Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whence the Relativism of the Right?

It is not usual for me to find myself in agreement with Rod Dreher, editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, but today's Op-Ed piece is one of the exceptions.

Dreher correctly bemoans the role relativism in political discussion. An example is that the question of where President Obama was born isn't a matter of fact but opinion, with all opinions being legitimate. Dreher suggests that this kind of relativism has been a part of the rhetoric on the Left in American politics over the past few decades, but that it is appears to be growing on the Right and in the culture at large. Although I share his impression, it would be worthwhile for someone (not me) to undertake an investigation of whether there really is an increase in this kind of thinking.

But for the sake of my brief comments here, I will temporarily assume that the phenomenon we perceive is, indeed, real. It is clear where the relativism on the Left comes from. When explicit Marxism became discredited in academia, post-modernism came to the rescue of every social science charlatan. Its rise in the late 1980s gave ex-Marxists just the cover that they needed. It makes a virtue out of incoherence; It elevates opinion above independently verifiable fact; and it provides you with the ability to call anyone who disagrees with you racist or sexist.

But what I'd like to speculate about here is how the Right managed to adopt the relativism that they correctly scorned for so long. It may just be a consequence of long standing anti-elitist populism. But I'm going to add to the mix of possible sources.

Fundamentalist revival as a source of Relativism

Fundamentalists have always treated relativism as the enemy. Indeed, both Fundamentalists and Relativists need each other as bogeymen. Each say that the alternatives to their own positions is the evil of the other position. In this light it seems more than a bit silly to propose what I'm suggesting. I recognize that I have an uphill struggle in making my case. Also, I still have a lot of homework to do today; so I will have to be brief.

The first time that I heard someone on the Right launch into the rhetoric of Relativism I was both amused and horrified. He spoke of paradigm shifts and that scientific truth only made sense with respect to a specific paradigm, which in turn was a social construct. It was the usual line that I'd heard many times before, but I was surprised by the source. So why was this person on the Right trying to undermine science and facts? Because he was also a Young Earth Creationist. Creationism only works if you deny, destroy, or lie about science. And apparently Creationists of the day had adopted the same attacks on science and scientific reasoning that had been developed by the Left.

Just as post-modernist thinking tried to make a virtue out of incoherence and inconsistency just listen to any Christian try to explain the Trinity or any religious person talk about the mysteries within their belief system. Science has plenty of mysteries, but they are seen as problems to solve and demystify. Religion, on the other hand, treats mystery as supporting evidence.

Just as post-modernism elevated opinion above fact, many religions treat personal revelation as the best (often only) way to establish truth. My personal revelation is as good as yours, and it certainly trumps your facts.

And just as post-modern social science somehow enabled participants to dismiss their opponents as sexists or racists whose arguments and evidence don't need to be considered, fundamentalists know not to debate with the Devil. They explicitly won't consider the arguments of opponents because it might corrupt them.

Religious fundamentalism is a system of thought that (a) attempts to undermine science and scientific thinking, (b) treats its own mysteries as virtues instead of as embarrassments, (c) places unverifiable beliefs above facts, (d) and justifies covering your ears when confronted with opposing views. I'm suggesting that it this system of thought that legitimates relativism exactly among people who should abhor it.

A large grain of salt

What I've said here is highly speculative. It really is more of a plausibility argument than mustering evidence and argument for my suggestion. Furthermore we don't even know if the phenomenon I'm attempting to explain is real. Is relativism growing, and in particular is it growing on the Right? I don't know. But this is a blog, not a research paper.

[Update 2009-12-15: I've corrected many typos and grammatical and punctuation errors. I'm sure many more remain]

Friday, November 27, 2009

In Praise of the TAKS

A few days ago I had an eye-opening experience. I took the 2009 Exit level Math TAKS and have come to the conclusion that it is a far better designed test than I'd anticipated. Below I will explain both my initial pessimism and what impressed me about the test.

Before that, just some questions to get out of the way. I took the TAKS as part of a course assignment in my teacher training program. I missed one (out of 60) questions on an easy question due to a silly oversight. I didn't take the test under normal test taking conditions. On the one hand, I was free to make myself a fresh cup of tea every now and then; on the other hand, I had to put up with the dogs barking at the gardeners. I recommend that anyone – like me – who gripes about Texas standards and teaching to the test should try taking these exit level tests. Past tests are available from the Texas Education Agency for all levels and subjects for which the TAKS is administered.

Why I was pessimistic

I had not expected the TAKS exit level test to be as interesting as it turned out to be. There were several reasons for my pessimism. First was experience with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade math TAKS that my daughter took. They didn't really seem to involve any problem solving or mathematical reasoning; instead they were about the ability to apply memorized techniques to clear instances. In retrospect this was probably because educators take Piaget too seriously and (incorrectly) believe that grade school kids are incapable of formal reasoning. Whatever the cause, there is a large difference in approach between the grade school TAKS and the exit exam.

The second reason for my pessimism was based on my impression that in high school math education very little time is given to developing mathematical reasoning skills, and most of the time is on specific techniques to solve specific kinds of problems. Real understanding and creative problem solving rarely seemed to be emphasized. I had (incorrectly) attributed this to teaching to the test. I had thought what I had disliked about the curriculum was a consequence of the test.

Liking the test

Many problems on the test had multiple ways of getting at the solution. One method would be mindlessly applying the right set of procedures, plugging away at it (typically using a calculator), and eventually coming to an answer. But these problems were also set up as little mathematical puzzles. There was often a key insight which could lead one quickly, easily, and without a calculator to the right answer. Grasping the key to these problems not only saved time, effort, and tedium; but it also was less error prone. Many of the incorrect answer options were exactly the kinds of things one might arrive at for making a minor error (as I did in the question I got wrong). The more steps involved in computing an answer, the more opportunity there is to slip up on one of those common errors. If one had a good grasp of the meaning of the various mathematical concepts then the key was usually available.

Other questions were explicitly about concepts. These questions were not merely testing knowledge of technical vocabulary, but did require an understanding of the concepts to answer correctly. I don't think I have the skill to come up with questions of that nature, but I can recognize them when I see them.

As a minor anecdote that nicely illustrates how wrong I was about this test there was a question on the test that I had previously claimed would not be on a TAKS test. During my teacher training, I've taught some sample lessons to my fellow teachers-in-training. In one of them, I had students develop a model for an instances of n(n-1)/2 growth. I said at the time that this was an activity that would help them think mathematically but would not be on the TAKS. It was a dig at the TAKS and a completely unfounded one. Imagine my surprise when I hit question 6 on last year's test and discovered it to be exactly the kind of problem I said would not be on the TAKS.

I'm hoping that I will find time over the next few days to try exit exams in English, Science and Social Studies as well. Although high school teachers are specialists, we should – at a minimum – understand what is being expected of our students in all areas. (Now all I have to do is find someone who will grade the ELA writing sample if I do take that portion of that test.)

Decisions and Revisions

I was wrong in my expectations of the TAKS. Alternatively, I may have been correct in my expectations and wrong about my current evaluation of the TAKS. In either case I've been far off the mark at least once. While I certainly don't like being wrong, I actually enjoy the experience of discovering that I've been wrong. It is eye-opening in the best sense. I see things that I previously did not see, and I am forced to reevaluate both the reasoning that led up to the incorrect view and the consequences of that view.

But the big lesson in discovering that I've been spectacularly wrong about something is the heightened awareness that other positions that I currently hold firmly may also be wrong. Caveat lector.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ten adjectives that describe my office

Apparently some of my daughter's classmates are struggling with parts of speech. (We've been playing Mad-Libs since she was seven; it's not a problem for us). Anyway her class was given an assignment to go into three rooms at home and find ten adjectives in each room and write them down. They were allowed to find adjectives that described objects in each room

Tímea decided to make the assignment slightly less boring by finding ten adjectives that apply to the room as a whole. This is her list for my office

  1. Cluttered
  2. Messy
  3. Tumultuous
  4. Geeky
  5. Tangled
  6. Fun
  7. Crowded
  8. Interesting
  9. Exciting
  10. Ransacked

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"We will have no more marriages"

Apparently in Texans' zeal to rule out marriage for one group of people back in 2005, voters adopted an amendment to the State Constitution that rules out state authorized marriage for anyone. Read clause (b) of the amendment carefully.

