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

    Certifiable

    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.

    Observe:




    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.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2017

    The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Slackers

    Recently, I posted the Slacker's Guide to the Presidency. It turns out that I needn't have bothered. Since his inauguration, Trump and his Congress have kept themselves very busy fouling our drinking water, making sure the insane can get access to guns, keeping us safe from doctors and grad students and babies, in-securing the nation's nuclear stockpile, going to war with China, going to war with Mexico, going to war with Australia (?!?), making education more like Amway, screwing people out of their retirement savings, and "fixing" healthcare. In fact, though I might be inclined to criticize such a thing so early in his term, I'm thrilled the President chose to go on vacation so much already. In fact, I think the more time he spends out of the Oval Office, and away from pens, the better.

    Though I'm no longer worried about the President's productivity, I am increasingly concerned about my own. Paying ultra-close attention to the opening month of the presidency, the chaotic transition that previewed it, the endless general election season that gave birth to it, and the infinite gut-wrenching primary season before that has diverted so much of my time and energy that I'm concerned that the muscle memory be permanent. I do realize that the theme of this blog suggests that weak productivity is more a chronic condition than acute, but this is different. The Slacker's Guide is supposed to be about getting more from less, not something from nothing. There is a point at which work, home, farm, and family all start to seriously suffer--especially since it's not like we were talking about a breakneck pace of effort to begin with.

    And so, the Slacker's Guide will delve into something I've mostly avoided so far: Self Help.

    Before I go on, let me clarify that I mean literal self help. I don't expect anyone but me to get anything out of this, other than a tasty dollop of schadenfreude. It's written in second person because my style guide demands it for these lists, not because I actually want anyone else do any of this.

    The Slacker's Guide to Productivity, during the Advent of the Apocalypse:
    1. Do something: Typical self help advice recommends prioritizing work according to deadlines or importance. Okay, but let's adjust that down a tidge. If the task of the greatest importance or nearest looming deadline is walling off attempts at anything, let's break through that. Meeting deadlines is more likely if you start by do something and gently slide over into doing something more pressingly necessary.
    2.  Make a list: Never having found a satisfying replacement for the Palm to-do list has been a handy excuse, but it is possible to put this stuff on paper. I guess. Making a list doesn't guarantee anything actually gets done, but it's possible that having to face a growing collection of things undone right there in black and white might direct some of that low-grade guilt.
    3. Take up arts and crafts: A friend of mine spent lots of his free time the last year sharpening his artistic skills by photoshopping his cats into superheroes--by the way, he has a newly minted doctorate in chemical engineering, so there is a considerable intellect being thus directed, and precious little free time. Meanwhile, I spent the last year reading political blogs. It slowly dawned on me that through his efforts he had both a new skill and a body of work to show for it. Also, no cats are harmed. As such, the cats have neither more nor less contempt for him than they had to start with. I on the other hand have, well, this world we live in. It may time to log some recording studio time, or break out that novel, or... something. Actually, Slacker Guide writing kind of falls into this category, so maybe this is going well already.
    4. Go visiting: This is sometimes a great way to drag someone else's productivity down closer to your own, but occasionally a face-to-face conversation with a smart colleague can accidentally yield a good idea. Very occasionally, that good idea may be related to work, and you've done something productive rather by accident.
    5.  Do mindless tasks: Cleaning a desk or a coffeepot, filing stuff, organizing drawers, and such doesn't take the creative energy that seems to be so lacking right now. Also, stuff like this usually comes with something visible at the end to show for it. As a bonus, nothing helps to kick a real to-do list into being like mindless busy work. I find that by the time I've put the first pen away, I've already remembered six things that require my attention right now.
    6. Plan rewards: Holding out a social media break until after the forms are filled out is pretty standard advice, but do it anyway. Going right for that dopamine rush of checking if there's been an impeachment so far today is not getting things headed in the right direction. You just checked again, didn't you. Ugh.
    7. Don't just eat something: The hole in your psyche is too large for even a whole sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies to fill up. Trust me, I checked. Eating for sustenance, or even pleasure, is a fine thing, but that's not what we're talking about here is it? Some of this plan is about literal survival during the coming clusterstorm, and you're not helping things from a cholesterol, lipids, and blood sugar point of view.
    Pithy lists notwithstanding, I'm very worried about the scalability of my problem. It's one thing for a lone Slacker to have a rough couple of weeks (months, years...). It's quite another for the majority of us who voted against this president to suddenly be unable to do anything. I mean, we've gotten pretty good at angry protests, mean tweets, and hilarious memes. We've probably even gotten under Himself's rather thin skin--I, for one, am literally trying to get him to respond to me personally on Twitter in hopes of increasing my followers and readers (it's a long shot, but not impossible given his habits). But to what end? Will we still remember how to do things when it's time to Make America Great Again...Again? What happens when we've burned off all of our anger and are left with nothing more than outrage soot?

