New York State/New York City Common Core Test Results Released – Little Change!

Common Core NYS NYC Math 2014

Common Core NYS NYC ELA 2014

Click to enlarge.

Dear Commons Community,

The New York State Education Department released the scores on this year’s statewide English language arts and math exams yesterday. New York State students in grades 3 through 8 had taken the tests in April and May. The results showed a slight improvement from 2013, the first year the exams were aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Overall, most students are still not reaching proficient levels in math or English.

In New York City, students made little headway on both exams. The number of students passing the reading exam increased to 29 percent, from 27 percent, while in math, the city’s rate rose about four percentage points to 34 percent from last year, when 30 percent passed. Black and Hispanic students improved slightly, but there remained a significant gap between their scores and those of white and Asian students.

New York was one of the first states to introduce tests aligned with the Common Core, and the sharp decline in students’ test scores last year contributed to a statewide backlash against the new standards. In 2012, the last year of the easier tests, 55 percent of the state’s students passed the reading test, and 65 percent passed in math.

The teachers’ union charged that educators had not been adequately trained, and some parents asked whether the tests were simply too hard.

In response to urging from the union, the State Legislature in June passed a bill to mitigate the effect of the scores on teachers’ evaluations, preventing educators from being fired or denied tenure in the coming school year based on their students’ scores.

In the city, more charter school students — over 42 percent — passed the math tests than in the public schools over all. Charter school students, however, performed somewhat less well than public school students over all on the English exam, with only 27 percent passing.

As I have stated before on this blog, the Common Core Curriculum is not the problem. The problem is that it was poorly implemented in New York and there was too much emphasis on testing the Common Core rather than developing  curriculum materials and training teachers to use them effectively.



Michelle Rhee Leaving CEO Job At StudentsFirst!

Dear Commons Community,

Michelle Rhee confirmed The Huffington Post’s Tuesday article about her departure from StudentsFirst in a blog post on the group’s website, as well as in a statement to the Sacramento Bee, late Wednesday. Rhee did not provide a date for her departure. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“While I remain 100 percent committed to the success of StudentsFirst, it’s time for a shift in the day-to-day management of the team and our advocacy work,” Rhee wrote in the blog post. “We’ll be sharing more of the nuts-and-bolts details about that in the coming weeks…”

StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted,” said a former prominent StudentsFirst staffer, who declined to be named, wanting to preserve relationships in education reform. “It’s been frustrating. It’s not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away.”

“If Rhee steps aside, the organization would be without its main attraction. StudentsFirst has recently pulled out of states such as Minnesota and Florida, and its relationship with a New Jersey partner organization ended about a year ago. It’s unclear whether StudentsFirst will draw as much attention without its famous founder.

“In practice, this has always been about Michelle,” said the former staffer.

Ms. Rhee is leaving at a time when the school “reform” movement that she helped promulgate is waning. the country has in some ways moved on from the movement’s agenda, or at least its hard-charging rhetoric. This shift has been evident in the election of candidates such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who staked his campaign on fighting against the Rhee-like education policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Even one of the movement’s greatest proponents has noted the political sensitivity around it, saying he sought to avoid the word “reform.” But Rhee’s rhetoric has pervaded the messaging of several education reform groups, politicians and pundits, who still make the case for reforming tenure and judging teachers in accordance with their students’ standardized test scores.”

Ms. Rhee is leaving the sinking ship of school “reform” and we say good-bye.


Maryam Mirzakhani: First Woman to Win Field Medal in Mathematics!


Dear Commons Community,

The online version of Nature is reporting  that for the first time a woman will be the recipient of the Field Medal, considered the highest honor in mathematics. Maryam Mirzakhani, a native of Iran, and a professor at Stanford University, is one of four winners for 2014. She won for her work on “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.” As reported in Nature:

“The International Mathematical Union (IMU) has revealed the winners of the 2014 Fields medals, considered the highest honor in mathematics. The four young medallists — including Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female winner since the prizes were established in 1936 — have been selected for their contributions to topics ranging from dynamical systems to the geometry of numbers and the solution of equations of the type that describe many physical phenomena.

The IMU had planned to publicly announce the names on 13 August in Seoul at the International Congress of Mathematicians, but — owing presumably to a technical glitch — the page with the announcement was already live on the organization’s website in 12 August. In addition to the medal itself, the Fields Institute, based in Toronto, awards each winner CAN$15,000 (US$13,700) in cash. The prizes are given to researchers aged 40 years or younger every four years. Although the prizes recognize outstanding achievement in the early stages of a career, they are also seen as an indicator of mathematicians to watch in the future.

