Keeping Track

Fair warning: This post is a geeky riff about data and technology.

I just came back to Oakland from a stint in Southern California where I worked for a few weeks at the Teach For America Los Angeles Institute as the Director of Data and Assessments. It was an interesting experience. I should say right off the bat that I am fascinated by the process of keeping track of things. So this job, keeping track of student data gathered during the 5 week summer school session, was really fun for me. (Not without its frustrations, of course — the tool we used to track data was in the early development stage and had a few kinks and quirks.)

When I got home, my attention turned to the process of getting ready for the coming school year, and I started to think about how I am going to mine the data in our school district’s centralized database and cross-reference that data with the information in special education database to find the names of the students who will be my responsibility in the coming year. OUSD, you see, keeps track of students in separate databases. These applications were made by different developers, using different data schema, and using different database systems, so they don’t speak to each other. The process of finding my students requires a lot of typing, clicking, hunting, and guessing.

I know that our information technology and special education departments are aware of the problem, but it seems to be an issue that just hasn’t captured the imagination of anyone who is in a position to actually solve the problem. Quite reasonably, my access to the databases is limited — no one wants a special education teacher poking around in the database with tools that could potentially make a mess of the data. So what’s a guy to do?

I’m at a fork in the road. Part of me wants to forge ahead, stop worrying about things outside my locus-of-control, and just do the best work I can in the classroom. But part of me wants to dig in and solve the data problem. Not everything we need to know to do good work with students requires a well designed student information system, but having such a system is crucial. And having a bad system reflects on how little value we place on having an accurate picture of the students in our schools.

At Edna Brewer I need to use three separate tools to track student information, none of which interact with the others. Teachers use the district’s central system for taking roll, tracking discipline, and recording grades. Because we also print paper progress reports for each student every week, we use a second system for entering progress data which is then printed every Wednesday. Naturally, the data in the progress report system is not automatically entered into the main grade book. And I manage a couple dozen IEPs using a third system. Much of the information about each student is duplicated in those three databases, so if a family moves or changes phone numbers the data needs to be updated three times. (Guess how often that actually happens.)
There are a couple of other pieces of software I use for my own personal record keeping, since none of the mandated systems does a great job of handling the data I want to track.

Data management is hard. Building elegant solutions is not easy. But that’s what is so alluring. I’m not an expert database designer, and I am surely not the worlds greatest application developer, but I have a few years experience working in the application design space. My passion for problem solving is heating up, and I’m weighing the impact I can have as a teacher in the classroom against the impact I might have if I utilize my design skills to make a streamlined and meaningful interface to school’s student information systems.

I believe a well designed system is a reflection of the institution that deploys it. OUSD has many fronts on which to demonstrate its commitment to improving her student’s education environment. A well designed student information system is not enough, but it’s a piece.

Friday August 10, 2012 — Mark —

Riding BART With My Dad

onboard bart

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I’m a big fan of BART, the Bay Area’s rapid transit system — I appreciate how convenient and economical it is for us to get to San Francisco to visit our son, fly out of SFO, or go to a show or dinner in the West Bay. [Aside: When my parents, my brother and sisters and I first moved to Oakland in the late 1960s we became friends with Harre Demoro a transportation aficionado and reporter. Through Harre and his connections we got to ride on the prototype BART trains before the system opened. When the Transbay Tube was first completed, he took a group of us on a short walking tour of the Oakland terminus of the tunnel. Harre’s passion instilled in me a love of trains and public transportation that continues to this day. My decision to make a four-day, cross country rail adventure back in 2010 grew from the seeds Harre planted in the 60s and 70s.]

My dad loves to ride BART, and I suspect he was infected by Harre’s passion, too. Dad also likes to remind us (nearly every time we enter the system) that one of his parishioners at First Lutheran Church was an engineer who helped design BART. After my siblings and I abandoned our childhood nest, my parents packed up and moved to New York City where they lived for almost 20 years. They lived in Washington Heights, very close to the NYC Subway system’s revered A Train. Because of dad’s late-in-life battle with the long term effects of polio, his dependence on a wheelchair made it difficult to navigate the pre-ADA New York Subways. So when they moved back to Oakland a few years ago, he was delighted to be living in a community that took accessibility seriously. He rides the bus on in his wheelchair, gleefully sharing his opinion about the best routes to take to get to IKEA or Piedmont Avenue from our Adams Point neighborhood. He and my mom still fly around the world to pursue their eclectic interests, and they almost always prefer to book flights out of SFO due to the easy access via BART.

