Thursday, September 13, 2012


Friday Fragments

Quote from program accreditation visiting team leader yesterday: “Surprisingly, the faculty seem to respect the administration.”  I think that’s what they call a left-handed compliment.


We had “back to school” night at The Boy’s school this week.  The principal, a nice man, desperately needed a public speaking class, but what really struck me was the number of times that everyone mentioned the statewide standardized test.  The principal mentioned it several times, the vice principal mentioned it, and every teacher mentioned it.  It became clear that the entire curriculum has been built around the test.

It even showed up in little ways.  Every subject gets one period per day except math, which gets two.  Math homework is posted online every day, so parents can get it if the kid forgot to bring the book home.  Teachers in key subject areas -- reading and math -- stay late one day a week for extra review for any kid who wants/needs it.  

I have to admit being torn.  Yay for some unapologetic academic rigor and focus, but there was a certain joylessness to it.  And I couldn’t help but notice how young most of the teachers were.


The Wife is employed!  She has taken a paraprofessional position in The Girl’s school, providing extra help in reading and math -- there’s a theme here -- for kids who need it.  Academically, she’s preposterously overqualified, but the schedule works really well with young kids: she’s home when they’re home, whether it’s winter break, obscure holidays, or summer.  

The world would be a lovely place if work schedules more generally were more compatible with the demands of parenting.  It isn’t, so TW is willing to work well below her abilities in order to be able to be home when the kids are.  We’re lucky to be able to afford to make that choice, but it would be nice if jobs that required professional-level credentials offered more options.

As I know well from the college, the real issue is health benefits.  Someday...


At a meeting this week, our finance guy referred to the college’s five year plan, which he said would culminate in a great leap forward.  Have to admit, it gave me pause.


Was it me, or was the iphone announcement a little underwhelming?  I usually come away from those announcements with a bad case of gadget lust; this time, not.  

The breakthrough I’m waiting for is less on the gadget side than on the service side.  Right now I have a choice: lousy cell service that’s reasonably priced, or good service that’s really expensive.  The gadget that provides good service at reasonable cost will win me over.

A mini-ipad with data-only service and voip might do it.  But I can’t get past what the name “mini ipad” would do to the standard-sized one.

4. Great Leap Forward! Five Year Plan! Your college finances are run by Maoists and Stalinists?

1. It is a real compliment. It is a slam against the quality of leadership at other colleges.

2. Pay attention, to the extent possible, to how they teach math and see if you can figure out how that joylessness translates into test-passing with no learning and high placement into Developmental Math. (You might even see if those young teachers actually like math, personally, and know math beyond the Teacher's Edition.) Just Sayin'.

3. Heard that same "took a dodgy job for the health benefits" comment just the other day.

Following on CCPhysicist's point, you should read this, Dean Dad:

It very explicitly ties all the standardized testing stuff you observed to the increased need for remedial classes in college.

It also ties all of that to the teachers' strike in Chicago, which you should be following. This is what Chicago teachers are striking about.
standardized testing is fully directing all classroom activities at this point. like you said: good and bad.

wait until your wife has an experience like my coworker (who volunteers in the same manner):
him: you know all of this. why are you on an IEP, doing remedial work?
kid: please don't tell anyone. i only have to do half of the work, and i can get away with so much more...
him: *stunned*

and if you want a laugh on the iphone, read theonion's recent article, where they reveal a certain word that is engraved in the back of the phone. sums up a lot of how people feel about apple and their users.
Up in Ontario, we don't have the high stakes standardized testing in schools, and hopefully we never will. Our students seem to be doing just fine. Sure a little academic rigour and focus is appreciated, but imagine all K-12 like that.

Math homework is posted online every day, so parents can get it if the kid forgot to bring the book home.

Remember those stories of folks dropping out of high school only to start working at a mail room of Big Company, only to become a high level exec years later? Or a wayward student skidding through high school only to discover their true selves in college for the better? Please do, because those stories are literally becoming impossible to happen now.
Surprisingly, the big issues in the Chicago school strike are not about salary or medical benefits. They are about the system to be used to rate teachers. The management proposal is to make a large fraction of a teacher’s rating be based on their students’ performance on a standardized test. I can see why the union would object to this. For one, such a rating system has the potential to punish a teacher for things that are largely out of their control. Probably even more serious, such a system might encourage massive cheating, in which teachers fake the results or even give the students the answers to the test, just to keep themselves out of trouble at rating time. There is of course no justification for cheating on a test, either by the students or by the teacher, but I can see how a teacher might be tempted. I am certainly going to teach to the test if my job depends on the results. If I knew that my raise and perhaps even my job depended on how well my students do on that standardized test, they surely are going to do well, by hook or by crook.

Teachers unions are widely bashed in the media and by lots of politicians. They are blamed for just about everything that is wrong in K-12 education today. They are blamed for the high cost of education, and are blamed for poorly-performing students, and they are blamed for so many students who show up at college ill-prepared. They supposedly prevent principals and administrators from managing their staffs in an efficient manner. A union contract supposedly makes it virtually impossible to get rid of a bad teacher.

I have never been in a union, but I imagine there are some good aspects to being in a union. For example, being in a union would prevent the school system from firing me and replacing me with the superintendent’s son-in-law. A union contract would prevent management from raising my teaching load to astronomical levels or from packing my classes with 60 students. Under most union contracts, salaries are determined strictly by seniority, and everybody gets the same percentage raise, irrespective of performance. A lot of administrators bitterly resent this aspect of unions, since they strongly prefer to reward their highest performers with generous salary increases and bonuses and to punish their lazy slackers with low raises and perhaps no raises at all. However, I have found that most performance review systems tend to be rather arbitrary and capricious and are heavily laden with politics and favoritism.

Yes, I was surprised to find that medical benefits were not a big factor in the Chicago teachers’ strike. Most labor disputes and strikes these days involve management attempts to save money by cutting back on employee medical benefits, to raise employee contributions to their medical insurance plans, and to increase the copays. I wish that a lot of school administrations (along with companies and corporations in general) would lobby for a single-payer medical insurance system, something like Medicare for all. Wouldn’t they really like to get this monkey off their backs?

Yay for TW! Volunteer job leads to network leads to, "we have to hire this person she's great." Tell your students this story - it's the only way to get jobs these days. Internships, volunteer work whatever - you have to have a network.

Two periods of math huh? Maybe they should just feed them breakfast (

To put this all in perspective, Europe and China do just fine with high stakes testing - but the outcome affects the students as much or more than their school. And in my area, the number of students who get extra tutoring outside of school is enormous (>30%) so that extra period of reading and math happens - just not in school and not for free.
Double periods of Math won't help if the curriculum is bad.
The management proposal is to make a large fraction of a teacher’s rating be based on their students’ performance on a standardized test.

Which means that teaching disadvantaged children will cost the teacher money now. I wonder how many of those advocating this would be happy with 40% of their salary determined by how well people who have no legal responsibility perform at a boring task they don't give a shit about?
CCPhysicist said...
4. Great Leap Forward! Five Year Plan! Your college finances are run by Maoists and Stalinists?

I'm always amazed at how few people see the parallels between the way corporations were run and the way the USSR was organized.
Long time reader, rare commenter. Congrats to TW!

You write about her in such a lovely way, and her new job seems like a great step in her quest to make your local schools a better place.
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