Monday, February 12, 2018

Think: Fast

I really like my screens. Some of the actual devices are different from what normal people use (see: here), but I'm dependent on them nonetheless. That said, I like quite a few things that aren't very good for me. In fact, if I'm being honest, I'll admit that I don't always enjoy them responsibly or in moderation. Let's just theorize that it's possible to engage in something bad for you, and enjoy washing it down with something else bad for you. I don't know how many servings there are in a can of Pringles chased with a package of Oreos, but I'll bet it's more than what should be consumed in one sitting over half a season of Breaking Bad.

Sometimes when you're trying to get a handle on a habit that's not very good for you, engaging in a fast (or "cleanse"--though that word is just a little to defecatory for my liking) is a good way to get things started.

Sometimes, it's your wife's idea.

A spouse serving as the impetus for healthier living or other lifestyle upgrades isn't unheard of. For example, I serve as our family's unwavering advocate of farmers' market produce, exercise, weekly church attendance, heating with wood, and raw milk. In addition to campaigning for screen-free time, my wife makes sure that we attend any and all parent-teacher conferences and school open houses, have frequent family dinners, keep in touch with friends, volunteer for stuff, and go to all the recommended medical/dental/optical appointments. We've joked about needing an additional spouse who would specialize in housekeeping, flower gardens, and paperwork management. For those not partnered, advice is widely available from parents, magazine articles, click-baity thumbnails, and pretty much anyone else who navigates vice and virtue and has an opinion about it.

We did our first Screen-Free Week® many years ago when our elder child was in elementary school. Back then it was basically cutting out TV and some occasional web-surfing (via Netscape Navigator?, on dial-up??--could have been). Now our digital lives and our IRL lives are more complexly intertwined.

As part of this project, I kept a journal in a spiral-ring notebook. And I don't mean an app called "Spiral Ring Notebook®" (which I've just invented, so plan to pay me a couple of bucks when you've developed, patented, and marketed it). I mean an actual stack of lined paper held together with a wire. Using a pen. It was a strange few days.

Later, I typed the whole thing into Blogger more-or-less exactly as it was written--spelling corrected, of course. As a result, you'll get to see what my writing looks like before the editor has had her way with it. You'll notice, as I did, an especially complicated relationship with verb tense and sentence structure. Commentary interspersed in italics. Truth is, the longer this post spent in my drafts folder, the more tinkering this got--allegedly for clarity. Not too sure it helped. Be glad that I didn't have any handwriting-ish fonts to subject you to. Look for that in Slackerguide: The Book.

The first morning of this began at 6:45 AM. Not early by some standards, including this household's standards when school is in session, but quite early in summertime. Normally, the day would start with the child watching Octonauts while her father reads all of Twitter. This is screen-free week, so this is not how things started.
Breakfast had been completed and the father and his daughter are playing Connect 4. It's not yet 9:00 AM. This is not normal.

I don't know why this entry is written in third person. I seem to be attempting to impose some distance--as if studying an anthropological subject. Whatever the cause, it didn't last.

I find myself treat-seeking. I walk into the kitchen and vaguely want something. Not so strange for me, I guess, but it does seem intensified by this.
I also lost track of time while reading my magazine. When most of my periodical reading moved to online providers, one factor is that there's always a clock in view. I didn't know how much I relied on this until I tried reading on paper again.

Note: Further research indicates that I was probably in search of dopamine. There is a book making the rounds called Bored and Brilliant:How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi. The gist is that we've flooded our brains with the quick fix that a ping on our phones gives us, and in so doing have kept our brains from reaching "default mode," which sort of depends on boredom to do its thing. 

The bit about losing track of time is related, as it turns out. Staying centered on one task is a rare and unfamiliar state in our connected lives.  

Side note: Dopamine is also found in Cheetos.

One of the advantages of screen-free life is that you and your spouse can talk more. The problem is that we watch TV with a twitchy finger on the pause button and typically spend several hours watching one hour of programming. Without TV, we're left to talk about a much more limited range of topics--no zombies, Secretaries of State, slutty highlanders, etc.--mainly we're left with Real Life.

Note: This entry seems to have been the climax of my dissatisfaction with Screen-Free Week®. The whiny tone, the swipe at my wife, and the ode to a normal life with television are all indicative of how unpleasant I had become by this point. We did probably have an argument, maybe centered on a topic of our life, family, household, or those things in combination, but that wasn't because we didn't have screens. That's because we're living a life together and stuff happens that we need to deal with. There was a sense, however, that without the easy diversion of television and social media that things were baseline a bit more serious and grown-up. 

In my experience, people engaged in fasting often get this way. I remember Good Friday fasts--growing up, we abstained from solid food for all of Good Friday every year--in which my whole family wasn't really speaking by the end of the day. Two hours of church contemplating the Crucifixion and our culpability in it was a particularly difficult way to end the day.

Also mentioned in this entry, the slow TV progress thing is true. In our early days, we'd to try (and fail) to cram all of our discussion into commercial breaks. We were left with the decision to talk over the show already in progress, or try to remember what we were thinking through twelve more minutes of TV until the next commercial. Once we switched to TiVo and later to Netflix, we were able to make the TV conform to our preferred pace. Now we can indulge in all of the real-time predictive analytic and character diagnostics we want. Actually, we could just compile a transcript of these discussions and publish it as a standalone blog, or maybe a podcast.

