Monday, December 13, 2010

Chinese do better on tests than Americans! Oh my God, what will we do?

Recently, we have been subjected to yet another round of fright about our education system because the Chinese have scored better than the U.S. on the PISA test. Arne Duncan tweeted “PISA results show that America needs to ... accelerate student learning to remain competitive." The New York Times ran its usual scare article. “The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.”

I even heard a man who should know better state that these tests were actually meaningful since they were problem solving tests. Nothing would convince me that the tests were meaningful in any way, but just for fun I took a look at some sample questions anyway. Here are four of them (chosen because they were shorter than the others.):

A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears,

tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.

Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.

The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with

the formula:

d=7.0× t−12

( ) for t ≥12

where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after

the ice has disappeared.

Question 27.1

Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared.

Show your calculation.

Question 48.1

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100 m by 50 m was reserved for the audience. The concert

was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing.

Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending

the concert?

A.2 000

B. 5 000

C. 20 000

D. 50 000

E. 100 000

Question 7.1

The temperature in the Grand Canyon ranges from below 0 oC to over 40 oC. Although it is a desert

area, cracks in the rocks sometimes contain water. How do these temperature changes and the water in

rock cracks help to speed up the breakdown of rocks?

A. Freezing water dissolves warm rocks.

B. Water cements rocks together.

C. Ice smoothes the surface of rocks.

D. Freezing water expands in the rock cracks.

Question 7.2

There are many fossils of marine animals, such as clams, fish and corals, in the Limestone A layer of the

Grand Canyon. What happened millions of years ago that explains why such fossils are found there?

A In ancient times, people brought seafood to the area from the ocean.

B Oceans were once much rougher and sea life washed inland on giant waves.

C An ocean covered this area at that time and then receded later.

D Some sea animals once lived on land before migrating to the sea.

Whether or not you know the answers to these questions I think it is important to think about what it means to be good or bad at such questions. As someone who studied mathematics and who considers himself a scientist, I can tell you that these questions are both simple and irrelevant to the average human being. One can lead a prosperous and fulfilling life without knowing the answer to any of them. Why then are test makers, newspapers, and Secretaries of Education, hysterical that the Chinese are better at them than their U.S counterparts?

One answer is that every nation needs scientists and that knowing the answer to these questions is on the critical path to becoming a scientist. I can assure you that that is simply false.

Whether or not a nation needs scientists, it surely doesn’t need very many of them. In any case, while scientists I know would know the answers to these questions, that has nothing to with the reason they have been successful as scientists. More relevant would be a personality test that sought to find out how creative you were or how receptive you were to new ideas or how willing you were to entertain odd hypotheses. Having been a professor who supervised PhD students from many different countries, I can assure you that Chinese students are very good at learning what the teacher said and telling it back to him. Of course they do well on tests if they come from a culture where that is valued. In the U.S., questioning the teacher is valued and most U.S. scientists have stories about how they fought with their teachers on one occasion or another. If we need scientists why not find out what characteristics successful scientists actually have? Memorizing answers is probably not one of them. You don’t win Nobel Prizes, something the U.S. is still quite good at, by memorizing answers.

But, of course, the problem with the U.S. education system is not in any way our lack of ability to produce scientists. We are very good at it actually.

Our problem is that a large proportion of the population can’t reason all that well. We don’t teach them to reason after all. What we do is teach them mathematics and science they will never need and then pronounce them to be failures and encourage them, one way or another, to drop out of school. Brilliant. We also to paraphrase President John Adams, don’t “teach them how to live or how to make a living.”

As usual, neither Arne Duncan nor the new media has a clue about the real issue in education. To paraphrase President Clinton “ It’s the curriculum, stupid.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I've officially given this blog over to Bernie Sanders. Well, not really. But I can't think of an issue more fundamental in defining who we are as Americans and more important to our nation's economic and educational future than what Bernie discussed in his old-school, non-filibuster filibuster on Friday. Economic justice -- along with sensible tax policy -- is something too few on Capitol Hill and too few Americans care to consider. But it's centrally related to the future educational outcomes of our people -- research shows that socioeconomic factors are more important even than teacher quality, a frequent topic of my posts and a central feature of my professional work.

