Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Decentering Earth

Poor Earth!

First it was knocked out of its central location by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo et al. Now (relatively speaking) comes a popular text called Astronomy Today (Chaisson) that denies its many, probably unique, splendors.

1.1 Our Place in Space

Of all the scientific insights attained to date, one stands out boldly: Earth is neither central nor special. We inhabit no unique place in the universe. Astronomical research, especially within the past few decades, strongly suggests that we live on what seems to be an ordinary rocky planet called Earth, one of nine known planets orbiting an average star called the Sun, a star near the edge of a huge collection of stars called the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one galaxy among countless billions of others spread throughout the observable universe.
But is this true? Is Earth really just an "ordinary rocky planet"? I can think of a number of things that make Earth special. For one thing, amazing luck places it at a distance from the Sun that makes it habitable. The infamous greenhouse effect makes it hospitable and cozy, thanks primarily to water vapor, by far the most important greenhouse gas.* Earth has vast oceans that moderate temperature fluctuations. Goldilock would approve. It has fresh water. It has an atmosphere, and a benign one to boot. Not the poisonous brew of Venus. It has just the right tilt of its axis, held stable by a moon, that gives us our glorious seasons. I mean, its axis could be lying flat on its back like that of Uranus. And we might have 25 years of darkness, alternating with 25 years of relentless sunshine if Earth were Uranus.

*I avoid boiling water to reduce my water vapor footprint.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gifted drop dead

It is shameful that educationists care so little for the needs of gifted students. The egalitarian dogma and the quest for mediocrity are more important than the well-being and the development of the potential of those unfortunate enough to have been born with above-average abilities:

In many Delaware districts, the gifted are left behind
State offers no funding to teach brightest students

They are bored -- so much so that they may not pay attention in class or will act out in frustration.

Some make poor grades, either because they no longer care or because they have spent so many of their younger years unchallenged that when they suddenly face a rigorous course in middle or high school, they don't know how to study.

They are the nation's gifted children, those with abilities beyond other children their age. Too many of their abilities, advocates argue, remain untapped by U.S. schools that don't serve them as they focus instead on lifting low-achieving students to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Statistically, 20 percent of U.S. school dropouts test in the gifted range, said Jill Adrian, director of family services at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit founded by philanthropists Bob and Jan Davidson out of a concern that the nation's most gifted and talented children largely are neglected and underserved.

Then there is the loss to the nation from wasted talent.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Starved for money

If you listen to Kozol of the land of Kozolnistan, schools are starved for money. On the other hand, money can flow quite freely as this extraordinary report in the Washington Post about D.C.'s school practices shows. It relates how a teacher on the verge of retirement founded an institute to promote Lucy Calkins' dubious theories, instantly got $2.9 million from the school system without a contract, and promptly gave herself a salary of $150,000 among other hugely wasteful activities. All out of love for children:

In spring 2005, Ford said, she was looking for ways to remain active in education after her retirement, scheduled for that summer. Ford said she, Kelly and two other women who had worked at Horace Mann decided to create a nonprofit group to spread enthusiasm for literacy training across D.C. schools. They incorporated the institute March 25 that year, and Ford became president and executive director. Her compensation, which started four months later, is listed as $150,000.
"It was a spontaneous initiative by four of us," Ford said. "We saw this as a huge moral obligation."
Calkins is the draw:

After receiving its funding, the Teachers Institute quickly sent a group of assistant superintendents to New York for training. In the years since, it has sent teachers to visit Calkins's programs and brought staff members from the program to visit District schools. It holds three-day training sessions and monthly study meetings for teachers and principals.

The group has purchased thousands of children's books and provided schools with rugs for children to curl up on while reading.

More waste:

In September 2006, Kelly said, the institute rented a warehouse to store a "vast quantity" of excess books, supplies and electronics that the organization had bought with public funds and whose value Kelly estimated at $100,000.

An Internal Revenue Service filing shows that, for the year that ended in June, the organization spent more than $1 million on "professional development." Over two years, the institute reported spending $244,000 on computers and software, $357,000 on travel and $1.1 million on printing and publications.
In an initial interview, Ford estimated that the institute had 16 employees. Later, she said the number was actually two, explaining that the rest of her staff members were public school teachers detailed to assist the institute.
When The Washington Post questioned an IRS filing by the institute showing that it had spent $94,000 on the unpaid board of directors, an outside accountant for the group determined the number to be a mistake. The accountant, John T. Squire, said the group will file a corrected report to the IRS.
Ford referred many questions about spending and bookkeeping issues to her outside accountants, saying she prefers to keep her focus on the programs aimed at children. Time spent answering questions about finances, she said, detracts from the push to improve reading and writing.
"It is really hard to be diverted from the mission," Ford said. "The kids in the city are running out of time. I just want to do the work."
The kids are running out of time. They desperately need to be saved by Calkins.