Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Great Spam Message

The spam filter on Blogger catches most of the spam messages posted to the comments, but I do get an emailed copy to see if they are real and should be posted. This one is certainly spam, but it's just too good to keep to myself. Check it out. In fact, read it out loud. It's like some brilliant nonsense poem. Paige's response: "Is that pro-piracy or against it?" I don't know. Maybe it's not really about piracy at all. Any interpretations?

"Resource, they fundamental to be taught that filing lawsuits is not the run to a precise piracy. Measure than, it's to develop something mastery than piracy. Like ingenuousness of use. It's even-handedly a fortuity easier to rush down the twist iTunes than to search the Internet with jeopardize of malware and then crappy sublimity, but if people are expected to a trough loads and linger yon seeing that ages, it's not paper money to work. They a guy be subjected to a low-lying on without note down unpropitious on people beget software and Springe sites that interchange it ridiculously fragile to picaroon, and up the quality. If that happens, then there in particular be no stopping piracy. But they're too prudent and appalled of losing. Risks fasten to be bewitched!"

Yes, that's an excellent reminder to us all; risks do, in fact, fasten to be bewitched.

Being Fair to Fair and Balanced Fox News

I was first exposed to the findings of a recent study about how Fox News viewers are more misinformed than those who get their news from other sources here. Obviously, the source,, a site advertising itself as "The Internet's Chronicle of Media Decay," might have reason to be biased against Fox, so I clicked on the link to the study itself (read about it here, complete with links to the whole study and its methodology, if you're interested). This was more balanced, in the sense that it paints a clearer picture of political bias based on party affiliation. Democrats were inclined to believe certain falsehoods, and Republicans were inclined to believe different ones. Still, the verdict on Fox News is not good. While other news sources believed things that were questionable, like the notion that the US Chamber of Commerce spent millions collected from foreigners on Republican candidates (something that's unknowable since donors identities are secret), viewers of Fox News believed a host of falsehoods at higher rates. Now, one can certainly quibble about which of these falsehoods is more significant. I was tempted to rush headlong into those tall weeds. But then I thought about my own motivation, and took a step back. Why does it bother me so much that people of both parties are willing to accept misinformation as fact? Is this intentional on the part of the media outlets, or is it a byproduct of telling one side of the story and letting people's biased imaginations fill in the gaps? And why should I spend my energy, at Christmas time no less, blasting a particular news outlet with whom I disagree.

Today I came across this piece from the LA Times (which had been published back on the 17th of December) and it answered one of my questions. Is the deception on the part of Fox intentional? Yes. As the article points out, a leaked memo from Fox's Washington editor, Bill Sammon, instructed his talking heads, not just the pundits but the reporters, to always refer to the "public option" as the "government option" or "government-run health insurance". Is that just spin in the opposite direction? Arguably so. But then he also sent this one: "We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." Now, that's not spin. As the Times piece points out, scientists and, well, any layman on the street or pundit behind a news desk, can dispute the interpretation of this data. Some can say it's part of a natural warming period unrelated to human action, and then try to explain why they know better than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Panel, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the 32 national science academies of various countries that have all concluded that the warming is real and is the product of human action. Sure, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists eventually came around to the same conclusion, and no scientific body of national or international standing now disputes this, but there are still individual scientists who do. Maybe all the big scientific organizations are wrong. It is possible. A person can dispute that. Of course, people have the right to stick their fingers in their ears and scream that the Earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese, the sky is purple with green polka-dots, and the government of Kenya is so advanced that they identified one newborn baby as super-human and sent him to Hawaii, complete with two false birth announcements in local papers, because they knew he would grow up to be the president of the Harvard Law Review, a dismal failure as a Congressional candidate, then a U.S. Senator, and then a secret spy who'd been elected President of the United States. People can choose to believe whatever the hell they want, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary. But if a source of news is going to intentionally misrepresent hard data rather than its interpretation, it should put that fingers-in-ears nutter on screen and call itself Batsh-t Crazy Network, or Intentionally Lying Network. But then, if it was the Intentionally Lying Network, it could call itself anything it wanted, right? It could call itself Fox News. And if people want to watch that, why should that bother me?

