October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

No bloggage today; I've got tons of meetings, a luncheon, a dinner, and a show to attend. I shall post photos of my costumes later.


Posted by kswygert at 09:54 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

October 28, 2005

A fear of ghosts

The celebration of witches and skeletons and ghosts won't happen this year at a Massachusetts elementary school:

When students at Underwood Elementary School walk to their classrooms on Monday, there will be no witches, SpongeBob SquarePants, or Johnny Damons there to greet them.

The school's principal said yesterday he acceded to the complaints of a handful of parents who said that because the school's traditional Halloween celebrations offended their religious beliefs, they would not send their children to school if the revelry continued this year.

''Not everyone is going to agree with the decision, and I really understand that," said principal David Castelline, who last year grew a beard and dressed up as Johnny Damon. ''But I felt the goal was really important to make it a respectful and open and welcoming place for all members of our community."

I don't know if he's as calm about the situation as he sounds. Any principal willing to grow a beard for his costume sounds pretty committed to the ideals of Halloween.

But seriously, these sorts of things always amaze me. I'm surprised schools give in when parents threaten to keep children home. If parents are really that concerned about the holiday, then they should be allowed to work out a plan that will allow their child to stay home without falling behind. But to ban a holiday because a few people are offended does seem to open up the door for banning other holidays as well. And it seems very odd - and hypocritical - to me that schools would work so hard, in general, to promote diversity and open-mindedness, and not ask for parents and students to in general be tolerant of activities in which they choose not to participate.

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October 24, 2005

Gym class for the 21st century

You know, I think this is a great idea:

The Minneapolis school system's online physical education allows kids to choose a physical activity they enjoy, do it for 30 minutes three times a week -- on their own time -- while keeping an online journal. A parent or coach must confirm the student did the activities, and a fitness test at semester's end will turn up any cheaters. Course choices have ranged from weight-lifting to swimming to horseback riding...

Josh Boucher, a 15-year-old sophomore, has a hip condition that makes it difficult for him to run. But he also has a black belt in karate, and last summer was able to turn his training into his phys ed class. "I was doing so much physical activity -- more than most gym classes," Boucher said. "Now I can get credit for it."

He also rejects the idea that the online classes are easier than traditional gym. Students must study the health benefits of their activities and get assignments on related topics like healthy eating. "It's time-consuming," Boucher said. "We had hours of written work where we were learning about fitness and how to better our lives. More than I'd ever had in gym class."

Just think - No stupid uniforms. No having to spend an hour between 8 and 3 playing volleyball with people you may not like. No icky school showers. If your kid's shy, get 'em into something that isn't a contact sport; if your kid's a little demon, they can learn a real competitive skill instead of a watered-down gym class that has to be approved by everyone's parents.

I wish I could have done gym class this way. For most of my life I thought I was completely unathletic because I can't do anything well that requires me to hit a ball. With this option I would have been off the softball field and into a kickboxing class like shot through a goose.

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October 21, 2005

At some schools, you'd need witchcraft to make test scores rise

A Utah teacher was fired in 2003 over concerns about witchcraft, and the whole matter is now coming out in the civil trial:

Some community members in Monroe were concerned that Erin Jensen might believe in witchcraft, witnesses testified Thursday, and at least one janitor wondered why the English teacher resisted having her classroom cleaned.

The talk grew, with the cleaning staff saying that the classroom windows were covered with black paper and someone even claiming that Jensen "kept blood in the fridge." Finally, after receiving several calls between them, two Sevier School District board members shared what they had been told with Superintendent Brent Thorne.

"We didn't ask him to act on it [the information]," said Carolyn Washburn, one of the board members. Washburn, who left the board in 2004, said she did not take the allegations seriously. But she acknowledged parental concerns that Jensen told her class some people believe in witchcraft were part of the reason she voted to uphold Thorne's decision to fire Jensen.

Minutes from a board meeting about Jensen included the following:

Besides the statements about Jensen's actions at the training seminar, the minutes said: "She also believes in witchcraft and paints her windows in her classroom black. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she doesn't hide the fact she prefers the dark side."

That segment was later taken out as an "inaccuracy", but it's very telling that it was inserted in the first place to describe Jensen, who claims to be of no religion - including not being a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Well, if she's looking for work, there's always Wal-Mart.

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Students gone wild

Our First Amendment rights are precious things. They define a large part of what it feels like to be an American. And, as with many other rights in America, it seems to always be students who like to push the envelope just a tad.

One UC-San Diego undergrad, in fact, put a tape of himself having sex with an "unidentified actress" on Koala TV, the campus's closed-circuit TV station. The student council has not yet decided to ban "graphic depictions of sexual activity involving nudity" on the station, and amateur porno star Steve York considers this to be "a statement in support of student rights and National Freedom of Speech Week." The tape appears to have been a big hit, although given that the campus is described as "socially-dead," perhaps the viewers mistook it for an online class in sex ed.

