Buy a Camera – Date an Actress

Kodak has announced a program in India where 10 lucky customers who purchase digital cameras will win a date with Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif. Presumably not a lot of women in India buy cameras? Or married men? Or maybe the culture is more progressive than I think, and a woman customer would simply pass the date on to her boyfriend or husband. Although personally I’m pretty sure that if my Beauty were to win such a contest, she would not invite me to go out on a date with any hot actresses… or lukewarm actresses… or breathing ones for that matter.

This seems an odd promotion by a company who’s internal policies warn against any remotely sexual context to any situation. An employee could be cited for having a picture of Katrina Kaif displayed in his office. But giving away her company as a prize… no problem.

Further, this is the country that burned Richard Gere in effigy after he kissed a different Bollywood actress on stage. So I guess this means that the lucky winner may get a free meal, but he shouldn’t count on a kiss goodnight.

Happy Mother’s Day

And in case you’re still struggling for that last minute gift, or are already thinking ahead to next year because you’ve sworn to never get this far behind again (Warning: this is a lot like swearing in the morning that you’ll never drink again… it will pass) comes this helpful article describing the do’s and don’ts for buying Mom lingerie.

What surprised me most is that there are apparently “do’s”. It never occurred to me that there was any correct way, or even any possibly non-creepy motivation for buying Mom intimates. Seriously, if you need to be told not to buy your mom thongs or g-strings… you’ve got some Oedipal issues to work out.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

I spent last evening at a panel discussion on the effects of standardized testing on students. The panel was made up of local educators, education professors, and a psychologist. I pretty well expected that the No Child Left Behind act would come up, and I expected that no one would be singing its praises, but I wasn’t really thinking that the panel would digress into a well organized gripe session about it. It is certainly hard to argue that this train wreck legislation has been anything less than destructive in its implementation. One panelist went so far as to challenge the members of the Bush Administration to take the tests and see if they would all pass. They were clearly preaching to the choir here, and enjoying the chance to do so.

However, I was a little distraught that there was very little mention of how to fix things. The message seemed to be that if only NCLB would go away, that everything would be okay. Some went so far as to seek abolishing the NYS Regents exams, SATs, and ACTs as well. The panel psychologist asserted that they knew how to run an effective school, but NCLB was preventing them from doing this. I’m not so sure they do.

I challenged this notion during the question and answer session. I noted that the Reagan Administration’s report, A Nation at Risk, warned that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” And this report preceded NCLB by almost two decades. Further, NCLB would never have found purchase if the perception in 2001 had been that the existing educational system was succeeding. Granted, NCLB is brain dead. But if the system was broken beforehand, and we eliminate NCLB, what do we put in its place to assure our children’s competitiveness in the world?

The answers were anything but comforting. A couple of the panel members assured me that “A Nation at Risk” was all about linking educational effectiveness to a nation’s economy and that this relationship had since been proven false. Well, that’s largely true, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The report was still a condemnation of our education system, although it’s dire predictions of it resulting in a failed economy were not borne out. The follow-on educational manifesto, “A Nation Still At Risk,” was released in 1998. It eliminated the economic ties and simply compared student performance of the US on the global stage. It was certainly not written as an accolade for our (then) current system.

The panelists then tried to shift the blame. They sighted statistics that there is a tight correlation between poverty and education. The problem, as they see it, is that the US allows large concentrations of its people to live in poverty, and those impoverished areas are prone to educational failure independent of what educational policies are put in place. Again, they are right, but I would still contend they are missing the point. Yes, poverty is bad. Yes, the impoverished are educationally disadvantaged. But that doesn’t account for all of the problems. I’ve not seen any data to suggest that suburban school districts are cranking out the best students on the planet while less affluent areas drag down the average. The failure of impoverished school districts alone doesn’t account for the dearth of talent that requires us to need more H-1B Visas for foreign specialty workers than allowed by law because we can’t fill jobs requiring exceptional skills with our own talent pool. Clearly poverty is an issue, but one that cannot be addressed by the educational system.

There must be something educators can do within the control of the non-poverty laden school systems to improve the situation. This is what I was looking for. However, the only plan offered was to return control of the schools and the classrooms to the teachers such that they could nurture and grow our children. After all, they knew the kids best and could help them the most.