Of course, the pat answer is that those people vote, and their decisions affect me and the people I care about. Trite but true. I thought about railing in just that vein about the danger of a democracy in which a large percentage of the people choose to be willfully misinformed. But it was Christmas, a holiday amalgamated from the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule by Christians who couldn't stamp out all the pagan reveling, so they slapped their new name on it and called it theirs. And it's great. Not only do millions upon millions of Americans not know that the holiday is placed in the calendar out of cold, cynical calculation, or that the Bible never mentions 3 Kings from the Orient, not only do they not know why they have a tree inside their houses, or socks above their fireplaces, or a magical old man completely unrelated to the ostensible rationale for the holiday, but they don't care. And when I see my son's face as he reads the tag on the gift from Santa Clause on Christmas morning, I can't blame them at all. Christmas is wonderful.

And that brings me to my conclusion about Fox News: If people want to be deceived, if thinking about things as dour as Global Warming is too depressing, while feeling rage at the location of a Mosque in New York puts a special spring in their step, who am I to say they shouldn't be allowed that? We all have our delusions, and they help us get through the day. One of my favorite quotes comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, "If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." That is to say, I cannot say I currently believe something which I know to be false. But I could say I choose to watch Fox News and believe what I hear there, and it seems that's the same thing. Now, that's not to my taste for political reasons. Perhaps if there were a true alternative, a network which deceived me into thinking there is a brilliant and evil cabal making a coordinated effort to cause all the things I believe to be wrong in the world, and a countervailing band of equally brilliant but struggling grass-roots heroes who are fending off all the things that go bump in the night, perhaps I would choose to watch that. I love novels about great heroes standing up to the seemingly unassailable forces of evil, and I choose to read my politics into those just as I'm sure the other half of my fellow Americans read the opposite politics into them. And I pat myself on the back for really "getting it" just as they do. If the book is popular enough, both right and left can join together to create a great thwacking round of applause for ourselves. But to generate a similar sound in the genre of fake news we need different networks, and, despite missteps reported by the study, it's clear that the left has really failed in that it's taken to criticizing the right for factual errors, thus eliminating the possibility of truly competing in the field of fantasy journalism.

Let's be fair to Fox; they have figured out something the left just doesn't seem to get. People are not motivated by data. It does not get them to vote a certain way, to turn on a particular station, or to sit through a commercial. When I watch the news (which is increasingly rarely) or go to my computer to read it, I admit that I do it not because I want to find information, but because I want to feel informed. Those are not the same thing. I also want to find data to solve problems (or have the information to form opinions no one cares about but me, but that's the same motivation with a diminished result). News, if done properly, can fulfill these goals. But if I wanted to be scared? If I wanted to be angry? I could turn to the tepid network newscasts, with their own biases (NBC is owned by the world's largest arms manufacturer for godsakes, and ABC is owned by Disney) and be told that everything is basically fine as long as we keep buying more guns and going to Disneyland. How disappointing. Or I could turn to Fox News, learn about the vast left-wing conspiracy to make us all atheist cogs in a communist machine, and get really pissed off and have the bejeezus scared out of me.

Sure, it's partisan, but I don't think that's the end game. Back when I used to watch Fox News in an attempt to achieve some mythical balance in my viewing, one thing that struck me was how often Bill O'Reilly made explicit mention of his ratings. He didn't mention the number of Republicans in Congress, or the number of red states, or the statistics on church attendance half as often. Fox News, more than anything, is devoted to making people watch Fox News. They are very smart people, and know that calling yourself "Fair and Balanced" helps promote that goal, while actually being fair or balanced (which are not the same thing) would undermine it. And really, can you blame them? I'm not a big fan of romance novels, but I seriously doubt that, moments before the stud with the gleaming pects rips open the heroine's bodice, he addresses the reader with a reminder that the book is just a fantasy. Fantasy is the point.