Another student, instead of praise, is facing terrorism charges over a high school essay:

Boaz High School freshman who wrote an essay proposing a "Killer Day" when everyone would be allowed to kill two people to relieve stress has been charged with making a terrorist threat.

The 14-year-old girl, who also wrote that she wanted to kill President Bush, was arrested last week and is scheduled for a Nov. 1 hearing. Court officials declined to release her name or provide other information Wednesday, citing the confidentiality rules of Alabama's youthful offender law.

Hmmm. If she's looking for ways that people can "relieve stress," I think that once she's of age, she should move to San Diego and look up Steve York. Sounds like a "Porno Day" gets you in less trouble than a "Killer Day."

Posted by kswygert at 12:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A view from the inside - of the skull

If you live anywhere near Philadelphia, run, do not walk to the Body Worlds exhibit at the Franklin Insitute. You HAVE to see it – especially if you have kids who are into science and aren’t skeeved out by the idea of dead bodies. I went last night and it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

That photo on the first page of this link? That’s a real person, as are all the other bodies and body parts shown in the exhibit. You can see more photos of them here.

From the website:

What is BODY WORLDS? Gunther von Hagens' BODY WORLDS: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, is a first-of-its-kind exhibit in which guests learn about anatomy, physiology, and health by viewing real human bodies, preserved through an extraordinary method called "plastination." The exhibition features more than 200 authentic human specimens, including entire bodies as well as individual organs and transparent body slices. Using the revolutionary process of plastination, the body specimens are preserved with special plastics that enable us to view the many organs and systems under our skin. The exhibit also allows for guests to understand diseases, the effects of tobacco consumption, and use of artificial supports such as knees and hips.

That's right. Lots of dead bodies, all plastinated and in various arrangments - some with just muscles, some with just arteries, some with just bone. Some have all the parts there but have been taken apart and rearranged so you can see everything. One memorable fellow was largely intact except for his skin - which was also plastinated and draped over his right arm like a long coat.

Posted by kswygert at 11:58 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A problem with research?

A perspective published in EdWeek.org argues that good, solid research isn't that helpful in the educational system nowadays:

I no longer believe that education research will turn our schools around. And it’s not likely to help us to fix our ailing schools for very specific reasons. First, research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually. The findings tend to be written for other researchers in academicspeak and appear in relatively obscure journals.

True enough. The general incomprehensibility of educational jargon has been widely mocked in the real world.

Second, even if research findings were more accessible, they wouldn’t be widely read. Teachers, principals, superintendents, and politicians are generally not consumers of research.

And whose fault is that? Don't the first three groups listed above generally hold at least a bachelor's degree? If they aren't consumers of research, perhaps the problem lies in their training to be part of the educational system.

The author continues with a few more reasons that research isn't used, or used well, in today's educational environment, before moving on to this:

Sixth, much education research is flawed because it relies so heavily on a flawed measure—standardized test scores.

Anyone surprised that this attitude shows up here? No? Let's move on.

Test scores may be the only “objective” data available, but they’re not necessarily a reliable measure of student learning.

Ah, no. "Reliability" has a very specific meaning when it comes to testing, and in an article that talks about how educators aren't generally consumers of research, it's ironic - or perhaps not - that the author appears to be misusing this technical term. Most, if not all, multiple-choice standardized tests that are developed for use are in fact highly reliable, because reliability in testing means consistency of measurement, or the extent to which the results are similar over different forms of the same test or occasions of test administration. Items that are objectively scored are more likely to produce similar test-retest results for examinees.

Exams composed of primarily multiple-choice items tend to have high reliability, and in fact most test developers shoot for a reliability of .90 for these types of exams. The addition of open-ended items, performance-based items - in fact, all the less-structured types of assessments that so many educators are fond of - usually lessen the reliability of these types of exams.

So I'm not sure why the author used low reliability as a criticism here, since that's probably where the least amount of error appears in this type of exam.

Nor do they measure many of the traits we hope schooling will produce in kids—like good habits of mind and behavior. They don’t measure Howard Gardner’s other intelligences, like artistic talent, athletic prowess, or social skills. After kids leave formal schooling, they’ll be judged for the rest of their lives on the quality of their work and their personal and professional behavior. Test scores are a poor proxy for those qualities and for a wide range of other skills and abilities.

Ah, the old "But my kid is so high in kinesthetic intelligence!" argument. What testing critics are hoping you don't notice with this type of criticism is the fact that, if you can't read and write and do basic calculations - skills for which test scores tend to be extremely good proxies - your chances of economic success in our society are extremely low, regardless of your academic or artistic abilities. Sure, there are kids with rock-bottom SATs who make big bucks on stage or on a playing field, but the percentage of Americans who make a living with those skills alone is pretty darn small.

