A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cheating and Chutzpah, part 7: Oh. Good. Golly.

Ladies and Gentlemen! I think we have winner in the category of Absolute Gall in Cheating. Big props to commenter Exurban Mom for bringing this to my attention.

Brace yourselves:

A high school secretary illegally changed grades in a school computer system to improve her daughter's class standing, according to criminal charges filed Thursday.

Caroline Maria McNeal of Huntingdon is accused of using the passwords of three co-workers without their knowledge to tamper with dozens of grades and test scores between May 2006 and July 2007 at Huntingdon Area High School in central Pennsylvania, the state attorney general's office said.

McNeal, 39, is alleged to have improved her daughter Brittany's grades and reduced those of two classmates to enhance Brittany's standing in the 2008 graduating class.

School officials corrected the grades before the students graduated, prosecutors said.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said the case involves "a serious violation of the public trust."

"Our citizens depend on people in public positions, including school employees, to protect the safety and security of these records and not use confidential information for their own benefit," Corbett said.

McNeal was charged with 29 counts of unlawful use of a computer and 29 counts of tampering with public records. Each count is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine, said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for Corbett's office.

No telephone number was listed for Caroline McNeal. Brittany McNeal is not charged with any wrongdoing.

Jill Adams, the school district superintendent, said prosecutors have asked school officials not to comment publicly about the case.

"We would like to have it be finished, over and done," she said.

In all, McNeal is accused of altering nearly 200 scores and grades covering four school years.

The situation came to light in October 2007, when an employee of the high school guidance office discovered conflicting SAT scores for Brittany.

Scores provided directly by the College Board showed a cumulative score of 1370, while an unknown source had previously entered 1730, according to court papers.1

Further investigation revealed that the data had been entered from Caroline McNeal's computer starting more than a week before SAT scores for other students were entered.

Three other secretaries at the school told investigators they had shared their passwords with Caroline McNeal during vacations or other prolonged absences.

How many hands of people who know parents like this?

Of course, usually these people don't get the keys to actually do anything to interfere with the grades of their children. But I just want to say to people like these: "Ma'am, take a deep breath and step away from your child. They're not you, and you can't live through them."

Changing an SAT score from 1370 to 1730. Whew! Changing 200 grades!

You've got to feel for her poor daughter. But I especially feel for the other kids whose records she changed to help raise her daughter's standing. "Tampering" doesn't seem to cover it. I propose a new felony: Academic Assault.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Protecting the helpless

Remember hearing about the school that encouraged disabled students to fight each other in Texas? Here's another piece of the puzzle:
Nearly 270 employees were fired or suspended for abusing or neglecting residents of large, state-run institutions for the mentally disabled in Texas during the last fiscal year, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The revelations Friday come a day after Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation aimed at improving security and oversight at the 13 institutions, known as state schools. They are home to about 4,600 residents and more than 12,000 full-time employees.

Documents obtained by the AP through an open records request show that 11 of the 268 firings or suspensions were considered serious because they involved physical or sexual abuse that caused or may have caused serious physical injury. Employees may also be fired for a violation as mild as neglecting to protect a resident with mobility problems from stumbling into a wall. "I think what the number of firings and suspensions say is we do not tolerate abuse or neglect in our state schools," said Cecilia Fedorov, a spokeswoman with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the schools.
It was not clear Friday whether any of those fired were prosecuted. The Department of Family and Protective Services, which investigates allegations of abuse, notifies law enforcement officials about any deaths, alleged sexual assaults, serious physical injuries or incidents involving children. But the agency does not track what happens once police or sheriff's deputies get involved, spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities said Perry's legislation doesn't go far enough to protect state school residents. "Why is it that residents in state schools are somehow valued less than other citizens?" asked Dennis Borel, the coalition's executive director. "This speaks to me of a widespread, systemic problem, and personally I don't believe this can be fixed."

Defenders of the state schools include the Parent Association for the Retarded of Texas. Susan Payne, the organization's vice president, said her 47-year-old sister, Dianne, has been well served in the 37 years she has lived in state schools. "The medical care is unbelievable. She is alive because of the schools," Payne said. "These numbers and these reports make the places sound like hellholes, and that is just not what we see."

Perry declared state school reform a legislative emergency during the most recent session. State lawmakers reached a five-year, $112 million settlement with the Justice Department that documented widespread mistreatment of residents and alleged their civil rights were violated. The state will spend $24 million in each of the next two fiscal years to meet the terms of the settlement, which call for each school to have an independent monitor. Lawmakers also have provided funding for hiring nearly 3,000 additional employees.

The agreement resulted from a series of federal investigations that found that at least 53 deaths from September 2007 to September 2008 were from conditions the Department of Justice considered preventable, such as pneumonia, bowel obstructions or sepsis, indicating lapses in proper care. Nearly 1,100 employees have been suspended or fired in the last five fiscal years for mistreating, neglecting or abusing residents, according to state records. The fiscal 2008 figures are the most in any of those five years.

I'm sure this problem is not just limited to Texas. But what a tragedy!

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hunger strikes at LAUSD

The California meltdown continues to pile up its casualty lists. And some teachers have gone on hunger strike:
Sean Leys sat huddled and still in a tent on a sidewalk outside of a Los Angeles middle school, fatigued by an ongoing hunger strike but resolved to protest looming teacher layoffs. The longtime English teacher, holding a biography of labor-rights leader Cesar Chavez in his lap, was camped outside John H. Liechty Middle School with about 20 colleagues, an occasional motorist honking a horn in support of their cause.