So here's a Christmas toast to Fox News: Keep up the good work, liars. You make those of us who want to get our novels published jealous of your ability to peddle in fiction. Kudos. But stop leaking those memos. It's ruining the illusion.

And here's to those who purport to be real journalists: I see why you have been so tepid in your response to the dissembling on Fox News. Nobody likes the guy who sits in the dark theater during the horror movie and whispers, "It's not real, you know." But at some point the lie is a part of the story, and you have a responsibility to cover that, too, even if people find it boring at first. Because repetition works. Just ask Fox News. And at some point, people will start to get angry when any serious person quotes Fox News. And anger works. Just ask Fox News. In fact, I'll bet people would even sit through your commercials for luxury cars and Viagra just to see a really thorough, data-driven, "fair and balanced" smack-down of Fox. Or you could just put your fingers in your ears and scream that Fox News isn't actually deceiving anyone. Hell, that works for them. But if you decide to stay mum regarding the deceptions over at Fox News, don't let that memo leak out. It's embarrassing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, Everybody!

On a more festive note, here's the video Noah made today for his grandparents in Cincinnati. He did a pretty great job, I think. His dad, on the other hand, didn't figure out the settings on the camera until AFTER the video was completed, edited, and posted to YouTube, so you'll notice his amazing ability to read backwards, and you can practice by reading his shirt. Here's wishing you all a Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule, Solstice, Festivus, or whatever holiday you are enjoying around this time of year.

Teaching to the Test

Since it's Christmas break, I've had the luxury of embroiling myself in a couple minor online skirmishes regarding the state of public education. One friend wrote, "And don't get me started on teaching to the test!" I've written before about my ambivalence regarding testing. Tests are not all bad. They are a useful mechanism for a teacher to learn where his/her students are at regarding specific content. They are less effective at measuring the teachers of a large group of students, or of a whole school, or of an education system in general; you can only test what you can clearly define, and since we haven't agreed upon a succinct and measurable definition of "successful teacher" or "successful school" or "successful education system," all a test tells us is that kids did well on the test. The more pressure we put on that circular definition, the more we'll push teachers to become "successful" by getting kids to do well on the tests that define "successful".
It would be like me assigning you an 8 out of 10.
"I've tested you, and you scored an 8 out of 10. Not bad," I'd announce.
"At what?" you'd say.
"At getting an 8 out of 10."
"Well, I guess that's better than a 7 but not as good as a 9."
"Yes. You should work really hard at being a 9 out of 10."
"Okay, but at what?" you'd ask.
"At being a 9 out of 10."
"This seems a bit arbitrary."
"Just wait until I make your paycheck dependent on being a 9 out of 10 or better."
"At what?" you'd scream. But you'd work hard to get ready for that test, regardless of your thoughts about its validity, wouldn't you?

Christmas Break has also allowed me to step away from my classroom and think a bit more deeply about some other things I teach. I think about these while I play with action figures with my six-year-old. We've also been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies, which make me think of other books and movies, as you'll see. I find myself hoping his teachers do not limit themselves to the material on the tests. But then, how would I know? If their ratings are published, as the ratings of the teachers in the L.A. Unified School District were this last year, I'd only know how his teachers rated based on test scores. I thought about what he might miss if I could shunt him off to the teachers with the best ratings in such a system. This poem is my first draft of a conclusion:

Teaching to the Test

I am supposed to teach to a test
But I keep losing my way
And teaching other things.
I suppose I am the reason that public education is failing so miserably.
What if my poor students face lives filled only
With choices ranging between a,b,c, and d
And I’ve filled their heads with lessons like these?

Don’t read books just to find the right answers.
And don’t watch movies to find out what the books say.
That’s like a seventh grader asking out a girl
By passing a note to her best friend.
Movies often get the books wrong,
But books sometimes get life wrong
So make both and see if you can do better.