The record ends there. In part because I've never been very good at following through with journal writing, but also because things got easier and I didn't feel the need to chronicle my suffering. I was eventually distracted by the sorts of things that advocates of this concept are always going on about. I started Infinite Jest, a book so substantial and dense that I may never finish it--at least in what is for the moment a pre-apocalyptic reality, furnished with running water, electricity, and the Internet. I didn't take up a whole new fitness routine, but I may have added a workout or so to my normal efforts. If nothing else, these diversions lessened the suffering to the point that I didn't feel the need to scribble it in longhand. Also, it's possible I temporarily lost the spiral-bound notebook.

Looking back on the previous paragraph, I see that each of those things sheds some light on this whole experiment--well, maybe not the bit about journal follow-through: that probably more effectively sheds light on this whole blog experiment.

First, things do get easier. Giving something up is difficult at first because it is wrapped so tightly with your entire life. Case in point, when we have a power outage I not only continue to flip light switches for the duration, but I keep thinking of things that I could do to pass the time, like watching TV by candlelight. I have a lot of trouble adjusting to a new reality, not just mentally, but in a real tactile sense.

Second, I did take on some things that could objectively considered quality replacements for the low-quality screen time. Reading, talking, and exercising are virtuous endeavors--just ask anyone who regularly takes part in them. 

The thing about the notebook is real too. In my early days of teaching, I had a folder called "Originals"--actually, it probably said "Orriginals"; I'm no good with double-consonants--from which I'd copy worksheets. Because I teach music, these documents included music excerpts held on with sticky-tape. Keeping track of these things and not constantly leaving them on the copier glass was a real burden that has now been alleviated by the fact that I can print directly to the copier from my computer. Organizing in digital space is easier, in part because I don't even need to remember where I put stuff, at least when I can make a decent guess about what I named the stupid thing. 

In the end, I'm not sure that the digital fast has made any lasting improvement. I'm back to refreshing news feeds more-or-less continuously in a vain search for better news--or at least bad news affecting the other guys. It was useful in one sense, however. I proved that I could be separated from these devices and that the world would go on turning without me keeping such a close eye on it. Maybe a longer experiment would lead to more lasting change. Maybe I could try a fast from other unhealthy vices. These things have less power when you know you can give them up for a time when you decide to put your mind to it.

Or if your spouse does.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"I Love Deadlines...

Image from: here.
...and the whooshing sound they make as they go by."
                - Douglas Adams

As I write this, our Congress and President are staring down yet another shutdown deadline. As you read this, they've either solved this current mess, or you're standing in a pit of ash and wondering how everything went wrong. Either way, it's time to talk about budget by Continuing Resolution (a real thing), and the Perpetual Crisis of Governance and the Leadership Vacuum (something I just made up).

The two deadlines in play right now--CHIP and DACA--are artificial in nature. That's not entirely fair; all deadlines are artificial in nature. Unless a meteor is about to hit the earth and you're trying to build a giant shield to make sure we get to keep our atmosphere, your deadline is probably an arbitrary date and time that someone selected. It's possible that your deadline was set to make it possible for someone to do the step after yours, but their deadline is likely artificial as well and may be based on someone else's arbitrary deadline.

The deadlines I'm talking about, however, are a bit more sinister in nature, and shed some light on the the worst kind of manufactured deadlines. DACA was fine, until Trump set a sunset date of March 5 for these protections. CHIP was fine until the Republican-led Congress let it expire with little notice and no fanfare. The Federal Government could pass an annual budget, like your local school board does, but they don't. Instead, at the Federal level, we lurch from one short-term spending plan to the next, meanwhile sometimes needing to deal with the debt ceiling.

By the way, if you're in favor of a debt ceiling as a sensible tool to keep the government from spending too much, you should know it doesn't do that at all. The Federal Debt ceiling doesn't affect spending, just bill paying. That money's already been spent, they're just deciding whether or not to screw their creditors (and their own credit worthiness).

In a related stroke of genius, some years ago our same Congress came up with the idea of Sequestration. The idea here was Republicans and Democrats would put a (figurative) gun to their own heads to get sensible budgeting to take place by agreeing to separate but similarly disagreeable outcomes if they didn't--military spending on the Republicans' side and domestic spending for Democrats. It didn't work. Cooler heads did not prevail and the (figurative) gun went off.

Republicans learned a lesson from this and will henceforth make sure not to put anything they actually care about at risk. Now they put a (figurative) gun to the heads of sick poor kids and a category of immigrants that everyone seems to agree should be called Dreamers--a rare branding win for people who let "tax relief," "socialized medicine," and "death tax" get a foothold. Republicans did sweeten this last round with additional military spending, but nothing was threatened to be taken away.

As mentioned before (see: here) I actually like deadlines. If it weren't for actual hard deadlines, I wouldn't get anything done at all--note how the loose goal of posting every two weeks to your Slacker's Guide has worked out.