“Perhaps Maryam’s most important achievement is her work on dynamics,” says Curtis McMullen of Harvard University. Many natural problems in dynamics, such as the three-body problem of celestial mechanics (for example, interactions of the Sun, the Moon and Earth), have no exact mathematical solution. Mirzakhani found that in dynamical systems evolving in ways that twist and stretch their shape, the systems’ trajectories “are tightly constrained to follow algebraic laws”, says McMullen.

He adds that Mirzakhani’s achievements “combine superb problem-solving ability, ambitious mathematical vision and fluency in many disciplines, which is unusual in the modern era, when considerable specialization is often required to reach the frontier”.

The other three winners of the Fields Medals were:

Artur Avila of the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris, whose “profound contributions to dynamical systems theory have changed the face of the field”. Dynamical systems evolve over time, often in complex ways: they include celestial mechanics (the orbits of bodies in the Solar System); financial markets; the weather; and populations in ecosystems. Some of these systems exhibit chaotic behavior: their state at some future time cannot be predicted from their state at an earlier time, because imperceptible differences that exist now can cause big divergences later.

Avila is a problem-solver who has worked on many aspects of this field. According to mathematician Étienne Ghys of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, “he didn’t just do one or two things, but has an incredible number of achievements”. Avila has contributed in particular to complex one-dimensional dynamics — how a mathematical function with a single variable evolves when the solution is “fed back” into the function as the next value of the variable in an iterative process. This is how some fractal mathematical objects, such as the Mandelbrot set — a set of complex numbers for which a particular iterated equation does not approach infinity — are generated. Avila has also looked at the Schrödinger equation of unusual quantum systems, although Ghys attests that his motivation is more mathematical than physical.

Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University in New Jersey, who “has developed powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers”. The geometry of numbers is a method for estimating how many points with integer coordinates (meaning their coordinates are whole numbers) are contained in a region of space of a given volume. “Bhargava has added a host of new techniques to this subject,” says Benedict Gross of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “His style is completely original, and combines the three main areas of pure mathematics — algebra, geometry and analysis — in a beautiful way.”

Gross says that one of Bhargava’s key results “gives an entirely new perspective on finding rational solutions [solutions that are ratios of integers] to cubic equations, a problem that goes back to the mathematics of antiquity”. Bhargava says that the award is “a source of encouragement and inspiration, hopefully also for my students, collaborators and colleagues”.

Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick, UK, who “has made outstanding contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations”. Partial differential equations (PDEs), which describe the evolution of quantities that depend on several different variables, crop up throughout science — from quantum physics to the propagation of heat. PDEs are stochastic if they include some element of randomness.

By developing methods for systematically solving such equations, Hairer’s work “allows one to give a rigorous meaning to a bunch of stochastic PDEs”, says Ofer Zeitouni of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The award is “an extraordinary recognition and I am very humbled by it”, says Hairer. “It still doesn’t quite feel real, even though I’ve known about it for almost half a year now.”

Congratulations to all four winners!



The Tea Party and the South!

Dear Commons Community,

Curtis Wilkie, a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today comparing the Tea Party to past nativist and populist movements in the South. Here is an excerpt:

“Last week’s Republican primary in Tennessee resulted in a comfortable win for Senator Lamar Alexander over his Tea Party-backed challenger, State Assembly Representative Joe Carr. But make no mistake: The Tea Party is on a roll across the South, having mounted major primary challenges in Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina, and knocked out Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The movement’s success, with its dangerous froth of anti-Washington posturing and barely concealed racial animus, raises an important question for Southern voters: Will they remember their history well enough to reject the siren song of nativism and populism that has won over the region so often before?

We often think of the typical segregationist politician of yore as a genteel member of the white upper crust. But the more common mode was the fiery populist. Names like Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and James K. Vardaman and Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi may be obscure outside the South, but for most anyone brought up here, they loom large.

In the early 20th century, these men rose on an agrarian revolt against Big Business and government corruption. They used that energy, in turn, to disenfranchise and segregate blacks, whose loyalty to the pro-business Republican Party made them targets of these racist reformers.”