While he may avoid a pink slip, thousands of his teacher colleagues in Los Angeles will not. By next school year, 2,100 city teachers are slated to lose their jobs — a 5 percent hit to the nation's second-largest school district. Worse still, Leys said, is that the layoffs are concentrated in some of the city's grittiest neighborhoods. Los Angeles Unified's inner-city schools have higher turnover and tend to hire more new teachers, and state education code mandates that layoffs be issued based on seniority. "This is about civil rights and education for inner-city children," Leys said.

School districts across the nation are facing similar financial crunches, but many have avoided painful layoffs with the help of federal stimulus funds. California, however, is mired in a budget crisis and, despite the influx of federal money, is still moving to lay off thousands. The National Education Association estimates that some 34,000 teaching jobs will be eliminated this year. California — with Los Angeles Unified in the lead — faces the largest loss of nearly 18,000 teachers. The city's schools have roughly 40,000 teachers. Some inner-city middle and high schools could lose up to 40 percent of their teachers, according to an analysis by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

By contrast, many schools in the district's more affluent areas, such as the San Fernando Valley suburbs, will be less affected because only up to 10 percent of their teachers are new, the analysis found. At schools such as Liechty, located in gang-riddled central Los Angeles, more than half the teachers are losing their jobs. Their classrooms will be filled by transferred senior teachers and administrators whose positions were eliminated. Administrators say layoffs are spread throughout the district, but Liechty has a large number because it opened in 2007 and was filled with new hires. District officials acknowledge staff turnover is a problem at certain schools and that layoffs will cut into the hires — including those who request to work in urban areas — that the district has worked hard to recruit in recent years.

Teachers who lose their jobs can join the substitute pool and are placed on the re-employment list, officials said. "Our hope is to keep them involved in the system," said Vivian Ekchian, the district's chief human resources officer. Until the district finds the money to rehire the teachers, students will find themselves in bigger classes this fall. Critics of the layoffs say the district's newer teachers bring sorely needed enthusiasm to the problem-plagued campuses, as well as new teaching methods and ideas.

Many of the district's newer hires are also minorities who can relate to the majority of the district's 650,000 students. "I share a lot of my life with my students," said Christian Aguilar, a Liechty seventh-grade math and science teacher who's facing layoff. "I tell them there's an opportunity for you to grow up and get out of here. I tell parents I want their kids to get out of here. I can only hope I made an impact on some of them." Aguilar grew up blocks from the school and shows students the scar on his neck, where he was slashed by a drug dealer, to underscore that he knows firsthand what their lives are like.

Students said they like the empathetic ear that the younger teachers can provide. "They're easy to talk to," said Marilyn Ann Flores, an eighth-grader at Liechty. "They understand you. It wasn't that long ago that they were teenagers. They tell us their background. Some teachers went through the same things we're going through. We see if that person made it, we can, too."

School board member Marlene Canter said the experienced teachers and administrators who will fill the gaps after the layoffs are also capable of motivating children. What's really needed, she said, is a way to reward higher-performing teachers and a simpler process to weed out poor ones. "Just because you're a senior teacher doesn't mean you're a bad teacher, or if you're a younger teacher, you're automatically good," she said.

Leys, a 10-year teaching veteran at Lincoln High School near Liechty, said the hunger strike, which started May 27, has cost him a pound a day from his already thin frame. But he appeared determined to continue his protest.
"In these neighborhoods, schools are life or death for a lot of these kids," he said. "It's the inequity of how these layoffs are being done. It's frustrating."

I heard that Lays recently relented on his hunger strike. I hope no one makes the sarcastic assumption that this means they should expect teachers to live on starvation wages.

I really don't think the issue is new teachers versus old teachers. I've seen some pretty bitter newbies, and I've seen some pretty enthusiastic veterans. I think the issue is a flat refusal to understand that -- listen up, voters-- there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, which my favorite author Robert Heinlein referred to as TANSTAAFL. Until people realize that taxes actually buy good things like good schools and good roads, this kind of problem will continue, but especially in La-La Land, brought to you thanks to Proposition 13.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

University presses serve a definite purpose

This is a shame.
Chancellor Michael Martin doesn't question the prestige the Louisiana State University Press brings to his school, with Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction and poetry, tomes on Southern history and culture and other noted works to its credit.
What it doesn't bring in is revenue, and like cash-strapped colleges across the country, LSU is getting tired of propping up its press.

The school has said the 74-year-old original publisher of "A Confederacy of Dunces" doesn't generate enough money to independently function. LSU officials are considering downsizing it or closing it as they face state budget cuts that could surpass $40 million at the Baton Rouge campus alone.

"We allocated $500,000 of university money to the press in the last fiscal year. They spent $1.4 million," Martin said last week. That type of subsidy cannot continue, Martin said. Other schools have reached the same conclusion.

Utah State University Press narrowly escaped the chopping block this year. Eastern Washington University Press is being phased out as that school copes with budget cuts. Even the most prestigious presses are feeling the pinch: Yale University Press reported in March that revenue was down nearly 8 percent, and the State University of New York Press announced five layoffs in December.

"They're all getting hammered," said Peter Givler, director of the American Association of University Presses, which announced earlier this month that it would work with the heads of LSU's business, communication and history departments to help develop a new business model that could keep the institution alive.

Al Greco, vice president of the Institute for Publishing Research in Bergenfield, N.J., said university presses face many of the same problems as commercial publishers, primarily that adults spend fewer hours reading and more time with television and the Internet. Complicating the problem for university presses, he said, are higher costs and a shrinking customer base. For instance, public and school libraries are buying fewer copies of university press publications because of declining readership and tax revenue.

Givler refused to speculate on what a new business model for LSU might entail but said any ideas will require a tighter budget. He said they also could involve new technologies, including e-books. However, Greco, cautioned that building a broad archive of digital titles is difficult and expensive.

