Thursday, July 30, 2009

Picking urban blueberries

I just picked a pint or two of blueberries from my tiny blueberry bush that sits on the square yard or two of land in the front.

Last year the bush took a break--not one berry. This year it's making up for it.

There are a lot of calories in the berries I picked, and they're meant for me (or any other critter that chooses to eat them). I get the sweet sugary deliciousness, the seeds get a free ride, to, well, to a sewage plant, where chlorine will end the spark of life given to me by my bush.

I didn't hold up my end of the bargain, so to speak.

A bear would have had the decency to shit in the woods.

Fruits exist for animals to eat--this is not some Biblical decree or some squirrel-kissing-tree-hugging philosophy. It's an evolutionary strategy. Blueberry bush wraps its seeds in deliciousness, I eat them, then poop them a mile or two away while chasing down a wild boar for dinner (or running away from the same).

The fruit gets mostly digested, the seeds do not, and they get the added benefit of a nest of nitrogen to see them off.

There are books on how to poop in the woods. When you dig your cat-hole, ideally at least a stone's throw from water, do not dig it too deep (it won't decompose) or too shallow (for obvious reasons).

For years one of our department's finest has led children into the woods, 3 days of wilderness camping on the Appalachian Trail, and the poop spade has become legend. While a few students come back a little, well, log-jammed, most learn more about biology than they may have bargained for, and are none the worse for the wear.

I'm not sure my blueberry bush will ever become a parent; with a population of 45,000 folks on about 5 square miles, were talking about 3 or 4 tons of poop per square mile on any given day.

I have no plans to keep my end of the evolutionary bargain, but it does make for an interesting lesson that will never happen.

Still, it seems to me that anyone with a high school diploma should be able to tell you where their last meal came from, and where it ultimately goes.

Nattering on numbers

While were nattering on about numbers....

Calculus serves scientists well, and I am not advocating that we junk it in high school entirely, but Dr. Arthur Benjamin, a mathemetician, makes a succinct and compelling argument here for making statistics, not calculus, the pinnacle of high school math.

(If I were the Czar of Mathematics, I'd ban calculators before senior year in high school, replace digital clocks with their analog, more useful, parents, and make counting to 10,000, one second at a time, mandatory before finishing elementary school.

I might even make counting to 100,000 be a requirement for high school graduation. Every year I offer an A+ to any student that counts aloud to 1 billion, 1 second at a time, and every year a few try it.)

I stumbled on this while snooping around Calliope Sounds (Andrew Gilmartin) via a link from Tuttle SVC (Tom Hoffman). Gilmartin found it at Daniel H. Pink's site, and somewhere along the line it originated at TED. Attributing things on the web is starting to feel like slipping in footnotes while on a manual typewriter.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Numbers don't kill careers, people do.

This is the second part of a longer piece discussing the particulars of the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top, a scheme developed by powerful people who deign to help your child to "outcompete any worker in the world." Funding depends on metrics, determining who's competent, and who is not. Arne Duncan has already made noises about using tests designed for other purposes to measure teachers. I'm not sure if he's trying to fool us, or if he's really that ignorant.

I used to practice, and teach, medicine. Time after time, some young gun would run a willy-nilly battery of needless tests, then come running to me with the "diagnosis," completely off base.

If you do not have a good grasp of how tests depend on the prevalence of the condition being tested, you will be misled by even good tests. Lots of decent doctors are lousy at metrics.

Suppose Arne's Army developed a test that could separate the good teachers from the bad. Never mind what "good" or "bad" means, the test itself defines competency.

For simplicity, let's make it a urine dipstick--if you get a "+" you're in the club, a "-" and your license is revoked.

Suppose the test was so well designed that if you were competent, the test would be "+" 95% of the time, and if you were incompetent, it would be "-" 95% of the time. Not bad, eh?

So what happens if you get a "-"--does that mean you're likely incompetent? Are you 95% confident in the result?

(I'll pay the Jeopardy theme while you come up with an answer....)