The piece goes on to include references to several historic figures and concludes:

“In “The Mind of the South,” still in print seven decades after it was published, W. J. Cash wrote that populist forces in the region were driven by “the rage and frustration of men intolerably oppressed by conditions which they did not understand and which they could not control.” And A. D. Kirwan’s 1951 history, “Revolt of the Rednecks,” traced the political rise of the Mississippi racists Vardaman and Bilbo to the disillusionment of white farmers who felt “forgotten” and singled out by “an enemy class” of Wall Street speculators and railroad owners backed by big government. The economic struggle, Kirwan wrote, was “complicated by the Negro,” who became a victim of the politicians’ zeal to prevent blacks from holding any power.

Education became their whipping boy. A century ago, the first wave of populist demagogues withheld funds for poor, segregated schools and tried to purge college faculties of nonbelievers. The second wave, citing “states’ rights,” threatened to shut schools rather than integrate and denounced federal aid to education as a sinister investment. In the Cochran-McDaniel race, you could hear that same strain in Tea Party criticisms of the federal government, of federal aid to education and of the “establishment.”

Over a century ago, demagogues did more than anyone to impose the system of strict segregation that lasted until the 1960s. The second wave, though successful in some places, was turned back in others, by moderate, middle-class Southern whites who were tired of seeing their region isolated and stigmatized. With Mr. Cantor’s loss, Mr. Cochran’s narrow survival and Mr. Alexander’s clear victory, we are faced with an open, and very unsettling question: Which way will the South go this time?”

Well-done and worth reading!



David Brooks on Clinton, Obama, and Iraq!

Dear Commons Community,

In his New York Times column, David Brooks, evaluated the recent criticisms Hilary Clinton made about President Obama’s foreign policy. Last week, Hillary Clinton had an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The interview got immediate attention because of the way she discussed her differences with President Obama. As Brooks describes them:

“While admitting that no one will ever know who was right, Clinton argues that Obama might have done more to help the moderate opposition in Syria fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she told Goldberg.

While showing lavish respect for the president’s intelligence and judgment, Clinton also made it clear that she’d be a more aggressive foreign policy leader. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said, citing Obama’s famous phrase.”

Brooks’ analysis:

“Clinton speaks as a Truman-Kennedy Democrat. She’s obviously much, much more multilateral than Republicans, but there’s a certain muscular tone, a certain assumption that there will be hostile ideologies that threaten America. There is also a grand strategic cast to her mind. The U.S. has to come up with an “overarching” strategy, she told Goldberg, to contain, deter and defeat anti-democratic foes.

She argues that harsh action is sometimes necessary. “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets, “she declared, embracing recent Israeli policy. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas.”

…Obama has carefully not organized a large part of his foreign policy around a war against jihadism. The foreign policy vision he describes is, as you’d expect from a former law professor, built around reverence for certain procedures: compromise, inclusiveness, rules and norms. The threat he described in his West Point speech was a tactic, terrorism, not an ideology, jihadism. His main argument was against a means not an end: the efficacy of military action.

Obama is notably cautious, arguing that the U.S. errs when it tries to do too much. The cast of his mind is against intervention.”

I side with President Obama. The U.S. has to be careful not to get entrapped in situations where it cannot get out of such as the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The situations are not military conflicts but cultural and religious conflicts that have existed for centuries. As President said last week: “There is no military solution in Iraq” nor in much of the Middle East.


U.S. Public Schools are Projected this Fall to Have More Minority Students than White Students!

Dear Commons Community,

For the first time ever, U.S. public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students than non-Hispanic whites enrolled, a shift largely fueled by growth in the number of Hispanic children. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“Non-Hispanic white students are still expected to be the largest racial group in the public schools this year at 49.8 percent. But the National Center for Education Statistics says minority students, when added together, will now make up the majority.

About one-quarter of the minority students are Hispanic, 15 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders. Biracial students and Native Americans make up a smaller share of the minority student population.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the changing population a seminal moment in education. “We can’t talk about other people’s children. These are our children,” he said.

The shift creates new academic realities, such as the need for more English language instruction, and cultural ones, meaning changes in school lunch menus to reflect students’ tastes.”

The shift in demographics has been most pronounced in large urban areas such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles where the percentage of white students has been below fifty percent for a number of years.



University of Michigan: Using Data to Drive Instruction!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article today examining classes at the University of Michigan where professors seek to use data to monitor and engage students in instruction. It examines a large lecture where one faculty member struggles to use “clicker” type software. A comparison is made to virtual classes where:

“the subtlest gestures are preserved in digital amber. Colleges that are largely online, like the University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education, sit atop vast deposits of data describing students’ interactions with instructors, peers, readings, and quizzes.