To differentiate between good deadlines and bad, I offer this handy guide to deadline design:
  1. Padding, but not too much - All deadlines include a little wiggle room. If you really need it by Thursday, better make it due Wednesday. The problem occurs when there is a series of deadlines based on later steps in the process and everyone adds their own padding. The real deadline for the DACA thing is (was?--I don't actually know, I'm living in your past) March 5. Part of the brief nature of the January shutdown was that it was triggered too early. No one takes a March 5 deadline very seriously in late January. 
  2. Reasonable, but substantial, consequences - You would think that shutting down the government would be its own disincentive to shutting down the government. It's not, because these shutdowns are mostly pretend. If everything the Federal Government did (air traffic control, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, Social Security checks, boarder security, NOAH, ...) was actually cut off the minute we didn't officially have any money to spend, this would all be taken more seriously. This time we didn't even close National Parks because last time that pissed people off too much when Obama did it in 2013. People don't think the Federal Government does very much because we never shut down anything deemed "essential"--which should be all of it, if you stop to think.
  3. Consequences for the right people - Those affected by Federal shutdowns are not those who are making decisions. They're parents who have to come to work, but who have no daycare available. They're low-wage folks who suffer real consequences if they miss a paycheck--even if it doesn't result in a net reduction in pay (maybe because their checking account goes too low and they have to pay fees). Congress just doesn't have skin in the game. They continue to get paid, and even use their gym (maybe with fewer towels). It's possible Trump couldn't fly to go to his party and play golf--which may be part of why it ended so quickly. 
  4. Memorable dates - This seems stupid, but think about it. When are your Christmas gifts due? What about the ones for folks you won't see on December 25--mail carriers, piano teachers, nieces and nephews who live out of state? Do you do better with the deadlines when you can keep the date in mind? That's why lots of stuff is due at the end of the month, and why it's so hard to remember your credit card bills. 
  5. Proper distribution - Making large things happen all at once is difficult. It is helpful to split big projects into smaller manageable benchmarks and set deadlines for each. By the way, I am generally terrible at this. Despite personal goals to do otherwise, I always have way too much stuff due right at the end of the grading period. As a result, my stuff competes with lots of other teachers' stuff, and I'm left with way too much student work to sift through all at once. I plan to improve this. I haven't yet.
You'll notice that the budget impasse we're talking about fails on all five categories. Some of that was just bad luck, some wasn't. Number five, for example, was entirely intentional. Republicans saved important and necessary work to use as a lever against Democrats. Look for more of this in the future, for a very simple reason: it worked. 

Every Senator and Representative I've heard interviewed lately has decried this as a terrible way to govern. It is bad for people doing the actual work--including those in the military--who can only plan three to six weeks out. It's bad for the Legislature, who are always in crisis mode and never get to properly deliberate on anything. It's bad for the electorate who come away with a those-guys-can't-do-anything-right impression and are further disinclined to vote for anyone at all. And it's bad for the country, as it becomes clear that we don't fundamentally believe in anything. Other than tax cuts for wealthy people, which will need to be another post. 

I don't know how and when we'll be able to fix any of this. Someone should set a deadline. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Let the Sunshine In

It's a concept so obvious, you'd think someone would make a law: people working in the public trust should do their work in the light of day and subject to the scrutiny of the public. There must be exceptions made to protect the privacy of employees, or to protect classified material, but in general, if your elected officials are acting on your behalf, you should be able to watch them do it.

Luckily, someone already wrote and passed such a law in Pennsylvania. As a result, state agencies, local governments, school boards, and such must conduct business out in the open. Your county commissioners can't get together at the local watering hole after their meeting and keep making policy. They can't hatch up a scheme by email and pass it at the next meeting. The law requires that "any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action" needs to happen in the open.

Un-luckily, the U.S. Senate is not so encumbered. Right now, the upper house is working on its own version of an Obamacare replacement, and trying very hard to keep it out of sight. They have a good reason: once people find out what's in the bill, they may wish the Republicans had left well enough alone, or started with Obamacare and made the necessary technical fixes that should have happened years ago.

Healthcare is hard. The Republicans are charged with crafting a bill that isn't quite as mean as what came out of the House, that simultaneously delivers lower deductibles, more patient choice, no one currently covered losing their insurance, getting rid of the individual mandate, covering pre-existing conditions, covering children until age 26 under their parents' insurance, not cutting Medicaid, and making the whole thing cost less for the Federal Government and individuals without screwing medical professionals. It's not possible. There will be winners and losers, and the losers will be pissed. In the words of Buckaroo Bonsai (during surgery, no less), "No, no, no, don't tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to."

Doing the people's business in the open is important. It has the potential to put significant curbs on:
  1. Self Dealing: Public officials who are in it for themselves have a much harder time slipping themselves little treats through policy-making when the public can keep in eye on what they're doing. We all remember the bridge to nowhere that didn't happen because we called them on it.
  2. Amateur Hour: In the example of healthcare, you really should present your ideas to medical professionals, and probably medical billing professionals specifically. If you are in charge of paying medical bills in your household, you know that matching insurance statements to bills is complicated and frustrating work. You really should have people that deal with this stuff all day long look at your plan and let you know where you've done something stupid. In the case of education policy, you should talk to teachers, and students, and administrators, and building custodians. Members of congress are all professionals at something--some were doctors, and lawyers, and business executives (and teachers, and farmers, and...)--but none were all professions. As Sesame Street taught us, asking questions is a good way to find things out.
  3. Evil: Even if the policy isn't a personal grab, as described in 1, above, it is possible for policy-making to leap right over foolish, past misguided, and land directly on evil. The ACHA, for example, took the hated individual mandate and changed it from a tax to help fund other parts of the law and converted it to a giveaway to insurance companies. 
  4. Nasty Surprises: Not putting the Obamacare replacement through the wringer of public scrutiny means that there will be stuff lurking in there that no one will know about until they get sick or injured. Obamacare itself went through endless hearings and still ended up with some crap in there that someone should have cleaned up before it went live. Having lots of people look this over before it becomes law could keep unintended (or intended, but evil) provisions from sneaking through.
  5. Legislative Hangover: Obamacare never enjoyed a whole lot of public love. The law is byzantine, numbering thousands of pages and cluttered with awkward compromises. The website roll-out was botched, and the implementation of most of the provisions were delayed enough that people could get good and grouchy about them before they saw any benefit (see also: here). Still, the Republican bill faces an even stronger backlash because it's enjoying such secrecy now. Also, given the total lack of Democratic buy-in, Trumpcare will face the same fate of needing to be perfect on the first draft with no way to tweak it down the line. Technical fixes will need 60 votes, since "reconciliation" will have been exhausted.
A podcast I enjoy consistently reminds us that "none of us is as smart as all of us." The U.S. is not a democracy, which means that I won't have a seat at the actual table to write the bill and I won't get to vote on it. However, my elected representatives will, and in PA I've chosen Pat Toomey and Bob Casey--which is proof that I have a multiple personality disorder. Senate terms are long, so many members (including Toomey) won't have to face voters for as many as five years. This means that putting pressure on senators can be very difficult--I know, I've tried. If Mitch McConnell is able to drag this thing across the finish line without real scrutiny and without half of PA's senators, it would show his legislative talents, but also show that he doesn't really understand how our government is meant to work.