    I don't know, but I'm going to try. Or at least try to try. I'm going to try to break free from the enormous gravity of my own suffering and attempt to get back at it. Right after I check Twitter and Facebook, read this one article, and finish my cookie.

    Saturday, February 11, 2017

    Oh, You Were Finished. Well Allow Me to Retort.

    An open letter to my Senator. His letter in italics, my response in bold.










     
    February 7, 2017
    Dear Sir,

    Thank you for contacting me about the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. I appreciate hearing from you.


    Ah, no. You do not in fact appreciate hearing from me. Your voicemail was jammed for weeks, in all of your PA offices, plus DC. Eventually you started diverting us to your website where you can more effectively data-mine us. I should have misspelled something so that I could better keep track of what junk mail and dinnertime phone calls my response on your website generates. Keep in mind, I'm perfectly satisfied with my long-distance carrier. 

    Related: Dear Sam's Club, I didn't intentionally misspell Tripple H Farm, but that's how I learned this trick.

    As you know, on January 20, 2017, President Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as the Secretary of Education. For 28 years, Secretary DeVos worked on behalf of children, parents, and teachers to ensure that all children, regardless of income level or zip code, are not trapped in low-performing or failing schools. Because of Secretary DeVos's work to expand charter schools, virtual schools, school choice, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts, hundreds of thousands of children that had been trapped in low-performing and failing schools have gained access to a quality education. 

    Okay, Secretary DeVos's fetish for charter schools isn't all bad. I too would love to teach in a school where we could hand-pick all of our students. Under the current system, a single student with extraordinary special needs can consume so many resources that I'll never be able to afford that harp (harps? harp classroom?!?) I've had my eye on. Cyber schools are a whole other thing, but that's another blog post. In reality, though, the Secretary doesn't work for my imaginary fancy, shiny, public/private charter school that only teaches the most motivated Slackers. She works for all of the students that I'd be not so interested in taking. The reason we have a National Department of Education is so a kid with special needs doesn't receive a worse education because she lives in Pennsyltucky

      Secretary DeVos understands the necessity of a high quality education for all Americans, including students with disabilities. Secretary DeVos is dedicated to enforcing the rights of students with disabilities and giving them the best education possible-including giving their parents the freedom to choose the best school or environment to help their children thrive. Secretary DeVos has also stated that she will direct the Department of Education to fund research on evidence-based practices that best aid in educating students with disabilities.

    This is so entirely not true! Did you catch even the highlight reel of her confirmation hearing? Does "choose the best school or environment" mean that she's going to force private, parochial, and charter schools to accept every student? Is she going to use Federal dollars to cover the gap between the cost of educating typical students and students with profound special needs, a history of violence, or other expensive/complicated/disgusting qualities? If that's the plan, I'll stop right now, but I think we both know that's not the plan. Can you imagine the Right's reaction to the Federal government either compelling all schools to take all students, or shoving so much money at the problem that there are plenty of resources for every student?

      Like Secretary DeVos, I have long been a supporter of education reforms that allow parents to choose the schools their children attend. No one cares more about a child, or knows a child better, than the child's parents. Giving parents the ability to choose the best school for their children can only help children achieve their potential. Many states and cities around the country have already implemented successful school choice programs, resulting in increased test scores, graduation rates, and a brighter future for children.


    This will work great if you fully fund the whole thing, but let's be realistic. Fully funding education (including my harp, and a few new pianos if you don't mind) has never been a priority. Your goal is to divert money from already strapped public schools and funnel it to non-public schools. I am sure that Lebanon Catholic (my alma mater) will benefit from such an arrangement--Lebanon School District, not so much. Unless you do that must-accept-every-student thing, mentioned above. 

      These reforms are a positive game-changer for our country by harnessing badly needed competition to lift education standards for all children - especially those from lower income families who often otherwise must attend sub-par schools.

    Sub-par schools are a problem, but offering a choice to parents who can cover their share of tuition out of struggling schools and allowing the money to follow the student just increases the gap. The paragraph above indicates that you're interested in increasing opportunities for all children, but the methods you've laid out here do not accomplish this goal.