(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. (b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

This observation is now making news, but it appears that this was also brought up during the campaign as well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Post hoc dots

It is easy to spot warning signs after the fact. But it is important that we do investigate them. After the murderous treason at Fort Hood on November 5, we need to develop as a complete an understanding what of what information was available prior to the attack and what information processing failures may have allowed it to happen. I don't think that anyone disputes this.

As more and more facts come to light, it is natural to ask how we could have failed to connect the dots. What appears to have happened is that in several separate instances warning signs about Major Hasan were noted, but in no instance were they considered serious enough to escalate the case to a more comprehensive investigation of him. People will naturally think that this means that there was some flaw in the system.

There very well be flaws in the system, but that we won't know until we have more comprehensive understanding of the system itself. (And that understanding will probably not be made public in all its details.) But I do want to make clear is that when it comes to noting warning signs we need to look probabilities and false positives.

If a few innocent people get investigated due to false positives in our system that is not a problem. It is normal and to be expected. But we need to remember that we simply don't have the resources to properly investigate hundreds of thousands of people.

With that in mind, let's run some hypothetical numbers. Suppose, extremely optimistically, we have a tool that can correctly identify terrorists living in the US with an accuracy of 99.9%. Let's also suppose that there are about 1000 terrorists living in the US. Our tool would catch 999 of them and miss only one terrorist. That sounds excellent.

But now consider what happens with non-terrorists. With about three hundred million non-terrorists living in the US, our hypothetical tool would correctly identify 99.9% of them as non-terrorists. Unfortunately it would incorrectly identify three hundred thousand people as terrorists needing careful investigation. So even with a tool as accurate as only one error in 1000 we would have 300,000 false positives.

Three hundred thousand innocent people would need to be carefully investigated even if our screening tool were wrong only one out of 1000 times. Even if we were willing to accept the civil liberties implications of having the government undertake careful followup investigations of the political, religious, and psychological motives of that many innocent people, we don't have the resources.

If we can't perform the that many investigations (and here we are considering best case), then do we deprive 300,000 innocent people of working in sensitive positions? One doesn't have to be a card carrying member of the ACLU to recognize that that would be truly un-American. And such a practice would certainly lead to a backlash that could harm security more than help it.

I do not have a solution to this problem. I don't know how we can effectively screen against domestic terrorists. I expect that the DHS has people who are a lot smarter than I am working on these problems. Those people will also have real numbers to work with instead of my made up ones. But I do know that the inevitable calls we will hear over the next few weeks to follow-up every lead are failing to understand the implications of such a policy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Religion doesn't make you crazy, but …

Speculating about motives

In the immediate aftermath of the killing rampage at Fort Hood, I find it remarkable the extent to which the public was reminded not to speculate about any religious motivation of the apparent shooter, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Even as recently as November 8, General George Casey added his voice to the many along these lines. According to an AP report, Casey has urged the country not to get caught up in speculation about the Muslim faith of the Fort Hood gunman.

It is one thing to advise us not to jump to conclusions as the President has correctly warned us about, but quiet another to suggest that we shouldn't speculate. And the same people who wish to discourage speculation of religious or political motives are more than happy to speculate about psychological stress. Indeed, there has a been a collective grasping at straws speculation about anything other than religious or political motivations.

The conservative blog Red State nailed things perfectly in their November 6 Morning Briefing with a brief titled, The Media Will Downplay His Religion, But God Help Us if His Car Had a Talk Radio Station On. [Yes, I'm one of those strange liberals who follows a few conservative blogs and news sources.]

By today, November 10, the evidence really has mounted that the killer's motivations were deeply connected to his religious identification. Exact details of his thinking may never be known, but it is becoming clear that he saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a war against Islam. He, as a Muslim, couldn't participate in such a war on the side of the US. And thus he committed the bloody treason that he did.

He most likely was also crazy. His actions speak for themselves on that front. But when insanity has a religious dimension we all too often downplay the way that religious beliefs may have contributed to the insanity.

Religion doesn't make people crazy, but …

The world is populated by a large majority of sane religious people. Religion didn't make Hasan crazy. But I believe that religion enables people to take their craziness further than it otherwise would go.

When a woman kills her child because she believes it is possessed by the Devil she is clearly crazy. But if she weren't part of a religious community that accepted things like demonic possession she may have been more likely to question her own beliefs and sanity before acting.

When a man kills his wife and children and then himself with the hopes of sending them straight to heaven, the newspapers report on how he was a very religious man only before the facts make it clear that he was the shooter. Later, after it becomes clear that it was a murder-suicide, does the obvious clue to the killer's thinking get listed only in the very last paragraph of the newspaper reports. If he hadn't been steeped in the belief that the innocent are rewarded in the next life, would he have killed his children?

These sorts of cases rarely make national news. But they may happen very frequently but only hit local news. If anyone knows a manageable way to get national data on these kinds of infanticide or murder-suicides, please let me know.

What does get national news is something like the treason at Fort Hood and, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001. And this reflects a different kind of religiously enabled insanity. In these cases, the perpetrator has a political cause that they feel passionately about. But on top of that, they believe that their particular political cause is also the Will of God. They have come to believe that they know the master plan of the Creator of the Universe, the Final Judge of all men. Their absolute faith in their religion gives them absolute faith in their cause. And when one is certain that advancing a cause is the will of God, then pretty much any action becomes justified or even sanctified.

As long as religions support the notion that it is possible be know the will of God they are enabling this kind of terrorism. Whether it is blowing up school children in Pakistan or murdering abortion doctors in the US, this confidence that one is acting in God's will is pernicious.

It is all very easy to say, Well my religion teaches peace and the dignity of all humans. All religions are pretty much the same in that respect. Remember most forms of most religions legitimate the idea of demonic possession, a reward in the after-life, and that it is possible to have God's will revealed to you. Those last three ideas are irrational and dangerous. And I believe that they are responsible for enabling more horror than people like to admit.

When someone does something good, the world seems quick to point out the connection between their religious beliefs and their good deed. We need to be just as willing to do that when someone does something bad. Only then will we see the extent to which religious ideas enable crazy people to act on their insanity.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Measuring the Race to the Bottom

I've written extensively about the Race to the Bottom that is created by aspects of NCLB where states' performance is measured by how well each state meets its own targets. I've also pointed out that individual states participating in this race to the bottom are not particularly keen on having transparent ways to compare their standards with other states.

The National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Department of Education) has found a way to use data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress along side state accountability reports to actually examine and quantify any Race to the Bottom. In a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007, they have looked at changes from 2005 to 2007 in state scores and how they compare with the national measure. The report looks at reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades.

A word about proficiency

The NEAP makes a distinction between a basic level and a proficient level of performance. For the NEAP proficient means competency over challenging subject matter and not merely grade-level performance. Most (all?) states also make a distinction on their state accountability tests. When talking about the TAKS test in Texas, the word proficient is often used to refer to the minimum passing requirement and the term commended is used to describe the higher level.

In Texas, parents will hear the word proficient to refer to the minimum standard of passing the TAKS. That is not how the word is used nationally. And it is not how I will use it here. I will try to avoid confusion where I can. But I suspect that the Texan use of the word proficiency is a form of grade inflation attempting to make families feel that, as in Lake Wobegon, in Texas all children are above average.

Comparison among states

The report compares state standards for the proficiency level (not the basic level). That is, this report, when it comes to Texas is looked at the level needed to score a commended TAKS result. It worked to determine what the NEAP cut-off would be for getting a commended result on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading TAKS. It did this for each state for which there was sufficient data. This allows us to compare the proficiency levels from state to state.

In 2007 data Texas falls below the national average in its commended levels for 4th and 8th grade math and reading. For Texas is fourth from the bottom in 8th grade reading, beating out only North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. (Note that DC, Nebraska and Utah weren't included in this measure due to insufficient data.) For 8th grade math, Texas is near the middle of the pack. For 4th grade reading and math, Texas falls near the top of the bottom third.

States with higher proficiency (commended) standards have few students meeting those standards. There should be no surprise there. This leads to the question of whether it matters at all where states set their proficiency standards. Remember that proficiency standards are higher than the basic standards which all students are expected to meet. It turns out that states that set their own higher proficiency standards appear to get better results on the national NAEP exams. Whether the setting of higher standards is the cause of those higher scores is unknown. It should be noted that this relationship is much less pronounced for 8th grade reading, where it is not statistically significant.