Greco said some struggling university presses have explored forming regional consortiums for publishing or distribution. Other possible strategies could include trimming the number of new publications each year, seeking grants for publishing books in specific fields of research and charging nonrefundable fees for reading works submitted for publication. He also said university presses may need to recruit personnel from the world of profit-making commercial publishing.

One way or another, university press operations are having to prove their worth to their institutions, said Kate Wittenberg, a former editor-in-chief of Columbia University Press who is now a project director with Ithaka, a nonprofit group that assists in academic research and archiving.

"I don't know whether university presses are being used as 'bargaining chips' in budget cut battles," Wittenberg wrote in an e-mail. "However, I will say that it is probably easier for a state legislator to accept cutting a press's budget than, say, cutting funding for the school's English department."

LSU Press director Mary Katherine Callaway said she believes the press' value to the university is evident in its four Pulitzer-winning works, 240 other awards and in the 75 to 85 new titles it publishes each year.

"It's really easy, I think, to point at the numbers and get really wrapped up in those, and I'm not saying that numbers are not important," Callaway said. When it comes to status symbols like having an in-house press, however, sometimes the question isn't cost but value, she said.

News of LSU Press' possible demise sparked letters to Martin and Gov. Bobby Jindal from the American Historical Association and the Modern Languages Association. And it has fueled long-standing debates over the relative importance universities place on athletics. Ted Genoways, editor of the University of Virginia's literary journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review, calls the LSU Press one of the best university publishers in the nation. Losing the press and its literary publication, the Southern Review, would tarnish LSU's image, he said.

"Do you want to be known as some place that supports the history and culture of your region or some place that has fantastic outside linebackers?" Genoways said.

Martin countered that LSU's moneymaking athletic program subsidizes some academics. "In some respects," Martin said, "the press has been saved by the outside linebackers — up to this point."

I think I know the answer to that question, at least to most LSU fans. It would be "Save the linebackers!" And I'm NOT just kidding.

But seriously, I remember reading A Confederacy of Dunces for the first time about twenty years ago. It was provocative, and it was easy to see why it would have trouble finding a home among mass-market publishers. Many if not most of my favorite non-fiction books have been the products of university presses: Oklahoma, LSU, and Oxford in particular. They definitely serve a purpose in the publishing world.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Charter results: I wonder what this means?

Are charter schoolsall that they cracked up to be?
On average, charter schools are not performing as well as their traditional public-school peers, according to a new study that is being called the first national assessment of these school-choice options. The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, compared the reading and math state achievement test scores of students in charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia--amounting to 70 percent of U.S. charter school students--to those of their virtual "twins" in regular schools who shared with them certain characteristics. The research found that 37 percent of charter schools posted math gains that were significantly below what students would have seen if they had enrolled in local traditional public schools. And 46 percent of charter schools posted math gains that were statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their traditional public-school companions. That means that only 17 percent of charter schools have growth in math scores that exceeds that of their traditional public-school equivalents by a significant amount.

In reading, charter students on average realized a growth that was less than their public-school counterparts but was not as statistically significant as differences in math achievement, researchers said.

"We are worried by these results," Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO and lead author of the report, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, said at a news conference. "This study shows that we've got a 2-to-1 margin of bad charters to good charters."

Charter schools, free public schools that operate under their own mandate ("charter") rather than the overall district policies, are a staple of education reform agendas across the United States. Supporters say they improve public education by giving parents options and forcing schools to compete for students. The Stanford report already is riling up these schools' most ardent advocates.

The Washington-based Center for Education Reform disputed the findings, saying that they're based on uncorrelated variables, contradictory demographics, and a virtual methodology. The organization said that comparing the test scores of charter-school students to their "virtual" peers in regular public schools--students who match the charter students' demographics, English language proficiency, and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs--is simplistic and is a fundamental flaw in the research because no two students are the same.

"More than 16 years of charter school research and analysis from CER shows that charter schools are outpacing their conventional public school peers with fewer resources and tremendous obstacles," the nonprofit group said in a news release.
The CREDO report identified five states--Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, and Missouri--where charter schools had significantly higher learning gains than traditional schools. But the report contended that if charter schools are to flourish, their supporters must be willing to establish accountability in exchange for flexibility. The reluctance to close underperforming charters because of powerful community supporters hurts students and reflects poorly on charter schools as a whole, the report said.

The research comes on the heels of a recent pledge by President Barack Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, to use $5 billion of the $100 billion in federal stimulus funds for education to press states on charter schools. "States that don't have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application" for federal grant money, Duncan said in a call with reporters last week. Currently, 10 states lack laws that allow charter schools, and 26 others cap their enrollment.

The Stanford report may offer some encouraging news for charter schools: Students in poverty and English-language learners outperformed their public-school peers in both reading and math. However, learning gains for black and Hispanic charter-school students were significantly lower than those of their traditional-school twins. But critics said those results demonstrated the flaws in the Stanford research: The overlap between low-income/English-learner students and black/Hispanic students is so great, CER said, that it should be impossible to get such contradictory results.

One thing that has always seemed illogical about charter schools is this: If allowing some public schools to opt out of some regulations is good for some, why isn't it good for all? But apparently that's not exactly the right question, according to this story. Perhaps the right question is this: Do those regulations that charter schools get to evade actually serve a purpose?

I will tell you that in MY neck of the woods, there have been some spectacular charter school flame-outs. And that's very distressing. Any school that fails represents failure for hundreds of people.