No way to tell--the test's usefulness depends on how many teachers are actually, in fact, incompetent.

Let's say only 5% of teachers are incompetent--in that case, a positive test reflects a truly incompetent teacher only half the time.
Here's the math: if a 100 teachers are tested, the 5 who are incompetent would likely be picked up. Of the remaining 95, however, there is a 5% false positive rate, and 5% of 95 is about 5. Only half of those who test positive would indeed be incompetent.

It's counterintuitive, but it's real; it's called Bayes theorem, and it reveals a practical problem with any type of binary testing--the accuracy of the results depends on the frequency of the condition you are testing for.

If 90% of teachers are incompetent, and some of the public might even believe that, then the chance that a test is a true positive exceeds 99%--same test, different population.

I have no problem with metrics, but I am opposed to what knuckleheads can do with numbers. Numbers don't kill careers, people do.

Most docs are reasonably bright people with a generous dose of ambition, and a lot of them can't grasp this--what hope do we have that Arne will?

The picture is from the Life archives via Google--OK for personal, non-commercial use.
A tip of the hat to Tom Hoffman at Tuttle SVC for pointing out the Gerald Bracey article.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Butcher, Baker or Candlestick Maker

This is the first part of a longer piece discussing the particulars of the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top, a scheme developed by powerful people who deign to help your child to "outcompete any worker in the world."

I live and teach in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Less than a block from the school, we have a shoe repairman. A few blocks north of the high school, we have Gencarelli's, a wonderful bakery, where you can still get in line before sunrise Christmas morning to get a loaf of fresh bread (which they boast on their website).

In my neighborhood we have teachers and cops, postal workers and musicians. Next door on one side lives a nurse, on the other a professional caddy.

We are home to Angelo's Pizzeria, owned by Charles Grande, who's in the Pizza Hall of Fame for winning the national pizza making championship several times. The Tripucka clan grew up here, Frank of NFL fame, his son Kelly, of NBA fame, and Dr. Carr, the Director of Pre K-6 Education here in Bloomfield, and who happened to score 56 points in a high school basketball game before her brother could even grow his famous moustache.

I'm within a stone's throw of thousands of people who make a living making things, being useful to others, using their hands, doing work with job descriptions that do not need further explaining. They pay a lot of money to educate the children in our town.

I'd bet none of the above (with the exception of Dr. Carr) had to prove a working knowledge of algebra to get where they are today, and I doubt even Dr. Carr uses the quadratic equation in her duties.

You will find families that have been here for generations, more concerned about what's happening in the local schools and Little League than what's happening in Geneva, and despite our über urban sheen, Bloomfield still resonates provincialism.

I know provincialism has a taint about it now, but the older I get, the less I understand why.

I teach science here in town, but not as an outsider. I know that many, perhaps most, of my lambs can get through life just fine without grasping the intricacies of the DNA molecule, and more importantly, the students know this as well, poised to inherit a family business or take an inside track to an apprenticeship to learn something tangibly useful.

Our school budget passed this past year despite a lot of hurting people, because, for the most part, our schools are still part of what makes our community a community.

Any child in our town has the tools available to gain the education needed to get into schools like Stanford or Yale, and a few regularly do. Still, for most families, this is not a priority, nor should it be. My goals are to provide students the opportunity to see the world beyond their iPods, and to be able to critically analyze data, a fancy-pants way of saying helping them to think. Ultimately, I want our children to live productive, happy lives.

What you won't find in my neighborhood is Bill Gates, or his assistant, or even his 2nd assistant to the assistant, though Mr. Gates is welcome to live here. He's not welcome, though, to dictate how education should be run in our town. He's all for "productive" lives, if productive means feeding the global economy. I'm not sure if happy fits into the equation.

