Monday, February 28, 2005

Environmentalism and the Skeptical Mind, Part 3

When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, contemporary reports said that it ejected more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all of man had in his entire existence. Given such a statement, how can we take seriously the claims of certain environmentalists that every industrial activity is destroying the planet? It would seem that Mother Nature herself is doing a bang-up job destroying the planet--yet the planet's still here.

Enter Bjorn Lomborg. Mr. Lomborg is a self-described Danish liberal, vegetarian, and former member of Greenpeace. He set out to determine statistically just how much damage man is doing to the planet, and when the facts didn't support his expectations, he had enough integrity to report what he'd found. He published his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in 2001.

What's the book say? Well, Lomborg looked at data from several reliable sources--including the UN, the World Bank, the OECD, etc--and found that things aren't as bad as you'd think. It took him 350-540 pages (depending on the edition), 2930 footnotes, 1800 bibliographical references, 173 graphs and figures, and 9 tables to discuss pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect. Here are just a few things he found:
1. There is more food today, and fewer people are starving.
2. Life expectancy world-wide has risen from 30 to 67 years in the last century.
3. Poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than it was in the preceeding 500.
4. Air pollution in the industrialized world has declined--in London the air hasn't been cleaner since medieval times.
5. We're not losing forests. (That doesn't mean Brazilians should clear-cut the Amazon.)
6. Oil won't run out.
7. "The world is not without problems, but on almost all accounts, things are going better and they are likely to continue to do so into the future."

Lomborg doesn't say or even imply that man should perform any activity he wants and ignore the environment. Instead, he presents information that allows us to make informed choices about courses of action rather than reacting to rhetoric, emotion, and anecdote. He believes in using cost-benefit analysis when making these decisions and shows that many so-called "green initiatives" are misguided and more likely to do serious harm than good. He criticizes the way many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of scientific data--just as Patrick Moore did--about the allocation of limited resources.

What is the world's biggest environmental threat? Poverty. Agreeing with Lomborg on that count is Jack Hollander, an emeritus professor at Berkeley who in 2003 published The Real Environmental Crisis: How Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy. Anyone who's been to a third world country will readily see the truth of such an assertion. Yet, the major environmental groups target developed countries, the ones who already demonstrate far more stewardship for the environment than any nation ever has.

Like Moore, Lomborg has his detractors. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty denounced Lomborg's book as one that fell "within the concept of scientific dishonesty." But why? And of course, environmental groups attacked his work and views, just as they attack anyone who doesn't subscribe to their orthodoxy. Where does the skeptical mind find the truth?

I myself don't find it amongst the pieces of sky that have fallen.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

We Interrupt Your Environmental Report... bring you a ski report!

Not that Sacramento isn't a nice destination in its own right--every city has its draws--but Sacramento is equidistant from two major destinations, San Francisco and the Sierra. In about 2 hrs I can be in the City or I can be pulling into a parking garage at one of the casinos on Virginia Street in Reno.

On Thursday I headed up Interstate 80. Boreal is 80 minutes away, and Reno is 40 minutes beyond that, so my plan was to ski at Boreal for a few hours and then stay the night in Reno. As it turned out, it was a good plan.

I got to Boreal a little before 3:30. You can get a half-day ticket at 3:30 and ski till 9pm under the lights. I didn't ski that late, but night skiing is amazing. There was between 111"-177" of snow; I skied the same place over Christmas when there was about 2-3", and that was man-made. This time it was amazing. Powder and packed powder everywhere. It got into the 40s during the day with only a few clouds in the sky so there was a little ice, especially at night. But still, freakin' amazing. And, it being Thursday, there weren't that many people on the slopes. Several times I would come off a run and ski right onto the next chair going up.

When I left I kept heading east and went to Reno. The Sands Regency sent me an offer of a $17 room so I took them up on it. Played a little, lost a little, played a little, lost a little--get the idea? Then I went to this little karaoke bar I know of not too far from the Sands, and did karaoke for the first time since "the incident" of a few years ago. This time I did songs I was reasonably comfortable with and they were fairly well received. Not that many people singing, so I actually did 4 songs (a new record for me): Turn The Page by Bob Seger, Only Wanna Be With You by Hootie and the Blowfish, Margaritaville (complete with margarita in hand) by Jimmy Buffett, and Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot. After all that, it was time for long winter's nap.

Got up Friday morning, checked out, and went to Atlantis. They used to send me free goodies but apparently I'm not so high on their list anymore. The best I get now is a buy-a-night, get-the-2nd-night-free deal. Played there for a little bit and then went to the Cal-Neva for my $4 breakfast--it's enough to feed a platoon. Then I started home.

Clouds had moved in over the summit that night, and as I passed Boreal it got kinda dark. By the time I was approaching Baxter there were flurries coming down! Baxter is where you usually put on chains, but that's when heading east, and the snow wasn't even sticking to the road--yet traffic was at a dead stop. I was only about 200m from the accident but it was a doozy. Crunched cars on the right of the freeway, couple cars in the snowbank on the left, and one SUV upside down against a tree on the left. Not too much beyond that accident, heading the other direction, there was obviously another major accident. All I could see was serious gray smoke coming from behind the trees, but the traffic was stopped eastbound for miles and emergency vehicles were trying to use the left shoulder to get to it. I counted at least 3 ambulances, so you know that's not good.

Got home and put my clothes in the washer--darn, does everyone in Nevada smoke? I guess in that regard I'm kinda spoiled living in California.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled environmentalism report.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Environmentalism and the Skeptical Mind, Part 2

"My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R..."
"America is turning 7UP!"
"Weebles wobble but they don't fall down!"
"Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!"

After all these years I still remember those jingles from commercials. The tunes are still in my head! And who doesn't remember the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" commercial?

