12/20/08

Rick Warren Vs. Sam Harris

Rick Warren, Obama's pick to give the invocation at the inauguration, is an evolution-denier. No surprise. Many on the left are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt as to why he picked Warren. Some say it was bigger of Warren to accept the invitation than for Obama to offer it. Personally, I think the invitation should never have been given, nor accepted. Here is part of the reason why:
Do you believe Creation happened in the way Genesis describes it?
WARREN: If you're asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don't. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.
Now go read the talk Warren and Harris had last year and decide for yourself if the pastor deserves this most prominent spot at the podium at this inauguration....
God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren

At the Summit: On a cloudy California day, the atheist Sam Harris sat down with the Christian pastor Rick Warren to hash out Life's Biggest Question—Is God real? A NEWSWEEK exclusive.


April 9, 2007 issue - Rick Warren is as big as a bear, with a booming voice and easygoing charm. Sam Harris is compact, reserved and, despite the polemical tone of his books, friendly and mild. Warren, one of the best-known pastors in the world, started Saddleback in 1980; now 25,000 people attend the church each Sunday. Harris is softer-spoken; paragraphs pour out of him, complex and fact-filled—as befits a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. At NEWSWEEK's invitation, they met in Warren's office recently and chatted, mostly amiably, for four hours. Jon Meacham moderated. Excerpts follow.

JON MEACHAM: Rick, since you're the home team, we'll start with Sam. Sam, is there a God in the sense that most Americans think of him?

SAM HARRIS: There's no evidence for such a God, and it's instructive to notice that we're all atheists with respect to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships.

Rick, what is the evidence of the existence of the God of Abraham?
RICK WARREN: I see the fingerprints of God everywhere. I see them in culture. I see them in law. I see them in literature. I see them in nature. I see them in my own life. Trying to understand where God came from is like an ant trying to understand the Internet. Even the most brilliant scientist would agree that we only know a fraction of a percent of the knowledge of the universe.

HARRIS: Any scientist must concede that we don't fully understand the universe. But neither the Bible nor the Qur'an represents our best understanding of the universe. That is exquisitely clear.

WARREN: To you.

HARRIS: There is so much about us that is not in the Bible. Every specific science from cosmology to psychology to economics has surpassed and superseded what the Bible tells us is true about our world.

Sam, does the Christian you address in your books have to believe that God wrote the Bible and that it is literally true?
HARRIS: Well, there's clearly a spectrum of confidence in the text. I mean, there's the "This is literally true, nothing even gets figuratively interpreted," and then there's the "This is just the best book we have, written by the smartest people who have ever lived, and it's still legitimate to organize our lives around it to the exclusion of other books." Anywhere on that spectrum I have a problem, because in my mind the Bible and the Qur'an are just books, written by human beings. There are sections of the Bible that I think are absolutely brilliant and poetically unrivaled, and there are sections of the Bible which are the sheerest barbarism, yet profess to prescribe a divinely mandated morality—where do I start? Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel—half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.

[To Warren] Is the Bible inerrant?
WARREN: I believe it's inerrant in what it claims to be. The Bible does not claim to be a scientific book in many areas.

Do you believe Creation happened in the way Genesis describes it?
WARREN: If you're asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don't. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.

HARRIS: I'm doing my Ph.D. in neuroscience; I'm very close to the literature on evolutionary biology. And the basic point is that evolution by natural selection is random genetic mutation over millions of years in the context of environmental pressure that selects for fitness.

WARREN: Who's doing the selecting?

HARRIS: The environment. You don't have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see.

WARREN: Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions. I'm willing to admit my presuppositions: there are clues to God. I talk to God every day. He talks to me.

HARRIS: What does that actually mean?

WARREN: One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He's an intern at this church, and so I said, "God, I need you to help me with this," as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, "I'm an immigration attorney; I'd be happy to take this case." Now, if that happened once in my life I'd say, "That is a coincidence." If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.

There must have been times in your ministry when you've prayed for someone to be delivered from disease who is not—say, a little girl with cancer.
WARREN: Oh, absolutely.

So, parse that. God gave you an immigration attorney, but God killed a little girl.
WARREN: Well, I do believe in the goodness of God, and I do believe that he knows better than I do. God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait. I've had to learn the difference between no and not yet. The issue here really does come down to surrender. A lot of atheists hide behind rationalism; when you start probing, you find their reactions are quite emotional. In fact, I've never met an atheist who wasn't angry.

HARRIS: Let me be the first.

WARREN: I think your books are quite angry.

HARRIS: I would put it at impatient rather than angry. Let me respond to this notion of answered prayer, because this is a classic sampling error, to use a statistical phrase. We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations. You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. [Warren is laughing.] I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.

WARREN: That's a misstatement there.

HARRIS: Let's go back to the Bible. The reason you believe that Jesus is the son of God is because you believe that the Gospel is a valid account of the miracles of Jesus.

WARREN: It's one of the reasons.

HARRIS: Yeah. It's one of the reasons. Now, there are many testimonials about miracles, every bit as amazing as the miracles of Jesus, in other literature of the world's religions. Even contemporary miracles. There are millions of people who believe that Sathya Sai Baba, the south Indian guru, was born of a virgin, has raised the dead and materializes objects. I mean, you can watch some of his miracles on YouTube. Prepare to be underwhelmed. He's a stage magician. As a Christian, you can say Sathya Sai Baba's miracle stories are not interesting, let's not pay attention to them, but if you set them within the prescientific religious milieu of the first-century Roman Empire, suddenly miracle stories become especially compelling.

Sam, what are the secular sources of an acceptable moral code?
HARRIS: Well, I don't think that the religious books are the source. We go to the Bible and we are the judge of what is good. We see the golden rule as the great distillation of ethical impulses, but the golden rule is not unique to the Bible or to Jesus; you see it in many, many cultures—and you see some form of it among nonhuman primates. I'm not at all a moral relativist. I think it's quite common among religious people to believe that atheism entails moral relativism. I think there is an absolute right and wrong. I think honor killing, for example, is unambiguously wrong—you can use the word evil. A society that kills women and girls for sexual indiscretion, even the indiscretion of being raped, is a society that has killed compassion, that has failed to teach men to value women and has eradicated empathy. Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the golden rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people.

Rick, Christianity has conducted itself in an abjectly evil manner from time to time. How do you square that with the Christian Gospel of love?
WARREN: I don't feel duty-bound to defend stuff that's done in the name of God which I don't think God approved or advocated. Have things been done wrong in the name of Christianity? Yes. Sam makes the statement in his book that religion is bad for the world, but far more people have been killed through atheists than through all the religious wars put together. Thousands died in the Inquisition; millions died under Mao, and under Stalin and Pol Pot. There is a home for atheists in the world today—it's called North Korea. I don't know any atheists who want to go there. I'd much rather live under Tony Blair, or even George Bush. The bottom line is that atheists, who accuse Christians of being intolerant, are as intolerant—

HARRIS: How am I being intolerant? I'm not advocating that we lock people up for their religious beliefs. You can get locked up in Western Europe for denying the Holocaust. I think that's a terrible way of addressing the problem. This really is one of the great canards of religious discourse, the idea that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were perpetrated because of atheism. The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There's nationalism, there's tribalism, there's racism, there's chauvinism. And there's religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.