The Shoe Repair Man statue is from the Statuary Place Online Store, and can be bought for $12.95. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On anthropomorphizing

In Galway Bay, nestled on the west coast of Ireland, lives Fungi, a lone male dolphin who seeks the company of humans, as he has for over a quarter century now. He's a tourist attraction, and an enigma. No one knows why he sticks around—perhaps he was abandoned by his pod for some nefarious dolphin behavior during his wild youth, maybe he happens to like humans and their noise.

I once watched spearing, tiny fish with aluminum foil strips pasted on their sides, jumping over a piece of straw floating near the surf. One or two would jump over it, then circle back around, then jump over it again. The science teacher in me tries to equate this jumping over a piece of phragmites with evolutionary fitness. For all my training, though, I can't help myself—I see joy.

Our reference is human—it's all we have, really. We see trees as humans see them, smell the early morning mud flats as only humans, fear the humming of a bee as only humans can. (If you prefer a lonely nihilistic view, as only humans can, then imagine that you alone can know what you sense.)

There are certainly problems with anthropomorphizing, impugning motives on critters going about their business. I should not presume joy on the part of the silver-sided fish—no way to know—but we make a bigger mistake presuming the absence of shared motives. (Obviously the tiny fish had some motive.)

Science rests on models. A water molecule consists of 2 hydrogen atoms, 1 oxygen atom, fused together by covalent bonds, which is to say they share electrons. The electrons spend a little bit more time on the oxygen side of the molecule than the hydrogen atoms, creating a slightly more negative charge there.

If I were to draw an electron in class, it would look like this:

I might even add a charge sign to it, like this:

The children will dutifully write it down, and the symbol becomes the electron. I suspect that's the act that makes us most human, the symbol. It is also, ironically, the one that separates us from the universe.

Obviously the “dot” is not an electron—it reflects a tiny part on the board where less light reflects back to the children's eyes that the rest of the board. The “dash,” a dose of negativity (which only makes sense when contrasted with a dose of positive), reflects another slash of less reflected light.

We teach this and children memorize it, and we pretend we know what charge means, a relative term that measures, um, attractiveness, much like the confusion we have when we are attracted to others, but not in that sort of way....

We are ascribing motive or behavior to the non-sentient, or rather to models of the non-sentient, since electrons are unknowable beyond the models we create, and in my very stern voice I will chastise the children for ascribing motive to the very same things. (These are the problems with trying to keep the universe in some neat mechanistic package.)

This becomes a sticking point for a lot of us teaching science—we carefully present models using words like “attract” and “repel” and then get our knickers in a twist when a student confuses attraction with desire.

And with that, we extinguish the tiny spark.

I was once a card carrying member of the AALRT (the Anti-Anthropomorphizing League of Rational Thinkers). There are plenty of reasons to join—baby robins don't smile and crickets don't sing.

I am still a member, though I may let my dues lapse this year. If adding emotion to a cute drawing of a couple of hydrogen atoms sharing their electrons with an oxygen atom starved for electron love holds my lambs' interest long enough to get them to glance at the concept of bonding (another loaded word), maybe I'll try it.

And who knows, maybe an incomplete orbital shell is more than just a metaphor for unrequited love.

The photos are ours, which I will gratuitously place in my posts, because I like them, and because they remind me that as much as the classroom matters, a few things matter more.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Choice

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of
the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finish
ed, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.


We just came back from overseas in a matter of hours, hurtling in an aluminum cocoon. It is easy to wax philosophical when staring at the Earth several miles below.

If you do not know all that grows within a yard or two from where you are sitting, and none of us do, then contemplating "life" while staring out a window 6 miles over the Earth is a mere conceit. Ireland does not exist in the sky.

Leslie and I walked a couple dozen miles on Inis Mór, part of the Aran Islands in the Galway Bay off Ireland. Each step was different. Each of hers was different from each of mine.

Walking in the the late blue dusk not long before midnight, surrounded by stone walls built by men long dead, the air thick with a blend of sea mist and pollen, we watched a black slug generate from the shadows, its presence daring us to mention Darwin.

I am, mostly, rational, and being rational, will let go of it when it is no longer useful. I am not going to pretend I heard crows talk, but if I had, I would not have been surprised. (And if I had, I would not mention it here.)