Comparison over time

The question we asked with respect to any race to the bottom is whether states are lowering their own standards over time. The rest of the report concerns comparing 2005 and 2007 data. Getting the comparisons is mathematically tricky and so is the statistical inferencing. The report discusses their techniques in great detail, which I have yet to carefully review.

For each of 4th and 8th grade math and reading, they did two kinds of comparisons. The first is simply looking at the NEAP scores corresponding to the commended cut-offs has changed from 2005 to 2007. In this, Texas had no real change in 4th or 8th grade reading or 4th grade math (there was a decline in NEAP points, but that was within the margin of error for the analysis). But for 8th grade math there was a statistically meaningful decline of 4.2 points on the NEAP scale.

The report also looked at change in state standards in another way. If a state had a large increase in the number of students reaching the commended (proficient) level from 2005 to 2007 but did not have such a large (or any) increase in numbers of students improving on the NEAP.

Using this measure Texas students showed significantly more improvement on the Texas tests than on the national tests in 4th grade reading, 4th grade math, and 8th grade math.

Are the state standards getting easier

The pattern of change describe for Texas can be seen in many states (while other states are going in other directions). But does this means that states are lowering their standards in a race to the bottom? It certainly could mean that, but I suspect that this is more a consequence of schools getting better at preparing students for the state tests.

Schools are teaching test taking skills that are geared to the state tests. They are providing hot breakfasts on test days, they are perfecting their ways of motivating students and families to perform well on these tests. And with the actual teaching of content, there may be an increase in teaching to the test. A great deal of these efforts to improve state test scores will not carry over to the NEAP tests. The state accountability tests are very high stakes tests for the schools, while the NEAP tests have little direct consequence for the students, teachers or schools.

So schools will be engaging in activities that improve state test performance but do little for NEAP tests. This way we can see the results reported without it meaning that states are formally lowering their standards. Of course, if I am right about this, it means that we should be even more skeptical of improvements in state test results. It doesn't reflect a real increase in learning, but instead improvements in taking the state tests.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Gingrich, Sharpton and Duncan road show: Longer school days

The idea of Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton going on tour together boggles the mind. (Though I do recall having seen Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary do a psycho/schizo duet back in the 80s.). But apparently this is serious and includes Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Well the first stop on the tour is in Philadelphia tomorrow (September 29, 2009); and Duncan, possibly prompted by being surrounded with people who don't hesitate to speak their minds, has advocated for longer school days. As a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer states

Six hours a day just doesn't cut it, said Duncan, who comes to town tomorrow to tour two city schools and meet with local education officials. Our school calendar's based on a 19th century agrarian economy. I'm sure there weren't too many kids in Philadelphia working in their parents' fields this summer.

This simple truth points to one of the most obvious things we can do to improve education in the US. We know that children spend more time in school each year in other OECD countries. And we know that children (particular poor children) are helped by longer school days and a longer school year. And if I didn't have to work on my homework, I would look up the sources for my assertions here.

As a prospective teacher, it is not in my personal interest to have longer school days and a longer school year. I'd love to come up with an excuse to advocate against these; but I can't. The facts (which I really will try to cite in an update) are clear. When so many ideas for improving education in America have mixed research behind them, it is nice to have something that is so clear cut.

I need to return to my teacher training homework now; so this posting stops here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Promising noises from the Secretary of Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor and made some very promising remarks regarding NCLB in my opinion. There was nothing even approximating specifics, but I think that he hit on a key insight:

[Duncan] hopes to essentially turn the law on its head. The Bush administration’s legislation, he says, kept the goals loose but the steps tight. He hopes instead to see a law that keeps the goals tight but the steps loose.

Here Duncan is referring to the fact that NCLB very tightly monitors how each state meets its own (loose) standards. These can lead to what I and others have called a race to the bottom between states, particularly when states work to avoid comparison of their education standards.

Exactly how an overhaul of NCLB will tighten or provide some uniformity of the goals is not something I know. I can imagine a range of mechanisms each with their own advantages and problems.

Set a national curriculum
The problems with this are legion. I won't dwell on them other than to say there is little reason to believe that the federal government would do a better job at this than even the worst of our fifty states.
Provide interstate comparisons to parents
When parents get accountability information about their child's school and their child's test scores, simply have these compared to national norms. If state officials can no longer hide their state's performance from parents, that might be enough to get states to start racing to the top. A difficulty with this is that it may require even more testing of students using a nationally normed test. There may be technical ways to get comparable data that won't involve more testing, but it will take some thinking about. Another difficulty with this approach is that it the parental pressure it generates will be insufficient to do the job. Finally, we know that it is parents in the upper middle class who exert the most political pressure, but even in lagging states their children will probably be performing above the national norm.

Some combination of those and other things may be part of what gets proposed. I eagerly await the plan. As for loosening the controls on exactly how states meet the (tighter) goals I can't even begin to speculate. From the philosophical point of view, Duncan's remarks seem very promising and sensible. Although I have no idea of how to achieve this, I am looking forward to more specific announcement.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thinking about assessment

The education literature likes to make a distinction between assessment for learning and assessment of learning. The distinction is, in my view, a necessary insight, but the way that it is conceived is both too limiting and prone to confusion. In this rant I am going present a somewhat richer framework for discussing different types of assessment for different purposes.

Where I'm coming from

As I've mentioned before, I am training to be a high school math teacher, and I am enrolled in what I consider to be an outstanding program through Collin College. I must confess that when I signed up for the program, I, in my arrogance, did not think that I would learn much. I am pleased to report that I was dead wrong. I won't go into why I was wrong, but I will say that I go to bed thinking about the ideas that come up from class discussion and readings and I wake up thinking about them. I remain (very) critical of some of the argumentation and scholarship in the readings, but it is extremely helpful for me to read them. I'm gobbling them up and loving it.

I have been, and remain, highly critical of the kinds of testing and incentive systems that have been set up by NCLB even though I fully support the goal of keeping schools and districts accountable for how well they serve all students, particularly the ones who are at risk of being left behind. Please see my previous posts on the matter (and more to come). NCLB does appear to be reaching that stated goal but it distorts the educational system as a whole and hinders progress in other important areas. But this essay is about assessment (testing and similar things). Whether you are a critic or supporter of NCLB you will agree that it is has greatly intensified the amount and importance of (standardized) testing in schools.

The Educators' Complaint

The education literature makes a distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. A similar distinction is also called summative assessment and formative assessment. I will not attempt to give a full definition of these here. I don't think that the definitions in the literature bear up under close inspection, and the fuller the definition the less enlightening it is. Instead here is the rough idea through examples. Assessment of includes things like the TAKS, end of term exams, and major examinations that determine a student's grade. Assessment for learning is the on-going assessment that teachers engage while teaching. These include asking questions of the class, seeing what sorts of questions students ask. These are considered for learning because they help the teacher adapt teaching to the particular student.

The problem with our increased emphasis on assessment of learning is that most of that assessment isn't pedagogically useful. Some even argue that it is harmful in and of itself beyond the misdirection of resources (although I have my doubts about that claim). NCLB is a reality (which really does appear to be meeting its narrow, but important, goals), but the concern among educators is that it leads to too much pedagogically useless assessment. I agree, but I think that we are talking about assessment in a far too limiting framework.

Distinguishing distinctions

When we look at assessment, and try to categorize it, I think that we need to be looking at two dimensions, instead of the one-dimensional approach in the of-for distinction. We need to ask

  1. What is the form of the assessment?
  2. What is the purpose of the assessment?

The current discussion seems to think that all standardized tests (form) serve only to assess what a student has learned and not to adjust teaching (purpose), while all of the less formal (form) assessments are only used to adjust teaching (purpose). Certainly there is a strong connection between form and function, but when looking at assessment it will be useful to look at these along these two not-quite-independent dimensions.

Three purposes

When it comes to considering the various purposes of assessment I think that it is helpful to consider three separate purposes, not just the two in the existing conceptualization.

  1. Adjusting: to help adjust teaching to the needs of the particular student
  2. Grading: to provide feedback to student and family, to assign grades and work as an incentive
  3. Accounting: to evaluate the teaching of the teacher, school, district.

