Tuesday, April 22, 2014

US News Release "America's Best High Schools" List for 2014

Americans love their rankings and the act of living by comparison. And, that is perhaps nowhere more significant these days than in the world of education. As the debate about "Common Core State Standards" and PARCC tests have fueled the accountability discussion around schools, education reformers insist on quantitative data to determine "what school is the best." Newsweek was the first to gain prominence years ago for ranking "America's Top High Schools" according to Jay Mathews' (of the Washington Post) Challenge Index. It was a simple formula that ranked "best" by the number of AP exams taken, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

The more comprehensive list was developed later by US News & World Reports. Its list of the "Best American High Schools" is based on numerous factors, including AP scores and other state-mandated assessments, the achievement by minority students, and measurements of college readiness. US News awards school gold, silver, and bronze medals, and publishes basic demographic data. It's no surprise, as with any of the rankings systems, that the top of the list is generally dominated by charter and magnet schools. Schools such as the Dallas School for the Gifted & Talented or the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology are truly exceptional academic institutions.

There is certainly nothing wrong with these rankings, though they can be myopic. For example, Jay Mathews concedes with his list that 67 of his top 100 high schools don't even field a football team. Is that truly the "Best High School"? Not that football is the end-all-be-all of high school - but it is sort of a standard and iconic symbol for a thriving athletic program. And athletic programs are an important aspect of public education, if we're actually interested in educating the "whole child." The same goes for theater programs. And fine arts classes. And school clubs and activities. And a strong counseling and post-graduate office.

A truly great "high school" would do all these well. Like schools such as Stevenson High School  in Lincolnshire, IL, or Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, CO. Cherry Creek is ranked #341 on the US News list, and it received a gold medal. It is also the top ranked athletic program in the state according to Mile High Sports. And Sports Illustrated recently ranked it the fifth best athletic program in the country. And the school's music program recently won a Grammy Award, as part of the Grammy's Signature Schools Program. And it has eight different choirs, several of which travel and perform internationally. And the school has nearly 100 active clubs, with everything from National Honor Society and Robotics Club to the Harry Potter Club and Capture the Flag Club. And it has a top-notch post-graduate program that helps kids access the best colleges in the country. And it has 206 state championships in 25 different sports. And it defies the downside of large school by achieving success with 3,500 students. And its student body has raised tens of thousands of dollars every year for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. And it has the eighth best Speech & Debate program in the United States, as well as being one of the largest programs. And it has more than thirty different languages spoken in the homes of its students. And it's growing more diverse every year. And its Diversity Task Force is the host of the nation's largest diversity conference for teens. And it is a neighborhood school that accepts and teaches to all kids within its boundaries.

Its seems to me that we need to start looking at schools that offer a full range of successful programs aimed at educating the whole child. The "Best High Schools" have strong academics, a thriving fine arts program, numerous extra-curricular activities, a broad and inclusive athletic program, and more.

The "Best High Schools" really do it all well. Not just test scores.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Breaking Bad is Not "All That"

So, I just finished the first season of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan's hit AMC show about the high school chemistry teacher who "breaks bad" after learning he has stage-3 lung cancer and starts "cooking meth" with a former student. The show, which just wrapped last year, grabbed America's attention, especially during the fifth and final season, as everyone waited to learn the fate of "everyman" anti-hero Walter White. The show's raves have elevated it to nearly mythical status, with some even opining that Breaking Bad is "better than The Sopranos.

Well, I'm just not seeing it.

Walter White is an interesting character in some regards, true. And the story is compelling enough for me to venture into the second season. But better than The Sopranos? Blasphemy. And just naive and misguided TV watching. Overall, the characters in Breaking Bad are just too limited and un-interesting to hold a chance against the boys of Bada-Bing. David Chase created a world of New Jersey thuggery that was on par with The Godfather, and the characters of Paulie and Chris and Carmela and Meadow and so many others represented depths of humanity that Breaking Bad - at least in the first season - can't begin to match.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is Gladwell Wrong on "His" 10,000 Hours Theory

In one of his classic books of distilling complex scholarly research into infinitely accessible pop culture theorizing, Ideas Guru Malcolm Gladwell made a splash with his book Outliers that basically quantified "mastery" of anything as being the result of 10,000 hours of practice. There was a lot of great scholarly support for this theory - but now it is coming into question. Many researchers are arguing that pursuers of mastery need to "Ditch the 10,000 Rule."

