Sunday, January 29, 2006

Change in Democratic Leadership in Congress Needed

Is it just me, or do other Dems out there wish the current leadership in the House and Senate would just step down and let someone else come in before the midterm elections? In particular, I cannot help but think life would be so much better for Senate Dems if Barack Obama, 99th in terms of seniority, would be able to take on the Minority Leader position. After seeing him on ABC's Sunday morning show This Week.., I am again impressed by his honesty and willingness to speak in terms of his true beliefs as well as some common sense. It was no different than when I met him at a fundraiser before the 2004 elections, where he comes across as someone who truly is there to help people, and not play the power game. He is not afraid to say when he agrees with Republicans, he is not afraid to criticize Dem strategy such as the Alito filibuster, and he was not afraid to come right out and say what I have been waiting for a Dem to say: they need to stop complaining about every little thing the Republicans do and stop doing political maneuvering, and rather step up and focus on an actual message and alternative ideas to real problems. Republicans have been absolutely correct in their criticism of Dems when they say the Dems have nothing better to offer; the message has been lost in politics, and that is the responsibility of the leadership. The table has been set for a long time now for Dems to make real noise in House elections, but they have, thanks to the leadership, been blowing it in my opinion (and many others, for that matter).

OK, I just had to vent for a couple minutes.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Achievement Gaps and Economics

Here is some food for thought as far as academic achievement gaps and the economic status of students. There is an update in the NEA Today newsletter on how a 5-year old system in a North Carolina county district is going. The system is based on integrating classes not by gender, race, or academic level, but rather the economic status of the family. Ten years ago, only 40% of Black 3rd through 8th graders scored at grade level. Since the adoption of the new integration system, this past year the number of Black students who were at or above grade level hit 80%. And this includes the fact that the number of low income students has actually risen during the past few years by 7-percent.

Research has suggested for quite some time that such an integration scheme helps improve academic achievement for all students involved, and I find this North Carolna success impressive. Lower income students (regardless of race) tend to come from families whose parents have a low education background, and in many cases education is not the priority in the home since parents may work multiple jobs just to put food on the table. Many parents in this position are not as involved in their kids' education as they may wish to be. My experience with juniors and seniors in a low income environment includes the fact that many of those students work numerous hours while still in high school to help the parents out, or to help raise younger siblings. School takes a back seat out of necessity in some cases. Students coming to school from such an environment, who are exposed to peers coming from more comfortable homes where education and achievement are typically a high, if not top, priority with the parents, experience a positive peer pressure to work hard in school and find success along the way. This postiive push and motivation from peers tends to have positive effects all around.

Another education result that is linked to the economics at the home: Students with home computers are 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school (according to a U. of California, Santa Cruz, study). As far as stats go, it is estimated that as many as 50% of Black and Latino students do not have computers in the home (probably safe to say most are low income), while 75% of White students have computers.

It is research and stats such as these, along with a decade's worth of personal experience, that make me want to scream sometimes when someone gets up and insists that money has no effect on education; it is not, of course, the absolute answer to problems with the education system, but there is no question that money does, indeed, play a significant role in many situations.

Some Wise Words About Our Approach to Dealing With Complexity in Real Life

I've started to read Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," which gets into Friedman's observations and thoughts about globalization. Here is a blurb from it that I personally think hits the nail on the head when it comes to thinking about globalization or any type of complex system. It starts with a quote Friedman has from Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (developed the quark theory in particle physics back in the 1960s, and helped found the Santa Fe Institute for the study of complexity). This is on pages 27 and 28 of the book:

"Here on earth, once it was formed, systems of increasing complexity have arisen as a consequence of the physical evolution of the planet, biological evolution and human cultural evolution. The process has gone so far that we human beings are now confronted with immensely complex ecological, poitical, economic and social problems. When we attempt to tackle such difficult problems, we naturally tend to break them up into more manageable pieces. That is a useful practice, but it has serious limitations. When dealing with any non-linear system, especially a complex one, you can't jsut think in terms of parts or aspects and just add things up and say that the behavior of this and the behavior of that, added together, makes up the whole thing. With a complex non-linear system you hae to break it up into pieces and then study each aspect, and then study the very strong interaction between them all. Only this way can you describe the whole system."

