Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Children of Lake Wobegon vs the Bell Curve

Normal Distribution
Lots of phenomena in nature and human experience, when charted, creates a classic bell curve*, human height, for one. There are a few giants running around, some little people, but most of us are clumped together toward the center of a chart which plots the numbers of people on the x axis and their heights on the y axis.

Intelligence is supposedly distributed normally, but there is a ton of controversy about that. And there is also the body of research that suggests that intelligence is plastic, that we can get smarter--or more stupid. (Of course, grade school, jump-roping girls have always known that "Boys go to Jupiter/To get more stupider.")

NCLB, State Standards, and Critical Thinking
Every U.S. state tests its students on standards that each state invented. Some states have EASY standards, a few, like California, have TOUGH ones. Take a glance at this comparative study done by the Fordham Foundation of all the states--it's revealing:

Here are how California's content standards were rated:

Because each state is measuring different items, we can't accurately compare states' student performance. California may appear to be scoring lower than, say, Massachusetts, but since California's standards are so much tougher, are the students really less educated? If the students swapped tests, would the MA kids ace the CA test? Would the CA students suddenly become more proficient?

Educators are always crying about how bad it is to "teach to the test." I argue that if you have a test worth teaching to, quit crying; for math and science, "teaching to the test" is probably a good thing. But I do have grave doubts about English and history--unless you believe that history is just names and dates (and not decision making about abstract, fuzzy, controversial concepts such as power) or that reading is mere decoding (ignoring tone, irony, inferences, word choice, and creativity). How can a multiple choice test measure such nuanced and HUMAN subjects?

To further complicate matters, here are three of the goals of No Child Left Behind (the Federal Register, 3/6/02):
1) All students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014
2) By 2013-2014, all students will be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.
3) All limited English proficient students will become proficient in English. [Wow, even the newly arrived speakers?]

See why this gets tricky? If the bell curve reflects truths about human performance, then goals that "all will be proficient" are nearly impossible: "Any test that meets ordinary standards produces an approximation of...a bell curve--because achievement in any open-ended skill such as reading comprehension or mathematics really is more or less normally distributed," according to Charles Murray (WSJ, 7/25/06). "All the children cannot be above average. They cannot all even be proficient, if 'proficient' is defined legitimately." In other words, it is a self contradiction to say, as goal #1 above does, that all will reach "high standards."

Now reading is a skill, and skills are arguably teachable, but everyone knows that people master skills at different rates. If a teacher waits for 100% mastery of any skill before moving on to the next....hmmm. In order to not bore those who are ready to move on, each student will need a personally tailored educational path to help her move on only when she is ready; I can't imagine there is any way a teacher of 36 algebra students could do this on his own without computerized instruction. Very well, there are such reading and math computer programs that might be able to do this. We are trying a math program at our school this year. It'll be interesting to see what happens on the math portion of the CST. Good luck, though, trying computerized instruction with the critical thinking components of problem solving, and more good luck plus TInkerbell dust if you try to subtract the human element from teaching the elements of English and history that demand critical thinking.

K. Is Moving
All of this because I am feeling guilty about my reaction upon hearing that K.'s last day is on Monday. She is transferring to another school--and she is perhaps our lowest performing student who is not in a special day class. That's right, kids, she is on the far left end of that bell curve. No matter how I teach my guts out, K. seems to lose information and knowledge gains almost instantly. It is awful. We spend extra time with her, provide services, develop relationships--but K. persists in her gnat-like attention span, and her interest in boys and fashion do not make for academic motivators except as they are a reason to stay in school.

She is being left behind, despite all our efforts. Our good little school gets punished because the K.s of the world prevent us from meeting goal number 1 of NCLB as stated above. I wish K. the best, but the reality for public schools is we have to take ALL the kids on our softball team, not just the all stars. And dang it, K. is an "easy out."

We don't have a problem acknowledging that we are differently endowed athletically, that some of us are faster than other, for instance. But NCLB doesn't acknowledge that perhaps the same might be true intellectually; I love the social reasons for demanding the same standard for all, but practically, there are some issues.