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel aren't the first to challenge the theory, and Gladwell's promotion of it. Writer David Epstein argued as much in his best-selling book The Sports Gene:Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Epstein and others have presented numerous examples of people who reach mastery outside a quantifiable certainty of 10,000 hours. And, granted, it should be noted that Gladwell was promoting research that saw the 10K as "an average." But in our data crazy world, filled with "Tiger Mothers" who will chain their kids to a piano for hours, it's worth noting the flexibility in this "rule."

Can the Government Quantify Everything in Education?


That is the buzzword in education … and really everything these days. In the era of Big Data, we are planning to quantify everything that costs money, from health care to education to the price of avocados. And that can't be a bad thing, right?  With the rise of teacher-based accountability in many states including Colorado, and the huge faith being put in un-tested tests like the PARCC test, education "reformers" are arguing that a cost-benefit analysis is the answer to education's woes.

Now, that issue is hitting higher education, as the government seeks to protect its "investment" in colleges via things like FAFSA federal aid, Pell grants, and research grants. The question for many small liberal arts college facing scrutiny is whether the "US Colleges Should be Graded by the Government." Certainly, the rise of many for-profit universities (with abysmal graduation and job placement rates) like University of Phoenix and Westwood and Devry has led the government and tax-payer watchdogs to more closely scrutinize the industry. And, let's be clear, it is an industry.

So, can the government effectively quantify value to institutions of higher learning?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Richard Gere was just … cool. Breathless, ah!

When I was fourteen years old, and looking for the essence of identity, and seeking the cool that was just the sort of identity you'd expect a fourteen-year-old male to find perfect, I watched Breathless with Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky. The 1980s remake of the classic Jean-Luc Goddard film about fatalistic love resonated, for some reason, with me. In the scene below, Jessie watches Monica from the balcony. The scene is beautifully set against the amazing sounds of Philip Glass' piano composition "Openings," with a truly sexy saxophone accompaniment. It was … cool.

It was a moment that defined a lot for me, as strange as that sounds for a middle school Catholic kid in southern Illinois.  And then, of course, there was the ending. Perhaps, Richard Gere's greatest cinematic moment. It left us all … breathless, ahhhh.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Two Deaths Linked to Marijuana Use in Colorado

When the state of Colorado was considering legalization of marijuana for recreational use, one of the primary arguments is that cannabis is safer to use than alcohol, which is responsible for thousands of deaths each year. The statistics certainly support the idea that marijuana is not a deadly drug. It's been accepted that you can't overdose on weed, and no one gets violent or dies from high speed crashes when "baked."

Until now.

In the past month, two deaths in Colorado are being directly linked to ingestion of THC-infused products. In March, a college student died after jumping off a balcony in a Holiday Inn during what was apparently a marijuana-induced psychotic episode. Levy Thamba was a 19-year-old college student who had come to Colorado for spring break. It is believed that he joined friends here for the purpose of trying out Colorado's new recreational marijuana business. Thamba and friends bought several THC-infused "cookies." While the cookie's dosage was supposedly six servings, and Thamba's friends each had "a slice," Thamba apparently felt nothing early on and ingested the whole cookie. Later on, Thamba became agitated, anxious, and openly hostile. After his friends calmed him down several times, Thamba began hallucinating and left the room. He jumped over the balcony to his death.

The second death linked to ingesting marijuana "edibles" is being ruled a homicide after a man high on weed and hallucinating allegedly shot his wife in the head while she was on the phone with 911. Kristine Kirk was shot and killed by her husband who had apparently ingested marijuana candies a few hours before. Richard Kirk will be charged with first degree murder in the case. When he was arrested, he apparently made bizarre religious statements and admitted shooting her. Kristine Kirk pleaded with the police to hurry after her husband removed their gun from the safe and began threatening the family. The couple have three young children.