There are two other commercials I remember from my childhood. One showed a (fake?) Native American, paddling his canoe and walking around places strewn with litter. At the end of the commercial a single tear fell from one eye. Another commercial had a young boy saying that if we didn't conserve, there'd be no gas left when kids his age were able to drive--and I was about his age. Those two commercials had an obvious environmental intent, the first for the greater social conscience and the second to scare people.

Which brings me to Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace. Moore grew up in Winter Harbour, a village on the northwestern edge of Vancouver Island. His father and grandfather were loggers and his mother's family were fishermen. He grew up in an area where industrialization and nature coexisted peacefully. He earned a PhD in Ecology.

He protested American nuclear tests in the Pacific. He was famously photographed sitting on a seal pup, preventing it from being clubbed to death. He set out in dinghies to oppose Japanese whalers. He co-founded Greenpeace.

In 1986, he left the organization he co-founded back in the 70's. Some call him an eco-Judas, turning his back on everything he believed in. He'd rather think of himself as the apostle Paul, who converted to Christianity after railing against it for most of his life. But he has a valid explanation for why he left. Like Ronald Reagan, who said that the Democrat Party left him and not vice versa, so it is with Patrick Moore and Greenpeace.

In the mid-80's, Greenpeace was looking for other issues to legitimize its existence. They'd succeeded in getting their founding principles adopted by mainstream citizens. Greenpeace "lost its science and logic and became driven by something else: an anti-corporate, anti-globalist agenda." The endgame came with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when "an influx of peace activists and Marxist ideologues into the green movement destroyed the remnants of a science-based agenda," said Moore. "Most environmentalists have [now] adopted zero-tolerance positions in order to remain adversarial. The only way to stay adversarial is to adopt even more extreme positions." He accuses Greenpeace of using agenda-based "science" to misinform and distort the truth--junk science. He also claims that they are more concerned with maintaining problems so they can push so-called solutions that further a leftist political agenda.

So what does Moore advocate? Sustainable development, which he defines as providing for human needs in ways that reduce negative impact on the environment while also being socially acceptable and technically and economically feasible. He now supports nuclear energy and is an avid proponent of genetically engineered foods, especially golden rice. He's still against unsustainable practices in whaling, fishing, waste dumping, nuclear testing, etc, but believes there are sustainable practices or alternatives available. He's capable of listing them :-)

So we have an avowed environmentalist, a PhD in Ecology, co-founder of Greenpeace, who says that today's activists are philosophically unmoored and blindly technophobic. He claims that "their idea is that all human activity is negative, while trees are by nature good. That's a religious interpretation, not a scientific or logical interpretation." Now that he accomplished all of his early goals, he wants to stand for something instead of always against something. He's still proud of what he accomplished in Greenpeace--he doesn't sound much like a turncoat to me.

He sounds like someone we should listen to. Check out his web site here.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Environmentalism and the Skeptical Mind, Part 1

Here in California, a little environmentalism goes a long way. Our state quarter shows John Muir, founder fo the Sierra Club, standing in Yosemite Valley. We pay more for gasoline than residents of other states, not just because we want cleaner-burning fuels, but because regulations make impossible the expansion or building of refineries. Julia Butterfly makes news, as does the Earth Liberation Front (I saw their work on a vandalized SUV just yesterday).

Environmental education is built into California's education code. Sections 8700-8707 outline the Legislature's intent in very broad terms. Key phrases that jump out at me are:
1) Section 8700: "provide students with educational materials that are balanced and objective in their coverage"
2) Section 8702: "build necessary attitudes of stewardship"
3) Section 8705: "conservaton education...that will help each student develop a healthy attitude of personal responsibility toward his environment"

I can live with these. They seem entirely reasonable.

There are, however, two P words--politics and propaganda--that take environmentalism to absurd extremes. Al Gore's book Earth In The Balance was discussed in the 1992 election, and the movie The Day After Tomorrow was touted in the 2004 election season. It doesn't matter that Republican President Lincoln freed the slaves, that Republican President Eisenhower sent federal soldiers to Central High in Little Rock, or that Republican President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency; everyone knows that Republicans are racists and hate the environment. President Bush's Clean Skies Initiative is derided and his rejection of the Kyoto Protocols assailed.

National defense is a Republican issue and the environment is a Democrat issue. Environmentalism is now so politicized as to make true progress next to impossible. The issue is so important that some middle ground must be found. But we can't find that middle ground unless we hear from the other side of the debate.

By "the other side" I don't mean major polluters and despoilers. No, I mean we must hear from rational environmentalists who view problems and solutions through the lens of science and not shrill emotionalism. Over the course of my next couple posts I'll introduce you to two such men: Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and Bjorn Lomborg, a self-described liberal vegetarian Danish academic.

I hope you'll find these men, and the posts about them, interesting.

Contract Settlement Reached

A few commenters seem to think I work in a teacher's paradise. While my school site is well run, my district is not. I just checked my union's web site and, lo and behold, we've reached a contract settlement. Here's how bad things are:

1) Secondary school student contacts go from 165/day (33/class average) to 178/day. They drop to 175 for 2006-2007, and back to 165 after that. It's still *entirely* too many students in a class. There was nothing in the contract about the 20:1 class-size reduction in grades K-3; perhaps that's not a contract issue, but merely a management issue.

2) There will be a one-year freeze in "step" advancement. If this year you get paid for having 5 years of teaching service, next year you'll also get paid for 5 years of teaching service. The year after that you'll be jumped up to 7, but with no retroactive pay.

But the good news? We'll only be contractually required to be at school 15 minutes before the start of the school day instead of 30! As if that matters at all.