A few weeks ago Anna and my folks and I decided to take BART to Zina’s gallery opening at Adobe Books in the Mission district. We set out on foot, dad in his chair, for the 20 minute stroll/roll to the train. The elevator to the 19th Street station is located on Broadway, tucked into an alcove between to The Community Bank of the Bay and Selix tuxedos. The elevator drops you at the mezzanine level of the station, where a passenger in a wheel chair needs to enter the station to process his/her ticket, then exit again to get in a different elevator to the platform. The elevator to the train platform is outside the paid area of the station on the mezzanine level, so for visitors to Oakland—or any first time user of BART, it would be easy to inadvertently get on the train without  "paying*" to enter the system. Dad is experienced, so he knows he needs to take this extra step. He wonders why BART doesn’t install a ticket reader in the elevator so that disabled riders don’t need to make this extra loop through the turnstiles before proceeding to the platform?

dad and anna Once our tickets are processed (on the honor system) we drop to the train platform and wait for our ride to the City. Getting on and off a train in a chair is pretty easy, and every car has a space where wheelchair-bound riders can jockey with bicycles for a spot near the door. In our several excursions with dad on BART we have never encountered a cyclist who wasn’t extremely polite and accommodating, always moving to make room for this endearing, talkative man in his chair.

When we arrive at the 16th and Mission station we get off the train, and the longest part of our hike within the station begins. Inexplicably, the elevator for disabled riders is at the opposite end of the platform. We pad the length of the station to reach the elevator and ride upstairs to the mezzanine level, only to find that the exit turnstiles are at the other end of the station. To top it off, the elevator from the station to the street is located halfway back down the length of the station towards the end from which we walked to go through the turnstiles. I kid dad about the fact that the parishioner who attended his church didn’t think through the location of elevators when they designed the system. Why on earth, I wonder, did they set up the station so that a passenger with mobility issues who enters the system at 19th Street in Oakland and exits at 16th and Mission needs to travel the full length of the station two-and-a-half times, just to get from the platform to the street? (That added nearly 7 tenths of a mile to our round trip that night.)

That’s not the only station where this situation occurs. When traveling from 19th Street to the Coliseum station (Anna and my folks and I rode BART to an A’s game a few weeks ago) we encountered the same situation. We got on the front of the train where the elevator dropped us at 19th Street, only to find that we needed to navigate the full length of the significantly narrower platform at the Coliseum station to get to street level. (Because the platform is narrow, navigation in a wheelchair is difficult because the clearance between various structures and the yellow safety stripe at the edge of the platform is very limited, especially when there are people waiting for trains.) Again, the elevator drops one outside the paid area of the station, so we needed to take our tickets back to the station agent to get them processed. There’s a non-functioning ticket reader set up halfway between the elevator and the agent’s booth at the station where a disabled passenger could presumably process a ticket, but it wasn’t working when we were there. And its placement is downright odd: if BART can set up a random reader for this purpose, why didn’t they put it next to the elevator where it would be readily accessible to the people who needed it, rather than in the middle of a crowded area where it’s not easy to find?

BART is an appealing system, and in comparison to some older systems, very accessible to the elderly and those with mobility challenges. There are some quirks that make accessibility less than ideal. Solving some of the bigger problems (the odd placement of the elevators) may be too expensive and require extensive retrofits to be feasible. But there are a few things that might be easily solved, like putting ticket readers in the elevators that are outside the system. In November we have a chance to elect some bright, progressive BART directors who will consider some of these issues. (Go Rebecca!)


  • BART passengers actually pay when leaving the system, but a ticket must be processed upon entry so the system can determine the appropriate fare. back ^

Monday May 28, 2012 — Mark —

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Why I'm Running for OEA Executive Board

“It’s a bike lane,” shouted the cyclist as he rushed past us on Grand, near El Embarcadero.

“F—- you,” shouted one of the two joggers who were running, two abreast, in the bicycle lane!

“F—- you, too,” came the cyclist’s immediate and impulsive response, just as he sped through the red light at the intersection.

It was an exchange of words that left everyone, including me — the innocent passerby, angry and hurt. No meaningful ideas were shared, no useful arrangement was made for the future. Instead, the joggers felt a distrust and anger towards the cyclist, and the cyclist clearly felt no love for the joggers. Future interactions with other joggers and cyclists by the parties in this exchange will be forever tainted by this interaction.

This cyclist does not speak for me, but I fear that the joggers may feel that all cyclists are jerks because their experience with this one cyclist was so hostile. And clearly the guy on the bike in this story regards joggers in the bike lane as his enemies. (Passing them forced him to swerve into a lane usually filled with cars — although at 7:00am on this particular Tuesday the lane was empty.)