I note that former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Robert Reich, in his Twitter feed (@RBReich) today, backs up a point I made about these proposed tax cuts being a precursor to Republican efforts to launch an assault on domestic spending and entitlements -- using the federal budget deficit made so much worse by these tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires as their rationale.

I said: "I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized."

Reich wrote: "$900 b tax cut w/ lion's share for rich explodes deficit and makes future domestic discretionary spending sitting duck for R cuts."

Yes, folks. This isn't just about tax cuts for the richest Americans. This is but a front in the war to reduce the size of government regardless of its collateral damage to Americans who need government the most.

Economic inequality is already at an all-time high in this country -- even higher than prior to the start of the Great Depression. Our educational system only has a finite amount of power to overcome such overwhelming inequities. If these forces are left unchecked, it may become an impossible job, especially as education programs themselves may fall victim to all-too-easily-predictable budget cuts.

The rich, on the the other hand, will continue to party like it's 1929. Only the party's even better this time 'round. So much for the national economy being a collective good.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bernie Sanders

Vermont's U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a hero for speaking truth to power, something he has been doing his entire life, regardless of whether it's been politically popular. He's one of the few public officials who has entered the U.S. Senate chamber and not become co-opted by it. Now, I may be biased as a former Vermonter who watched his rise from third-party also-ran to mayor of Burlington to U.S. congressman to U.S. senator. Bernie is genuine, he is forthright, perhaps a bit holier than thou at times. He is the real deal.

Check out his 13-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on November 30, 2010 providing a compelling and detailed analysis of historic economic inequality in America and the duplicity of Republicans talking woefully about the national debt and budget deficit one minute and pushing as their top priority tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires that would break the bank the next. Sanders is one of the few national leaders making any sense today and putting economic inequality and proposed tax breaks into historical context. It's probably because he is one of the few that actually cares.

On Saturday, we watched as Republicans voted in lockstep against two alternatives to extending the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans regardless of income. One proposal would have extended tax cuts to all families first $250,000; another to all families' first million. Even millionaires and billionaires would have continued to enjoy lower taxes on some of their income. Alas, why should the rich settle for half a loaf?

Who else thinks that the current policy debate over tax policy in Washington is absolutely insane? Not enough of us. One who does is Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who in the New York Times on December 3, 2010, laid much of the blame on President Obama:
It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right.
Sad, but true.

I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized. [UPDATE: The deal is a "budget buster." (The Atlantic)]

Now, there are would-be Democrats who are in denial and are not considering this likely outcome at all. Rather than reserving their scorn for Republican tax policy, they are attacking progressive Democrats and the likes of Bernie Sanders. Shame on them.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the President suffered a split lip in a pick-up basketball game. How I wish he were as willing to put his body on the line for economic fairness as he was for a rebound!

I am encouraged that Senator Sanders has expressed a willingness to use the filibuster to put the breaks on extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. God knows that Republicans have used the filibuster -- or the threat of one -- for dozens of nefarious purposes, including preventing extensions of unemployment insurance, regulation of Wall Street, and recently more rationale tax cut extension proposals. Imagine! A progressive willing to stand up for what's right and not "punt on third down," to use the words of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.

At this time, I couldn't be more disappointed in President Obama. I have always been a political realist, voting for the "least bad" candidate when necessary, and a life-long Democrat. I honestly don't know what I might do in 2012. I literally couldn't sleep the other night, I was so angry. Maybe it's time to follow Robert Reich's lead and form a "Peoples' Party."