Smackdown In Sactown

With the exception of a visit to CSU Sacramento as a high school freshman to watch a Saturday theater performance of Romeo and Juliet (we were reading it in class), I don't think I'd ever set foot on a university campus prior to my first day at West Point. I'll be honest and state that I didn't even know where Stanford was, although I applied there and it was less than 3 hrs from my home. I don't want my son to operate from that same deficit.

Yesterday we went to CSU Sacramento to watch the Smackdown In Sactown. What is this, you may ask? Was the WWE in town? or the Jerry Springer Show? No, nothing so pedestrian. It was a "competitive robotics" event, put on by (I believe--someone correct me if I'm wrong) the ME department there. Think RoboWars or BattleBots.

Yesterday's event was Antweight; each robot had to weigh one pound or less. Two at a time the 'bots were put into an enclosed (5' x 5' ?) plexiglass cage and and they had 2 minutes to get the other one into a "pit" in the corner of the cage.

There were several ways of doing it. Some had "cutters", actual spinning saw blades or rotors to disable the other robot so it could be pushed into the pit. Others had hook-like devices to catch the other robot. Some relied solely on speed and agility to maneuver and then ram their opponent into the pit.

There were enough displays there to keep even my son occupied during the intermissions. We were there over 4 hours and he didn't get bored. In fact, he wants to go to the Robolympics in San Francisco next month, where the bigger 'bots be battling (I love alliteration). Perhaps I'll go to and find out more :-)

Kudos to everyone who had a part in putting together the Smackdown In Sactown. Great family entertainment.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

My Links To Other Blogs

I thought I'd direct your attention to the Links section of this blog, located in the left column below the Recent Posts and Archives. These are blogs I read, and if you like what you read here, you might like what you read there.

Instapundit is the big daddy. If I'm not mistaken, it's the most-read blog on the planet. It's written by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor in Tennessee. He focuses on current events. And Nikon cameras. And once, cookware!

Joanne Jacobs writes an education blog; she and Kimberly Swygert of Number 2 Pencil were my impetus for starting Right On The Left Coast. Both are exceptional. Kimberly's a psychometrician (which does not mean she's crazy about the metric system), so when she says something about standardized testing, pay attention.

The Education Wonks write some of their own articles and link to others. As the name implies, they, too, focus on education issues.

Oxblog is a mostly-political blog started by 3 graduate/doctoral students attending Oxford University. I don't always agree with their views, but the scholarship and intellect that goes into their posts is impeccable. It's definitely a few cuts above your standard 8th-grade-level-newspaper analysis.

Miller's Time is written by a fellow Sacramento conservative who, coincidentally, is working towards being a teacher. We met after he called me an idiot in one of his blog posts and I spent hours "googling" until I found an email address to contact him; to his credit, he retracted that statement and now we stay in touch! Pretty good blog. I think he has aspirations of being the next Hugh Hewitt.

I discovered Photon Courier today, after the author left a comment on one of my posts. I was so impressed with the level of the writing that I decided to link it here, at least temporarily, so others can check it out. The focus there is "politics, culture, business, and technology."

I'm sure I'll be adding others in the weeks and months ahead. I hope you enjoy these blogs as much as I do.

Pet Peeves

The first week of school my students are made painfully aware of my three major pet peeves:

1. Putting your feet on the desk in front of you. Don't do it!!! It's annoying to the person in front of you, especially when you're tapping away at a song with a different beat than the one that's in their head. Additionally, you're eventually going to be scraping the mud off your shoes onto the books that are on the rack that you're using as a footrest. But the biggest reason: your parents taught you to keep your feet off the furniture.

2. Wadding up papers. Imagine that ideal scene where all students in a class are quiet and working intently (it happens, honest!!!), and then one person wads up a piece of paper and wants to play for the Sacramento Kings. If the noise from the paper didn't get everyone off task (one piece of paper is actually quite loud) then the celebration or dejection from the success or failure of the basket attempt will. Additionally, the one day a week I hand back papers, that's 160 students getting up to 4 papers each. My two little garbage cans won't hold that many wads, but they will hold that many smooth, pristine, flat pieces of paper. I insist that students gliiiiiiiiiiiiide their unwanted papers into the garbage can.

3. Confetti. Those little shreds of paper, the remainders after the paper is ripped out of a spiral binder, will inevitably end up on the floor or just left on the desk. Why our students have such a problem with picking up after themselves I do not know (actually I do, but I don't want to say it here), but the confetti drives me nuts.

I've let students know about those pet peeves each year I've taught. Now, for the first time, I'm ready to add another.

It seems common, at least at my school, for students to come in late to class with a note from another teacher asking them to be excused because they were finishing up a test or quiz. I have students who ask me if they can stay into the next period to finish. No! Do your English during English class, do your chemistry during chemistry class, and do your math during math class. To everything there is a season, or something like that. If you don't finish a test/quiz during class, and the teacher wants to allow you to finish, they should give you time during *their* class the next day, not unilaterally decide that the test or quiz they're giving is more important than what's going on in my class.

This wouldn't be a such a big deal for me if it were infrequent, but it's not infrequent. It's common. In fact, it's so common that I'm ready to tell students that I won't accept notes from other teachers because other teachers do not have the authority to excuse students from my class. When students ask me if they can stay after the bell rings, I tell them to go ask their next period teacher--and if it's ok, they can come back and finish. At least then the teacher knows the whereabouts of the student and can mark the attendance sheets accurately. But to me it's just a courtesy that I extend to my colleagues, allowing them to make the decision if a student can miss part of their class.

I feel much better for having gotten that off my chest :-)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

We're Rooting For You, Tyler

Hope everything goes well. Email me at school when you can and let us all know how you're doing. See you in a month.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Eating Lunch With Other Teachers

We have three small staff lounges on our high school campus. I frequent the lounge behind the main office before school and the one closest to my classroom at lunchtime. I enjoy the adult contact and encounter different teachers at the two different lounges and times. Some are teachers I'd never see otherwise and I value that interaction.