As I continued my ride to school, I started thinking about the fact that this exchange is symbolic of the way the teacher’s union in Oakland sometimes interacts with the administration of the school district. And while each side may feel their anger is justified, the [all too typical] heated exchange between the two sides isn’t building common ground on any of our shared issues and concerns.

The bike rider and cyclists in this morning’s exchange chose to fight one another, using the language of conflict and anger, and neither acknowledged the mutual need for safety from cars. Each side felt that their position was just and righteous, and each felt that the other was wrong. Neither took the high road. As a biker, I could easily see biker guy’s point — having to swerve into traffic to avoid the joggers is a potential risk. But from the jogger’s perspective, biker guy’s over-the-shoulder hostility is an unkind and unwelcome assault during an early morning jog. Lost in the exchange was any sense of dignity, humility, or common civility.

The first step the Oakland teacher’s union must take in building a bridge of understanding and mutual respect is to start a conversation with the district that recognizes our shared goals and agenda. Of course both sides may have different views on how to create a fair and mutually beneficial contract. Using rhetorical tactics like biker guy used with the joggers this morning, though, won’t lead to a successful outcomes. We need to employ language that invites further conversation, not rhetoric that offends and creates distrust.

It’s no excuse for our union to argue that the district hasn’t always acted in good faith. If we are a professional union, a guild of teachers committed to the civic good, we can’t blame others for our failure to improve the nature and content of the conversation. When we, members of the teacher’s union speak, we need to use a voice laced with dignity and respect — we need to be accountable to our best ideals, not held hostage by our basest instincts.

My reason for running for the OEA executive board is to join a caucus of board members who feel that the time for the tired rhetoric of anger and division has passed. We look forward to being part of a union committed to raising the quality of conversation surrounding the issues that lead to better conditions in our schools for teachers, for students, for families, and for every citizen of this community.

Visit (and tell your friends about) my campaign site — »

Tuesday April 17, 2012 — Mark — Education bikes

Bloom's Taxonomy

I was looking at a collection of images of Bloom’s taxonomy today and realized that I wanted a simple but more apt drawing that would capture my beliefs about how the taxonomy relates to learning. I had recently read some interesting thoughts about the fact that the taxonomy was not strictly conceived as a hierarchy:

Bloom et al. discussed at length their decision to apply an Aristotelian categorization method in their taxonomy. The choice was significant, because an Aristotelian method creates distinct, bounded categories ordered by complexity without the hierarchical assumption that higher-level categories always entail instantiation of those lower in the taxonomy (e.g., when evaluating, it is not always necessary to first apply and synthesize). Moreover, Aristotelian categorization emphasizes that these groupings are closely related and difficult to tease apart. . . . however, the division of the taxonomy of educational objectives into classes representing lower order … and higher order thinking … has prevailed in research.
Found at Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott McLeod

What I came up with for myself is this simplified diagram.

Bloom's Taxonomy

This captures more-or-less my thoughts that students can access learning by entering the taxonomy anywhere. Think about the Suzuki method of learning music, where children are not first introduced to the knowledge of the system of reading music, but instead are given the opportunity to create music. Or about Montessori schools where experiential activity that could be called creativity precedes knowledge.

Monday February 20, 2012 — Mark — Education

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Missing the Forest for the Trees

One big message of Apple’s textbook announcement in New York last week was that the new iBook textbook model is going to lighten student’s backpacks by reducing the amount of paper that they have to lug around. Sure, the format has some interactive razzle dazzle, which may contribute to higher levels of engagement, but that is generally speculative with respect to how effective these new iBooks will be in the long run. (There has been some initial study about the efficacy of this new kind of interactive text on student achievement, and the early results are optimistic. The long term, large scale impact is still far from being proven. Saving trees is a worthy purpose, but is it really the disruptive feature of digital textbooks?)

There are some bloggers who are also critical of Apple’s strategy because it comes with some licensing strings attached. Books built using Apple’s free iBooks Author software are encumbered by a mandatory license agreement with Apple should the author wish to sell the book via Apple’s iBook store. This certainly reflects a company that is driven by profit as much or more than altruism. On the flip side, Apple does not require any licensing agreement to create a book for personal use. (UPDATE: Apple will distribute my book for free in the iBookstore if I want to give the book away, and doing so does not prevent me from distributing the book in other ways as long as I don’t sell it via other channels. See below for a further thoughts.) From my perspective, the ability to easily distribute books for free where the real disruption in education could gain a toe hold.

