A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Education

Stinky buts

We had parent-teacher conferences today. This is almost always a discouraging time.

Jane’s teacher showed us a “persuasive essay” she wrote for her social studies class. The students were to take a stand of whether the US government should spy on people to prevent terrorism. Jane’s first sentence went something like this:

The US government should spy on people to prevent terrorism, but they should do so in a way the protects the privacy rights of citizens.

The teacher explained there was a problem with this stand. She was suppose to take a stand one way or the other. I tell my students they shouldn’t use words like ‘but.’ Watch out for those ‘stinky buts,’ I tell them.

Why are you teaching them to think of things in strictly black and white terms, I asked. Why aren’t you allowing her to make a slightly nuanced stand?

They’re supposed to take one side or the other. If they use words like ‘but,’ they’re not taking a stand. So I couldn’t give her full credit.

I was pretty mad at this point. No wonder people are having a hard time talking about difficult issues. They’re taught to “take a stand” and only list reasons that support their own side. Sounds like lockstep Republicanism and knee-jerk Democratism. After simmering down and talking about some other subjects, I returned to the persuasive essay. I apologized for getting a little hot under the color.

Well, I’d like them to be a little more nuanced myself, she said. But they have to write these essays for the MEAP.

I should note that the MEAP is the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam–most Michigan schools essentially give up any pretense of providing an academic education, and pretty much teach to the test, or getting students to “beat the MEAP.” It’s not surprising, since funding depends a lot on MEAP scores. Jane’s school is a little better than most because it’s a magnet school for the arts, and MEAP prostitution hasn’t invaded the arts quite so much.

The graders of the MEAP tests, continued Jane’s teacher, are basically pulled off the street. If they see a “but” in the introductory sentence, they’ll mark the essay down. In high school, they’re allowed to present the other side.

Something stinks, but it isn’t the ‘stinky buts.’


New Lego Mindstorms

LEGO has announced a new Mindstorms kit: the LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ NXT Robotics Toolset. 32-bit processor. program downloading via Bluetooth, new ultrasoniic, sound, light and touch sensors, a developer’s program, Announced availability is Fall 2006, and should cost $US250.

Nose to the Grindstone

Just for Daniel: Inside Higher Ed :: Nose to the Grindstone. (Academics work harder that those in industry and much harderthan those in the government).

Racism and the Kalamazoo Promise

[Belated Blog against racism day essay]

Many, if not most, institutional systems in the United States were explicitly, and without apology, created with racist intentions. Our constitution declared ‘Persons held to Service or Labour’ (that is, black slaves) to be worth only three-fifths of a regular citizen with respect to representation. Educational systems were set up as separate systems for blacks and whites. Housing covenants were written to restrict blacks and other minorities from living in certain neighborhoods. Even churches were explicitly racist; Dr. King famously called 11:00 am Sunday morning (a traditional time of protestant Christian worship) ‘the most segregated hour in this nation.’

Because racism has been so embedded, so endemic to American institutions, racism’s effects last for a long time, even after efforts are made to address racism systemically. In Kalamazoo, where I live, there are several obvious and lasting effects of past (and present) racism. The city of Kalamazoo has a total population of about 77k, about 20% of which is black. Our neighbor to the south, Portage (population 44k), is about 4% black (2000 Census). The median income for Kalamazoo is $42.4k (whites: $49.1k; blacks $26.4k); for Portage, the median income is $61.2 (whites: 61.7, blacks: $41.1). That Kalamazoo has a concentrated population of African-Americans; that they tend to be poorer than whites; that there is a rich suburb nearby which is largely white and much better off financially–this will surprise no one, and are only the most obvious signs of racism.

Recently, an anonymous donor (or group of donors) has endowed the Kalamazoo Public Schools with enough funds to create The Kalamazoo Promise, which is a guarantee that any high-school graduate of the Kalamazoo schools will receive up to 100% scholarship for tuition and fees at any Michigan public post-secondary school (which includes the world-class University of Michigan and Michigan State University). Recipients are guaranteed this scholarship just by graduating–a 100% scholarship for a student who has attended Kalamazoo public schools since kindergarten, but even students who enter at ninth grade are guaranteed a 65% scholarship.

This is a hugely generous gift.