Background for this story: our school district is taking the entire next week off for President's Week. We probably start earlier than you do in August and probably get out later than you do in June, but we're taking next week off no matter what.

Anyway, I was discussing at lunch today the fact that I'd polled one of my classes, and they thought it would be better for me to give them their chapter test this Friday (while the information is still fresh in their minds) rather than on the Tuesday we get back, after they've had a over a week to forget some of it. The vote was almost unanimous, so yesterday I agreed to reschedule their test to this coming Friday.

Later it occurred to me that many, if not most, teachers will probably have some kind of quiz or test scheduled for Friday. The kids will be swamped. What could I do? I'd already agreed to the proposal, and it wouldn't seem right to get their input, act on it, and then go back on it--all within a day! So today I proposed, and they gleefully accepted, an offer to make the test a take-home test over the week off.

Perhaps I'm appearing extremely wishy-washy, changing my plans each day. I'm not usually like this, but since the students don't seem to mind and I'm gaining two extra instructional days, I'll forgive myself this once.

While discussing it today, the thought occurred to me that I could give a short quiz on Friday (the "quick quiz" that I had originally planned to give Friday anyway) and could give the test as a take-home test over the week off. And if they don't bring it back on Monday, major points taken off.

One teacher thought that would be a bad idea. She pointed out that several will forget it; even at 16 they're kids, and consequences or not, plenty will still forget about it after a week. And I really don't want to take off major points, but how else could I get them to bring it back that day? She suggested that I make it due Tuesday; everyone could get a subtle reminder on Monday, and then there's no excuse for Tuesday.

Not bad, and I'd still get those two instructional days. I'm a week behind the other Algebra II courses, and if I can reclaim those two days with little impact on achievement, then we're all better off.

Then we came up with bonus points for bringing it back Monday, major points off if not returned by Tuesday. Not a bad suggestion, and again, I wouldn't have to feel guilty for slamming people who don't bring it back on Tuesday. But there's already a bonus problem on the test; why give more extra points for bringing it back on the due date?

More discussion. Consensus view: take off 5% if it's not brought back Monday, 20% if not brought back Tuesday, and 100% after that. Going once, going twice, sold.

Key points here:

1. Why did I even worry about the fact that other teachers will be giving tests/quizzes Friday? Perhaps I'm getting soft in my old age. A moment of weakness.

2. I like this solution. Would I have come up with it on my own? Probably not.

3. Please, don't comment that this is just how cooperative learning is supposed to work. No it's not! I conferred with others who have different experience in this field than I've had. In cooperative learning, they've all had about the same level of education (at least in upper math) and wouldn't be relying on their experience to tell me the equation of the hyperbola that's centered at ....

4. No one was being negative about students. In fact, that's a nice bonus of eating in the lounge that I do--it's almost always a very positive place. None of that stereotypical complaining/gossiping/badmouthing going on that we were warned about back in the credentialing classes.

5. One of our newer teachers joined us today, for probably the first time. Usually she eats lunch in her room. We're entitled by contract to a duty-free lunch, and today she learned the value of taking it. She was so "uplifted" when the end-of-lunch bell rang, I'm sure she'll be back tomorrow.

The end. I didn't say it was a barn-burner! But it was a nice lunch.

Oh, and we're having a potluck in that lounge on Friday.

Teaching: Craft, Trade, or Profession?

While at West Point I learned that there is an "art of war" as well as a "military science". I accepted that I was a member of the profession of arms, a profession that was part science and part art. It was science in that it could be studied, be analyzed, and have lessons applied. It was an art in that applying the science didn't guarantee a replicable outcome, and some people (think Robert E. Lee or George Patton) just have a flair for it. To quote from The West Point Military History Series: Definitions and Doctrine of the Military Art, "Physical components, such as the size of armies and the relative lethality of weapons, were known to be important. In addition, intangible components, such as methods, morale, and leadership, were recognized as potentially decisive factors...." Science and art.

Is teaching a profession or a skill? Are we professionals or skilled laborers?

The question is non-trivial. The knee-jerk reaction is to say that of course teachers are professionals. But why? What exactly is a professional? What divides professionals from skilled laborers? I thought it might be instructive to list some fields that most everyone should agree are professions, and some that most everyone should agree are skilled labor, and a gray area, and see if that helps.

Clearly professional
-elevated clergy
-military officer/NCO corps

Clearly skilled labor
-computer programmers
-day-care providers

Gray area? Up for grabs
-law enforcement
-airline pilots
-business owner
-news anchor/reporter

Are there clearly identifiable components in these categories? What is it that makes doctors clearly professionals, mechanics clearly skilled laborers, but puts chefs and teachers in limbo? Unions exist in all three categories, as do specific training/education and licensing requirements. There's good (and not-so-good) money to be made in each of these categories. Clearly, money, unions, and education are not the sole determiners. Is a professional artist truly in a profession, or a craft? What is the difference?

Joanne links here to an article comparing teachers to salespeople. Is sales a profession, a skilled position, a craft, or a trade? I'm not sure. Is Bill Gates a professional? By what standard? Michael Jordan? Michael Jackson? Jennifer Aniston? How about Sir Ian McKellan? or Sir Paul McCartney? or Lady Margaret Thatcher? or the current and previous six US presidents, all of whom were either governors or vice presidents? Was Sam Walton a professional? Why or why not? My dictionary defines "profession" as "an occupation or vocation requiring training in the liberal arts or the sciences and advanced study in a specialized field". Does that mean there's no such thing, semantically speaking, as a professional athlete?