What this type of testing critic wants you to conclude is that kids who do well on standardized tests have learned many literacy- and numeracy-related facts without really understanding them, that these skills are utterly separate from other mental and physical abilities, and that the development of skills that are measurable with tests always happens at the expense of other critical skills. I think that's nonsense. You want to teach your kids good habits of mind, good social skills, and some touch football or ballet as well? Then explain to them that, unless they're prodigies, they'll be supporting themselves with their minds, not their bodies, later on in life, and skills such as discipline and teamwork will serve them just as well later on life as they will on their upcoming exams.

Does research show that high test scores predict everything a kid will do later in life? Of course not. But I think there's sufficient research to show that low test scores are a sign of a real problem, and a strong indication that intervention is needed. Maybe if schools of education impressed this upon the would-be teachers and principals, educational research would have a bit more impact on education today.

Posted by kswygert at 09:51 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

October 20, 2005

Are words really enough?

The Education Wonks are skeptical about the theory that mere words can stop bullies:

Irving Middle School [Idaho] administrators brought in motivational speaker Terry Brewer Tuesday to teach students how to use humor to deflate bullies, but the district's counselors stress that the assembly is just one example of how District 25 tackles bullying every day.

“(Bullying) is one of our top three priority issues we work on all the time. It is not a novel topic. Keeping school culture safe is an absolute priority because people don't learn well in conditions that are hostile or intimidating. And the other issue, it is a matter of human dignity,” said Jefferson Elementary School counselor Jan McCormick...

McCormick said teachers and school counselors weave anti-bullying strategies, such as conflict management, multicultural and diversity training, into the curriculum every day, beginning in kindergarten and ending at high school graduation...She said this systematic approach has changed the schools' culture for the better, and decreased the number of bullies substantially.

I think the Wonks are too skeptical (although I'd like to see some hard data to back up McCormick's claims that her school is actually safer now). I think words can defeat bullies, if enough kids are willing to stand up and speak out. As with all violent behavior, though, there has to be a non-pacifist - in this case, the teacher or principal - who is willing to step in and mete out some serious punishment when an empathetic mediator gets flattened by a bully with a low EQ. Without that backup, I wouldn't want any kid of mine to be "mediating" schoolyard disputes.

Posted by kswygert at 04:12 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

La latest Carnival

The latest version of the Carnival of Education has arrived. Don't miss Tim Fredericks' thoughtful discussion on why it's so hard to get students motivated these days.

Posted by kswygert at 04:04 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Test scores up, and teachers are angry?

In Ontario, the test scores have risen, but the tests are under fire:

Standardized test scores released Wednesday show Ontario students are improving, but the elementary teachers' federation says the tests are a waste of money while the NDP says the politicians "cheated."

The 2004-05 tests found that 59 per cent of Grade 3 students met or surpassed the provincial standard in reading (up five per cent from the previous year). The result was 61 per cent in writing (up three per cent) and 66 per cent in math (up 2 per cent). The Grade 6 results also show improvements...

So what's the problem? The teachers' foundation says the resources used for tests would be better spent on instructional support. The "cheating" charge flows from recent changes to the test that included shortening the length and allowing more calculator usage. Could this have made the items easier? Most definitely, if this exam was not equated to earlier ones to account for the changed rules. Depending on the extent of the modifications, one could argue that the exam has changed so dramatically that this year can't really be compared with previous years, even after equating has been done.

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Be a Picky Parent

Authors Bryan and Emily Hassel, who wrote, "The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School with Confidence," are interviewed at Connect For Kids. They also have a website, PickyParent.com, which has some interesting lists for parents. My favorite was Top Ten Signs of a Mediocre School, which noted that parents should beware of a school in which test scores are entirely predictable based on race. I find this amusing, as so many test critics insist that all standardized tests are in fact measures of nothing other than race and SES, while so many good schools with high test scores for minority and lower-income students go right on disproving that theory.

Posted by kswygert at 03:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Are the bad getting better while the better get worse?

Opinion Journal's Best of the Web wonders if there's been an interesting spin on test scores in Michigan. Here's the bad news:

Michigan African-American fourth- and eighth-graders scored much worse in reading and math than African-American students in the United States as a whole, according to national test results released Wednesday. The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress results show significant improvement in math. But the test results show little improvement in reading scores overall since 1992.

Now, the good news:

The good news is that the gap between black and white students' scores in math and reading within Michigan has decreased.

BotW assumes that the gap could not have closed without white students performing worse, and this article (interestingly) does not mention white student performance. But it does say that black students have improved in math and stayed level in reading. The "reverse Lake Wobegon" effect might be happening for reading, but not necessarily for math. If the black students have improved in math while the white students stayed even, and stayed level in reading while the white students declined slightly, we'd see this pattern.

I couldn't find change information by ethnic group and state in the 2005 report, but if you manage to see that anywhere, let me know.