Ultimately, there is of course no magic bullet. It would be nice if we realized that, in no particular order, schools PLUS educators PLUS students PLUS parents all have their parts to play in improving the education provided.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

And, furthermore, there's this:

Speaking of unethical people....
A suburban Atlanta principal who resigned during an investigation into cheating on students' standardized tests was arrested Friday and accused of altering public documents. The school's assistant principal also turned herself in to local police Thursday night in a case that the head of a state teacher's group described as rare. School officials allege that the two changed answers on fifth-grade standardized tests to improve scores and help their school meet federal achievement standards. Former Dekalb County principal James Berry was arrested at his home on charges of altering public documents, a felony. His assistant principal Doretha Alexander faces the same charges.

Berry, the former principal of Atherton Elementary, left the county jail Friday evening without commenting to reporters gathered outside. A jail official said his bond was $15,000. Alexander was released earlier Friday on $1,500 bond.

A state investigation released last week found that student scores on state math tests were altered at four schools in the state, including Atherton, in an effort to boost those schools' performance. Officials do not believe students were involved. Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said this is the first time he's heard of teachers or administrators being arrested for such offenses.

"This is one of the worst academic offenses an educator can do or be accused of because it messes with a child's future," Hubbard said.

An administrative probe into the matter by DeKalb County Schools revealed that Berry was involved in altering the tests, said district spokesman Dale Davis. He said the district is still investigating Alexander, who has been reassigned. Davis released a statement Friday saying the school district was surprised at the arrests and had not been notified beforehand. It was not immediately clear whether Berry or Alexander had a lawyer. DeKalb County Chief Assistant District Attorney Don Geary said he expects the investigation to be turned over to his office in the next few days so a decision can be made on formal charges. Berry resigned last week, while Alexander was reassigned by district officials. Messages left at each of their homes Friday were not immediately returned.

The arrests follow a state audit that "showed very clearly that someone had intentionally changed students' answers on those tests," said Kathleen Mathers, spokeswoman of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. The resulting higher scores helped four schools meet standards and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Schools that don't meet standards under the law must offer extra tutoring and allow parents to transfer their children to higher performing schools. The audit found the answer sheets of the altered tests had up to 40 erasures, compared with the average of two per student on other answer sheets. Most of the answers were changed to make them correct.

Tests from schools in three other systems are also under review.

Nice. Although this isn't the first time we have heard of instances like this, it IS the first time I heard of people being arrested.

Well, I'm sure it's all just a "mistake," or "misunderstanding" (sarcasm alert for those who didn't read my previous post). Who wants to bet that those terms will crop up somewhere in relation to this incident?

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Friday, June 19, 2009

The cant of cheating and judging

(Editor's note: Commenters Kim and Cynthia swiftly identified the picture at the left as Diogenes weary after searching for an honest man. Kudos!)

You know, I am a vocabulary nut. My love affair with words is longstanding. Some words are just cool to say or read. "Lethargy!" "Antediluvian!" "Mesozoic!" "Obfuscate!" "Empiricism!" "Ontological!" "Eschatology!" "Disingenuous!" All just fascinating words!

Another word I like is "cant." For such a short little word, cant has several meanings. Three of them occurred to me as I meditated further on cheating and American society.

One meaning of cant is a "slant" or "slope." Another meaning of cant is "the particular language or vocabulary of a certain group or used in a certain field of study." A third meaning of cant is "insincere talk about religion or morals." When we have talked about cheating and plagiarism, all three of these definitions of cant have been demonstrated.

My previous posts (here, and here, and here) about grading and plagiarism have generated some commentary in the Edusphere, which is a very good thing, regardless of your beliefs about these two issues. Some of that commentary has been in my comments section, and some has been on other's blogs. All cool! Everyone has certainly had their own slant or bias or agenda, including me. That suggested the first definition of "cant." But I find the consideration of the second and third definitions of "cant" in all of these discussions most fascinating. Some of the words that have been utilized in the cant of this discussion have included "ethics," "right," "wrong," "judgment," "punishment," mistake," "responsibility," "cheating," "theft," "punitive," "behavior," "rants," and "tolerance." I would like to meditate upon some of these words, and their meanings and contexts within this discussion of academic honesty, with a brief side-trip to grading policy, but focusing primarily on the use of particular vocabulary and upon morality.

Some would say that our society does tolerate cheating and plagiarism. Perhaps I understand the word "tolerate" differently than others, but to me, "tolerate" has an implication of acceptance. I find this concept -- um, ha-ha-- unacceptable. (Ba-doom ching!)

There are many problems I see with tolerating plagiarism, a behavior which I believe prevents our students from learning as surely as being unable to read does. But there are two separate questions being muddled together here.

From its inception, this discussion has had two very distinct parts: there is an ETHICAL part (Is cheating acceptable? If not--apparently a big IF-- what is our proper response to discourage such behavior?) and there is an ASSESSMENT part (what factors should be counted in grades?), which I think the previous comments have already addressed thoroughly if not completely satisfactorily. But right now let's deal with ethics, which is that field of philosophy which deals with determining right and wrong in the broadest application (a subfield known as metaethics,) and how to create standards of ethical behavior (a subfield known as normative ethics), and then specifically how to apply those standards to specific fields such as abortion, or animal rights, or even education (a subfield known as applied ethics).

Ethically, I believe that there is no such thing as a "tolerable" amount of cheating or lying. I often hear as a defense from students and parents that,

"Everyone does it." Or, "Everyone cheats."

Many of us refuse to get sidetracked or deign to respond to the obvious untruth of that statement, but I wonder if we should be so unconcerned as to let it pass unchallenged? Let me just point out that the addition of one brief adjective phrase to that statement WOULD actually make it true:

"Everyone who is unethical cheats."

Further, I would also posit a further statement, using my understanding of the word "tolerate" as defined above:

"Everyone who tolerates cheating is unethical."