Fall in love.
It will hurt sometimes.
Maybe so much you’ll curse the stars.
But do it anyway.
Chance meetings can be the starts of great romances.
Of course, they can be the beginnings of horror stories, too.
That guy might be perfect for you
Or he might be a hundred-year-old pedophile with skin as cold as ice and a burning desire to drink your blood
Or maybe just knock you up on the honeymoon when you’re just eighteen.
That’s why you need to learn to read people as carefully as you read books.

Don’t shoot Mockingbirds
Or destroy innocence for no good reason.
If you see a mob with torches and pitchforks, don’t join in; you’ll regret it later.
Sometimes witches have the answers you need
If you have some leverage.
And others are beautiful women who want to keep you on their islands and pamper you for a while.
You should let them.
When you see a piece of cake and a note that says, “Eat me,”
You should.
But don’t break in and steal food from bears.
It’s unwise.

Rich people aren’t all evil and greedy.
Poor people aren’t all stupid and lazy.
Women are not weak, and if there is an alien on your spaceship you’d better be one.
Snap decisions and stereotypes kept our caveman ancestors safe from saber tooth tigers
But now, that categorical thinking mostly makes people look ignorant or worse.
Skin color doesn’t really tell you much about a person
But culture and religion and family history are important.
If you ignore them or disrespect them, you might end up
Getting crushed by a Golem
Or accidentally marrying your own mother.

Also, not all step-parents are evil
And if you obsess about them, it can turn out very badly
Especially if you are a prince in Denmark.

If you are the extremely jealous type
Or have a weak ankle
Or are missing one scale of your impenetrable hide
Don’t be too arrogant, because someone will figure out a way to exploit your weaknesses.

One king sacrificed his daughter in exchange for a safe journey
And his wife killed him when he got home.
More often, people sacrifice their marriages while they are away.
It can have the same result, so be careful.

You cannot love your children too much
Even if it means protecting them when it seems the world is a pointless place
So hold them close in the darkness
And keep them safe, even if you can’t see where you’re going.
But you can love them the wrong way
So don’t make their girlfriends sleep on 13 mattresses
And certainly don’t send their boyfriends on quests to get the Golden Fleece
Or any other twelve crazy tests
Because that will end very badly for you.

Sometimes the world will seem simply absurd.
Learn to laugh about it.
That way, when the world is about to be destroyed
You’ll know how to hitch a ride on a passing spaceship
Or at least have grace to say, “So it goes.”

You will face battles that seem insurmountable.
Sometimes the opposing army will be so great in number that you believe there is no hope
Or the evil you confront will seem too powerful to contend with
But if you draw your sword
Or wand
Or fill your sling with small stones from the riverbank
You may just find that your friends are better than you thought
Or that you have a strength that you didn’t know you possessed
Or you are raised up on the wings of eagles
Or the Dark Lord of the Sith is really your father
And used to be played by a far less intimidating actor
And can be redeemed in the end.
People can be redeemed in the end.
But there are times when your world will be filled with every kind of misery
And it’s best to clap down the lid on false hope and hide it in the jar you’ve been given
Because, in the last battle between the gods and the Frost Giants
The gods may lose.

You can leave home
And reinvent yourself
And despite what some people say, you can come home again.
But be careful what you become while you’re away
Because you could become your enemy
Or a sad, broken man staring across a lake at a green light
Or the ruler of a powerful empire
Whispering the name of a childhood toy.
So think about the way you want your story to end,
Revise your life story. Revise, revise, revise,
Pay attention to the way that it’s told,
And care for the other characters you include.
Because, whether you go away or not
There is a sea that can only be crossed once
And an undiscovered country
That cannot be mapped by any test.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Wall-E or 1984

What does this remind you of more: something out of Wall-E or 1984?

I'd ask if it's more absurd or tragic, but the clear answer is: Both.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Feeling a Bit Hopeless Today

After finishing Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Year of the Flood, I find myself running a bit low on hope.