Posted by kswygert at 03:39 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 18, 2005

The joys of independence without the bother of external standards

The News-Leader (MO) covers a presentation by an educator with a radical plan for schools that might be suitable for, oh, about 1% of the student population:

Just hear me out, educator Bruce Smith told a small crowd Monday at Drury University. Students should set their own schedule, work at their own pace and decide, in many ways, what they want to learn. Smith was providing an overview of the Sudbury schools model, which emphasizes independence and democracy - with students and teachers being the governing force and decision makers.

Here we go again. The fetishization of unstructured learning and the assumption that students today always know enough about what they like to choose anything at all.

Smith is a former Columbia high school teacher who left public schools because he thought the system was squashing the natural curiosity in children. The schools stress independent thinking and de-emphasize standardized testing. Students are encouraged to follow their passions.

I wonder if "follow" means "learn the facts about," or if it's okay to just be independently "interested." One could argue that being passionate yet uninformed about a topic is worse than being ignorant and uninterested.

Students ages 4-19 are accepted. There are no formal grades. Depending on state standards, many Sudbury schools do not require standardized testing.

If there are no formal grades, the anti-testing attitude is a given. Grades, and test scores, imply a set standard to which students are being compared. That standard might be a set amount of facts learned, or how other students are doing with the same material, but it's always there. Except at Sudbury schools, where their philosophy sounds like it would make any sort of useful comparison virtually impossible.

After the presentation, Smith fielded audience questions ranging from student-teacher ratios - although there are no specific ratios, ratios are much smaller than in the public school system - to how the system deals with children with special needs.

I wonder if any questions were along the lines of, "What will you do to ensure that my child learns something in your school? What will you do to ensure that they learn something that will allow them to support themselves as mature adults?"

How does a student know if he's graduated - one man asked. The crowd laughed. In order to graduate, students must prepare and defend a thesis over a six-month period, Smith said.

"Say what? What if my child needs more than six months to explore his chosen passion? What if he doesn't express himself well in writing or in speech, instead choosing interpretive dance? What if his style of learning precludes him being required to defend anything about it to impartial observers? Didn't you say that he gets to decide how quickly his education goes? How dare you set such an arbitrary and unmoving standard! My child is special and can't possibly develop his passionate work of, of, whatever it is, on that sort of schedule! "

And if Sudbury school administrators expect never to hear that, I have some lovely, inhabitable lakefront property in New Orleans to sell them.

One parent speaks out in support of the school:

"I would say one of the biggest ones is the ability for my daughter to be able to know herself and make choices and have freedom," Frey said. Frey is against standardized testing, saying it adds stress at a young age, doesn't test children on skills they will need in real life and places an emphasis on learning how to test, instead of learning.

Because, as we all know, life never requires that you be able to withstand any sort of test, or live by someone else's schedule. Making life choices also never requires the drudgery of learning facts. Life involves no stress, and no restrictions on freedom, and no knowledge of standardized-test friendly skills like literacy and numeracy.

Can you imagine how a child who was actually in this system from ages 4 to 19 would do in the real world? The only one I bet would survive would be the natural scientific geek who - to the horror of the school, I would think - would insist on being taught rigorous mathematics and chemistry and biology. This would be the lucky child who understood intuitively that many of the world's triumphs and adult successes don't involve passion and self-knowledge so much as they involve lots of hard work, stress, and precise calculations.

Posted by kswygert at 11:35 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Learning about the birds and bees

Well, this shouldn't surprise anyone:

The Internet apparently is a key source of sex education — and miseducation — for U.S. teenagers. About half of teens go online for health information, and they have more questions about sex than they do about any other topic, researchers reported at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting here last week.

The medical director of one teen-health website notes that the questions from many parents are just as clueless as those from teenagers. In related news, Lee at RTftLC links to another article (though his link is broken) about a school that has said to heck with federal funding for abstinence-only sex ed classes. He's in favor of teachers, rather than a computer, educating kids about sex ed, whereas I'm not so sure.

Posted by kswygert at 11:17 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Meet the new GRE, same as the old GRE

The GRE, which made waves in 1993 by transforming into a computer-adaptive exam, is being revamped again:

Although the test will still include sections on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, every section is being revised, and the test lengthened to about four hours, from two and a half hours. About 500,000 students, 20 percent to 25 percent of them foreigners, take the general G.R.E. each year. E.T.S., which administers the test, also offers subject-matter tests in such fields as biology, mathematics and physics, but those tests, taken by far fewer students, are not being changed.

To enhance security, every question on the new exams will be used only once, and the test will start at different times in different time zones, so students who have finished cannot pass on questions to those in different zones...

As of next year, the test will no longer be "computer adaptive," with test-takers getting questions tailored to their performance on previous questions, so that each gets challenging questions that provide a clear picture of what they can do. Instead, every student taking the test on a particular day will get the same questions, and those questions will not be reused.

