Sunday, January 31, 2010

Education wrap-up

Tomorrow, Monday, February 1, I begin my student teaching at Vines High School in Plano. In two ways this means that this will be my last blog posting on education and education policy for a while. This post will contain a list of brief topics I had wanted to get to at some point. But first an explanation of why this will be my last posting for a while.

The most important one is time. Student teaching is a more than full-time activity. I find it hard to believe that I will have time or energy for anything else. Indeed, this will be my first full-time position since 1997 when I requested to go from full-time to part-time at the Cranfield University Computer Centre. (And, unlike in Plano which has loads of centres and theatres it's not an affectation for Cranfield, in England, to have a computer centre.) I will be less active with my Facebook presence, and I will be less active here.

The second reason for cutting down in posting about education policy was that during the Plano Student Teacher orientation we were advised to not make public statements about the school district. I suspect that if I examined the legal basis for this, I would find that as someone now affiliated with PISD I would not be allowed to say anything that could be taken as a reflection of PISD policy. So I doubt that I could be forbidden from blogging if I included appropriate disclaimers. But instead of trying to cut close to what is allowed, I will steer clear of anything that might conflict with policy. Only a few of my postings have specifically addressed PISD, and in those postings I think I've been very positive about the school district. It was my first choice for student teaching and will be my first choice when I hit the job market.

Once I am fully settled into a teaching position I will explore what kind of public posting would be acceptable. As I've said before I have absolutely no desire to stir up trouble. I should also point out that by refraining from commenting on education, I am much less likely to accidentally violate any confidentiality concerns. (Not that I think I am likely to make that mistake, it may be a concern of others I work with.)

So now I'll just produce a brief list of things that I wanted to address at some point.

In praise of Arne Duncan

I really like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I like his commitment to finding solutions that work. From his ideas about longer school days and years to his attempts to get usable data that enables us to see what (and who) works well and what (and who) doesn't. He's not making friends with many teachers' unions, but they aren't protesting too much because he does have a lot of money to through around.

There was an interesting profile of Duncan in the New Yorker recently. I didn't feel that it was fully up to the standards I usually see in the New Yorker, but it was still a worthwhile read.

Incentives to cheat

Cheating on the high stakes tests is something that has been going on for a while and has been excellently described in the first chapter of Freakonomics. And there are more reports coming in. The set of rules in place to present cheating is enormous. Administering and document these tests has become a huge undertaking, not least of all to prevent teacher and administrator cheating.

Instead of adding more rules to deal with particular avenues of cheating, we need to correct a fundamental design flaw. The people who have the most to lose by poor test scores are exactly the people who administer these tests. The teachers and school principals have much more at stake than the actual students. In some cases their jobs are at stake. Yet these are the same people who administer the tests. No matter how much we like to think about the integrity of teachers and school administrators, this is a terrible position to put them in.

I don't know exactly how it should be done, but this kind of testing should be administered by outsiders. Maybe contract with something like ETS or other organizations whose business depends on their reputation for fair administration of tests. Maybe use teachers for a different school district. What ever we do, we should not have the people who have most at stake with these test scores administer the tests.

Statistics, Not pre-pre-Calculus

Arthur Benjamin has proposed something that in a three minute video of his TED talk changed my view about math curriculum. It is a simple point that he makes better than I could summarize.

I haven't thought through this in detail, but as I watch kids, most of whom will not go on to calculus, learn how to factor or divide polynomials, I can't help thinking that Arthur Benjamin is on to something. One problem in changing things is that most people like me (math geeks who go into teaching) like algebra and analysis more than we like statistics. Although I would enjoy learning a branch of mathematics that I have no formal training in, it would certainly involve retraining, not to mention entirely new curriculum development.

A gripe about relevance

I have been told in my teacher training that I should try to make a connection between everything I teach and the lives of my students. I've been told that students don't like or do well in math because they don't see the relevance. I feel that math is being held to a higher standard than other fields. When in English students are taught the difference between a metaphor and a simile there is no demand that it be made relevant. In history it is great to teach about the Roman Empire, but exaggerating its relevance for most students is probably seen as a sham. In so many subjects we are teaching kids how to think about the world and ideas. Yet when it comes to math, people seem to feel that we need to pretend that all of the skills are immediately relevant for their lives.