Imagine a cult which has, for the sake of argument, 1000 members. These thousand people have come to believe that the world is going to end on December 6th of 2011, and their great Master Examplicon will call them all home to paradise in the form of poisonous kool-aid falling from the sky. They also believe that there will be signs which point to the coming of Examplicon, chief among which will be people getting hit by city buses. This happens rarely, but they take each instance as a proof. Then, as the date draws near, they decide that too few people are being hit by buses, so they take to jumping in front of them on a regular basis. Some 50 of their members die in this way. At this point, it becomes a hazard to everyone. We, as a society, not only decide they are a bunch of loonies, but that they are a danger to themselves and others. But they are firm in their faith, and go underground, waiting for the day. As a few more continue to pop up in front of buses, we try to convince them that they are crazy.

“Examplicon is not making this happen,” we say. “You are!”

“Prove it,” they say. “Only, don’t use science, as the Great Examplicon teaches us that science is a fraud. And don’t use logic, since we believe the supernatural trumps logic.”

“Don’t you see that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy?” we say.

“You are elitists who think you know better than we do because you went to fancy colleges.”

“But we didn’t. We went to colleges you’ve never even heard of. We didn’t get the highest SAT scores. We’re not super-scientists or world leaders. We’re just normal people who want you to stop jumping in front of our buses.”

“You are condescending. You think you know better than we do.”

We stare at our feet. “It’s not very flattering, but yes, we do think not jumping in front of buses is preferable to jumping in front of them.”

“You’ve just been duped by the liberal media, which paints our unusually high death rate by bus as some kind of fault in our religion.”

“No, they show you jumping in front of buses. We’re the ones who think that’s a bad idea.”

“See?” they cry. “They’ve tricked you and you don’t even know it.”

Exasperated, we feel guilty, especially the liberals among us, who would prefer to think of ourselves as open minded and tolerant of other people’s religions. But people keep getting injured when buses slam on their breaks, and people are traumatized when they see the cult members smashed bodies lying in the street. Not to mention the effects on the cult members themselves. It’s a bad situation. And it’s getting worse.

As the day approaches, the membership in the cult has dwindled, but not much, since all the victims on TV have convinced some new converts that these folks are really on to something. After all, they say more and more people will get hit by buses, and it sure seems to be the case if you watch the news.

Then, on the night of December 6th, 2011, the cult members come out of hiding and throw a big party in the ballroom of a hotel. The leader puts poisoned kool-aid in the sprinkler system, and when it rains down on the people, in the last minutes of their lives, they are certain that Examplicon has come for them, just like they’ve been told.

Now, what would you think of these people when you heard the story the next day on the TV, or read a long expose about it in Time Magazine? Be honest. Would you think they were crazy? Stupid? Deceived?

But what if the cult didn’t have 1000 members? What if it had a hundred million? And instead of jumping in front of buses, they believed plagues, famines, and natural disasters were the signs of the coming apocalypse? When a massive oil spill fills the gulf of Mexico, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When ice caps dry up, leaving people without fresh water, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When modern agriculture forces too many animals too close together near populated areas, creating new pandemics, they say, “See, that’s one of those plagues we’ve been warning you about.”

And even though scientists tell them these things are all the products of human activities, they say, “We don’t believe you.”

Or, imagine that, instead of believing the end of the world is coming in the form of poisoned kool-aid, they believe that democracy is coming to an end and the American government will fall. So they consistently vote for people who share this view, and those politicians actively work to make sure the government doesn’t get anything done. When popular legislation comes up for a vote, they filibuster it into oblivion, or load it up with so much pork it buries the country in debt. Then, these people say, “See? The federal government is bloated and ineffectual.”

“But the party you keep voting for is responsible for most of the pork, most of the corruption, and most of the inactivity of government.”

“Oh,” they say, “you’re just accepting that liberal media bias.”

“No,” we protest, “the candidate himself said he would vote against everything except tax cuts, higher defense spending, and pork for his district. That simply can’t be sustained. He kept quoting that Reagan line about government being the problem, and that Grover Norquist line about shrinking it until he drown it in a bathtub. He had no intention of governing wisely or well. And now the government is in shambles.”

“See? The federal government doesn’t work,” they say. “And, by the way, you’re a socialist.”