Friedman adds:

"That to me is the essence of what I consider the globalist school in international relations. But to have a globalist school, we need more students, professors, diplomats, journalists, spies and social scientists trained as globalists."

One last quote from Gell-Mann:

"We need a corpus of people who consider that it is importnat to take a serious and professional crude look at the whole system. It has to be a crude look, because you will never master every part or every interconnection. Unfortunately, in a great many places in our society, including academia and most bureaucracies, prestige accrues principally to those who study carefully some [narrow] aspect of a problem, a trade, a technology, or a culture, while discussion of the big picture is relegated to cocktail party conversation. That is crazy. What we noce considered to be the cocktail party stuff - that's a crucial part of the real story."

These are words of wisdom that can provide the beginning of a roadmap for the path all disciplines and schools of thought should consider taking. Life consists of multiple complex systems interacting with each other, and looking for things like organizational principles and understanding the interconnections between the smaller parts of systems that make up the whole is the next step in understanding the reality of the world. As I like to say to my students, we need to keep taking steps away from the nice neat world of 'physics land' and constantly try to figure out how to make it more and more real; it is not easy to do, for each little extra piece one adds means an additional layer of complexity, and it is out job to determine how it all relates to other features of the system. This way of thinking is important for understanding cultures and politics as well, as Friedman points out. Just look at the complicated problems introduced by Hamas winning a majority of the Palestinian seats in their government! How do we break that down in terms of the peace process? Political relationships? What is the 'big picture' way to think about this and other issues in the Middle East? Do we simply say we will never negotiate with Hamas and ignore the reality that they are part of the whole (i.e. government) now? That is a simplistic, unrealistic way to approach it, so now the world is stuck with trying to figure out what all the possible pieces are, and how are they related, and also try to predict what the consequences are if certain actions are taken. Talk about complexity! We absolutely need to consider how to train people to think in these ways and get away from single-issue or single-topic thinking.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Standards Fine, But Without High Expectations Tough to Attain

The standards movement in education has been rolling along for a number of years now, and depending on what district a student may live in, and some times what school within a district he or she attends, largely determines how well the population does with respect to standards. This is no secret. The question is, why can some schools perform above standards on average while others perform poorly, even though those schools may have similar student demographics and even be within the same district (meaning they would likely have similar resources, funding, support, etc)? There are two answers that may or may not fully explain such differences, but I am fairly certain they are among the most important reasons when this situation arises. These are the quality of the teachers and the level of expectations that are set for students, both by teachers as well as by the students and their parents.

The quality of a teacher in a classroom goes without saying, for good teachers are typically defined (at least on the academic side) as those who are able to get their students excited about learning, no matter what the subject area is, and help students improve their knowledge and thinking process over the course of the school year. It is my experience that one can also define good teachers on the personal side, as those (particularly those who work with the lowest level students) who are able to take kids with a wide variety of serious personal problems and help them become motivated to learn and perhaps turn the corner to get their lives on a better track.

Either way, the most effective teachers I know have a common characteristic in their classes: they have high expectations for all their students. They push the kids to try and improve, regardless of the level of student academically, and convince the students that they are fully capable of doing good work and learning. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began a unique approach to including larger numbers of students in more demanding classes when I was in the district ten years ago, and that approach has been paying off as over 6800 students, mostly minority and of low-income homes, ever since. The approach I speak of is the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program into numerous high schools. The IB program has a rigorous college-prep curriculum in multiple subjects, with its own exams and IB diploma. From an academic perspective, it is on-par with the better known Advanced Placement (AP) program designed and run through the College Board, but was originally designed for international schools that children of diplomats could attend and still be in the same curriculum as they were at an old school. I was fortunate enough to have helped write the science portion of the proposal that brought in the IB program at my old high school before leaving CPS, and I attended a formal training session for IB in Nashville. It is a well-designed curriculum that sets the bar at a high level for its students.