      On February 7, 2017, the Senate voted 50-50 on Mrs. DeVos's nomination to be Secretary of Education, with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaking vote to confirm her. I look forward to working with Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education to ensure that all children are able to attain a quality education.

    I feel very stupid for ever thinking there was suspense here. Mitch McConnell calculated exactly the number of votes he could spare and gave them to two very vulnerable Senators. Your vote was never in play. Your independence, that you demonstrated by never giving a straight answer on whether you were voting for Trump until 6:45 PM on Election Night, was never going to be applied to this. I find myself wondering if you have any independence at all. Does calling my Senator, or writing him letters, have any impact on someone who will vote with the leadership on anything? Signaling to the President that the Senate will occasionally block his worst ideas could have been done in this case. Ms. DeVos was either a nice little reward to a huge Republican donor, or the first step in dismantling the Department of Education. More on that in a moment. 

      Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.

    Count on it, sir. You're not going to develop a spine, I don't think, but that doesn't mean that I have any intention of letting up on you. PA went red in the last election, and that's a puzzle I'm still working on. You slipped through on the momentum of a candidate that ran on a very different set of values than what he's been governing on. Killing the Department of Education--which, let's be honest, Secretary DeVos has been charged with doing during her term, unless the Congress gets there first--may be a Republican value, but it's not a PA value. You are honor-bound to serve us, and though I didn't vote for you, I didn't do nearly as much as I could have to defeat you. That is a mistake I will not make again. 

     Sincerely,
    Pat Toomey
    U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania 


    Sincerely, 
    Your Friendly Neighborhood Slacker

    Sunday, January 15, 2017

    Technology in the PALM of My Hand

    There was a time when I took pride in being something of an early adopter. I remember the thrill of my first (used) Amiga 1000--an upgrade from the family Tandy 1000, the upgrades to friends' gaming systems, and envy over people with digital watches--some with calculators! I don't know precisely when my membership in this club ended, but at some point my school was replacing my computer more frequently than I needed or wanted. I'm pretty sure that doesn't happen to early adopters. During this span, I lived as many of you do now: knowing exactly how many months until my next phone upgrade, reading product reviews of upcoming devices, and knowing by heart the features that were promised in the new OS for several different platforms.

    I got into the palmtop computing universe at more-or-less the beginning with the lauded Palm Vx. When the time came, I readily upgraded to the Tungsten T2-- a noticeable improvement in that it had a color screen, a slot for removable (and therefore upgrade-able) memory, and a cool slider-action that shrunk the whole thing when not doing text entry. You likely don't remember that text entry in the Palm world was by way of a handwriting recognition system called Graffiti--side note: I could still take you in a texting duel using this method. The Tungsten T2 included Bluetooth and an infrared-data-sharing method called "beaming", but not the at-the-time sketchy new wireless format called "WiFi". Its successor did have WiFi, as well as an improved Graffiti area that let you see your pen-strokes and use this area for general screen-expansion when not needed for text. I was certain I would make that upgrade soon.

    Meanwhile I got a cell phone. Not right away, mind you. My wife and I fiddled around with a pager for a brief time, but a series of false alarms and resulting trips to payphones (where we needed to enter 65 digits just to call home) eventually spurred us to get a pair of phones and our first Family Plan. For years, I called it the "magic phone" because for a kid who grew up in the '70s and '80s, calling friends on the corded phone in the kitchen (which we just called a "phone", since all phones had cord) being able to call or be called while in the car (or, more amazingly not in the car) was like suddenly having a superpower.

    By the way, we actually bought a car in the early-nineties that came with a car phone. We had the dealer remove it because we were worried it would increase the likelihood that the car would be broken into. Not kidding.

    I never did get to upgrade to the Tungsten T3. Palm merged with rival Handspring, fought an ugly battle with Xerox over Graffiti, and shifted its focus to phone/handheld hybrids. I was sure this was a fad. Spoilers: it wasn't. Long story short: Palm had won the battle with Apple--with its overpriced and clunky Newton, had won the battle with Xerox over Graffiti--only after making us all switch to the less elegant Graffiti 2, and then dropped the idea of stand-alone handhelds.

    Unlike Hillary Clinton, I never had any problem with carrying two devices. As has been the case from pretty much the beginning, I carry an aging flip phone to take care of all of my phone needs and a similarly aging iPod Touch--the first and only replacement for my beloved Palm Pilots--for the rest. Given that both of these devices are quickly coming to the end of their expected functional lifespan, I'm soon going to be stuck with a decision. I can try to replace these machines with decreasingly relevant editions, or join the smartphone universe.