Computer-adaptive tests, as ETS and others have discovered, require item reuse and enormous item pools to prevent any one item from being exposed too often. Good GRE items are not cheap nor easy to come by, and this change addresses security questions and helps to ensure the relationship between the items and the construct by reverting back to the one-use-per-item model. Of course, removing the adaptive algorithm also involves lengthening the exam, because the range in item difficulties for each form once again must be wide enough to adequately assess the geniuses and those who should probably strike graduate school off their "to-do" lists.

Update: Ah, the joys of knowing so many experts. I think this post was up for about two seconds when another psychometrician emailed me to remind me about the CAT version of the ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. That actually came out before the GRE-CAT, in the late 1980's, and I certainly should have remembered that, considering the truly phenomenal and exhaustive primer that exists on the subject, Computerized Adaptive Testing: From Inquiry to Operation. I can't recommend that book highly enough for anyone who wants to learn more about developing, testing, and implementing a computer-adaptive test.

Posted by kswygert at 11:05 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

A big grant to examine a big topic

The Center for Disease Control announces the award of a grant studying the factors that lead to positive and negative social development in students:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has awarded a $900,000 grant to researchers at the University of Georgia for a three-year study of high school students to help identify factors that lead to positive social and academic development, as well as factors that may contribute to aggressive behaviors and school dropout...

The new study, called "Healthy Teens," is a continuation of a previous grant that followed the same students through middle school. "Healthy Teens" will study factors that protect students from violence-related behaviors, including aggression toward peers, delinquency, dating violence, weapon carrying, drug and alcohol use, suicide thoughts and attempts, and school dropout...

The study will require that: the high school students to complete a computer survey every spring for the next three years; teachers complete a standardized and nationally-normed student behavioral rating; data be collected on student attendance, standardized test scores and discipline records; interviews be conducted with students who drop out of school; and focus groups are conducted with students to better understand the meaning of violence-related behaviors and of protective factors.

I wonder how brave the researchers will be in reporting any data that aren't politically correct (for example, if girls turn out to be worse bullies than boys, or if sexual harassment isn't related to poor performance, or if racist bullying occurs less often in white students than for other groups)? And I wonder if this research will miss the homeschooling revolution entirely and fail to notice if homeschooled youth are protected from some of the more obvious negative social influences?

Posted by kswygert at 10:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 14, 2005

The joys of statistics

Top Ten Reasons to Become a Statistician:

10. Deviation is considered normal.
9. We feel complete and sufficient.
8. We are mean lovers.
7. Statisticians do it discretely and continuously.
6. We are right 95% of the time.
5. We can safely comment on someone's posterior distribution.
4. We may not be normal but we are transformable.
3. We never have to say we are certain.
2. We are honestly significantly different.
1. No one wants our jobs.

All I can say is, #5 has given me plenty of good times as I've used it to flirt discreetly in class (or send naughty emails to female friends in my field).

And on that note, I'll see you guys on Monday - I'll be vacationing in NYC all weekend.

Posted by kswygert at 09:03 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 13, 2005

Three in a row

Via LlamaButchers and others, there's a new meme spreading 'round the blogosphere: Three Things. Here's my take on them:


1. Why everyone seems to wears jeans or sweatpants all the time.
2. "Anti-war" protests
3. Spinning hubcaps.


1. A huge jar half-filled with Hershey's Kisses.
2. A photo of my dearly-departed Arizona Mountain Kingsnake
3. Kolen & Brennan's Test Equating


1. Waiting on an analyst to give me a calibration dataset.
2. Fighting with SAS to make it give me the boxplots I want.
3. Listening to Meat Beat Manifesto.


1. Visit the Galapagos Islands and swim with marine iguanas.
2. Learn how to strike a match with only one hand.
3. Visit a fresh crime scene with a homicide detective (NB: not if the victim is someone I know).


1. Cartwheels.
2. Give a cat a pill, quickly and easily (seriously!)
3. Make linear regression equations understandable to college students.


1. Balanced.
2. Sarcastic.
3. Extroverted.


1. Drink tequila.
2. Play chess.
3. Balance a chemical equation.


1. Me.
2. Lacuna Coil.
3. Someone who's gone to the trouble to read the original source.


1. Commercials.
2. Gangsta Rap.
3. Anyone who prefaces a comment to you with, "You know, I hate to tell you this, but..."


1. "You have GOT to be kidding me."
2. "Who's my cutest little baby kitty ever?"
3. "If I have to go to one more meeting today, I'm going to kill someone."


1. Patience.
2. How to tell jokes in public speeches.
3. How to eat chocolate without gaining weight.


1. Hot tea
2. Vodka
3. Guinness


1. Tom & Jerry.
2. G-Force
3. The Mickey Mouse Show.


1. Look at the big picture
2. Not be afraid of statistics
3. Look before they leap, especially with respect to romantic partners and traffic intersections

Posted by kswygert at 02:04 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

October 12, 2005

An educational twister

Kansas wants out:

Chairman Steve Abrams wants the State Board of Education to consider opting Kansas out of the federal law that led to an additional 19 Kansas schools being labeled as failing to meet education standards last year. Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said he doesn't know how far he wants to take the discussion, but added Tuesday, "I'm trying to get to the bottom line to see what's required, to see if there's a benefit"...