These are harsh words, yes. They are definitely judgmental words. But ethics and morality is about judgment. Period. And see the third definition of "cant" again. Now judging right and wrong behavior is certainly not without controversy-- to quote part of one of my favorite lines of one of my favorite movies, "Ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?" Not to mention Diogenes, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, and Friedrich Nietzche, the king of ethical relativism, who would oppose my two statements above and claim that morals and ethics are completely individual constructs-- which in my mind is a way of saying that whatever one can get away with, one can claim is good.

That's basically the starting position of those who claim that "Everyone does it." Besides that mind-whirring brief spin into ethical philosophy, I also believe that people who say such things are disingenuous at best. Once one posits that some cheating is acceptable or some lying is acceptable, where exactly does one draw the line? They are claiming that cheating is acceptable, but we all know that that applies only if THEY are not the ones being harmed by being themselves cheated.

In fact these people are usually the first ones to start screaming if they believe that something that happens to them is "Not fair!" It is the rare person indeed who cheats AND accepts that they will be cheated as well. I don't think that Nietzsche himself would have been so accepting.

But besides that, very seriously, my stance is that cheating and stealing actually DOES harm the person doing the cheating or stealing or plagiarizing. I will explain this now.

On the behavior side in the specific example of education, how does anyone expect students to learn and improve if they do not do their own work, and if they do not understand that there are consequences for choosing not to learn by stealing someone else's work? Choosing not to learn is a behavior, admittedly, but one which I would like to think we would actually seek to discourage in students. Choosing not to learn certainly has severe consequences for society as a whole. (And back to the grading and teaching part of this discussion, for those who say we should not judge-- whether we like it or not, every assessment is a judgment, in the broadest sense of the word.) We teachers (and parents, and adults) are in the business of informing, and of judging. "Informing" can here mean "providing knowledge," "shaping," and "guiding." Here I use the term "judging" in the evaluative sense of the word. When adults abdicate their very real responsibility to judge and to correct, we leave our students adrift and unable to determine how to help themselves and how to discipline themselves.

I have heard some say that we should understand that "everyone makes mistakes." True enough. But a mistake is something a reasonable and sane person tries to avoid. Mistakes are rooted in inattention, not deliberation.

Plagiarism and cheating are not mistakes but deliberate acts. Unless what one means by "mistake" is "what I call a bad action when I get caught, hopefully to deflect blame." Perhaps the mistake is in the getting caught. Hmmm. Depressingly cynical and nihilistic.

But let's pretend that we were to classify plagiarism or cheating as a "mistake." Just because something IS a mistake, doesn't mean there are not consequences for that mistake. Mistakes do not exist in a vacuum. A pitot tube in an Airbus aircraft is not replaced when it has been recommended-- serious consequences may have occurred due to that mistake. A pilot mistakenly misreads the altimeter-- there can be serious consequences for that mistake. A driver takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone as she is passing a bicyclist-- there can be serious consequences for that mistake. An overworked federal inspector misses evidence of salmonella in one of the hundreds of peanut processing plants he is charged to inspect-- there are consequences for that mistake.

We are deluding ourselves if we think the band-aid word of "mistake" should mean that there is no consequences or no responsibility. This touches upon "cant" in both its second and third meanings which I listed at the start of this post.

There are plenty of things in this world that are mistakes. But deliberately choosing to steal someone else's ideas --or possessions-- is not a "mistake." It is not an "accident." It is a deliberate choice which harms not only the person whose ideas were stolen, but also, in the case of academic plagiarism, harms the students who have plagiarized, because they have also deliberately chosen not to learn the information or skill that the plagiarized assignment was supposed to demonstrate. Cheaters hurt themselves. And how can anyone who cares about students stand idly by while they hurt themselves or deny themselves an education?

Now let's move away from plagiarism and cheating for a moment, and to a general discussion of the cant of our discussion about grading. I am also troubled by anyone, on either side of the grading debate, who views grades as punishment. One thing I think we all should be able to agree about is that grades should be assessments, and it is obvious that one of the goals of those who seek to refine grading systems is that they want to make grades less subjective and more objective-- admirable on the surface, if not a bit unrealistic, but let's leave that aside. I am mightily troubled by students who don't earn the grade they "wanted" to then claim that they are being "punished." Talk about a subjective response! THEY are not being punished-- their WORK and their UNDERSTANDING are being assessed -- and here's the kicker--so that improvement can be made.

For instance, student A performs at an acceptable level throughout the semester. A's work is not outstanding, but it is acceptable, although A is capable of outstanding work. When the teacher conferences with A about A's demonstrated performance periodically, the teacher suggests various strategies and skills that the student could avail herself of in order to raise her mastery of the information/skill-- and therefore, her assessed grade. Student A does none of these things-- but at the end of the semester claims that she is being punished by not being "given" an outstanding mark. The words in quotation marks are all a part of the cant that is used to imply that grades are not the result of assessment but are merely punishments generated external to any actions or behaviors on the part of the student.

I see this far too much, sadly. I unfortunately hear a lot of this same kind of reasoning of those who think that any time a student doesn't get the grade they "want," they are being "punished." Punishment in this instance is of course used in an extremely pejorative sense. This kind of displacement of responsibility serves no one in our society, but most especially it does a disservice to our students. In this line of reasoning, grades are "given" to them or they "happen," rather than being an assessment that has been earned and produced and demonstrated by the students themselves.