* bell curve
A symmetrical bell-shaped curve that represents the distribution of values, frequencies, or probabilities of a set of data. It slopes downward from a point in the middle corresponding to the mean value, or the maximum probability. Data that reflect the aggregate outcome of large numbers of unrelated events tend to result in bell curve distributions. (from thefreedictionary .com)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I have that "threw a party, people came and had a great time, now comes the clean up, where's my bed" happy/tired feeling.

Yesterday after school, two kids helped me transform an ordinary bungalow into a classy, artsy space. Well as classy and artsy as simulated wood desks and plastic chairs and ugly metal blinds and acoustic tile ceiling would permit. Oh, and my budget--I went to IKEA and bought rolls of sheer panels in a tasteful array of IKEA's customary weird colors (what is up with their color palette, anyway?); a ladder, a dozen prints from American artists, four blue tablecloths and handfuls of push pins later.... they trooped, all wearing black like we agreed to. It was gratifying to hear their cries of delight, I've gotta admit.

Up the ramp came our computer delivery for those with power point projects. Our cool tech chick helped set them up.

All but one had their books ready, and all but one had their art projects ready. Pretty good, no?

Two sainted parents arrived, one with fudge, one with a chocolate fountain, both with willing hands to set up and serve as the kids brought a ton of high fat, low nutrient refreshments.

A little Segovia and bossa nova for background music helped us set up, and in ten minutes, we had our salon going!

My biggest fear was that kids would be so food-frenzied that, piranha-like, nothing would be visible but a haze of chocolate and Fritos, that the carpet would be a sticky ant trap and their books and art would be ignored. And I am thrilled to record that my biggest fear did SO NOT come true! Just the opposite! (Well, there was a chocolate haze around some--the boys, especially, were prone to strange asymmetrical moustaches, and one had what looked like brown fangs after multiple trips to the chocolate fountain.)

They sat and read. They looked at the collages and paintings. Little cries of, "You've gotta see T's project!" and "Have you seen J's pictures?" sounded for nearly two hours. A handful of parents came--one cried actual tears as she read a student's story about getting beat up at a previous school--the principal took a tour as well as the library tech and her monitors...

Now one reason I hate cooking is my doubt. I figure people are just being polite when they say they like something, because I lose my appetite when cooking and it tastes weird to me. But today was different. When adults said they enjoyed the event, I believed them. When I got an email from the cool tech chick about how it was a pleasure and she was impressed and she wants to help next time, I believed her.

When we debriefed at the end, I asked what they'd add, subtract, or change, or keep. "Keep the music and decorations!" "Keep the food!" "We need a bigger space!" "Invite more people!" There was nothing they'd subtract!

The cool thing is I hope to host another salon, and I know they will be up for it and even more into it. So I am thinking of having them come as Americans we are studying, having them produce a magazine of that era as the written piece, and as the art piece, maybe the person's photo album. They would dress in character and their conversations would be in character. What would John Brown say to Honest Abe? How would Andy Jackson get along with Abigail Adams? We already know how Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr got on...

For now, I will sleep the sleep of the bone-tired, heart-happy, anxiety-relieved hostess. The taxpayers got waaaay more than their money's worth today. We all did.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tomorrow's Salon/Definitions #2 and #3

Tablecloths, music,
art and curtains everywhere--
will it be worthwhile?

Will their artwork hold
our eyes and minds? Will their autobiographies?

Will parents see hours
of thinking, or just hungry
teens, scarfing down snacks?

Are the outcomes worth
the time? Can art compete with
a chocolate fountain?
[sa·lon (s-ln, sln, s-lô)
1. A large room, such as a drawing room, used for receiving and entertaining guests.
2. A periodic gathering of people of social or intellectual distinction.
3. A hall or gallery for the exhibition of works of art.
4. A commercial establishment offering a product or service related to fashion: a beauty salon.]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Join the Jedi

He came midyear, and after his first day, all the girls were in love with him and all the guys wanted to be him. Teachers, parents, friends--Bruce Davis, Jr made us glad to know him. He wasn't the best writer, but his astute comments during class discussions made involvement in education important, cool, even. Nobody goofed off when Bruce was around; he just thought it was silly to be disrespectful.

He was voted president of the middle school's African American Club and his leadership was palpable: positivity, peace, levelheadedness, sensibility, faithfulness all characterized this gifted young man. I believe he won "Most Leadership" in our school yearbook.

