Archive for July, 2012

VAM and Merit Pay

One of the most popular elements of the current business-model education reform movement (a movement to which I am vehemently opposed) is the use of Value-Added Models (VAM) to measure teacher effectiveness. Some states and districts are proposing the use of VAM to determine merit pay.

The simple version is this: The student is tested at the end of each school year. You take the kid’s score at the end of Year 1 and compare it to her score at the end of Year 2 and that tells you how much value the teacher has added, supposedly independent of factors like family, poverty, etc.

Diane Ravitch recently linked to an excellent piece written by mathematician John Ewing, president of Math for America, an organization dedicated to helping those non-Emmy Noethers among us to better understand — and apply — mathematics.

You should read his entire piece, because it gives an excellent rundown of where VAM comes from, how it was connected to education (and some of the early warnings that came with it!), and why it is problematic to link it to high stakes (like harsh penalties for kids, merit pay, or sanctions for schools).

The bit which jumped out most to me is from a report by the Economic Policy Institute, “Problems with student scores to evaluate teachers“. (Full disclosure: Ravitch is one of the authors of the report.) Among other things, the report notes:

For a variety of reasons, analyses of VAM results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. VAM estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years, and classes that teachers teach. One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year.

Think about that next time some politicians starts bloviating about how we need merit pay in order to get rid of all those “bad teachers”. (For the record: Yes, of course, some teachers suck. But merit pay and high-stakes testing are not good ways to fix that problem!)

Keyboard Adventure

I spent a few hours yesterday cleaning my keyboard. Fortunately for the history books, I documented the steps along the way. Now it’s good as new. Hurray!

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that I’ve updated to the latest version of WordPress (finally) and added a plugin that makes every link open in a new window. (You’re welcome, AS.)

The bad news is that the cool MP3 player that used to convert every MP3 file to a mini-player doesn’t work with this latest update. Grrr. Instead — after much sorting through the available options — I’ve added “PeckPlayer”, which must be added manually. Therefore the podcast will probably only be in a nifty player over on the right sidebar. Maybe someday they’ll update the WPaudio plugin, or I’ll find something equivalent.

Never mind! I got the plugin working again so now everything is awesome. WOOOO!

Didactic SynCast #68: 27!

This is the last one before the ESPDLF Epic Road Trip 2012. Enjoy!

DS #68: 27!

Top 3 Links of the Week

Current Events



Killer Robots, Etc


Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Why I Love America

Today is Independence Day in the United States of America. Tonight many people will be grilling meat outdoors and drinking heavily and setting off fireworks.

I love this country, but it is a conflicted love. This nation is such a complex and diverse and confusing place, a place that is sometimes beautiful and magnificent — and sometimes horrible and wretched.

The USA is my home, and I am eternally grateful for what it has given me. In the past I have forgotten the blessings this country has provided, and sometimes (like after 9/11) I have spoken too quickly and too narrowly about it.

Today I wish to speak slowly. I wish to explain how I feel, with words that are clear and careful. I want to take inventory of the multitudinous emotions and memories and facts and realities and mythologies and conceptions and mortalities in my American mind.

At times I will have to speak in generalizations, but I will avoid this whenever possible. Please note that “America” actually refers to a pair of continents stretching from Alaska to Argentina. In the following discussion it is short for “United States of America”.

Thesis: What I Hate About America

I try not to use the word “hate” if I can avoid it. I worry that some people might be upset by this word, and I want to clarify (again) that I love the United States of America. But just as I hate certain tendencies and habits inside of myself, so too do I hate certain things about this nation.

