Storefront schools

June 16, 2008

Why not?

In comments to the immediately previous post, Zhoen says segregation by gender is no panacea for education. But, she wonders at OneWord: Why not storefront schools?

For many years, I have thought the never-will-be-done answer was to have storefront schools. One room schoolhouses, two teachers and a local adult volunteer, no more than a dozen students, all online classes – a national, self paced, curricula. Touring experts and scholars for special lectures and demonstrations. Kid has a problem with a particular teacher, move ’em to the next neighborhood over. Walking distances from their homes, field trips common (easier to arrange with small groups), flexible schedules (let the teens sleep in). A circle of homeschools in rural areas instead of warehouses to haul whole populations into.

Why not? The idea strikes me as similar to Japanese juku, private schools for kids in public schools, where kids get remedial attention or advanced instruction, depending on what they need. I copy the Library of Congress’ description of juku after the fold.

What do you think? Is there an example of storefront schools we can cite either way, for or against the idea?

Comment away.

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Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?

Not Bobby Jindal: The Parable of the Idiot Candidate

June 16, 2008

Bobby Jindal’s experience at exorcisms and rejection of the Catholic Church’s position on teaching creationism are getting some attention. He is young and makes an appearance of governmental competence (though, New Orleans is still a mess and he’s had several months to start making things happen that aren’t happening). But on science issues, the man is without sense, without reason.

In response to a post at Pharyngula, someone commented:

No, no no…. we WANT McCain to pick Jindal.

Because Jindal claims to have performed an exorcism.

PleaseohpleaseohpleaseohPLEASE pick Jindal!!!!!!

Let me tell you a story. This looks like a parable, and after a fashion, it is.  It is also history.  You can look it up.  Call it a parable from Santayana’s Ghost.

Once upon a time, back in the Cretaceous (okay, 1976), when Utah was still split among Democrats and Republicans, especially for national offices like senator and representative, there was a great congressman in Utah’s first district (which you might call the “cursed First,” because it has had its share of misfortunes, like Enid Greene, and Douglas Stringfellow; except that at the time, it was the 2nd. No, I’m not about to explain). Rep. Alan Howe was a smart, well-connected Democrat, and a very good first-term Congressman. He’d won election in 1974 when Wayne Owens vacated the seat to run for the U.S. Senate unsuccessfully against Jake Garn.* In 1976, Howe was considered unbeatable.

Howe’s brother was president of the Utah State Senate. Howe was a friend of outgoing Gov. Calvin Rampton. As a former director of the Four Corners Commission, he had a good bead on water, energy, agricultural, industrial and environmental issues in the entire state. He was rising rapidly up the ladder in Democratic leadership. Republicans who might have made a run looked at Howe’s war chest of campaign contributions, his record and sterling reputation, and sat out the race.

At that time the state’s parties held their conventions in June. Under Utah’s system, all candidates for an office would appeal to the delegates of the state convention, and if one candidate got 50% plus 1 of the delegates to vote for her or him, there would be no primary. If no candidate got a majority, the top two would face off in a primary in September, and the winner would go to the general election in November.

Utah’s Republicans had five people file for the office, all of them unknowns, all of them considered appropriate to fill the ballot out for a losing election. The five were so undistinguished, and so undistinguishable, that the race was close between all of them. An insurance salesman named Dan Marriott (no relation to the J. W. Marriotts) scraped enough delegate votes to stand against a proctologist in the primary election. Both candidates were unfamiliar with national politics and national issues. It would be one gaffe after another up to the primary.

But that’s not the story. I was a part-time reporter for KUTV, helping Lucky Severson (later of NBC) and a great documentary unit in coverage of all things political in the state. Since there was no great race on the Democratic side, I got the short straw and a good chance to cover the local Democratic convention. It was uneventful enough I didn’t even get a stand-up out of it.

Alan Howe’s campaign was loaded with people I knew from college. They invited me to a post-convention party which was, unfortunately, a fund-raiser. Consulting with the assignment desk, we figured that since the invitation came as a comp ticket, and not as an invitation to cover the thing, it was a freebie that was unacceptable under the station’s gift policies. I could go on my own, we determined, but I’d have to pay for the ticket myself. I didn’t have the change.

So I didn’t get even a stand-up. And I didn’t get to go to the party with the Congressman.

About 2:00 a.m. the assignment desk called, asking hopefully whether I’d gone to the fundraiser after all. When I said “no,” the guy yelled “Damn!”

“Look,” I said. “We discussed this — it’s against the station’s policies.”

“Yeah, but a good story isn’t. We just got a tip from the County Jail that Howe was picked up for soliciting a prostitute.”

Utah, then, was much more provincial than it is now. Still, there are few places outside of Louisiana where soliciting sex for hire is not a death knell in an election campaign.

Alan Howe had just handed his congressional seat to a Republican to be named later.

Dan Marriott and the proctologist, J. Preston Hughes fought a gaffe-filled campaign all the way to the primary. Hughes avoided using all the great campaign slogans a proctologist could use fairly and accurately, indicating a great lack of a sense of humor (“Send Hughes to Washington — he’s made a career out of cutting up a–holes to make life better!”) Marriott beat Hughes, 56,000 votes to 25,500 votes roughly.

The campaign for the general election was a groaner. Utah Democrats tried to get Howe to resign the election, but he refused, even after he was convicted. Howe refused to debate Marriott, appearing to hope that Marriott wouldn’t get any publicity. A Democrat ran a write-in campaign, further sapping Howe’s hopes.

Television debates were set up, but Howe refused to appear. These turned into painful interviews of Dan Marriott, who had no real good ideas about what he was getting into, it appeared. In one public television “debate,” open to voters to call in questions, when the host, Rod Decker then of the Deseret News went to the phones, not even crickets chirped. Decker ended up asking questions himself, though he hadn’t prepared to do that. In one exchange seared into my memory, Decker asked Marriott what committees he might like to be on in Congress, since it was all but absolutely certain he’d win the election and be able to stay out of the way of speeding buses and trains. Marriott explained that he’d been on a few committees in his local PTA, and they didn’t seem to get anything done, so he hoped he wouldn’t get any committee assignments.

Utah, so dependent on largesse from the Interior Committees and Agriculture Committees, issued a collective groan.

Utah got stuck with a candidate no one wanted, and had to send him to the House of Representatives.

Do not ever — EVER! — hope the other party will nominate an idiot against your candidate. Even the good candidates are idiot enough to blow an election. But sure as the other side nominates an idiot that even other idiots can see unable to do the job, something will happen to push that nominated idiot into the position.

There is a good history of surprise office-holders rising to the occasion. Teddy Roosevelt was nominated for the Vice Presidency largely to get him out of New York politics, where his mere presence threatened to clean up some of the corruption. New Yorkers thought he’d never recover from serving as Vice President. You know the rest of the story, of course, how President William McKinley showed up in Buffalo to shake hands, how Leon Czolgosz got in line and shot McKinley fatally.

Dan Marriott with large rubber gloves

Even Utah got lucky. Dan Marriott had enough sense to learn a bit about Congress. He lucked into a seat on the House Interior Committee, and in a Democratic Congress, with everyone ignoring him, he sneaked through a bill to clean up radioactive mill tailings in Salt Lake County. Managing to avoid major embarrassments, he went on to serve four terms. Utah swatted him down when he stood for election as governor in 1984.

Photo at left: Dan Marriott, on right, with large rubber gloves. Dan Marriott Photograph Collection at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Events can intervene. Good candidates get tripped up — think Ed Muskie defending his wife’s honor in New Hampshire, but with a few tears, before tears were acceptable. Think all those Republicans who avoided the nastiness of the campaign against Nixon in 1968, since Robert Kennedy would easily outdistance Nixon. Sen. Paul Wellstone was a lock in a close race in Minnesota in 2002, until an airplane crash changed the race — as happened to Mel Carnahan in Missouri in 2000, and to Dick Obenshain in Virginia in 1978. Or think of former Speaker of the House Tom Foley of Washington, who simply lost his seat when an unexpected change of mind of the voters of Washington got him, in 1994, when the Newt Gingrich Contract On America was executed.

Every vote counts, until it’s dismissed or uncounted. Every race is important. Pray that each party puts up the best available people, and that the best of them win.

Remember: Do not ever — EVER! — hope the other party will nominate an idiot against your candidate. Even the good candidates are idiot enough to blow an election. But sure as the other side nominates an idiot that even other idiots can see is unable to do the job, something will happen to push that nominated idiot into the position.


* Shortly after his election in 1974 I interviewed Jake Garn with a panel for KUED-TV. I asked Garn what he would bring to the Senate, a good, softball question. He went on at length about his viewpoint as a former mayor, noting that no one else in the Senate had that experience. I named five or six former mayors in the Senate, and I asked him what was the difference. “I won’t become federalized like they did,” he said. I thought of that quote often as he orbited the Earth. Glad he didn’t fall victim to the siren song of federalization.

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