Thursday, May 26, 2011

Too Big to Fail

A very good (if enraging) review of HBO's Too Big to Fail and how the movie got the story right accidentally. The review is by an old friend, Jesse Eisinger, who, with Jake Bernstein, received a Pulitzer on Monday for their story on Magnetar, the hedge fund that kept the housing bubble going. If you missed it, or the This American Life episode on the story, titled The Inside Job, I highly recommend them. Plus, the This American Life version has an original song on the crisis.


Taking a break from education and testing, here's what I'm wondering right now, at 10:46: Am I the only one who always wants to eat lunch at 11 AM? And what about having a big snack at five and another at eight? I know, I know, this is not new, it's the whole five small meals a day thing, but, still, is it reasonable to expect someone to have a bowl of cereal with berries at seven in the morning and not eat for five whole hours? Inquiring minds want to know! (Hungry minds want to make this pork butt and cellophane noodle dish. I bought my first butt today at the farm market.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tina Fey's Praryer for Her Girl

I'm having mixed feelings on her awesomeness Tina Fey, but I'm, like, so with this:

"Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit."

(Here's her prayer for her daughter.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do the Math: Levittown and Llod Blankfein

In today's New York Times, Michael Sokolove has a deeply sad piece on the budget cuts to education in his hometown of Levittown, PA. The school system, which has worked hard to improve (as measured by standardized tests) over the past ten years by offering a range of programs, will face teacher layoffs and cuts to programs in the arts. No one is fighting about it, no one can pretend this will be good for the children of Levittown, but they have no choice. Everyone is struggling.

Sokolove writes: "Bristol Township faces a nearly $10 million shortfall for next year in a total school budget of $123 million, figures that place the community in circumstances common to hundreds of school districts across the nation. They are facing steep cuts in state education financing and depressed local tax revenue, in part from home foreclosures."

A 10 million dollar shortfall.

In January of 2011, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, received a 12.6 million dollar stock bonus, up from nine million the year before. Between 2000 and 2010, Blankfein received around $125 million in cash bonuses.

I hate to just leave the facts there like that, but I can't figure out anything snappy to say about them.

What's With Punishing Parents?

I want parents involved with schools. But, call me crazy, I don't think state legislators should be writing laws mandating it.

As usual these days, Diane Ravitch is the voice of reason:

Yes, parenting can be “taught” Ms. Ravitch said, but not this way.

“If we could just find the right person to punish,” she said of the philosophy behind too many education reform plans. “Punish the teachers. Punish the parents. It’s Dickensian. What we should be doing instead is giving a helping hand.”

“Parenting education needs to begin when a woman is pregnant,” Dr. Ravitch said. “The window is open from prenatal days until age 5. And we need to acknowledge that the root problem is poverty.” (my emphasis)

But there is one thing I want to know: Why, when it comes to "failing schools" everyone can find someone to punish, but when it comes to failed banks that brought the economy to its knees no one's to blame?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Klein Not Cake

It turns out, that although I still like to make cake, I really want to say a few things to say about Joel Klein's Atlantic article. Instead of a long post about everything, here I'll restrict myself to one point about accountability and the application of market measures to the classroom.

In discussing the need for assessments and teacher accountability Klein writes:
"Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don't choose the goods or services you're offering, you go out of business. Second, high performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands."

Clearly, Klein gives these two instance of market accountability for specific reasons. In the first instance, he wants to remind us that people should be able to choose their schools just like they choose their shoes, which might be right in theory but might not. I'm not sure that school choice taken to the degree Klein would like to see it doesn't undermine the potential a local public school has to cultivate community and support its students through that community. And, I'm not really sure I can come up with an example in education where everyone gets to choose their school - even when talking about private schools. But I'll leave the bog of choice for a different day to turn to Klein's second example of accountability. That's the one where companies develop "internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands."

I'm not 100 percent sure I get what Klein is saying, but I think he's arguing that in a well-run company, when employees as well as the company itself hit quarterly (and annual) targets in sales or profits, they get rewarded by a bonus or higher market valuation. Translate this to teachers: When teachers prove they can teach thorough students' test scores those teachers should get rewarded with cash bonuses.

Putting aside how "value added" metrics are extrapolated from the state standardized tests and assigned to specific teachers, I want to ask if the internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands have been all that successful in the marketplace itself.

I believe even before the spectacular breakdown of the financial markets driven by the creation of financial instruments designed to bring short term profits regardless of long-term consequence, the focus on short term performance had been shown to be corrupting throughout corporate American, not just Wall Street. (Remember Enron?)

By focusing on short term performance, whether you're measuring corporate earnings or yearly test results, you're not emphasizing what can be achieved, and measured, over the long term through careful planning and finely-tuned execution of those plans that responds to consistent and meaningful assessments within a designated scope. No. You're looking for instant fireworks that resist any impulse toward collaboration and continuity that institutions might cultivate as a mechanism of achievement. Plus, you invite cheating. (Klein's article must've been put to bed too early to respond to reports of unusually high rates of eraser marks and corrections in Washington DC schools lauded for their improved test scores under Michelle Rhee.)

I'm not arguing against assessments and I'm not arguing against professional accountability. But, if you want to apply a model from the business world to education (and if you want to do that, you wouldn't be doing anything new, it's exactly what reformers did in the 19th century), why not choose a model that actually works toward long-term sustainable growth as opposed to one that corrupts?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cake or Klein?

I'm halfway through former New York City school chancellor Joel Klein's piece in The Atlantic. I keep thinking I'm going to finish it then write up a big old screed of a post about it but every time I think I'm going to pick up that magazine and finish the article it's clear there are about a hundred thousand million other things I'd not only rather do but MUST do, which means I'm not going to write a screed about Klein who, by the way, along with Michelle Rhee and maybe a handful of other reformers and the hedge fund managers who drink with them, is one of the few adults in education who actually cares about children. In any case, I guess it's OK, not to write that screed because, really, what do I know? I have ideas, of course, and feeeelings, but none of them are well-developed enough to do anything but add noise and I don't think more noise would be helpful.

