Thursday, June 27, 2013

Striving For Mediocrity

The National Council on Teacher Quality recently issued a report detailing how well Colleges of Education are preparing new teachers for their chosen profession. Even if these schools were striving for mediocrity they fail at even that. Almost two hundred programs were labeled toxic waste, the Love Canals of educators and those who train them. Not that this is news as novice teachers have been reporting how ill prepared they are for decades.

The AJC in an attempt to be kind put the horse before the cart in saying that teachers were unprepared for classroom management and lacked subject matter knowledge. If you don't know the content it doesn't really matter that your class looks like a casting call for Lord of the Flies.

Content knowledge is the real problem here and for once it isn't simply that the newbie teachers are products of a lifelong process fostering ignorance. This is much more foundational.

For the past fifty years the education industry has moved away from hard skills towards soft skills. Grammar is all but gone--does anyone under the age of forty know how to diagram a sentence? Does it really matter when half your eighth grade english class cannot properly conjugate a common verb? Picking on history and geography is shooting fish in a barrel, but even math has decayed, first by replacing "right answers" with "estimation skills" and then by injecting "manipulatives". After all when your colleagues in the earlier grades failed to teach adequate reading skills (which is a now deprecated "hard" skill) how the hell can you ask a student to read the textbook? It has come to the point that even college students cannot fathom "math concepts" without a box of toothpicks or a pizza. Odd fractions? Forget about it. How DO you cut a pizza into five pieces?

Despite educracy's best effort to stop or slow it, the pendulum is swinging back towards knowledge based curricula and the National Council on Teacher Quality is helping it swing. If you look at their advisory board two educational outlaws, renegade dignitaries leap out:

  • E. D. Hirsh, author and founder of "The Core Knowledge Foundation" well respected in some quarters but derided within the established education bureaucracy in the US; and
  • Sir Michael Barber, formerly Chief Advisor to the UK Secretary of State for Education and Head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit where he promoted core knowledge curricula in the UK.

This is not to take away from the others who are equally fed up with the watered down educational mush plated up by the out of control chef's de cuisine in our "public education" soup kitchens.

And make no mistake this will be a battle royale. The incumbents are entrenched and well-armed--hunkered in their bunkers and ready to take on all comers. They have the money, they have the power. What they don't have is the results. Increasingly they don't have the confidence of the public, who ultimately funds their charade.

And now we, the taxpayers, have a small team of dedicated professionals who are willing to step up, step out and take educracy's best shot. These educational patriots are not favored to win, but will put up a good fight. Perhaps with our help they stand a fighting chance.

Then we all win.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Low Flying Billboards

That's what one City Councilman considers MARTA bus stop shelters that are plastered with adverts. Low flying billboards. And he has a good point. In many cases, like the corner of major intersections, these billboards suit the best interests of the advertising company and its customers whilst doing quite a disservice to MARTA patrons (they're patrons, not customers, and no, we don't know why) and any drivers who need to move around a stopped bus.

Don't believe it? Then explain the bus stops on Chamblee Dunwoody, one in front of Hickory House, the other at Dunkin Donuts. Strictly from a "best benefit for all concerned" wouldn't the public be better served by only one with that one being the one at the Hickory House? Unless you factor in the billboard aspect at which point you understand it isn't about the public, MARTA patrons or service to anyone other than the advertising company.

The problem is simple, not unique and much like the City's own grant grubbing: misplaced priorities. Whereas the City will seek a grant then propose a project, MARTA is selling billboard real estate and that is the determining factor for bus stop location. One can only wonder if this determines route selection as well since our many, often empty buses appear to be little more than rolling billboards.

The solution is either not simple or as is widely believed involves the expenditure of money without any benefit to City staffers, their friends, family or vendors. Otherwise it would be a slam dunk. As it is we're bound by an Inter-Governmental Agreement until the year 2022 so we best get used to this silliness as well.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cobb Schools: Technology

Public Education's bungling of all things technology is driven by a few simple precepts. First the status quo of a labor intensive system must be maintained and to the extent possible expanded by increasing headcount and compensation. And anything that expands the revenue stream into and thru the public school system is a good thing but only to the extent that it can be used to justify revenue increases.