Rhetorically, President Obama is making the same mistake over and over again, putting bipartisanship ahead of smart public policy. I am not criticizing the President because I wrongly fancied him a liberal. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was one of his chief campaign pledges for Chrissakes! I'm criticizing him on the substance of the issue, for walking away from a campaign promise (without fighting for it), and for making the same tactical mistake he made during the health care battle: working feverishly to assemble a bipartisan coalition for health care reform when there was no real willingness among Republicans to meet in the middle. In the current case, he horse-traded away a key campaign plank and agreed to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years plus deeper estate tax cuts, while only receiving a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and one year of payroll tax cuts.

I'll give the New York Times the last word. In this morning's editorial, it writes:
President Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend all the Bush-era income tax cuts is a win for the Republicans and their strategy of obstructionism and a disappointing retreat by the White House....

The Republicans gave up very little except for their unconscionable stance of holding up all other Congressional action until they ensured that the richest Americans keep their tax cuts.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bill Gates: Wrong Again; How should we rate teachers?

An article in the New York Times today says that Bill Gates is spending $355 million so that teachers will be rated in a coherent fashion. This rating, of course, has to do with how teachers improve their students test scores over time. This an obvious waste of money if you question the value of test scores, which of course, neither the New York Times, nor Bill Gates have even considered.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that it is important to rate teachers. Here I list Schank's criteria for rating teachers:

does the teacher inspire students?
does the teacher encourage curiosity?
does the teacher help students feel better about themselves?
does the teacher encourage the student to explore his or her
own interests?
does the teacher encourage the student to come up with his or
her own explanation for things they don't understand?
does the teacher set him or herself up as the ultimate
does the teacher encourage failure so that the student can learn
from his or her own mistakes?
does the teacher care about the students?

Really, how hard is it to recognize that these aspects of teaching are tremendously more important than test score improvement?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Silver Linings

It's probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I'm a Democrat. That said, in my professional life, I have worked for non-partisan and non-profit organizations committed to working with public officials of all political persuasions. And I think that both political parties -- as well as political independents -- are potential partners in improving pubic education. Nonetheless, I can't honestly say that November 2010 was an uplifting month from my (electoral) perspective.

But this is the Education OPTIMISTS blog, right? I guess I'm a little self-aware in that I recognize that a majority of my posts grouse about something or other and too few are offered in a truly optimistic vein. So here is my attempt at weaving a silk purse from an elephant's(?) ear.

Newly elected Republican governors and state legislators have opportunities to improve education in ways that some of their Democratic counterparts may not. They may be more politically willing and able to take on certain vestiges of the education status quo that may not be research-based, may not be working, and may be not be in service of student outcomes. I'm talking about things like the traditional steps-and-lanes teacher salary schedule, the length of the school day and year, and largely purposeless teacher evaluation systems. They may be able to construct new human capital systems and reform outdated school practices and processes. Certainly, these opportunities will vary depending upon numerous contextual factors, including state systems of educational governance, the intellectual and policy foundations for such work, the existence of non-governmental advocates and thought partners, existing vehicles for collaboration (such as p-16 councils), etc.

A number of past Republican governors emerged as leaders, or so-called "education governors." Some that immediately come to mind are former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, outgoing Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, and former Tennessee Gov. (and current U.S. Senator) Lamar Alexander (who also served as U.S Education Secretary under President George H.W. Bush).

That said, here's where my pessimism takes over. There are certainly members of the current Republican gubernatorial circle that are certainly not in the running for such an earned label, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With less than a year in office, he has moved in a decidedly confrontational direction. His actions and rhetoric makes him better suited for talk radio than as a collaborative education governor who needs to work with a Democratic-controlled state legislature and, yes, with teachers. Christie is casting himself as a modern-day Archie Bunker and is relishing the attention and headlines he is getting. The sad fact is that such rhetoric is what garners attention in today's media rather than the dogged policy work that actually changes the equation for students and teachers.

Christie seems to think that leadership consists of rhetoric rather than results. And that's dangerous if our collective goal is the creation of meaningful reform as opposed to simply talk or threats of it. Christie has attacked his own state's relatively good educational performance in order to further his demonizing of the state teachers' union, which appears to be his primary priority. He fired his first education commissioner who dared to strike a compromise with teachers around New Jersey's aborted Race to the Top application. That former commissioner said that the Governor "placed fighting with the state teachers unions and his persona on talk radio above education reform." Good luck to those who seek to thrust him upon America as a 2012 candidate for President.

