Serve People, Not Ideas

Pope Francis is visiting Cuba today, at a time when the country is thawing from the Cold War politics that have isolated it for decades. I read about his message delivered in today's mass. Pope Francis spoke against ideological decisions, stating that "service is never ideological for we do not serve ideas, we serve people." I've been thinking about this all day, with Seattle's recent education drama in the backdrop.

I have personally been swept up in what many would consider ideology lately. In the wake of the charter ruling, I felt compelled to act and write. I stand behind my words and my actions, because they came from passion for my students. In the aftermath, I've realized that ideas and people are hard to keep separate. My own personal skepticism of labor politics mixed in with my frustration. Meanwhile, others rushed to take my words and amplify them for their own agendas. All of this leaves me with more questions than answers.

What does it mean to fight for people and not ideas when it comes to education? How do we know that fighting for students is more than a euphamism? Is there actually room for nuance in education policy debates, or does change necessarily come from convincing ideology?

I'll leave it here for now. As always, I welcome discussion.

#SaveWACharterSchools - A Close Read of the Ruling

Update 9/8/15 6:30 PM - I've written an opinion piece that has been published today in the Seattle Times. You can read the piece here. Additionally, the Editorial board at the Seattle Times wrote a separate opinion calling on the court to reconsider its ruling. Since last update, a thorough comment from Elisha Ferry (see below) explains why a legislative fix may be more difficult than anticipated. She also questions Representative Stokesbary's analysis of how this court ruling would impact programs like Running Start. Please give it a read.

Update 9/7/15 10:00 PM - Washington House Appropriations Committee member Drew Stokesbary provides a worrysome description of what this ruling could mean for state supported education programs like Running Start and tribal schools. Read his response here. In short, this ruling does not invalidate these programs, but it paves the way for them to be invalidated using this court case as a precedent. This needs to be fixed... I taught in Federal Way and saw tons of kids gain tremendous benefit from Running Start. Also, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal called "The Judges who Stole School Choice" provides some good insight, even if their bias is quite prominent.


Friday afternoon, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a ruling that strikes down I-1240, a 2012 public voter approved Act popularly called the "Charter School Act." As the Seattle Times describes, this ruling potentially disrupts the education of up to 1200 students already attending school at nine schools across the state. This is personal for me, since I'm a founding teacher at one of these charter schools this year. I've jumped into the fray on social media trying to try and call attention to how detrimental this ruling could be for our kids. I've seen many opinions, ideas, and quite a few misconceptions fly around. Most importantly, I've already been called a "Bill Gates shill" on Twitter:


I couldn't help but laugh at this one. How did she know that I learned to type in the 1990's on computers donated by Microsoft in the library of Symmes Elementary?! I am unashamed in my love for Microsoft Word (and more recently OneNote). Point taken, Pippi.

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Opt-Out? Part 2 of 4: Testing as Social Justice

In Part 1 of this series, I described by current belief that measurement, on its own, is not inherently bad. I believe that we should seek to use measurement in effective and empowering ways in schools. Just because things are hard to measure, doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

In isolation, this is a belief that is easy for me to get behind. However, the act of measurement is not separable from the act of interpreting measurement, something that all of us in education are keenly aware of. For much of the modern era in education, there has been a huge emphasis on acknowledging, and trying to correct for, inequalities in education. Jonathan Kozol's seminal book, "Savage Inequalities", is a heartbreaking and timeless account of children who are far too often forgotten in American public education. One of the few positives from No Child Left Behind is that we now have hundreds of reports demonstrating that, dis-proportionately, poor students of color score much lower on standardized tests. In our society where opportunity is linked to these metrics, this is an urgent problem.

A thorough discourse on educational opportunities in the United States ... would reveal a pattern of highly excluded and racially segregated groups who historically were denied equal access to schooling for centuries.

Tyrone C. Howard, "Why Race and Culture Matters in Schools"

Education is a social justice issue. So, what does this mean for standardized testing?

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Opt-Out? Part 1 of 4: The Meaning of Measurement

There's a movement sweeping the nation right now. Parents and students are choosing to "opt-out" of required standardized testing from New York City to Seattle. The "opt-out" movement is only the latest manifestation of resistance to standardized testing, but it is one that has gained an incredible amount of momentum in a short amount of time. Close to home, every single 11th grade student at Nathan Hale High School, in Seattle, boycotted the recent Smarter Balanced Assessment test. Many educators who I respect are jumping on this movement, going so far as to call it an "Education Spring". Meanwhile, others are sitting on the sidelines with me, questioning whether this is the right thing to support or not. This issue has been particularly thorny for me. I'm an engineer by training, and now a teacher by trade. I can see the merits of all sides of the standardized testing debate. Slowly but surely, I figured, I can resolve this confusion and come out with a clear opinion on standardized testing.

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R&W: Power Structures in Society

My wife is going to kill me for this. We have a running joke about how I always talk about “power structures in society”. Whenever I get talking about broad issues surrounding education, racism, equity, and opportunity, you could almost make a drinking game out of those words. For those who are not familiar with this term, come along with me for a quick journey.

I’ve been reading This is not a Test by Jose Luis Vilson. Vilson is a force to be reckoned with in the world of education right now. Just look for #educolor on Twitter and Vilson will be close by. I’ll get a chance to hear him talk in person at our Knowles fellowship summer meeting in July. So, I’m about 2/5ths of the way through his book and, as is happening more and more these days, when I read things, my mind starts to run. I decided to put the book down and write a few things of my own. R&W. Reading and Writing. Back to the basics.

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What does 'equals' mean?

I've been digging into NCTM's Developing Essential Understandings series lately. These are books that try and help teachers go beyond the surface level and understand deeply how math ideas connect and relate beneath the surface.

I'm working on a middle school math plan and I'm trying to read through each of the four books in the series for middle school math. These books are deceivingly dense, packing years of "aha" moments for students into a few pages at a time. I was reading the book on Expressions, Equations, and Functions a couple of days ago and I couldn't help but geek out as I was reading. Unfortunately for my wife, she was my captive audience, stuck next to me on a plane. I usually try and contain my excitement when I'm in public, but come on... I just realized that you can solve an equation by imagining both sides as separate functions and applying graphical transformations on the functions that preserve equality! Anyways, I thought I'd share a few amazing "aha" moments I had from reading so far. I'm sure some readers have long realized these things, but they were really cool for me to think about. The wonderful thing about teaching mathematics (and other subjects for that matter) is that you get a chance to constantly be a learner, finding complexity and depth in even the most simple topic. Here are a few takeaways:

Duality of variables: Unknowns and Changing Quanties

On page 28, the authors quote Daniel Chazan as he describes his view on the role(s) of variables in mathematics. In physics, light is understood to be a duality, existing as a wave and a particle at the same time. Chazan describes how he views a variable as a duality also. A variable, like , can be a single unknown value (e.g. "5 times a number is 25. What is my number"). It can also be a placeholder for a changing quantity (e.g. "revenue depends on how many tickets are sold"). Chazan asserts that variables are actually both simultaneously, even though we often think of them in only one way or the other.

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STEM and the "Liberal Education"

Newton's third law tells us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Popular opinion journalism is not so different than physics after all.

I read Fareed Zakaria's work often. He's a great journalist for the Washington Post and a TV news anchor with his own show on CNN. I dug into a piece yesterday he wrote titled "Why America's Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous". Unlike Zakaria's articles on foreign policy, which are insightful, thought-provoking, and in-depth, this article paints an innacurate and overly-simplified picture of what STEM education is and should be. Worse yet, his argument injects dangerously reductive rhetoric into the public debate on education, where we already see heightened emotion and political division. Maybe this type of reaction is what Zakaria is aiming for. He releases a new book today on this same topic called "In Defense of a Liberal Education".

This article centers on a false dichotomy, namely that that focusing more on STEM education opposes or undermines a "liberal education". As a STEM educator and advocate, I know that Zakaria's claim simply is not true. I hope that casual readers will dig deeper and resist blindly following this type of click-bait journalism (The URL for the article shows a different, working title for his piece: "Why STEM won't make us successful"). I hope to address some misconceptions here and provide a richer description of what STEM education is, what it can be, and why we should all support a focus on it at every school.

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Poverty, Grit, and Teachers

The "grit" narrative says that if someone works hard enough, then they can escape poverty. This is a great message to get behind until you consider the contrapositive that logically follows: If someone doesn't escape poverty, then they didn't work hard enough.

I've been thinking a lot lately about poverty. I've been struggling to come to terms with what it means for me as a high school teacher. I see the effects of poverty on my students every day. I have taught students who were transient or homeless. These kids often sleep in weekly rate hotel rooms, friend's couches or floors, or worse. I have taught students who are forced to take care of themselves for long hours each day because their parents have to work night shifts to keep food on the table. I have taught students who wear what may be their only sweatshirt to school every day, sometimes to try and cover up their smell from not being able to shower for days. Poverty is not a new phenomenon in America, but addressing it has become increasingly important in education – over 50% of public school students now live in or near poverty, the highest percentage in over 50 years.

There are many emotions that guide how educators perceive and respond to poverty. Many educators respond first with compassion, checking that students have food to eat and that their basic needs are taken care of. That way, students can be in a position to focus on learning. Students living in poverty often lack things near the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. While the ideas behind Maslow's hierarchy are not without criticism or question, his ideas are powerful because they resonate with what we often observe in society. If a student hasn't had a meal in 18 hours, it's not hard to imagine why they might struggle to stay engaged in math class.

Taken to the extreme, teachers who respond only with compassion can un-intentionally perpetuate what President Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations". If my student is worried about where she's going to sleep tonight, maybe I shouldn't press too hard if she doesn't seem engaged... right? If one of my failing students shows improvement right near the end of the semester, maybe I should give him a passing grade instead of piling more stress onto his plate... right? Rationalizations like these lead to lowered expectations for students who need support the most. Given the strong correlation between income and race in America, this is more than just an economics issue. In his same speech, President Bush stated that when it comes to the lack of education results in impoverished neighborhoods, "whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination."

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Picture Messaging Project - Physics in Action

Have you ever wondered how a cell phone sends a picture message? I designed an interactive lab unit to help students explore and answer that question. As a graduate student, my concentration was in applications of image processing and communication systems. I was always struck by how simple the concepts in the field are, despite the dense math it takes to fully describe the techniques. My goal was to create a course that exposes students to some of the concepts in play in modern communication systems without requiring high-level mathematics as an entry point to the subject. I had the idea for this course in 2013 when I was hired to teach a one-week, 20-hour, supplemental course to middle school students at the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving. I adapted the original course this fall to use in my high school's Pre-Engineering class.

I'm sharing this project unit in hopes that other teachers might find this project interesting. My code and curriculum materials are below. Teaching this unit effectively will require some basic knowledge of MATLAB. Knowledge of the physics behind acoustic waves and digital images is also a plus. I think this unit can realistically align to standards in a physics, general science, or engineering course. Check out this video to get an overview of the project. Read below for detailed information and resources.

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Thoughts on Ferguson

I’ve been hit with a lot of emotions today and I feel compelled to share a few thoughts on my experience and my take on the events in #Ferguson today. This seems like an appropriate time to share something that I’ve realized and grappled with through my time in the classroom: I am racist.

I say this admittedly partially for shock value, but I’ll try to clarify. I acknowledge that I am racist not because I think I have any explicit biases, opinions, or hatred for people of other races, but because my inaction and inability to acknowledge the impact of cultural and racial oppression makes me complicit in the system of racism in America.

Racism in America today is not often an active expression or an active decision to hate. Rather, it is a passive, cumulative cultural bias that becomes visible primarily from a wide view. It is easy to consider a specific event and not see the way that culture and past experience plays a role. This current form of racism is more dangerous and insidious than the forms of the past mostly because it is so much easier not to recognize or acknowledge.

I am racist every time I have less patience with a black boy in my classes than a white boy in a different class that is actually exhibiting the same behavior (this has happened before). I am racist every time I let thoughts of foreign students being less intelligent than other students creep into my head because of the struggle they have in communicating clearly in English as their second language (this happens to me too much...) I am racist every time that I fail to acknowledge or try to appreciate the authentic experiences and perspectives that my students from different communities bring to the classroom (I miss these opportunities daily).

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