And what about "the oldest profession"? :-)

I'm beginning to wonder if the difference between a profession and a skilled labor position (or a craft or trade) is merely the esteem in which we hold the field. How important is the work, how arduous are the barriers to entry, how much sacrifice is required? How much do we respect the people in the field as a group?

By my ramblings it's clear that I don't have a definitive answer. Therefore, I can't tell you for sure where teachers fall. I'm open to comments, suggestions, and insight.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Mario Gave Me Many Kisses Today

No, dear reader, it's not like that! Get your mind out of the gutter.

Today, February 14th, is the second best day of the school year to mooch candy off of students; the best day, of course, is November 1st, the day after Halloween. In one class I mentioned that nobody had given me any candy, and one male student asked if I'd like some kisses. Not taken aback at all, I said sure, raised my eyebrows, and smiled--and he handed me a handful of Hershey's candies.

I don't feel cheated.... :-)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Which Is The Worst?

If you've never read Mark Steyn's columns, or heard him as a guest on Hugh Hewitt's talk radio show, you are missing out on one of the keenest minds and sharpest wits around. Here's today's column, and while you read it, ask yourself with is worst--the German woman the government wants to work in a brothel, the terrorist released from prison, or the art project that got more accolades than just an A. I'd grow weary of all the idiocy if it wasn't so important.

For more on the art project, click here.

Political Correctness Indoctrination

On Friday at our school we had what everyone agrees was the best, most entertaining rally in years. Kudos to those who put it on.

In honor of GALA (Guys attend, ladies ask--different term for Sadie Hawkins) there were several different Battle of the Sexes competitions throughout the week, culminating in events at the rally. One rally competition had a woman counselor, and her male husband/chem teacher, do sumo wrestling. They were outfitted with these huge padded costumes complete with those cloth "thongs" that sumos wear. They looked hilarious, and the overstuffed padding (think pillows all over their bodies--where do you rent those types of costumes?) made them waddle instead of walk. When one would fall over during the wrestling, people had to go lift them back up to their feet. Loved it when one would fall over and the other would body slam--then they were both helpless and had to be picked up. Wildly entertaining!

Talking about it in one of my classes, I said, "I think it was racially insensitive because we were making fun of the ancient Japanese tradition of the sumo." There was a pause as students thought about it, and then one said, "You know, you're right. I hadn't thought about that."


Saturday, February 12, 2005

Took My Son To San Francisco Today

It was time to go somewhere, and for some reason the boy likes that city. Perhaps it has something to do with all the touristy things along Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. I dislike the drive to the City, despise driving in the City, hate trying to find parking there. But I did all three without major mishap.

I thought we'd do some new things this time, so our first stop was the Exploratorium. I first went there in 5th grade and the place hasn't lost any of its allure. It's so much better than its web site makes it look. Skip the Museum of Modern Art--you can see that stuff in any big city. If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair--and go check out the Exploratorium.

The next place I'll recommend, which we didn't visit this trip but did on our last trip, is Fort Point. Fort Point is a Civil War-era brick fort that guarded the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. For those who won't make it to Fort Sumter any time soon, Fort Point provides a left coast opportunity to see such a fortification. During the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930's, Fort Point was supposed to be demolished. However, the designer saw the fort and redesigned the south anchorage of the bridge in order to save the historical site. Interesting history, amazing views, relatively off the beaten path. A great combination.

Anyway, after leaving the Exploratorium we took a trip down Lombard Street, which may still be listed in the Guiness Book as the crookedest street in the world. Tourists love it, the people who live on it must certainly be used to the traffic by now. Make sure you're driving a compact car! From there we went down Columbus in order to get a good look at the Transamerica Pyramid, and then on to Fisherman's Wharf.

My son is not the most academically minded youngster and found the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum to be more engaging than the Exploratorium. It cost over $20 for the two of us, and we went through the whole thing in 45 minutes or less. Who could fail to be fascinated by the Ripley stuff? We skipped the Wax Museum a few storefronts down, though, despite the fact that Brad Pitt was at the entrance.

And then to Pier 39. Shops, bright and colorful lights, and the smells of sweets make that place a magnet. No trip to The City is complete without going there, though, no matter how old you are. We could have stopped at any of the several clam-chowder-in-a-sourdough-bread-bowl places all along Pier 39 and the Wharf but settled on In-N-Out Burger in order to get the parking garage ticket validated (it still cost me $20 to park for 4 hrs).

And now we're home. He's long since been tucked in. I'm on my way now.

Friday, February 11, 2005

A Student's Comment

I gave quizzes in all my classes today. One student, upon finding out he scored 100% on his quiz, said the following (and I paraphrase):

"I had no idea what to do! So I tried to think logically, what could I do here? What will work? And I made sure each step was correct mathematically. I can't believe that worked! Who knew?"

He was doing so well up until that last part....

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My Favorite Sections of California Education Code

I've always tried to make it a point to know about the rules that govern my job, and to follow those rules religiously. Additionally, I enjoy being a resource people can come to when they want accurate information and not just the rumor mill on a topic. This knowledge, and my insistence on following rules, has saved my hide on more than one occasion. Sometimes it makes me a pain in the backside to my bosses who knowingly violate such rules or allow rules to be violated.

But that's a topic for another post.

Tonight I thought I'd share with you some of my favorite sections of the California Education Code, both serious and humorous, along with applicable commentary. Conveniently, much of California's law can be found online by going to and clicking on "California Law". It's amazing, the things you learn when you actually read the law. (Want a real surprise? Read what the law says about Gifted and Talented Education and see if your school complies. It probably doesn't.) So now, without further ado, here's what the law actually says on certain topics.

48908. All pupils shall comply with the regulations, pursue the required course of study, and submit to the authority of the teachers of the schools.