It's good to learn mathematics because by studying it makes people smarter. It is about learning how to think in a particular way. Being able to think mathematically is very useful even if the particular skills taught are not. I believe that this is also true of the study of other fields as well. Each opens up a way of thinking that will benefit students for the rest of their lives. Insisting that it is practical and constructing contrived applications only communicates that we are lying about the need to study math. We need to tell our students the truth: Learning math makes your brain work better.

And finally, my résumé.

My student teaching is the last requirement before I can receive my Texas Mathematics 8–12 Mathematics Certification. So I will be looking for a job soon. Thus, I link to my résumé (PDF).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to count and compare

The bottom line of this rant is that being ranked 4th out of 16 in graduation rates is perfectly respectable, but it is misleading to present this in a way would lead people to infer a ranking of 4th out of 51.

I've complained before that there is often no good way to compare education results from state to state. And I've stated my suspicion that this is deliberate.

Some good news is that Texas is joining an effort to provide comparable information on graduation rates, even though the state is ducking out of an effort to develop ways to compare student performance. And this is summarized in a report (PDF) titled, The National Governors Association Compact Rate: A Comprehensive Approach to Improved Accuracy and Consistency in High School Graduation Rates. This report extolls the virtues of having a consistent measure that allows one state's results to be compared with another. I wish that the people, (well Governor Perry) who want to withdraw from efforts to have comparable data for student achievement would apply the same thinking that they've used for reporting graduation rates.

If anyone doubts that politicians and officials try to spin results to make things look good for them, it is instructive to read the one sentence announcement of the graduation report on the TEA website.

A new report shows Texas has the fourth highest graduation rate among states using National Governors Association methodology.

Reading that announcement you might think that Texas ranked 4th out of 51 (50 states, plus the District of Columbia). This would certainly put a very positive light on Texas education. You have to read through the report to find so far only 16 states are using this measure; so Texas ranks a respectable 4th out of 16 instead of the implicated 4th out of 51.

Note that the announcement is perfectly true. But without including the fact that only 16 states were involved instead of 50, it invites readers to draw an incorrect conclusion.

I applaud the effort to provide a consistent metric for calculating graduation rates across states. And I am gratified that Texas does well among the 16 states that have reported this way. (More states are coming on board according to the report.). More transparent reporting is in the public interest. Now let's do this (as most other states are committed to) for achievement as well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All teachers need math

Scientific American has an article, Observations: Little girls are made of sugar and spice, and learn that math is not nice, pointing out research by Susan Levine that math anxiety can be passed from female 1st and 2nd grade teachers to their female students. This ends of propagating the myth that boys are better at math than girls.
College students majoring in early elementary education in the U.S., of whom 90 percent are female, hold the highest level of math anxiety compared to students majoring in other subjects. And elementary students emulate the behavior of same-gender adults more than opposite-gender adults.
The study appears to have been carefully conducted. The recommendation is that math training be a larger part of the education of those going into early elementary teaching.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Points off for efficiency

It is not all that common for me to defend Texas against some national or interstate education evaluation. But there is one thing in Education Week's report, Quality Counts 2010 that is grossly unfair to Texas, and it reflects what I consider to be an unhelpful way of thinking: Their overall scoring system actually penalizes efficiency.

If Alice gets result X by spending $1000 and Bob one gets the same result, X, by spending just $500 who is doing a better job? I would think that most people would agree that Bob is doing a better job. Bob is being more efficient by getting the same results as Alice, but he is using only half of the resources that Alice uses.

Apparently the editors over at Education Week doesn't see it that way. They take points off for those states that spend less money per student even if those states reach the same results in terms of achievement as higher spending states. Here are the report's ratings for Texas against the national average

Chance for Success C39C+
Standards & accountability A6B
Teaching profession C24C
School finance D+42C
Transitions & alignment B6C
K–12 achievement C13D+

While there is little here for Texas to brag about, being dinged (D+) for being more efficient at reaching a better than average achievement (C) is just silly. But thinking that way is a natural consequence of people valuing what they do.

What's good for GM …

It is perfectly natural for people who dedicate their lives to education to believe that what is good for the education establishment is good for education; and for the most part they are correct. It is perfectly natural for members of the fire fighters and police associations to believe that what is good for their members is good for public safety; and for the most part they are correct. It is perfectly natural for those in the air travel industry to believe that what is good for them is good for the traveling public; and for the most part they are correct. But getting into the habit of thinking that way can sometimes lead people to hold spectacularly wrong mistaken views.

