Sunday, September 28, 2014


Tracking is something of a dirty word in education. Differentiated instruction is very much in. I can't necessarily say either of these prevailing winds is bad. Tracking can consign a student to a second-tier educational experience. Differentiated instruction acknowledges the difficulty of getting a whole class of adolescents to arrive at the same point in mastering a skill or content piece at the same time.

Today I was sifting through the results of my students on their first couple of tests for me. I broke down the data and sorted my students out into clusters. I made groups based on kids who aren't missing a beat, then groups of students who are struggling. Groups that seemed to be tripped up on the first test but then find range on the second. And so on.

Then I realized, I'm tracking them. I might be up to differentiated instruction, but I'm tracking them within my class.

I'm not ready to draw a conclusion as to whether or not I'm doing the right or wrong thing, or to cast some sort of judgment on tracking or DI. But I think it is worth wondering if tracking might be a more efficient means of doing what I'm doing. It's also worth wondering whether or not DI gives us the benefits of tracking without the cost of the way it traps kids into tracks that limit their possibilities.

. . . But the economics teacher must point out that there's no such thing as a free lunch. What I did takes time. Also, it's done by a novice at data. I avoided Statistics classes like the plague and, still after 17 years, I still don't have a true degree in education.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Or then again, maybe we just don't want to look . . .

I guess I could've read this before my most recent post. Doing so would've made me a bit more salty.

Or, it would've just made me sigh.

Parochialism with Public Schools

I've mentioned before that I like Catherine Rampell's writing, haven't I? She has a brief item on Washington Post's website today that caught my eye. I'm intrigued at the observation on how Americans rally around their school despite misgivings on public education much the same way Americans think their particular member of Congress isn't part of the problem. I also note how one's public school is a fluid concept: if one has children in a public school, that public school becomes their school. One's public school can be the school they remember from their youth. Regardless, we tend to defend what we know or think we know.

There's an angle on objectivity that we cannot overlook here. I think it's possible for people to overlook the negatives of their school, to romanticize their school and experiences at it. To an extent, I think we give our own schools a bit of a pass.

A more important observation I would offer, though, is that we tend to defend what we understand and know. In the past two decades, public schools have become harder to know. We've responded to safety concerns in the era of Columbine and other mass shootings by turning schools into fortresses. Members of the community are largely unwelcome. Parents, except for those who heavily invest themselves in PTOs or parent councils, are deterred by redundant security measures and locked doors. Entering a public school during the student day can bring up obstacles that remind one of scenes from a Tom Clancy movie where one has to pass through checkpoint after checkpoint as one descends the inner layers of White House security. With the exception of theater performances and varsity sporting events, schools are institutionally inhospitable.

The security culture that now defines much of public education means that we work behind brick walls rather than glass doors. A tradeoff for the sense of security is that what we do is harder for the public to know, and what the public doesn't know they have a hard time defending. What can the public really see aside from test scores, teacher salaries, and the "payment due" on their property tax bills? Perhaps public education in general needs to figure out a way to showcase more of what we do K-12 across all disciplines the way wise theater directors offer "golden tickets" to senior citizens and the way sports stadiums invite the community to watch children at play (and work). People cannot defend what they don't know.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Thirty Years War (23 years in)

This week's Economist cover depicts President Obama in an posture eerily reminiscent of President Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" moment. I think such allusion was intentional.

I'm unsure, however, if that magazine meant to include a picture in its coverage regarding ISIS that would be so evocative of the images we watched on TV news of the First Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The two images made me (re-)aware of how we have been in direct hostilities in some shape or form in the Middle East for more than half of my life. Our engagement there is approaching the length of the Thirty Years War. I wonder what historians will say a half century from now when they're examining what we did and didn't do.

I don't wonder what historians will say a century from now. Though optimistic, I don't think I'll be around to see that.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Year 17

A particular way in which I'm disappointed in myself is the pessimism I've had about job prospects in my career. Those prospects are lousy. It's very challenging for a young teacher to work into a position in virtually any school district in this area. Too often I've found myself musing that I could never recommend a young man/woman get into this line of work.

It's time to take the holiday (happy 5775, folks!) to pledge that I'll stop talking that way. It's getting old. It's making me sound old.

If you are reading this blog and you enjoy working with children, savor the thrill of the classroom, and take great satisfaction in helping boys and girls grow into thoughtful, responsible adults, come on in. It's tough to find a good, stable position in this career, but any job that is worthwhile presents challenge. If you are reading this blog and know somewhat who wants to do all these worthwhile things with youth, convince them to join.

A worthwhile profession puts the professional in a point of perpetual tension. I think about how doctors must constantly reconcile their concerns for patients' health with insurers' preoccupation over cost. Teachers work with children and are guided by doing what's best for those kids and what preserves the integrity of the discipline they're trying to teach. Meanwhile, they're doing so with limits imposed by a democratically elected board of governance that wants to preserve taxpayers' resources. How can we not expect to feel tugged in opposing directions.

Of course it doesn't help that we're vilified, but so are many other professions. There's a lot of petty jealousy that we have unions representing us by individuals who aren't mindful of the protections (union-brokered or not) that exist in their own work environment. Then, of course, there's the resentment over the "summers off" that we enjoy.

Meanwhile I try to keep my comments to myself when I read pieces in the news about business class seating on airplanes, wondering when I'll ever fly business class (or even have my district pay for me to attend a conference). There's no point in jealousy about the perks of other professions.

If I complain too much about the rigors of entering this line of work, I dismiss the reasons why I entered it myself and why I remain in it. I downplay the reasons why I take pride in the work that I do. Have I been a fool for 17 years? I really hope that's not the case. Perhaps instead of complaining I should do more to leverage my strengths (as a veteran teacher, taxpayer, parent of public school students, individual versed in economics, and voter) to make the profession more hospitable for good young teachers. That would take courage and sacrifice (albeit small sacrifice), much more than it requires to pile on to the air of pessimism surrounding my profession.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Sports Post Worth Reading

I turned to the Washington Post today for base reasons. I thought reading coverage from their paper would help me relive the glory of yesterday's Eagles win over Washington. I found this gem, a term I use without any sarcasm. The "Best and Worst" contains honesty, wit, and at one point a profound comment on how football is struggling to come to terms with the true cost of this physical sport.

I encourage you to read the paragraph near the end entitled "Worst nagging concern . . ."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


The sports world is giving us some ugly distractions from the everyday. I have erratic internet service on my phone at work, so messages get interrupted. Which means I sometimes get updated on a day's worth of news within minutes. Therefore, I discovered within seconds that the NCAA had essentially ended its penalties against Penn State and that the NFL career of Ray Rice is likely over.

There's a lot of talk on both issues about the extent to which the punishment fitted the crimes that Penn State and Rice committed. It's not surprising that there is so much talk because the crimes at which each of these figures were at fault were ghastly and for which there is no logical means of evening up or restoring the damage caused. In part, sports fans have erected pedestals for these programs (Rice isn't a program, but he's in the NFL, and that's a program). How does one punish, or even respond to, a fall from Olympus?

I was disturbed and remain disturbed at the disproportionality of the punishment heaped on Penn State. I thought the four-year ban on postseason play was excessive and demeaned the commitments of the current athletes. I thought the banishing of the 409 wins earned by Joe Paterno was Orwell-esque. It's like saying Richard Nixon wasn't president for Apollo 13 because of Watergate. It seemed like a heavy-handed response from a hypocritical organization (NCAA) that heads up an institution with questionable means behind how it earns money relative to how it compensates the athletes. At the same time, I'm disappointed in how slowly the legal process is prosecuting the men who served as higher-ups at Penn State at the time.

Now I'm irked at the heavy-handedness by which the NFL has come down on the Ray Rice issue. It seems like a rush to consequences and a rush to punishment. It seems like piling on. He's been banished from the sport. Though the suspension is "indefinite," Rice is a running back in the NFL who is 27. A couple of years out of his career means it's over. He was an employee of the NFL who has been exiled.

I live in a professional world where procedures are in place that protect the rights of the accused as an investigation is conducted and as tempers cool. Teachers who engage in misconduct are placed on "administrative leave" until conclusions can be thoughtfully drawn. They're removed from their place of employment but not banished until it's determined that banishment is warranted. Such is true even if there's incontrovertible evidence about the misconduct. In short, there's a process: remove and protect the accused, investigate, engage along the way with law enforcement, draw conclusions with evidence.

In the cases of the NCAA and NFL there's simply one step: REACT!

I don't say this because I condone what Penn State or Rice did. It seems to me as if both are guilty of something awful and terrible. In a nation based on the rule of law with a Constitution that affords due process rights, it's inconsistent to have haphazard processes by which someone acts as prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner as the head of the NCAA and NFL do. I respect decisions made as part of a fair process more than reactions to horrible events. Further, heavy-handed authority figures make mistakes, as Roger Goddell did with his initial not-very-thought-out-or-investigated two-game suspension of Rice.

Moreover, these reactions mask a deeper problem with both the NCAA and NFL. Transgressions are a fact of life within those entities. Player misconduct, unaccountable coaches, unethical relationships between adults and students, covering up legal issues to be out of sight from law enforcement, substance abuse, domestic abuse, cheating . . . these transgressions are abundant in the NCAA and NFL. Usually they're out of plain sight. However, when some of this ugliness surfaces, as it did in these two instances, the authority figures respond with shock and awe to "make a statement."

But the transgressions continue.

I'd rather see the parties, the NFL in particular, own the problem than make exiles of troubled individuals who commit evil, criminal acts. How is Rice to be rehabilitated? How is Rice to be given a chance to be made useful again? If he can't be integrated back into society, why would another abused spouse come forward and forfeit the gravy train that an abusive (but wealthy) spouse provide?

There is no component for forgiveness and rehabilitation in the approach the NFL has taken with the kind of criminal misconduct in which Rice allegedly engaged. That is irresponsible, and less likely to move our society toward ridding ourselves of an evil like domestic abuse. Why isn't the NFL harnessing its awesome financial resources to get Rice into therapy? Why isn't the NFL conducting trainings for its players and coaches to warn and educate about domestic abuse?

It appears to me that civil, criminal acts occurred at Penn State and in that elevator in Atlantic City. We have laws in this nation that, when prosecuted correctly, offer some sense of justice toward those guilty of those acts. We also have a tradition of due process and respect for law. Remove and protect, then investigate thoroughly, then draw reasonable conclusions. And if the conclusion is that the individual has committed transgressions so great they forfeit the right to play, then let it be. That is banishment I can respect. My objections with the NCAA and NFL aren't with the penalties imposed but rather with the lack of process by which those penalties are imposed.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Experiment Underway

That's right, I'm really incensed at the excessive cost of cable TV. It's not necessarily the cable bill that has me upset (the package with TV and internet is only about a $20 difference over internet alone). It's the rental charge of the set-top box ($18/mo.) that drives me nuts. I resent paying so much to rent a five-year-old box with ten-year-old technology. Therefore, I am watching the remainder of today's Eagles game over the air.

Maclin's touchdown catch just looked pretty good.

Questions about the Nutmeg State

I cannot be entirely objective about this story which ran in the op-ed section of today's Washington Post. Of course I think it's good that Connecticut pays its teachers so well. I can't help but believe that high pay attracts good professionals who lead students toward achieving well on tests. It seems as if that states' schools serve its students well. It's more important to me that there appears to be a broader culture that supports the value of education in Connecticut. The statistic regarding how many residents in that state have earned degrees probably represents households where education is important: parents who read to their kids, parents who monitor their children's learning, and non-parent taxpayers who understand that building blocks to success occur in community schools.

So I'm wondering what else might be at work in Connecticut:

Might Connecticut's relatively high standard of living necessitate public teacher salaries which skew comparison to other states?

Is there much disparity between Connecticut's richest and poorest areas?

Does Connecticut enjoy the benefits of large urban centers like New York and Boston without having to pay for them via taxes that transfer wealth from suburbs to cities?  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Back to Business

I didn't update this blog much during summer 2014. Immersed in being a dad, I spent more of my attentions on another blog, making it a journal of the summer. Besides, I was so busy seeing the world (okay, this corner of North America) I didn't really have time to read, reflect, and comment on the news.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been tuning into the news more, and the picture of the world it portrays is disheartening. The picture I get of our political leaders is disheartening as well. There's nothing being done by our leaders. Nothing. One side obstructs, the other side is afraid to act. The legislative and policy-making gears have seized up, and anything monumental that's being done is being done by courts. Until the politicians give me anything to talk about, I think I'll just decline to comment.

What will I write about if politics gives me so little that justifies commentary? Perhaps teaching. Perhaps music. Perhaps my goals and ambitions. The summer (and all the time it afforded) constantly gave me something worthwhile to say. Hopefully fall, winter, and spring will too.