Read it again, boys and girls. It's not just a class or school rule, it's the law. This means you could actually be cited for failure to comply. This one isn't funny, it's serious. Let me add, however, that teachers should exercise their authority in a responsible manner or risk breeding comtempt for authority and for the law from which it emanates. I wonder, though--is there a separate section that deals with submitting to the authority of principals and vice principals? I haven't looked!

49066. (a) When grades are given for any course of instruction taught in a school district, the grade given to each pupil shall be the grade determined by the teacher of the course and the determination of the pupil's grade by the teacher, in the absence of clerical or mechanical mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency, shall be final.

I discussed my standards in my February 7th post called Grading. I also stated that I don't change grades because of parent complaints, student tears, or personal convenience. This law says I don't have to. Really aggressive/overly protective parents, this means that a call to the principal won't be effective, either.

52720. In every public elementary school each day during the school year at the beginning of the first regularly scheduled class or activity period at which the majority of the pupils of the school normally begin the schoolday, there shall be conducted appropriate patriotic exercises. The giving of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America shall satisfy the requirements
of this section.

In every public secondary school there shall be conducted daily appropriate patriotic exercises. The giving of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America shall satisfy such requirement. Such patriotic exercises for secondary schools shall be conducted in accordance with the regulations which shall be adopted by the governing board of the district maintaining the secondary school.

Can you believe there was vicious opposition at my school to implementing this law and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, so we settled on a daily patriotic quote instead?

51530. No teacher giving instruction in any school, or on any property belonging to any agencies included in the public school system, shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate or to inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism.

In prohibiting the advocacy or teaching of communism with the intent of indoctrinating or inculcating a preference in the mind of any pupil for such doctrine, the Legislature does not intend to prevent the teaching of the facts about communism. Rather, the Legislature intends to prevent the advocacy of, or inculcation and indoctrination into, communism as is hereinafter defined, for the purpose of undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state.

For the purposes of this section, communism is a political theory that the presently existing form of government of the United States or of this state should be changed, by force, violence, or other unconstitutional means, to a totalitarian dictatorship which is based on the principles of communism as expounded by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.

Mr. McCarthy? Your wife's calling. There's something under the bed.

Seriously, this has to be a leftover from the 50's. So here we are, 50 years later, and that law is still on the books. This tells me it's never been challenged (I find that hard to believe, especially here in lefty/litigious California) or that's it's constitutional. I must admit, I support the intent of this section. While some might cry that it runs afoul of the 1st Amendment, I assert that no one can reasonably claim that a government entity should be required to continue to employ individuals who seek the overthrow of that government! So while this section appears anachronistic, its genesis is in the very serious topic of just how much dissent a worker can demonstrate while on the job and on the public dime. Still, I have a few colleagues whom I believe cross this line, who in my opinion advocate for Communism--or at least for extreme socialism. I'm not the school's chief law enforcer, though, and there are other issues on which I'm more willing to plant my standard and fight. But I know, and they know I know, and we watch each other through binoculars from across the border. Still, we're more than civil to each other. In the 70's we called that detente.

49050. No school employee shall conduct a search that involves:
(a) Conducting a body cavity search of a pupil manually or with an instrument.
(b) Removing or arranging any or all of the clothing of a pupil to permit a visual inspection of the underclothing, breast, buttocks, or genitalia of the pupil.

I have to ask. What exactly was going on in schools such that this law had to be written? And freakin' instruments??? Dear God!

Unfortunately, part of this law is no longer applicable. On any given day I can see, with no rearranging at all, the undergarments of dozens of my students. Why do boys want me to see their boxers? Why do girls want me to see their thongs? Parents, why are your 16-year-old daughters even wearing thongs? Ewwwwwwwwwww!

When I started writing this post, my intent was to make it funny. Now that I reread it I find that I've failed miserably. I guess I'll have to content myself with the hope that you, the reader, might at least have learned something from it.

I have in mind a future post about laws that schools violate on a regular basis. For a sneak preview, go check out Ed Code Section 38118.

Good night.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I Have Students Who Read This

Now I have to be careful.

I've always known that when writing this blog I have to be careful about confidentiality. If I want to complain about the parent conference or the disruptive student, I know to do so in only the broadest of terms or risk termination. If I want to discuss obnoxious colleagues or lunatic administration I'm on safer legal ground, but no less treacherous a situation.

In short, I've chosen not to be anonymous in writing this blog. I have to be careful to conduct myself here with the same decorum I would if I were discussing these topics out in the quad at school. That may take some of the fun out of it, but it should ensure that I provide a "family-friendly", reasoned, hopefully intellectual product for you, the reader.

Update, 11:30pm 2/11: To read an article about people getting fired because of their blogs, click here.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Funnier Side of Merit Pay

A teacher at my school penned the following guest column for the major Sacramento daily newspaper. It's well worth a read:
Look fast--there's no telling when it will hide behind the "gotta pay for it" screen.

For my thoughts on merit pay, scroll through the January 2005 archives or click here:


Grades are the reason students do schoolwork. Without grades, what would be the point? Education for its own sake? :-)

Despite the sarcastic tone, I'm very sympathetic to students who want to get good grades; I was one of them. Grades were, and for many students are, an extrinsic motivation to do one's best.

But that's not necessarily what they're for.

Grades are supposed to be a snapshot in time of a student's progress to date. They're supposed to combine mastery of material (tests), preparation (quizzes), and work expended (assignments and/or projects) into a neat little package. Personally, I weight academic performance and mastery of material rather heavily (50% of a grade comes from tests, another 30% from quizzes). My objective is to teach math and assess student learning in math and my grading policy matches that objective.

The grade I assign (or "calculate", but never "give") does not reflect a student's value as a person, whether or not I like that student, or how hard I think that student might have worked in or out of class. It is an objective assessment of performance. The only subjectivity in my grading is in determining how much, if any, partial credit to grant for wrong answers.