Elected officials are supposed to convert the will of the people into public policy. Republicans are very interested in keeping their promise to repeal-and-replace, so much so that they don't really care about the actual result. Getting them to care is our job, through whatever light or heat we can introduce.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The 100 Days Report Card

Grading is an expression of your values. Every one of the dozen or so student teachers I've worked with has received this nugget of wisdom in answer to questions such as: "How many points should this question be worth?", and "Should this be a test or quiz?", and "What time is lunch again?". In this post, we will apply some values-based grading to Trump's first 100 days in office.

The president suddenly decided on day 96 or so that 100 days is not a very good measure of anything. That's fine. All marking periods are arbitrary demarcations, and are therefore poor indicators of overall learning. However, research shows that a student's early grades can be a pretty good predictor of how things will go for the rest of the course. Similarly, the 100 days benchmark also seems to be sort of a thing, so now would appear to be a worthwhile time to take stock, as previously promised: here. By the way, if you find it a little strange that I'm turning in these grades a bit late, you obviously don't work as the office secretary at my school.

Keep in mind, progress in 100 days is a measure that Trump himself invited, back when he assumed things would be going well by then. Using Trump's own promises as a benchmark also seems reasonable, given that it is difficult to choose what to measure for this. That is, it may not be possible to fairly score "success" in goals that more than half of voters voted against. Doing things this way, Trump's first grade report is for a term he chose, based on a syllabus he designed. Given that this is a dream scenario that savvy Slackers should enthusiastically embrace (see also: here), I'm sure he'll do well.

Subject: Border Wall, Paid for by Mexico
Grade: F
Comments: It's possible, though increasingly unlikely, he could still get this done within his presidency. However, it certainly didn't happen this marking period--in fact, the Congress overtly forbid spending on this. Throughout, it's been interesting to watch his surrogates try to float the idea that the wall is more a metaphor for improved boarder security: increased personnel, tweaks to existing infrastructure, and technological improvements, only to have Trump himself come out and say in no uncertain terms that it's a literal wall, and somehow beautiful.  It's a style of messaging that is happening quite a lot in this administration (see also: here).

Subject: Budget
Grade: F+
Comments: This one's an F as well. Trump laid out lots of budgetary goals--which should be viewed as expressions of his values--all of which were rejected in the bipartisan omnibus spending agreement (we can only hope this happens again in the fall). The fact that the agreement itself happened on day 101 is, I think, unlikely to be coincidence. My guess is that the timing of the announcement may have been part of the negotiations, and actually from a request on the Republicans' side, based on the fact that the timing kept another major loss out of the president's 100 days grading period.
Either way, his priorities--cutting endowments for arts and humanities, cutting education, and screwing the poor--were largely ignored. The fact that some additional military spending was thrown in bumped his grade to an F+, but military spending is kind of a given in budgets, and no one really thought they'd hold it to zero. The fact that there were not corresponding increases in discretionary spending is being considered a Republican victory (note: an expression of their values), but it certainly doesn't look like Trump gets any credit here. He tried to spin it otherwise, but Slackers know that's a well-worn report card trick as well.

Subject: Drain the Swamp
Grade: F A
Comments: Two words: Goldman. Sachs.
Okay, more words: Trump never really specified what he meant by "the swamp," but most people assumed that it was the old revolving door of bottom-feeders spending enough time in government to change the rules in their favor, returning to the private sector to reap the profits, and then returning to government to coax through more favoritism. Or maybe it meant longtime bureaucrats and technocrats colluding with sleazy legislators who know how to rig the system. Or maybe it meant...
No, it just meant Democrats.
This grade was originally entered as failing, but on further reflection, he did drain the swamp; then he refilled it with his own slimy beasts. He didn't mention that during the campaign--maybe we failed to ask sufficiently--but according to our curriculum, he did what he said he would do. I predict that there will be additional drainage from this administration coming soon. Prevailing wisdom is that he's getting rid of anyone who seems like they're part of investigation into Russia's meddling. I'm sure it's partly that, but I think any administration official who seems like they're providing council should keep an eye open for oncoming buses. For example, it looked like Rod Rosenstein was having a moment in the spotlight, until Trump noticed that he was having a moment in the spotlight and put an end to it. 
Update: Then our friend Rod appointed a special prosecutor, so it's hard to keep up with how that's going. Better turn these grades in soon or stuff will just keep happening. 

Subject: Fixing China
Grade:W (Withdrawn)
Comments: Turns out China stopped currency manipulation years ago. Oops.

Subject: Better Russian Relations
Grade: C-
Comments: Looks like the love affair with Russia is largely over, but the cooling relations don't seem to have immediately resulted in a deluge of kompromat. Yet.
For this administration, that gets grade-inflated to a C-. Keep an eye on this subject in subsequent grading periods.