Public Education has treated technology not as a tool but as a shiny object, an adornment, jewelry to distract from the not-so-graceful aging of a system in disarray and decay. It's as if they believe that enough parents will watch the Smart Board and become so enthralled that they no longer wonder why their little Johns and Janes are budding C.A.D.E.T.s (Can't Add, Doesn't Even Try). And these aren't really facts in question. The fraudulent spending on wasted technology by APS is only one example of how technology expenditures are nothing more than yet another friends and family program in Public Education.

But we should expect no less from what is little more than another government bureaucracy: unrestricted expansion driving declining quality of service whilst creating a monster that cannot be killed. Or perhaps it can.

In any field of endeavour technology is first deployed as a direct replacement for existing components in systems deployed in that field. Think "smart boards" or "e-books" or even "MOOC"s . By their very nature these micro-optimizations provide limited improvement and it is only when technology actually changes the system itself that the full benefits accrue. If one were to consider the rather straightforward application of technology to textbooks there would be a natural progression from local on-demand printing to ebooks and web publishing--electronic versions of the same old thing.

But what if technology became revolutionary? What if it were used for more than merely modernizing Gutenberg's invention?

We live in a world where Netflix can suggest movies and TV shows YOU might enjoy. Where Google can help you find things YOU are likely to find interesting. Where Amazon can show you products that may be even better suited to YOUR needs than the one you originally sought. These organizations have developed the capability to find out about you in order to better serve your needs and cater to your wants.

Do you really think it is a big leap to take that technology to the world of education and create an ecosystem that thru interaction with a student determines what that student knows, how that student thinks and more importantly what that student needs to learn and engages them in the activities that facilitate that learning? One company, Knewton, believes this is achievable and has set out to prove it. They have a platform to allow others, virtually anyone, to create a system that adapts to each individual producing a learning experience that grows with each student's skills and knowledge. These students learn under the unblinking eye of dedicated supervision guided by a virtual but personal tutor in the ultimate class size of one. Students using this system or others like it no longer need traditional textbooks because content consumption and student evaluation is continuous and integrated and exposed to them in an environment that is part of their everyday experience.

These students also no longer need traditional classrooms, schools or the educrats making them so expensive and ineffective. And we, the public, the taxpayers will no longer need to pay for them. This will revolutionize education and like all revolutions it will be resisted by the incumbents who currently hold the power and the purse strings. Regardless of educracy's hold on our tax dollars the change is inevitable because the outcomes will be better.

This presents an opportunity for Dunwoody as it moves to create its own schools. Rather than re-create a mini-me clone of a failed system in the hopes that smaller is better or in the self-righteous belief that anything we do must be better we should build a new system in parallel that leverages 21st century realities to produce 21st century results. This cap and grow strategy leaves the failed public school system in the last millennium and prepares our children to succeed in the new one.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wealth Redistribution

If you were around for the christening party and the pre-party ceremonies you will remember the trauma and drama around "all our money going to deepest darkest Decatur" used to whip voters into a pro-city frenzy. Let's just say that "wealth redistribution is evil" was a truth the Dunwoody founding fathers promoted as self evident.

The use of past tense is deliberate.

Now these very same founders have themselves a City with all rights, privileges and power thereunto appertaining and lo and behold, wealth redistribution is a Good Thing. This was revealed in an otherwise mundane court case where lawyers practicing in Dunwoody assert that the occupation tax is no less than illegal regulation of the practice of law. It is the City's assertions that are most revealing. One might have expected them to trot out their well worn explanation of "everybody does it" and to some extent they did. But better still was the contention that this tax is not regulatory at all but is simply about revenue.

And there's the rub.

Taking money from the party of the first part and giving it to or spending it on the party of the second part is inherently evil when the party of the first part comprises the citizens of Dunwoody. That's BAD wealth redistribution. However should the party of the first part be anyone else, in this case businesses operating in Dunwoody, and the party of the second part be the politicos and bureaucrats at City Hall then it is inherently good. That's GOOD wealth redistribution. This is what the nuns called "situation ethics" and is best understood as "I'm in charge and I'm right because I say I'm right. Oh, and welcome to Dunwoody."