This certainly changes the image of marijuana as a safe alternative to alcohol.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

America Is Not a Democracy - It's Worse

For as long as I've been teaching, I have always encouraged my students to understand the nuanced reality that "America is not a democracy." Despite the platitudes and the grandstanding of talk television, the reality of "democracy" in America is, in fact, limited by the U.S. Constitution. Instead, as most astute voters will explain, the United States of America is a democratic republic. Basically, we have representative democracy in that the voters elect representatives to voice their views and govern for them. This is not a bad thing, per se. It's really a blessing. For democracy - or "rule by the people" - is actually a logistical nightmare. It quickly devolves into anarchy. This is what prompted Winston Churchill to note, "Democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others."

However, Churchill got it wrong.

The worst form of government is not a democracy, but more importantly, a democratic-republic that is actually not one, though it masquerades that way to a naive and ideological and misinformed electorate. And that is the conclusion drawn by a team of researchers at Princeton University. Apparently, close data analysis can reveal, and even prove, that America is not a democracy or democratic republic. It's, instead, a more sinister form of government than even fascism: The United States of America is an oligarchy. America is basically ruled by, and in the interest of, a small number of wealthy elite who can impose their will upon the legal system. Sadly, this is the system that people like Thomas Jefferson feared far more than tyranny. Tyranny is a clear and obvious enemy. An oligarch is a far more insidious one.

I have noted this for years in conversations and on blog discussions. America is an oligarchy because the power, for the most part, is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. And the recent SCOTUS rulings on campaign finance have only reinforced and emboldened this reality. Campaign finance is really nothing more than legalized bribery, and it's not "free" but instead very expensive speech. It only takes a cursory read of the news, or books like Perfectly Legal by David Cay Johnston to expose the true nature of our "democracy." Other great examples would include.

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown by Charles Morris

Come Home America by William Greider

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Should Anyone Take Advice from Charles Murray?

Years ago, I was talking with a colleague about one of conservative pundit Pat Buchanan's books, and when I professed to like some of Pat's ideas, after I distilled the crazy out, my colleague asked, "Which part of his racist, sexist, anti-Semitism do you like?" That was, of course, a bit of a conversation stopper. Similar contempt and criticism could be - and is often - leveled at social critic Charles Murray, whose 1994 book The Bell Curve seemed to promote institutionalized racism on par with eugenics"theories" of the past. Since then, Murray has continued to publish, and while he continually upsets people, I would still say there is some validity in what he says after we "sift through the crazy."

After his criticism of poor, lower, middle class White Americans in 2012's Coming Apart, Murray has returned with a new book of advice, written in almost a lighthearted and genuine self-helpy sort of way. It's almost like something All I Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten author Charles Fulghum would write, if Fulghum was much more close-minded and mean-spirited. Yes, irony is intended. So, anyway, Murray is offering "Advice for a Happy Life" in his book The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. Among the tidbits that Murray advises:
  • Consider marrying young
  • Learn to recognize a soul mate
  • Stop worrying about fame and fortune
  • Take religion seriously
And my favorite:
  • Watch Bill Murray's Groundhog Day repeatedly
There is a lot of wisdom and insight in Murray's advice, which truly does come across as curmudgeonly.  But nothing bad could come from the lessons in the Harold Ramis existential masterpiece about weatherman Phil Connors who lives a single day over and over until he gets it right.  Now, of course, all this is coming from Murray. So there is obviously another shoe to drop. And there is no shortage of critics weighing in on why we should not listen to Murray, or buy his curmudgeonly and biased book.

Josh Idelson writes for Salon.com about "Tramp stamps, racism, and icky pronouns; 8 new tips from … Charles Murray"

Arit John at the Wire.com asks, "Can Charles Murray do for lifestyle what he did for race relations?"

Jacob Osterhout of Newsweek.com lets us know that "Bell Curve author Charles Murray knows what's best for you"

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wall Street Rigged, or Is It?

If you ask the average American if the stock market is corrupt, or even "rigged" to favor the wealthy, the answer would most likely be an unequivocal "yes." However, that represents a more general attitude toward the system, rather than true knowledge that the system is designed in a biased fashion. Now, it seems, there might be legitimate evidence of such corruption. Best-selling author Michael Lewis has uncovered in his latest book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt evidence that high speed traders can literally "rig" the stock market. He recently shared the basic facts with 60 Minutes.