Abrams acknowledged that opting out of the law could cost Kansas federal education dollars, but he said the state also spends money trying to comply with No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, newly appointed Education Commissioner Bob Corkins noted that state test scores showed that the achievement gap generally was narrowing between minority and white students, as well as between students who are learning English as a second language and native English speakers.

Posted by kswygert at 12:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Carnival time

The latest edition of the Carnival of Education is up, hosted by the delightful Jenny D. Her "Editor's Choice" pick is NewOldSchoolTeacher, blogging at Oh, snap!, who has a funny, understated description of herself on her site:

I am a student at a graduate school of education. Unfortunately, I am also smart and care about education. You see where I'm going with this.

Oh, yes we do. Don't miss her tale of terror, "Teaching a lesson in a progressive school", where the official position is to be "against" quizzes. I love her comments on why the little facts and details are important:

My teachers and others want kids to understand the "big ideas" in history, rather than memorizing facts and details. But I just don't think you can teach these big ideas directly. They are empty and meaningless by themselves. You teach the small stories, the facts, the dates, the chronology, the events, and then out of these, patterns begin to emerge. That's the beautiful part, when the students start to see them. It's like giving them tree after tree after tree, and suddenly they realize it's a forest. Or it's like that painting, by...Seurat? The one with all the little dots. There is no picture without all the dots!

It's funny, because I feel that the teaching strategy I am suggesting is actually more constructivist than my constructivist teachers. It doesn't involve lots of group work, and it doesn't shun facts, and there would have to be a lot of teacher support and prodding, but I think students could come up with a lot of "big ideas" on their own, without us directly telling them. Giving them the facts, rather than a somewhat revisionist thematic interpretation of the facts, actually gives them more power, and a forest full of trees.

No wonder "progressive" teachers hate standardized tests. We keep focusing on those damn trees - sometimes down to the level of individual leaves - while they keep trying to convince students that seeing the forest as a whole is the only important goal.

Posted by kswygert at 12:39 PM | Comments (37) | TrackBack

October 11, 2005

Cinema Kimberly

One reason that I haven't been blogging as much is because my theater attendance frequency has gone up quite a bit.

Two weekends ago I saw both Serenity and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. I fell in love with the crew of Serenity within five minutes, despite never having seen the TV show it was based upon, and now Dave and I are planning on getting a copy of Firefly on DVD and having a marathon.

Corpse Bride, on the other hand, stunk. The plot was much more boring than it should have been, none of the (one-dimensional) characters had any backstory, and there wasn't a memorable song in the entire feature.

Last night I treated myself to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which its creator referred to as, "the first horror movie for vegetarians." It was the kind of movie that doesn't require a review, because if you love W&G, you will absolutely love the movie, and if you don't love W&G, then, what the hell's the matter with you, anyways?

This weekend, Dave and I will be traveling to NYC to see, among other things, Mirrormask. I'd never heard of this until recently and can't believe how gorgeous/dark/mysterious it looks from the trailer.

Posted by kswygert at 03:17 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

What's so dumb about New Mexico?

Apparently dumb behavior is par for the course in New Mexico's schools:

The smartest state in the union for the second consecutive year is Massachusetts. The dumbest, for the third year in a row, is New Mexico.

These are the findings of the Education State Rankings, a survey by Morgan Quitno Press of hundreds of public school systems in all 50 states. States were graded on a variety of factors based on how they compare to the national average. These included such positive attributes as per-pupil expenditures, public high school graduation rates, average class size, student reading and math proficiency, and pupil-teacher ratios. States received negative points for high drop-out rates and physical violence.

Wonder how the New Mexicans feel about this? I also wonder how much of the data are driven by student populations that historically do worse on standardized tests, like Hispanics and Native Americans. From what I gather, this was a norm-based survey where all positive factors were weighted the same, and all negative factors were weighted the same.

Amusingly, a negative factor that carries the same weight as in-school violence and dropout rates is "Percent of Public Elementary and Secondary School Staff Who are School District Administrators." In other words, the more administrators you have compared to the teaching staff, the less likely that anything useful gets accomplished.

Posted by kswygert at 11:28 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Getting badder by the day

This is one way in which girls shouldn't aspire to be the equal of boys:

Cops are grappling with escalating girl-on-girl violence in Boston as fights have become so intense that the 'fair'' sex is even caking faces with Vaseline to give attackers' nails the slip. Four flare-ups between female youths at two stations on the Red and Orange lines were doused on Sept. 26 alone, according to an internal memo the Herald obtained from the MBTA. Transit police are now sending a Female Intervention Team into schools... Suffolk Law School's Juvenile Justice Center has teamed with the Operation Stop Watch partnership of Transit, Boston and school police and Suffolk juvenile probation officers to understand how and why female youths, typically ages 13 to 17, express anger.

