School Choice, Civics Knowledge, and Fraud

So that Oklahoma “civics test“” from a couple of months ago? The one that looked fishy to anyone with half a brain? The one where most students couldn’t name the first president, and thought the two parties in the U.S. were Republican and Communist?

The one that generated of so much-hand wringing from the Ed Hirsch Fan Brigade about how Democracy couldn’t function unless we adopted voucher programs right-the-hell-now and replaced all this liberal kid-hugging nonsense with some old fashioned content drills?

It was faked, says Nate Silver:

There is no reason to think, in other words, that the students in House District 15 should have gotten such profoundly superior results to the “students” in Strategic Vision’s survey. Nor could Strategic Vision’s results have been the result of any sort of mathematical or methodological oddity. Consider their claim that literally none of the 1,000 students they surveyed were able to answer more than 7 of the 10 questions correctly — lower than the average score achieved in Cannaday’s test.

There are, rather, only two possibilities. Either the Strategic Vision survey was entirely fabricated — or Cannaday’s was.

Once again, not suprising to anyone with an ounce of quantitative literacy, or even a passing familiarity with actual students.

As always the bigger question ends up being not about the content knowledge of our current students, but about the critical thinking skills of their parents, the dumbest generation by any objective standard, who get duped by this nonsense again and again.

Open Google Test

This is a neat idea — because if you make assessment authentic, courses have to change, of necessity:

In Denmark, the government has taken the bold step of allowing pupils full access to the internet during their final school year exams.
A total of 14 colleges in Denmark are piloting the new system of exams and all schools in the country have been invited to join the scheme by 2011.

I’d be interested to know (and may research) how the practice of open book tests transforms pedagogical practice (and student focus) in those classrooms that adopt it. I would guess that we are looking at something similar here.

Abstinence-only Web Education

So I came up with this term a couple of minutes ago, and was surprised when I Googled it to find it didn’t exist.

So here it is. And here is what it expresses — my utter shock that when talking to some otherwise intelligent adults about the fact that we are not educating our students to be critical consumers of web content, or to use networks to solve problems, etc — my utter shock that often as not the response to this problem is “Well, if students would just stop getting information from the web and go back to books, this whole problem would go away.”

Shockingly crazy worldview, I hereby name you “Abstinence-only Web Education”.

Adding this: there is always this resentment of people in the Academy toward the term “real world” — as in what we teach them “in here” has to pertain to the real world “out there”. I sympathize with that resentment, and even commiserated about the inappropriateness of the term with a coworker a couple nights ago.

But it’s things like abstinence-only web education that make that term relevant and, yes, often a legitimate critique. It’s not everybody, true, but the belief of even a percentage in higher education that what we really need to do is get back to printed books to solve the information filter problem is evidence enough that we are insulated from the world outside the campus, and to a stunning degree.

Polymath, Blogging, and HE

I really don’t know what it will take to show higher education how anti-intellectual their dismissal of Web 2.0 has been. But one might think this speech from Fields Medalist Terence Tao might have an effect.

Very recently, software tools have become available to allow easier collaboration by large numbers of authors from across the world.  Unlike the sciences, pure mathematics in academia has never really had the large laboratories in which armies of graduate students, postdocs, and senior researchers work on a single goal; but the technology is just becoming available for such large-scale projects to be possible.

This year, for instance, by ad hoc usage of existing tools such as blogs and wikis, the first “polymath” projects were launched – massively collaborative mathematical research projects, completely open for any interested mathematician to drop in, make some observations on the problem at hand, and discuss them with the other participants.

The very first such project solved a significant problem in combinatorics after almost six weeks of effort, with almost a thousand small but non-trivial contributions from dozens of participants.  It was a novel way to do mathematics, but also a novel way to locate the collaborators with the right expertise and interest to solve the problem, perhaps serving as a model to begin collaborations through online networking rather than physical networking.

But then again, probably not.

Core Knowledge, Magellan, and the Great Man Theory of History

I guess in honor of Columbus Day the Core Knowledge Blog has put up a list of questions about the Age of Exploration. The first question is this:

1. Who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world?

The answer they list below is:

Ferdinand Magellan

This is going to sound like nitpicking, but this answer is wrong. Magellan, as I am sure the folks over there know, never circumnavigated the world, having died mid-journey. His crew, or rather, 18 of his original crew, did make it around the globe, but not him.

Is that nitpicking? I suppose people will say that it’s common to talk about expeditions under the names of their leaders in historical discussion, but that’s not the way the question is phrased. It’s not asking what the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe was — it’s asking who the first explorer to circle the globe was.

I tend to see this as a bit of a Freudian slip — for reasons I can grasp intuitively but find hard to express there is a strong link between the Core Knowledge people and the Great Man Theory of History. It’s no surprise that where you find a Core Knowledger getting the vapors it’s usually over someone forgetting the name of a 19th century President.

On their “Age of Exploration” quiz, the answers to ten of the twelve questions are the names of explorers. Not the nations the explorers were from, or the technologies that made such exploration possible. Not even how the various expeditions were funded, or who stood to gain. Certainly not the social context.

This is not accidental, although it may be unconscious. There is a persistent push in these questions that we must associate all achievement (and conversely all atrocities, I suppose) with the actions of individuals, and not the societies or institutions that produced them. Can someone explain to me how that is *not* a highly ideological stance?

It wasn’t Spain that first circumnavigated the world. It was *Magellan*. Through his individual gumption. Through the force of his character. Through his rugged individualism. Through his not-on-the-dole initiative.

[And he never took a hand-out except for, you know, that whole state funded venture]

Forget the backers of the expedition, the hundreds of men that died, the eighteen that made it, the Basque captain that finished the journey. Forget the societal context (Not! A! Fact!).

It was Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Even if it wasn’t.

Common Core, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Thinking Historically

I’ve just read what is hands-down my favorite article this month. It’s so good that I hate to excerpt or summarize it, so please read the whole thing whole thing if you can.

Ok, for those of you that don’t take orders well — the core of the article deals with a well-educated AP student that has come through a history education that has given him a command of facts that the Common Core crowd would be goodly proud of. They give him a document to analyze historically:

The document was a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. “Discovery Day,” as Harrison called it, honored Christopher Columbus as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” In the schools, in the churches, and in “the other places of assembly of the people,” Harrison wrote, “let there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer.”

Jacob’s response to the document was deeply revealing. “The first thing that jumps out,” he noted, “is that Columbus is a pioneer of ‘progress and enlightenment.’ ” But Jacob had his own opinion: “From what I’ve learned, his goals were not entirely noble. Just get rich, whatever; … he claimed to be a true Christian, but he also captured and tortured Indians, so he wasn’t maybe as noble as this is having him be.”

This response, typical among the group of AP students we interviewed, is in many ways ideal. Jacob marshaled background knowledge about Columbus and worked his way toward the Bloomian peak, eventually challenging President Harrison’s praise for Columbus with his own critical alternative. His response, though unpolished and in need of elaboration, seems like critical thinking. And that’s how the teachers we interviewed generally saw it. Nice job, Jacob.

Except when they give the document to history graduate students, something really interesting happens:

But then we asked a group of history graduate students what they saw in the document. And they saw something totally different. To them, the document wasn’t about 1492—or even Columbus. To them, it was about immigration and voting. That threw us for a loop. Then we got it.

These graduate students had no more specialized knowledge of Columbus than Jacob or his AP history classmates. They were writing their theses on topics like French colonialism in Tunisia and the aftershocks of the Meiji Restoration. But the advantage they had was the ability to think historically about the documents.

From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.”

Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.

Here’s the thing — the graduate students knew less about American history than Jacob, but they knew how to read historical documents. And it turns out that in this instance (and really most instances as far as I can make out) having historical skill is more important than having historical knowledge — even when that historical knowledge is directly relevant to the task at hand.

I really cannot overstate how important this is. It is one of the fundamental realizations underlying the restructuring of Keene State’s general education program. It’s not a new realization.

But although we had the research to show we were right in what we did, we didn’t have the perfect story to explain it. Until now.

(thanks to @jonmott who tweeted this link out…)

NBC + Blackboard makes me want to hurl

Oh, please make it stop. Check out the newest deal “inked” by Blackboard:

Blackboard is providing academic users with access to historical multimedia resources from NBC Learn. The two companies today announced that that they’ve inked a deal to make historical and current events materials from NBC News accessible within the Blackboard Learn platform.

Through NBC News Archives on Demand, college and university students and faculty will have access to thousands of video and audio files, as well as textual materials, covering a wide range of topics, from politics to health. All of the materials can be embedded directly into Blackboard courses using the new Blackboard Building Block, which is being made available today at no charge. As Blackboard described it, “As a result, educators can complement courses and lectures with historical and up to the minute video clips and other content on topics ranging from politics, the economy and climate change to health issues related to pandemic preparedness including the H1N1 influenza. Students get to participate in a much richer and more engaging course experience and can use the content and resources to support their own research, project work and presentations.”

I’ve said it before, Blackboard is primarily an access control company. But not content to be in the lucrative business of dining hall management, video surveillance, and door access control, Blackboard’s real endgame is to aid those who want to lock up culture. The last gasp of the LMS will be to convince schools that a contract with Blackboard (or Epsilen, a NYT LMS offering) allows their students to use work they are legally entitled to use anyway. I can’t really think of anything more disturbing, or more telling.

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 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.