WARREN: You don't feel atheists are dogmatic?

HARRIS: No, I don't.

WARREN: I'm sorry, I disagree with you. You're quite dogmatic.

HARRIS: OK, well, I'm happy to have you point out my dogmas, but first let me deal with Stalin. The killing fields and the gulag were not the product of people being too reluctant to believe things on insufficient evidence. They were not the product of people requiring too much evidence and too much argument in favor of their beliefs. We have people flying planes in our buildings because they have theological grievances against the West. I'm noticing Christians doing terrible things explicitly for religious reasons—for instance, not fund-ing [embryonic] stem-cell research. The motive is always paramount for me. No society in human history has ever suffered because it has become too reasonable. WARREN: We're in exact agreement on that. I just happen to believe that Christianity saved reason. We would not have the Bill of Rights without Christianity.

HARRIS: That's certainly a disputable claim. The idea that somehow we are getting our morality out of the Judeo-Christian tradition is bad history and bad science.

WARREN: Where do you get your morality? If there is no God, if I am simply complicated ooze, then the truth is, your life doesn't matter, my life doesn't matter.

HARRIS: That is a total caricature of—

WARREN: No, let me finish. I let you caricature Christianity. If life is just random chance, then nothing really does matter and there is no morality—it's survival of the fittest. If survival of the fittest means me killing you to survive, so be it. For years, atheists have said there is no God, but they want to live like God exists. They want to live like their lives have meaning. HARRIS: Our morality, the meaning we find in life, is a lived experience that I believe has, to use a loaded term, a spiritual component. I believe it is possible to radically transform our experience of the world for the better, very much the way someone like Jesus, or someone like Buddha, witnessed. There is wisdom in our spiritual, contemplative literature, and I am quite interested in understanding it. I think that medita-tion and prayer affect us for the better. The question is, what is reasonable to believe on the basis of those transformations?

WARREN: You will not admit that it is your experience that makes you an atheist, not rationality.

HARRIS: What in your experience is making you someone who is not a Muslim? I presume that you are not losing sleep every night wondering whether to convert to Islam. And if you're not, it is because when the Muslims say, "We have a book that's the perfect word of the creator of the universe, it's the Qur'an, it was dictated to Muhammad in his cave by the archangel Gabriel," you see a variety of claims there that aren't backed up by sufficient evidence. If the evidence were sufficient, you would be compelled to be Muslim.

WARREN: That's exactly right.

HARRIS: So you and I both stand in a relationship of atheism to Islam.

WARREN: We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God. In 1974, I spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions. All of the religions basically point toward truth. Buddha made this famous statement at the end of his life: "I'm still searching for the truth." Muhammad said, "I am a prophet of the truth." The Veda says, "Truth is elusive, it's like a butterfly, you've got to search for it." Then Jesus Christ comes along and says, "I am the truth." All of a sudden, that forces a decision.

HARRIS: Many, many other prophets and gurus have said that.

WARREN: Here's the difference. Jesus says, "I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father." He is either lying or he's not.

Sam, is Rick intellectually dishonest?
HARRIS: I wouldn't put it in such an invidious way, but—

Let's say Rick's not here and we're just hanging out in his office.
HARRIS: It is intellectually dishonest, frankly, to say that you are sure that Jesus was born of a virgin.

WARREN: I say I accept that by faith. And I think it's intellectually dishonest for you to say you have proof that it didn't happen. Here's the difference between you and me. I am open to the possibility that I am wrong in certain areas, and you are not.

HARRIS: Oh, I am absolutely open to that.

WARREN: So you are open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Jesus?

HARRIS: And Zeus. Absolutely.

WARREN: And what are you doing to study that?

HARRIS: I consider it such a low-probability event that I—

WARREN: A low probability? When there are 96 percent believers in the world? So is everybody else an idiot?

HARRIS: It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are most Americans who think that evolution didn't occur.

WARREN: That's an arrogant statement.

HARRIS: It's an honest statement.

Rick, if you had been born in India or in Iran, would you have different religious beliefs?
WARREN: There's no doubt where you're born influences your initial beliefs. Regardless of where you were born, there are some things you can know about God, even without the Bible. For instance, I look at the world and I say, "God likes variety." I say, "God likes beauty." I say, "God likes order," and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.

HARRIS: Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.

WARREN: I would attribute a lot of the sins in the world to myself.

HARRIS: Are you responsible for smallpox?

WARREN: I am responsible to do something about it. No doubt about it. I am responsible to do something about the 500 million who get malaria every year and the 40 million who have AIDS, because I will be held accountable for my life. And when I say, "God, why don't you do something about this?" God says, "Well, why don't you? You were the answer to your own prayer."

HARRIS: I totally agree with Rick: it is our responsibility to help bridge these inequities, but I think you become even more motivated, potentially, to help people when you realize there is no good reason, certainly not a supernatural good reason, for the fact that I have so much and my neighbor has so little.

Do you think that religiously motivated good works are actually harmful?
HARRIS: The thing that bothers me about faith-based altruism is that it is contaminated with religious ideas that have nothing to do with the relief of human suffering. So you have a Christian minister in Africa who's doing really good work, helping those who are hungry, healing the sick. And yet, as part of his job description, he feels he needs to preach the divinity of Jesus in communities where literally millions of people have been killed because of interreligious conflict between Christians and Muslims. It seems to me that that added piece causes unnecessary suffering. I would much rather have someone over there who simply wanted to feed the hungry and heal the sick.

WARREN: You'd much rather have somebody—an atheist—feeding the hungry than a person who believes in God? All of the great movements forward in Western civilization were by believers. It was pastors who led the abolition of slavery. It was pastors who led the woman's right to vote. It was pastors who led the civil-rights movement. Not atheists.

HARRIS: You bring up slavery—I think it's quite ironic. Slavery, on balance, is supported by the Bible, not condemned by it. It's supported with exquisite precision in the Old Testament, as you know, and Paul in First Timothy and Ephesians and Colossians supports it, and Peter—

WARREN: No, he doesn't. He allows it. He doesn't support it.

HARRIS: OK, he allows it. I would argue that we got rid of slavery not because we read the Bible more closely. We got rid of slavery despite the profound inadequacies of the Bible. We got rid of slavery because we realized it was manifestly evil to treat human beings as farm equipment. As it is.

Rick, what is your role as a pastor in encouraging reformation of other faiths?
WARREN: All of the great questions of the 21st century will be religious questions. Will Islam modernize peacefully? What's going to happen to the influx of Muslims into secular Europe, which has lost its faith in Christianity and has nothing to counteract this loss in religious terms? What will replace Marxism in China? In all likelihood it's going to be Christianity. Will America return to its historic roots—will there be a Third Great Awakening, or will America go the way of Europe?

HARRIS: I think the answers, in spiritual and ethical terms, are going to be nondenominational. We are suffering the collision of denominations, specifically the collision with Islam. Whatever is true about us isn't Christian. And it isn't Muslim. Physics isn't Christian, though it was invented by Christians. Algebra isn't Muslim, even though it was invented by Muslims. Whenever we get at the truth, we transcend culture, we transcend our upbringing. The discourse of science is a good example of where we should hold out hope for transcending our tribalism.