Students, parents, and administrators all too often focus on the "grade" but ignore the learning --or lack thereof --that that grade is meant to assess, and forget that the purpose of that assessment is to provide the opportunity to improve learning and therefore performance and skill level-- oh, and, correspondingly, of the grade. They are now abdicating their responsibility in the learning process-- and what a horrible idea to implant in our students' minds! Just like most of Western society, there is a logical consequence to this line of faulty reasoning--those who believe this don't want honesty, they want manipulation. They don't want to improve their understanding or skill acquisition, they simply want an empty credential. Students "want" grades, but earning them? Far more difficult. Students "want" to graduate, but earning that? Far more difficult, as well. Let's be honest: the current discussion about drop-out rates in American schools usually talks about wanting everyone --EVERYONE-- to graduate, which is a far more simplistic goal than expecting that everyone who graduates should meet certain standards of knowledge. These are two far, far different things-- there's a canyon of difference between them. Could it be that exactly this kind of thinking is a very large part of the current crisis in American education regarding achievement and assessment and opportunity?

I am appalled some of this same kind of reasoning from education professionals who advocate changing the grading system so that refusal to complete assessments, or refusing to do them in a timely manner, or refusing to do one's own work, is thought of as an anomaly that just somehow "happens."

And although the discussion of grading per se has nothing to do with this point, let's return to an ethical consideration of what to do when confronted by these kinds of behavior. I wish to address the issue of age of accountability or maturity in determining consequences-- ANY consequences!-- for misbehavior. Let's consider character education, a trendy term that is batted around in far too cavalier a manner, in my opinion.

Granted, our students are --usually-- not adults (my high school, and most everyone's, does have a population of those who have reached legal majority, but that is another problem). But they are not infants, either, and they do need to take responsibility for their deliberate actions. This needs to be a gradual process beginning in their earliest years, even before they come to school. By the time someone is in middle school, they need to understand that there are some choices they have, that they are responsible for those choices. This is an empowering concept, not a punitive one!!!! It can, unfortunately, also lead to negative consequences when they choose unwisely. But the purpose of those consequences is to help the child make the better choice the next time they have the opportunity. This is also not "punishment." This is the way in which one learns to become a upright human being and citizen.

We do not "punish" students as we "punish" adults. Adults who cheat and steal (if we agree that we should not tolerate this behavior in the first place) receive consequences of fines, legal adjudications, and possibly jail time. And I wonder how many of those adults that do get caught cheating and stealing started out with cheating and stealing in school, and then being tacitly encouraged to roll the dice to try it again-- on the chance that a) they won't be caught most of the time (probably true, but irrelevant to our thought experiment here) and b) that they would receive no consequence to deter them from such self-destructive behavior?

By the way, since we are talking about grading, extra credit for anyone who takes the trouble to find out what the meaning is of the picture at the top of the post, and its application to our discussion. I'll post a congratulatory note identifying you in a revision to this post at the top, even!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Whither gym class?

Gym classes seem to be a thing from the past:
The gym at Eberhart Elementary School is bright and spacious — with high ceilings, several basketball hoops, even a large, colorful climbing wall. But for much of the day, the gym doubles as a cafeteria where the school's 1,800-plus students are offered breakfast and lunch.

There's another gym on the fourth floor, but it's so old it has basketball hoops attached to ladders. Time and space limitations mean each class gets physical education just once a week for 40 minutes. In the fight against childhood obesity, getting kids moving is one of the most effective ways to combat the problem. But only Illinois and Massachusetts require P.E. classes for all kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. And, as Eberhart's example shows, even those requirements sometimes are not enough. "I understand the funding issue. I understand the space issue," said Betty Hale, one of two P.E. teachers at Eberhart. But "our children are getting shortchanged."

Illinois first adopted P.E. requirements in 1915, and the state has been mandating phys ed for all grades since 1957. But those rules have not prevented Illinois kids from getting heavier. An estimated 20.7 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois are obese, according to a 2007 survey released last month by the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. That's the fourth-highest rate in the country, behind only Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky. Nationwide, an estimated 32 percent of American kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight, including 17 percent who are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Illinois mandates gym class but does not have a standardized P.E. curriculum, meaning what counts as phys ed can vary widely. For instance, kids at Eberhart on Chicago's West Side play kickball once a week in a cluttered, 100-year-old gym. Meanwhile, students in suburban Niles are high jumping in a gym that includes a weight room with better equipment than some health clubs. The state does not monitor schools to ensure they are meeting the daily P.E. requirement, and there are no penalties for not doing it. The Illinois General Assembly even gives waivers to districts that have financial issues or want more classroom time.
But it's the health of the kids that tells the full depth of the problem.

When Hale arrived at Eberhart 10 years ago, most kids could run a mile in 13 or 14 minutes. Now only a few can. At Louisiana State University in New Orleans, professor Melinda Sothern sees children at the school's Health Sciences Center with a range of related problems more typical of adults: high cholesterol, diabetes, muscular-skeletal disorders. "What really hurts me is they never have that euphoric feeling I had as a child of riding their bike down the street. They just don't have the stamina to do it," said Sothern, a former gym teacher.

Physical fitness "is just so not valued today. And it's what would turn this thing around." Health experts recommend 30 minutes of daily physical education for elementary school students, and 45 minutes for those in junior high and high school. But in a recent CDC study, less than 4 percent of elementary schools, less than 8 percent of middle schools and just over 2 percent of high schools required daily P.E. for all students for the entire school year.

At Eberhart, the weekly 40-minute period passes quickly. By the time a class of fifth-graders settled down and did their warm-up calisthenics recently, more than five minutes had passed. It took another five minutes for Hale to split the class into teams and give them a quick refresher on how to play kickball, and there were still more interruptions during the game to explain the rules. With no money for new equipment, the kids use a ball worn to the point of crumbling, and the floor is soon strewn with little bits of yellow foam. The wooden pins for bowling look like something out of the school's time capsule. The facilities are lacking as well — and not simply because the one gym can only be used part-time. Hale's classes were kicked out of the older gym the previous week because of a space camp, and leftover garbage still cluttered one corner: two black plastic bags stuffed to the brim, a blue plastic barrel, a Styrofoam cooler and two cardboard boxes — one with a crumpled Doritos bag inside.