Like the cult members, there will be no moment of realization. When the devastation caused by global warming gets to be too great, in whatever form it ultimately takes, they’ll say, “People dying because of droughts or plagues or natural disasters… but it’s cold out today, so it’s not a global warming problem. You’re wrong. It’s just the end times.”

Or (who knows which will come first) when the Californication of the federal government is beyond repair, and the government can’t offer basic services because it refuses to tax the wealthy and can’t squeeze any more out of the poor, they’ll say, “See? This is what happens when you let a bunch of socialists have say in government and ignore the Constitution.”

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people lose their unemployment insurance, then their health care, then their social security, then their public schools, then their local fire fighters and police officers.

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people die in massive storms, or from a lack of fresh water, or in new wars over dwindling resources.

“I told you so” won’t make me feel any better, and besides, these people self-identify as deniers. They will refuse to see it anyway.

But I will be the old man who breaks a hip when the bus slams on its breaks. My son will be the young man who goes sliding up the aisle. And I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Performing School Reform Backwards

An anonymous poster has challenged my defense of school unions (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) in three separate posts, ad his/her arguments are worthy of a serious response. He/she has no qualms about calling me "whining" and "greedy", so I think it's a good thing the posts were anonymous, so I can avoid the temptation to return fire in kind. The poster makes some claims which I can agree with, some which need to be refuted, and poses a larger question that should be addressed.

First off, the poster claims that because teachers are fired at a much lower rate than other professionals, this proves teachers unions are an impediment to getting rid of bad teachers. This simply doesn't follow. I don't know about the situation where the poster lives, and I can't defend New York's infamous "rubber room" model, but where I teach the process to fire a teacher is pretty straight-forward. A teacher would need to be identified as under-performing by an administrator. This doesn't differ from the model in the private business world, where a boss would do an evaluation and tell an employee they need to improve to maintain their employment. Then, they would be put on what is called a "plan of assistance", in which the areas of improvement would be identified, and the teacher would have a chance to show that they have improved. If the teacher failed to improve, they would be fired. The union negotiates the mechanism by which this is to be done, but does not try to prevent it from being implemented. Teachers know we have under-performing teachers in our midst, and we know they make our jobs harder. Teachers compose the teachers unions. We want bad teachers out. The problem is that identifying bad teachers takes time. A round of bad test scores does not show that a teacher is ineffective. Perhaps the class had low skills to begin with. Just as in the private sector, a real performance review would have to be done to see if a firing would make the organization more efficient, or if it would just be a reaction to a hiccup in the market which has nothing to do with a particular employee and would thus make the whole school or company, less effective because of the loss of talent. But administrators rarely use this mechanism. Why not? Partly, it's because it takes so much time and energy. That's not the union's fault. Identifying the effectiveness of employees takes a lot of time and energy for private sector companies, too. But they do it, or they fail. So why don't administrators? I have a theory.

But before we get to that, the poster also defends our current grading system by saying that colleges need it, and regardless of the fact that grades might be inflated, grades show who the high performers in a class were. The problem with this is that it's simply not true. It might work, if all grades were inflated equally, but when they aren't, a college can't tell if one school's valedictorian will be as successful as another school's. The grades don't tell colleges or employers what a student is capable of doing. The poster challenges me to propose a better system. I can't claim to have thought of this myself, but I'm a firm believer in what is called proficiency based grading. Imagine a college (or the student's teacher the following year) looking at his or her B grade. That might mean 1) the student did 80% of the paperwork, regardless of how meaningful the work was, or 2) the student scored 80% on tests which are different from the tests given elsewhere or 3) the teacher liked the student, but not as much as the kid who got an A, or 4) the teacher had a recurring illness and the substitute gave everyone a B, or 5) something else which might be equally arbitrary. Proficiency based grading produces a report card that looks very different. It identifies specific skills. Then, the teacher assigns a score to each one (something along the lines of Exceeds, Meets, Not Yet Met). The list of skills is long and can be scaled up to match expectations determined by the state or even across the nation. Now the college or next teacher has a concrete idea of what that student can actually do. This certainly is more time consuming for teachers, but it also saves a lot of time in the beginning of instruction, when teachers have to figure out what kids are capable of doing again each year. What is the impediment to this system? If you give that long report card to parents, by and large they ignore all the skills their students have mastered, and all the ones they lack, and ask the teacher for a letter grade. Colleges, similarly, want a GPA, regardless of its meaninglessness, rather than discrete knowledge of specific skills. Identifying what kids can and can't do needs to be a serious part of any discussion about school reform. But blaming teachers unions is a lot easier.