He moved to Mississippi after his sophomore year, graduated from high school, was attending community college--and was fatally shot in the chest this October 15.

In looking for more information about his murder, my heart broke to read that the violence was allegedly due to a drug deal gone bad. I didn't want to believe it. It had to be his cousin's deal, not his own. But a tribute video included some pictures that told of choices that Bruce had made--choices that included a gang, if I were to believe the bandana covering his mouth, or the sign he threw as one picture was taken, or his gang moniker tattooed across his chest.

When did he join? When he still lived in San Diego? When did he get involved with drugs? And the bigger question: Why did he go in that direction?

WHY DOES THAT GANG LIFESTYLE APPEAR SO ATTRACTIVE TO OUR YOUTH?? I am heartbroken. But I am also so angry I can't see straight. My stomach is a knot. Some kids don't have a caring family, don't have a strong sense of self, don't know better, have family members with a long history of thugging. But Bruce doesn't seem to fit that pattern.

I fight it, that lifestyle, every day. It only looks like I teach history and English. I am really teaching a belief system. I teach kids to believe in hard work, in excellence, in patience, in goals, in choosing the better way. I am just one soldier; other teachers, a scout leader, a youth pastor, a coach, an uncle--we are all Jedi fighting against the dark side of the Force, against the lure of fame and fortune hawked by music videos and lifestyles of those celebrities and athletes who serve the gods of Self and Pleasure above all. We Jedi do not save them all. And we do not know our influence; when we hear such discouraging news, it's easy to feel that our fight is of no avail, especially in the face of the money machines of Madison Avenue, of the music industry, of Hollywood. But by God Almighty let us continue to fight the good fight in the hopes of saving others, of helping our children reject destruction, drugs and death.

I love you, Bruce. The real Bruce, not the fake one in the picture above, but the young man I am posting here in his graduation robes. The fact that Bruce was in community college shows that he was still a believer in education, and that the fake Bruce in the evil picture hadn't completely won the battle. I'd like to believe that had Bruce lived, he would have one day joined us and been a most powerful Jedi, or like Anakin Skywalker, come back at the end. R.I.P., Bruce Davis, Jr. You will be missed.

RIP Bruce Davis, Jr.

shot dead, and for what?
so furious I'm crying
heartbroken-- such loss--

you bought a lie, Bruce.
thugging only ends two ways
one of them found you

you shone with promise
charisma trailing your steps
everyone loved you

the biggest crime: your
choice robbed all of us of you,
of our pride and joy

walmart's parking lot?
I was going to vote for you
I believed in you

it's hard enough to forgive, but when the criminal is also the victim...?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Michelle Rhee isn't Superman

She gave it her best.

My daddy always thought unions for white collar work were anomalies. Even the pitbull Ms Rhee is no match for unions. I am so sad. She is quitting, leaving the superintendency of Washington D.C. schools for her fiancé and maybe California. (This proves she is sane.)

Saw "Waiting for Superman" this week. I was defensive walking into the theater, but I really liked it, even though many didn't--click HERE for a link to an article outlining why by Washington Post guest blogger Rick Ayers. Its premise: that public schools are broken. (My colleague says it's a bit dramatic to make such a sweeping statement in light of the ambitious goal of American education--to teach EVERYONE--and the fact that our colleges are full and we still have doctors and lawyers and mayors and so forth. Among his many objections, one is that almost every other developed nation sends kids to tracked schools such as voc. ed. schools as early as middle school, instead of trying to prepare EVERYONE for university.)

The film offers charter schools as the answer. Yet the film itself notes that only one in five charter schools is better than public schools; some 40% are worse. The film fails to mention the high turnover rate in these high performing charters (it keeps costs down since teachers leave before retirement pay, benefits, or raises get too high).

I teach public school and I totally support charter schools. I just think it's shortsighted--nah, just plain stupid--to think they are a panacea. Especially the ones featured in the film. If you feel special because you won a coveted spot in a charter, hmmm, if your parent(s) are involved enough in your education to pursue a spot in a charter along with the time and requisite paperwork it takes to apply....hmmmm: consider the effects on the student body, student motivation, parent involvement, etc etc. Kind of a positive snowball effect, really.They aren't really comparable to public schools, neither the good nor the evil.