Subject: Not Playing Golf
Grade: D-
Comments: You think there shouldn't be a grade for this, but Trump actually made numerous promises not to play golf, usually tied to criticism of Obama. Trump's golf habit, combined with his three White Houses, required $61,000,000 in the budget deal just to reimburse local law enforcement near his properties for his frequent visits. That doesn't include his and hers planes, Secret Service golf cart rentals, and the cost of keeping the press from seeing any of it.
If you're looking for grade inflation here, forget it. Trump has spent more than 30% of his days in office at a Trump property--that includes weekdays. Given that he's spent something like half of weekend days during this time not playing golf, a passing grade here is already a gift.

Subject: Repeal and Replace
Grade: F D
Comments: This was adjusted after the fact, due to some late work submitted the week after the grading period ended. Yes, the House passed a bill, and yes it does more-or-less repeal and replace Obamacare. It's a horrible bill, though, and the grade reflects this. Republicans knew it was a horrible bill, which is why they didn't wait for CBO scoring, or the many months of debate that Obamacare got, or, it would seem, bothering to read the actual bill.
The Speaker of the House doesn't read my blog. I can tell. I'm not permitted to fail him because I dislike the actual bill, but even the Republican-led Senate has rejected it and started from scratch, so it's all sort of a sham at this point.

Subject: A Trillion Dollars for Infrastructure
Grade: W
Comments: This is the real Repeal and Replace of the nascent administration. Turns out, what he actually meant was not so much infrastructure, as tax incentives to create infrastructure. Trump repealed his promise to spend money on real stuff, and replaced it with the old chestnut of "give wealthy people money and they'll spend it on the common good." If this goes through his way, make sure to charge up your EzPass and make plans to go places with a high profit:cost ratio. Don't plan to use mass transit to get there either. Apparently, riding trains is too fuzzy-headed liberal, even if it can be made profitable. You could read actual professional writing on this topic: here.

Subject: Undoing Obama's Presidency
Grade: A
Comments: This subject is proof that the fact that just 'cause you're doing something isn't in and of itself a good thing. Trump's fetish with undoing Obama's impact on the nation has been so single-minded that he doesn't seem to care whether there was merit to the the thing in the first place. Thus we've seen that Trump hates water (despite assurances to the contrary), enjoys climate change, thinks the mentally ill should have guns, doesn't mind screwing student loan holders, thinks BP should have an easier time drilling, doesn't like whistle-blowers,  is suspicious of financial reform, and doesn't like National Parks and Monuments,

Trump's grades so far amount to a desperate situation, but not an irreparable one. There's something of a Scorpion and the Frog aspect to all of this, in that people like me can't help but want to shoot venom into the very vessel on which we all teeter. I was never going to be a fan of this president, but if he started to act in the interests of the people who actually voted for him, we could start to see some passing grades. I don't know that I'm mature enough to wish Trump well, but I do like roads and stuff, I would like to see actual improvements to Obamacare, and I would enjoy not seeing another world war. Improving these grades may be Trump's responsibility, but it's not just his problem.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Off-brand Education

When I was a kid, generics looked like this <----. The idea was that skipping the advertising, the design, and the color printing, more-or-less the same quality products would be available at a lower cost. If you could manage without actual  Froot Loops®, you could enjoy round, sugary, fruit-colored breakfast cereal for less. At some point, the stigma of a cart full of white boxes with black lettering eventually combined with comparatively lower costs for printing resulting in store brands and generic brands that looked a lot like the national brands (I remember Malt-O-Meal as an early example). At least they would to anyone who didn't watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Also in those days, teachers' content usually resided in spiral-ring notebooks and was delivered to students by way of chalk. Worksheets were typed (with typewriters), written out by hand, or illegally Xeroxed from workbooks. Tech geeks may have printed things (on dot matrix), while their less progressive colleagues still copied on mimeograph machines. Teachers' bulletin boards were designed and constructed by teachers--which made penmanship and scissors skills very important teaching skills. In other words, education was mostly homemade by our teachers, or at most guided by textbooks.

Teachers were also engaged in pedagogical innovation, even if that also was a bit homemade and haphazard. Some arranged desks in a big circle around the room. Some would have us produce "music videos"--to be performed live, as video editing was pretty cumbersome on VHS tape--resulting in some kind of learning, I guess. One of my teachers continually plugged coming attractions (in the next chapter, we will discover...) such that his course was perpetually time-locked two weeks in the future.

Oh, also, we had cheese made of cheese and all the butter we could eat, due to government dairy price stabilization schemes. You would have liked the '70s and '80s.

I'm currently sitting in an in-service, learning--well, actually I'm typing this blog, but I'm supposed to be learning--about Hybrid Learning®, brought to you in part by Dellicker Strategies. Previously, I sat through Learning Focused Strategies; previous to that I learned Madeline Hunter®; previous to that it was TESA®.

Each of these methodologies is based in legitimate educational theories that someone figured out how to monetize. I submit that once these ideas made the journey from quality educational concepts and improvements to shiny binders and glitzy web-based in-service packages, something was lost.

If I ever get to interview a superintendent or principal or Secretary of Education, my one question--assuming I'm permitted to ask my own, and not have to choose from a shiny binder full of questions--would be: "What is currently wrong with education in general and the specific way teaching is being done in our district (state, country...), and what is your Solution®." Any candidate with a ready answer to this question should be immediately removed from the room, stripped of their certifications, and sent off to manage a WAWA (or Sheetz, depending on the exact location). 