Here's what I do know. This raspberry buttermilk cake? The one you'll see if you click on this link? It's delicious and so super easy everyone who eats gluten and dairy should go make it right now. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Peggy Orenstein and Lego, circa 1981

Via Marjorie Ingall's short post on Pro-Sex, Anti-Sexualization, I jumped to Peggy Orenstein's blog (not before remembering that I want to read her princess book), and there I saw this Lego Ad from 1981, and for me, it's not just the girl that makes me sigh, although there's definitely that, it's also those free form Legos! We were all still free to be you and me back then. And I was free to have feathered hair.


Since February, I've made my way to school on Mondays and Thursdays by crossing Central Park at 72nd street, which means that I walk right by "Strawberry Fields" and its Imagine mosaic. And every Monday or Thursday, rain, snow, sleet, or shine, there are at least three or four people there taking a picture. Sometimes there's a large group. Like yesterday, in the rain, there they were, a group of twenty or so French speaking middle aged tourists huddled around the mosaic, like it was Something That Matters, which, I guess it is?

Before I started walking by Strawberry Fields regularly I thought I understood what a big deal John Lennon was, but I guess I didn't. I mean, I bet for many, the stop at the Imagine plaque is just one more stop on a tour of Central Park that includes Bethesda Fountain and the Boathouse along with a drop by at the Delacorte Clock. They stop and take their pictures of the word there because they're supposed to and when they get home those pics will never make it out of their cameras. Maybe for just a handful, those in small groups of two or three, visiting the Imagine mosaic is like a trip to Lennon's grave. Like a very, very American, very very small Pere La Chaise or something.

Earlier this spring, I read Lois Lowry's The Giver. If you've read the book, you know where I'm going with this. The book is a dystopian young adult fantasy novel about a boy who lives in a world where there's no heaven, no possessions, no greed or hunger, no religion, too. People die there, sure, but in a very orderly fashion and never for a cause. You see what I mean? It's a fairly blank world with no pain, no love, no memory, and the boy's having none of it.

Does anyone really ever think about the lyrics of Imagine? They're so familiar they hardly mean anything at all, and maybe that's for the best. I don't know. All I know is if I didn't live in New York City, I sure wouldn't schlepp out in the rain to look at a twenty year old mosaic.

(Note: I didn't take that picture. It's from

And On Israel

Peter Beinart has a something to say on the hapless state of Israel in the age of the Arab Spring:

"Zionism, which at its best is the purposeful, ethical effort to make Jews safe in the land of Israel, has become—in this government—a mindless land grab, that threatens Jewish safety and Jewish ethics alike."

Climate Change

Will it really, finally, actually get on the political agenda?

Sunday, May 15, 2011


According to the LA Times, public school librarians in LA are being put on the witness stand in basement courtrooms and asked the last time they taught a physical education class. Why? If they can't teach in a classroom (or a gym), they're probably going to lose their jobs because of budget cuts. And guess what happens to the library if there's no certified librarian in the school to run it? That's right. The books and computers go under lock and key and stay there. Meanwhile, Wall Street is booming.

I don't even want to talk about teacher evaluations in New York.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Semester's End

I apologize for not posting more this week. The semester is winding up and time, she slips right through my fingers. There will be more time very soon. In fact, Monday, I hand in a stack of assignments, after which, I'll have what to say and the time to say at least some of it here and not just in my head. In the meantime, from the department of really creepy things kids do, there's this.

Monday, May 9, 2011


The other day I was meeting a friend for coffee at around 4:15. I was tired and hungry but not super hungry. I wanted something that would be easy to eat, something flavorful that didn't require too much thinking about, something just sweet enough. I wanted a slice of yogurt cake.

Can I just say? It feels very civilized and just slightly decadent to have a slice of cake at 4 o'clock. Eating a slice in restaurant at 4 with an espresso would make me feel like a woman of a certain age, a woman with her chin length possibly blond but maybe white hair swept up and back, a woman who can really wear red. Eating a slice of cake at 4 (for 10) in my kitchen just makes me feel like cake is a really great thing to bake. That day last week, the restaurant didn't have the cake I wanted and, unfortunately, no one had thought to leave one cooling on the kitchen counter for me. I will take care of that, as my kids would say, "toot sweet." In the meantime, there are apples.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Classroom Cameras

In today's New York Times, a biostatistician named R. Barker Bausell has a big idea for evaluating effective teaching: "Measuring the amount of time a teacher spend delivering relevant instruction -- in other words, how much teaching a teacher actually gets done in a school day." He'd figure out how much time is spent doing what by videotaping teachers.

Here's the thing, maybe when R. Barker Bausell was in elementary school (he is an emeritus professor) his days were spent doing a lot of listening, but in the classrooms I've been in learning doesn't happen only when the teacher is talking. Students learn by - get this - talking to each other and working together. Crazy right?

Bausell has more to say:
"A focus on relevant instructional time also implies several further reforms: Lengthening the school day, week and year; adopting a near-zero-tolerance policy for disruptive behavior, which classroom cameras would help police; increasing efforts to reduce tardiness and absenteeism; and providing as much supplementary and remedial tutoring (the most effective instructional model known) as possible."

As I read this, what the professor recommends is kids sit still and listen more during longer days and if they're disruptive at all, they're out. And just to make sure teacher and students are acting according to script, there will be a camera in the room. Great! Big idea. Not a good idea, but, for me, at least, it's always nice to have some idea of what I really don't want to do when I'm thinking about what I do want to do.