I teach science. I love science. I do not, however, idolize science. A choice.

Walking through the west of Ireland through muddy fields holding the kin of animals we ate for breakfast, under barbed wire and over electrified fence, stepping over (and occasionally into) shite, edging along cliff edges, the crashing breakers below called me like Sirens. A choice.

Ireland is an old country. The mist rolled off the hills a thousand years ago, and will a thousand years from now. Someone else saw it then, someone else will see it later. The Irish and their land tell the story again and again, in many forms. We are mortal, we make choices. The Irish know what bad choices may bring.

Poets and painters, musicians and priests, story-tellers all, producing nothing more than the black slug emerging in the Irish summer night, when measured by the rational.

When all that story's finished, what's the news?

Rationality is a tool, an effective but jealous one; we present it to our children as something sacred, and I suppose it is. That is not our mistake.

Our mistake is ignoring the other side--the lure of the cliffs, the stories of the dead, lives worth living that do not contribute to the gross domestic product.

The black slug serves a purpose, as we all do--
it eats pretty much anything in its path, including shite.
It's useful even without knowing a lick of advanced algebra.

The photo of the slug is by Paul J. Morris found at the Encyclopedia of Life, released under CC license.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Going home

Inishmaan, Aran Islands

If I don't come back, here's where you're likely to find me.

Image by Mike Simms, shared under CC license; image found here.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I am going away for a couple of weeks, to wander around the west coast of Ireland. Perhaps the journey will cure my delusions that my rants will have any effects on the US DOE. Should I decide to spend the rest of my life on the Aran Islands, I do not want my last post to be about Arne.

I am lifting this from something I wrote over 5 years ago, late June, 2004. I was still in medicine at the time.

Children gravitate to puddles.

Children see things before they are taught they do not exist.1 With enough education, they learn to avoid puddles. They no longer waste time staring at the edge of a pond.

My daughter, now old enough to have children of her own, still whiles away time at the edge of water. Yesterday we wasted some time on a warm June evening staring into a 15 gallon bucket of pond water, kept by the garden for watering plants. She did this partly to keep me company, but mostly because she wanted to. On the days I am sure I screwed up as a parent, I need to remember this.

If you stare at the night sky long enough,more details emerge. A hundred stars turns into a thousand. If you hold a handful of pond water, you might not see anything at first. Look a little harder. Look for movement. It's there.

I shelled peas today, something I love to do. I split the impossibly green pod, then run my thumb inside, freeing the peas. Some bounce away onto the ground, looking to snuggle into the earth. I leave them be.

Shelling peas is supposed to be tedious--it's one reason Americans wanted to get off the farm, I suppose.

But just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95% of the people can be freed from, the drudgery of preparing their own food.

James E. Bostic, Jr
Assistant Secretary of [Agriculture] for Rural Development2

I enjoy shelling peas. My father, not much older than me, cannot shell peas anymore. Not sure he ever enjoyed it when he could, but he would today. He still enjoys eating them, though he turns blue now and again when eating things pea-sized. June is pea season. It is my father's last pea season.

Desire is a funny thing.

Our family microscope is a teaching scope--Kerry and I can look at another world together. When one wanders away from one's usual world, it's good to have company.

We stared into the same world together.

The critter peeked from under a duckweed leaf, saw an even tinier critter, and munched. It moved, well, gleefully.

I am, of course, anthropomorphizing....but gleeful is the right word. We can reduce it to the transfer of energy from one critter to another, but the subsequent burst of energy gave me a burst of energy--glee is contagious.

Turns out the critter was an ostracod. I never saw an ostracod before. I never thought about them when I used pond water to feed the garden. I knew that pond water made great fertilizer. I just never wondered why. "Glee" (or energy) gets transformed into plant growth. Which means ostracods die.

Ostracods have sex. Ostracods eat. Ostracods have baby ostracods.