    At a certain point, lots of teachers (and other grownups) stop updating their wardrobe. We reach a point when following current trends is too much of a hassle and the clothes we have in our closet suit us just fine. We may change out the actual items, but often with replacements for what's already there.

    I think I reached a similar sort of saturation point with technology. The machines I have right now generally meet my needs in that I can call and text (texting is pretty ugly, in case you've forgotten life with T9, but technically I can text). I have internet on my handheld at home, at work, at a good number of restaurants and stores, and very occasionally tethered to my wife's iPhone by making her a personal hotspot (I feel weird disclosing that to you). I do have a school-issued iPad, but for me it's pretty much a bulked up iPod. With my aging eyes, a bigger screen is welcome, but the way I use it now it's far from a game-changer.

    What to do when your current device meets your needs, and you worry that the replacement will be worse. We were recently "upgraded" on our work laptops--which means that I have a scanner that no longer works (no drivers for Windows 10), can't read or write CDs or DVDs, and my old chargers no longer work. Apple recently made news when it "upgraded" the iPhone by not including an 1/8" jack. Now you can conveniently use only Apple devices to interface with your phone, and your collection of portable speakers, car aux inputs, and earbuds not made special for Apple are no longer useful. You're welcome.

    It pains me to say, as a former early adopter, but all I really wanted was incremental improvements in the devices I had. My favorite cellphone was something like this:
    It was small, light, had a front display, and nearly infinite battery life. Phones I've had since then have had cameras I almost never used, MP3 players I definitely never used, and internet capability I've never used on purpose. I play MP3s through my iPod, and don't really understand why I'd need my phone to duplicate this capacity.

    Lasting contentment with electronics isn't really possible, though. Devices that spend their entire day with you are going to physically wear out through drops, scratches, dents, and losing battles with the keys in your pocket. Batteries can only be recharged so many times before they just can't do it anymore. Moore's Law says that each replacement is bound to be cheaper, faster, and have lots more memory. Whatever the equivalent of Moore's Law is on display technology means that you'll get better screens each time as well. Because of improvements in memory and display technology, the content these devices access is improving all the time too. I don't know what today's websites would look like on my Vx, but I'm guessing not very good. There was a time when the mobile versions of websites assumed you were on a phone like mine. Now I can't imagine that anyone's web-surfing on phones. In fact, I don't think anyone says web-surfing anymore.

    It's been so long for most of you that you probably don't remember, but here's what you've given up:
    Flip phones have a few built-in advantages that you've forgotten about:
    1. The device is smaller when in you pocket than it is when you're talking on it. Something the size of a car key isn't so good as a phone, something the size of a roof shingle isn't so good in your pocket.
    2. With this style, you answer the phone and hang it up with the same gesture as the old school Star Trek communicators, which means you can actually hang up on people by snapping them shut--this is much more satisfying than hitting a glowing spot on your screen.
    3. Buttons--remember buttons?--are protected in storage, and physical tactile things when in use.
    4. The phone screen needs only be large enough for a list of names and a phone number. You'll be doing your internet browsing on another device.
    5. Batteries last for days. You could even have a spare and swap them, though I never have.
    Handheld computers that aren't phones also have advantages:
    1. They can be larger than you'd like to have in your pocket all the time--my daughter's Galaxy 6 phablet would definitely pants me in my jogging shorts, and that's not nearly the largest "phone" out there. Hold your iPad up to your ear to get a sense of where this is going.
    2. Sometimes being mired offline for extended periods demands can result in bursts of creativity (much of the early entries of this blog, plus a draft of a novel, were written when I had a computer and no Internet), and/or reading analog content (think: books and magazines).
    3. WiFi-only leads to frugality that people with data plans rarely bother with. I check for public WiFi whenever I try to access online content away from home/work. 
    This post isn't intended to get you to do things my way. I recognize that I've lost this argument, and that the technology world has passed me by. What I hope I can do, though, is to ask questions that lead to "what's next and where does it end?" The holograms in Star Wars are pretty cool, but most of what they delivered could have been sent in a text. The video conferencing in Star Trek isn't so much better than what we can do now with Skype and Facetime. Alexis is getting us closer to Hal, which is great I'm sure by some measure.

    The core question is, can technology be a growth industry when technology pretty much does now what we imagined for ourselves in science fiction. I don't know that I need social media to become more social, and I know for sure that it's full of way too much media. I write blogs in this format because my writing and thinking are stuck in 1999 when people actually communicated in paragraphs. I'm not convinced that all of the progress in technology in that time has improved things, and I'm not ready for what's next.