On the Hanging of Census Workers and Our Education Scapegoats

The hanging of a census worker is going to be quickly dismissed by the Right as the work of meth-heads or moonshiners.

I’m not sure I’d disagree with that analysis. But what it misses is this: all those ACORN workers that the Right has been demeaning over the past weeks? All those census workers that Bachman has been demonizing?

They work incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. Like many of the government workers that the Glenn Beck crowd demeans, they serve in areas rural and urban that Glenn Beck would pee himself to drive through.

And lest people think this is too political for an education blog, consider this the next time you hear a middle manager or millionaire pundit dig into teachers as “leeches on the state”:

Between 1996 and 2000, 599,000 violent crimes against teachers at school were reported. On average, in each year from 1996 to 2000, about 28 out of every 1,000 teachers were the victims of violent crime at school, and 3 out of every 1,000 were victims of serious violent crime (i.e., rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault). Some teachers are at greater risk for victimization. Male teachers are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, and teachers at middle/junior high schools are at greater risk than those in elementary or senior high schools. Violence against teachers is also higher at urban schools.

Additionally, teachers face threats of violence and intimidation. In the 1999-2000 school year, 9 percent of all teachers were threatened with injury by a student from their school, and 4 percent were physically attacked by a student.

I’m furious right now. I can barely keep the string of obscenities in check.

You’ll hear a lot of right-wingers talk today about how they are not responsible for Bill Sparkman’s death. I can’t imagine a lower bar. Census workers, teachers, and social workers deserve more from the Right than an alibi. They deserve respect and support for their work, and I would not lay off the Right until they get it.

Well, There Goes the “Harlem Miracle”

David Brooks, last May, on how the “Harlem Miracle” proves that the proles just need more stick and less carrot:

To my mind, the results also vindicate an emerging model for low-income students. Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.


Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused. Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

Ravitch and Meier in Education Week, today:

Oh, by the way, the school that saw the biggest drop in its overall score was the Harlem Promise Academy Charter School, the school that David Brooks of The New York Times held up as a national model, claiming that it had closed the achievement gap. Our blog had quite a lively exchange of letters about that school last spring. Seems it dropped from an A to a B; in the present regime of inflated scores, a B in New York City today is nothing to brag about.

And the reason it’s nothing to brag about? New York State has dumbed down its tests over the years in order to fake progress:

A few weeks ago, Kolodner reported that city students were able to pass the state tests by guessing. After the article appeared, a city schoolteacher, Diana Senechal, tried an experiment, which she described at gothamschools.org. She took two state tests without reading the questions. She answered the questions at random (checking A, B, C, D) and received enough points to reach Level 2, sufficient for promotion in the city.

Because the state tests have been dumbed down, test scores soared. The number of students at the lowest level – those who are at risk of being held back in their grade – dropped dramatically. In sixth-grade reading, 10.1% (7,019) were at Level 1 in 2006, but by 2009 only 0.2% (146) were. In fifth-grade reading, the proportion of Level 1 students fell from 8.9% in 2006 (6,120) to 1.0% (654) in 2009. In seventh-grade math, the proportion of Level 1 students plummeted from 18.8% (14,231 students) in 2006 to 2.1% (1,457) in 2009.

And given that, the real person here that needs a “No Excuses” policy is David Brooks. I eagerly await his reanalysis of the miracle in light of the new data. I’m sure his “middle-class values” of hard work and honesty will compel the correction.

Building an IQL Course From the Data Out

Cross-posted from the new blog you MUST subscribe to — the Keene State CELT blog

I’m meeting with a quite a few people doing interesting things around quantitative literacy, and I can’t help but be amazed with the audacity of what they are attempting. If any of you are reading this post, know that you all are my heroes.

It occurs to me though that many people developing IQL start building courses from a different direction than I would start. Usually the course is nearly fully developed before the professor begins to try to seek out publicly available data for the students to use to defend or attack quantitative propositions. And very often that data turns out to be spotty, shallow, or not directly manipulable with the tools that students have access to (data, for instance, that is locked up in PDF charts).

This is understandably frustrating — it’s difficult to push students to do real analysis when the data is limited.

That’s where the concept of building a course “from the data out” comes in.

When you build a course from the data out, you identify the data sources you will use early in the process of designing your quantitative literacy course. Say you want to teach a quantitative literacy course, and you would like it to be on the general topic of poverty and health. When you design from the data out you start by doing an inventory of public data sources pertaining to the subject.

Looking at the data you can ask yourself these sort of questions:

  • What sort of activities could students do with the available data?
  • Are there opportunities here fro original analysis?
  • Is the data rich and varied enough to support multiple viewpoints?
  • Will the data work with free visualization tools?
  • Are there collaboration or crowdsourcing opportunities?

In other words, start by building rich authentic activities and projects around the data, and then start to work backwards to the larger course structure which will help give meaning and relevance to the activities and projects, and provide the scaffolding necessary to student success, and your job will be a lot easier.

More Intellectual Rigor from Bauerlein

I’m sure everyone will be happy to know that Mark Bauerlein has now migrated to his natural habitat: The Wall Street Journal. And, displaying the sort of intellectual rigor that made him an expert on Gen-Y, he manages to write an entire column on Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues without citing a single study showing that Gen-Y has trouble with non-verbal cues. Indeed, he pulls the oldest freshman composition trick in the book towards the end of the piece, asserting that the fact we don’t know how extensive the “problem” is (or whether it exists) only proves that the problem is more extensive than we imagine:

Nobody knows the extent of the problem. It is too early to assess the effect of digital habits, and the tools change so quickly that research can’t keep up with them. By the time investigators design a study, secure funding, collect results and publish them, the technology has changed and the study is outdated.

I wouldn’t let even a student get away with mush like that.

As for the rest of the piece, I don’t even know where to start. Bauerlein’s view of language here is enormously confused. He mentions the work of Edward T. Hall as if it was buried somewhere and linguistics had forgotten about nonverbal cues. In fact, there is an incredibly vibrant literature around the subject. There has been for decades.

Fine. Jumping over a half century of research is a common tactic for those who wish to inflate their importance. But Bauerlein’s lack of knowledge of the area (and in fact his lack of any coherent theory of communication) shows in his argument. He takes work talking about cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication:

This is why, Hall explained, U.S. diplomats could enter a foreign country fully competent in the native language and yet still flounder from one miscommunication to another, having failed to decode the manners, gestures and subtle protocols that go along with words. And how could they, for the “silent language” is acquired through acculturation, not schooling. Not only is it unspoken; it is largely unconscious. The meanings that pass through it remain implicit, more felt than understood.

And then seems to use that to argue that Gen-Y lack non-verbal cues:

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases, such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to “read” the behavior of others, they are all thumbs.

You see that, right? He’s not even making the dubious (and likely erroneous) claim that Gen-Y is developing a substantially different set of non-verbal cues. Incredibly, he’s making the argument that they are not acquiring non-verbal cues at all! In the history of human evolution they will be the first generation with no understanding of non-verbal cues. They will not be fluent in their native language! What a tragedy!

Of course it’s absolute nonsense.

If you actually follow this out to its absurd conclusion, this means that were the Gen-Y set to go out to the bar and talk to one another, I could read a typed transcript of the conversation, and it would essentially be information complete. There would be no phrases like “Sorry for going on about this” without someone explicitly saying, “I am losing interest in this story.” No one would volunteer to buy the next round after a pause without someone explicitly saying “I’ve bought the last two rounds, and I’d like you to buy this one.” No one would ever say to two obviously enamored people “Well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone” — not without someone verbally evincing love or infatuation first.

In fact, I’m not quite sure how Gen-Y students, under Bauerlein’s analysis, would be able to hook up at all. One can imagine the torment (Is she showing interest or not? Does moving closer mean infatuation or rage? Oh, damn, how I wish I’d had more practice with face to face interaction!).

Movies would also be a puzzle to this generation (“Wait — the character isn’t saying anything, the camera is just zoomed in on their face! Dammit, speak! How will I know what you are thinking!”). If Bauerlein is right, we may have to introduce closed-captions for Gen-Y to help them know if Bruce Willis really *is* happy for his wife or not (Caption for Gen-Yers: [facial expression indicates he does not mean what he is saying here.]).

Of course students have non-verbal language, and of course they are fluent in it. Is it comprised of exactly the same set of cues as adults? Is it different from adults, but within historical norms for generational change? Or is the “generation” the wrong division here, and do nonverbal dialects tend to divide more on regional, economic, and ethnic lines? And should the things that Bauerlein is obsessed with — taking a text message in a conversation, for example — really be seen as central to “learned” non-verbal communication anyway? Or do they more properly fit into a framework like Relevance Theory which allows that cues can be interpreted according to general principles and assumptions, and does not necessarily require that they be transmitted as explicit vocabularies?

Answering those questions would require looking at the wealth of research out there on such things. I haven’t done that, so, unlike Bauerlein, I’ll stop here.

Former Spellings Commission Member: “The Web is very linear”

Former Spellings Commission guy Robert Zemsky talks with University Business this month on the problem with online learning:

One of the big problems is that we’ve gotten the idea that “it’s about the web.” It’s funny—there’s a whole lot of interesting technology on learning, but it’s not on the web. The really interesting stuff is on discs. The web just doesn’t work. We’ve adopted a distribution system that is like trying to run a race in a sack.

The web is very linear, and learning on the web is equally linear. You do the problem, it gives you the answer, and if you get the wrong answer it circles back, and so on. That’s not the way you are going to learn a foreign language, for example. You can use really interesting technology to learn a language. Just don’t do it on the web.

That’s right – the future is DVD-ROMs, because learning on the web is too linear.

I knew we were screwed by the Spellings Commission, and I knew they were out of touch. But that statement shocks even me.

Half of Low-Income Workers Under Age of 35 Living at Home

From the AFL-CIO’s newest report:

The career goals young workers find most important demonstrate a keen desire to move into adulthood—to achieve financial security and, above all, to have the time and resources to support a family. But although they prioritize time with family just as much as older workers, many young workers have to postpone starting families until they are more financially secure. Thirty-one percent worry very or somewhat often about this potential delay.


With the rising cost of education, it’s increasingly difficult for low-income workers to pursue the education that could help them advance. A full 54 percent of these workers worry about paying for education, compared with 24 percent of workers with incomes over $30,000. Even more disquieting, low-income workers are just as likely to live with parents as to live on their own. These results indicate that young people with incomes under $30,000 find even more roadblocks on their path to financial independence and adulthood than do young workers overall.

In fact, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, the greatest decline in employment rates since 2000 has been among those without college diplomas.

The whole report is worth a look. We get in rarefied discussions sometimes about this issues, but access and equity (and the endeavor of public education itself) is so crucial to the lives of so many people. I think that this is where I worry a bit about the “current education does more harm than good” approach. Theoretically yes, but if I had a magic wand that had to choose between instantly instantiating better education or universal access, I would choose universal access in a heartbeat.