Musical Elective of the Month: September-October 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Musical Elective of the Month is Crowded House.

Those of you who know me well, you know that Crowded House is my all-time favorite band, going on almost 25 years dating back to my high school years. So you're probably asking, "What took you so long to feature them as a Musical Elective?" Well, patience isn't one of my virtues, but I do try to demonstrate it every once in a while. That said, I have featured founding member/lead singer/ songwriter Neil Finn as a solo Musical Elective as well as his son, Liam Finn, and Neil's 7 Worlds Collide collaboration with members of Wilco, Radiohead, Johnny Marr, KT Tunstall and other musical luminaries. So patience is overstated....

The Crowdies, as the band is affectionately known in Australia, just completed a tour of North America and are on their way to South Africa and Down Under. (Yours truly saw them in concert in Milwaukee on September 7.) Their new album, Intriguer, was released in July 2010. PopMatters offers a nice review, saying "Finn’s stability and contentment has informed the sound of Intriguer, a mature, thoughtful, and mostly mellow album.... It’s a great album in the classic mold, one that rewards you. It is fun to listen to, and though that fun is of the grown-up sort, it makes for one of the year’s best pop albums all the same."

As a bit of history, Neil Finn is one of the great, under-appreciated songsmiths of the last 30 years. A New Zealand native, as a teenager, he almost single-handedly lifted his older brother Tim's one-of-a-kind, art rock band Split Enz into New Wave prominence. Neil penned and sang the band's biggest #1 hit (in Canada, Australia and New Zealand), 1980's "I Got You."

Neil went on to form Crowded House in 1985 with drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour, fashioning it into an internationally renowned band. The current line-up of Crowded House also includes Mark Hart, who joined the band prior to its 1994 album, and Matt Sherrod who replaced Hester as the band's drummer and had previously supported Beck. Crowded House reformed in 2006, coming together following the suicide of Paul Hester the year prior. The original group of tenants iteration broke their lease in 1996 in a Farewell To The World concert before a quarter million fans at the steps of the Sydney Opera House.

Crowded House's eponymous debut album was released in 1986 and produced two top 10 U.S. hits, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." They never reached such heights again in the states, lost amidst the grunge and rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Crowded House's second album, Temple of Low Men, was a critical success in 1988 but a commercial disappointment, but includes such stellar tracks as "Into Temptation," "When You Come," and "Better Be Home Soon." Woodface, the third album, was released in 1991 and made the band certifiable stars in Europe. For this album, Tim Finn--Neil's older brother--joined the band as an official member and co-penned a number of the tracks. It includes the singles, "Fall At Your Feet," "Weather With You," "Four Seasons In One Day," and "It's Only Natural." Crowded House's fourth album, Together Alone, was released in 1994. It includes "Locked Out" (featured in the film Reality Bites) and the international hits "Distant Sun" and "Private Universe."

If you don't know Crowded House, by all means check them out. If you know them from years ago, give them fresh listen. YouTube (for links to live and TV appearances) and the official Crowded House web site are good starting places.
But you know what it means to me, babe
In the course of a history, hey
It all makes sense to me somehow
It’s a course in philosophy, yeah
What is life is it just a dream, no
The perfect mystery but somehow I know
You will love this one
You will love this one
And if we create something magical, honey
There are times come
These are times that come
Only once if your life
Or twice if you’re lucky

-- "Twice If You're Lucky," Intriguer (2010)
Click here for past Musical Electives

The Education Buzz

The latest edition of the Education Buzz, hosted by the blog Bellringers (like us, another Washington Post best for 2010), is now available. Bellringers is the brainchild of Carol Richtsmeier, a high school teacher and former Dallas Morning News reporter.

The next edition is posted on October 13th -- submissions due on October 9. So if you're an education blogger who wants to share your posts with a wider audience, consider submitting to the Education Buzz.

Teacher Quality: What You Need To Know

Monday, September 27, 2010

Today the Joyce Foundation is releasing “Teacher Quality: What You Need to Know,” a first-of-its-kind guidebook that shows parents why we need to improve how we recruit, support, evaluate, and reward teachers in order to ensure all students get a great education. The short, easy-to-read guidebook tells the story of two teachers – one who gets the right support to help her kids succeed and the other who tries hard but doesn’t get the help she needs – and includes a pull-out “how to” guide with more information on policies, research, and a “Top 12” list of things parents can do to help.

The guidebook is geared toward parents but can be used with many audiences. Visit to download the report, access other resources, and learn more about how you can advocate for change.