WARREN: Why isn't atheism more appealing if it's supposedly the most intellectually honest?

HARRIS: Frankly, it has a terrible PR campaign.

WARREN: [Laughs] It's not a matter of PR.

HARRIS: It is right next to child molester as something you don't want to be. But that is a product, I would argue, of what religious people tell one another about atheism.

Sam, the one thing that I find really troubling in your arguments is that I am guilty, to quote "The End of Faith," of a "ludicrous obscenity" when I take my children to church. That is strong language, and it doesn't exactly encourage dialogue.
HARRIS: To some degree the stridence of my writing is an effort to get people's attention. But I can honestly defend the stridence because I think our situation is that urgent. I am terrified of what seems to me to be a bottleneck that civilization is passing through. On the one hand we have 21st-century disruptive technology proliferating, and on the other we have first-century superstition. A civilization is going to either pass through this bottleneck more or less intact or it won't. And perhaps that fear sounds grandiose, but civilizations end. On any number of occasions, some generation has witnessed the ruination of everything they and their ancestors had built. What especially terrifies me about religious thinking is the expectation on the part of many that civilization is bound to end based on prophecy and its ending is going to be glorious.

WARREN: I believe that history split into A.D. and B.C. because of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection is not only the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is the hope of the world: it says there's more to this life than just here and now. That doesn't mean that I do less, it means that this life is a test, it's a trust and it's a temporary assignment. If death is the end, shoot, I'm not going to waste another minute being altruistic.

HARRIS: How do you account for my altruism?

WARREN: You have common grace. Even in people who don't believe in God, there is a spark God has put in you that says, "There's got to be more to life than just make money and die." I think that that spark does not come from evolution.

Sam wrote that without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable.
WARREN: Because we were made in God's image, we were made to last forever. That means I'm going to spend more time on that side of eternity than on this side. If I did not believe that there is a Judgment, if I believed Hitler would actually get away with everything he did, that would be a reason for great despair. The fact is, I do believe there will be a Judgment Day. God is not just a God of love. He is a God of justice. So death is a factor. On the other hand, even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.

HARRIS: How is it fair for God to have designed a world which gives such ambiguous testimony to his existence? How is it fair to have created a system where belief is the crucial piece, rather than being a good person? How is it fair to have created a world in which by mere accident of birth, someone who grew up Muslim can be confounded by the wrong religion? I don't see how the future of humanity is in good care with those competing orthodoxies.

Rick, let's be blunt. Is Sam's soul in jeopardy, in your view, because he has rejected Jesus?
WARREN: The politically incorrect answer is yes.

HARRIS: Is that the honest answer?

WARREN: The truth is, religion is mutually exclusive. The person who says, "Oh, I just believe them all," is an idiot because the religions flat-out contradict each other. You cannot believe in reincarnation and heaven at the same time.

Sam, let's be blunt as well. Has Rick, in your view, wasted much of his life on behalf of a Gospel that you think is a first-century superstition?
HARRIS: I wouldn't put it in those stark terms, because I don't have a rigid view how someone should spend their life so as not to waste it.

WARREN: What's your politically incorrect answer?

HARRIS: I think you could use your time and attention better than organizing your life around a belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and the best book we're ever going to have on every relevant subject.

How would the ideal world work, in the Sam Harris view?
HARRIS: Right now, we have to change the rules to talk about God and spiritual experience and ethics. And I'm denying that that is so. You can have your spirituality. You can go into a cave and practice meditation and transform yourself, and then we can talk about why that happened and how it could be replicated. We may even want, for perfectly rational reasons, to say we want a Sabbath in this country, a genuine Sabbath. Let's realize that there's a power in contemplating the mystery of the universe, and in reminding yourself how much you love the people closest to you, and how much more you could love the people you haven't met yet. There is nothing you have to believe on insufficient evidence in order to talk about that possibility.

WARREN: Sam, do you believe human beings have a spirit?

HARRIS: There are many reasons not to believe in a naive conception of a soul that kind of floats off the brain at death and goes somewhere else. But I do not know.

WARREN: Can you have spirituality without a spirit?

HARRIS: You can feel yourself to be one with the universe.

WARREN: OK, then why can't you just take the next step? Because right now you're talking in extremely nonrational terms.

HARRIS: There's nothing irrational about it. You can close your eyes in meditation and lose the sense of your physical body, totally. Many people draw from that the metaphysical conclusion that "I'm just spirit, and I can transcend the body." That's not the only conclusion you have to draw from that experience, and I don't think it's the best conclusion.

WARREN: You're more spiritual than you think. You just don't want a boss. You don't want a God who tells you what to do.

HARRIS: I don't want to pretend to be certain about anything I'm not certain about.

Rick, last thoughts?
WARREN: I believe in both faith and reason. The more we learn about God, the more we understand how magnificent this universe is. There is no contradiction to it. When I look at history, I would disagree with Sam: Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.
Why didn't Sam get any last thoughts? Oh, because it was John Meacham moderating!

Maybe Obama will find a way to un-invite Warren. Remember hope?

ObamaTube: Science Is Important!

12/19/08

Value-Added Accountability: Context, Context, Context

Over at Edwize, Jackie Bennett has an informative post about Value-Added Accountability [VA]. It's a dangerous proposition. This snippet is a good example:
...VA is all about numbers, and numbers have a way of looking more serious than other information, and more true. We observe a teacher surrounded by children who love him; we applaud the profoundly thoughtful assignments he gives, and the profoundly thoughtful way he grades them; we observe the deft pacing of his lesson, the edge-of-the-seat engagement of his kids; the laughter that erupts from his room occasionally; we overhear children in the lunchroom discussing what he taught that day; we overhear the comment of a parent (My son never read a single book until the year he spent with Mr. X). And then next October, when the VA numbers are released, all the rest is forgotten, and all anyone sees are the numbers on the sheet.
Value-Added Accountability Requires Context

by Jackie Bennett

For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.
H. L. Mencken

Before Obama’s announcement of Arne Duncan as his choice for Secretary of Education, newspapers and blogs were full of accusations that teacher unions obstruct “real” education reform. The most notable criticism came from David Brooks of the New York Times, but there were others as well. Scratch the surface of these criticisms and they generally boil down to one issue: whether or not administrations should be able to fire and reward teachers based on how well their students do on standardized tests. Education reductionists say they should. The rest of the education world (and not just unions by a long shot) says, “Great sound bite. Tempting. But not a good idea.”

So, why is that?

First a quick primer on how test-score accountability works: in order to determine whether or not a teacher is improving her students’ test scores, statisticians have created value-added models (VAs). These models begin with each student’s raw progress from one exam to the next, and then try to weight that number by factoring in some of the things teachers can’t control such as the level at which the student started, whether or not he lives in poverty, and how large his class was. Theoretically, factoring in these aspects of student achievement should level the playing field so that teachers can be fairly compared, and then awarded or terminated based on the result.