Last Sunday's Chicago Tribune ('Education Today' section, Jan. 15, 2006) had a nice article that presented results from a DePaul University study of CPS graduates who were in an IB program and then attended DePaul. The study shows that these once at-risk students who stereotypically should not do well in high school, let alone go to college and succeed, have a nearly 100% retention rate in college (at least at DePaul) and perform above average college levels. The enormous range of students now in IB programs (41 CPS high schools are now IB schools) is catching the attention of educators nationwide as well as with the international organization that runs IB. Challenging courses are being taken by larger numbers of students who typically are not exposed to this level of study. The perceived expectations for inner city youth have traditionally been they are not capable of doing college-level work because they are at-risk in terms of socioeconomic factors, the spread and influence of gangs and drugs in the neighborhoods in which they grow up, broken homes, English as a second language for many immigrant children, and the lack of education of the parents (many of the IB students who are making their way through the program and to college are first-generation high school graduates in their families, let alone first-generation college students). We have placed the blame on these factors for decades, concluding that these children have little chance of making it academically, and honestly the systemic reaction has too often been to water-down the curriculum in order to pass children through to graduation. What the education system has not done often enough is what CPS is experimenting with, where we instead raise the bar and allow those students who want to take a chance and try in school to see what they can do with a legitimate college-prep program.

I don't think CPS is as concerned with how many students ace the exams associated with the IB programs (of course they want the scores to be high, etc., but it is also important to give many kids a chance), as compared with how many kids are exposed to higher expectations and learning opportunities and who try to make something of themselves. In part, this process is in my mind a sort of social experiment to see if a critical mass of students who were not likely to make it academically exists and can change some of the culture of the inner city education establishment. I certainly hope that the programs continue to thrive and expand, and this becomes more of the norm than the historical failure of inner-city students. I applaud CPS for trying this approach, and for some new initiatives that they will be trying to implement in the near future (which I will write about at some point, after they are finished being designed, organized and implemented; I am fortunate enough to be involved with some of the new work that is beginning).

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Who Do You Trust?

My wife found a list in last week's Chicago Tribune Magazine, which listed some names of people whom the public currently perceives (rightly or wrongly) as incorruptible and trustworthy. The list is:

Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (as the Trib mentions, nothing left to hide!), Walter Cronkite, the Dalai Lama, Senator Russ Feingold, Patrick Fitzgerald, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Abner Mikva, Paul Newman, Arnold Palmer, Tim Russert, Paul Volcker, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey

I just found this interesting, and I welcome any suggestions of others that should be on this list. For instance, should someone like John McCain be on such a list? Alan Greenspan? Judge Judy? Let the names begin!

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Fairly Unknown Risk for the Pluto Space Launch

NASA is getting ready to launch a probe that will ultimately make it out to Pluto. This new mission, called New Horizons, will take some seven years to reach its destination to the ninth planet in our solar system (last year a tenth planet was discovered well past Pluto's orbit). What many people do not realize is that, for years and numerous missions (six Apollo missions and 19 others, including more recent missions to Mars and the 1997 Cassini mission to Saturn), NASA has had up to 80 pounds of plutonium and other radioactive elements on probes that serve as power sources and to help keep the spacecraft warm. The New Horizons probe will have 24 pounds inside special casing at launch time. Of course, the main risk is that there could be an explosion at launch time (tomorrow) that will dissipate plutonium, one of the mroe deadly materials known to humans, into the atmosphere, where it could spread over some number of square miles of land.

NASA and the Department of Energy estimate the odds of this happening at 1 in 350 chances. The White House had to approve the mission because of this potential threat. The estimated threat to humans living within 60 miles of the launch site, which is Cape Canaveral in Florida, is minimal, with a worst-case scenario of some individuals ingesting an amount of radiation that is at 80% of what we take in naturally from background radiation in one year's worth of time. At each launch are teams of experts trained to handle nuclear accidents in the environment and for public safety issues. Good luck to NASA for this latest mission which, in addition to studying Pluto, will study the Kuiper Belt outside of Pluto's orbit. This is a region with numerous icy bodies that become comets when they enter the solar system.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reasons why U.S. Should Stay Away from an Exam Meritocracy

In my last post I mentioned it would not be in the best interests of the U.S. to continue on this path of making our public education system entirely focused on test results. First there was the No Child Left Behind law that ultimately judges a school or district by looking almost solely on test results. A new merit pay system being adopted by the Houston school district continues with this test craze and will allow teachers to receive bonuses based solely on increased test scores. Everything about these types of trends in education continues to push the U.S. towards a mroe European and Asian style education system, where test results determine the paths of students, usually at an early age. I absolutely think the U.S. is headed down the wrong road for its public schools if we continue to adopt this sort of imported system, as I argued some time ago in an earlier post.

In last week's Newsweek (Jan. 9, 2006; page 37), Fareed Zakaria examined a question in education that is related to the push for constant testing. It is well known that many Asian countries, in particular, score higher than American students in international science and math exams. But the question becomes: If American kids test much worse, why do they do much better in the real world? Singapore, for instance, has been at the very top in test scores in math and science for a number of years, but when is the last time one of those former high school testing phenoms won a Nobel Prize, or developed a miracle drug, or changed the world with a new technological advancement? Why are American workers the most productive in the world? Why do Americans continue to win the Nobel Prizes, attain top patents, and why do we have one of the highest living standards in the world with the most diverse population and culture in human history? Why are we the only remaining superpower (at least for the moment)? None of this would be true if our education system wasn't doing something right, particularly for our top students.

Zakaria interviewed Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore's minister of education, to get his opinion. The minister said, "We both have meritocracies. Yours (the U.S.) is a talent meritocracy, ours is exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - lke creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore (and I believe many other Asian nations are thinking this words) must learn from America." I'll say. These are all aspects of education that a test, test, test system kills. In our public schools, students have a chance to take on electives and find themselves and their interests and strengths along the way. Extracurricular programs in all areas allow students to explore their interests further. More often we see schools with expanded community service opportunities, which my students have told me countless times give them an expanded perspective of what real life is like outside the protected walls of school. And more importantly, a student's educational future is not determined prior to high school as it is in any other nations, based on test scores taken in elementary and middle schools. It is true that a number of individuals peak a bit later and have opportunities to still attend college and work their way into something of interest. I would personally like to see more of this for students, as I am a supporter of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (or competencies, in my opinion), and individuals need exposure to many different subjects presented in multiple ways to learn how they best learn and where they have some talent to further develop. We allow, to at least some degree, some amount of freedom for our students to pursue higher learning skills not only in core subjects, but the arts, athletics, public service, and so on. That hidden variable, creativity, is something we cannot kill off for students because that drives innovation in all areas of society later in an individuals needs to be allowed to develop and grow at relatively early ages in order to be productive later in life. Classrooms and schools that focus on test preparation and results means precious time for the creative and developmental aspects of a student is taken away.

Another interesting point brought about in Zakaria's article is that American universities are unrivaled globally, and getting better in many cases. International students have flocked here for college and graduate school in order to obtain an American education, and many have remained, all to our benefit. The U.S. has a public-private partnership that is unmatched in the world, with billions of dollars coming in from the federal government as well as private foundations and industry partnerships. In addition, public and private schools compete for top talent and this raises the standards in many areas of study across the board. I could not agree more; talk about a complicated network structure!

I know from personal experience Singapore is serious about trying to change their system to some degree to begin to mimic aspects of the American education system. Last spring I was asked to meet with a group of educators from one of Singapore's top science and math high schools. They were here observing both successful high school and university programs, and I met with them at Northwestern University. They picked my brain about how to get beyond student memorization of facts and more into developing creative solutions and higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, which are much more important in the long run than memorizing a few facts (that can be easily forgotten after a test). It is one thing to remember a solution to a particular type of problem and repeat the solution on a test, and something entirely different to truly learn an important principle or concept, and then having your brain take it and use it to create a new/original idea, discover a new principle, or expand on someone else's idea.

Part of the process is to get kids thinking about how the material applies to their lives, and allowing them to discuss that and put it into their own words. The guests from Singapore had not really thought that something like this should be a priority. Zakaria's article brought this back into my mind because he mentions that a friend of his from Singapore recently moved back from America and put his kids into one of the top Singapore high schools. He described the difference, that "In American schools, when my son would speak up, he was applauded and encouraged. In Singapore, he is seen as being pushy and weird." This is a vital observation and feature of our schools, and we should continue to pursue and push for it. Our children must continue to be encouraged to think and contribute, and not just sit there and memorize test strategies and facts that are gong to be on the next standardized test.

Of course, there are failing schools in America by any standards, and those schools tend to be in inner-city, poor (and minority) areas. We must do better, because there are too many students who are not allowed to make it out of their high school and find their true talents and potential. That is another issue that is tremendously complicated to address and make real progress, but the answer still does not rest solely on how well they ultimately do on a particular test.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Merit Pay for Teachers - Asking for Trouble

A very busy week is over for the moment, so here is an article that caught my eye today. The Houston school district (7th largest in the country) will be giving teachers up to $3000 in merit pay that is linked solely to improvements in state and national test scores by their students. Sounds good, no? Think about this, though:

In my current position as a teacher, I would be thrilled and planning a vacation for when my teaching bonus arrived. In my case, 100% of my students exceed state and national science scores! Yes, give me my money! But, here is the thing. I teach advanced placement, calculus-based physics, meaning I get the cream of the crop in students. My students go off to the top colleges in the country, so life is good.

In my former position in a large city school, I'd have been lucky if 10% of my students ever exceeded state and national test scores. I would be bummed out, and would have to cancel that vacation because I would be hard-pressed to raise the test scores significantly for my former students. At that school, 75% of students had English as a second language, a good majority were from immigrant families and were coming in with reading and math skills that were years behind their age and grade level, and 95% came from low-income families. What would have been overlooked is the fact that most of those students increased their math skills by several grade levels and improved their problem-solving skills, and some percentage greatly improved their reading comprehension and reading speed from the time I spent with them before and after school (in many cases those skills were doubled from when they began). What would have been overlooked is the fact that after my first three semesters at that school physics enrollment went from 5 sections to 14 sections as word spread students really could enjoy and learn physics, which is always thought of as 'one of those hard classes' that won't be much fun. But because some standardized test scores that largely test how fast you can work rather than how well you know the material are the only thing that mattered, I would not have been considered to be a teacher that was worth a bonus check. And so much for being a runner-up for Illinois Teacher of the Year, that would not have mattered, either.

The point is, this is a foolish way of doling out merit pay. Having our public education system judged and assessed solely by test scores is a foolish path to take, which is essentially where we are at with No Child Left Behind. It overlooks what good work hundreds of thousands of good teachers are doing with their students, and all the extra time they spend with them that goes unrecognized. Houston teachers are being pushed and encouraged to teach solely to the test, where 'drill and kill' methodologies rule and the fun of and love for learning begins to be strangled. I'll be posting soon about gearing education towards 'mastering the standardized test' and why that is not the ideal systemic goal.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Financial Costs of the War - New Estimate

In a new report published by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University) and Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes, the budgetary costs of the war in Iraq should ultimately top the $1 TRILLION mark over the next decade.

Try to think back to the administration's hype for the war. In 2003, Larry Lindsey, the White House economic advisor, said the costs of the war might hit $200 billion. We are nearing $300 billion already. This figure is what has been spent in day to day operations. But what the administration has not talked about are the long-term costs, which Stiglitz and Bilmes are now considering. We will need to include long-term health and disability costs for at least 20,000 veterans of the war who have been or will be injured from the war. The economists predict, for example, that for brain damaged veterans alone the long-term cost will be some $35-$40 billion (I am sure assumptions have to be made for how long they will live). In addition to long term care payments for veterans, future reconstruction costs in Iraq, increased defense spending because of the war, demobilization costs, and a variety of disability costs quickly and easily reach the $1 trillion figure.

Why do we not hear the White House or GOP controlled Congress talking about the long-term costs? Very simply, because the war is already unpopular and this sort of news just before the GOP tries to pass an additional $70 billion in tax cuts for the well-to-do will not be welcomed by many voters in an election year. It appears the White House must be aware of the unbelievable costs, which will be at least 5 times what they sold the public on when they hyped the war, because they have again notified Congress that the debt ceiling needs to be raised by February, when the national debt will surpass the current ceiling of over $8 trillion. The ceiling will soon be closer to $9 trillion. How much more irresponsible can our supposed leaders be? How outrageous are their claims of being "fiscally responsible" and "compassionate conservatives" after making such disastrous choices? This is all absolutely insane, and we cannot sit back and continue to take it.

We are stuck with Bush for two more years, but we can make a difference with the Congress. It is time to act this year and remove the House leadership. In my opinion, the best thing that can happen for the country is for the Democrats to take back the House, and force the agenda back to the middle, just like what happened in 1994 when the Republican shift occured. It was the GOP takeover of Congress that helped Pres. Clinton be more moderate compared to the far left that had strong influence during his first two years in office, and the country was ultimately better off because of it. Having the same party in control of both the executive and legislative branches typically moves the agenda from the middle, which is where most would agree we should be. Certainly in terms of our current economic status (i.e. a mess), we need the Dems to come in and be the fiscally responsible leaders.

Friday, January 06, 2006

European Nations Warming to Nuclear Power

Europe has not seen new nuclear power plants built for the past two decades, but that trend is changing. As I wrote about back in November, new technology in the nuclear power production sector has made this type of energy more attractive. In Finland, the first of several new nuclear reactors in a variety of European countries has been under construction and is due to be completed and online by 2009. This type of production was halted back in the mid-1980s as the Chernobyl crisis sent shock waves through Europe. But as oil prices rise and problems with oil coming through the Ukraine mount, and Europe's participation in global climate relief programs such as the Kyoto Protocol mandate reductions in greenhouse gases, nuclear power has become a resurrected possibility for energy. Note that nuclear power plants do not release greenhouse gases. Look for continued interest in Europe as well as other areas of the world, including the U.S., as far as the use and scope of nuclear power programs.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Congress Braces for a Storm

Ah, our elected officials, voted into office to supposedly look out for our interests as our representatives, are shaking in their shorts as Jack Abramoff, lobbyist extraordinaire, has agreed to testify for prosecutors. He has put in a plea of guilty to fraud charges and apparently is about to blow the whistle on some 20 members of Congress and top aides to congressional leaders, who allegedly accepted bribes from the lobbyist in order to gain votes on a variety of bills. According to initial reports, included in this group is Illinois' own Speaker of House Dennis Hastert. President Bush has just returned $6000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff, and I am sure this will be the trend the next few days as members on both sides of the aisle race to separate themselves from yet another Washington scandal. Much more to come, I'm sure, on this and other countless blogs over the next days and weeks. I suspect this will turn out to be a good thing as we have now entered an election year, as we the voters will have a chance to show our point of view and perhaps clean house a bit at the ballot box come November.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Some sites to check out if interested in networks, complex systems, etc.

I've had some number of posts over the past couple months related to network theory and complexity, and each day it seems as if there are more applications and questions that revolve around these topics. Here are some good sites if you are interestedin learning more about such topics.

Northwestern University IGERT Program on Complex Systems
Notre Dame's Center for Complex Network Research (Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's group)
Santa Fe Institute (dedicated to complexity science)

One can find all sorts of papers and outlines of the research programs...good stuff!