On the face of it, this is hard to argue with. Excellent, caring, and motivated teachers (and we’ve all known a few) are absolutely the right people to grow students. But we’ve also all known teachers who were not so talented or motivated, or who once were, but have grown too cynical to care in light of increased class sizes and policies imposed by their fellow educators because of en vogue pedagogical trends such as “new” math, inclusion programs, or ungraded students. And these teachers and programs existed before NCLB.

One of the panelists accused NCLB of expecting to create The Lake Wobegon Effect, where all of the students would be above average. However, I think the panel’s solution prescription is an admission that their own profession has already fallen into that effect. It depends on all the teachers being above average. Yet, like any other profession, half of them actually graduated in the bottom half of their class.

Ironically, the panelists repeatedly made the point that you get what you measure. NCLB imposes strict measurements which are having an undeniable effect on the educational system. Granted, this is a deleterious effect, but what is being measured is getting done. Their solution, again repeatedly stated, is to stop measuring. But I think that is wrongheaded. The NCLB measurement system is not right. We may be measuring too much, measuring too specifically, measuring the wrong things, or even not measuring enough things. But measurement is yielding correlated action. So the answer has to be figuring out how to get the measurement mix right.

I spent years working to help people manage call centers where the same thing was observable. Too much focus on any one set of measurements was asking for trouble because you would get what you measured, usually at the expense of something else you valued, but forgot to measure. Measuring nothing was simply unpredictable. The motivated and talented people would still do a great job helping your customers, but there were always employees who would be on indefinite smoke breaks if there were no consequences for poor performance. Good measurement systems sampled a wide variety of variables, and interpreting the results was complicated.

The lesson is that you can’t simply measure what’s easy to get data on and then make hard and fast predetermined actions based on those values. Good measurement of complex systems is hard. Interpreting all that data is also hard, and not something prone to absolute judgments. And in the end,there have to be consequences for that measured performance, both good and bad.

I certainly agree that NCLB has to go. I also agree that teachers should be given wide latitude in the classroom to cover the curriculum in ways that resonate with their students. And curricula should be aligned with the needs of businesses and colleges so that students are prepared for the world that awaits. However, I also believe that performance of students, teachers, schools, districts, and states all needs to be measured. And that based on the interpretation of that data, corrective action needs to be applied. This corrective action needs to include the potential reassignment or firing of teachers or administrators who are not able to be coached or trained up to doing the job they have been assigned. Tenure should be a thing of the past. If teachers want the long leash in the classroom, they need to accept accountability for that freedom. They need to be willing to operate in the same types of environments of risk and reward that professionals in other fields already do.

I didn’t challenge the panel with whether or not they would be willing to accept the classroom freedom on these terms. (After my first question, it wasn’t clear they would be eager for me to ask another.) Yet, I suspect this would not be something the profession would readily agree to as they seemed mostly eager to have the measurements stop. However, (he says with a touch of cynicism) if the teachers are all above average, then there seems little risk.

Beware! Thar Be Wizards Afoot!

But seriously folks… no honestly… could you have possibly been the principal that dealt with the case of a Florida teacher who was accused of “wizardry” and have made the accusation with a straight face? Is this the state of education in this country where a school’s leaders can reasonably entertain claims of witchcraft based on a simple magic trick performed in a classroom? Apparently the guy was only a substitute teacher, so instead of being fired he was simply not invited to teach in that district any longer. I guess he should be grateful they didn’t try to burn him at the stake.

Maybe it’s a good thing that Florida’s delegates don’t get seated. These people don’t appear bright enough to vote.

Inside the Cult

This is a long but fascinating read. It is an article by a Rolling Stone reporter who went along on a weekend retreat sponsored by one of those big born-again mega-churches. He’s got a pretty cynical attitude, but his insights are telling nonetheless. He wasn’t there to make fun of the people, but rather to get a sense of the experience from the outside. I think his experience would not have been different if he had been a run-of-the-mill neighborhood Methodist instead of an atheist.

What was most interesting to me is the degree of outright brainwashing that’s done on these folks. If this were not a “Christian” organization, it would be branded a cult. And while this sort of thing is certainly not indicative of all Christian organizations, or even of all born-again groups, I suspect it’s not as uncommon as you might hope. While the extreme techniques employed in the article might not play as well in other areas of the country, if you’ve spent any time with hardcore born-agains, the results of people with hyper-Christian veneers over sinner’s souls and the anti-intellectual dogmatic position based on spoon-fed group-think can’t help but ring true.