And I think it has been given very wisely with respect to helping reverse racism’s effects in Kalamazoo. Students who were not thinking of college at all are thinking of attending the local community college; those thinking of attending the community college are thinking about attending Western Michigan (the regional state university in Kalamazoo; it’s actually a very solid school for a regional university); those thinking of attending WMU are thinking of Michigan or Michigan State. For some of the individuals affected, it means a chance to achieve goals not possible otherwise. It’s suddenly much more possible to have an equality of opportunity for these students.

But I think the donors were wise not to make means testing a part of the scholarship. The Kalamazoo Promise suddenly makes Kalamazoo a more interesting place to live, and a more interesting place to move to. Already, signs are showing up on the lawns for houses for sale in Kalamazoo: ‘Kalamazoo Promise Qualified.’ It may be that the best school for our daughter will be non-public, or out of state; but should she and we choose a Michigan public college, our financial burden is much smaller. Even people on the high end of the income scale can appreciate saving $40k over four years (the approximate current cost of tuition at Michigan).

The reaction from Portage government and school officials has been positive, as has been the reaction of other neighboring districts, as well as the parochial school systems in Kalamazoo. They recognize that an educated, economically strong Kalamazoo is in the area’s best interests. Michigan has, sadly, a surprisingly low percentage of the population holding a college degree. It’s widely agreed that there is ‘a strong correlation between overall academic achievement and a community’s economic vitality and quality of life’ (Kalamazoo Promise Questions and Answers). By giving this gift to all of Kalamazoo’s public school students, the donors behind the Kalamazoo Promise have made it possible for all of Kalamazoo and its neighbors to benefit.

[Thanks to Natalia for letting me know about Blog against racism day.]

Woohoo! Kalamazoo Public Schools to offer free college tuition

Kalamazoo offers free tuition:

ALAMAZOO, Mich., Nov. 11 (UPI) — Kalamazoo, Mich., has announced plans to pay tuition for any city public school graduate who attends a Michigan college.

The deal begins with the class of 2006, the Kalamazoo Gazette said. The Kalamazoo Promise announced Thursday by Superintendent Janice Brown would pay 100 percent of tuition for students who have been in the Kalamazoo schools since first grade with pro-rated amounts for all students who enter by the 10th grade.

Officials expect the tuition offer to reverse a slide in public school enrollment and to encourage families with school-age children to move to Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo Public Schools: The Kalamazoo Promise.

Answers to Questions on Unstructured Data

Answers to Questions on Unstructured Data asked by my friend Daniel Lemire for a course he’s teaching on IR and unstructured data. (I should have referenced Tim Converse‘s ‘Are you still working on that?’ essay, but it was unavailable today…)

Update:Tim says (writing from Seoul) that his weblog is available again, so his essay You still working on that?, which he wrote at Excite before it eventually became part of Yahoo, is, too.

Animated Atlas: Growth of a Nation

Adults can be retrained to learn second languages more easily, says UCL scientist

Adults can be retrained to learn second languages more easily, says UCL scientist (via Mirabilis.ca). This looks encouraging; still, it’s a small study–the study showed that a study of 63 Japanese ESL students were able to increase their perception of the r/l distinction in English by 18% after 10 sessions. Still, the r/l distinction is notoriously difficult (even native speakers of English end up going for ‘speech therapy’ to learn how to produce the r/l distinction). The researchers were trying to show plasticity in the brain’s ability in speech perception; of course, learning a second language is much, much more than sound production and recognition.

Trump University

So Donald Trump has started himself a university, and Roger Schank, who headed the Institute for the Learning Sciences when I was a grad student at Northwestern, is the Chief Learning Officer.

Roger writes an “occasional column” called “Educational Outrage. He talks about the press reaction to some comments he made about the pedagogy to be used at Trump University in Is Trump Academic?

One reaction from another grad (who will remain nameless):

I just took my degree from Northwestern out, and watched it for about a minute. I was sort of expecting it to fade into thin air, like in one of those movies about time travel…


Much fun about teaching English as a foreign language, as I did in a former life; including a bitter essay that pretty much explains why I stopped teaching EFL.

After the age of 40, English teachers are burnt-out, skill-less and unemployable, their working lives a wasteland, their future oblivion. Suicide attempts are not unheard of. A former colleague of mine, a charming and talented but fatally lazy Scotsman who was well on his way to drinking himself to death, was recently found in a pool of blood, having tried to finish himself off by slashing his wrists.

(via languagelog).