It kills me that public schools are uneven, that there are bad teachers who are so tough to fire, that in the same district there can be de facto segregation and inequities. I find tenure deplorable. Even so, God bless public schools. We take them ALL, from the blind to the mentally ill to the supergeniuses to the average pimply self-conscious child of a single mom who works the night shift to children of the Cosbys to those with Down syndrome. We take the ones who hail from traditions without a written language (the Hmong), the homeless, the pregnant, those in foster homes, those in gangs. We take the ones kicked out of other public schools, ones who have been to jail for hitting teachers. Heck, this year I even have a student with albinism, African American at that--my first white black person. (No Michael Jackson references, please; I never taught him.) We make it our goal to teach them all the same rigorous curriculum. If results are uneven, who is surprised? Who?? When was the last time that person set foot in a local middle school classroom for an hour?

My personal experience as a student has been bell curvish--most of my teachers were ok, kinda blah, mediocre...a few beastly ones and a few diamonds. Even Geoffrey Canada admits in the film that he was sucky his first few years (would Rhee have fired him before he had a chance to develop into the father of an amazing charter school?)--who isn't?

Maybe it's a coincidence that my experiences echo the law of averages, maybe not. Maybe as budgets tighten and teaching spots become scarce and there is greater competition for spots, the quality of teachers will rise.

Or maybe people in college will pursue options that have better press and better pay--especially math and science folk. And schools will have to remain the takers of the two kinds of people who go into teaching: those who come for the fabled and probably doomed two month's vacation, and those who come for love. Because no one comes for the cash.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Waitin' for George Clooney

It was one of my student's birthday this Friday, but instead of hurrying off with her friends to begin celebrations, she said she had something for me. “Be with you in a sec--I have to get X. his homework.” And A. patiently waited for me to do so.

Five minutes later, her face beaming, she reaches into her purse saying, “I have no idea how this got into my coat,” pulls out a gigantical chocolate bar and hands it to me. Now earlier in the year the kids found out I don’t like cheese, and A. announced she didn’t like chocolate. “OK, then, whenever any chocolate finds its way into your hands, I will be happy to relieve you of the burden,” I had joked with her, pleased to find someone with tastebuds as strange as mine.

“A, it’s YOUR birthday, not mine! What is this all about?”

“It’s not what it seems,” says A. “There’s something inside.”

“Like a golden ticket? Are you Willy Wonka?”

“No. You’ll see.”

I ask, “Should I open it now?” and even as I ask, I can see she wants me to. So I slide the wrapper off, and carefully wrapped around the foil is a handwritten note. I open it--it’s in pink and purple pen and dated March, 1773....

March 1773?

I have to explain. The day before we had learned about the Boston Tea Party and I had told them about a colonist for whom the temptation was just too much--while the other Sons of Liberty swept every trace of tea into the harbor, he surreptitiously stuffed the lining of his coat with handfuls of the boycotted stuff. He was discovered by others and shall we just say that they ruined more than just his coat. To help the kids understand, I’d said, “Think about how hard it would be to throw Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups overboard, knowing it would be ages before you could taste one again. I suppose I can understand the would-be tea thief...”

And now that you know the back story, here is a direct transcript of her note:

“Dear Ms. M, 1773

This is Ashley, the top reporter in the press. It is 1773 the boycott is going great. You should be happy to know that we decided to name it the California Chocolate Party.

And we ( the sons and daughters of liberty) decided that we should go to the boat and eat all the chocolate in the boat. You know that I dislike chocolate didn’t eat any but still attended because I needed everything to be in order.

Well, as we were cleaning ourselves up I was going to check on them but I noticed that there is something quite large in my pocket. I look and its chocolate.

So I have nothing to do with it except give it to you.

Have a lovely day and if any extra duties (haha you read duties*) just tell me and I will assist to them. Happy thought and love, Ashley W.”

Thus ended the fifth week of school--and this is even better than a raise, George Clooney, and chocolate combined because I ACTUALLY GOT CHOCOLATE!!!

*Remember that I teach 8th grade so I make gross jokes before they can. Whenever we read about customs duties, I laughed and said, “Doodies!” and the class would giggle and snort. Mature? Not at all. Spoonful of sugar? Yes, please, Mary Poppins.