What bloggers (and possibly even Apple) seem to be missing is that the real disruption could happen by turning students loose with the iBooks Author software. I agree with many of these critics that it’s not that big a deal that publishers with massive financial resources and incentives now have a marginally better system of creating digital versions of their books. But imagine that instead of buying textbooks, students are given the opportunity to turn the learning process on its head and take responsibility for publishing their own textbooks. Books they can carry with them on an iPad and share with their peers. Perhaps students will work in collaborative teams to create these books. And rather than just books of plain text and pictures, these books can also include videos that the students make (using the iPad) capturing the skills and steps required to solve complex math problems or explain the student’s perspective on an historical event or literary text.

As the basis for these student made textbooks, teachers could use the same iBooks Author tool to create dynamic lessons that teach the concepts that the students will use in the creation of their own books. Many teachers today are creating their own teaching materials anyway. Why not create those materials using the same tool which students will use? This could foster a virtuous cycle of learning and publishing where students and teacher are engaged in a collaborative process, not in a top down model where teachers are exclusively responsible for creating materials and planning lessons. As students become more engaged in the process they could take more responsibility for planning and delivering lessons.

These textbooks could become the portfolio that demonstrate a student’s mastery, not only of the expectation that they can read and write, but also the expectation that they can analyze and synthesize what they’ve learned and communicate effectively using 21st century tools. Instead of relying on a student’s ability to bubble in the best of four possible answers to a question, we can see how well a student understands the underlying standards and concepts of the subjects of study in the books they author. In their own words with their own explanations.

This inverted model addresses some of the compelling concerns about our reliance on a factory based educational system. It brings creativity into the learning process and proposes a system of learning that leverages student’s interest in 21st century skills and tools. Imagine classrooms where students are using iBooks Author to create a text which they will update and leverage throughout their whole K-12 educational career.

Sure, there are complexities of the current educational paradigm that won’t be solved by giving students a better publishing tool. But this new tool could be the first step in truly disrupting how we assess student achievement and engage students in learning in a way that recognizes each student’s unique skills and perspectives. It may not have been Apple’s intent, but they’ve given us a tool that extends the democratization of information that erupted with the invention of the internet. I look forward to seeing how this tool changes how we teach, learn, and inform.

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON LICENSING: Apple has been criticized for enforcing a license on the output of its software if you wish to sell your work. Several people are referring to this as an ownership grab by Apple. On Mashable, Kapost says Apple Will Own Your Work With iBooks Author, quoting Sascha Segan’s iBooks Author: You Work For Apple Now. I’m not a lawyer, but think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Apple could ever assert ownership over your intellectual property. Clearly some aspect of the current copyright law would extend to the creator of the content, and section “D” of the iBooks Author software End User License Agreement states that you may only use the software to produce work that contains material to which you (the author) own a copyright. It does not claim in that document that your use of the software requires giving up your copyright or intellectual property. In the EULA, Apple is asserting a privilege to distribute work produced by its software, but that’s only superficially different from any publisher making a contract to own the rights to publish an author’s work. The difference is, of course, related to the means of distribution — Apple isn’t printing big paper books and shipping them around the country. If anyone should be nervous about Apple’s licensing, it should be traditional publishers. I could be wrong, but it seems there are currently very few ways for an author to publish and distribute a textbook today without the assistance of a publishing company. Apple is getting in the middle of that business. With a large distribution network (how many million iPads are there?) Apple is in a position to open a market to the independent authors.

(Disclosure: I hold shares of Apple stock in my retirement portfolio.)

Sunday January 22, 2012 — Mark — Education


Zero Sum Faith

The Christmas season often heightens the already fractious conversation between people of various faith persuasions. In the pop-media this fractured dialogue is manifested in the debate over whether to use the greeting “happy holidays” or the presumably Christian greeting “merry Christmas.” Which greeting you choose supposedly indicates your degree of cross cultural/religious sensitivity. Conventional wisdom suggests that a Christian greeting a Jew or Muslim should either guess the other’s religious preference and greet them with an appropriate greeting based on what holiday that person might celebrate, or take the safe path and offer the innocuous “happy holidays.”

God forbid you encounter an atheist. The term “holiday” derives from the combination of holy and day. Imagine the faux pas of rendering said atheist offended by the accidental utterance of such a God centric word.

This whole conversation is based on a flawed conception of faith. The other day i engaged in a twitter fit with someone who was offended by the fact that Flickr (the photo sharing service) had adorned his home page on the site with Christmas lights. He was offended by this obviously “Christian” symbol. I tweeted that I thought it was absurd to call Christmas lights a Christian symbol. In subsequent tweets we battled over the issue which ended with the other person blocking me from following him. For the next couple of days I’ve grappled with that conversation and I realize it centers on the idea that in our society we have come to treat faith as a zero sum game. It’s a battle over who is right and who is wrong. This is a flawed understanding of faith, and I was wrong to jump on this guy about his feelings about lights. Instead I should have understood his struggle and nurtured his curiosity.