Accounting is what we see in the testing that follows from NCLB. It is about rating and evaluating schools and districts (and within districts it will be used to evaluate teachers). It is the school administrators who have the most to gain or lose by these test results. And they are typically done at the end of the school year. Although students who fail the test will be intensively tutored so that they will pass a retake, these tests are not used to help students directly.

Grading is typically the assessments that a course grade is based upon. These are presented to parents and students. These become part of a student's record and are intended to indicate how much the student learned. Of course these will also feed back on how a particular student is taught. A teacher can learn from these that a student is not meeting expectations and so can look for ways to help the student. One characteristic of grading assessment is that it (almost) never goes beyond what has been taught in class.

Adjusting is used primarily to help determine how to teach a particular student. These can range from everyday queries while teaching to see if students are getting it or not. But at the other extreme these can be the kinds of evaluations that are used to determine whether a student should be in a gifted and talented program or in special education. Those typically involve highly formalized exams, but are used exclusively for determining how best to teach an individual student. Homework may be part of a student's grade (usually to get them to do it), but is used primarily as a frequent check of whether something needs to be retaught.

Any particular assessment can (and often) will serve multiple purposes. But when looking at any particular assessment it is useful to keep those three purposes in mind.

Form follows function except for when it doesn't

If you've been talking about the differences between similes and metaphors in class you may ask for examples to help with the learning that day (adjusting). But you may also ask for examples of each on an end of term examination (grading). So the same form can be used for different purposes in different contexts. I've praised the MAP testing that PISD does. But I honestly don't know what they use it for. I would hope that they use it to help differentiate teaching (adjusting), but it may be used primarily to track teacher performance (accounting). So here is a particular standardized test administered exactly the same way could be used for entirely different purposes.

Some forms of assessment really are single purpose. Some like the Texas TAKS tests can't be used for much other than accounting, and then only a limited type. The test is designed to distinguish between students who have acquired the basic knowledge expected for the grade level from those who have not. It doesn't do a very good job of discriminating between students at the high end or very low end. It is hard for me to imagine a set of exams that is more narrowly focused on one purpose.

With understanding come solutions

This understanding of purposes can bring real, practical, recommendations. The TAKS serves little direct pedagogical purpose other than accounting, we could save a great deal of time and money (that could then go to actually improving education) by sampling. Not every student needs to take the TAKS in every subject. Consider fifth grade TAKS requirements. Students take Reading, Math and Science. Not counting make-ups and such, that takes three full days for the students' to complete. But if the goal is to measure a schools' performance, then have one third of the students take Reading, one third Math, and one third Science. Students would be randomly assigned with neither student nor school staff knowing which student gets which test until test day. All of the tests can then be given on the same day.

I believe that the framework I've introduced above, first separating form from purpose and then distinguishing three separate purposes for assessment, allows for a more useful discussion of assessment than is common. At least it helps me think about these things more carefully, and I hope it does the same for any readers I might have.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Murder of James Poullion

The New York Times reports on the murder of an abortion opponent. Yes, that's right an abortion opponent was murdered, apparently because of his protests. This is news in the man bites dog sense. We are not surprised when an abortion supporter is murdered for position, but I was gobsmacked to read of this case.

Although this goes without saying, I will say it anyway. I absolutely condemn this murder and anything like it. The man charged with the murder should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for his terrible crime.

With that said, it is unclear the extent to which James Poullion was murdered for his views on abortion or because he made a persistent nuisance of himself. Of course the latter doesn't justify murder, but it might help us understand the motives of the killer.

Like many protesters for any cause, Poullion sought attention and controversy. He would occasionally stake out a position at a Farmer's Market and cuss customers out. Poullion's protests were loud, gory, and generally obnoxious. He appeared to be getting more provocative as time went on, but always staying (just) within the law. The assistant prosecutor is reported by the Times to have said that the suspect was annoyed by Mr. Pouillion's protests, especially when they were near schools.

So while I unequivocally condemn the murder, I don't think that he was so much murdered because of his views, but because of his protesting style. Neither is any justification for murder, but we should be cautious about concluding that abortion supporters are just as like to murder their opposition as abortion opponents are.

Asymmetry of passion

We need to recognize that there is a fundamental asymmetry between supporters of legalized abortion and opponents. Abortion opponents (at least in their rhetoric) treat abortion as murder. For them the legal system and the courts have enabled mass systematic murder with no recourse within the legal system to stop or bring those perceived murderers to justice. While I'm offering no justification, it is not too difficult to imagine how a few people with those beliefs could turn to violence.

For supporters of legalized abortion (like me), there is no heinous crime that our opponents are involved in. We think that our opponents are wrong, and that much harm would be done if they got their way. But only though the most elastic stretches of hyperbole could we consider them as supporters of systematic murder. To me, opponents of legal abortion are not evil or criminal. They are not sinful or inhuman monsters. They are merely mistaken. It is this asymmetry that makes it so hard for me to belive that Pouillion was murdered because of his views on abortion.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Congratulations: I may be wrong

I have been ranting (particularly here and here) that Texas' implementation of NCLB is doing a disservice to above average students. I am perplexed, but delighted, to report evidence that I have been wrong. Apparently, Texas students have been making remarkable gains in passing Advanced Placement exams.

The TEA has reported strong gains in AP pass rates, and the gains among some minority groups are truly spectacular. Being the cynic that I am, I had first assumed that the results were a consequence of fewer students taking the exams. But, according to the report, these gains while the number of students taking the exams has increased. So this positive result does not (immediately) look like the result of statistical manipulation.

My skepticism remains, and there are a few things to check out. But at the moment we have some good news, and I will take it as such.

It will be interesting to learn how these gains were distributed throughout the State. Do they come from a few school districts, and are those districts doing something unusual? If anyone knows where I can get this data, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Schools are not a battleground

I have expressed in my posts here numerous criticisms of parts of our public education system. I have also expressed views about religion (I'm an atheist) that many people in my community would find anathema. At the same time, I am training to be a high school math teacher here in north Texas. Naturally, this can raise some legitimate concerns among potential colleagues, employers and student families when I start working. The goal of this post is the persuade even those who oppose everything I've stood for here that they have nothing to worry about with me in the classroom.

Why I want to teach

First of all my reasons for going into teaching are that I love explaining things and transferring knowledge. I believe that education is important in our society to help deliver on the promise of equal opportunity. Slightly more controversially I believe that for democracy to work the public needs to be educated to at least the point where they can meaningfully participate in the decisions we face. And even more controversially, I believe that public education plays an assimilatory role, preventing extreme fragmentation of society along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines. But if one sentence could sum up the feelings that drive me to be a teacher it would be a line from an old song:

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow, they will learn more than I'll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. —Louis Armstrong

But stepping down from those lofty reasons, my job as a math teacher will be to teach math. I am one of those weirdos who really loves math. But I also love history, science and language and literature. I love thinking and ideas. But given my skills and what needs there are to fill, I can make the biggest contribution by teaching math. Teaching math will be my job and my mission.

Make things easier, not harder

Anyone who cares deeply about education, and I hope that that is true of every teacher, will have strong opinions about how we do things. Some of those opinions will include disagreements. But it helps no one to stir up trouble just to make a point. It only makes it harder for everyone to do their job.

A few individuals with their own political or religious agendas like to fight their battles in the schools. Whether it is people who object to the addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance or people who want school led prayer, they oughtn't make things harder for schools to do their jobs. I have little sympathy for those people, even where I might agree with their cause in principle. Ideally, I would like to see the Pledge restored to its original form, but I'm not going to make a fuss about it. Forcing school districts to spend real time and real money fighting a largely symbolic battle is destructive to our educational goals, angers people, and needlessly divides our community.

My concerns about the impacts of accountability requirements will not stop me from doing my job and focusing my efforts where state law and policy tell me to focus my efforts. Forgive me for waxing philosophical again, but there is much to learn from understanding where various policies come from. The policies come from people who were elected to make those policies or from people who were appointed by those elected. I may, on occasion, think that I know better then those people, but my conceit does not entitle me to defy those policies with which I disagree. Just as nobody should pick and choose which laws they obey based on whether they like those laws (otherwise why have laws?), I won't cherrie pick those policies which I like.