It will be an interesting to observe, as I move deeper and deeper into this world, how much my thinking will be turned this way. Maybe if I'd read this article a year from now instead of today (just a week before I begin my student teaching) I would have noticed the problem I point out. But being married to someone trained in economics has a way of permanently changing the way one thinks (and for the better). So I hope that I will still be able to recognize when the interests of my group don't correspond to the public good.

On the other hand I probably am already ensnared by this way of thinking. I very highly value public education (otherwise I wouldn't be going into the field), and naturally I think that society should value it just as highly and should dedicate more resources to it. So while I am in it enough to want more money for public education, I am not in it so deeply that I fail to recognize the absurdity of penalizing efficiency.

A wrinkle in defense of Education Week scoring

I do need to acknowledge that the Finance and Spending category isn't entirely based on the amount spent. Texas also was correctly marked down in this category for its unequal spending around the state. None-the-less a component of the measure that did takes points away from Texas was its efficiency.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Leadership and Arrogance

Several years ago, I came up with a way to sort out various labels that we use when we talk about politicians and political parties. And being married to a management scholar makes the 2X2 grid come naturally. We have a two binary distinctions. The first is whether the position taken is popular or unpopular. The second division is whether I like the position taken.

When a politician does something popular which I dislike, it is called pandering to the public, while when I agree with it it is called representing the will of the people. When a politician does something that I like but is unpopular, it is an example of leadership; but if it is something that I disagree with, then it is arrogance.

Popular Unpopular
I agree Will of the people Leadership
I disagree Pandering Arrogance

Now that it has become clear that the Democratic party is trying to push through things for which there is not a great deal of public support, it is up to you whether this is to be called leadership or arrogance.

Replace the people!

What particularly prompted me to post this note is a discussion I had with my wife about Charles Blow's opinion piece Mob Rules in the New York Times today (January 23, 2101). When my wife read it, she said that it reminded her of old joke when the Hungarian Communist Party did some polling and discovered that they were fiercely unpopular people. Their response, as the jokes goes, was a call to replace the people.

I have spent most of my life holding minority opinions (and so has my wife). So I was reminded of this distinction between arrogance and leadership that I've made before.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Change the combination on your luggage

After Dark Helmut extorts the code needed to suck out the atmosphere and learns it is 1-2-3-4-5 he declares that That's the stupidest combination I've ever heard of in my life! That's the kinda thing an idiot would have on his luggage! A few minutes later Mel Brooks is in the scene:

Well, folks, there are a lot of people who need to change the combination on their luggage. Or less metaphorically, there are a lot of people who need to change their password management practices.

A good password is hard to remember

Because of spectacularly bad security practices by, 32 million passwords have been made public. There's a detailed report (PDF) by iMPERVA and a summary article at

What we know is that the number of distinct good passwords that people can remember can be counted on our fingers (maybe just the fingers of one hand). Good passwords are hard to remember. This means that people will either

  1. Use bad, easy to remember passwords
  2. Use the same password (or predictable variants of the same password) from site to site
  3. Some combination of the two

This makes passwords very easy to compromise. If one site gets compromised (like RockYou), and your banking password is predictable from your RockYou password, then it isn't hard to gain access to your bank account.

Password management software is the solution

This problem is not new. Security experts have known for a long time that human psychology is the limit on good passwords. Fortunately there is a solution. Password management software. I only have a few minutes to write this post, so I won't go into detail. But for Mac OS X, I strongly recommend 1Password. For everyone else I recommend KeePass. And if you are the kind of person who sticks with the same web browser, than you could get by with the password management system that is built into all modern browsers. Those aren't as good or as flexible as 1Password or KeePass, but the are better than nothing.

With those tools, you only need to remember your master password, and let the software provide strong, distinct passwords for each site you visit. You never need to know what those individual passwords are.

Update: After finally getting a chance this afternoon to look at the morning news paper, I see that there is a front page article in the New York Times about this. Unfortunately that article (at least the print version) does not mention password management systems.

Regarding the software I've recommended, I have no vested interest in either KeePass or 1Password or any particular password management system. I am a happy and enthusiastic customer of 1Password and an active participant on their support forums. Like every user of the Internet, I do benefit from others behaving more securely.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google Attack Vectors

It is no news by this point that Google is reconsidering its China operations after an attack on their systems from China aiming that the Gmail accounts of Chinese Human Rights activists. One of the many interesting things about this is the nature of the attack and what it says about computer security.