Boy ostracods attract girl ostracods by using flashing lights. Boy ostracods use "a special long leg" to pass sperm into girl ostracods. I bet a boy ostracod enjoys his "special long leg."3

Watering my plants just got harder.

In the 17th century, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made microscopes. Invented them, really. He saw things no one saw before.

I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort... had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort...oft-times spun round like a top...and these were far more in number.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek, in report to the Royal Society

I cannot imagine the wonder coursing through Leeuwenhoek's veins, but I know what I felt as I sat with my eldest on the stoop, seeing critters we never imagined. We did not know they were ostracods yet. We did not know much about them at all.

We knew this much, though--they got excited when they found something good to eat. We could see them munch on something else, then could see the "something else" in their bellies. Voyeurs, we were.

This is the world we live in. You have innumerable critters in your gut, in your nose, on your skin. You are surrounded by a cloud of bacteria. Every step you take destroys uncountable lives, but creates ground ripe for uncountable more.

We think we are special, and perhaps we are.

Yearning. Lust. Desire. I seek light, warmth, food, and love. So do animalcules. In June, with the infinite light of early summer, it makes sense.

1When I was young, I believed what they taught me--at noon, the sun was supposed to be directly overhead. I spent years studying shadows at noon, years, before I realized that I had been fed a lie. In this part off the world, the sun is never directly overhead.

2 From The Unsettling of America, in " The Body and the Earth," Wendell Berry, p. 96.

3Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),

The photomicrograph is by Anna33 via wikimedia, released under Creative Commons.

" You take the blue pill and the story ends."

I was going to avoid Arne today, really, but then he came out with this:

Why include business in the policy debate about public education?

A We all need to work together on this stuff, business leaders and educators. Everyone's mutual interests are absolutely aligned.

Everyone's mutual interests are not 'absolutely' aligned, not even close.

Many teacher's act in the students' best interests, though not always effectively. Some teachers fell into teaching for other reasons.

The NEA's mission "is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world." Two clauses, but not 'absolutely aligned.'

The business leaders' interests are to increase market share and feed their businesses.

I knew Arne had some arithmetic issues--he's confused by his own numbers when he touts his Chicago miracle. He also has some grammar issues--I want to incent him to improve. Now I fear for his sanity.

Everyone's mutual interests are absolutely aligned.

Either Arne's taken the blue pill, or he's one cynical, disingenuous pup. (I'd consider other hypotheses, but I'd like to maintain my fantasy that Harvard screens its applicants, even its athletes.)

The bluepill image is from

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Arne Duncan, meet the Declaration of Independence

“The best thing we can do is educate our way to a better economy."

I try to keep catechism out of my classroom, and not just the Christian sort. If you think you can learn science from a textbook, or from an interactive computer program, or from packaged lab activities, you are teaching catechism.

I also try to keep religion out of my classroom, but pushing the limits of what we know can lead to "dangerous" thoughts among my tadpoles.

"You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. Schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year."
Arne again, talking to students in Denver

Perhaps Arne did not pay attention during biology classes. Or maybe he did. It is quite possible to ace an introductory level biology course without understanding much.

The Earth teems with life; life teems with energy. Our existence depends on the flow of energy through organisms--that's why we eat.

The Earth receives a finite amount of energy each finite moment, gifts from the sun. We are gulping up millions upon millions of years' worth of sunlight stored in fossil fuels, again finite.

We, as part of this teeming community dependent on the sun's light, have limits.

I am confident that we are on the right course as the Administration implements a comprehensive cradle-to-career education agenda to prepare our citizenry to compete in the global economy.
Yep, Arne

The religion of the global economy, however, does not recognize limits. "Economic growth" drives the world economy.

We cannot continue economic growth indefinitely--we are ultimately tied to the land. If I can teach one thing to a child, it would be that we came from the dust, and we shall return to the dust. Our cultural mistake, our cultural tragedy, is belittling the dust, and the energy that allows the dust to swirl and change forms.

Science only works when we seek to get beyond the world inside our heads. Grasping the world outside, however, depends on creating representational worlds inside our heads. Sadly, we confuse the latter with the natural (or the universe or reality or the mystery, or whatever word you choose to use--science cannot tell you what that great mystery is).

Thinking we can grow or exploit our way out of an economic crisis reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of basic biology.

Community colleges like Miami Dade are going to be an extremely important part of restoring the economy over the next few years and ensuring that our students can compete not just with their neighbors down the block, but also with their peers in China and India.

I have a hypothesis:

Should we ever raise a generation of knowledgeable children, grounded in natural world, capable of thinking for themselves, not surrounded by the constant commercial hum defining success (money, bright teeth, money, large home, money, fast car, money, firm thighs, money, multiple degrees, money, executive privileges, money...) the gross domestic product would come crashing down.

That would be bad news for most of us in the States. We would lose a few digits in our electronic portfolios. Our tidy retirement funds set aside to provide us with the finest nursing home care might evaporate. We might not be able to travel far from our backyards.

On the plus side, such a generation could grow food, dress themselves, repair engines, darn socks, bake bread, build homes, unplug a toilet.

These investments [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009] are the surest way to provide long-term stability in to our economy. With these funds, we will educate our way to a stronger economy.
Arne again

The point of public education should be to promote a functional citizenry. And the point of government? Today's as good a day as any to ask. We got a pretty good answer to that question back in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

For all the talk of the economy, for all the talk of education, we've managed to screw up the intent of both. Arne is tying these two disastrous misadventures together, convinced he is serving a noble cause, and I cannot really blame the man--he is the epitome of what the best in education can produce today. He is not the only disaster produced the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. His tragedy, his blindness, is ours. Few of us know what we want anymore.

So long as the sun shines, though, I remain an incorrigible optimist

Today is one of the few days Americans congregate outside. Children will chase lightning bugs as the adults will slap at mosquitoes. Just about everyone gets a chance to see the sun set.

It's a good world waiting for us outside our heads--and for a few wonderful hours, our culture will unplug itself and celebrate a country that still exists in our heads and in Norman Rockwell paintings, but that once existed for real.

It can happen again. It's why I teach.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"All representation systems we use...are ultimately hermetic."

Every teacher, every administrator, every parent, every student needs to read Alan Kay's response to someone gushing over software that "teaches" children how scientists think, posted here at Tuttle SUV.

You can see the original exchange here.

I strongly urge you to spend some time looking through Tom Hoffman's other posts as well, though Tuttle SVC, like fine whiskey, may not be suitable for children.

Mr. Duncan, welcome to the blogosphere

Mr. Arne Duncan, alas, may be a lightweight. I keep clicking my glittery ruby slippers hoping otherwise, but he's the Scarecrow trapped in Oz--friendly, ingratiating, and maddeningly capable of holding contrary opinions.

Ah, yes, the Arne Listening and Learning tour--he listened and he learned, he listened some more, and learned even more. He started a blog, displaying his technological prowess. And after weeks and weeks of listening, he grasped a subtle point. The people do not like the No Child Left Behind, and uttered "The name 'No Child Left Behind' is toxic."

Wrinkling his brow under his felt farmer's hat, Arne thought and thought. "Ha! We shall no longer call it the NCLB!" And with a stroke of his pen the name and the logos disappeared. The little red school house was torn down. The NCLB was no more!

Still, some were not satisfied. Did he not display magnificent listening ability? Did he not end NCLB as we know it?

He thought and he listened and listened and thought--he put his chin in his hand, he furrowed his brow, he smiled his Scarecrow smile, and still the people were not satisfied.

Do they not think I am listening? I will prove that I am listening! I will respond to my blog!

He read and he read, and he read some more--he stumbled upon an entry by Mr. Kyle Brenner, a history teacher in Texas. Mr. Brenner entered his comment back in mid-May--Tuesday Arne called him.*

Arne spent 8 minutes (almost 500 seconds!) chatting with Mr. Brenner using another high tech device, the telephone.

The people rejoiced! He does listen! The US DOE issued a press release commemorating this historic moment. Education Week, "American education's newspaper of record," (they say so themselves) trumpeted the news!

Arne Duncan Really Does Listen!

OK, I added the exclamation point....


Had Arne wanted real discourse, a quick note on the blog by himself or one of his staffers would have sufficed. Even without a press release.

Arne, here's how it works--you post, folks comment, you respond. On the blog. Publicly. The phone call is a nice touch, and two bonus points if you Skyped, but without a transcript, all we know is what your press trumpets.

That's not public policy. That's the cult of personality. And you're not Dorothy.


At least some of Duncan's supporters know how to do this.

Enter Tom Vander Ark, a " long-time friend and supporter of Duncan's" and partner of VA/K (Vander Ark/Ratcliff).

Mr. Vander Ark prides himself on being the first business executive to serve as a public school superintendent. He was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Shucks, "Newsweek readers voted Vander Ark the most influential baby boomer in education" back in 2006. He's got mojo.

Like any good friend, he's got Arne's back

Someone at his firm likes to drop notes into blogs such as The Perimeter Primate. The Perimeter Primate is a mother and a parent coordinator who has children in public school. She's bright and can think on her own, both admirable qualities in a democracy.

A couple of weeks ago she wrote a feisty, well-researched post on Arne's background "Duncan, Robber Barons, and Victims." Someone named edreformer took offense:

Can't say you are really adding to the debate with this... Please lower the venom level and consider dropping the personal attacks.

edreformer linked himself to Vander Ark's firm.

Was it Tom Vander Ark himself? No way to know. I read Tom's blog yesterday--he's "cautiously optimistic about Green Dot-style charter conversations [sic] of failing secondary schools." He also said that he was "thankful for an Education Secretary that gets it (and is trying hard to get it done)."

I was going to ask him what he meant by "conservations of failing secondary schools", but I didn't want to annoy him too much before asking what I did ask:

I’d be interested to know what you mean when you say our Education Secretary “gets it.”

I’d also be curious to know if he’s a client of VA/R.

That comment is still awaiting moderation, and may still be waiting when water solidifies in Hell. SEE UPDATE BELOW.

If Tom Vander Ark is a true friend of Arne's, working from the goodness of his heart, he might consider pulling Arne aside, explaining to him how blogging works. He might even write a comment or two for his buddy.

If Tom is a proponent of open, honest discussion, he might consider telling edreform to knock off hit-and-run comments and instead urge him to engage in discussion. A good start would be using his real name.

Or maybe he's playing the Scarecrow's friend, the Cowardly Lion.

Yes, I know that the stated theorem is wrong--I was quoting the Scarecrow.
The photo is from the US DOE website--the mangled cartoon bubble is mine.
The pensive chin in his hand Arne is from the AP
, credit Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

*The Pony Express got things across the country in just 10 days back in 1860--just sayin'

UPDATE: Mr. Vander Ark has responded to my comment on his blog--Mr. Duncan does not use VA/R.

Not a client, just a great guy trying to do the right thing.
We’ve been talking about standards and accountability for 20 years and few officials-appointed or elected-have had the courage to make tough calls. Over the 10 years that I’ve know him, I appreciate that Arne has always has the best interest of kids in mind.
He’s hiring great folks and approaching the challenge thoughtfully.

Mr. Tom Vander Ark at his blogsite

I'd venture that the errors in the response speak for themselves--looks like the standards and accountability came a generation too late for some of us.

(OK, picking on errors in a blog post does up the "venom level." Judging by the errors on his professional website--besides those on his blog---it's just as well Mr. Duncan does not rely on Vander Ark to serve as his flak.)

UPDATE 2: I attempted to post on Duncan's blog yesterday. I realize it needs moderator approval, but a post newer than mine has hit the comments. I did not save it because it did not occur to me it would not be posted (it fell within the guidelines), and because, well, I'm an idiot.