My fear is that there those within the ranks of new Republican governors that are more likely to fashion themselves in the style of Christie than as "old school" education governors. Texas Governor Rick Perry's ascension to head the RGA probably doesn't help either.

With the exception of the 12 Race to the Top winners, one challenge that these new office holders of both parties will face is the distinct lack of new resources to inject into the educational system, either from state or federal sources. They won't be able to buy reforms by increasing education funding or refashion teacher pay with a major infusion of cash.

My hope is that governors of both parties will seek to work with educators to accomplish their policy objectives rather than force their desires onto them. There is good evidence to suggest that collaboration leads to more resilient and relevant policies that are likely to trickle down to actually change practices and processes within classrooms and schools. That's where the real work gets done.

I am hopeful that some quiet leaders will emerge.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tallulah starts our new Experiential on line MBA

We have been working for the last two years on building a learning by doing project-based on line MBA program with La Salle University's Business Engineering School in Barcelona. The program finally launched in October. Students are happy and excited and no one exemplifies this excitement more than Tallulah. She is the secretary to the President of La Salle BES. She decided she wanted to take an MBA this year and signed up for the traditional classroom-based one that La Salle still offers.

When her boss heard about this, he persuaded her to try our new on line experiential MBA instead. After one month of work she compared what she knew how to do with the people she knew in the regular classroom-based MBA. While they had been mostly listening to lectures, she had already been working on a complex case of a failing winery. She had been analyzing financial statements, preparing financial projections, and getting ready to propose solutions.

While our students learn how to do real world tasks, others sit in a classroom, hear about theories, and take tests.

The future is here.

Building A Better Teacher

If you haven't been reading the excellent "Building A Better Teacher" news series in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, you should be. It really doesn't matter whether you're from Wisconsin or not, or particularly interested in this state's policy context. The series is taking an expansive look at the various issues related to human capital development, teacher effectiveness and teaching quality. And it's not quoting the same overused Beltway prognosticators to drive its points home.

The fourth installment in the eight-part series, funded by Hechinger, ran this past Sunday and was entitled "Trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools."

My main quibble with this particular article was that it gave short shrift to one of the most effective answers to the question posed: How do we steer strong teachers to weak schools? The answer: Improve the teaching conditions at those schools.

Here's the extent of what the article offered on this issue:
So what else might be done, in hopes of having more impact? A few ideas in nutshells:

Make schools better places to work: This is both the simplest and most complex solution. The New Teacher Project report in 2007 said, "The best way to staff high need schools is to make them attractive to great teachers." But how do you achieve that?

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: "A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them.... We're also looking at schools that are safe."

My suggestion would have been a much more robust treatment and discussion of the issue of teaching conditions. I have extrapolated on its importance in a series of blog posts, and the New Teacher Center (my employer) has unique national expertise in administering statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions surveys. The NTC has a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to administer a Teaching & Learning Conditions Survey as part of the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. The Survey is being administered in select schools and districts participating in the MET project across the country.

Perhaps Wisconsin and Milwaukee, in particular, should consider administering such an anonymous full population survey to its educators -- teachers, administrators and support staff -- and see what they have to say. Why do they stay or leave a given school or district? What's working and what isn't? States and districts that have administered such surveys have used the data to improve principal preparation, rewrite professional standards for teachers and principals, and strengthen teacher mentoring and professional development. This is not data to be afraid of but data that can empower policymakers, school leaders and teachers alike.

Teaching and learning conditions are highly correlated with issues such as teacher retention and the presence of such conditions explain as much as 15 percent of the variance in student achievement between schools (Helen 'Sunny' Ladd, 2009). This stuff matters greatly in the current policy debates about teaching and student outcomes and it gets far too little attention as compared with value added, teacher evaluation and teacher pay.