Having P.E. "even twice a week would make a world of difference," Hale said. "These kids need to move. Exercise is just as important as sitting down and learning their math, their science, their reading." Some educators complain that physical education — along with art and music — has been squeezed out by No Child Left Behind, which prods schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students. With annual math and reading tests, many schools are trying to find extra teaching time wherever they can. But doing it at the expense of physical education is misguided, said Russell Pate, associate vice president for Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina. Studies have long shown that giving kids time to play, both through P.E. and recess, does not hurt their test scores, Pate said.

In fact, the breaks could help. "I'm all for holding schools to high standards with regard to academic outcomes," Pate said. "But we need to have some balance. We need our schools to be healthy places for kids." That's the approach at the elementary and middle schools in District 64 in Park Ridge and Niles, suburbs on the northwest side of Chicago. Three of the eight schools in the district received the National Association for Sports and Physical Education's STARS award for outstanding P.E. programs; they are the only schools in Illinois to earn the recognition. There are no vending machines with candy or soda at any of the schools, and the food service at the middle schools gives students healthy choices.

Elementary classes have P.E. for a half-hour four days a week, and gym-like activities at recess on the fifth day. Middle school students have P.E. for 40 minutes each day. The curriculum is designed to get students moving and appeal to everyone, regardless of athletic ability. There are units on everything from softball to wrestling to field hockey.

Grades are based on kids' preparation for class — being on time and in uniform — as well as written tests on the sports they learn. There are fitness tests twice a year, but instead of telling kids they must run a mile in a specific time or do 50 sit-ups, progress is measured against previous results. The results are not counted in their grades.

"We want them to gain an appreciation of being active, to enjoy being active," said Aaron Schauer, who teaches at Emerson Middle School and is the district's P.E. curriculum specialist. "So when they're on their own, they'll make active choices."
The facilities are top-of-the-line, starting with a 26-person P.E. department for the eight schools. Each school has ready access to green space, and there's enough room outside to hold six soccer fields. When students at Emerson want to track their heart rates while running or walking, they can use one of 32 Polar monitors, which retail for $60.

"Physical education cannot be expected to solve society's obesity problems," said Pate, a past president of the National Coalition on Promoting Physical Activity. "But I do think it's realistic to expect P.E. to help solve the problem."

I had daily PE classes all the way through 9th grade. Our junior high PE teachers would actually FAIL a student who couldn't run a mile in under 11 minutes-- sadistic as that sounds. In 10th grade I managed the girls' basketball team, and that counted as my last PE requirement (I will admit I was thrilled at the time). But I still played softball and rode my bike and so on. Now, when I watch kids amble around the hallways listening to their iPods-- which is how most of my students earn their HS PE credits-- I have to admit that I feel a bit disgusted.

I know some teachers, parents, and administrators who think that PE is a waste of time in an already jam-packed school day. But developing good habits when young certainly would be better than the situation we have now. Let me pretend to address the kids now: As someone who used to be incredibly skinny can tell you, though, PE class is not enough. You will get older and the metabolism will slow down, and you will go to work somewhere that doesn't give you an hour a day for activity. You will struggle to make time for exercise. Half of you or so will put on dozens of pounds in pregnancy when you are older and married, and you will find out that it doesn't come off and that sweet little baby wants your attention NOW and is not willing to wait until you get off the treadmill.

But, we at least have to make the effort to save PE class.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging and honesty

Do you believe everything you read on a blog?

Should you?

Some followers of a blog that spoke of refusing to abort a fetus with a severe abnormality are finding out that the story was not true.
Rebeccah Beushausen wove a tale for two months about being an unmarried mother who chose to carry her child who is now terminally ill to term rather than have an abortion because of her deep Christian faith. She posted her story on a blog that got nearly a million hits until one of her followers exposed the lie last week. Now the suburban Chicago woman is apologizing for the hoax.

Beushausen posted a lengthy apology on her blog Sunday, saying she had lost pregnancies in the past.
"I have suffered this type of loss, more than once, to varying degrees, and while the circumstances and the times vary ... the pain is very constant," Beushausen wrote. She had said her baby was diagnosed with Trisomy 13 syndrome, a chromosomal defect that can cause severe mental retardation and death. Followers promised to pray for her and her baby, April Rose, and sent letters and gifts to a post office box she listed online.

But when she wrote about the child's birth and posted photos last week, one reader recognized the baby as a lifelike doll.
Jennifer McKinney, of Mound, Minn., followed Beushausen's blog and helped promote it. She said the apology did not include enough information to explain why Beushausen lied. "To be honest, I think she is far from recognizing the true gravity of the situation," said McKinney, who writes a Christian blog that dealt with her own difficult pregnancy. Beushausen's sister, Anna, said Monday that the falsehood began before the blog and that her sister has dealt with a lot of pain in her life. She said the blog, which she didn't learn about until last week, was a way for her sister to work through it.
"I do understand why people are mad, and so does she," Anna Beushausen said. "I see pieces of her life in there. She is so remorseful, and she is in immense pain."

Rebeccah Beushausen didn't respond to an e-mail sent Monday. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for her mother declined comment.

In her apology, Beushausen said she began writing the story as therapy but became addicted to the attention it generated. She said she lied "to a community of people whose only intention was to support me through this time and that is wrong, and for that I am sorrier than you could know."

Beushausen was living in Lockport but moved back to her family's home in Mokena after her hoax was exposed. It doesn't appear that Beushausen profited in a substantial way from her blog. She said she made an agreement with an advertiser but was never paid because the ad was not up for the required minimum 45 days.