Alphabet Soup

Friday, September 24, 2010
A recent report raises a fundamental education policy question that requires more than simply refuting the report's premise.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- a self-proclaimed "free market, limited government" non-profit, which is really just a spout of Republican policy ideas -- recently released its 16th annual Report Card on American Education. First of all, the LAST thing education needs is another report card. But I have to give it to my friends at SmartALECk which has been nothing less than persistent (in the true conservative spirit), having apparently kept this up for 16 years. Second, I note that ALEC's Board of Directors is populated almost entirely by Republican office holders. Third, I note that the report's foreward was written by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican. It is no mystery for whom ALEC is shilling.

That said, the ALEC Report Card grades states based on two criteria: (1) Education Performance Rank and (2) Education Reform Grade. Specifically, a state's Education Performance Rank "measures the overall 2009 scores for low-income children (non-ELL and/or non-IEP) and their gains/losses on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams from 2003 to 2009." A state's "Education Reform Grade" is based on the following reform criteria (few of which are central to educational outcomes, but which are all weighted equally): state academic standards, change in state proficiency standards, private school choice, charter school laws, mandatory intra- and inter-district open enrollment, online learning policies and programs, homeschooling regulation levels, alternative teacher certification, identifying high-quality teachers, retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective teachers.

The state of Vermont provides a case in point about what is flawed about ALEC's methodology and typifies a troubling dynamic in some of today's education policy and reform conversations. ALEC ranks the Green Mountain state #1 with respect to its educational performance, but gives it the lowest grade of any state - a 'D' - on education reform. I guess the question for me is what is the fundamental purpose of the American education system: To warm the cockles of would-be reformers' hearts by adopting their pet reforms? Or to achieve educational outcomes and accelerate student learning? Assuming you don't have trouble answering that question, what does this example say about broader education policies and reform conversations? Well, it reminds me that too often we seem more interested in the means rather than in the ends. And that's a big problem.

At the federal level, the Obama Administration is onto something with its "tight on ends, loose of means" mantra. Arne Duncan's Education Department has attempted to use that catchphrase to articulate a stronger federal role over education policy while reassuring educators and policymakers that it won't make policies too prescriptive if the desired results are achieved. In a sense, it is not entirely unlike No Child Left Behind's accountability system which more or less allowed schools to keep on keeping on as long as they didn't run afoul of adequate yearly progress requirements. As Fordham's Gadfly recently noted, the future of federal education policy is very much in doubt, dependent on the outcomes of November's elections, control of one or both houses of Congress, and whether the Know Nothing Tea Party forces seize control of the GOP agenda.

But prescriptive-ness is sometimes an invisible line. The Race to the Top program probably went too far down the path of requiring certain reforms that don't have much of an evidential basis, aren't ready to be fully implemented, or aren't scalable. In addition, as Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca (my high school principal at Essex High School in Vermont!) has noted, some of these faddish and sensible-in-certain-context reforms don't make sense or cannot be successfully implemented in a small, rural state such as Vermont. One also could ask whether RTTT scoring insufficiently weighted "improving student outcomes" -- which accounted for only 25 of the application's 500 total points (a mere 5 percent) -- in favor of promises of future reform. Again, is it about educational outcomes for students? Or it is about reform for reform's sake?

Back to the SmartALECk report: It would seem to me that ALEC is right in one sense. There *is* an argument for reducing federal regulation, and in education the answer is to leave well enough alone when a state such as Vermont is achieving great results. Now, we can argue over how those results should appropriately be measured, but that would be a more important conversation than talking about a metric such as 'reform' that is focused on pet approaches to privatizing education, firing teachers and enabling home schooling that likely have little bearing on student outcomes and that have little basis in research.

It is hypocritical of an organization like ALEC, committed to loosening regulations and limited government, to offer up such a prescriptive laundry list of reforms that states must enact to receive an 'A.' By ALEC's own outcome metric, Vermont is doing the best job of any state in the country in achieving equitable educational outcomes for low-income students. (Arguably, that is as much if not more due to Vermont's social safety net and universal health care as anything its schools are doing.) Accordingly, SmartALECk should let those results speak for themselves and save its ABCs and Ds to fill many bowls of alphabet soup during the coming winter.

Foodie Finds

This week's foodie feature highlights some choice restaurants from recent travels:

Brasserie V - one of the most consistently excellent and unpretentious restaurants in town - Madison, Wisconsin
Forbes Mill Steakhouse - power dinner spot if Manresa breaks the bank - Los Gatos, California
New Heights - new chef is taking old restaurant to new heights - Washington, DC
Phoenix - best dim sum in Chicago? - Chicago, Illinois
Publican - taking the gastropub concept to an exalted level - Chicago, Illinois

Past Foodie Finds.

Teacher Voices: The VIVA Project

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The VIVA Project is a new initiative that gives teachers an opportunity to collaborate, share ideas, and inform education policy and reform conversations at the state and national levels. VIVA stands for Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action.

The Goal of the VIVA Project is to identify ideas and opinions straight from the classroom, work together to create actionable policies to improve public education for classroom teachers and their students, and deliver them directly to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Teachers are encouraged to share their ideas in both the national and New York idea mines. Register today! And check out its Facebook page, too. You have until October 10, 2010 to add your voice to the conversation.

Other notables initiatives in a similar vein include Teach PLUS, the Teacher Leaders Network and the Hope Street Group's Policy 2.0.

The VIVA Project is a worthy addition to an education reform marketplace that too often ignores and discounts the thoughts and ideas of actual classroom teachers. Kudos to Secretary Duncan for being willing to listen.

Check out the embedded video to learn more about the VIVA Project:

Foodie Finds

Friday, September 10, 2010
In an effort to spice up this blog a bit, we'll tap into the Optimists' foodie inclinations by periodically featuring some choice restaurants and food-related businesses.

This week we feature some frozen favorites:

Capogiro Gelato - world-class gelato in the cradle of liberty - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chocolate Shoppe - satisfies our craving in & around Mad-town - Madison, Wisconsin
Michael's Frozen Custard - a twist on ice cream, with eggs + cream & sugar -- Madison, Wisconsin
Sebastian Joe's - ice cream can't taste much better than this - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Toscanini's - NY Times calls it "the best ice cream in the world" - Cambridge, Massachusetts

What and where are some of your favorite?

LA Times Value Added Editorial

Friday, September 3, 2010
The Los Angeles Times editorial page gets it mostly right today on the value-added issue ("Good teachers, good students," September 3, 2010). It says a number of smart things that I agree with, such as:
  • "Test scores are indeed just one indicator of a teacher's performance."
  • "But it's revealing, and disturbing, to read the comments of some teachers who don't seem to care whether their students' scores slide. They argue that they're focused on more important things than the tests measure. That's unpersuasive."
  • "This page has never believed that test scores should count for all of a teacher's evaluation — or even be the most important factor. But they should be a part of it."
  • "Right now, the "value-added" scores The Times has been reporting are more useful for evaluating schools than teachers. Many factors can throw off the data at the classroom level."
  • "That's why we think the Obama administration has been too hasty to push states into linking test scores to teacher evaluations and to reward states that overemphasize the scores, making them count for half or more of a teacher's worth. The administration's first priorities should have been developing better tests, which it's working on now — if we're going to judge teachers in part by these scores, it's unacceptable to say that top-notch tests are too expensive — and statistical models that minimize random factors and make the scores a better evaluation tool."
  • "Current teacher evaluation practices are ripe for overhaul. Performance reviews should include, at minimum, classroom observations, portfolios of student work over the academic year and, yes, objective test data."
I just wish its news division had taken some of these points to heart, namely having patience until the methodology was ready to be joined by other measures of teacher effectiveness, such as classroom observations, and not publishing the value-added scores of individual teachers and definitively labeling some as most effective and least effective.

Heather Horn of The Atlantic magazine offers a nice summary of some of the related issues and links to relevant sources in this September 1, 2010 blog post.

And Dana Goldstein offers a smart retort (and a preview of her upcoming The Nation feature on value added?) to a vacuous and vitriolic Slate post by Jack Shafer on this topic.

Related Posts:

Foodie Finds

In an effort to spice up this blog a bit, we'll tap into the Optimists' foodie inclinations by periodically featuring some choice restaurants and food-related businesses. This week we feature some favorite West Coast destinations:
  • Xanh Bistro - stellar Vietnamese in Orange County - Fountain Valley, California
  • Swan Oyster Depot - serving oysters for 97 years - San Francisco, California
  • Vij's - some say the best Indian cuisine in North America - Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • Clyde Common - part of a bustling foodie scene in PDX - Portland, Oregon
  • Soif Wine Bar - my favorite place to eat in the land of Banana Slugs - Santa Cruz, California
Past Foodie Finds.

More Grist for the Value-Added Mill

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Here is additional smart and pithy commentary on the current value-added conversation that I wasn't able to incorporate into yesterday's post or have only discovered since.

Crist Off the Hook?

Predictions that Florida Governor Charlie Crist's veto of a monstrosity of a teacher effectiveness bill back in April 2010 would cause his state to lose the Race to the Top competition have proven false.

Charlie Barone (Democrats for Education Reform), Mike Thomas (Orlando Sentinel columnist), Clayton Christensen, and others wrote at the time that Crist's veto would cost Florida its Phase Two Race to the Top funding. Nope. Even former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Andy Smarick (a favorite to be next New Jersey education commissioner) intimated that Crist's move was the wrong step and could harm Florida. But, lo and behold, the sky did not fall and Republican Crist is still standing (as an independent running for U.S. Senate). And the feds are cutting a $700 million check to the Sunshine State any day now (Orlando Sentinel).