"We've learned, as we suspected, that there is a definite spike in female youth problems, arrests and incarceration,'' said Transit Police Lt. Mark Gillespie, whose department has arrested a half-dozen teenage girls since the start of the school year for brawling in MBTA stations.

Patricia Pearson's When She Was Bad is one of the better books I've read lately on female violence. I haven't read Odd Girl Out, but it's gotten good reviews for its description of how ugly behavior rears its head quite early among young girls.

Posted by kswygert at 11:20 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The MCAT becomes the MCATCAT

The advent of computer-based testing is worrisome to would-be med students:

As if pre-meds did not already have enough to worry about, recent changes to the MCAT have some pre-med students worried about more than just mastering its content.

The Association of American Medical Colleges announced recently in a press release that it will convert the MCAT to a computer-based format within the next two years, a move that will force both students and test-prep companies to sharpen their strategies for tackling the test, rather than their pencils.

The paper format of the test will be administered through 2006, though trial versions of the computer-based test will be given at the August 2006 testing date.

There are many advantages to computer-based tests; three of the biggest ones are the shorter test length (I'm assuming here the new MCAT is adaptive as well as computerized), more testing opportunities, and shorter score report turnaround time. Based on my moderate experience with CBTs, I think that some of the fears of future examinees will turn out to be unfounded:

"With the computer-based test you can't underline passages and put notes next to text, so it's hard to map out the progression of a passage. You can't keep track of it when you have to keep switching from a computer to your notes," said Patrick Wiita, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student who has taken the MCAT.

Underlining text onscreen is a fairly simple feature to add, if it isn't already included. And it's also possible to allow a typing area on-screen for notes or comments, for those who don't feel comfortable using scratch paper.

There's also concern about computer glitches, Wiita said. "Who knows what errors could occur in programming. It's the same reason they haven't switched to online voting. If there's an error, there's no paper trail," Wiita said.

Why on earth would you want a paper trail when you can capture every keystroke? Certainly, big programming errors can occur - but paper tests can vanish in transit just as easily. If anything, the software that processes computerized testing errors tend to provide more information to the testing companies than paper errors. There will be exact records of when screens go down, where examinees were when the error occurred - and most CBT providers that I've seen have little problem restarting a test on the correct screen after an error occurs. Any testing company thinking about CBT administrations correctly places a lot of focus on error prevention and recovery.

Mustafa said new testing formats create a lot of work for test-prep companies, especially research into how students feel about the test. "We did a survey on 4,000 (students) to see how they're feeling, what they think. Eighty-two percent said they would do worse on a computer-based test," Mustafa said.

I've yet to see any research showing that examinees in fact do worse as a whole on computer-based tests. Some subgroups, in fact, do better in certain construct areas. Regardless, this is an easy enough question to answer; matched examinee groups can be compared with respect to P&P and CBT scores.

Of course, examinees may experience a feeling of doing worse if they're switching from a P&P test to an computer-adaptive test (or CAT), since the items will be tailored to their ability level and they'll see more of what they consider to be hard items. But CAT scoring scheme takes item difficulty into account, so that two examinees could miss the same number of items but end up with different scores, based on the difficulty of items that were answered correctly.

CATs have been operational in a high-stakes, large-scale environment since 1993 (when ETS pioneered the GRE-CAT), so there's quite a bit of theoretical and operational research out there to guide the development and refinement of the MCAT-CAT. Good luck to them.

Posted by kswygert at 11:08 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

You can't spell "teamwork" if you can't spell

A Wisconsin middle school has been surveying local businesses to see what they want out of their future employees:

Jack Young Middle School Principal Robert Meicher spoke about the completed Sauk County Labor Skills Survey during Monday's School Board meeting. It was directed at finding out what employers think of local students who are coming to them for jobs, he said.

"Basically they asked the businesses, ... what are you getting, what do you need and what do we need to work on?" Meicher said.

According to the survey results local business and industry managers say important skills for their employees include: a strong work ethic, preparedness and punctuality, ability to follow detailed instructions and to work as a team member, Meicher said. Things that needed improvement in students and graduates are: customer service skills, punctuality, lack of a strong work ethic and responsibility to self, family and workplace...

Schools Superintendent Lance Alwin said administrators from other districts have noted testing was not high on the list of concerns for employers answering the survey. "Almost to a person they noted, there was nothing about academic standardized test scores," he said. "It was a wholesome notation that communities have a greater expectation of schools than just what their test results are."

I'm not surprised. For one thing, most standardized tests used in schools these days are for measurement of basic academic skills. Somehow, I have the feeling that employers assume these fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic will be taught in school, and what they indicated on the survey are the additional life skills that reflect focus and maturation.

To say that employers don't care about standardized test scores is disingenuous. If asked to choose between a literate but immature applicant and one who was nice but couldn't read well, I imagine employers would choose the former. They may not care about the exact test scores, but I'm sure they'd notice if schools stopped focusing on basic skills altogether.