A recent report in Computer World gives us some things to think about if they are eventually confirmed. The first is that the limited success the attackers had at getting Gmail account information was not by breaking into Google proper, but by gaining some access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users. So there we have it. It shouldn't be surprising that the easiest way to collect information about Gmail users is to co-opt the same system that our government uses. Indeed this data interception system wouldn't even be in place if it weren't for law enforcement requirements.

[A] source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. Right before Christmas, it was, Holy s***, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].
The second thing is how the attackers got access to the systems that they did. Apparently they first worked to compromise uses who might have access to those systems.
There is an attack exploiting a zero-day vulnerability in one of the major document types, [Eli] Jellenc said. They infect whichever users they can, and leverage any contact information or any access information on the victim's computer to misrepresent themselves as that victim." The goal is to "infect someone with administrative access to the systems that hold the intellectual property that they're trying to obtain.

This is a scary lesson for anyone concerned about computer security within an institution. People who work there have legitimate access, but they may not have the best security practices at home (or work). Spies are targeting those individuals (people like you and me) to get some access to the kinds of things we have access to for our work.

The trouble with Adobe Reader

Now when I hear Autumn 2009 and zero-day vulnerability in one of the major document types my mind jumps immediately to problems with Adobe's PDF readers. PDFs are great. PDFs are in principle much more secure that word processing documents. PDFs are ideal for certain kinds of document exchange. So it is with real bitterness that I acknowledge that there are problems with PDFs. The trouble with PDFs however all have a single source and there is a very simple work-around. The origin of problems lie in the marketing department of Adobe.

The solution is to use other PDF readers. PDF is an (relatively) open standard. Anyone can create and distribute software that can read and create PDFs. And many people have. Mac OS X users should just use the that comes with their system for reading PDFs. For Windows users I recommend Sumatra PDF. There are more sophisticated PDF viewers available, but these lightweight, high quality, free PDF readers are where to start. For other Unix users, you probably aren't using Adobe's PDF reader in the first place.

If you feel you must use Abobe's PDF Readers, disable Javascript. Adobe's attempt to add JavaScript to PDF in one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas in tech design.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Sky is Falling: First Y2010 bug discovered

Well for everyone with apocalyptic fears that aren't being satisfied by climate change or asteroids, we have a real life Y2010 computer bug. This Earth shattering bug affects the widely used spam filtering system, SpamAssassin. Even if you have never heard of this, there is a very good chance that your email provider uses SpamAssassin as part of its arsenal in limiting the spam that lands in your inbox.

Spammers want to have their messages to you seen, so they would like to have their messages at the top (or bottom, depending on how you view your mail) of your inbox. That is, they would like their messages to be viewed as the most recent message in your inbox. Many mail programs will sort the messages in your mailbox by (apparent) send date. Personally, I prefer to have my mail sorted by arrival time which I trust my system to know instead of using unreliable values in the sender created Date field of the message header.

But there are programs and people who do display messages by the easily faked sender date. And so for a time, spammers produced spam sending software that gave dates in the future so that these messages would listed in your inbox where you look for most recent messages. Naturally, spam filtering tools, like SpamAssassin, added rules that tried to detect message with dates that were far in the future. At the time that some of these filtering rules were put in place, 2010 was, in fact, far in the future. But the future is now, and messages with perfectly honest and legitimate Date information are being incorrectly flagged as spam.

The filtering rule in question in the default SpamAssassin distribution is in the file and reads

header   FH_DATE_PAST_20XX      Date =~ /20[1-9][0-9]/ [if-unset: 2006]
describe FH_DATE_PAST_20XX      The date is grossly in the future.


Fortunately these rules are designed to be easily modified by system administrators (but not by end users). There are three option that I can see.

The first option is to tell your system to not use this rule. That is, tell your system to assign zero points for a hit against that rule. This can be done in your local configuration file, typically in the SpamAssassin configuration directory, with something like
score FH_DATE_PAST_20XX 0

The second solution is the modify or replace the rule with something that looks further into the future. That is change the regular expression in the rule from matching /20[1-9][0-9]/ to matching /20[2-9][0-9]/. This way the rule is safe for another 10 years, after which you may hope that it becomes Somebody Else's Problem.