This tweeter with whom I had engaged was upset because he lives in what he perceives as a “Christian country.” He said that Christians had “won,” and lamented that he wasn’t even free to complain about that cultural dominance without being challenged. By casting the question of faith as win or lose he is caving to this zero sum mentality. He can only be right about his beliefs if I’m wrong and vice versa.

When Christopher Hitchens died a few days ago the tortured dialogue between Atheists and Christians as to what they perceive as the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of Christianity and Atheism re-erupted. Again we were treated to self righteousness on both sides of the debate, with Atheists and those of the religious persuasion insisting that the other’s view is wrong.

These zero sum positions that we stake out in the public conversation on faith are doing little to shed light on the concept of our common human experience. Much has already been written about the commonality of the three Abrahamic faiths. That Muslims, Christians and Jews all trace their mythological heritage to the same character in the same ancient mythological text is widely discussed and I haven’t anything new to offer to that conversation. Except to say that our different experiences, perceptions, and points of view of human cultural development do not negate contrasting points of view, perceptions and experiences. Taken as a whole, these differences can enrich the conversation and our understanding of faith in a life giving power.

What interests me is the conversation between Theists and Atheists. Where the zero sum solution falls short is in its failure to acknowledge the necessity of both points of view to make the other perspective possible. I can’t accept on faith the idea of a supreme, life-giving power — God, if you need a name — if the presence of that power could be proved. Neither, though could an atheist hold the position that there is no such power without a degree of faith. Many Atheists want to point to science as a method for proving that God does not exist. Again, the zero sum problem.

At this time of year I always feel challenged to grapple with my own personal way of understanding life and the human experience, and how to reconcile those views with the great allegorical explanation of life with which I was raised. I cherish many of the traditions that spring from my faith heritage. But I can’t prove that God exists. And, frankly, I don’t want to — if I could prove that God exists, I wouldn’t need faith. And keep in mind that by God I don’t mean some being who helps Tim Tebow and the Broncos win football games. By “God” I mean “why.” Science is a perfectly able to explain the who, what, where, how, and when of our existence. It can’t give an definitive answer though, to the why of things. I need some way of naming that incessant quest to understand and give expression to my belief that some essence of divine beauty and wisdom is at the core of why we were given the hearts and minds and ability to love one another and make music and art, and celebrate our shared happiness. I call that quest “faith” and the object of my faith, “God.”

Call it what you will, but I think most of us have more in common than we want to admit. Just as I can’t (and won’t) prove that God exists, my Atheist friends cannot prove that God doesn’t exist. Atheists must accept on faith the non-existence of God. (Every logician knows you can’t prove the non-existence of something.)

As anyone who has raised kids will understand, the incessant pursuit of the “why” is at the core of human curiosity. And I believe if we keep pressing for that answer to the big question of why life takes shape as it does, we are on a common journey. All of us, Atheists and theists alike. Our various ways of expressing what is at the center of our examination of life are nuanced ways of sharing a common humanity.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday December 24, 2011 — Mark —

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Standardized Tests vs. Intuition

This post is about education, but you’ll need to bear with me as i begin with a lenghty digression. I’ve been reading Steve Jobs biography. In it I’m meeting an intuitive genius who had deep interpersonal challenges. A man who valued artists and creativity. A man who could be cruel, but also a man who loved deeply. It’s compelling reading.

A fascinating aspect of his personality is how convinced and passionate Steve was about trusting his intuition. Intuition trumped engineering concerns and conventional wisdom. Apple has often been derided by its critics for a preoccupation with what appeared to some to be a preference for style over substance. The Macintosh has generally been powered by slower processors than competitor’s hardware. Often Apple made trade-offs that mystified the ubergeeks and techno-nerds that favor awesome tech specs over intuitive design and simplicity. What made the ubergeek’s device cool was sheer power and raw speed. Steve favored other qualities.

As technology has become more embedded in the lives of the non-geeks there’s been a slight shift in how we have come to collectively understand computers and other devices. John Gruber of Daring Fireball observes:

Spec-based reviews of computers and gadgets are inherently flawed, a relic of an era that’s already gone. Movie reviews are about what the movie is like to watch. Is it enjoyable, is it entertaining, does it look and sound good? Imagine a movie review based on specs, where you gave points for how long it was, whether the photography is in focus, deduct points for continuity errors in the story, and then out comes a number like “7.5/10”, with little to know mention about, you know, whether the movie was effective as a piece of art.