Those data can be mined for insights about teaching techniques that are not working and concepts that students are failing to grasp. They also can be used to design software that adapts on the fly to the needs of individual students, an approach that many advocates see as online education’s trump card against traditional instruction.”

The article describes the approach being taken at Michigan by Provost Martha Pollack to encourage faculty to consider data-drive approaches:

“As for pressure from the top, the administration at Michigan has opted to use carrots, not sticks, to steer instructors toward innovative teaching techniques. Ms. Pollack, the provost, has appointed a task force to support faculty members who are using data to shape their teaching.

The task force has created a series of grants that will offer as much as $3-million to professors who propose “large-scale changes to instruction and/or infrastructure” that enable their colleagues to “implement new learning approaches for sustainable and replicable adoption.” It has also made smaller grants available to professors with “shovel ready” projects that put teaching-and-learning tactics under a microscope.

Ms. Pollack says she hopes that framing data-driven teaching as a research opportunity will harness the instincts of professors. “The faculty here are very smart, and they’re very competitive,” she says. “When they see experiments that work, they want to be on the cutting edge, too. So if you created an environment that’s hospitable to experiments, and those experiments bear fruit, then other people come along.”

The provost acknowledges that online colleges have an advantage over traditional universities when it comes to capturing “click by click” data from classroom exchanges. But she does not think that universities necessarily need to be collecting that fine-grained data in order to become as evidence-driven as they need to be.

“I still think there is an enormous amount of data that you can capture and analyze” without turning classrooms into controlled laboratories, says Ms. Pollack. “My goal is not to ensure that every single faculty member changes the way they teach. My goal is to have a group of people who are excited about innovation and who are trying out new sorts of things.”

Provost Pollack appears to have the right approach.


New Strict Curfew Law Goes into Effect in Baltimore!

Dear Commons Community,

A new youth curfew law, among the strictest in the nation, took effect in Baltimore last Friday.  It requires unaccompanied children under the age of 14 to be indoors by 9 p.m. and for 14, 15 and 16-year-olds to be indoors by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends and during the summer.  Children found out on the streets can be picked up by police and escorted to one of two recreational centers set up by the city until parents or guardians pick them up.

Support for the new curfew varies.  As reported in the Baltimore Sun:

“Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakes says the rules will help keep kids out of harm’s way in a city that has long struggled with high crime. But civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, say the rules are too vague and make negative interactions between police and children all but inevitable.

Anthony McNutt, father of a 17-year-old daughter, likes the idea of a curfew to ensure that young people are inside at a reasonable hour and to hold neglectful parents accountable.

“It has the potential to save lives,” said McNutt, who lives in Park Heights.

McNutt worries, though, that the curfew could prove to be a challenge for single parents who work more than one job and cannot leave to pick up their children at a curfew center. “I want to know what’s in place for those parents who aren’t neglecting their kids,” he said.

Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the law will bring more young people into the criminal justice system. Enforcement of the curfew could disproportionately impact minorities, some warn.”

I tend to favor the curfew.



Wise Words from President Obama: “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq…”!

Dear Commons Community,

President Obama restated yesterday his position on the insurgency in Iraq. While promising air support, technical, and humanitarian assistance, he reiterated that there are no plans to send ground troops to this troubled part of the world.  To quote:

“The United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States.”

These are wise words that the previous administration of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condolezza Rice never understood. The problems in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East are rooted in deep cultural, religious, and social issues and differences that will not be resolved with military intervention. If anything, military intervention exacerbates the problems particularly if led by a foreign power such as the United States.

Thank you, President Obama, for your wisdom and understanding!


40th Anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s Resignation as President of the United States!


Dear Commons Community,

On August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon sat at his desk in the Oval Office and announced that he was resigning the office of the president. The next day, August 9th, he submitted his letter of resignation to Henry Kissinger and a nation changed.   As described The Atlantic:

“In his immediate wake, Nixon left a shattered and confused nation, a host of spurned aides, and an accidental president. The fallout from Watergate stripped the nation of its political innocence, revolutionized executive power, and bequeathed a range of new reforms. It sent a huge new crop of politicians to Washington. It marked the American vocabulary, producing a range of new expressions and one durable naming scheme for scandals. We’re still grappling with the scandal today: In every debate about executive power or campaign-finance law or White House press management, Nixon looms in the background, glowering under his perpetually furrowed brow…

For those who lived through it, Watergate remains a nightmare, more or less vividly remembered—the details gets fuzzy, the exact sequence is obscure, but the fear is just as real…For those who are younger, the saga seems hard to grasp, a little slapstick, a little scary, hardly believable.”