Monday, March 30, 2009

Working around blogger interface

This message is just a test. I've found that I truly despise the blogger composition interface. Even in HTML mode it adds paragraphs around any line break. And its previews don't really look like the published posts.

So today, I'm testing out MarsEdit. I'm happy to write raw HTML as long as there is decent template that allows for reasonable structural mark-up.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"weaknesses" of the Holocaust theory

To all of you shocked and apprehensive about the title of this post, don't worry. For any Holocaust deniers that might stumble across this, you will be disappointed that I use you as a point of ridicule.
When trying to figure out what to write to members of the Texas State Board of Education I wanted to write something short, and possibly unique. An argument framed in a way that they may not have encountered before. This is what I wrote
Dear SBOE board members.
My 10 year old daughter in in the Texas public schools (Plano ISD). I know that she will get a proper science education no matter what you decide, because my wife and I will make sure of that. But I am concerned about the children of families that do not have the background in science that my wife and I have.
Let's be absolutely clear that although every scientific theory has some unsolved problems, those who talk about the "weaknesses" of evolution are talking about fabricated and discredited weaknesses. Those alleged weaknesses of evolution by natural selection are on par with the sorts of weaknesses that holocaust deniers regurgitate when they try to undermine evidence for the holocaust. Indeed any argument presented for teaching "weaknesses" of evolution apply equally as well (or badly) as arguments for teaching weaknesses of the Holocaust theory in history classes.
So please don't undermine the teaching of real science by giving in to those who present lies and distortions for non-scientific ideological views.
With best wishes, Jeffrey Goldberg Plano TX

An imperfect fit

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' — Dougles Adams
While we hear creationists make the same mistake as the puddle in the above quote, we should expect better from serious, respected scientists. And this is why I am particularly disappointed with the first episode of Earth: The Biography. The geologist Iain Stewart is certainly no creationist, but he does he does help feed their hunger for quotes that they can misrepresent by, well, talking like a puddle.

Stewart is selling the coolness of volcanos by telling us how important they have been and continue to be for life on Earth. Personally, I think that they are cool enough without someone having to show how they're personally relevant to me, but that is one of the many reasons I'm not a television producer. And of course he is trying to make a point about the importance of maintaining a healthy amount – not too much, not too little – of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. But in the process he talks about the dynamic of plankton sucking CO2 out and certain volcanos pumping it back in as keeping "just the right amount" of carbon dioxide in the air for life.

But what an extremely self-centered view that is. If the global temperatures were different than they have been for the past few million years, then clearly life would still exist. But it would be different than what it is today. I'm assuming that most people reading this (are there any) don't need this point spelled out. Under different conditions life would evolve differently, but would fit just as snugly to its environment.

Why is this mistake so easy to make?

I offer a question with no answers. But I think that the question is important. Why is it so easy for smart people like Stewart to make this mistake? I think that there is something more interesting than an ordinary little fallacy here. Just as people like to attach great meaning to accounts of our origins (after all religious people attack evolution much more than they attack astronomy, although both are incompatible inerrant scripture) there is great meaning ascribed to what it took for us to be here. My simple guess is that teleological thinking about evolution is not just limited to the religious. We think of things in terms of the process that led to us. It is the story of us.

This inclination to see the development of life on Earth as the story of us can seep into the thinking of those who really do know better. In many cases this tendency is harmless, but in other cases in can be very misleading. So we should be on our guard to do things like call Iain Stewart in the BBC to task for falling pray to this.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stopping the Race to the Bottom

In his March 10, 2009 speech on education, President Obama called on states to stop the "race to the bottom" with respect to educational proficiency standards. I will be proposing here a simple, inexpensive measure which will help stop that race to the bottom.

Race to the bottom

The race to the bottom is a simple consequence of the fact that politicians want parents to be happy about their children's achievements and these same politicians directly or indirectly control the proficiency standards. Setting standards low allows parents to be truthfully told that their children are exceeding standards. Furthermore, the national No Child Left Behind program specifically penalizes schools and districts which fail to meet their state standards, so again states are given a financial incentives to keep standards low.

I've argued elsewhere that there is a place for minimum standards, but those minimum standards should not be the reference point by which we measure our children's academic growth and achievements. So in this post I will make one small proposal that a district like PISD can do to meet the President's challenge and help families and the community focus on achievement beyond the minimum standard.

Some MAP background

In the elementary grades, the Plano Independent School District (Texas) uses the excellent MAP testing system developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). This test has many virtues which I will try to discuss in more detail other posts. But one virtue is that it is scored on an "equal interval scale" which means that a 5 point gain one year is comparable to a 5 point gain in another year. This makes the system ideal for measuring progress and changes in progress over time. Plano helpfully provides these charts (which they call "Learning Growth Charts" to parents during parent-teacher conferences on through the parent information system website. Here is a sample The orange line is the student's scores for the tests taken at different times. The band below it is what Plano ISD calls a "proficiency range." The MAP test can be given in the Fall, Winter and/or Spring during each school year, and the time marks along the bottom of the graph are the grade and season testing dates Most parents will see their children's lines well above the proficiency range and be pleased with the school and the district.

The problem

What parents aren't told very clearly is that the proficiency range is really just the range of scores near the TAKS passing estimates, and so in Texas, it is a very low range indeed. (More on just how low that is later). The whole system is rigged to conceal just how low the proficiency range really is, and to make (most) parents happy by exaggerating how well their children are doing.

But by making a (legitimate) minimum standard the reference point by which our kids' achievements and progress are measured we lower our goals and become satisfied with things that we really shouldn't be satisfied with.

A solution

One very simple solution to this very specific problem is to include the national (not state) norms for student scores on the same chart. This would allow parents to see how their child's achievements compare nationally and also show how the state proficiency level compares to the national average performance.

So there I propose a simple approach that could be implemented cheaply and easily for districts that already provide scores for tests with national data. Other districts, when the report students' performance against their own states proficiency measures can find ways to make clear where those standards stand against other state's standards and against national performance data.

Despite the simplicity and affordability of this proposal, I anticipate that people will find ways to resist this proposal. I intend to ask all of the candidates running for the PISD school board to comment on this. It will be interesting to see responses.

For comparison

The NWEA publishes national norm data (PDF) for the MAP, but I haven't been able to find information on the variance. They've also looked at scores on the MAP and seen which students passed the TAKS, thus being able to estimate just how hard or easy the TAKS is. I haven't been able to find the full report for Texas, but the summary (PDF) show that for many tests, a passing score on the TAKS puts the student around the 30th percentile nationally. For third grade reading, the apparent TAKS cut-off puts the child at the 12th percentile nationally.

Again, let me make it clear that I do think that there is a real role for (low) minimum standards which every child should meet. My proposal here isn't to raise those minimum standards, but to encourage parents, schools, politicians and children to focus on higher standards as well.