I wouldn’t argue that specs are “meaningless”. It’s just that they’re an implementation detail. Specs are something the device makers worry about insofar as how they affect the experience of using the device. Just like how focal length and lens aperture are something the cinematographer worries about insofar as how they affect what the viewer will see on screen. — Daring Fireball, 14 Nov, 2011

The way we look at education today is distorted by a similar flawed vision. Our national preoccupation with standardized testing and a myopic pursuit of only the subjects which can be reduced to objective standards is robbing our kids. Especially kids who are already suffering from educational inequity. We’ve reduced the art of teaching and learning to a specification driven process that places little or no value on intuition. Children are not seen as individuals with unique skills and qualities to be cultivated, but as vessels to be filled with data.

Under No Child Gets Ahead (NCLB), we measure school effectiveness by how well the teacher prepares a student to retrieve stored data for the purpose of succeeding on a standardized test. Intuition should tell us that this process isn’t likely to produce inspiration. As Gruber observes in his comment about film reviews, we can’t reduce art and experiential concepts to a bullet list of statistics and specifications. Similarly, we shouldn’t reduce education to just a fact based, objective system. Knowledge and wisdom require more than facts — students need to learn to think critically, creatively, and intuitively.

Students who learn in schools that serve socioeconomically advantaged communities have always had access to the opportunity to learn this way. Sure, these students succeed on standardized tests, but that isn’t the great differentiating value of the life they lead.

Data from charter schools is beginning to show that success on standardized tests may indeed help to get students from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities get into college. But the data also shows that those students drop out of college at an alarming rate. Many of us have believed (intuitively) that standardized testing and data driven education isn’t the full answer to the question of how to teach our children. Closing the achievement gap is not going to happen if we remain preoccupied with standardized testing.

Education is an art. I’ve always felt that it’s absurd to give children grades in school. It takes the art out of teaching and learning and turns it into a competition. We need to develop education policies and strategies that foster and celebrate creativity and reduce our preoccupation on grades and tests. Critics may wonder how we can measure our effectiveness and hold educators accountable without objective standards. But I wonder how effective education can ever be if we are preoccupied with test results and devalue children’s creativity, intuition, and critical perspective.

I don’t have an answer, but my intuition tells me we are marching down the wrong path today. I intend to spend the rest of my life looking for solutions.

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. — Plato

Monday November 14, 2011 — Mark — Education

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Random (Possibly Related) Thoughts

Thought One

I just read a column by Nick Kristof about John Wood, the founder of Room To Read. Back in the late 90s I designed the logo for Room To Read. My dear friends Chris and Martina are friends of John’s and asked me if I would be interested in doing a little pro-bono work for a startup focused on literacy. At first the little startup was called Books for Nepal, and the logo was just a type based thing. When things got going and Books for Nepal expanded, first to Vietnam, John decided to rename the operation Room To Read and asked if I would redo the logo. I did. A few years ago I nearly fainted when Anna was watching Oprah and she was interviewing John. One of the images they flashed on the screen was a book which had been published by the Room To Read publishing group. On the book was my little logo.

Thought Two

I woke up a couple of times last night, and each time I caught myself in the middle of a dream about the words “why” and “what.” I have been wrestling with how to better engage the students in my classes in meaningful endeavor towards life-changing insight. (Not the easiest thing when you are teaching fundamentals of math.) I realized the other day that these students, many of whom struggle with learning disabilities, are preoccupied with “what” (as in “what’s the answer?”) when I want to lead them to engage with “why?” I came to this realization when I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with Anna. We were eating Mexican food and at a table near ours was a little girl having dinner with her dad. She was engaged in a long conversation about what had happened during her day at school, and the conversation was peppered with “why” questions, almost equally distributed between the girl and her father. Children who benefit from school the most are those who come with a healthy and vibrant curiosity about everything. From the conversation I observed (and from my memory of my children’s early lives) I came to the conclusion that curiosity is a cultivated habit. How then, I wonder, can I plant the seeds and cultivate this curiosity in my students, while honoring the Department of Education’s demand that these children are to be driven towards a single goal: the ability to choose the correct answer from an array of four options on a standardized test? This preoccupation with standardized testing seems to be an antidote to curiosity, driving children and teachers everywhere to be myopically focused on finding the right answer to “what” to the exclusion of “why.”