In an effort to be impartial, I'm relatively inflexible in grading. I use a computerized spreadsheet to calculate grades, rounded to the nearest tenth of a percentage point. Cutoff scores for each letter grade are posted. Students receive their work back weekly, and current grades (and the data supporting them) are posted by student ID number, not name, weekly. Students thus have plenty of opportunities to identify and correct any bookkeeping errors on my part or to argue for additional points after a test or quiz. The inflexibility comes in not changing letter grades.

"I have a 79.8%. Mr. So-and-so rounds that up to an 80%. Why do I get a C+ in your class?" Questions like this occur every grading period. If I rounded to the nearest percentage point like Mr. So-and-so, I'd have people with 89.4% complaining that they're only a tenth of a percentage point away from an A-. A line must be drawn somewhere if my grading is to have any integrity at all, and to me, 79.9% is a C+ and 80% is a B-. Arbitrary, perhaps, but not capricious. Nor is it negotiable. I won't change a grade because I like the student, or because a parent calls, or because the grade I assign will keep the student out of Harvard or Stanford or even Sac State. Students are well aware of my standards. It's up to them to reach those standards, not up to me to lower them.

Grade inflation? I don't think so. Not on my watch.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Best Part of the Super Bowl So Far

Not having to see Paul McCartney's nipple :-)

When *Would* You Support A War?

Was the American Revolution justified? It's important to remember that the American colonists paid lower taxes to the crown than Englishmen living on that Blessed Isle, but the colonists had no say in the taxes. Worth a war? Did anything good come of it?

Was the Civil War justified? Prior to that war, common usage was "The United States are..." instead of today's "The United States is..." and that's just one demonstration of how states were considered much more independent then than they are today. Spill blood because a few Southerners didn't want to be part of the US anymore? There are people suggesting secession today--maybe they think the Civil War wasn't justified. Would have saved several hundred thousand lives and those red states wouldn't even be a part of this country. Sorry about all those blacks who'd still be slaves.

Germany and Italy never attacked us in WWII. Should we have ignored Europe and gone solely after the Japanese? Or do we have to consider why they attacked Pearl Harbor in the first place, and correct whatever it was that we were doing wrong?

Was Gulf War I justified? It certainly passed John Kerry's "Global Test". How about Afghanistan? Gulf War II?

It should be pretty obvious where I stand. For those of you who do not agree with my position, I refer you to the questions at this web site:

Be sure to read the comments, too.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

And I Thought The McDonald's Lawsuit Was Bad

In my post on Personal Responsibility (Jan 26, 2005, in the Archives) I blasted the two fat kids who are suing McDonald's over their own obesity. Talk about the need for tort reform! Talk about a frivolous lawsuit! I thought I'd seen it all.

Please tell me it can't get any worse than this:,1413,36%7E53%7E2691638,00.html

Two teenage girls decided one summer's evening to skip a dance where there might be cursing and drinking to stay home and bake cookies for their neighbors.

Big mistake.

They were sued, successfully, for an unauthorized cookie drop on one porch.

I'm speechless.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Who Determines How We Teach?

Apparently in New York, the Department of Education does.,0,185126.story?coll=nyc-homepage-breaking2
Stop talking in class -- that's the message many teachers are getting from the Education Department.

Many are ready to overthrow a "workshop model" of teaching that limits lessons to 10 minutes, with the chunk of the 40-minute period reserved for student group work -- with minimal adult interference allowed, some said -- and the last five minutes spent sharing results.

"We are no longer teachers. We are coat racks," said Steve Nathan, a social studies teacher at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills.

This goes back to the adage I learned in my credentialing courses--the teacher should be the "guide on the side, not the sage on the stage." I always assumed that the school district paid me a moderate amount of money on the assumption that I know more about math than anyone else in my classroom, and was in that classroom to share that knowledge with my students. Good thing I don't work in New York! Imagine how foolish I'd feel to find out I'm only there to babysit.

This brings up a couple of points. The first is pay. Those teachers seem to be there solely to babysit. Perhaps they should get babysitting pay! Actually, I calculated what that would be once. Let's see, $4 an hour, times 150-165 students a day, times 181 school days. That comes out to anywhere from $108,000 to $119,000. Not a bad deal. I doubt, though, that those New York teachers are making this much.

The second point is the sheer stupidity of thinking that children should teach themselves. Our system of mathematics has developed through the exertions of the best minds our human race has had to offer. Why do we think children and teenagers should be able to invent what took those great minds thousands of years to develop? Pythagoras and Euclid never even saw Algebra II material.

In what other field do we expect people to teach themselves? In trades, people start as apprentices, progress to journeymen, and then become masters. In professions, people learn under the tutelage of those who have already mastered the skills of the profession. We don't put students in front of a piano and expect them to start playing Bach; they learn the notes and chords, then Chopsticks, and they move on from there. We don't expect teenagers to teach themselves to drive, and we don't expect medical students to figure out how to perform surgery. Privates learn their skills from their sergeants. Rookies learn from veterans. Why in education do we refuse to accept that those without requisite knowledge should learn from those that have it? Such refusal boggles the mind.

Here's a little more from the article:

The result is that instructors, trying to "sneak in teaching," have been written up for workshop model lapses, union officials said. Other teachers have conspired with students to act immersed in the workshop model if an administrator pops into the room.

"Can you imagine trying to teach physics in 10-minute sound bites?" said Jeff Zahler, teachers union representative for Queens school district 30.

And even some honors students are critical of the model. Eighth-grader Johanna Sanders, 13, said, "You go to school to learn, for the teachers to teach you. The teacher shouldn't be paid just to stand there and answer a question here and there."