Following the airing of the segment, Lewis also hit the talk shows to discuss his ideas and concerns.

Of course, not everyone believes there is such systemic bias and corruption. Immediately after the CBS segment aired, many Wall Street insiders and advocates quickly denounced Lewis' claims as "muckraking." Jack Bogle said "Michael Lewis Is Wrong."  Business Week said as much about the realities of high frequency trading. Now, Felix Salmon of Slate Magazine offers a detailed criticism of Lewis' book, basically arguing that Wall Street always has and always will be geared toward the wealthy.

While Lewis may be overstating the obvious - it is easier for the wealthy with access to greater resources to make money in stocks - I don't doubt or discount his concerns about what he exposed as some people legally gaming the system. It's just not right, and I am glad to hear that the government has opened investigations into the suspicions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top High School Speakers Shine at Colorado's State Speech & Debate Tournament

“Anyone who bemoans the state of public education need only spend a weekend at a high school speech and debate tournament to have their faith restored.” That’s the perspective of Curt Stedron, debate coach at Littleton High School. And anyone who joined the legions of debaters, coaches, judges, family, and friends at the state championship this past weekend would have to agree.  As the snow swirled outside on a cold Saturday afternoon, things were heating up inside the classrooms at Valor Christian High School, which served as the host for the 2014 Colorado state championship of high school speech & debate.

Check in on my coverage in the Denver Post's Your Hub for more information about this great event.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Napping Your Way to Happiness and Success

When I lived in Taiwan - or when I travelled in Europe - I was always amused by the office workers who kept pillows in a drawer at work. They would, literally, fall asleep at their desks after lunch or in the early afternoon. Napping was just an accepted part of the culture. Americans, on the other hand, have always looked at it as a sign of sloth - at least after pre-school they do. Now, it appears the good word on napping is that it is valuable, even necessary, for health and well being.

Matt McFarland looks at the positive side of napping in his article "Why You Should Be Proud to Sleep on the Job," published recently in the Washington Post. The experts say napping is actually good for us, leading to less stress and lower risk of heart attacks. Napping actually makes people more productive. In fact, it was a key component in the genius of both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali, who would nap with metal objects in their hand, so they would wake up at the edge of consciousness when the objects fell to the floor.

While jolting myself awake to capture moments of creative insight doesn't sound fun to me, drifting off in my office chair or on the couch at about 3:00 pm sounds great. In fact, I love to nap. I will even nap around 8:00 pm, only to wake up, work some more, and then go back to bed at 11:00. Apparently, we are hardwired to napping, as most mammals do. It may have been a way to avoid the hot afternoon sun. And we should never resist the urge. Remember, that is one of Robert Fulghum's bits of advice in "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" - take a nap every afternoon.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Russell Simmons Meditates - And He Wants You To, As Well

"Money doesn't make you happy … but happy makes you money."

That bit of insight - which seems to be a bizarre merging of the Buddha & Donald Trump or the Dali Lama & Marc Cuban - is the wisdom of one of the original moguls behind the rise of hip-hop music and culture. Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and Phat Farm fashion line, is apparently quite the sage of the contemplative life.  Nicknamed "Rush,"or now Uncle Rush, Simmons concedes that at one time he was driven to succeed quickly and always be working.

However, somewhere along his journey to being one of the wealthiest and most successful African-American men in history, Russell Simmons discovered the value and benefit of being still. This epiphany has clearly brought him clarity and, perhaps, even more success. It certainly impacts his ability to enjoy and even perpetuate his success.

And Simmons concluded long ago, as all the great teachers do, that sharing the joy and sharing the wisdom is one of the primary benefits. Thus, he began to offer such wisdom through books such as Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. It contains the message that he believes so many of us need and could benefit from. "Everyone could benefit from stillness." Despite a driven life, Simmons learned that "the only true creativity came in moments in stillness.  Thoughtful conscious actions are what make you good … the fact is we need to be awake."