That’s the theory, and theoretically at least it sounds like a good idea. Granted, the formulas are extremely limited in what they can capture (compare a portrait by C├ęzanne to Colorforms to get some idea of their reductionism). Granted too that their limits make them statistically unreliable measures of the impact of teachers on their students’ scores. Still, if we keep that in mind and understand VA as just one sliver of flawed information that must be viewed in context with all the other flawed information we have about a particular teacher and her students, then VA might be helpful for teachers themselves, and the schools in which they work.

But that’s the difficulty. Given its limits, context is everything with VA, and yet the scientific feel of numbers has a tendency to overwhelm all other information and leave context far behind. With VA, even when we intellectually know we must consider context, we tend to ignore it, and the teacher and her teaching become a Colorform.

Is this obstructionism, the notion that VA must be read in context? Absolutely not. In fact, in the education world, it’s almost universally accepted. Here in NYC, for example, Joel Klein’s DoE (an institution with a love of numbers to rival Wall Street’s) cautions principals that VA results can be uncertain because of personal life-changes for students, other learning experiences like tutors and help at home, and the measurement error inherent in state exams. VA, like any other measure cannot give us “the full story,” says the DoE. Rather “… the various pieces come together to create a more reliable picture.” The DoE tells principals to look at VA data in light of other things they know about a teacher from classroom observations, the quality of students’ day-to-day work, and the quality of lesson planning. [1]

And context doesn’t end there. If many teachers in a school seem to have underperformed, for example, the real problem may lie with the poor curriculum or pedagogy imposed on teachers by administrators. Or maybe the class is on the noisy side of the building. [2] And, since research shows that regular attendance affects student achievement, then the administrator who has planned too many assemblies may have only herself to blame for the results.

But this is not about shifting blame, and it’s not about excuses. Rather it is about context, and context can work just as much to confirm a bad report as to contradict it or shift the blame to someone else. For example, consider a teacher who has seen little progress in day-to-day work with her top students. When her VA report arrives, it might support other evidence from her class that indicates she’s not reaching those kinds of kids. In context, the report makes sense to her and her principal. Then, she might focus on what changes she can make.

Ultimately, context entails asking ourselves two questions about VA data. First, does the information seem accurate? (Does it truly reflect how well Ms. Jones’s students did?) Second, if it does seem accurate, then what caused those results? (Something else? Or Ms. Jones.)

How important is context? Consider the November 2008 study by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen in which the researchers followed VA data on teachers in North Carolina over several years. Comparing the teachers’ scores from their years before tenure to their scores from later on,the researchers found that the VA formulas yielded troublesome variations over time. Some of those teachers whom VA judged to be bad at teaching reading (in the lowest quintile) before they got tenure, were judged by VA after tenure to be among the best. Specifically, 11% wound up in the top quintile (80th – 100th percentile)after they got tenure. An additional 16% wound up in the quintile just below that.

Goldhaber and Hansen suggest these swings say more about the instability of VA formulas than they do about the teachers, and they probably do. But whatever the cause, they are a good illustration of why VA information can’t be used for high stakes decisions like termination. North Carolina does not “sort and fire” teachers based upon VA data, but if they did they might wind up firing some of their best teachers. And in Dallas, where teachers apparently have been terminated based upon VA, one can’t help wondering if the terminators, in their zeal for simple solutions to complicated issues, got it right.

So. Context matters, and pretty much everyone knows that. And — here’s the problem — everyone promptly forgets. As I’ve worked with VA formulas over the past few months, I have been appalled at how often well-intentioned people speak of context, and then forget about it. That’s because VA is all about numbers, and numbers have a way of looking more serious than other information, and more true. We observe a teacher surrounded by children who love him; we applaud the profoundly thoughtful assignments he gives, and the profoundly thoughtful way he grades them; we observe the deft pacing of his lesson, the edge-of-the-seat engagement of his kids; the laughter that erupts from his room occasionally; we overhear children in the lunchroom discussing what he taught that day; we overhear the comment of a parent (My son never read a single book until the year he spent with Mr. X). And then next October, when the VA numbers are released, all the rest is forgotten, and all anyone sees are the numbers on the sheet.

Speaking of Wall Street’s derivatives, Warren Buffett famously warned, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.” Partly Buffett meant that you really have to look at context to understand the value of a stock. The same can be said of teachers, but education has no Warren Buffet. It’s got us.

Here in NYC, we are safe from the abuses of VA. [3] But teachers and their students elsewhere are vulnerable. That may change as more educators work with VA and its flaws become more apparent. But we aren’t quite there yet.

And yes — I did just write that students as well as teachers are vulnerable to out-of-context abuses. VA in isolation sends schools down the wrong path for improving our students’ education by distracting us from the educational mission, focusing on the wrong teachers, and creating a culture in which a teacher’s livelihood will be determined by the answers her students have placed on a multiple choice test.

If VA is read in context that won’t happen.

But just try keeping context in mind.

[1] This information is taken from Introduction to NYC Teacher Data Initiative, a DoE powerpoint that is not on line.

[2] A landmark study recently cited in the New York Times showed how the reading levels of children on the noisy side of a school fell several months behind the reading levels of their schoolmates on the quiet side.

[3] The DoE and UFT intelligently worked together to stop the use of VA in evaluation. NY students take tests mid-year, so that in the formulas the contributions of two teachers become tangled.

12/18/08

More Rick Warren/Obama Anger: Updated

TNR's Damon Linker has a post up regaling the Warren pick to give the invocation at the inauguration:
Nicely Done

I completely understand why Andrew is upset by Obama's choice to have Rick Warren deliver the inaugural invocation. As Andrew points out, Warren sides with Christian orthodoxy in opposing gay marriage, and he has refrained from condemning the Bush administration's policy on torture. Both of those are major issues for Andrew.

But Obama's a politician, and the Warren pick is just the latest sign that he's an exceedingly shrewd one (as Andrew concedes). Warren is beloved by mainstream evangelicals, who have helped him to sell millions of books extolling a fairly anodyne form of American Protestantism. (Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell he is not.) It is in Obama's interest (and the Democrats') to peel as many moderate evangelicals away from the GOP as he can. Giving Warren such a prominent (but purely symbolic) place in the inauguration is a politically cost-free way of furthering this partisan agenda. (As for whether having Warren deliver the invocation is an example of "Christianism," I'd only note that Obama didn't start the tradition of including prayers in these civic occasions. And his own speech is guaranteed to be more restrained in this regard than others have been.)

Now, Andrew might be right that Obama will not prove to be a champion of gay civil rights (at least when it comes to the issue of marriage). But we can be absolutely sure that no presidential candidate of the current Republican Party would be anything other than a rabid opponent of these rights. And that means: What benefits Obama and the Democrats -- and what harms the Republicans -- contributes (if perhaps only negatively) to Andrew's cause. And that should be what counts.
Lot's of pissed off progressives are leaving comments. Wandrycer1, another of my favorite commenters, left this in response:
I hate having this reduced down to that tired left/right media packaging. It's not that simple - there's an excellent libertarian and even Republican case against bigotry - government has no business in the marriage business for ANY reason, no business making policy based on religious doctrines, let alone those based on bigotry (see, Bill of Rights, Constitution, equal protection, etc). The left certainly doesn't have the market cornered on right and wrong.