Let's play a quiz game. In addition to wealth redistribution how many of the evil practices of DeKalb County are now standard operating procedure down at City Hall? Bonus points: how many new ones have we added?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cobb Schools: Textbooks

Math texts is ostensibly what this is all about. Or more to point, not ordering new textbooks. The demand, masked as a need, for these textbooks is predicated on the notion that the new curriculum, Common Core, requires new texts. Now no one is contending that two plus two no longer equals four or the Pythagorean Theorem has been disproven or that the definite integral no longer yields the area under the curve. Newton is safe. Cobb County's budget on the other hand is not.

Textbook publication is a major industry, highly profitable with tentacles that reach far and wide. It thrives on churn which provides ongoing revenue streams and silences naysayers who suggest that a text, particularly a math text, need not change by co-opting them into their system. Professors are paid as consultants, editors or "co-authors" though their contributions are unknown and given the number that appear in the front matter of these texts any individual contribution must be quite small. Public school officials in any way associated with the buying process feast at the smorgasbord of perks that publishers lay out before them. So it should come as no surprise that math textbooks are not selected based on proven educational outcomes. If that were the case we'd all be using the original Saxxon texts.

But there is a lot of "learning" whenever new texts are released--it's called "teacher training". As noted earlier math teachers are so on top of their subject matter, so capable in their profession that whenever a text is changed they must be re-trained. And this is an offensively expensive service offered by book publishers.

The academic industry built up around public education could have addressed this long ago. After all are these not the "Pros from Dover" when it comes to teacher education, training and preparation? Are they now AWOL when it comes to "maintenance training"? Also, merely requiring that professors in colleges of education participate in the creation of freely available content for classroom presentation, curricula development and lesson planning as a component of their advancement towards tenure would have displaced publisher materials decades ago. Absent the politically correct multicultural photos and the distracting eye candy on-demand publishing would have been economically viable twenty years ago and today web publishing and ebooks further drive down costs as well as time and effort. As is pointed out oh so often they'll give anyone a blog.

Perhaps this is a good time to point out to the anti-charter crowd who so loathes "for-profit organizations" in public education that these publishers are for-profit corporations and not a branch of PBS. Or not. Or for those so afraid of their local school system being run by outsiders folks in Georgia might be surprised to learn that the content of textbooks has little to do with what anyone at the state or local level wants. At least in this state, because textbook publishers target California, Texas and New York for textbook content, tests and classroom materials. They decide what goes into your classrooms. And if we are to believe the AJC report, the textbook drives the curricula and the classroom presentation and frankly pretty much everything about the students' experience.

Maybe the folks in Cobb County understand what's really going on with this fat-cat industry and have had enough of getting nothing for quite a bit of something. Or maybe they're just broke and can no longer afford to turn a blind eye.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Boiling The Frogs

As expected by many and all but guaranteed by some the committee recommending changes to the City Charter are not moving towards enhanced democracy for our citizens but in fact are moving further away. This City was founded amid cries for responsible taxation and spending and now a committee comprised largely of the same folks who brought you Dunwoody 1.0 are now suggesting a way for the City to raise taxes without putting the issue to a vote.

This flies under the flag of shifting services to the City and consequently shifting the taxes (IE: City revenue) to the City coffers but rather than hew true to our founding principals these tax changes will be done without ballot box approval. Perhaps the spanking they received at the hands of the voters over the Parks Bonds left a bruise. At the end of the day this City is all about money flowing thru their hands. It is their way of amassing power and they're greedy for it. The more money they can pump thru their leaky pipes the better. You almost have to wonder if they've been planning all along to start the City with the appearance of "local control" and then chip away at Citizen input at every opportunity. And what can be more opportune than rewriting the charter?

The imminent issue being discussed centers around a "City of Dunwoody Fire Department". Sort of. Turns out Dunwoody cannot afford a Fire Department of it's very own--economies of scale are needed to make it even remotely affordable. The astute observer might notice this is why we have a County Fire Department but astute observers are banished from City Hall. But the FD groupies will not be deterred and offer the notion of a multi-city FD. The stated reason is improved response time--waving the public safety flag as "public safety" is a powerful tool to get whatever you want. But these are the same yahoos who bought into the increased cost of Chatcomm which placed the response time of second responders ahead of first responders. Their concern for public safety is further compromised in their incompetence in completing the CAD-to-CAD interface.