If I sign a contract with a school or a school district, I do so willingly and see it as a commitment to upholding my end of the contract. That means following their rules. It would be dishonest to sign a contract with the intention of doing anything other than accepting their policies. This point is point is very important. It is actually something that I thought about a great deal before enrolling in a teacher training program, but by seeking to be a teacher I have firmly decided that the value of doing so greatly outweighs the distaste for implementing a few policies I may not like.

In and out of the classroom

I can see no reason to ever mention my religious or political views in the classroom or to students. There are some things about myself that if expressed in the capacity as a teacher would be inappropriate. My religious and political views certainly fall into that category. However, anyone reading these blog postings (if anyone actually is) will realize that my political, social, and religious views are emphatically not secret. I am happy to share them with anyone (outside of my role as a teacher) who asks.

By seeking out my postings or searching for my musings you are asking me what I think. I am not pushing or advertising my views. I am not addressing a captive audience, and I am absolutely not using a school, classroom, or any authority I might have as a teacher to express my views. By coming here, you have asked me what I think.

Student discovery

I cannot prevent my students from doing the same sort of search or link following that brought you to my postings. I will do nothing whatsoever to encourage them to find this, but that won't stop the student who decides to google all their teachers. So some students will learn my views on politics, social matters and religion. This isn't the problem it might seem.

First of all, I like math, and that will be made known to all of my students. This already makes me a kook in the eyes of many of them. So if I have other kooky ideas, that should come as no surprise. And having one kooky teacher who is an atheist will be balanced out by having a dozen others who have more conventional views. I would be over-estimating my status and influence if I thought that students discovering what my views are would change their views.

I also don't think that I should be singled out for making my opinions available on line. If you are active in your church or a civic organization, if you have ever contributed to a political campaign or are registered to vote for a particular party, then your religious and political views are available to anyone who knows how to search the Internet. You may not have gone into detail about your views, but much will be guessed from your affiliations. Should everyone who works for the public schools try to eradicate all public traces of their views on religion or politics? That would be both unwise and impossible.

Deletion and pseudonyms

Should I remove my postings on controversial matters from the sites I control (this blog and Well, I could, but I have a posting history that goes back to 1986, and I do not have the ability to have everything I've said over the decades removed from where they can be searched. And given how my views, approaches, and spelling have changed over the past 20 years, I would much rather have someone read my more recent comments than my older ones. So if I attempt to remove what I can, then what is left paints a very distorted picture of my views. In truth there is no delete button on the Internet.

I should also make it clear that when I first became active on the Internet, we didn't use pseudonyms. The usernames under which we posted were the usernames that we had on some mainframe computer and were not under our control. Pseudonyms were possible, with effort and resources, but rare. So from the beginning I've posted under my own name. The other problem with pseudonyms is that they are very rarely anonymous. It is possible to operate truly anonymously on the net, but it is difficult. (Most people who think that they are operating anonymously are not.)

It is also not my style to hide from what I say. It would feel dishonest writing under a pseudonym. I should not feel embarrassed by what I say in a public arena. Of course over the decades I've said plenty of things that I'm embarrassed by, and maybe years from now I'll be embarrassed by what I write now. Nonetheless, I hope that my openness about my views and the explanation I've given above should make it clear that my various musings on the Internet will not interfere with my teaching.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

No Child Gets Ahead - The evidence

In April I wrote a piece No Child Gets Ahead in which I argued that current implementations (and particularly in Texas) of the No Child Left Behind program is detrimental to the interests of the above average student. Let me also remind everyone that I consider the goals of NCLB laudable and important. Again, see that earlier rant for a defense of those goals.

Now there is increasing evidence that I am correct. Brighter students are not advancing at the rate one might normally expect of them. This was discussed in a New York Times opinion piece titled Smart Child Left Behind on August 28, 2009. The authors, Tom Loveless and Micheal Petrilli, refer at first to report by the Center for Educational Policy published in June 2009.

The Rosy CEP report

The CEP report asks the question in its title, Is the emphasis on proficiency shortchanging higher- and lower-achieving students? Their answer is no. But Loveless and Petrilli argue that the CEP's report is deeply flawed. After reading the report, I entirely agree that it is broken beyond repair. The most egregious error in that study is the exclusive use of state proficiency test scores. State proficiency tests are designed to measure skill at the grade proficiency level. They never test anything above grade level (which is where advanced students are). My anecdotal experience is that pretty much everyone in my daughter's gifted and talented program hit the ceiling (score 100%) of the state TAKS tests. State proficiency tests are not designed to measure learning beyond the grade level proficiency levels, and simply don't work to measure learning for the high level students. The CEP report pretty much spells out the flaw without realizing it

The main measure of student achievement for this study consists of data from the state tests in reading (or English language arts) and mathematics used for NCLB accountability. Although no large-scale test provides a complete picture of student achievement, we have analyzed state test results because these tests are given to nearly all students in a state, are intended to reflect each state’s academic content standards, and are designed to assess whether students have met their states’ expectations for performance at a particular grade level. [Emphasis mine.]

It appears that the CEP report measures success in a state by looking at state results in terms of the percentage of students (with each state) scoring proficient or above. This notion of counting the number of students who exceed a certain (minimal) standard as a way of seeing whether you are serving the higher performing students is entirely missing the point of the exercise. The question we are asking is Does the way we measure school success shortchange the top students?. The CEP's answer appears to be, Well if we count success according to the way NCLB measure it, then we have success..

Another astounding flaw in the CEP analysis is their use of states as their level of analysis. For them, a gain in a small state completely off sets a lose in a large state, even if it means a decline for millions of more students than there is a gain for. This is truly blushworthy error. even though they fully acknowledge it (on page 18). I could go on. These are not minor technical quibbles. These problems completely and utterly undermine the CEP conclusions.

Why worry

Before I go on to cite the evidence for my assertion that NCLB does shortchange the better students, let me spell out why I and so many others worry that it would do exactly that. I've outlined these reasons in my earlier rant and when combined with the actual level of these proficiency standards (see my rants, Race to the Bottom and No Comparison) there really is a concern. As I said before, people and systems do respond to incentive systems, so we should look very clearly at what we incentivize.

Two Scenarios

The NCLB incentive system rewards schools and districts for the number of students who pass (minimal) proficiency tests. The margin of passing or failing (how high above or below the passing cut-off) counts for nothing. Imagine a class with three students: Alice, Bob, and Charlie. And suppose that the proficiency level is considered met if a student scores a 70 on the crucial test. (Obviously I'm grossly simplifying the examples for the purposes of illustration.)

Now consider scenario 1: Alice scores a 78 and passes. Bob scores and 70 and passes, Charlie scores a 50 and fails. In this scenario, the class has two passes and one failure. That is what will be counted in determining the school's, district's, and (probably) teacher's rating.

Now consider scenario 2: Alice scores a 95 and passes, Bob scores a 69 and fails, Charlie scores a 62 and fails. This class has one pass and two failures. The school, district, and teacher will be marked down severely for this.

All of the incentives (and they are powerful incentives) of NCLB push for scenario 2 above scenario 1. But let's look which class is serving the students better. Both Alice and Charlie do much better in scenario 1 than they do in scenario 2. While Bob does slightly worse in scenario 1 then in 2.

Of course you may object that I could have set up an example where the class that did better on NCLB criteria would also be the one that we would all agree better served the students. But my example illustrates real choices that schools and teachers make every day.

Suppose that you are a teacher and you are confident that Alice will pass the exam with little extra effort from you. With more effort from you, she might learn a great deal, but she is already on a clear target to pass the exam. And suppose that Bob is a student who looks like he will pass the exam, but only if you put extra effort into preparing him. Finally, as a teacher, with all of your pre-tests and such, you determine that even with an extraordinary effort on your part, Charlie is unlikely to pass the exam. If you want to keep your job, and the school wants to keep property values high in its district, then you will focus your effort on Bob.

Response to Response to Intervention

In the excellent teacher training program that I am currently enrolled in, we have been studying the mechanisms by which we identify and help the struggling student, Bob, before he falls too far behind. It is a program (or framework) called Response to Intervention (RtI). It really looks like it should be effective at identifying students like Bob earlier and getting the teacher to devote more time to Bob's needs. But of course any additional time spent on Bob will be time taken away from Alice and Charlie (unless additional staff are provided or the school day is lengthened).