At least the children get it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

Canadian Quarter Posted by Hello

Five years ago the Canadians celebrated a cherished right with this 25 cent coin. Hopefully the Afghanis and Iraqis will soon have a similar coin. And perhaps the Syrians, Iranians, and North Koreans, too.

Freedom isn't free. The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance, and sometimes blood. Let's cherish what we have, and not withhold it from others.

Don't Let The Door Hit You....

As a follow-up to the three posts below (click on the January 2005 archives to access them), our district superintendent announced his resignation this week, effective June 30th.

Why Is It....

Why is it that so many of the people who want a nationalized health care system, who want Washington in charge of our health care, are the same ones who scream at the thought of the slightest input from Washington about education?

Update, 6/3/11: What a difference a change in presidency makes! Now the liberals want Washington to control everything!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act

Ted Kennedy and George Bush got together and this is the law they came up with. Yin and yang, ebony and ivory, red and blue, they updated the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act and created a law that truly, honestly, seriously outlines a program by which they expect schools to teach and children to learn. What could possibly be wrong with it?

To hear some of the howls coming from certain circles today, you'd think the law required human sacrifice. Here are the key points about the law.

First, the GOOD points.
--It requires fully qualified teachers in every classroom. States are allowed to decide what constitutes fully qualified, but no longer will just "filling a slot" be acceptable. We've all heard anecdotes, sometimes about the football coach who "teaches" algebra (we have one at my school, but he's genuinely qualified), and perhaps have wondered if that really happens anymore. I assume that it does, because the UC Davis University Extension has a course you can take online that's no more than a first semester Algebra I refresher course--for those who want/need to brush up before having to teach algebra. NCLB requires somebody who has more than just a pulse; the teacher must be competent in the subject they're teaching.
--It requires that students be tested in certain (not all) grades. What exactly is wrong with this? Do we really want to wait until high school to figure out that Johnny can't read? And NCLB lets states determine what tests to give; this should allay fears of a "national curriculum", dictated by Washington over the concerns of the local community, blah blah blah.
--It requires that schools/districts choose scientifically proven programs. What is wrong with going with a proven winner? Whole language was a fad that's been thoroughly discredited now--sorry for that decade of students who didn't learn to read well. "Teacher creativity" is often a euphemism for experimentation--on someone else's kids.
--It requires that scores be separated by subgroup--racial and ethnic minorities, students in poverty, special education, etc. It's not even a secret that certain groups of students do not perform near as well as whites or Asians. Why shouldn't we highlight these failures and work to improve them? Schools can no longer hide horrible performance of certain groups (blacks and hispanics come to mind) by celebrating a high schoolwide average.
--It has sanctions. Students in schools that consistently underperform can transfer to better schools. This is a bad thing? Poor schools are required to pay for additional tutoring for students. Bad? There are other sanctions....
--It's voluntary. States do not have to comply with this law! Non-compliance, however, will cause the state to lose federal education dollars (which in California is approximately 7% of the education budget). Don't want to test? Give up the federal money and go your own way.

Now, the BAD points.
--Again, sanctions. Sometimes it's not entirely the school's fault that students perform poorly. That doesn't mean the school cannot address, and even sometimes accomodate, the problem, but schools only have the kids for 6 hours or so a day. The high school math teacher, on whose shoulders the school's entire math score falls, only has the students for 1 hour a day. There's a lot going on in the other 23 hours, and the school has no control over that at all. Why penalize the school for those 23 hours?
--The law is fairly rigid. Some requirements are difficult for some schools to meet, and as currently written the law says, "So what?" For example, in some rural districts it's not uncommon for some secondary teachers to teach several types of classes (because the school's so small). The teachers may not be certified to teach every class but apparently have been doing so out of necessity. Perhaps a grandfather clause would be in order?
--I can't believe that I of all people am going to say this, but the standard is too high. NCLB requires not only that each school overall meet an appropriate level of annual yearly progress, but every subgroup in that school also has to meet an appropriate level of AYP. If one subroup doesn't meet AYP then the school is considered a failure. This also allows the ridiculous situation in which a school is stellar by state standards but fails by NCLB standards.

On balance, I'd have to say that the good outweighs the bad, and by a wide margin.

Who among us does not want our government to be held accountable? Who does not want at least some assurance that their federal tax dollars are being spent wisely by the states? Who does not want to limit wasteful spending? Who does not want their children to be protected from being the subjects of an experimental educational fad (like whole language and fuzzy math)? If you did not raise your hand to any of these questions, then NCLB is for you.

Who is against this law? People who want to be left alone. People who don't want to hear that they can or should do better. People who would rather teach what they want rather than remember that they are public employees. Unions that want no oversight over their members. And Democrat politicians who will take any opportunity to bash President Bush, even if it means hiding behind children to do so.

If you're given a poor curriculum and your school performs poorly, that's not NCLB's fault. That fault belongs to your school and district administrators.

If you're in California and you blame NCLB for testing, you're misinformed. California's Standardized Testing and Reporting system pre-dates NCLB by a few years. It was passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature and signed by Democrat Governor Gray Davis. STAR's testing requirements, both in subjects tested and grades tested, are more stringent than NCLB.

If you're a teacher and you complain that the test isn't aligned to the standards, that's your state's fault. States choose the tests that are given.

If you're a teacher and you complain about having to spend too much time prepping for the test, that isn't NCLB's fault. Either an administrator is foolishly mandating that or you're not teaching to standards.

If you're a parent and your child's teacher disparages the No Child Left Behind Act, ask that teacher which of their students they'd choose to leave behind--and hope it isn't yours.

Update, 9:20pm: Number 2 Pencil has a story about implementing the sanctions of NCLB at

Update, 3:20pm, 2/2/05: Joanne quotes from this blog entry (and adds so much more) here: