Wasted Space

Exam

There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?


Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Some Thoughts for a New Year

New Year Sunrise

Although I’ve always thought September 1 would make a much better New Year’s Day, western society has decided today will be that largely artificial dividing line. So, here we are in the year designated as 2018.

So, how will today and the ones that follow be different from the 365 that came before? Unless you came into a big inheritance when the calendar clicked over, I suspect for most of us the answer is not very.

However, after the chaos of 2017 in the US (which spilled over into many other parts of the world), something needs to change. As I wrote in any earlier rant, resistance to negative change can only take you so far. If successful, it really only maintains the status quo. Even with the small positive steps that occasionally pop up.

In 2018, we can continue to complain about what has happened in the past. Or we can plan and work to improve the future. Only one of those is worth the time and effort.

I hope we can find good people to run for leadership positions, at all levels, not just Congress, who understand this. Because real progress is only going to come from clear, creative, positive ideas for improving government and society. Not from trying to scare people. Not from asking for support simply because “I’m not that guy.”.

Maybe in this new period of time known as a year we as a society can move forward instead of ranting in place.


The picture is of sunrise over the Potomac River as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, New Year’s Day, 2012. As I recall, the temperature was much warmer that morning than it is currently.

The Strange Holiday Mix, 2017

This is my idea of an annual tradition: a collection of the holiday-related songs I can stand to have on heavy rotation over the next month or so. As opposed to the traditional playlist of earworms that even the programmers at Muzak must be embarrassed to let loose on the world.

But regardless of your musical tastes, and whatever you are celebrating this time of year, enjoy!

  1. Strangest Christmas Yet – Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers
  2. Christmas Coming Home (feat. Lennon & Maisy) – Nashville Cast
  3. To Christmas! (The Drinking Song) – Straight No Chaser
  4. Christmas Is the Time – Katharine McPhee
  5. Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Actin’ Nice) – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
  6. Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train) – The Tractors
  7. Warmer in the Winter (feat. Trombone Shorty) – Lindsey Stirling
  8. Santa Stole Thanksgiving – Jimmy Buffett
  9. Feels Like Christmas (feat. Jana Kramer) – Straight No Chaser
  10. Santa Claus, Santa Claus – Dennis Turner
  11. California Christmastime – Rachel Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, and the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Cast (the video)
  12. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ – Bill Kirchen & Austin de Lone
  13. They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore – Great Lake Swimmers
  14. Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) – Davina & The Vagabonds
  15. Santa, My First Love – Swear And Shake
  16. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Lindsey Stirling
  17. Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy – The Tractors
  18. Baby Don’t Leave Me (All Alone on Christmas) – Echosmith
  19. Schedryk – Pink Martini
  20. The Way-Too-Early Christmas Song – Paul and Storm

The Cracker Jack of EdTech

Some of us older timers remember Cracker Jack, a snack mixture made of caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts with origins at the end of the 19th century.

Crackerjack2

Of course, the most distinctive element of the product wasn’t the edible part but the “toy surprise” buried in every box. Although, thinking back, the biggest surprise was probably why any of us cared about those trinkets in the first place.

Anyway, the edtech professional development community has its own variation on Cracker Jack: the event known variously as a “demo slam”, an “app smackdown”, or some similar title.

In these sessions, popular at EdCamps and smaller conferences, participants line up to present a two or three minute demonstration of a favorite piece of software or web service. Sometimes they try to connect the app to teaching and/or learning. But in that brief space of time, the focus is most often on the “wow factor” of the tool.

At larger conferences lacking a formal “smackdown” contest, the program is often littered with sessions completely devoted to this concept. With titles like “60 Apps in 60 Seconds” or “29 New Web Sites You Need to Check Out”, and “Tech Share Live!”.

Like Cracker Jack, these collections are a sweet mixture of cool tech stuff. With virtually no nutrition. And, if you’re lucky, a trivial prize buried inside.

Ok, I know there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a sweet treat every so often. I’ve had my share of Cracker Jack (although I much prefer Screaming Yellow Zonkers in that crap food category) and other items of questionable nutritional value.

And there’s nothing wrong with most of those demo slam, “cool tools” sessions. Occasionally it’s fun to have people rapid fire demonstrate a whole bunch of apps and maybe discover something new. I’ve even been known to participate in a smackdown or two.

However, the problem comes when we overindulge in snack food. Or in a constant search for the new, the next alternative, the techno “cool”. Looking for the toy surprise buried somewhere in the app store.

Resistance is Not Futile. But It’s Also Not Enough.

Many people know the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Some can even recall something about religion and a free press being in there.

But there are two other parts of at the end of the run-on sentence opening the Bill of Rights that are often overlooked1: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Projection 188

It’s a good thing James Madison thought to include them. Assembling and petitioning have gotten a vigorous workout this year.

We certainly need to exercise our rights to push back against the racist, xenophobic, mysoginistic, Islamaphobic, and anti-immigrant policies being forced on us by both the Executive branch as well as the majority party in Congress.

But that need to resist is always there. Anytime governments or organizations, at any level, try to make changes we feel are not in the best interests of society, we should speak up.

We must resist the attempts to privatize our public school system, to degrade health services for women, to remove basic protections for the environment, and to completely unravel the already fragile support system for those on the low end of the economic system.

We need to push back against “leaders” who claim to know it all but don’t want the public to know anything about what they’re doing. Ones who say they have all the answers but won’t reveal even the questions.

However, resistance is not enough.

Pushing back too often results in maintaining the status quo. The same old ideas and leaders who got us to this point in the first place.

Resistance alone does not move society forward.

For that we need leaders who will clearly articulate and advocate for positive policies and laws. The people currently forcing regressive policies on the country need to be replaced with those who are not afraid of change and the future. It’s not enough for candidates to simply be “not them”, or run on trying to make us afraid of what “they” might do.

Unfortunately, that’s very much what is happening in the current off-off-year election for governor and other state-wide offices here in Virginia. The messages from Democratic candidates I’ve seen2, is very much of the “help us resist” variety rather than articulating a vision for the future of the state. And both sides are actively engaged in scaring people rather than giving them something positive to support.

I have no idea what will happen in this election. Despite all the noise, I suspect there are still too many indifferent people who are not paying attention and will not vote, leaving the choice to a minority of activists more concerned with gaining power than with building a better society.

I can only hope I’m wrong.


1. According to polls, only 12% of Americans know about their right to assemble. On the other hand, many also misread the part about Congress not making any laws abridging the right of speech and assume everyone else has a Constitutional obligation to put up with their rants.

2. I admit I haven’t seen all that many political messages since I actively avoid advertising of all kind. But the negative campaign has been very hard to miss.

The image is from an article in the Washington Post about an activist who pulled off an interesting protest at the Old Post Office building in DC, currently occupied by the Trump Organization.