Opinions

Sometimes Doctor Geno just needs to share. Please excuse him when he gets passionate.

A new look at student performance…

A new look at student performance…

This article, reporting on the data of new hires at Google, should teach us a lesson.

Google is an expert in data collection, analysis, and the business of technology (which is pretty much the future of the modern world’s economic growth and is still barely mentioned in any school curriculum). They’ve reported that a new hire’s GPA and their success on Google’s legendary in-interview brain-teasers are NOT predictive of job performance.

Further, another study that I’ve just learned of shows that there is a score threshold for predicting success in scientific subjects, specifically math and physics, that does not exist in any other test for any other major. So maybe standardized tests are great… but only for technically minded students.

How long will it take us to integrate this new information into the way we educate our children? Considering the current stagnation of progressive, forward-thinking policy shifts, it will probably take decades.

Let’s just consider the possibility of breaking the strict guidelines of our current curriculum, allowing students to express their interests and creativity in an environment that fosters ideas and the analyzation of current events and breakthroughs. I would never suggest removing all levels of testing and quality control measures like grades… but this continuous discussion of “accountability” (which is typically aimed squarely at teachers) should start being refocused onto the policy maneuvers that brought us to the deficiencies we witness in our public education system.

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Testing in Education: An Identity Crisis

Testing in Education: An Identity Crisis

Are you for success of the whole? Or success of the individual? Is there a way to measure both, or just one?

Is education the filling of a bucket? Or the ignition of a flame? Obviously the amount that is in the bucket would be an easy measurement, but what about the “motivation” to increase the size of your bucket? How do you measure that?

Academia, bureaucracy, analytics, statistics, and democracy are all biased against the individual in favor of the collective, incremental good. But does collective, incremental improvement create happiness for the individual?

Are collective, incremental gains concurrent with the goal of education or is education a more personal, individual mission? In education, are we filling of the bucket or are we defining the bucket? Is it possible that conformity and standardization are extinguishing the flame of motivation as a byproduct?

This bias towards systematizing our schools is inherent in the modernization of the nation’s education. Individual differences are smoothed out by numbers and the students’ “superfluous,” individualized interests are left superfluous. The opportunities to create inspiration and ignite motivation are rarely measurable. What is the metric for inspiration?

Is this a defeat of spirit?

In psychometrics classes, large numbers and extensive sampling are necessary. Individuals are carefully conceptualized before all tests are administered, but sometimes the validity of the test isn’t well-known until the test has already been taken. Education gap wideningIn a normal high school history class, tests are content-driven and highly specific inquiries about the contents of your bucket. While in a job interview, the applicant is supposed to “stand out” and be a “special” graduate of the content-specific combine, i.e. their college and major.

Troubleshooting this dichotomy is a losing effort. These two processes of ordering achievement negate one another. Teachers are being forced into administering the contents that are allowed into the bucket, students are having the bucket poured over their heads, and the testing community is salivating over the NCLB-allocated government contracts.

The goal of hermeneutics is a humanist, idiosyncratic interpretation of one student while psychometrics assigns a model to our cognitive processes. Psychometrics includes “measurement” and cognitive “diagnosis” schemes that assert models of the average examinee’s content-specific thought processes. Human functions are implicitly algorithmic here, and the randomness and blurriness of higher-order processes, in effect the “humanity” of the individual, has been stripped because it can not be modeled with graphical analysis and Bayesian estimation. Variance cannot be eliminated from the human interactions that culminate in gaining an “education.” Algorithms cannot replace the teacher-student relationship.

Capitalism is an economic philosophy that lauds individual gains as a function of efficient supply chains, automation, and forecasting, i.e. systematization that streamlines productivity and profit for the few with the power to implement it. If we aren’t careful, the success of private equity hedging may influence the application of this perspective onto the nation’s education system.

Despite the fact that the natural order human beings evolved within, the current procedures for creating predictable results subverts spontaneity and subjugates nature into something repeatable and essentially unnatural. In contrast, babies emerge from the womb with eager eyes… learning to eat, crawl, walk, speak, run, jump, emote, share, etc. This natural urge for learning is then being confined to a classroom that is becoming more standardized… and to the child, it is rendered flavorless.

The problem is that a human being, whether you’re talking about the student or the teacher, will not go gently into that pre-packaged destiny. We must determine how to ignite their curiosity, give flavor to the content, learn from the data, and resist the temptation to eliminate the variance of the model.

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BPA and hormones in our fruits and vegetables!

BPA and hormones in our fruits and vegetables!

A group of biology peeps in Florida took a stroll to the nearby supermarket to grab some samples for chemical testing. Unlike most of us, they are well-aware of the fact that industrial farms have been regularly irrigating our food with wastewater (2). Though there may be some advantages to this irrigation method within developing countries, in our own heavily medicated and polluted country the consequences to using water laced with plastic byproducts, prescription medicine and contraceptives create potential biohazards for our children and us.

Some of the chemicals these scientists found have been making recent headlines. Bisphenol A, which you may know as “BPA” from the slew of “BPA-Free” baby products hitting the market, is being found in produce like tomatoes and potatoes in quantities that have been linked to deleterious effects in the reproductive system as well as increased cancer rates. BPA is a very controversial chemical; expert panels argue that it “is associated with organizational changes in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals” (3). Despite BPA’s extensively documented effects on the reproductive system of lab animals, its effects on humans are highly controversial; for a large number of studies, the scientists have not been able to clearly separate its effects from the effects of female hormones that are also being found in your grocery bag. To boot, the Center for Disease Control has found that 90% of us have high levels of BPA in our bodies.

Estradiol is another chemical these Floridian scientists have discovered in our lettuce and citrus. Every human being, whether male or female, has a chemical receptivity to the hormone estrogen; estradiol binds with our body’s estrogen receptors and BPA has also been shown to mimic estradiol. For males, high levels of estradiol may result in feminine traits or cause sterility (4). Since BPA has been found to change the expression of key developmental genes that affect the female reproductive system (5), this chemical cocktail of BPA+Estradiol can be perceived as the equivalent of a hormone treatment for the reproductive system. How this combination of chemicals may be affecting our children, few are hypothesizing due to the complex range of chemical reactions that may take place in the human body. Nevertheless, the estimated amount of this compound that you and I may be ingesting is considered “beyond the recommended intake” according to the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

Another chemical disruptor of our natural hormones, nonylphenol, was also detected in our food. Nonylphenol is a compound that also weakly mimics estrogen. It comes from detergents or pesticides and like estradiol and BPA, is not easily removed during wastewater treatment. Since Nonylphenol and Bisphenol A mimic the activity of natural hormones like estrogen and estradiol, this class of chemicals are called endocrine disruptors. As a whole, endocrine disruptors are known to cause birth defects, learning disabilities, deformations of the body, sexual developmental issues, and cancerous tumors.

For decades, the onset of puberty in our children has been happening earlier, especially for girls. Testosterone levels and sperm count have also been steadily decreasing in males for at least fifty years. The fact that these hormones and hormone disruptors have been in our meat and animal products is not news, though little has ever been done to regulate the industry. This most recent study now warns us of further exposure from our fruits and vegetables and will undoubtedly solicit more studies of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in our food.

 

Editor’s Note: This is my application essay for an internship. Reproduced because I think it’s a big deal, too.

(1) Jian Lu, Jun Wu, Peter J Stoffella, Patrick Wilson. Analysis of Bisphenol A, Nonylphenol and Natural Estrogens in Vegetables and Fruits Using Gas Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry. J Agric Food Chem. 2012 Dec 6. Epub 2012 Dec 6. PMID: 23215552

(2) Bartram, J., Carr, R. “Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta, and grey water, Volume 2: Wastewater use in Agriculture”. World Health Organization, 2006.

(3) Vogel, S. (2009). “The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A ‘Safety'”. American Journal of Public Health 99 (S3): 559–566.

(4) Sharpe, RM; Skakkebaek, NE (1993). “Are oestrogens involved in falling sperm counts and disorders of the male reproductive tract?”. Lancet 341 (8857): 1392–5. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(93)90953-E. PMID 8098802.

(5) Smith CC, Taylor HS (January 2007). “Xenoestrogen exposure imprints expression of genes (Hoxa10) required for normal uterine development”. FASEB J. 21 (1): 239–46. doi:10.1096/fj.06-6635com. PMID 17093138.

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Mid-Semester Musings…

Mid-Semester Musings…

Hurricane Sandy is, ironically, providing a short respite… the power is still on, classes are cancelled for two days, I have a moment to make updates on the sites I’m administering, and I can finally reorganize my winter clothes… well, while there’s still power and light…

Since September, I’ve learned and accomplished far more than I expected. For starters, statistical mathematics is much harder than I thought… but much more powerful than I imagined. Probability is a way of envisioning the separation of one potential event into all of its possible actualities, and the defining attributes of the players in this universe of events are definable “after the fact.” It’s actually quite incredible. I now understand why financial analysts think they’re smarter than everyone else, but I still can’t fathom the arrogance that usurps their morality. But to be honest, the difficulty of using these statistical algorithms to make good predictions are far more valuable than any public sector salary… so any true nationalist needs to do some introspection about their tax investment if they want smart people to assist in the reformation of this country. It’s no wonder that analysts would rather make 6 times more money for easier work. (Easier you ask? Yes… because statistical research for social science and psychology is still developing out of its infancy, but the research for finance is 45 years ahead.)

The election is almost over, thank heavens. I’m, admittedly, a politically vested person. I believe in the common good, the general welfare, prevention of warfare, promotion of education and healthcare… and it’s very sad that we can’t be sure that either candidate will push these efforts. What’s even worse is the insane amount of money that runs the PACs that support these two political parties that have a duopoly on our political system… and it seems that our population is far too immature and short-sighted, ignoring the tremendous oligarchical structure that holds our pensions, municipal bonds, college funding, mortgage banking, and our news organizations. Most believe third party candidates to be impractically naive personalities. They may actually be our only way to reform a broken government.

On a personal note, the edits for our book on Model UN Education and Social Intelligence for high school students is complete and finished. The website is ready for media content and our videos from the upcoming RUMUN and HMUN workshops will be available to members, as well as my upcoming presentation on “Presentation Skills: An Application of Social Intelligence” that I’ll be giving to the Rutgers Education Psychology faculty and graduate students. The youtube channel is up and running, the copyright is initiated, and the affiliates are being notified of their ability to make commissions. If you want to help sell our book for online commissions, let me know!

My wife is also beginning her work on her little website adventure. She will be launching her site called the Uneasy Yogini within the next two months. She’ll be promoting her classes, good products, healthy food and exercise, and some nice local spots. One day she’s hoping to have her second career take over her primary… but that is several years away, and we’ve got some parental basics to get through first.

 

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Who can change policy?

Who can change policy?

College work is in full swing.

(hilarious as I’m turning 34… am I smart or stupid? Will my wife still love me when it’s over?)

As I re-engage my creative mind within the collegiate terra firma of mental fertility, there is one glaring detail that lingers on the horizon as I simultaneously beseech myself to stay abreast of the national epidemic of political gridlock:

There is no shortage of interesting ideas!

Seriously… I hear good ideas everyday. Very few of them should be implemented with 100% faith and ubiquity, but they should be attempted nonetheless.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is a very good example of the final compromise that could have been entertained months ago while the details of the “initial” teacher assessment model could have been fine-tuned through the collaboration of the union AND the mayor’s office. If one employs the “golden axiom of social intelligence” [We are smarter than I] a successful strategy would reveal itself with minimal energy:

  1. Collaboratively discuss theoretical model that may prove accurate.
  2. Make predictions.
  3. Strategize implementation to answer the questions of BOTH parties (the union AND the administration).
  4. Implement for a provisional year.
  5. Employ third party expertise to THOROUGHLY analyze results.
  6. Present results to both parties and meet collaboratively to discuss & critique. Compare with predictions.
  7. Renegotiate steps 1, 2, & 3 before implementing within policy.

Mutual respect and mutual goals should be the new paradigm for local, state, and federal policy. When we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, we can finally have the open mind to attempt collaborative solutions.

A closing note: one interesting consequence of collaboration is the revelation of selfish spearheads of personal belief. Ardent figureheads of unyielding ideas are of more danger to our communal benefit than those who are willing to compromise. If democracy is a sacred idea, we must reduce the power of metaphoric monarchs. The union president doesn’t always support EACH of its members and the superintendent’s policy is RARELY a result of administrative consensus.

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Transitions…

Transitions…

This day is usually filled with brooding…

Strolling back into a high school after a 2 month vacation and seeing your coworkers is a happy occasion that gets quickly thrown to the side as socially ardent teenagers quickly smash through the doors and shout to their supporting cast of boisterous pseudo-hooligans while we make our opening speeches. Teaching is honorable… and our abilities of crowd control are rarely acknowledged.

Today, for me, began with a text from my coworkers… cursing me from their annual re-insertion into public sector protocol while I lay in bed thinking about how best to mentally prepare for my 6:30-9:30pm graduate class on Probability. My daily stress level during the “school year” has officially plummeted from an 60/100 to a 20/100. My advisor has even shunned my overzealous work ethic and told me to “settle in” to my schedule. Wanna know my schedule that needs settling into? M 4:30-7:30pm, T 6:30-9:30pm, W 4:30-7:30pm, & Th 4:30-7:30pm. I think I’ll hit the gym during the days that I work on my comfort level.

Now, it’s not all easy. Specifically, I have very little experience with this new form of statistical mathematical notation. The language of math of physics is much more visual and robust. We don’t randomly insert a vector term unless there is a physical property that includes direction… whereas, statisticians can randomly insert and fit an extra nominal term within a model that has no physical interpretation; it’s just data. It is data that may or may not be important. Rarely do physicists do anything “extra.” We are barebones, brute force mathematicians that learn the elegant tricks when we have to. So my prediction is that this change in philosophy is going to carry my forehead into the figurative brick wall as I glean the nuances of Item Response Theory and Hierarchical Multilevel Analysis.

On another note, my fourth class in “Teacher Evaluation” is going to require a great deal of empathy. Subjective/Qualitative Evaluation is farthest thing I’ve ever witnessed from a hard science that attempts to portray itself as an evolved, structured analysis. I have a feeling that I’ll be making hand waving arguments and laughing at the false pretenses of administrators. Nearly every paper on teacher evaluation that I have ever seen, shows that local administrators show extreme bias in their evaluations… so much so that third-party university professionals are usually called in to “correct” for the skew in qualitative data. Sadly, qualitative data is still the only evaluation method my former colleagues and I have ever been subjected to.

 

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