But they do have the right idea in this case on Constitutionality, civil liberties and moral authority. It's not just "left" that thinks this, it's human beings across all political spectrums.

Everyone, especially women - is getting their piece of the Obama as Savior pie it seems. Everyone except gays and liberals of course - and Obama owes them so much. They started the Obama fire, built it when no one else was, No one worked harder for Obama that LGBT folks.

Now with this loathsome, bigoted man speaking for Obama at a sacred time, LGBT folk aren't just getting kicked to the curb. They are getting kicked in the teeth. Why, so Obama can boot lick to the crazies? Change we can believe in my arse! He's just like all the other Dem spineless boobs in the Senate.

Pardon my french but *uck the "good politics" idea, I challenge that concept. Having the first black President - a former civil rights attorney no less - insult a feverishly devoted constituency (although not anymore), he just shows he stands for nothing in the end and will betray and slap a friend across the face without a second thought. Perhaps Obama never really did stand for anything, fine. Just take your yes we can and put it where the sun don't shine.

I canceled my trip to DC for his swearing in, its not much, but I will not be a place celebrating a historic achievement over bigotry while a bigot blesses him. Its too much.[I fixed a couple typos]
Damon Linker is a putz. Wandrycer1 speaks for me, and many of my friends. We worked hard to get Obama elected, and now he kicks us in the teeth. Rick Warren is useless politically--or was, until he became the guy giving the invocation (let's not talk about how stoopid it is to even have an invocation). Now, if Obama were to do the right thing and uninvite Warren, he will feel the pain. We're stuck with it now. Well, Barack, so are you!

Update:Obama's Response:


He almost convinced me; but, alas, he didn't. You?

12/17/08

Lift The TARP

As we begin to have admissions of torture from the Bush administration, and as we see the bailout get ignored by the banks who are going to give bonuses anyway, we now have Bush ignoring congress again. I thought we elected Obama to end this shit, and I hope we will; but we won't if we decide not to throw all the criminals in jail, take the money from the rich bastards who are hording it, and separate our State from the fucking church (yeah, I'm pissed about a couple of things!). Here's what Bob Reich has to say:
The Big Three and TARP: What Happened to Democracy?

What's happened to democracy? GM and Chrysler say they desperately need money to avoid bankruptcy in the next few weeks. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson now says the Big Three "will get the money as quickly as we can prudently do it."

But didn't Congress just vote down that money?

Don't get me wrong. I'm among those who think there's good reason to give the automakers a $14 billion bridge loan to stave off immediate bankruptcy until they come up with a restructuring plan (although, as I've said before, the plan ought to demand real sacrifices from every stakeholder). But I have to tell you, I'm deeply troubled by the administration's likely decision to give it to them when last week Congress said they can't have it.

Call me old-fashioned but I believe in the democratic process. Under our Constitution, Congress is in charge of appropriating taxpayer money. If Congress explicitly decides not to appropriate it for a certain purpose, where does the White House get the right to do so anyway by pulling the money out of another bag?

That other bag, by the way - called the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP for short - was enacted to rescue Wall Street, not the automobile industry. Personally, I think there's more reason to rescue big automakers than big Wall Street banks, but what I want isn't the issue. It's what our representatives voted for. When they voted for TARP, at the start of October, they didn't say to the President: Here's a $700 billion slush fund to use as you wish. They said: Here's $700 billion for Wall Street.

If TARP is a slush fund, everything's arbitrary. We're no longer a nation of laws; we're a nation of Treasury and White House officials with hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to dispense as they see fit. Why rescue autos and not, say, the newspaper industry, which is heading for oblivion. Better yet, why not rescue state and local governments? They're running short about $100 billion this year and as a result are slashing public services, including the nation's schools.

Even as it is, TARP is shrouded in secrecy. The Treasury has burned through $335 billion so far, and no one knows exactly how or by what criteria. Why, for example, did it set tough conditions on AIG while giving Citigroup the sweetest deal imaginable?

The dictionary meaning of a "tarp" is something used to cover things up, which is exactly we've got.

But our system of government depends on sunlight, transparency, and public awareness. It also depends on Congress exercising its constitutional duty to make laws and the President executing them.

An economic crisis is no excuse for turning our back on democracy.

How Obama Pissed Me Off

Think Progress' headline says it all.

How could Obama do such a thing? Let's hope he changes his mind, because now I am looking for every stoopid thing he does. This changes a lot for me. What about you?
Anti-gay, anti-choice, pro-assassination pastor to give inaugural invocation.

Pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20. While he is a recognizable celebrity and best-selling author, Warren also advocates a number of deeply anti-progressive views. He supported California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and has likened gay marriage to polygamy and incest. He is strongly anti-choice, and has equated abortion to the Holocaust. Warren also supports the assassination of foreign leaders. Appearing on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes on December 3, Warren agreed with Sean Hannity’s assertion that “we need to take him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] out,” saying that stopping evil “is the legitimate role of government.” He added, “The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers.” Watch it:

On a positive note, Faith In Public Life notes that Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights icon and supporter of same-sex marriage, is giving the benediction at the end of the event.

Principal Problems

Boy, I could have written this post. Principals are not the saviors of schools. In fact, they can ruin one, as mine is doing daily.
In the Spirit and To the Letter

by Ron Isaac @ 10:42 am

A letter in the current New York Teacher has both struck my fancy and hit a nerve so I shall respond to it speaking only for myself.

Rosie Canty makes some superb observations about the difficulties that qualified teachers encounter in their efforts to get hired, the nature of what constitutes qualifications that truly prepare prospective teachers for the realities they will face, and the arguments favoring experienced versus novice teachers on the job. She also notes the concerns of teachers seeking transfers on the basis of hardship and the dangers of cronyism outweighing merit as the determinating factor of who gets hired for a specific position. There’s a lot of insight and wise counsel in this short letter.

But one statement incites me. It is “I understand that giving principals the power to hire does make sense—after all, it is their building.”

In my opinion, this resignation and acceptance is at the root and heart of what is ailing, directly and indirectly, the whole school system.

The school building is equally the property of the educators, parents and students.[emphasis mine] It is a cooperative. The surrender of total authority to principal has done a lot of damage. For instance, the principal’s educational philosophy has been allowed to choke out the creative teaching style of staff members who in many cases have vastly more knowledge and experience than has the principal, yet face career-threatening charges of insubordination if they buck their supervisor.

Contractual enforcement is made more difficult over a host of issues and may require extraordinary courage when chapter leaders must deal with autocratic, patronizing principals who feel they are Plantagenet monarchs.

Principals dominate School Leadership Teams and need only consult, or go through the motions and give lip service as they deem fit, about budget priorities, etc.

There is no reason why total reality must be under the principal’s control. As teachers can we choose or eliminate from our rosters every student by our decree? We must find strategies to cope and so should principals.

The principal may be the lord and master of the school’s masonry. But its humanity is the common property, legacy, and vision of all stakeholders.

And the best principals understand that.

12/16/08

Tuesday Cartoon Fun: Auto Bailout Edition



Cheney Admits He Authorized Torture, So Here Is A Rummy Cartoon!

Jay P. Greene: Author & Moron

It's nice of Jay P Greene to put the review of his book back up...
I found this review at Amazon quite helpful:
Jay P. Greene has an agenda: the end of public education. Individuals pay him to promote this agenda, those individuals operate at the Manhattan Institute. The Manhattan Institute does not believe in participatory democracy; it believes in rule by elites. In order to undermine democracy, the Manhattan Institute must undermine public education. It undermines public education by lying to the public via “scholars” like Greene.

Unlike real scholars, Greene’s work is not peer reviewed, and his “studies” are in fact “working papers” which allows him to circumvent peer review. A real journal, like Nature, would never publish a single piece by Greene.

Allow me to respond to a few of the “myths” forwarded by Greene and co. If you still want to read the book, borrow it from your library, or write me and you can have mine!

Myth 1) “Other countries score better than America on tests.” Fine, let’s select one of those countries, how about Belgium…What is Belgium’s poverty rate…4% (the CIA provides detailed economic information for most countries)…If America lowered it’s poverty rate by 8.7%, do you think test scores would go up? I do. Why? What would be different about our cities?

2) “Test scores have remained stagnant for years…”
LIE. When disagregated by race, every subgroup (including upper class whites) have seen their test scores improve…why? Since the early 70s, more and more minorities, immigrants, and disabled children have entered our public schools, and for a variety of reasons, they tend to score lower on most tests. As more, lower scoring groups have entered they drag the higher scores down so the overall score looks stagnant, when in fact, everyone has been making small gains. It’s called Simpson’s Paradox, and most individuals who have taken stats in a PhD program know about it. Also, and importantly, some people have to fail tests, otherwise they are meaningless…We can’t all be above average; this seems so obvious it pains me to have to point it out. Furthermore, if American schools could kick out the lower performing students at age 15 (like most European countries do), do you think our high school students would look better? Yes, but there’s that troublesome 14th ammendment to deal with…If American students spent 6-7 days a week in school memorizing math and science facts like Korean children do, would their scores go up? A little, but if scores had any corelation to economic success (which they don’t, see the World Economic Forum) wouldn’t Korea/Singapore be wiping the planet with us?

3) “Spending has doubled with no increase in performance.” Not really, see #2, but also consider this, American public schools accomodate all students, including students with disabilities, who can cost upwards of 50,000 per student, per year, to educate. Furthermore, thanks to individuals like Jay P. Greene, America spent 8 BILLION more on testing in 2004 than it did in 1994, despite the fact that most scholars have been screaming that testing does not raise scores. It’s like weighing a cow more often to fatten it up. Finally, thanks to the tireless efforts of lobbyists, American schools have spent BILLIONS since 1996 on technology that has never been linked to improved test scores. An idiot on a computer, is still an idiot.

4) “Charter schools outperform public schools.” Really? There is no conclusive evidence that charter schools outperform public schools, and according to the most recent NAEP report, charter students performed lower (though not significantly lower) than their peers in math… And charter schools can turn disabled students away. BUT WHO CARES ABOUT THE WEAK! What happens when charters close? In California, 2004, one company went under and displaced 60,000 students. Roughly 10,000 of the students wound up in charter schools run by another company that would fold two months later! The presidents/CEOs of those companies made a great deal of money, who lost more than money?

6) “Americans should put their faith in corporate America to save their children.” Yikes. Did you know that Wal-Mart stands to become the largest power in educational philanthropy/reform? Do you think Wal-Mart will treat America’s children better than it treats America’s workers? Are you willing to take a chance?

If our schools are so horrible, and 89% of Americans have gone to those schools for the past 50 years, why is America so great? Why do 2,000 illegal immigrants risk their lives everyday to enter this country? Why do an additional 800,000 a year come here legally? To punish their children?

There is nothing objective about this book; it is part of a larger plan to undermine participatory democracy, which neocons don’t believe in. They attack the schools because, GASP, they have done their job…Think there would be a black Secretary of State if blacks had been kept from decent education?

NO.

California Education Funding: It's Over!

If I recall, some years ago state employees got IOU's instead of real money. I can't live too well on IOU's. Please, please, let's fix this fucked up country!
Time for an Education Bailout? California’s Schools Will Likely Need One

The latest numbers from California suggest that the state is running out of money so quickly that it may have to start to pay its bills with IOUs. It is uncertain what the impact of the state’s problem will be on schools, but it looks bad, and is getting worse by the day. In November, the state’s Legislative Analyst estimated a budget gap of around $28 billion between now and June 2010. The annual budget is just over $100 billion with around 40 percent of that going to schools (K-12 and community colleges) (see report here). The budget gap has jumped in the last week to $40 billion, and the urgency is mounting to act fast before the state runs out of money. The Governor has started a debt clock that ticks at $470 for each second of inaction (here) The State Treasurer has suggested that the state may have to stop all construction projects because it will run out of funding paying for its constitutional obligations.

The Governor called a special session in Nov with a lame duck state legislature to address a then smaller gap, and the session ended with no results. He declared a new special session with a new Legislature in December and started with generally the same mix of new revenues and cuts. The political battle is over how much of this gap will be covered with cuts vs. new revenues. The Governor and legislative Democrats (majority party in both houses) are proposing a mixture of new taxes and program cuts, with many differences between the two. In contrast the legislative Republicans are calling for programmatic cuts to solve the problem.

So What Does All of This Mean for Schools?
Schools have been waiting to see how bad the cuts will be. Today’s news suggests that it could be pretty bad. The Senate and Assembly Republican (minority party) weighed in with a proposal that was heavier on the cuts than on the new revenues (here). Combined their plan would address $22 billion of the $40 billion hole. And of that $22 billion roughly half ($10.6 billion) was reduction to K-14 education (K-12 schools and community colleges which are funded together through a constitutional minimum guarantee). In addition they propose significant reduction to early childhood programs. Since this year is already half over, there may not be a lot that schools can do to reduce costs significantly in the current school year, although they better save onto every unobligated nickel. And, while this proposal was quickly blasted by the Governor and the Democrats (here), it is important to recognize that this proposal only addresses half of the problem. So, if the state is going to solve the $40 billion hole, it may take this level of cuts to education or higher plus additional cuts and new taxes.

Why the Rest of the County Should Care.
One in every eight students in the US is educated in California. California current funding per pupil is already below the national average, and near the bottom if adjusted for cost of living. Because of its modest funding and high costs, California schools have smaller staffs than schools in other states – larger class sizes and fewer administrators and other support staff. Take off another $10 billion in funding, and class sizes will balloon even more. At what point does it become a national interest to keep schools from going under. Is it time for the federal government bailout for education? I think this would be a better investment in our future than many of the other bailouts being provided.

12/15/08

Palast On Duncan (and Klein, and Obama...)

Greg Palast is not impressed with Duncan. I don't know much about Duncan, but if he is one of those "Fire 'em!" types, we are no better off. Too bad. I was hoping I would not have to quit teaching!
Obama's "Way-to-Go, Brownie!" Moment?

Has Barack Obama forgotten, "Way-to-go, Brownie"? Michael Brown was that guy from the Arabian Horse Association appointed by George Bush to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brownie, not knowing the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain from the south end of a horse, let New Orleans drown. Bush's response was to give his buddy Brownie a "way to go!" thumbs up.

We thought Obama would go a very different way. You'd think the studious Senator from Illinois would avoid repeating the Bush regime's horror show of unqualified appointments, of picking politicos over professionals.

But here we go again. Trial balloons lofted in the Washington Post suggest President-elect Obama is about to select Joel Klein as Secretary of Education. If not Klein, then draft-choice number two is Arne Duncan, Obama's backyard basketball buddy in Chicago.

Say it ain't so, President O.

Let's begin with Joel Klein. Klein is a top notch anti-trust lawyer. What he isn't is an educator.

Klein is as qualified to run the Department of Education as Dick Cheney is to dance in Swan Lake. While I've never seen Cheney in a tutu, I have seen Klein fumble about the stage as Chancellor of the New York City school system.

Klein, who lacks even six minutes experience in the field, was handed management of New York's schools by that political Jack-in-the-Box, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire mayor is one of those businessmen-turned-politicians who think lawyers and speculators can make school districts operate like businesses.

Klein has indeed run city schools like a business -- if the business is General Motors. Klein has flopped. Half the city's kids don't graduate.

Klein is out of control. Not knowing a damn thing about education, rather than rely on those who actually work in the field (only two of his two dozen deputies have degrees in education), Klein relies on high-priced consultants to tell him what to do. He's blown a third of a billion dollars on consultant "accountability" projects plus $80 million for an IBM computer data storage system that doesn't work.

What the heck was the $80 million junk computer software for? Testing. Klein is test crazy. He has swallowed hook, line and sinker George Bush's idea that testing students can replace teaching them. The madly expensive testing program and consultant-fee spree are paid for by yanking teachers from the classroom.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, test scores under Klein have flat-lined. They don't dip only because Klein has "moved the cut score" that is, lowered the level required to pass. In other words, Klein is cheating on the tests.

But media poobahs have fallen in love with Klein, especially the Republican pundits. The New York Times' David Brooks is championing Klein, hoping that media hype for Klein will push Obama to keep Bush schools policies in place, trumping the electorate's choice for change.

Brooks and other Republicans (hey, didn't those guys lose?) are pushing Klein as a way for Obama to prove he can reach across the aisle to Republicans like Bloomberg. (Oh yes, Bloomberg's no longer in the GOP, having jumped from the party this year when the brand name went sour.)

Choosing Klein, says Brooks, would display Obama's independence from the teacher's union. But after years of Bush kicking teachers in the teeth, appointing a Bush acolyte like Klein would not indicate independence from teachers but their betrayal.


Hoops versus Hope

The anti-union establishment has a second stringer on the bench waiting in case Klein is nixed: Arne Duncan. Duncan, another lawyer playing at education, was appointed by Chicago's Boss Daley to head that city's train-wreck of a school system. Think of Duncan as "Klein Lite."

What's Duncan's connection to the President-elect? Duncan was once captain of Harvard's basketball team and still plays backyard round-ball with his Hyde Park neighbor Obama.

But Michelle has put a limit on their friendship: Obama was one of the only state senators from Chicago to refuse to send his children into Duncan's public schools. My information is that the Obamas sent their daughters to the elite Laboratory School where Klein-Duncan teach-to-the-test pedagogy is dismissed as damaging and nutty.

Mr. Obama, if you can't trust your kids to Arne Duncan, why hand him ours?

Lawyer Duncan is proud to have raised test scores by firing every teacher in low-scoring schools. Which schools? There's Collins High in the Lawndale ghetto with children from homeless shelters and drug-poisoned 'hoods. Surprisingly, they don't test so well. So Chicago fired all the teachers. They brought in new ones - then fired all of them too: the teachers' reward for volunteering to work in a poor neighborhood.

It's no coincidence that the nation's worst school systems are run by non-experts like Klein and Duncan.

Obama certainly knows this. I know he knows because he's chosen, as head of his Education Department transition team, one of the most highly respected educators in the United States: Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University.

So here we have the ludicrous scene of the President-elect asking this recognized authority, Dr. Darling-Hammond, to vet the qualifications of amateurs Klein and Duncan. It's as if Obama were to ask Michael Jordan, "Say, you wouldn't happen to know anyone who can play basketball, would you?"

Classroom Class War

It's not just Klein's and Duncan's empty credentials which scare me: it's the ill philosophy behind the Bush-brand education theories they promote. "Teach-to-the-test" (which goes under such pre-packaged teaching brands as "Success for All") forces teachers to limit classroom time to pounding in rote low-end skills, easily measured on standardized tests. The transparent purpose is to create the future class of worker-drones. Add in some computer training and -- voila! -- millions trained on the cheap to function, not think. Analytical thinking skills, creative skills, questioning skills will be left to the privileged at the Laboratory School and Phillips Andover Academy.

We hope for better from the daddy of Sasha and Malia.

Educationally, the world is swamping us. The economic and social levees are bursting. We cannot afford another Way-to-go Brownie in charge of rescuing our children.

Greg Palast is the father of school-aged twins and the author of, "No Child's Behind Left," included in his New York Times bestseller, Armed Madhouse. Palast is a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation Fellow for investigative reporting.

I Am Old

Well, Arne Duncan of Chicago, Obama's pick for Secretary of Education, is younger than me. Not by much, but younger.

The Howler On Gladwell

The Howler is concerned that Education Journalism is populated by people who have never been in a classroom. Funny, seems just about nobody who enjoys the "reformer" label has taught in public school.
Special report: Schools daze!

Part 1—Gladwell, unblinking: Who will Obama pick to be Secretary of Education? Some slightly-odd writing has surfaced of late as big mainstream news orgs ponder this question. The writers often have little background in education issues—and their lack of experience often shows. One other attribute tends to show up: The way these mainstream scribes sometimes seem to be in thrall to “conservative” educational notions.

There’s nothing automatically “wrong” with conservative educational ideas, of course. But something is a little bit wrong with uninformed public ed writing.

For starters, consider this piece by Malcolm Gladwell in last week’s New Yorker. Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question: How could school districts improve their performance in deciding which new teachers to hire? According to Gladwell, it’s hard to review a college graduate’s resume and determine if he or she will become a good teacher. How might school districts do a better job picking applicants who turn out to be top-notch teachers?

As he starts, Gladwell compares this to a problem from the world ofsports: Football scouts have a hard time knowing which collegequarterbacks will succeed at the NFL level. How might school districtsaddress their version of this problem? This is the perfectly sensiblequestion Gladwell attempts to address.

Gladwell discusses a serious issue—but does he have the chops to do so? He starts with ruminations about quarterbacks—but what follows is his very first paragraph about public education. And his reasoning here strikes us as odd. Frankly, it makes us wonder if he might be somewhat over his head discussing public school issues:

GLADWELL (12/15/08): One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academicperformance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changesbetween the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs.Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs.Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

Let’s see if we have fully grasped the reasoning found in that passage:

According to Gladwell, two classes were even at the start of the year—but by the end of the school year, one of the classes was doing much better. Our question: Why would it take “one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research” to deduce that this group’s teacher had been “more effective as a teacher?” Why would we need an “important tool in educational research”—a “theory,” no less—to draw such an obvious conclusion? Has any principal ever lived who wouldn't have reached this obvious judgment? The conclusion here is comically obvious. But it’s buried beneathsome ponderous talk about “contemporary research” and“important research tools.”

But then, we’re often struck by writing like that when mainstream journalists proclaim about public schools. In fairness, we might say that Gladwell has merely constructed an exceptionally simple example to illustrate some larger point—though we’re not sure what that point might be. Who wouldn’t “use standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year?” We started teaching fifth grade in Baltimore in 1969. And sure enough! Not being the dumbest humans on earth, everyone in our low-income school was doing this, even back then.

So that opening paragraph made us wonder a bit about Gladwell’s competence in this area. But we were also struck by his third paragraph about the schools. Our view? In this passage, the gentleman’s lack of background really does seem to show through:

GLADWELL: Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

In that passage, Gladwell starts considering a serious policy question: Should money be used to reduce class size? Or would such money be better spent attracting more capable teachers? On that question, we have no view. But we’re not real sure that Gladwell’s the man to help us sort it out.

In the sentences we have highlighted, Gladwell claims to be paraphrasing Hanushek, who is actually a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, not a lowly faculty member at miserable Stanford itself. There’s nothing “wrong” with working at Hoover, of course, and Hanushek’s research and views are surely well worth considering. (In recent weeks, he’s certainly had a lot of success getting mainstream scribes to recite them!) But does that slightly puzzling, highlighted passage really reflect something Hanushek said? “The students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year?” And: “The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material?” We’ll take a guess: That might mean that an average student (a kid near the fiftieth percentile in reading or math) will typically learn that much in those situations—although the statement means almost nothing until we’re told how many teachers qualify as “very good” and “very bad.” Did Hanushek really say something like this: On average, students will learn three times as much from a very good teacher? We have no clue, but Gladwell’s presentation is mired in the murk and the gloam.

In short, that presentation—by Gladwell, not Hanushek—is thoroughly lacking in clarity. Does this reflect a lack of chops on Gladwell’s part when it comes to educational issues? We have no

way of judging that just from this piece. But in the mainstream upper-end press corps, journalists often orate at length about public schools—even though they seem to have no background in the area at all. And uh-oh! Such people may be inclined to believe whatever dang-fool thing they get told.

As we’ve said, Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question—and that may be the problem. He ends up making a somewhat eccentric suggestion about teacher recruitment—a suggestion he seems to source to no one but himself. And the validity of his suggestion turns, almost completely, on his unblinking acceptance of (paraphrased) claims about the fruits of Hanushek’s research. This is the passage where Gladwell’s rubber really starts hitting the road:

GLADWELL: Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.

Could the U.S. really produce some sort of major change “simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality?” We don’t havethe slightest idea, although we’re hugely dubious. But we note that Gladwell’s claim is based on a paraphrased account of something Hanushek supposedly said—a claim Hanushek supposedly based on “a back-of-the-envelope calculation.” Once again, we’re forced to rely on Gladwell’s basic chops in such matters.

Does Gladwell know what he’s talking about? Does he have a suitable background for such ruminations? We’re not sure—but in the world of mainstream journalism, reporters and editorialists often expound on educational matters, often without showing the slightest sign of anything like expertise. And oh yes: In the current climate surrounding the schools, they will often be found recommending “conservative” views—and showing that the word “reform” now extends to conservatives only.

When it comes to public education, there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with “conservative” ideas and perspectives. But in the world of the mainstream press, many things are often wrong with the way these ideas get reviewed. In recent weeks, a bit of a tipping point has been reached in the way this familiar old game is played. Did Gladwell know whereof he spoke? We’re not sure—but then again, how about Time’s Amanda Ripley?

Jonah Goldberg Sprains His Mind

I just love that line, davenoon!
Iraqi Ingrates, Footwear Edition

Reprising Andy McCarthy's inane meme, the Pantload thinks Iraqi journalists should at least be grateful enough to recognize that George W. Bush made them free enough to hurl shoes at him. And Bush won't even have them tortured and killed!

Then, half-baked and with a few cans of Schmitz dangling from the yoke, Goldberg lunges himself across the hood of the car, gazes blearily into the inscrutable night sky, and sprains his mind:
Also, if someone throws a shoe at Barack Obama — at home or abroad — will that be used by the press to define Obama's popularity, never mind his legacy? I mean if some nutter in Holland hucks a clog at Obama, does that mean all of the Netherlands, never mind all of Europe, hates Obama?
By the time he's finished, the entire gang has passed out, and Jonah never receives the answers he seeks...

Hey Right, Give It A Rest!


Statement from Obama Transition

Below is a statement from Obama Transition Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer:

"At the direction of the President-elect, a review of Transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the President-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the President-elect's staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as US Senator.

"Also at the President-elect's direction, Gregory Craig, counsel to the Transition, has kept the US Attorney's office informed of this fact-gathering process in order to ensure our full cooperation with the investigation.

"In the course of those discussions, the US Attorney's office requested the public release of the Transition review be deferred until the week of December 22, in order not to impede their investigation of the governor. The Transition has agreed to this revised timetable for release," said Obama Transition Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

12/14/08

TFA: A Colonial Project

I got an email from Open Education pointing me to this interview with Ira David Socol. The following is part of one answer. Go read the whole thing, and then check out Ira's blog.
Teach for America is a “colonial project.” It is a “missionary project.” It begins with the basic premise that the solution for the underclass in America is to make them ‘as much like’ rich white folks as possible. When you listen to the TFA leadership, they don’t really talk about “education,” probably because they don’t really believe in education. They talk about “leadership” instead. If they believed in education they would see education as important on the path to effective teaching, an idea they specifically reject, replacing it with the thought that since TFA corps members represent the elites (or, religiously, the “elect”), all they have to do is “lead” the downtrodden out of poverty.

This is essentially the British Colonial conversion concept. “We’ll fix Nigeria/Ireland/South Africa/India. We’ll just teach them to speak the Queen’s English, give them a Parliament, and make them wear powdered wigs in court. Then they’ll be civilized. And like the British Empire, this strategy is adopted because TFA’s board and supporters have no desire to ever relinquish power to a rising colonial population. If it’s all about “follow the leader,” the leader never changes.

Beyond that, TFA is a “cover up.” Rather than enlist our elite universities in the fight to reallocate resources, or improve democracy, or build equality of opportunity, or even simply to improve teacher pay, support, and status, we use them to offer the fig leaf of charity to deflect any actual movement within society.

And beyond that, TFA is a “good enough for those kids” effort. I say, over and over, that if TFA wants to prove itself, replace the faculties of the schools in Scarsdale, NY or Greenwich, CT, or at Groton and St. Bernard’s, with TFA corps members. And let those teachers – holding their current salaries – go to the TFA placements. If TFA improves the education in those wealthy places, it will have proved itself. If the teachers from those top schools have better impacts than TFA teachers do in the impoverished districts, we’ll know that better teacher training, better teacher pay, and redistributing resources is the way to go.[emphasis mine]

Sunday Cartoon Fun: Blogojevich Edition









Sunday Cartoon Fun



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