The list that follows will take you through a series of branded Educational Initiatives® that began life as worthwhile improvements, subsequently turned ugly through the process of corporatization:

Common Core (not to be confused with common core):
  • The idea: National standards for benchmarks in certain aspects of a student's education will more equitably distribute access. The goal is to ensure that every student who takes Algebra 1 learns pretty much the same stuff.
  • The twisted reality: As Diane Ravitch so eloquently described, Common Core does too much to prescribe not only what is taught, but precisely how much and how. It has been used by none other than President Obama and his Education Secretary as a cudgel to weaken schools enough to bring about rescue scenarios such as charter schools. Common Core creates goals that aren't impossible to meet, but goals that are so specific that they stifle creativity and classroom-level customization. When teachers are left out of the process, we get closer to a reality in which teaching will be done by machines (see also: here).
AP (not to be confused with apps or apps):
  • The idea: Students who take exceedingly rigorous courses in high school should be able to apply this knowledge and skill to test out of entry-level courses in college.
  • The twisted reality: Educational Testing® has scaled up its efforts to the degree that any course without the "AP" prefix is assumed to lack rigor. This non-profit has made many people very rich, by selling parents and students college credit for $80 a course--an actual bargain if the student achieves the requisite score, and if  the college doesn't expect them to take their own version of the course, and if it wouldn't be a better idea to take their version. Lots of fine print to sort through.
LFS (not to be confused with SFL):
  • The idea: Making learning an intentional process, rather than a happy accident, improves the odds that it would occur.
  • The twisted reality: There's nothing new here. Terry Pratchett called it Second Thoughts. Longstanding learning theory called it meta-cognition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about your thinking process. There is absolutely nothing wrong with designing lessons based on a central idea, or essential question. There is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying critical vocabulary and identifying it for students. There is absolutely something very wrong with bilking school systems out of tens of thousands of dollars for access to Essential Questions®, Word Walls®, and the rest.
Hybrid (not to be confused with hybrids or hybrids):
  • The idea: Learning happens fundamentally in three modes: teachers deliver content, students work on their own, students work in groups.
  • The twisted reality: It came to our school wedded to 1:1 computer deployment, which has many of us thinking that Hybrid® is a technology initiative. It's not, though the relationship isn't coincidental either. Hybrid is an effort to keep teachers from lecturing for 82 minutes while expensive laptops languish in their bags; or the inverse: students f-ing around on laptops for 82 minutes on a task that takes most of them 10. Enforcing a strict rotation schedule gets teachers in the habit of using the computers, but not too much. Given how simple a concept this is, one might wonder why expensive consulting, multiple teacher "coaching" positions, and grueling hours of in-service (/blog writing time) have been dedicated to it.
    Danielson Framework (not to be confused with Daniel-san):
    • The idea: Teaching is a multifaceted art form, and it is worthwhile to look at it methodically from different perspectives.
    • The twisted reality: Like most of this stuff, it's hard to find fault with the philosophical core of this. The problem arises from the fact that the observation process has become so clogged with paperwork based on the framework that we've cut way back on it. Currently, teachers (at least at my school) do "differentiated supervision"--think: busy work--for two out of every three years, and are only observed one in three. This is a shame. It's good for administrators to get into classrooms. It's good, though admittedly not a cure-all, for teachers to do their thing under scrutiny. It's so good that an argument could be made for having a systematic program of teachers observing each other and reporting back on it. Most of us haven't done that since our induction program, but it can be very efficient for teachers to watch each other. It can result in the theft of good ideas, and in the discovery of methods and traits that we'd never want to allow into our own work.
    Trying to get better at education is not only a nice thing, it's absolutely essential for our survival. Much of the talk of "failing schools" is nonsense, intended more to cleave resources away from public schools than to improve them--I'm looking at you, Ms. DeVos. That doesn't absolve us of the responsibility of trying to get better, though. It's not possible to stand still, so if you think that's what you're doing, you're getting worse.

    Why not take it back, though? Why not figure some of these things out for ourselves, and learn it from each other? Why not hire, I don't know, an assistant superintendent, or director of curriculum, or something to guide all of this? Why not have teachers observe each other and share feedback--not as an assessment, but as a genuine effort to spread the wealth of good ideas and fresh perspectives?

    The answer, I'm afraid, is the shiny binders are very appealing, and the idea of a one-size-fits-most solution is even more so. To take this back would require that we recognize the wealth of ideas, tricks, and philosophical underpinnings already in the system. It would also mean that I won't get to retire on royalties from the upcoming binders full of The Slacker's Guide to Curriculum®, coming soon to a glitzy website near you.

    Sunday, April 9, 2017

    Elective Surgery

    In every school there are courses you have to take. Each degree, certificate, or diploma program has its own list, but they all have one and you'll take the stuff they tell you if want them to sign on the bottom line of the fancy parchment (see also: here). Whether a school requires two years of a language, four years of phys ed, three years of math, and so on is not standard across the industry, but in all of these cases someone somewhere is making decisions for you. PDE has its say, your school board its say, college admission standards have theirs, NCAA its, and your parents theirs. In the end you may actually get to pick something, and that's where the real fun begins.

    People who teach required subjects have what's called Job Security. In fact, if you manage to get your subject on the standardized testing list, all the better (see also: here). The rest of us fight it out for any time and space left over. The name of the game is to have the courses we most like to teach filled with appropriate students--though, never over-filled. In other words, try to teach that course that everyone wants but only a limited number can get.

    Even for those with Job Security, teachers will often enter the marketplace with elective editions of their regular fare. As a result, you'll see The History of Mathematics, and Elective Phys Ed, and The Physics of the Impossible--How to Make Science Fiction into Science Fact (okay, I made up the third one, but not the other two). It's too bad, because I think I'd take that physics course.