This is one thing that people always seem to forget. Anyone who says that we need to spend more time doing X (where X is "with struggling students", "in the library", "teaching math", "practicing bus evacuations", "taking tests", etc) needs to remember that that means spending less time doing something else. This applies to money as well as time. An additional dollar spent on X is a dollar taken away from something else. It's easy to say what we should spend more time or money on, but it's very hard to answer the question of where that time or money comes from.

How to find out

I've already explained that if we want to test whether the incentives set up by NCLB create a disservice to above average students, we can't measure that by counting how many states have an increase in the number of students reaching the proficient level in that state. So how do we check? First of all we will need to use measures that are (a) comparable across states, and (b) which accurately measure the skills of the above average student. Ideally, we would like to have (c) where the progress of individual students from year to year is measured.

Getting data that is comparable across states is difficult. NCLB allows each state to set its own minimum and proficient standards. Because both politicians and educators like to be able to boast about how well their students are doing, there is pressure to set these standards low. (There are also some good reasons to set them low.) As a consequence of this, there is an incentive to shy away from mechanisms that allow state standards to be compared with one another or have students from one state compared with those of another. (See my earlier rant, No Comparison.)

We also need achievement results that don't suffer from a ceiling effect. That is, it should assess the full range of student achievement including those students near the top. This can be difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, the state assessments for NCLB are completely unsuited for this; so any tests would need to be in addition to those required for NCLB. Secondly, most testing to see whether students have learned the material presented in class; thus they rarely can test students who are above grade level.

Fortunately, there have been an number of attempts to collect such data. In an earlier post, I discussed the Measure of Academic Progress produced by the Northwest Evaluation Association. This time, I will be looking at The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007 produced by the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the US Department of Education). They developed a scale which should include most advanced students, and sampled school children from across the country. Details of their method can be found in the report. For our purposes, merely showing a chart on page 9 of their report should make the point.

nations report card writing 2007-page9.jpg

Before NCLB went into effect nation wide (2002) there was no growth in 8th grade writing skills at the lowest levels, while there were gains at the highest level. After NCLB went into effect, there were gains significant at the lowest levels and stagnation at the upper levels. Now I admit that I did troll through reports to find the most dramatic example. But for all grades studied and in all areas we find that NCLB has led wonderful gains at the lower levels. These are important and valued achievements. At the same time, it has lead to a flattening of growth at the higher levels.

In all fairness?

As I've said elsewhere, gains in one place often have costs elsewhere. If we have to have a trade off of improvements for the top students or improvements for the bottom students, maybe we are redressing a prior imbalance by focussing on the struggling student. I will address this issue in a later post. Here I will say that the situation before NCLB was destructive and unjust, with the below average abandoned. NCLB needs to be credited with fixing that. But the current situation, in which the above average student is ignored by the educational system, is little better. But whether you think that the current situation is right or wrong, I hope that everyone realizes that it does shortchange the above average students. In future posts, I will try to elaborate on how I think we can develop an accountability system that establishes incentives which serve all students.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Call Me Uppity

Once again there is a complaint about "militant atheists". The latest to reach my door step was an opinion piece in today's (August 16, 2009) Dallas Morning News by Rod Dreher. (Note that the on-line version doesn't have the subheading that exists in the print edition Militant atheists think replacing religion with science will solve everything. But the title does talk about atheist fundamentalists)

The article itself is mostly arguing that science and religion don't need to conflict, just as long as each stays within its proper domain. I do not intend to deal with that here. It's something that I've been wanting to write about for a while, but here I want to write about the phrases militant atheism and atheist fundamentalist.

Let's look at what it takes to be a militant for any other cause or belief system. Environmentalists usually have to engage in or actively endorse violence or, at the very least, vandalism to earn the title. Racial supremacists often need to actually try to kill someone before they are called militants. Merely rehearsing race war in the woods with your friends on the weekends doesn't quality. Anti-capitalists have to riot to get called militants. As for religionists, in this country they can withdraw from the public school system, go door to door telling you you are damned to Hell, demand special holidays, prevent the sale of alcohol on their sabbath, disregard parts of the Constitution; and we call this business as usual. To be a militant, they actually need to kill someone. But when they do they are still not called militants religionists unless they are Muslim. They are just called crazy individuals acting alone. When a women kills her child because she believes it is possessed by demons we call her crazy (as she is), even if the belief in demon possession is reinforced in her church. When preachers and politicians talk about placing Jesus and the Bible at the heart of government or suggest that they are on a mission from God to transform the nation, we don't even bat an eye.

But what does it take for an atheist to be called militant? Well, openly declaring that you are an atheist (say wearing a t-shirt) might do the trick. If that doesn't do it then maybe taking the extreme step of encouraging other atheists to come out of the closet must be militant activism.

But the thing that will really get you labelled as a militant is stating that you find many religious beliefs silly. Let's be clear, we are not talking about go door to door ridiculing people's beliefs. We are not talking about putting up billboards making fun of their beliefs. We are talking about writing books and posting blogs. Maybe there is the occasional letter to the editor. The mere fact that we are now feeling free to openly challenge religious beliefs gets us called militant.

I try to respect people. And if their beliefs were private matters, I would have no reason to fuss about them. But we all know that religious beliefs have played a major role in history and are likely to continue to do so. They are influential ideas in the public sphere. Like any beliefs that matter, they must be open to criticism and even ridicule.

This is why we get called militant. People like me no longer bow to the taboo of criticizing religious beliefs. But please face up to what bothers you about that, and use the right word. Call me uppity.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kool Aid is the answer

For some time now I'd been considering a question — not exactly an earth shattering one — which I've only just realized has been answered since long before I was born. The answer is Kool-Aid. You may think that any question whose answer is "Kool-Aid" would be a silly question, but it's merely a geeky question.

I am a fan of flavored water. In our house we drink filtered tap water, bottled flavored water (usually store brand), coffee, and a few juices. After going through a bout of intensive cola drinking after moving from Hungary to Britain in 1994, I simply stopped drinking the stuff in 1998 when my daughter was born. As a household we simply shifted to plain old ordinary water.

A few years ago I discovered unsweetened flavored bottled water. The flavoring (particularly any citrus-like flavoring) made the water seem more refreshing. So each time we go shopping, we pick up a dozen or so plastic bottles of flavored water. It is a regular staple of our household, and the only reason that I don't go through dozens of bottles of it a day is that I don't want to buy that many.

Now let me make it clear that I am not a particular fan of bottled water. I like water in a bottle, but the idea of buying water that gets hauled around in trucks for 1000 times the price of the built-in water delivery system that is in my house just offends my sense of efficiency. (I have neither training as an engineer nor as an economist, but I share their distaste for waste. So I like to think that I think like an engineer or economist.) You can think of this inefficiency in terms of money it costs you or in terms of environmental damage. In this, as in other cases, it works out to be the same.

So, I thought, wouldn't it be nice to just be able to purchase the distilled flavoring that is used for flavored water. It would be much cheaper/efficient to transport and store, and the water I would mix it with would be much fresher than that in a purchased bottle of water. So why doesn't someone go into the business of selling just unsweetened flavoring that I could add to the water at home? Well, Kool-Aid has been around since 1927 doing exactly that. Of course they add food coloring, which I could do with out. But I can live with a little food coloring to save on consuming stall transported water.

So on my next shopping trip, I'll be picking up a few ounces of Kool-Aid instead of a few pounds of water. It will take some experimentation to get the mixture right, and there is always the possibility that no Kool-Aid flavor does the trick, but I suspect that the flavoring that is used in Kool-Aid is pretty much the same flavoring that is used for flavored water.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Voters do need an explanation

One of the many astounding things that Governor Palin said when she announced that she would not be completing her term as Governor of Alaska was,

I think of the saying on my parents' refrigerator that says Don't explain: your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway.

What Palin seems to have failed to grasp is that the world is not divided up simply into enemies and friends of Sarah Palin. There are people who voted for her as governor who may not fall into either category. They, along with every other citizen of Alaska, need an explanation. And more importantly to her future, everyone who will face a ballot with her name on it deserves an explanation.

This failure to try to address people who don't initially agree with her, but aren't (yet) dead set against her will, in my view, be her political undoing. She has a substantial and extremely committed group of supporters. But they are in a minority. She needs to stop insulting east coast elites or everything that isn't part of her vision of the real America if she hopes to win any votes there. Todd Purdum's profile of Palin in Vanity Fair includes many suggestions that she takes an if you're not with me, you are against me approach to people.