  • I hate the violent racism of America. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, the theft of land and murder of native people. The internment of Japanese people, the anti-semitism within our borders. Hostility toward Latino/a immigrants, stereotyping of other ethnic minorities.
  • I hate the male supremacy of our society. Rape, sexual assault, wife-beating, Hooters, and feminized poverty. The hatred and exclusion of sexuality that doesn’t fit into a narrow hetero-normative domain.
  • I hate imperialist US foreign policy. We supported the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for 25 years, which left more than 100,000 people dead. We supported the overthrow of Allende and Mosaddegh, democratically-elected leaders, to be replaced by murderous tyrants. Smedley Butler’s book War is a Racket should be required reading for anyone wishing to learn about US foreign policy. We invaded Iraq despite the lack of a clear and present danger, and caused between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis to die.
  • I hate the so-called “War on Drugs”. We have allowed a repressive and violent caste system to take shape under the auspices of fighting crime.
  • I hate the poverty and inequality all around us. In the richest nation in the history of the world, we allow children in six million households to go hungry. We treat medical care like a special privilege, rather than a basic human right. We allow desperate poverty to go on because we convince ourselves that the poor deserve to go without. We don’t care for our veterans, despite their noble service, when they return home. (In January 2011 there were 67,000 homeless vets in the USA.)
  • I hate American willful ignorance. 40% of us don’t even know the Vice-President’s name. It’s incredibly rare for me to meet a stranger who has ever heard of East Timor. Most Americans don’t pay attention to the events in countries like Afghanistan, where our sons and daughters are risking their lives every day. We have convinced ourselves that “American exceptionalism” means “We don’t need to know about anyone else in the world”. Sarah Palin was a serious candidate for the second-highest office in the land.
  • I hate the tyrannical power of large corporations. In the last ten years Wall Street has committed massive fraud and criminal activity, and yet we’ve seen only a meager adjustment of regulation and virtually no legal action. There is a long history of capital hurting and killing workers in this country.

I could continue here, but I won’t. Besides, I doubt too many other things could fit under the heading of “hate” before we need to switch over to “really dislike”.

But of course this is not the whole story, and shame on those who pretend otherwise. As Friar Laurence says in Romeo and Juliet: “Within the infant rind of this small flower / Poison hath residence and medicine power … / Two such opposed kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs”. And nations.

Antithesis: What I Love About America

I could make a list here of a million things, and there’s no question that a complete list here would easily overtake the previous list. (Thus my ability to say, in the final analysis, that I love America.)

  • I love the American spirit of resistance. Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Harvey Milk, bell hooks, Cornel West, Winona Laduke, Hugh Thompson, Cesar Chavez. These people — and millions of others like them, whose names we will never know — stood up to the evils of history and showed who we can be at our best.
  • I love American democracy and the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, protection from unwarranted search and seizure, and free and fair elections. When I compare my political lot to that of most humans throughout history (and even at the present), I’ve got it pretty good.
  • I love the American spirit of individuality. Many other countries have a powerful emphasis on the collective will. I would not do well in such a society; my unique perspective on the world is dependent on an ability to express myself freely and protect myself from various harms. I love the emphasis on the value of each individual’s life, ideas, opinions, and security.
  • I love American art. Hip-hop is a uniquely American art form (with obvious roots in other cultures), and I love it with a deadly passion. Jazz soothes the soul and reflects so many beautiful things about our culture. Novelists like Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie and Mark Leyner and Philip K Dick and Edwidge Danticat and Cormac McCarthy. Rock musicians like They Might Be Giants and Ministry and Consolidated.
  • I love the natural beauty of America. We have a breathtaking landscape in the US, including forests, lakes, mountains, prairies, beaches, parks, trails, and rivers. We’re incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so much abundant nature.
  • I love the American sense of getting better. For all of our faults, I believe Americans want to heal. We want to get over the hatred and violence of the past. We want to come together and forgive each other and move forward into a better tomorrow.

As noted, I could continue this list for hours. But I’m hungry and my head hurts.

Synthesis: US

For each of the above points, it’s very easy to say “Yeah, but..” (In many spots I forced myself to not continue with the stream-of-consciousness “on the other hand” monologue that’s constantly running through my head.) Hopefully I have demonstrated my willingness to admit the sunshine and the darkness of our nation, in the spirit of confronting — honestly, but with love — all the various facets of this country.

Because true love doesn’t blind itself to either truth. I don’t want my wife Diane to only ever tell me what I’m doing well, what I’m good at, what makes her smile. I want her to be honest and let me know when I screw up, let me know when she disagrees with me, when I do something foolish or ignorant. We can’t have one without the other — it just doesn’t work for a long-term relationship.

And I’m in a long-term relationship with the United States of America. I can’t sympathize with people who say “Oh, things are so bad I’m going to move to Canada” (or Costa Rica). Those of us who love our country — really love it — are willing to stay here and fight to make it better.

Further Reading

I want to give a special thanks to Garrett and Christie Crowell, who once gave me the gift of a comic book called US: Uncle Sam. It’s a beautiful representation of my complex feelings toward America. I will end with a quote from that text.

I won’t deny that mistakes were made — even if the history textbooks do. But I won’t pretend that mistakes never happened. And once in a while — sometimes very slowly — we made some progress.

I tried my best to make people take pride in facing the problems. You’re telling them to take pride in ignoring the problems.

Let’s face our problems, my fellow Americans, and take pride in our ability to overcome them.