    All of this has pitted teacher against teacher in an odd skirmish. It's something of a popularity contest, but it can be difficult to discern the necessary elements in this sort of popularity. In some cases, it involves convincing the constituency that your course is more rigorous and therefore more rewarding than all the others. In others, it's a matter of getting a reputation for egregious grade inflation. If you're looking for proof, note that Rate My Teachers ranks both "Easiness" and "Knowledge" (see also: here). We take from this the impression that students want teachers who know a whole lot, but don't really require their students to know that much. I guess. Rate My Professor also ranks "Hotness," but luckily in secondary education we don't need to keep up with our hairdresser appointments or gym memberships.

    For teachers looking to market their elective courses properly, I offer the following:
    • Choose your target demographic: Want to teach gifted kids? Great, but beware the helicopter parents (see also: snowplow parents and tiger mothers). Slackers are not every teacher's first choice, but the smart but unmotivated student can be a rewarding challenge if you find something that finally catches their interest. It's possible to offer a course to students across all spectrum, but challenging the strongest students and not losing the weakest becomes a constant struggle.
    •  Play to your strengths: Think about what you actually want to be doing all day (see also: here). For example, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My next step was to offer a guitar class. Someday I'll get interested in the bassoon, or the banjo, or the harp, and coincidentally we'll start offering that.
    • Naming is everything: “Sports Writing” has the word “writing” in there, which is bad, but it also has the word “sports” which is good--maybe (see: #1. above). If you're going to offer a course in watching movies, you should avoid words like "watch," "cinema," and for God's sake "movie." Try instead "history," "modern," or "seminar." Meanwhile, don't ignore the other extreme in students. Some are attracted to the most horrifying name you can devise. Forget “Elective Health” and think “Advanced Surgical and Non-surgical Exploration of Micro-biological and Macro-biological Organisms.” Someday someone will design an app to do this automatically, but you haven't adjusted your course name lately, use these real naming upgrades as a handy guide:
      • Basket Weaving --> Multicultural Applied Arts Survey
      • Co. Ed. Cooking --> Culinary Science
      • Shop --> Manufacturing Systems
      • Hanging Out in the Band Room --> Senior Music Seminar
    • Build a pipeline: The Car Talk guys figured out that one of the most powerful words in product instructions is “repeat”—with just one word, you’ve instantly doubled your sales. The same can be done by offering a “level 2” (“level 3,” and so on…) of your course. To play this game at the advanced level, apply the alternative naming strategy from above to your level 2 course--think: Advanced Application of Kinestilogical Science Regimen (aka Gym 2).
    •  Write engaging course descriptions: Stay away from ZANY!, cheeky, or otherwise unprofessional descriptions, but every word of a course descriptions is designed to turn on desirable students and turn off the rest. A handy guide is to explore Forbes Top 10 Paying Jobs list and just dot words from there liberally into your description. If you're not inclined to check out the link, just use: "STEM," "technology," "independent," and "media."Eventually we'll write an app for this too.
    • Offer career counseling: SPOILERS: Most career paths will undoubtedly begin with your class(es), but offering “objective” advice on every semester of a student’s time at your school up until graduation will make it clear how everything you offer will fit into a well-balanced academic life. If a student sees a need for math, writing, critical thinking, networking, presentation, or design skills, assure them that your Music Through the Guitar class offers all of that and so much more. You could even include bits of these skills in your course, I guess.
    • Tag "AP" on the front: Really, people love that stuff. Many people are dazzled by the just-like-college thing, plus Educational Testing has already done much of the marketing for you. There is a similarly sinister thing going around called "dual enrollment," by which some high school courses can simultaneously earn college credit just by charging students a fee and playing on teachers' belief that teaching from a college syllabus makes you pretty much a tenured professor. Keep in mind: If they'll let a fifteen-year-old with a 3.0 GPA take it, it's not college work. For more on this see: here, or the Slacker Guide version: here
    • Consider forming a cult: You may no longer find it necessary to apply the methods above if you play your cards right. Sometimes the easiest way to make sure that students schedule your course is to get the students you currently have to bring in fresh victims new faces. See also: here.

    If you are a student reading this post and made it this far--even past the list (bye Kayla!)--you may be feeling a little sick about the manipulation I've described that is inherent in the system. You should be, but understanding the methodologies being applied to you can make you a more intelligent consumer of this stuff. Just knowing that there is a marketing battle being waged over your choices can be helpful. A sales pitch loses some of its mythical powers when you recognize that you're being sold something.

    Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that 93% of the learning you experience before perhaps graduate school is in the liberal arts. That is, the specific content you learn isn't nearly as important as the very act of learning for its own sake. A school counselor I work with reminds her students that most of high school is learning how to read, write, and think. I remind mine that my younger daughter's godmother works as an attending physician and administrator at CHOP, but majored in theater in college; a daughter of another friend working in the same profession has a bachelor's and master's in clarinet performance. All of this in way of saying, there isn't just one way to get there. Anyone who tells you different may be trying to sell you something.

    Sunday, March 12, 2017


    I just finished a master's degree. If you don't know that: a. we don't talk very often, or 2. you tune me out pretty quickly. I actually already had a master's degree when I started working on this one. A second master's is useless unless you happen to work in a job that specifically pays for such a thing--which I do. In between those two degrees, I got a whole bunch of random credits, because there was no specific incentive for a second master's until I'd just about finished up with the random credit thing. So I started from scratch.

    Other than the fact that I like to inform people of my accomplishments (see also: here, here, here, here, here, and here) (oh, and: here), I’m discussing this because I have recent experience with pursuing a degree as compared with choosing your own path, and this experience is germane to this post. I’m not sure I wouldn't be a happier person if there were no degrees or certificates, and I had always been permitted to just follow my own interests. I remember being in eighth grade and being convinced that all of this cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-no-one approach to scheduling was behind me. Then I found out how few truly elective credits I'd be offered. Sure, I could take Latin, German, or Spanish, but actual choices were like one or two a year.