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy — and thought it fit her perfectly.

I am not for a moment saying that I agree with these anonymous interviewees. People have a strong inclination to attribute kookiness to those we end up in conflict with, particularly if they have strong personalities. But I do quote that text to suggest that Palin has tendencies in those directions. She tends to divide people up into enemies and friends more than most of us do; and she is lacking in a kind of intellectual empathy, the ability to understand how a reasonable person could hold a different view.

We must remember that she is the person who took an innocent question of where do you get your news from? to be an attack on the remoteness of Alaskans. Righteous indignation is not the appropriate response to questions like that, yet that appears to be how she responds to anyone how offers any kind of challenge to her. Yet that is exactly what we would expect to someone who sees enemies everywhere and can't understand that some challenges to her are in good faith.

I believe that unless she learns to overcome these habits of thinking, her political career is doomed. She may count on a strong base of support from people who don't have to work with her, but she lacks what it takes to build a broader coalition beyond that base of support. And she will find fewer and fewer people willing to work closely with her. Please keep in mind that I am not talking about her successfully reaching out to people like me. We are too far apart in too many ways for anything like that to happen, but she needs to reach out within the GOP. Her no explanations stand will not help her with that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No Comparison

Texas is refusing to join an effort to develop national standards for Math and English education. Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina are the only states to decline. The stated reasons for refusing to participate and declining these Race to the Top Funds is cost and maintaining independence. The cost excuse doesn't hold water since a cost that is currently borne entirely within the state would be shared among many. The second reason, distaste for adopting any idea that wasn't developed in Texas, may well be sincere but is hardly helpful. My contention is that the real reason for refusing to participate is something else altogether: Texan politicians don't want a transparent comparison of our schools' achievements with those of other states.

What many people fail to recognize about the current No Child Left Behind program is that is measures how well schools and districts meet their own state standards. So states which set low proficiency standards will find that they perform better on NCLB measures than states that set a higher bar. And because each state develops its own testing, there is no easy way to see which states set the bar lower than others. This makes it possible for politicians in states to tout their achievements with the federal NCLB (making it seem to voters that this is a real national comparison) even as standards and results remain low. People in the state, wanting to believe that their state is holding their own, are eager to believe their politicians. This leads to a Lake Wobegon effect, where every state is above average.

I have argued earlier that there is nothing wrong with low minimum standards as long as they used as minimum standards instead of as targets. But the current system, in which each states sets its own target and then is judged on how well it meets that, just encourages a race to the bottom. What we have now obfuscates comparison among states, but we are going to break out of this race to the bottom, we need relatively easy and reliable ways for the public to compare education in the various states. So let's not let the State of Texas' pride and independence stand in the way of creating an education system that we can honestly be proud of.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tor for Windows: Easy!

In my previous post, I put in a big plug for people setting up tor relays to help those in Iran browse the web anonymously and evade censorship. What I didn't mention is that installing Tor on a Windows desktop machine is apparently very easy.

There is a very nice blog post describing exactly how to do this over at Ian's Brain.

Update: Ian Souter's site is down at the moment. The information he posted about Tor is cached on google.

Tor or Squid for Iran proxies?

The short answer is do both.

Please note that the people (Austin Heap and Helpful American) who are working to safely pass on information from Iran the rest of the world via twitter are recommending that people set up HTTP proxies. So the people who are in contact with the Iranians who are working to pass messages on have their recommendations. Obviously they know better the needs of the people in Iran than I do. Nonetheless, I am going to recommend another approach that can be pursued along side the use of squid.

As I've mentioned earlier, Squid and other HTTP proxy servers were not designed for the purpose we are putting them to. Squid is a powerful tool which can be configured to do what is needed, but even properly configured it has some limitations. Also squid is very easy to configure for those who are familiar with Unix configuration files, but configuration may be daunting to others.

I am far from the first to recommend tor for this purpose, but I do wish to provide a description of why in the long run tor will be the safer and more effective approach to providing online anonymity and evading censorship. However, running a tor really does have one very substantial drawback which I will get to later.

Logging connections

Squid knows the source IP address of the machine that using it, and it knows what website people are connecting to. This information, in the hands of the bad guys, could be very dangerous to the people we are trying to help. We are therefore given instructions to turn of logging. Or at least to anonymize the information that is logged as I described in my previous post. But there are two problems with this,

  1. The people using your proxy can't know for certain that you have anonymized logging
  2. Even if you do disable or anonymize logging, your machine still receives this information; and so if your machine is compromised, that information can be captured

Tor provides a peer-to-peer anonymized network and so only when your machine is used as an entry point will it know the IP address of the source and only when it is used as an exit point will it know the destination information. For most transactions, your machine will have no information whatsoever about either source or destination, and for no transaction will it have information about both. Thus no one can steal information from you that you don't have. And end users can trust that you are neither accidently or deliberately collecting sensitive information.

Anonymizing and abuse

This true anonymizing that tor allows leads to its biggest drawback. You have no control whatsoever of who uses it. Because your system can't know what networks the originator is from you can't, say, allow Iran and block Russia. If you run a tor relay that allows exit you should inform the abuse desk of your ISP of your intentions. Note that you can run tor as a relay only, meaning that it only passes on connections to other tor peers, but what is most needed are people that are willing to run exits.

Protection from snooping

[This section is an update. I had forgotten to mention this very important point until someone reminded me in the comments.] HTTP traffic from a source in Iran to your HTTP proxy is unencrypted. This means that the operators of bits of the network (the government of Iran) will be able to eavesdrop on the communication. Secure web traffic, HTTPS, is already blocked from Iran, which strongly suggests that the government is listening in to HTTP traffic. With tor, on the other hand, the traffic from the source and throughout the network of tor relays is encrypted. It is only when the traffic exits the the tor network that HTTP traffic will be unencrypted. Furthermore, tor will allow people in Iran to evade the filters that block HTTPS, thus enabling them to have end to end encryption

No central administration

With the Squid proxies, someone has to pass on the IP addresses and port numbers to the good guys without them being seen by the bad guys. Once the bad guys know the address they can add that proxy to a list of addresses to block and the proxy thus becomes useless. I stupidly listed my proxy's IP address publicly and it became useless before it given got distributed to the right people.

Tor's peer-to-peer and automatic discovery processes makes this problem irrelevant. While it may be cool to think of your IP address being passed on clandestinely among protestors in Iran, it is hardly the most secure and effective way to do things. People in Iran will need to run a Tor client, but once they've set that up, they won't need to be fiddling with ever changing lists of IP addresses in browser proxy configurations.

Blocking proxies

The government of Iran is almost certainly blocking access to my proxy server. I have no way to test for certain without having access to a machine in Iran, but I have every reason to suspect that my HTTP proxy server is blocked and therefore useless. My tor relay can still provide help no matter what the authorities in Iran block.

Static server vs dynamic home machines

Squid was designed to run on a server (often one dedicated to running squid) on its own permanent IP address on a machine that never gets turned off. Although home machines with dynamic IP address can still be useful as HTTP proxies, it is not an ideal situation. Tor, however, was designed for the purpose. And while the more stable the machine is the better, with tor downtime or a change of IP address isn't a big problem.

In Sum

There is no reason not to run a squid proxy if you can. But running a tor relay will probably be of greater help in providing anonymous web browsing to those who need it. The only concern with running a typical tor relay is that people doing malicious things on the network may use your network connection to do that. However, most of that nasty stuff is done through various botnets, and chances are that if you inform your ISP that you are running a tor relay they will at least know what is going on if they see network abuse from your machine.

Squid proxies for Iran part 2

This is a followup to my previous posting. And it is worth repeating something that I've said there:

in a few places my advice goes against those of Austin Heap and by Keep in mind that those individuals are much more connected to people in Iran and most certainly have a better sense of what they need than I do ... In terms of helping people in Iran you should certainly consider Austin Heap and Helpful American more trustworthy than I am. I am perfectly trustworthy, but you have no way to know that. They have established reputations at the center of efforts to help Iranians evade censorship. I merely disagree with some of the security and technical advice they offer.

New proxy submission and testing methods

The big news is that Austin Heap has set up a form for submitting proxy information and a mechanism for testing your proxies. In order to use either of these (and thus have your proxy submitted and distributed to those who need it) you need to allow access to your proxies from the hosts that are used for testing. So you need to add an ACL (Access Control List) for the proxy testing sources in the section of you squid configuration where ACLs are defined.