Posted by kswygert at 10:54 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Is an injury-free world possible?

Even school board members admit this is crazy, but they're tired of getting letters from lawyers before the ambulances even arrive:

Andrea Levin is grateful that Broward County schools care about her daughter's safety. But this year when they posted a sign that demanded "no running" on the playground, it seemed like overkill...

Broward's "Rules of the Playground" signs, bought from an equipment catalogue and displayed at all 137 elementary schools in the district, are just one of several steps taken to cut down on injuries and the lawsuits they inspire. "It's too tight around the equipment to be running," said Safety Director Jerry Graziose, the Broward County official who ordered the signs. "Our job was to try to control it."

How about swings or those hand-pulled merry-go-rounds?

"Nope. They've got moving parts. Moving parts on equipment is the number one cause of injury on the playgrounds."


"Nope. That's moving too."


"Well, I have to be careful about animals" turning them into litter boxes.

Cement crawl tubes?

"Vagrants. The longer they are, the higher possibility that a vagrant could stay in them. We have shorter ones now that are made out of plastic or fiberglass"...

"We could do a lot more if we didn't have to watch our back every single second," said Graziose, who has led a playground safety committee for 17 years. "We sometimes get a letter from the attorney before we even get an accident report from the school."

Posted by kswygert at 10:47 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 03, 2005

The Tough Teacher of the Year

Mrs. Barbara Benglian of the humongous Upper Darby High School is Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year:

Mrs. Barbara Benglian was named 2006 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year at a ceremony in Harrisburg on September 27, 2005. Dr. Gerald Zahorchak, Acting Secretary of Education, announced Mrs. Benglian's selection at the conclusion of a ceremony honoring all twelve finalists in the state competition...

Mrs. Barbara Benglian is a music teacher at Upper Darby High School in the Upper Darby School District, where she directs the Chorus, Concert Choir, and Encore Singers...Mrs. Benglian conducts her classes of over 100 students as if each were a formal rehearsal, and she treats her students as professionals, requiring them to notify her by phone if they will miss a class for any reason. Within this carefully maintained structure, musical talent blossoms and even insecure performers develop confidence to perform well on stage and in their everyday lives...

The power of Barbara Benglian’s teaching was the deciding factor in her principal Geoffrey Kramer’s decision to remain at Upper Darby High School. “She has done a phenomenal job. She has built a dynasty.” Her students learn not only music, but discipline and leadership. She describes her classroom structure simply: “Upperclass students mentor new students, and the culture of respectful learning and striving for excellence continues from year to year.”

Emphases all mine. Hmmm, I sense a theme here....

Posted by kswygert at 01:46 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Demanding only the best (fast food)

The old square pizza and spaghetti with meatballs isn't cutting it anymore:

The day started around 4,000 meals ago for Elizabeth Brookins.

She and her staff of 32 have served about 1,200 breakfasts and 2,700 lunches at Felix Varela Senior High's cafeteria, one of the largest in Florida.

They served vegetarians and probably a few vegans, teens with severe allergies and strict diets, a generation raised on Happy Meals and name-brand water and grocery shelves lined with kiddie-themed snacks.

And they cooked up all that food under pressures that Brookins' predecessors never imagined.

Parents demand sound meals that conform to constantly evolving notions about health and nutrition. Students demand the variety and familiarity of home-cooking and fast-food restaurants. Budgets demand stretching every dollar and maximizing use of bulk food donated by the federal government.

Well, I don't know what could be done with the budgets, but it seems like this pressure could be reduced if the schools conveyed to parents and students that, when it comes to cafeteria food, perhaps they should lessen their expectations a tad. Children may be "accustomed" to retail variety and may not be getting a home-cooked meal every night, but I'm not sure why schools believe they should have to step in and fill all the gaps.

And the students who are demanding brand-name fast-food should learn that they'll pay the same amount for it whether it's at school or the mall. Sounds lke a good time for a lesson in economics to me. Peanut allergies are one thing; having taxpayers fund an addiction to KFC is another.

Posted by kswygert at 06:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The courage to say no

UK schoolteacher Mike Beale has had enough:

Education expert Mike Beale said teachers are increasingly having to tell mums and dads to stand up to their kids...Speaking at an education conference in Edinburgh yesterday, Beale said: "Heads are too often at the centre of trying to educate parents that it is okay to say no to their children.

"It is essential to draw lines for those children beyond which they are not permitted to go.

"It is not essential that families are democracies. My heart still sinks when mum or dad say to me that they have made a decision, they don't really like it, but Maggie Rose really wants this, that, or the other and they are afraid not to agree.

"After all, we have to be best friends...

He added: "Roots come from discipline and appreciating that the pain of hard work is nothing like the pain of disappointment, from lines being drawn and by not being afraid to say no."

Bravo. But will parents listen?

Posted by kswygert at 06:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack