being promulgated by your administration is being created both without meaningful input from teachers and in contradiction with what much of the available research has to inform us. Of greater importance, it misses the mark on what really matters - what is best for our children.

Let me start with teacher voices. Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was never an educator. Most of those closely advising him also were never teachers. While there is value to having the expertise of policy wonks and economists as well as those who understand administrative requirements, it is insufficient, because the success or failure of any endeavor to improve the education of our children will rest primarily with the classroom teachers, and if we do not include their perspectives, we will risk making policy decisions that are simply not capable of being implemented as designed, as any competent classroom teacher could tell you.

There are many teachers prepared to take on the additional responsibilities beyond their own classroom teaching. Many of us write on-line, participate in professional discussion groups, try to offer advice to politicians and school boards, yet far too often our voices are not part of the discussion because we are not at the table when policies are being decided. It is well and good to have a few resident teachers at the Department of Education, but it is insufficient if they are not included at all stages of policy development. Perhaps that is why a number of us are now resorting to writing open letters like this, and like those to which I have referred.

I realize that the current attempts at common standards are not being driven by your Department of Education, but since so many states are participating, what evolves from those efforts will function as de facto national standards. Yet in the two key panels there is only one former classroom teacher. There are multiple representatives of testing companies. Somehow looking at the makeup of those panels does not give me as a classroom great confidence in what they are producing. If your administration truly values the voices of teachers, I would hope that we would here - at least from your Secretary of Education if not directly from you - that such efforts should not proceed without more complete involvement from classroom teachers. It is not acceptable to pretend that it is happening without the acquiescence of the Department of Education, because if Secretary Duncan or you objected, it would be rather easy to so indicate.

Your education department seems hell-bent on insisting upon tying teacher pay to student scores on external tests, despite the inherent problems with such an approach. Let me list only a few.

1. Snapshot tests of student performance at or near the end of a course do not indicate what the student has learned, since there is no control for prior knowledge.

2.Most tests currently available do a poor job of assessing higher level thinking skills.

3. Those who argue for value-added assessment often want to measure from Spring to Spring, yet such measurement gives results confounded by the well-documented summer learning loss that hits more heavily in lower socioeconomic groups than in middle class and above, where often there are learning and enrichment opportunities during the summer. Your own educational proposals during the campaign recognized this - you proposed putting funding into offering summer programs to offset that learning loss.

4. While such assessments are available for most core-area subjects, they are not currently part of the instruction for courses such as music, art, physical education, etc. If we are concerned about education the whole child, as you have often said that you are, how can we take an approach to teacher compensation that devalues the work of teachers in these curricular areas, especially when they are often the people most responsible for some children persisting in school when they are struggling?

5. Such tests in no way inform and improve instruction. They provide no feedback to current instruction. Even benchmarking along the way too often degenerates into repetition of the material most likely to be tested (often because it is easiest to measure) at the expense of deeper understanding).

6. The overemphasis on such tests informs students that all that matters is their performance on same. Some will shut down once the tests are done, others who do not do well on such assessments but who actually have the underlying skills and knowledge will feel devalued. In either case, neither set of students is well served by such results, and it should be the students who matter most.

It is interesting that neither you nor Secretary Duncan went to a public high school. Both of you attended prestigious private schools. Your wife attended an outstanding public school, but one that functioned as a magnet and could screen the students it accepted. Your children have gone to the same Lab School founded by John Dewey that Secretary Duncan attended, and now attend Sidwell Friends. As a Quaker myself, I am quite familiar with Sidwell, the former headmaster Earl Harrison having been a friend. I wonder how you can be insisting on a set of mandates for public school that is totally antithetical to the kind of education you have sought for your daughters. Are not all children entitled to the quality of education your daughters are receiving? If so, how does what you propose with respect to teaching truly give other children anything close to that?

I know Secretary Duncan has chosen to have his children attend public schools in Arlington VA, where I also live, and in whose schools I have also taught. Our community has made a major commitment to public education, spending well over $20,000 for each student. This has enabled the school system to keep class sizes small, to retain good teachers by offering good salary, benefits and working conditions. You saw the difference this could make when you visited Wakefield High School. Yet most public school systems spend far less per student than Arlington, have much larger class sizes, do not have the stability of teaching staff that is important for a successful school, and do not devote the resources to staff development. And even with all that, Arlington still has to spend time and resources responding to mandated state tests whose quality is not spectacular, and whose scaled scores do not really inform about the quality of teaching and learning.

You often use the rhetoric of international educational comparisons. As a teacher and former doctoral student in educational policy, this bothers me. The conclusions you and many draw from those comparisons are flawed and often based on misunderstanding the nature of what the data represents. This has been demonstrated by the work of the late Gerald Bracey, that of Iris Rotberg, and by many other analyses. We are comparing unlike populations, unlike schooling situations, and do not test comparably. Some people will attempt to compare us unfavorably to Finland, yet that nation has almost no language learners, and the role of administrators is to support teachers, something very different than the approach in much of American public education.

As a citizen old enough to remember earlier scares about the condition of American schools, going back to the 1950's and reoccurring with regularity, I am concerned that you seem to accept the flawed rhetoric offered by those whose intent is to devalue and delegitimize America's public schools, for political and personal reasons. Thus I have a real problem with your education department insisting upon major expansion of charter schools when the research on those charters that exist is at best mixed - in general, when all factors are controlled, they perform no better than the public schools from which they draw students, and too often they are used as a means of breaking union protections for teachers.

All of this preface.

There is a basic question which I do not hear being addressed. What is the purpose of our having public schools? For me, it is to educate the whole person, to prepare our students to learn how to learn, to participate as citizens in a liberal democracy, to develop as persons, to be able to develop the skills that matter to them.

There are skills that employers will need, that we hope our children will develop. Might I suggest that being able to select the least worst from four or five choices on a multiple choice test is not high on the priorities of most employers? Are not things like the ability to work cooperatively, to learn to overcome differences, to persist, to come up with new approaches that might involve thinking outside the box, are all of greater value to almost every employer who wants anything other than a drone? Should not our schools reflect that in how they are structured, in how we teach?

Most of my students are 10th graders. Some are taking College level government in the sophomore years. Each year they have arrived in my classroom with less and less background, a direct outcome of the strictures of No Child Left Behind, which emphasized testing on reading and math, which because those scores were used to evaluate schools increasingly meant a narrowing of their educational experience. Many are frustrated with school, and have not learned how to develop ideas in speaking or in writing - these are not tested, therefore they are not valued. Tying teacher compensation mainly to test scores will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

I teach government. I had hoped that your administration would work to restore a proper balance between the branches of government. I compliment you on your willingness to let Congress fulfill its role in the development of an approach to health care. But I do not see that in education: Secretary Duncan is using his control over the funds currently available to make major changes in educational policy that the Congress had not been given a chance to examine. And because the Congress has been cut out, we have not had the opportunity for those with concerns about the approach to properly express those concerns before the country is steered perhaps irrevocably in the direction of policies that may be counterproductive to the best interests of our students.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. To obtain that designation, I underwent a rigorous process, only one small part of which was being tested on my content-area knowledge, and that testing contained NO multiple choice items, only essays. Most of the assessment was of portfolio items: videotaping my teaching, offering artifacts such as communication with parents, samples of student writing, and professional development and participation. For each item submitted, I was required to reflect, with the primary concern being how this particular item benefited the learning of my students. The only people evaluating what I submitted were themselves current classroom teachers.

Many states and school systems offer an ongoing additional stipend for those of us with National Board Certification. In my case, I receive an additional $7,000 a year, which as a teacher is a substantial amount. I mention the amount not to brag, but to set a context: these states and school systems value that certification, which is awarded by teachers to other teachers, with no multiple choice testing, by the evaluation of portfolio materials, the focus of which is always the best interest of the students as perceived by teachers.

Why is not something like that part of the approach of your Education Department? Why instead do we see arguments about tying teacher compensation to (largely multiple choice) student test scores, to increasing the number of charter schools? Why are the arguments that are made economic, the interests of employers, and not the best interests of the students? How might this be different were the voices of teachers more prominent in the designing and implementation of educational policy?

Your daughters are very lucky in the school they attend. I know teachers at Sidwell. I know how committed to their students they are - were they not, they would not still be at Sidwell. Perhaps you can ask the teachers of your daughters how they would like to be subject to the mandates your Education Department and Secretary Duncan are promoting. I would be very surprised if they were in agreement with such an approach.

This is the statement of one public school teacher. While I know the words I offer will resonate with others like me, I do not claim to speak for anyone except myself. I supported your candidacy. I support your presidency. You are doing much good, and have a great deal on which you must focus.

But if you can, please step back and consider what I - and so many other teachers - are saying to you. Please reconsider how your administration is proceeding with reshaping educational policy before it is too late, before you commit the nation to a course that will not benefit our children the way it should.

Wishing you the best, and hoping that you are successful in meeting the many challenges before you.


Kenneth J. Bernstein

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Racism and Education Reform

A question for all you foundations experts.

On another blog we were having a discussion about the relationship between racism/classism and the belief that education reform is the key to social and economic change for the poor. I wondered whether a focus on education reform is a PC way for liberals to sublimate their racist/classist assumptions, consciously or not. And I wondered whether this association helps explain the incredible unresponsiveness of liberals to basic facts about education reform (like the fact that evaluating academic achievement in poor schools with standardized tests is deadly).

Are education reform in its current form and the "education gospel" more generally, representative of a kind of new "white person's burden" and imperialism?

In a sense, focusing on education as the "solution" to anything at least partly entails "blaming the victim." If education is the solution, then there must be something about someone that is inadequate and needs to be "fixed." A focus on education inherently implies that the "problem" is with those who are being educated (and can't seem to learn).

Who has talked about this?

Some relevant data from the discussion:
But the General Social Survey asks about 4 different explanations for why blacks are less successful economically. . . . [T]hose who give all internal explanations (blaming blacks for their lack of success) tend to blame lack of education less than 1/3 of the time: 28.1% to 71.9%. But those who give all external explanations (blaming discrimination, not blaming "lack of will") blame lack of education 3/4ths of the time: 75.0% to 25.0%.
--Paul Rosenberg (scroll down)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We Need Fewer Science Majors Not More

It's an article of faith: the United States needs more native-born students in science and other technical fields. The National Academies' influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report in 2006 said the nation should "enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics" to remain competitive. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had a similar message on the gap in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students a year before. President Barack Obama has pushed for more science teachers and training for the same reason.

But a new paper (pdf) contradicts the notion of a shrinking supply of native-born talent in United States. "Those who advocate increasing the supply of STEM talent should cool their ardor a little bit," says one of its authors, B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The supply has actually remained steady over the past 30 years, the researchers conclude from an analysis of six longitudinal surveys conducted by the U.S. government from 1972 to 2005. However, the highest-performing students in the pipeline are opting out of science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, suggesting that the threat to American economic competitiveness comes not from inadequate science training in school and college but from a lack incentives that would make science and technology careers attractive.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bad Economy: Sharp Rise in Runaways

Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to teenagers and preteens. . . .

The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady throughout the period.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

To Remember is to Forget: Rethinking Memory

“Having a memory that is too accurate is not always good” [from an evolutionary standpoint] . . .

Put another way, memory and imagination are two sides of the same coin. Like memory, imagination allows you to put yourself in a time and place other than the one we actually occupy. This isn’t just a clever analogy: In recent neuroimaging studies, Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has shown that remembering and imagining mobilize many of the same brain circuits. “When people are instructed to imagine events that might happen in their personal future and then to remember actual events in the past, we find extensive and very striking overlap in areas of brain activation,” he says. Other researchers have found that people with severe amnesia lose their ability to imagine. Without memory, they can barely picture the future at all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Misleading Report About High School Dropouts and Income

So, below I have reproduced the take home table in a new report on the social/economic loss resulting from high school dropouts in America, and the major gains we could make if we could just get people to graduate.

Of course, this argument is totally ridiculous. Among other things, it assumes the following:
  • That if inner-city kids got high school diplomas they would automatically also head up into the next income strata.
  • That having or not having a diploma is THE key influence on one's income strata.
  • That new graduates would have the same academic rigor and opportunity of prior graduates.
Reports like these simply feed the "Education Gospel" in America, the myth that education is a solution for economic and social problems. There is little or no evidence that this is the case.

The report concludes with the following two sentences:
1) There is an overwhelming national economic and social
justice need to prevent existing high school students from dropping out without earning a diploma and to encourage the re-enrollment and eventual graduation of those dropouts who have already left the school system.

2) In the absence of concerted efforts to bolster their academic achievement, their formal schooling, their occupational skills, and their cumulative work experience, their immediate and long term labor market prospects are likely to be quite bleak in the U.S. economy even after the end of the current economic recession, which for many of these youth has turned into a labor market depression.
Note that #1 is not saying the same thing as #2. It is not at all clear that high school graduation will lead to the results discussed in #2. Furthermore, as I have noted before, EDUCATION DOES NOT CREATE JOBS. So even if you get #2, you won't necessarily (likely will not) get many graduates into the next income strata.

These kind of reports especially piss me off in today's economic crisis. "Hey, kids, if you had just stayed in school, look what you could have done. But too bad. You didn't. So your unemployment is your own fault." Not what the authors meant to say, I'm sure. But that's part of what it does say. And it's wrong.

Note: in the comments, Sherman Dorn correctly adds:
. . . Yes, increasing graduation will not in and of itself change the macroeconomic circumstances that shape people's lives. . . .

On the other hand, there are also recent reports that use better estimates, and even if you are persuaded (as I am) that there are significant sheepskin/queueing effects of graduation, there is at least part of education that has a human capital benefit for general productivity. It's not as much as Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz claim, but it's not zero, either.

And there is also reason to be concerned from an equity standpoint. Even if high school graduation does nothing other than confirm credentials, the unequal distribution of those credentials should worry us.

Bottom line: I dislike the crude calculations and the "crisis" rhetoric, but there is a problem we have to address.
To which I reply:
I agree with your points. Wasn't cutting the issue quite this closely. The point is not that we shouldn't care at all about graduation. The point is that this link is much weaker and problematic than framed here and in many other places. And this framing has effects on our public dialogue around education.

If we actually educated poor kids to "think" it would be even more critical.

I wish it was more critical than it is.

Educational AttainmentAnnual
Tax Payments
Annual Earnings
Plus Prison Costs
Lifetime Net Fiscal
<12 or 12, No H.S. Diploma6,0876,197-5,191
H.S. Diploma/GED9,9383,551287,384
Some College13,2442,508461,661
Bachelor Degree20,5801,236793,079

This may be an example of learning too much SPSS and not enough social theory and research design. Correlation is not causality. Prior results do not guarantee future returns. Too harsh? Feel free to comment.

At least I learned how to make tables in html. Not a total waste of time. [Note retitled columns to save space]

The Lost Generation

Only 46% of people aged 16-24 had jobs in September, the lowest since the government began counting in 1948.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Encultured Brain: Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

By Greg Downey and Daniel Lende
Neuroanthropology also has direct implications for anthropology and neuroscience. It demonstrates the necessity of theorizing culture and human experience in ways that are not ignorant of or wholly inconsistent with discoveries about human cognition from brain sciences. Rather than broad-based concepts like habitus or cognitive structure, neuroanthropology focuses on how social and cultural phenomena actually achieve the impact they have on people in material terms. Rather than assuming structural inequality is basic to all societies, neuroanthropologists ask how inequality differentiates people and what we might do about that.

Similarly, on the neurological side, the principal theories of brain development, neural architecture and function remain tied to a biological view of proximate mechanisms and evolutionary origins. Yet it is abundantly clear that many neurological capacities, such as language or skills, do not appear without immersion in culture. Neuroanthropology highlights how that immersion matters to the brain’s construction and function. For example, neuroanthropology can take a basic idea like Hebbian learning — “what fires together, wires together” — and examine how social and cultural processes shape the timing, exposure, and strength of activity, such that the coordinated action of brain systems emerges through cultural dynamics. Neuroanthropology opens up a vibrant new space for thinking about how and why brains work the ways they do.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tuition Tax Credits

The right is always bleating about the need to have pilot programs that test their market-based approaches to educational reform. How’s this for a test?
The state's Private School Tuition Tax Credits program covers the cost of private education, often for children whose parents could afford to pay it themselves - while allowing affluent families to reduce the amount of income tax they pay into the state's general fund. . . . [read on]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I’m currently taking a doctoral level course on education and economics. At our first meeting, the professor (whose PhD is in Economics) noted that the past two decades have seen the increasing influence of economic theory on education policy, with a sharply rising curve in the 21st century. I asked him why he thought that was and he gave me a great (and honest) answer: Economists have better theories. Economic theories have been honed for decades, even centuries, and economists have vastly better and more convincing quantitative tools to measure outputs. Besides, he said, economists think they’re right and tend to be aggressive.            Teacher in a Strange Land, January 2007.

Last year, the nation’s most famous economist, Alan Greenspan, admitted that he may have been "partially" wrong in trusting banks to protect their shareholders. Those sharp quantitative tools and rock-solid economic theories crumbled in the face of rampant self-interest. And we've been paying the price in lost trust ever since.
Benjamin Barber, in an eloquent blog on Huffington Post, traces the economic collapse back to lack of trust:
Trust is a crucial form of social capital, a recognition of the common ground on which we stand as citizens. It is the glue that holds rival producers and consumers together and lets them do the business that would otherwise do them in. Whereas the whole point of the market is competition - selfishness and narcissism as self-conscious instruments of market calculation.
Although it was bad loans and greedy bankers and stupid hedge fund managers and ignorant investors who made the mess, it has been four decades of de-democratization that has done the real damage. A hemorrhaging of social capital that nobody noticed because government was supposed to be the problem and markets the solution.

Democracy's real product is trust. As the war on government became a war on democracy it drew down the well of social capital and eroded trust, causing citizens to lose faith in each other and their common power to govern themselves.

Social capital and trust. Can we apply these lessons to our public schools and the barely-breathing ideal of democratic equality in education before they completely implode, too? When people who have resources and power move their own children into sheltered schools—schools they trust—and then use their personal bully pulpit to demean and erode public education, the ultimate outcomes harm us all. It’s not just about my children. It’s about everyone’s children, because we’ll be living on this planet with all of these children for the rest of our lives. And eventually, they’ll be running the show.

One of my favorite books is Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider. Bryk and Schneider, in a series of case studies done in Chicago in 2002, provide convincing data showing significant increases in student achievement—measured by every economist’s favorite tool, standardized tests—when multi-directional trust is present. When teachers trust principals, when parents have confidence in teachers and administrators, when teachers feel free to take risks in improving their practice—student learning and school operations improve. It’s as simple as that.

Our national values are spread out before us for re-examination. Individual gain vs. public good? Free markets vs. effective regulation? Me and mine vs. you and yours.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Human Evolution and The Slow Development of Symbolic Thought

Fascinating FREE article at PLOS arguing that in human evolution symbolic thought evolved much later than the biological substrate that would have allowed it. I have no idea how generally accepted this is, but it's a fascinating idea with maybe some implications for human learning and theories of discourse.
Evidently, then, “becoming human” took place in two separate stages. First, the distinctive modern human morphology became established, very clearly in Africa, and probably shortly after 200 Ka. This event involved a radical departure from the primitive Homo body form. Only ca. 100 Ka later, again in Africa, and in a Middle Stone Age industrial context, did modern symbolic behaviors begin to be expressed, underwritten by a new capacity that had most plausibly been present but unexploited in the first anatomical H. sapiens. In evolutionary terms this disconnect was entirely routine, for every new behavior has to be permitted by a structure that already exists: Birds, for example, had feathers for millions of years before coopting them for flight, and tetrapods acquired their limbs in an aquatic context (52).

Symbolic reasoning appears to be qualitatively different from all other forms of cognition, including its own immediate precursor. Its neural substrate continues to be strenuously debated (53, 54); but, whatever it was, that structural innovation was most plausibly acquired as part and parcel of the radical biological reorganization that gave birth to H. sapiens as an anatomically distinctive entity. In which case (like those feathers and limbs) it remained unexploited, at least in the cognitive context, for a very substantial length of time, until its new use was “discovered” by its possessor. How this discovery was made remains a matter for conjecture, but a leading candidate for the necessarily cultural stimulus to symbolic processing of information is the invention of language (55). Language is perhaps the ultimate symbolic activity; and, in contrast to theory of mind, the other leading candidate for the role of releaser (56), it has the advantage of being a communal rather than an internalized attribute. The ability to use language depended, of course, on the presence of the vocal structures required to produce speech; but clearly these had already been exaptively acquired by the earliest anatomical H. sapiens.

Current evidence thus indicates that H. sapiens as we know it today had a dual origin: first as an anatomical entity, and only subsequently as a cognitive one. The clear signal of both the fossil and archaeological records is that both innovations occurred in Africa, from which the first fully modern humans expanded relatively recently to populate the rest of the world.

h/t four stone hearth (them there anthropologists are pretty damned organized online) at Afarensis via our old friend Neuroanthropology

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Fiction Reading Affects Empathy

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn't just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

h/t Neuroanthropology

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Think you can't trust the President?? At least trust the kids!

Cross-posted from Social Issues (the blog of the John Dewey Society Commission on Social Issues)

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a local newspaper article noting that some folks (specifically, "conservatives,"  but it's hard to know who that refers to) are angry that President Obama plans to give a speech at a public school urging young people to stay in school and take advantage of the education being offered them. Throughout the day yesterday -- and this morning -- I encountered this "developing story" ... on CNN, in The New York Times, and elsewhere.  

What are we to make of this?

The Obama folks clearly made one mistake in the run-up to the event.   They posted lesson plans that teachers could use in preparation for and after listening to the President's speech (offered live in one school but available for broadcast in any school).   One part of that included a question to be posed to the students:  "What can you do to help the President?"    In context, the question was clearly about supporting the good of the nation, but I can (if I really stretch Peter Elbow's "methodological belief") see why those who do not agree with the "President's ideology" would be concerned.  And it seems the President's folks were listening and focused on making this a non-partisan event. That question in the lesson plan was changed to ask how a student could achieve his or her educational goals.

I am struck by the concern with the "President's ideology," because the complaint incorporates the assumption that ONLY the President has an ideology, that the one complaining is speaking the non-biased truth.   Of course, the President has views on how to deal with the issues of our time, as do we all.    And we don't all agree with each other.   But it seems we have lost even the notion that we share one common goal:  a desire to educate children to be good Americans (even when we are not in agreement about what that means.)  Each of us -- especially the duly elected President of the country -- deserves that benefit of the doubt no matter how hard we fight in the arena of ideas and policies.

We have apparently moved into an era when even the clear election winner, a father of two young daughters, will not be trusted to speak to school children.  Have we so little confidence in our children's ability to listen critically and form and frame their own minds that we fear the influence of Barack Obama?   If that's so, then I fear no education is possible, certainly not the real education that requires openness to people who don't look and think like we do.  

Children who would become democratic citizens need to experience the play of democratic functioning.  I remember well my 6th grade Catholic school playground days during the Nixon/Kennedy elections.   My teachers and most of my classmates were Kennedy supporters (the result of religioius "ideology"? )   My parents -- and I -- were Nixon supporters (the result of my business executive father's socio-economic status?)  I and the few other Nixon supports held our ground when everybody else challenged us;   for the most part, we enjoyed it.  Whether or not we can trust our President in this case (and I obviously think we can),  I am quite certain we can trust our children.   Bring the President into every classroom;  it will do us good.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Two teachers on using test scores to evaluate teachers

One of the more controversial aspects of the Obama Education Department's approach has been its insistence upon using student test scores as a means of evaluating teachers for merit pay. This is in fact something Sec. Duncan has posed as a non-negotiable requirement for a state to be eligible for $4.5 billion in grants that are part of ARRA (stimulus). These funds, a part of the badly named Race to the Top (RtTP - as if the purpose of education is a race) have led Gov. Schwarzeneggar to try to change current law which that keeps test scores from being used to evaluate teachers.

I want to share an op ed in the Sacramento Bee by 2 teachers who are part of the Accomplished California Teachers Network. David Cohen, who teaches in upscale Palo Alto, is like me a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. Alex Kajitani is California's current Teacher of the Year, and teaches at an inner city middle school in San Diego. And they clearly make the case in their title: Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation.

Cohen and Kajitani note that while on the surface such linkage might seem obvious, such appearances are misleading. Addressing their remarks to Gov. Schwarzeneggar, whom they urge to go back to school on the subject, they write
experts in education, testing and even economics have argued that state tests are not designed for teacher evaluation and will not yield reliable results. You are taking in us in a direction that will harm our schools and our students.
They note that funding is temporary, but would lead to a permanent and destructive change to
California's thoughtful, research-based and consensus-driven state education policy
in the process of pursuing the funds.

Let me digress briefly to reinforce one point already made - that experts in education and testing disagree with such an approach. There are three principal professional organizations that deal with psychological measurement in schools, the American Educational Research Association, the National Council for Measurement in Education, and the American Psychological Association. In 1999 they jointly reissued The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. That document makes clear that tests developed to allow valid inferences for student performance usually cannot be used to draw valid inferences about either teachers or schools. And anyone who understands testing recognizes that most state tests at best measure what a student can give back at the time of testing, in no way controlling for any knowledge or skill developed prior to the current school year.

Returning to the op ed: let me share one very blunt paragraph:
The overemphasis on testing does not enhance educational quality, but instead will promote schooling that leaves too many of our children underprepared for higher education, unskilled at critical thinking and less engaged in their communities. Parents and business leaders consistently say they want us to develop in students the types of skills least valued in a test-driven educational atmosphere.
Neither teacher is afraid of evaluation. However, they believe that the only information the tests provide is how students perform on those tests. They are blunt in asserting that they do not believe the tests either fairly evaluate their students - from two very different environments - or provide an accurate indication of their teaching.

Let me quote the heart of the piece. This will be an extensive selection, but it is necessary to demonstrate what they are trying to communicate:
Like English teachers across California, Cohen works with a set of standards requiring instruction in a range of language arts skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Two of these four standards areas are entirely ignored by state tests that offer no listening or speaking components. The tests mostly measure writing skills by checking some basic proofreading skills, but usually, no actual writing.

The all-important reading assessments are similarly narrow and are further suspect because test-savvy students work backward from the questions and don't have to read the passages, and then rely on a variety of outside knowledge to eliminate obvious wrong answers; meanwhile, test-averse students often post scores masking their true abilities. How then can the practice of an English teacher be accurately measured with tests that hardly overlap with the teaching expected of us?

Kajitani, a math teacher, knows that before each test period it is time to pause the teaching of true problem-solving and conceptual reasoning to be sure that students have memorized the operations on which they will be tested and to refresh their test-taking skills. Effective teachers may know how to squeeze in both "teaching to the test" and teaching real, in-depth critical thinking, but this begs the question of where the teacher's time is best spent, for the true benefit of the children they are educating. We sacrifice better learning for better test scores.

All good teachers want to be able to properly assess how their students are doing, in order that we can adjust our instruction to meet their needs. And yet:
Respect for our students and respect for our teaching both demand evaluation based on a broad range of information and multiple measures of performance. Test-driven policies notoriously push in the opposite direction.

As members of the aforementioned Accomplished Teachers Network, Cohen and Kajatini
support efforts to create more effective evaluations, with greater focus on actual teaching practices, including robust and varied evidence such as student and teacher portfolios.

Here, since like David Cohen I am an NBCT, I note that the National Board process is focused on actual teaching practices, and requires the candidate for certification to reflect upon various aspects of her/his teaching practice in terms of how it assists the students. That is something far more valuable than merely prepping students for tests that do not even fairly assess either the knowledge and skill in the domain or ascertain how much the student has learned.

The authors conclude that
evaluating individual teachers based on test scores, in a reactionary effort to compete for Race to the Top grant money, is not the answer. It would be a travesty of education reform for the teachers and students of our state.
And yet as states and schools are desperate for money, education will be distorted in its pursuit, to the detriment of meaningful learning by our students.

This is as perverse as schools, in need of money, selling naming rights to stadiums, or allowing soft drink and junk food machines in the building - in the latter case the desire for money outweighs the medical and dental health implications of encouraging students to consume such products.

The pursuit of money from Race to the Top funds is similar - it is the consumption of non-nutritious educational practices. It is selling the soul of meaningful education. It is as damaging to the minds of our students as the junk food and soda are to their bodies and teeth.

Just my thoughts at the end of the second week with my students.


Lost Decade for Young Workers: The Job Situation for Our Graduating Students

Some of the report’s key findings include:

* 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
* Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
* Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills.
* A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
* 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
* When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
* By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
* Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
* The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Full report here (pdf).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incompetence as a Signalling Device: Academia in Italy

You can never complain about the US tenure process again . . . .

Teach for America vs. National Board Certification

If pressed to name my ultimate professional passion and goal—the thing I was put on earth to do—it might be something like “elevate the ideas and voices of excellent teachers.” Like many people in America, I think we can do a vastly better job of educating all our kids, across the socio-economic spectrum. We’re not going to get far with that goal until we upgrade our teaching force, however—skilled and dedicated boots on the ground.

I have written about the experience of snooping through some internal TFA listserv messages about Linda Darling-Hammond and her prospective role in the Obama administration, before Arne Duncan was selected. That conversation was far more intelligent and even-handed than most education writers’ TFA-Defense pieces, like this little gem, wherein Richard Whitmire claims that TFA corps members single-handedly thwarted the Darling-Hammond Secretarial bid, from their current "high-powered" positions.

It is possible to respect and admire both the Teach for America premise and TFA teachers and alums, without believing that TFA teachers somehow have special, magical insights into how to “fix” American schools, whatever that means. Whitmire asserts that there are now 14,400 TFA alums out there making a difference, changing the world, wielding the power and so on—all on the basis of their brief, but well-documented, sojourns as barely trained educational missionaries in their own land.

Here’s another way to consider this. There are currently about 74,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) in the United States. Their practice has been rigorously vetted and evaluated, with most of them having to go through two or more annual rounds of submitting valid (in the standard psychometric definition) evidence of standards-based teaching and high-level student learning. They have at least four years of experience by the time they’re selected—but most of them have a great deal more. NBCTs voluntarily spend 200-400 hours meticulously developing a portfolio of their work over time, to be adjudicated by assessors who don’t know them, and to whom they cannot make excuses. And then they sit for six on-demand content exams. They work in all kinds of schools, in every state in the union, facing a broad range of circumstances, problems and student needs.

National Board Certification may not be perfect, but it’s as reliable a benchmark as exists, right now, for identifying strong and efficacious teaching. Whether they certify or not, National Board candidates overwhelmingly say the process reveals new insights into effective practice.

And—this is the foundation for my argument—nobody would pursue National Board Certification unless they were absolutely committed to a long-term career in teaching and education reform.
So—why aren’t we asking National Board Certified Teachers what they think about key policy issues? Shouldn’t we be asking for input from a pool of solid practitioners, who have demonstrated a personal willingness to be publicly accountable? What kind of pundit honors the views of two-year field medics over those of veteran physicians with long records of success and innovative practice? It’s a good question.

It might have something to do with the fact that teaching is a huge occupational cluster that has not developed a compelling national vision of its own professionalism. This is in distinct contrast to teachers’ professional behaviors and responsibilities in other, high-achieving nations. The National Board standards were supposed to help with that, but the general public—and a fair number of high-profile researchers, in fact—don’t understand the conceptual framework, intellectual tools or process of national certification for teachers.

Full disclosure: I worked with nine other NBCTs in developing a comprehensive policy brief ("Measuring What Matters: The Effects of National Board Certification on Advancing 21st Century Teaching and Learning"), analyzing current research on National Board Certification—and we were dismayed by the lack of impact NBCTs have had on policy creation, and how quick analysts were to attach national teacher certification to teacher union issues, once again lumping all three million teachers into the category of skilled technical workers rather than creative professionals. Whitmire positions TFA teachers as “not beholden to the system”—as if all other teachers were, in fact, part of an amorphous, not-well-hidden agreement to accept the status quo. This is an unsubstantiated but convenient argument, but making it is counterproductive to the (reachable) goal of getting an effective teacher in every classroom, especially in high needs schools.

Then there is the unattractive fact that, according to Dan Lortie in the new edition of his classic Schoolteacher,
"Teaching has attracted many persons who have undergone the uncertainties and deprivations of lower- and working-class life. It has provided a significant step up the social class ladder for many Americans."
It would be unbecoming for academics, policy-creators and opinion leaders to say, hey—why would we listen to low-rent scholars who went to fourth-tier state universities and don’t aspire to anything more prestigious than teaching? So they don’t. Instead, they suggest that it makes sense to endorse the winners of a best-and-brightest competition to obtain a two-year starter job in education. Many TFA recruits become competent, even highly capable, teachers. I want to hear what they have to say about educational change. But theirs is a very limited perspective.

Listening to long-term exemplary teachers would represent a fundamental shift in the way we think about transforming American schools. Power to the teachers, right on.


How do you personally feel about the future of American education?

I’m panicked, I’m worried. I think if we continue along the path that we’re going, our greatest days are behind us. But, I still believe we can turn it around. That’s why I’m still in the classroom, and I’m gonna do my best. But as long as we embrace “testing is everything,” and as long as we keep shrinking art programs and physical education programs, we’re not in a good place. Those are the things that inspire kids to do great things, so I hope we keep enlarging them, not shrinking them.

The words are those of Rafe Esquith, at the end of an interview currently freely available from Teacher Magazine in a piece called Lighting Fires With Rafe Esquith. Esquith is one of America's great teachers, winner of many awards, a notable author. The key is the impact he has upon his students.

Equith teachers 5th grade at an inner city school, Hobart Elementary, in Los Angeles. He has his kids actually performing (passionately) Shakespeare. He is more than a little "unconventional." Perhaps the best description of what he does can be seen in the title of his 2nd (and best-selling) book (published 2 years ago): Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56.

I am going to strongly suggest that if you have any interest in education and meaningful teaching - as parent, educator, policy maker, or simply citizen/taxpayer - that you take the link to the interview and print it down and save it -- NOW. The link will expire at some point, and you will not want to lose access to this insightful piece.

Let me offer a few more exchanges from the interview, with some observations and commentary of my own.

I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we are now in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books now like Algebra Made Easy and Shakespeare Made Easy. But I want teachers and parents to remember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousands of hours of patient study, and I want people to know that when kids make mistakes or have setbacks, we don’t need to jump all over them for every little thing. This is a long process. I’m hoping that from the lessons of Lighting Their Fires people will understand that I’m trying to teach things that kids will remember after they’ve left my classroom, not just for the test at the end of the year.

not just for the test at the end of the year - and yet the Obama administration wants to tie merit pay for teachers to student performance on those same end of year tests, rather than finding other ways of examining the effects teachers have upon their students. I suspect that anyone who would walk into Esquith's classroom in Room 56 at Hobart would immediately grasp the positive effect he has upon students, regardless of any results either on end of year tests examined separately, or the growth shown as compared either to last year's tests or tests at the beginning of the year.

Esquith talks about reminding teachers of the importance of being themselves. Let me offer a bit of this section, right after he mentions other teachers thanking him for that.
Because a lot of people are telling the teacher not to be yourself. That we’re all supposed to be exactly the same. We’re not. In a country that says it’s supposed to celebrate diversity, we’re not! And that’s what I want those burned-out teachers to remember. Be yourself. You’re valuable, you’re important, and you’re making a difference, even though maybe you’re in a school that doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’s a thankless job, it really is. But when you do it well, it’s a fun job.

It is not only a "fun job," it is absoluting energizing, especially on those occasions when you "hit a home run" and find a way of really connecting with the students.

Here I note that I have insisted my student teachers learn how to be themselves in front of the adolescents in my classroom, who can quickly determine if a teacher is being something different, that is, is in "teacher mode" - for many, that will serve as a barrier, because what the students really hunger for is someone who respects them enough to be genuine with them. By the way, as we mourn the loss of Ted Kennedy, perhaps we should note that so much of the response to him was that he was very much himself, which was a very caring person, in his interactions even with those who opposed him politically, which might be why he was able to find common ground on occasion and become close friends with the likes of Orrin Hatch. Effective teaching also involves the building of relationships through trust, the showing of genuine care. If in fact your real self is not caring towards the students in your charge, I strongly suggest you find another occupation, no matter how knowledgeable about your subject matter you may be.

Esquith talks about the number of former students who come back to his classroom and provide positive role models for his current students. Here I note that I teach mainly 10th graders, and I see a similar effect - they have older siblings who come back to me for college recommendations, or neighbors, teammates, those on the bus who will share their experiences in my classroom. I will not claim I have anything near the impact Esquith does - his students are younger, and for many his is the first such encounter with a caring and challenging adult not related to them. There are many great teachers in our school, and I am fortunate that almost all of my students have already had at least one such encounter before they enter my classroom.

Esquith also talks about how his classroom works:
The idea that kids don’t like school is a myth. Kids love school when it’s fun and interesting. They don’t like school when it’s boring. But you let them do things that are relevant, like play in a rock band, as we do in my classes, and capture their imagination. I think that’s what people see in my classroom─there’s a great energy level, an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together.

Note especially those last words: an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together - that combination encourages students who are struggling to keep trying. If I am going to challenge my students to go further, I have to build the trust, lighten the burden with humor, affirm that I know they can do it.

A couple of quotes without comments:
I do think that the goal should be that we’re going to give every child the opportunity to be the best they can be. Right now, we’re not doing that. And as I always tell the kids, “It’s not my job to save your soul, but it’s my job to give you an opportunity to save your own soul.” I can’t make a kid smarter or better, but I can give them the opportunity to become that and show them how to do that. That’s my job, and that’s a parent’s job─creating opportunities.

I’m really hoping is that teachers, when they keep growing, they can grow into themselves. They’re so busy following the script, they stop being themselves. I think if the teacher’s a great cook, then I hope she cooks with the kids as part of the day! Work it into the lesson plan! Because that’s your passion... the good news is, in my classroom, it is absolutely my room. Even though we follow all the standards, my three particular passions, which are baseball, rock & roll and Shakespeare are all a part of that classroom. And it works really well, because I’m good at showing kids how to do those things.

Rafe Esquith is an extraordinary teacher, one of the nation's best. And yet, instead of learning from teachers like him when we make our policy, too often we listen to economists and politicians, we are far too inclined to try to standardize - and not just in how we test. When teachers are empowered - as Esquith is and as I have been fortunate enough to be by 5 principals in three different schools - they commit themselves to their students despite the barriers and obstacles, despite the restriction s of external testing and pacing guides (which often make no sense even as they are supposed demonstrate that we have 'covered" the material for which the students will be held "accountable").

We need to remember that we are teaching students, a collection of individual, unique personalities, not a class or a subject if by phrasing in the latter fashion we lose sight of those individuals. We need to be able to adjust our instruction to the persons before us.

I have a decreasing amount of hair. I'm not sure how much I can afford to lose by setting it on fire. But I know Esquith is right - it is by bringing one's own passion to the task of learning with one's students that I am most effective as a teacher. It is also by providing an environment that the passions with which the students arrive can somehow be included within the classroom as well. Esquith is an elementary teacher - he has his students for the entire day. I teach 6 periods, each of 45 minutes, each with a different collection of students, currently with up to 36 in the room at one time (and that will expand today). It is somewhat different, but still fundamentally the same - I may have less time to accomplish that, and far more specific content with which to connect them, but they are still unique individuals with different backgrounds and interests. I make clear I am passionate and invite them along for the ride.

along for the ride - that means I am traveling that road with them. That is one fundamental concept of teaching which Esquith may not explicitly state, but which underlies his entire approach, and with which I strongly agree.

Esquith will be the first to tell you he does not have all the answers. And perhaps his words may raise more questions, to which he would almost certainly say "good!" It is by asking questions that we can reexamine our thinking and improve our own actions.

Which is why this post has the title that it does.



Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Childhood Food Insecurity / 10% of US Population Now on Food Stamps

Food Stamps

A record 32.2 million Americans are receiving food stamp assistance. As the economy grows bleak, 10 percent of the U.S. population fall below the threshold.

Food Insecurity

The states with the highest rates of food insecure children under 5 years of age. Food Insecure: unable to consistently access adequate amounts of nutritious food that is necessary for a healthy life. (As of 2007, PRIOR to the current downturn.)

Louisiana       24.2%
North Carolina       24.1%
Ohio       23.8%
Kentucky       23.3%
Texas       23.3%
New Mexico       23.3%
Kansas       20.9%
South Carolina       20.7%
Tennessee       20.4%
Idaho       20.2%
Arkansas       20.0%
West Virginia       19.8%
Missouri       19.8%

“The first three years of life are the most critical period of brain growth and development. Child hunger causes physical and mental impairment that may never be reversed.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More from the Textbook Wars

[Houston Chronicle] Texas high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority — but nothing about liberals — under the first draft of new standards for public school history textbooks. . . [read on]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama

Wide ranging summary of current research on race, "assimilation," immigration, and inequality in America, by Orlando Patterson.

h/t Neuroanthropology

NYT: Do Teachers Need Education Degrees?

Our new dean mentioned this posting to our college this week.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How can we use bad measures in decisionmaking?

Reposted from my personal blog:

I had about 20 minutes of between-events time Thursday morning and used it to catch up on two interesting papers on value-added assessment and teacher evaluation--the Jesse Rothstein piece using North Carolina data and the Koedel-Betts replication-and-more with San Diego data.

Speaking very roughly, Rothstein used a clever falsification test: if the assignment of students to fifth grade is random, then you shouldn't be able to use fifth-grade teachers to predict test-score gains in fourth grade. At least with the set of data he used in North Carolina, you could predict a good chunk of the variation in fourth-grade test gains knowing who the fifth grade teachers were, which means that a central assumption of many value-added models are problematic.

Cory Koedel and Julian Betts's paper replicated and extended the analysis using data from San Diego. They were able to confirm with different data that using a single year's worth of data led to severe problems with the assumption of close-to-random assignment. They also claimed that using more than one year's worth of data smoothed out the problems.

Apart from the specifics of this new aspect of the value-added measure debate, it pushed my nose once again into the fact that any accountability system has to address the fact of messy data.

Let's face it: we will never have data that are so accurate that we can worry about whether the basis for a measure is cesium or ytterbium. Generally, the rhetoric around accountability systems has been either "well, they're good enough and better than not acting" or "toss out anything with flaws," though we're getting some new approaches, or rather older approaches introduced into national debate, as with the June Broader, Bolder Approach paper and this week's paper on accountability from the Education Equality Project.

Now that we have the response by the Education Equality Project to the Broader, Approach on accountability more specifically, we can see the nature of the debate taking shape. Broader, Bolder is pushing testing-and-inspections, while Education Equality is pushing value-added measures. Incidentally, or perhaps not, the EEP report mentioned Diane Ravitch in four paragraphs (the same number of paragraphs I spotted with references to President Obama) while including this backhanded, unfootnoted reference to the Broader, Bolder Approach:

While many of these same advocates criticize both the quality and utility of current math and reading assessments in state accountability systems, they are curiously blithe about the ability of states and districts to create a multi-billion dollar system of trained inspectors--who would be responsible for equitably assessing the nation's 95,000 schools on a regular basis on nearly every dimension of school performance imaginable, no matter how ill-defined.

I find it telling that the Education Equality Project folks couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge the Broader, Bolder Approach openly or the work of others on inspection systems (such as Thomas Wilson). Listen up, EEP folks: Acknowledging the work of others is essentially a requirement for debate these days. Ignoring the work of your intellectual opponents is not the best way to maintain your own credibility. I understand the politics: the references to Ravitch indicate that EEP (and Klein) see her as a much bigger threat than Broader, Bolder. This is a perfect setup for Ravitch's new book, whose title is modeled after Jane Jacobs's fight with Robert Moses. So I don't think in the end that the EEP gang is doing themselves much of a favor by ignoring BBA.

Let's return to the substance: is there a way to think coherently about using mediocre data that exist while acknowledging we need better systems and working towards them? I think the answer is yes, especially if you divide the messiness of test data into separate problems (which are not exhaustive categories but are my first stab at this): problems when data cover a too-small part of what's important in schooling, and problems when the data are of questionable trustworthiness.

Data that cover too little

As Daniel Koretz explains, no test currently in existence can measure everything in the curriculum. The circumscribed nature of any assessment may be tied to the format of a test (a paper and pencil test cannot assess the ability to look through a microscope and identify what's on a slide), to test specifications (which limits what a test measures within a subject), or to subjects covered by a testing system. Some of the options:

  • Don't worry. Don't worry about or dismiss the possibility of a narrowed curriculum. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the concerns of millions of parents concerned about a narrowed curriculum.
  • Toss. Decide that the negative consequences of accountability outweigh any use of limited-purpose testing. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the thoughts of millions of parents concerned about the quality of their children's schooling.
  • Supplement. Add more information, either by expanding the testing or by expanding the sources of information. Advantage: easy to justify in the abstract. Disadvantages: requires more spending for assessment purposes, either for testing or for the type of inspection system Wilson and BBA advocate (though inspections are not nearly as expensive as the EEP report claims without a shred of evidence). If the supplementation proposal is for more testing, this will concern some proportion of parents who do not like the extent of testing as it currently exists.

Data that are of questionable trustworthiness

I'm using the term trustworthiness instead of reliability because the latter is a term of art in measurement, and I mean the category to address how accurately a particular measure tells us something about student outcomes or any plausible causal connection to programs or personnel. There are a number of reasons why we would not trust a particular measure to be an accurate picture of what happens in a school, ranging from test conditions or technical problems to test-specification predictability (i.e., teaching to the test over several years) and the global questions of causality.

The debate about value-added measures is part of a longer discussion about the trustworthiness of test scores as an indication of teacher quality and a response to arguments that status indicators are neither a fair nor accurate way to judge teachers who may have very different types of students. What we're learning is a confirmation of what I wrote almost 4 years ago: as Harvey Goldstein would say, growth models are not the Holy Grail of assessment. Since there is no Holy Grail of measurement, how do we use data that we know are of limited trustworthiness (even if we don't know in advance exactly what those limits are)?

  • Don't worry. Don't worry about or dismiss the possibility of making the wrong decision from untrustworthy data. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political
    context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the credibility problems of historical error in testing and the considerable research on the limits of test scores.
  • Toss. Decide that the flaws of testing outweigh any use of messy data. Advantage: simple in concept. Easy to spin in a political context. Easy to argue if it's a partial toss justified for technical reasons (e.g., small numbers of students tested). Disadvantage: does not comport with the thoughts of millions of parents concerned about the quality of their children's schooling. More difficult in practice if it's a partial toss (i.e., if you toss some data because a student is an English language learner, because of small numbers tested, or for other reasons).
  • Make a new model. Growth (value-added) models are the prime example of changing a formula in response to concerns about trustworthiness (in this case, global issues about achievement status measures). Advantage: makes sense in the abstract. Disadvantage: more complicated models can undermine both transparency and understanding, and claims about superiority of different models become more difficult to evaluate as the models become more complex. There ain't no such thing* as a perfect model specification.
  • Retest, recalculate, or continue to accumulate data until you have trustworthy data. Treat testing as the equivalent of a blood-pressure measurement: if you suspect that a measurement is not to be trusted, take the blood pressure test the student again in a few minutes months/another year. Advantage: can wave hands broadly and talk about "multiple years of data" and refer to some research on multiple years of data. Disadvantage: Retesting/reassessment works best with a certain density of data points, and the critical density will depend on context. This works with some versions of formative assessment, where one questionable datum can be balanced out by longer trends. It's more problematic with annual testing, for a variety of reasons, though that can reduce uncertainties.
  • Model the trustworthiness as a formal uncertainty. Decide that information is usable if there is a way to accommodate the mess. Advantage: makes sense in the abstract. Disadvantage: The choices are not easy, and there are consequences of the way of modeling uncertainty you choose: adjusting cut scores/data presentation by measurement/standard errors, using fuzzy-set algorithms, Bayesian reasoning, or political mechanisms to reduce the influence of a specific measure when trustworthiness decreases.

Even if you haven't read Accountability Frankenstein, you have probably already sussed out my view that both "don't worry" and "toss" are poor choices in addressing messy data. All other options should be on the table, usable for different circumstances and in different ways. Least explored? The last idea, modeling trustworthiness problems as formal uncertainty. I'm going to part from measurement researchers and say that the modeling should go beyond standard errors and measurement errors, or rather head in a different direction. There is no way to use standard errors or measurement errors to address issues of trustworthiness that go beyond sampling and reliability issues, or to structure a process to balance the inherently value-laden and political issues involved here.

The difficulty in looking coldly at messy and mediocre data generally revolves around the human tendency to prefer impressions of confidence and certainty over uncertainty, even when a rational examination and background knowledge should lead one to recognize the problems in trusting a set of data. One side of that coin is an emphasis on point estimates and firmly-drawn classification lines. The other side is to decide that one should entirely ignore messy and mediocre data because of the flaws. Neither is an appropriate response to the problem.

* A literary reference (to Heinlein), not an illiteracism.