The poster also makes reference to the tenure system. This is a common misconception, and comes from a confusion about teachers and college professors. Public school teachers, at least in Oregon, don't have anything called "tenure". For the first three years or employment, a teacher can be fired without any reason or explanation at all. That's called the probationary period. After that time, a teacher can be fired after going through that process I described above. Or they can be fired for doing something unethical. Those firings can take place whether a teacher has been teaching for four years or thirty-five. There is a lot of good research that shows that experience makes a huge difference in teacher quality. I can tell you, anecdotally, that I'm a hell of a lot better teacher now than I was during my probationary period. But the length of my service provides me no added protection if I were to slack off and stop providing my students with high quality instruction.

One area where the poster and I agree is that "teaching is extraordinarily difficult and there are lower barriers to entry." This is caused by a simple supply and demand problem. We need lots and lots of people to do something that we both recognize as extraordinarily difficult. But the poster is also opposed to paying teachers more money (we are "greedy", after all). So, what is the solution? We could raise the barriers to entry. I had to get a masters degree to get into teaching. I paid a ridiculous amount for that degree (much of which is my own stupid fault for believing that the quality of the degree and its corresponding respect from potential employers would be affected by the reputation of the extremely expensive private university I attended). I had to take expensive tests to get my license. And yet, there's good research that is leading some school reformers to believe that, after a certain point, a teacher's educational level and test scores have little bearing on their actual performance in the classroom. So if we can't adequately predict who will make a good teacher based on test scores or education, how can we put up higher barriers to entry? These barriers would keep good teachers out as well as bad ones, according to the current research, but would prevent us from meeting the needed supply. I don't have a magic bullet on this one. Free marketers would claim that more money would solve the problem, but clearly our economy cannot bear the weight of paying teachers like hedge-fund managers. So, how can we encourage our best and brightest to go into teaching? Some countries do this by making the profession highly respected. I'm not sure if that would work, and it would certainly take a while to make such a cultural change, but if we can agree that it's at least cheaper than trying to price good teachers into meeting the supply needs so that we can more easily afford to fire the bad ones, then blaming the problems of public education on teachers unions (teachers) is a really bad way to encourage anyone to go into the field.

Before I really get into the nitty-gritty, I have to address this claim, too: The poster thinks I'm "complaining about being paid more than your private sector counterparts for working 3/4 as much time (plus 2 fewer hours a day, at least) and having the opportunity to make even more working over the summer." This shows a wildly inaccurate conception of a teacher's hours. I was complaining that some ignorant people believe that teachers get lots of paid vacation, when, in fact, we are not paid for the summers or breaks during the year. I didn't say we didn't work during those times. Nor did I say we work two fewer hours per day than our private sector counterparts. I'm not sure where the poster is from, but I don't work forty hours a week, and just because I don't get paid during the summers or holidays doesn't mean I'm not working. For example, this summer I spent that time the poster believes I could have been working taking 9 graduate credits of continuing education. Taking graduate courses is required to maintain my license. When I wasn't in class, I was developing curriculum for my own courses. During the year, I spend exorbitant amounts of time grading after school and during "breaks". In fact, last year, while our school was under construction, I stepped out of my classroom on Christmas Eve and saw that the welders were hard at work on the beams that hold up the high school's new roof. For a moment, I took comfort that I wasn't the only one working at school on Christmas Eve. Then I realized that those guys were not only being paid, but were probably getting time and a half, maybe even double time. I was not being paid at all. Now, despite what some might think, I'm actually not whining. I used to work for Merril Lynch, selling stocks and bonds. I made a lot more money and worked a lot fewer hours in the private sector. And I hated it. I chose this profession, and I do it because I enjoy it, and I'm good at it. But please, please, don't believe for a minute that teachers work from the start of the school day to the end and that's it. In fact (speaking of low barriers of entry) the only person who dropped out of my masters cohort was the guy who realized just how many more hours he'd have to work to be successful in teaching than his job as a bank loan officer (where he made more money). One of the reasons teachers unions try so hard to negotiate for more pay is not because we're greedy, but because we want to be paid a fair hourly wage that corresponds to that of our private sector peers who work many fewer hours than we do. My first year (and the first year of teaching is, admittedly, and outlier because it's so difficult) I was working twelve hours a day almost every day, and when I calculated my hourly rate of pay it came to around eleven bucks an hour. Tell me a private sector employee with a masters degree putting in twelve hour days for eleven bucks an hour wouldn't be asking his boss for a raise.