These shenanigans--the "let us tax you shell game"--could have been sold any number of ways, including "you won't pay higher taxes...the only change will be who you write the check when your mortgage company sells your loan". This is largely true but wasn't used. Instead we hear how the City Council must be empowered "to move fast" in the event DeKalb adjusts their services. 'Cuz we all know how fast DeKalb moves.

Look folks, it's those loud red trucks that need to move fast, not City Council changing our taxes--this should be done after public vetting, debate and deliberation. Democracy demands no less. When will we demand democracy?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cobb Schools: Teachers

For the last few decades the Cobb school system has, overall, been the best core-Atlanta has to offer. Not knocking Fayette or Forsyth Counties, just excluding them from the comparison of Counties like Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton--and even Gwinnett. This makes a recent AJC article on the Cobb Board of Education's decision to NOT buy math textbooks very interesting. It also makes it a gold mine of blog posts, so much so that each topic it touches on demands its own diatribe.

Today's is "teachers".

The amalgamated monster comprising teachers, teacher "organizations" and other apologists is a multi-headed beast which spews different and often contradictory stories from each fanged mouth:
"Many teachers say without textbooks, and the resources that come with them, they will be forced to piecemeal together lesson plans..."
"Textbooks provide sample problems, step-by-step explanations to complex math concepts and are used to build lesson plans..."
or a math tutor who remarks
"They're now dumping the onus on the teacher to come up with a methodology to share information with the masses in an effective way."
or the apologist parent saying
"Every math teacher is not the same. You're going to have math teachers who know what they're doing [...] but what happens when you have teachers who don't have that level of dedication."
OMG! Where to start?

Teachers, the very same ones who bitch about being reduced to marionettes in a puppet show by being forced to use pre-packaged "education resources" are now complaining that they might actually be called upon to demonstrate they really can teach. They are simply being asked to prove they know the material and that they can present the material in an effective manner. Isn't that what a teacher is supposed to do? Weren't they just whining about how "the system" prevented them from doing just that?

We have in the past pointed out that teachers, throughout their career both as students and as teachers generally don't know their subject matter, particularly math, and no one seems to really care. Now we know why. Like a kid who refuses to remember any fact he can look up on the internet these folks use textbooks as intellectual crutches--as a curtain these great wizards of the Educational Emerald City hide behind to disguise their own ignorance and incompetence.

And heaven forbid after all those grad level classes on pedagogy--you know, the only grad classes in America where students are told to "pull your chairs into a circle"--they might actually have to put to use some, perhaps all, of the "methodologies" they claim to have learned. And "masses"? Ironically that pejorative spews forth from a tutor who largely benefits when the classroom teacher fails.

Certainly no two individuals are the same but do we really want to ask, out loud, whether these "teachers", "professionals" one and all, are even dedicated to their "profession"? Is there a vast undedicated majority? If so we now see the real magnitude of the problem caused by credential and title inflation amongst public educators. If not, get rid of those pompous slackards who bring down the profession.

And they call themselves teachers? Forget math, they don't even know what that word means.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Memorial Day Fireworks Delayed

The Dunwoody City Council met the Tuesday after Memorial Day putting to vote the DNR Trail Grant Amendment to which one Councilman, Denis Shortal, objected on the grounds that in taking a vote at this time the City, the Council in particular, was breaking its commitment to hold a public discussion before this vote. He was attacked on his right by snide comments regarding inconsistency in his stance regarding grant monies, but flanked his opponent with questions whose answers clearly demonstrated that by delaying the vote and thereby fulfilling this commitment the grant would not be at risk and there would be no cost to the City.

Nonetheless when it came time to stand up for doing the inevitable but in so doing honoring a commitment Shortal stood all but alone with only Councilman Heneghan aware of what was at stake. As to the ethics of this action by Council Shortal's point was good and well made, but will be dismissed by some with the naive pejorative "what else would you expect from an ex-Marine"?

The Marine Corps does not create men and women of character and integrity, the Corp finds those with these innate qualities and from those few only the best are selected and from those select recruits the Corp then creates Marines. It was this character, this integrity, tested, hardened and in full measure that was on display last Tuesday. You may disagree with Councilman Shortal's positions on policy or his priorities for this City, but those who would question his character, integrity or fidelity to that which is honorable are dead wrong.