Thought Three

When I was thinking about John Woods (see above) it dawned on me that he is to philanthropy what Steve Jobs was to technology. Woods initially tripped over an issue and its solution while trekking through Nepal. He could have devoted his life to working through existing channels to address the problem of literacy, instead he took off on his own and revolutionized the process of dealing with an obvious problem that much bigger, well funded institutions have failed to effectively address for decades. In just a few years he had transformed the lives of thousands of children. He was driven by imagination. Like Jobs, Woods can see beyond the limitations of current reality. He isn’t preoccupied with what “can’t” be done, he is focused on what he needs to do. That’s the kind of leadership and vision required for our national system of public education. We need to stop trying to solve the wrong problems. We’re fighting the wrong battles and spending our resources on fixing the wrong things.

Implicit in Kristof’s column(s) is the idea that the value of spending more of our resources on education today, is that we won’t be spending so much of our treasure later on things like military, security, and jails. Jobs didn’t spend his time trying to build a computer to incrementally improve on what he and Wozniak had done with the Apple II or what IBM was doing with the PC — he was trying to fundamentally change the our conceptual model of a computer (“a bicycle for our mind”). Woods is trying to change the world by bringing more people into the conversation about all things by building literacy, one child at a time.

We need the same kind of visionary to guide the conversation about education. Right now I see a lot of really smart people trying to solve the problem that isn’t the most pressing issue. Disruptive institutions like Teach For America are trying to address educational inequity by focusing on teachers. Charter schools are trying to address the problem through a variety of strategies, but share a focus on teachers and improving student’s scores on standardized tests. These are well intentioned efforts, but they aren’t likely to be transformative in the long run because they don’t challenge the existing paradigm of K-12 education. There are some prophets in this wilderness but they don’t seem to be gaining much traction, most likely because the entrenched interests in the world of education are so powerful. We need a Woods or a Jobs to emerge and confront this issue with imagination and creativity.

Sunday November 6, 2011 — Mark — Education living

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The Heartbreak of Violation

I went to get onto my trusty bicycle this morning for a quick trip to the hardware store. As I unlocked and helmeted I noticed that the headlight that was on my bike was missing. Racking my memory, I recalled using the light on my way to work on Friday, and my bike is locked in a cage at school during the day, so the light was definitely on the bike when I locked it up in our garage on Friday evening.

I had been warned at the bike shop when I was given the light that it wasn’t completely secured to the bicycle. It was held on with just a strip of velcro and a rubber loop. I should take it off the bike, Chris said, when I parked it somewhere that wasn’t secure. I assumed that parking in a secure garage with the other residents of my condominium was “secure.” This morning, though, the light was gone.

The value of the light is not significant, I suppose. But it was a gift, given to me by the owner of the shop who sold me the bicycle. (Aforementioned Chris of Cycle Sports on Grand Avenue.) What really hurt is that the light was taken by someone who lives in my building, possibly another bicyclist. My sense of security was violated by someone with whom I may have a passing acquaintance, someone with whom I may share an occasional elevator ride or a brief conversation in the lobby or on the sidewalk. The bonds of trust that are naturally present in a small community were violated over the value of a small, relatively inexpensive object.

What’s heartbreaking is not the loss of the headlight on my bike. What breaks my heart is the sense that someone who lives in my small community has violated my trust and taken something of mine. There’s something in the symbolism of the theft of a light that makes me even sadder.

Sunday October 30, 2011 — Mark — community bikes


Steve Jobs

A few years before we moved back to Oakland from the Midwest we lived in Palo Alto. The first house we lived in was just a few blocks from Steve Jobs’ lovely brick house. One spring the garden on the west side of his property was planted with California poppies. It was a stunning sight to walk by and see the yard in full bloom. There was something magical about the house, too. So modest. So fitting for a man who’s iconic outfit was a mock turtleneck and jeans. The place looked comfortable.

I met Steve one time. I was walking home from a shopping trip to the Apple Store on University Avenue and ran into him on the sidewalk on Waverly Street. I was toting my Apple store purchase in one of their small drawstring shopping bags. He noticed it and smiled. I was nearly struck dumb. “I love what you’ve done,” I stammered. “Thanks,” he said and continued towards downtown with his daughter. I walked home and thought about all the clever things I could have said on the occasion of meeting one of my heroes. It was a fleeting moment, but I have thought about that encounter often in the years since.

Here was the guy who made something called the iPod. A guy who made gadgets and tools with soul. He was, even then, years before the iPhone and the iPad, the most visionary of technology CEOs. And what was he doing on that beautiful summer evening? Walking downtown with his daughter. They were heading in the direction of the Apple store, but they could have been walking downtown to get an ice cream cone. She was holding his hand and they were walking and talking. The lasting impression of that moment is the image of a dad taking a walk with his daughter.

The man with the turtleneck and blue jeans. Comfortable. Like the John Mayer song. A dad. A husband. A person who clearly knew love.