Okay, now to the grand unifying theory that explains why teachers (good or bad) don't get fired, why we can't come up with a magic bullet for falling test scores and increasing drop out rates, why school reform is stuck in an intractable blame game: We don't know what we want teachers to accomplish. I can't take credit for this theory. It comes from a friend who teaches teachers at a Willamette University. In fact, I wouldn't be completely surprised if he didn't post the anonymous comments, playing up their aggressive tone and repeating arguments he knows to be baseless just to bait me into responding. Fine, Neil, I'll repeat your theory: We can't figure out how to fix our schools because we can't agree on what they're supposed to do. We can't determine which teachers are "good" or "bad" because we can't even agree on what they are supposed to do. The poster brings up the successes of students in India (an example I frequently cite in my classes to remind my students who they will be competing against). Is it my job to make my students as motivated as Indian students are when they walk through the door? Is it my job to make sure the students are as pressured by their parents as those Indian students, perhaps by calling parents and harassing them somehow? Should I focus all my energy on making sure my students can fill in the right bubbles on multiple choice tests which may have little or no relation to the kinds of tasks they will face in college or in the workforce? Should I teach them to be critical thinkers who refuse to evaluate themselves based on numbers handed down from the government? Should I make sure they can get into a prestigious university? Should I prepare them to be successful in blue collar jobs which might be vanishing before they graduate? Should I teach them my politics, my culture, or my religious preference? If not, am I inculcating them with my political, cultural, or religious values when I tell them that education is the key to success, or that work should be done on time, or that they should follow school rules? Should I teach them to respect authority by running my classroom in an authoritarian fashion, or should I adopt the "coaching" model and allow students to direct their own learning so that they learn autonomy? Should I teach them that money is how work is measured in our society and model this by leaving school when the contract day ends and refusing to work in the evenings or during the summer, or should I teach them that money and work are disconnected and undermine these future drivers of our capitalist system? Should I prepare them to take a U.S. history test written in Massachusetts or in Texas? Should I teach them to produce the kind of writing that actually gets printed, or to write in the formulaic way that gets a high score when it's graded by a computer program?

Without answers to these questions, we can't easily distinguish good teachers from bad ones, successful schools from failing ones, or even evaluate the success of the system as a whole. The poster argues that the "law of large numbers ensures that with appropriate statistical analysis it is entirely possible to measure the performance of individual teachers." This reminds me of the scene in The Hitckhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the universe's most advanced computer is asked the meaning to life, the universe, and everything, and responds with the answer "42". We could use statistical analysis if we understood the question, but there is no numerical measure for "good" or "bad", "successful" or "failing", when we can't even agree on what these terms mean.

So, dear poster, before you claim teachers (and you'll understand when I take that personally) have "failed America's students" and are responsible for "how much damage they have done to America's future due to their intransigent profligacy," I would expect that you have a bullet-proof and universally acceptable answer to the question of what we should be doing differently.

But if your answer is "Work harder for less and shut up," I hope you will reveal your name and some details I can use to personalize my next (far less polite) response.