Lockport Police Sgt. Bruce Kruizenga said he didn't know if the department had received any complaints about Beushausen. Mokena Police Sgt. Randal Stumpf said his department was not investigating. Don Blumenthal, an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University who specializes in Internet security and cybercrime, said it's difficult to prosecute such cases. It's hard to establish jurisdiction and even that a crime has occurred, and few people have the legal skills to prosecute such cases, said Blumenthal, who previously led the Internet investigations center at the Federal Trade Commission.

"It's an area of law that needs a lot of development," Blumenthal said.

As I understand it, way back in the day, a website such as mine was known as a "personal web log." That means it is one person's opinion, or stories, that are contained therein. Anyone can write anything on a blog, and many people do. A while back I was nominated for a weblog award, and when I went to the site and saw all the different categories, I could not believe it. I mean, there really is something for EVERYONE. I don't care how many subcategories in which you put yourself demographically, there is someone else out there who is blogging in just the same sub-specialty. And they may disagree with you completely. They could be making it all up. Who knows?

But this case is different. This lady led people to believe that she was actually going through this experience right now, and she solicited gifts and sympathy and advertising. That's where it crosses the line. She was trying to make a religious and political point as well, and the irony is, whatever you believe about abortion, she has probably harmed the cause she wished to promote. She may not be a "well person," as my granny would say. But she still tried to profit from lying (see the previous post below for more on dishonesty). I personally pray for EVERYONE who finds out they have problems with their pregnancy, as I had a devastating miscarriage once that shook me to my core.

Now for some disclosure: Unfortunately, everything I have written about on this blog actually happened, as much as that may leave you all (and me) shaking our heads in disbelief. I can't make this stuff up. I do obscure identities, and I sometimes don't post about something until later to let my feelings cool and to help protect my anonymity as well as the anonymity of those about which I may write.

I hope this lady gets some help. And returns anything she received.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Cheating Culture, part III

Apparently, the best we can take from this story is that eventually even people who are really good at cheating get caught:
An Ohio school district says it uncovered a cheating scheme so pervasive that it had to cancel graduation ceremonies for its 60 seniors — but will still mail their diplomas. A senior at Centerburg High School accessed teachers' computers, found tests, printed them and distributed them to classmates, administrators said. Graduation was canceled because so many seniors either cheated or knew about the cheating but failed to report it, said officials of the Centerburg School District.

Superintendent Dorothy Holden said the district had to take a stand and let students know that cheating can't be tolerated.
"I am alarmed that our kids can think that in society it's OK to cheat, it's a big prank, it's OK to turn away and not be a whistle-blower, not come forth," Holden said. The district says it has identified a student who apparently accessed shared file folders on teachers' computers.

Officials believe the cheating involved at least five tests in a senior World Studies class dating to early January. One of the tests quizzed students on Aztec Indian history. Teachers had suspicions about some higher-than-expected grades during the semester, Holden said. The cheating unraveled when a student discovered a congratulatory note to the perpetrator on a school computer Tuesday and gave it to Principal John Morgan. Administrators learned Friday that the cheating plot may have involved underclassmen, as well.

Holden said so many students are involved that it was impossible "to separate the wheat from the chaff" in terms of deciding who could graduate. Instead, all students will be mailed their diplomas. "We're not going to put that type of honor out there knowing that many of you are walking through there and you cheated, you lied, you denied," Holden said.

Some parents angry about the cancellation are organizing an unofficial graduation ceremony. Jeanette Lamb, whose son is a senior at the school, asked the Centerburg School Board to reconsider its decision to cancel graduation. The board declined.
"At that point I did tell them that commencement would continue, it will be at the park, I will put it together and their presence wasn't welcome," Lamb told WTVN radio in Columbus. Lamb said parents and members of the community have offered help.
Centerburg High, with about 400 students, is one of the state's top schools, with an "excellent" academic rating last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Last year, the school had a 99 percent graduation rate, compared to a statewide rate of 87 percent. Some students admit they cheated; others said they knew of the cheating but didn't participate; and others said they had the tests but didn't use them, Holden said.

One student who used the test still failed.

I can't tell you how many times I have gotten the "but everybody does it," shrug-your-shoulders response from parents when I have contacted them to inform them of their child's cheating on an assignment or quiz. I even got that response from an administrator once-- who then later tried to act so stunned when a teacher candidate had someone hack into the system and stole interview questions. In this story, I particularly like the student who STILL FAILED. For the past few years, I have given out actual test questions as the study guide for many of my tests-- and still have kids who can't be bothered to look up the answers. Then they ask why I don't curve my results.

You can't win.

But in a culture which celebrates people who get away with moral lapses, how can we be shocked when our students engage in the same behavior?


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tunesday 17: Be True to Your School

What's that? A whiff of summer wafting ever so seductively near?

Has there ever been a summer more necessary? Has there ever been summer more anticipated? Not since childhood, I think. So let me start with the last dress code violations I will have to encounter for two months, and then move on. Enjoy

"Girls in Their Summer Clothes," Bruce Springsteen
"High School Never Ends," Bowling for Soup
"Long Hot Summer Night," Jimi Hendrix
"Three Little Birds," Bob Marley
"Summertime," The Sundays
"Live and Learn," The Cardigans
"Be True to Your School," Beach Boys
"Wise Up," Aimee Mann
"Summertime," Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"Me and Julio Down by the School Yard," Paul Simon
"Vacation," The Go-Go's
"The Summer Wind," Madeleine Peyroux
"Teach Your Children," Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
"You Learn," Alanis Morissette
"Bye Bye Baby," Bay City Rollers
"It Must Be Summer," Fountains of Wayne
"One Big Love," Patty Griffin
"Summer Dress," Shawn Colvin
"Rock 'N' Roll High School," The Ramones
"My Old School," Steely Dan

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