# The proxyheap validation servers 
acl proxyheap src 
acl proxyheap src
And later, where you access policy is defined you need the line
# Allow the proxyheap validation servers
http_access allow proxyheap

Austin Heap posts a complete squid configuration for Iran proxies.

Blocking the Government

Austin Heap and others have recommended that people running these proxies block access from bits of network operated by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is a point on which I disagree, but please see my caveat above for how you take disagreements.

  • To my (very limited) knowledge there have been no attacks (other than blocking) on any of these proxy servers
  • I suspect (again with no real information) that there are plenty of good people who's internet access is from government nets. This may be particularly true of networks operated by the ministry of education.

Therefore, I think that little good, and some real harm, might come from blocking access until we have evidence of targeted attacks from those networks on our proxies. Furthermore, the most obvious attack that comes to my mind would not be prevented by blocking access to the government networks within Squid. The only way to prevent attacks of that nature would be at your firewall.

Anonymizing logging

Here is another point of disagreement. Austin Heap recommend turning off logging of your squid cache. The (very good) reasons for this is that if your host is compromised by the bad guys, you don't want the logs with the various IP addresses of those using your proxy to fall into the wrong hands. I fully concur with the goals. But it is also important to know that your proxy is working. Disabling logs makes that impossible to tell.

I recommend changing the log format to not include the source IP address or the details of the HTTP request.

logformat squidanon %ts.%03tu %6tr X.X.X.X  %Ss/%03Hs %<st %rm XXX %un %Sh/%<A %mt
And then specifying your access log to use that format.
access_log /usr/local/squid/logs/access.log squidanon
Note that you should set the patch to the log for what is normal on your system.

It is possible to have different logging for different ACLs. That is, you can have anonymized logging for connections from iran-net, while having regular logging for all other connections. That would be useful identifying attacks or attempted abuse of your proxy. But I haven't tested those yet, and I am meeting a friend for coffee in a few minutes. So this is all for now.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Squid configuration notes for Iran proxies

According to a twitter post by Austin Heap there are now more than 2000 HTTP proxies set up outside of Iran to help people in Iran evade various forms of censorship. In various blog posts, he's provided instructions for setting up a proxy. That page also includes links to installation instructions for various operating systems.

In this post, I'll comment and elaborate on some of the Squid proxy configuration details. Keep in mind that that using an HTTP proxy is only one of the ways to help keep people in Iran anonymously connected. Two other tools of note are Tor and FreeGate. I hope to write about Tor in a later post; I do not know enough about Freegate to really comment on it.

Once you have your proxy up and running send email or a twitter Direct Message to Austin Heap or Helpful American with the IP address and ports your system is listening on. Do not post the details of your proxy publicly. For those new to Twitter, as I am, an "reply" is listed publicly, a Direct Message is not, so only use the latter to tell them the IP addresses and ports of your proxy. Posting it publicly will just get it blocked. I committed that blunder with my own, and so now my proxy is useless.

What is say here is supplementary material. These aren't complete instructions. You must first look at the stuff I've liked to above.

A Caveat and Caution

For the most part, I elaborate on some aspects of squid configuration, but in a few places my advice goes against those of Austin Heap and by @ProsterHelp (AKA Helpful American). Keep in mind that those individuals are much more connected to people in Iran and most certainly have a better sense of what they need than I do. What I offer is technical experience with squid. Although I haven't used it recently, I've used it and its predecessor (harvest) extensively in the 1990s. In the few places where I disagree with those who've been coordinating things, I will try to explain my reasons.

In terms of helping people in Iran you should certainly consider Austin Heap and Helpful American more trustworthy than I am. I am perfectly trustworthy, but you have no way to know that. They have established reputations at the center of efforts to help Iranians evade censorship. I merely disagree with some of the security and technical advice they offer.

Proxy background

HTTP proxy systems like Squid were designed to for other purposes than to enable anonymous web browsing. ironically enough, these tools are often used as part of web filtering systems for households and businesses. However, web proxies can easily be configured for this purpose. Squid is big, and does lots of things, and so you will see that it has a very large configuration file with many complicated options and settings. Fortunately, you only need to set a few of them to make squid work as an anonymizing proxy.

Squid originated as a Unix program, intended to run on servers. I did not know until a few days ago that there was a Windows version. As a typical Unix service, its configuration file is a text file which needs to be edited with a plain text editor.

Alternative ports

Under its default configuration, Squid listens for requests from the network on port 3128. For days now, the Iranian government has been blocking outbound traffic to that port, so you will need to configure squid to listen on alternative ports. This is done with the http_port configuration item. You list this item multiple times, one for each port you want your system to listen on. Here is an excerpt from my configuration, which sets my system to listen on parts 70, 2831, and 3128:

# Iran is blocking 3128.  Use gopher port instead (70)
http_port 3128
http_port 2831
http_port 70

You can use as many ports as you like, and don't just pick the ones that I've done. We want to mix things up so that it will be harder for the Iranian government to block. Also you don't want to conflict with the ports that other services on your system are listening on. For example, if you are already running a web server on port 80, don't use that for squid. To find out what ports things on your Unix-like machine are already listening on run the command

$ netstat -na -f inet | grep LISTEN
And look at the last number in the 4th column. For those of you on BSD Unix, you will probably find that the sockstat command provides nicer output; look at its manual page for details. If someone knows a useful incantation for Windows systems, please let me know. The Unix instructions apply to OS X.

If you wish to use a privileged port (one less than 1024) then squid will need to start as root. From what I've seen, that is the default situation on most Unix installations. But if you are using FreeBSD and squid version 3, you will need to set

in /etc/rc.conf.

Keeping connected

If you run an HTTP proxy it is important to keep your machine running all the time. Also if you have a dynamic IP address, it is particularly useful to keep your machine running as your IP address may change the next time you connect to your ISP. Note that with running a Tor service, this isn't an issue.

More to come ...

I will write a second part of this latter, which will include notes about blocking IRI government sites and logging. It's there where I disagree with what's been advised, but I found that so far this took more more time to write than I'd anticipated.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Lucky dog!

After learning about my car accident, a friend and very kind and thoughtful person sent me a very solicitous email which included this:
I am thanking God for your safety, because that is the only way you and Tímea came out of that accident unscathed.
Another friend sent me a story of someone who was unbelievably lucky to survive a dramatic wreck. I, too, have the feeling that Tímea and I were extremely lucky to come out unscathed. But simple fact of the matter is that we were extremely unlucky to have been in the accident at all. This way of thinking is best illustrated through a probably apocryphal story of a neighborhood dog:
Some friends down the street have a dog named Lucky. The dog got the name, so the story goes, because he was hit by a car three times and survived each time. It seems to be an almost automatic reaction to consider how lucky the dog was. But a little reflection suggests that this is one of the most unlucky dogs around to manage to get hit three times.

The kind of thinking illustrated here is common, compelling, and irrational. It doesn't seem to come from religious teachings, since this this kind of thinking seems prevalent among the non-religious as well. I, along with some of my fellow atheists, have probably been too hard on some religious people by failing to recognize the near universality of this way of thinking.

It's easy to ridicule the tsunami survivor who attributes their (good?) fortune to the grace of God yet does not at the same time hold God responsible for the death and suffering of those less fortunate. The sportsmen who credit Jesus for their victory don't really believe that the Lord abandoned their competitors. Certainly the logic in their declarations are twisted, but it doesn't originate from being religious; it comes from being human.

But as long as the rest of us feel that dog Lucky is lucky, we should be looking at this as a human irrationality. Although I intellectually know that I was unlucky to have that accident and that Lucky is an unfortunate animal, the feeling that I and Lucky are lucky to be alive is very hard to shake. As with many optical illusions, knowledge that something is an illusion doesn't make the experience go away.

With optical illusions, it is fairly well understood why most of them occur. Cognitive scientists have a pretty good accounts of what sorts of heuristics our visual perception system uses and how those can be fooled. Here we have an illusion of fortune, and this suggests that there are some heuristics used in our perception of chance. Indeed, there is an entire stream of extremely well conducted research in cognitive psychology on this. But I do not know if the phenomenon that I've described here has been addressed.