Of course an ideal solution would be to have the system look at the current date. Unfortunately this undermines some of the effectiveness of SpamAssassin which is to have lots of rules that are quick and easy to check. Of the top of my head, I can see a number of approaches to this, but I haven't yet joined the discussion among the SpamAssassin community. My recommendation for email administrators is to use the first fix (disable the rule) until we work out a robust solution.

Ordinary users

If you find that a bunch of non-spam is suddenly being treated as spam by your email system, please report the problem to your email provider immediately with a link to either this posting or some of the ones I've linked to.


Thanks to Paul Haldane of Information Systems and Services, Newcastle University (England) who posted on a mailing list I read a link and summery of Mike Cardwell's post on this issue.

How do the unchurched give?

Much has been made of Arthur Brooks' careful study showing that the religious and conservatives give substantially more to charity than atheists and liberals.

Foundation Beyond BeliefNote: This particular posting is really about a New Year's launch of the Foundation Beyond Belief, but I've buried the lead so deeply in this posting, that I figured I should put this note up here near the top.

I haven't read Brook's research myself, and so I don't know how much of these findings could be explained away. For example, it may be the case that a major source of data is income tax filings and that conservatives are more likely to itemize charitable giving than liberals. (In my case, I know that I don't itemize.)

But even if some portion of the findings can be explained away the results appear to be too overwhelming and Arthur Brooks too credible and competent for there not to be something very real and (speaking as a liberal) disturbing going on here. And so this leaves us with two questions. What is the cause of this disparity? And how can we fix this?


There may very well be personality differences that lead to things. Jonathan Haidt has dedicated much of his career to studying people's moral choices and what underly them. Roughly speaking, Haidt identifies five foundations of moral judgement.

  1. Avoid harm to others
  2. Be fair
  3. Support your group/tribe/community
  4. Respect authority
  5. Remain pure

Haidt finds that liberals (and western moral philosophy) focuses on the first two of these. While conservatives and traditionalists tend to give more equal weight to all five. See his paper on the moral foundations of politics (PDF) to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology for the background and evidence for this. What is relevant here is the communitarian foundation of supporting your in-group. The same thing that leads conservatives the world over to be more nationalistic may very well make them far more generous to their local communities.

If I am correct that liberals deemphasis of in-group support plays a role in charitable contributions, then we should predict that the charities that liberals give to are less local than the ones that conservatives contribute to. (As anecdotal support for this, my favorite charity is CamFed which focuses on educating girls in Africa.) This, as they say, is an empirical question.

Church as a charitable community

Atheists, for the most part, don't belong to church communities. And conservatives are far more likely to be active members of a church community than liberals. Church communities provide a conduit for giving (and not just to the church). Groups of church members will volunteer at a soup kitchen or organize a canned food drive or travel together to build homes for people. While individuals outside of such a community can do any of those things, it is far easier to do them when you are part of a group that regularly engages in those activities.

In short, I spend my Sunday mornings reading the New York Times over orange juice and bagels bemoaning the state of the world, while conservatives are interacting with their church communities and planning how they can do good. Giving becomes a social and community activity of church goers, while for people like me it is something that I do privately (and apparently less frequently) through a web-browser. For me, it is often to assuage guilt; for them, it is a positive social activity.

What do we do about this

Atheists and humanists need to make charity part of our culture. We may have certain personality and institutional handicaps to over come to be as charitable as our religious and conservative neighbors, but we (like to think) that we have reason and a sense of fairness on our side. So let's play to our strengths, but also try to address our limitations.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is an attempt to provide an institutional structure to help make up for our lack of church communities. And today, January 1, 2010 is its official public launch. Indeed, at least the fact that the website is responding exceedingly poorly at the moment suggests that the public launch is successful.

There is a great deal to say about the Foundation Beyond Belief and its founder. But I will be brief. Beneficiaries supported by FBB may be founded on any worldview so long as they don't proselytize. The details of how the ten charities per quarter are nominated and selected are detailed on the (currently unresponsive) website.

The founder of the FBB, Dale McGowan, is the author of the outstanding book, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and so the second part of the mission of the Foundation is to provide support and communities for families that wish to raise ethical and caring kids. The mission of the Foundation Beyond Belief is

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

I will be writing more about the FBB in the weeks to come.