No Difference

Living in a political “battleground” state, we get far more political advertising than anyone deserves.

I ignore most of it but there is one education themed ad I’ve seen more than a few times and that especially bothers me.

It’s an official Obama ad (as opposed to the even worse stuff from the “independent” groups) and features a couple talking about what cuts in education spending (proposed by the other guys, of course) might mean to their children.

At one point the father says “you can’t do this by shoving 30, 35 people in a class and just teaching to some test”.

Well, that’s rather disingenuous.

The education policy of the Obama administration is still very much focused on teaching to a test. As far as I can tell, Governor Romney is also a big supporter of standardized testing as the primary method of assessing student learning.

Although there are many other areas in which the two Presidential candidates differ significantly, their ideas when it comes to education reform are pretty much identical.

Yet Another Useless Sequel

According to the chair of the House Education and the Workforce* Committee, he and his fellow congress critters are “making progress” on revisions to No Child Left Behind.

Here’s what they have so far.

Two bills have already cleared the House committee: one would eliminate some federal programs; another would make it easier for states to create new charter schools. A third, which would give states more flexibility to spend federal funding according to their needs, should clear the committee this summer, he said.

The last two bills will be the most complicated and controversial, and will address the evaluation systems for teachers and the accountability provisions of the law. He predicted a lot of debate on those two, but said there was agreement that the law should not place such high stakes on the results of a single test.

Nice that they no longer believe in the power of a “single test”.

Unfortunately, nothing in this sequel to the original nearly decade-old train wreck of a law will address the real problem. Few people at any level of leadership are discussing the fundamental changes to our largely outmoded educational model that are desperately needed.

Which means NCLB 2 will be exactly like most sequels to second-rate horror movies: more of a waste of time and money, plus an even lamer plot than the original.

*Formerly Labor, which seems to be a dirty word for Republicans. :-)

Misusing Math

We do a crappy job of teaching mathematics in this country.

How else do you explain the proliferation of lotteries and casinos offering worse than lousy odds or the complete lack of understanding, by both the media and the general public, of anything involving probability and statistics?

Even worse, according to a mathematician in a call to speak out directed at his colleagues, is the misuse of math when it comes to making public policy.

But the most common misuse of mathematics is simpler, more pervasive, and (alas) more insidious: mathematics employed as a rhetorical weapon–an intellectual credential to convince the public that an idea or a process is “objective” and hence better than other competing ideas or processes. This is mathematical intimidation. It is especially persuasive because so many people are awed by mathematics and yet do not understand it–a dangerous combination.

He goes on to explain that one of the more recent and egregious examples of this “mathematical intimidation” shows up in the debate over the “value-add” concept of teacher evaluation.

Value-added modeling pops up everywhere today, from newspapers to television to political campaigns. VAM is heavily promoted with unbridled and uncritical enthusiasm by the press, by politicians, and even by (some) educational experts, and it is touted as the modern, “scientific” way to measure educational success in everything from charter schools to individual teachers.

Yet most of those promoting value-added modeling are ill-equipped to judge either its effectiveness or its limitations. Some of those who are equipped make extravagant claims without much detail, reassuring us that someone has checked into our concerns and we shouldn’t worry. Value-added modeling is promoted because it has the right pedigree – because it is based on “sophisticated mathematics.” As a consequence, mathematics that ought to be used to illuminate ends up being used to intimidate. When that happens, mathematicians have a responsibility to speak out.

At the top of the list of many problems with this concept, mathematical and otherwise, is the fact that the value-added model is based on changes in test scores, which themselves are unreliable predictors of student learning and subject to many factors other than the quality of teaching.

There is much more to the article and it’s worth taking the time to read (dredge up some memories from that stats class you took once upon a time :-).

Especially since this value-added scheme is not going away, with the LA Times going back for seconds on publishing “value” ratings on teachers in their elementary schools, and my own state of Virginia pushing a new teacher evaluation system based in part on how their students score on the state SOL tests.

All of this educational malpractice by politicians and other “experts” put mathematics in the same league with evolutionary biology, climate science, and physics when it comes to making public policy.

If you don’t understand the science, just make up your own facts to fit what you already believe.