I don’t imagine there is another CEO for whom I would shed a tear on the news of his death.

Wednesday October 5, 2011 — Mark — living


Dirty Car?

If your car is dirty, consider taking advantage of the Edna Brewer Middle School car wash on Saturday. Drive to the corner of Beaumont and 38th Street to access the services of our 6th graders.

Calling All Dirty Cars!

Please be sure to come out and support the 6th grade car wash this Saturday, October 1, from 9:30-12:30 on the upper field. All proceeds benefit the Edna Brewer PTSA and school programs.

See you there?

Thursday September 29, 2011 — Mark —


RFK On Who We Are

Bobby Kennedy may have been even more of an idealist than his brother John. (And when I use the word “idealist” I mean it as a high compliment.) In a campaign speech in Lawrence, Kansas, (a few months before he was assassinated) he called on Americans to live by the ideals which define us.

I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one – neither industry, nor labor, nor government – has cared enough to help.

I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also.

I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms – without heat – warding off the cold and warding off the rats.

If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.

And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. JFK Library: Robert Kennedy Speeches

President Obama is grappling with this dichotomy today. Political power is concentrated in the hands of those who are obsessed with the GNP and materialism, and their influence seems to have caused the president to lose sight of the ideals we hoped would drive his presidency. The hope and change he promised seemed rooted in the idealism that Robert Kennedy expressed in Lawrence over 40 years ago. I remain hopeful that Obama can recapture the vision and inspiration that seemed so present in his campaign.

Saturday September 3, 2011 — Mark — culture community


Marx was right

I’m back in Oakland after a 6 week exile in Los Angeles. During my time away I watched as the US congress failed to take decisive action to restore balance to our economy. It’s good to be back, but the reality of our government’s failure to act in the interest of all it’s citizens is brought into relief by what I encountered when I got home. The school where I work will have fewer employees this coming year. Those who lost their jobs are victims of government policies that ignore the value of American workers. Our congress is currently obsessed with serving the interests of the super rich, refusing to raise taxes on multimillionaires so that people who work to educate our children can keep their jobs.

Capitalism works as long as there’s a balance between the interests of capital and labor. The dire situation in our schools is a canary in the coal mine for a nascent economic disaster. Economist Nouriel Roubini reminds us about what Karl Marx observed in the epic “Das Kapital”:

“Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself,” said Mr. Roubini, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We thought markets worked. They’re not working.”

What kept capitalism alive for so long in America, and what will eventually save us from a complete revolutionary disruption, is high taxes on capital gains. The self centered and greedy argue that there should be no such taxes because they are an obstacle to wealth creation and an unfair redistribution of wealth. They are unwilling to acknowledge that capitalism depends on a redistribution of wealth through the exploitation of labor. Taxes merely serve as a balancing factor, preserving the value of labor so that the mass of society (laborers) continue to have some effective purchasing power and remain viable.

Warren Buffet argues in favor of higher taxes in his August 15 New York Times editorial, Stop Coddling the Super Rich. He may not be channeling Karl Marx, but his point, that Congress should attach higher taxes to money made in capitalist endeavor, acknowledges what Marx posited about capitalism. Buffet, I assume, hopes to continue to make good money through his investments. But he knows he won’t be able to if our economy crumbles.

Buffet observes:

I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation. — NY Times, August 15, 2011

Economies require balance between capital and labor. Buffet recognizes that our economy will collapse if we don’t use taxes to bring capital and labor back into balance. Franklin Roosevelt figured this out, too. His Works Progress Administration increased the power (and value) of the American worker by making the government a big purchaser of labor. By redistributing wealth through the WPA, FDR was balancing our economy to the benefit of both capital and labor. Not every capitalist is as smart as Warren Buffet. Many of them are blinded by their greed and don’t see the risk of continuing to push for lower capital gains taxes.

Some members of congress are not smart enough to see the risks, either. By stubbornly and ignorantly refusing to raise Buffet’s taxes they are risking the viability of our whole economic system. These bureaucrats are responding to the basest aspect of human nature: greed. But government shouldn’t exist to preserve the imbalance of our economic system. It should exist to create balance.

Monday August 15, 2011 — Mark — culture

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New Rickey's Customer Parking

The fine young blogger, Gene at Our Oakland, took the time to hunt down the sign I photographed last year and mis-identified as a sign for “New Ricky’s.” Gene’s efforts paid off big time: he not only figured out that I mis-read the sign (it says “New Lucky’s) he found a couple of artifacts from New Lucky’s.

Thursday May 26, 2011 — Mark — art culture


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