    I like learning, and am finding that I'm fairly conflicted about the fact that most of my post-gradate study is over. I still read summer program fliers and see four or five things I’d like to take (i.e. Instrument Repair, Instrument Repair II, String Instrument Repair, String Instrument Repair II…). When I visit my elder daughter’s college, I feel that I wouldn’t mind enrolling in not only Concert Choir, but String Pedagogy and maybe even Advanced Chromatic Harmony. Never mind the fact that when I actually took these classes as an undergraduate our tablets were actual tablets and our laptops were called Trapper Keepers.

    But that’s not how degree programs work. With degree programs, you end up taking Research Methods and Choral Literature (again) and Final Project (which isn’t even a class, as much as a chance to write a whole lot and submit it to be enshrined in the vast hole where all similar projects have been banished for eternity). You take things that you’d never choose, and in many cases have no interest in. You take things that other people thought you should know about. In other words, you take Statistics. And French.

    Certification and degree programs are constructed to provide a prescribed collection of skills and knowledge required for a trades-person. Plumbers learn about soldering, and slope, and pressure, and never putting their fingers in their mouths at work. Electricians learn about how many connections are permitted in each box, voltage, ground fault interruption, and how to build forearms strong enough to turn screwdrivers all day. Teachers learn about brains and how to get stuff into them and get it to stay in them, how to convert yesterday's Outcomes into today's Standards without actually changing anything, and how to put together appropriate and snappy outfits.

    I think. Truth is, I stopped studying education as soon as they let me, and focused more on content area. Despite sometimes delving into it in this blog, I mostly have no patience for educational theory.  Luckily, as a high school teacher, my attraction to my subject area and aversion to the other stuff mostly works out.


    An aspect of certification you may not like is that it forms a gateway to a profession. You may, in fact, be smarter than your child's fourth grade teacher, but that doesn't make you more qualified to teach the class. Teaching is the sort of thing that half the population believes they could never do, and the other half assumes they could do very easily. Certification is not a guarantee of good teaching, but it does an important job: it filters potential teachers for the characteristic of being willing and able to complete a certification program. One of my favorite lines from Dangerous Liaisons: "Help? He doesn't need help, he needs hindrances. If he has to climb over enough of them he might inadvertently fall on top of [his objective]." Degree programs and certification not only impart necessary skills, they make sure that people in the professions have demonstrated enough wherewithal to survive. I wrote about a similar process here.

    Current teacher certification requires pretty much everything I had to do 25 years ago, plus six credits in special education, and three more in ESL. That's probably a good thing, but may be more a testament to the power of the special education and ESL lobby than any real changes in the needs of today’s students. Not coincidentally, I do admit to having next to no knowledge of these topics--I would, but no one ever made me.

    All of that said, I'm not categorically opposed to some kind of alternative certification. I believe it should be possible for educated people to get into teaching as a second profession. Taking a few night classes and then student teaching could be sufficient for these folks, in a way that just walking into classrooms from their previous profession would not. 

    Whatever the program, degree-based, or teaching credentials-only, certification must include the following elements:
    • Rudimentary educational theory: Not talking about an Ed.D. in the stuff, but knowing about higher order thinking, and learning styles, and formative and summative assessment, and the rest can be useful. Side note: if you notice more educational jargon in this post than is typical, I'm trying to make the case that if you don't know these words you may not be ready to be a teacher (or Secretary of Education). Knowledge and understanding of basic pedagogical concepts can be valuable, even if it’s something to later disregard in the pursuit of a teacher's own philosophies.
    • Basic teaching chops: Programs often provide a pretty good background in educational theory, and assume that this will translate into functional skills in test construction, lecturing, and scope and sequence design. In my experience, this is not generally the case. I call it the Myth of Transfer, which is one of the items you’d learn in my version of Education 101. New teachers need to learn how much space to leave for answers on tests and how to write on blackboards and make coffee in the teachers' lounge. You never really know what you don't know and what you can't do until you try it in front of a room full of kids.
    • Intensive observation: This serves two purposes. First, it is possible to improve teaching skills by watching skilled teachers. It is especially possible if the observation process isn’t passive, but deliberate, intelligent, and even critical. (Note: Being able to recognize bad teaching doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher, but it can be a step in the process.) Second, spending time in classrooms can make a person more certain that they do/don’t want to do this themselves. I didn’t particularly like school before I got to college. It was necessary to look at things from the other side before I could see myself doing it.
    • Practice teaching: Student teaching is, perhaps, the most important element. In fact, the first three items on this list could be done in student teaching, assuming you were willing to let student teaching take place over like six semesters. A probationary, apprentice-style first year or years could accomplish this. Teaching under the guidance of a mentor is simply the best way to learn how to teach, which is why it boggles the mind that PA has gotten away from administrators observing teachers in favor of things like SLOs and standardized testing. A more formalized process for earning a place as a mentor would probably be a good idea, but I would appreciate it if they allowed my contemporaries and me to be grandfathered in (not sure if I love the term “grandfathered,” though).
    Providing a surmountable, but not perfunctory, gateway to the teaching profession is necessary and right. Just because you know someone who was a natural at it and who could easily bring their vast knowledge to students doesn’t mean that works in all, or most cases. I do some cooking, some home repairs, and tried to train my dog (see: here). None of that qualifies me to do these things professionally. You may be able to teach your kid’s Sunday School, or coach her little league, but that doesn’t qualify you to join my profession without some more formal credentials. Certification may be a clumsy way of getting people ready to do this, but it's what we've got. Letting people teach without certification is more often about trying to flood the market and put negative pressure on pay than anyone's concept of an actual good idea.