The Learning Gap

After a Spring Semester study of James Joyce's Ulysses, my final senior English project was Finnegans wake.

Like nearly everyone who had been in similar shoes, I read and wrote and worked every night as my impending (and depending) graduation stalked me across the calendar.  Was I in mortal fear of my Bachelor degree? No, I was systematically running out of time and my high school diploma was at stake.

I didn't attend a private preparatory school; I attended a pubic high school in central New Jersey.  My grades were adequate but far from exemplary. My class-rank was somewhere around the 25% figure, though, by some fluke of standardized testing, I was in the running for a National Merit Scholar award while a National Honor Society membership was running full-tilt away from me.

Three decades past my high school experience, I still remember how to do algebra, some trigonometry and (gasp) even logarithms. Despite not attending a Chemistry class since 1972, I remember Avogadro's number, that a mole of electron charge is a coulomb, and that a coulomb of electron flow per second is an Ampere of electrical current.

I didn't need to be the brightest burning torch in my high school's cave; I just needed to have my torch properly lit.  Learning was not about being smart, it was about knowing how to practice, and in order to practice, I had to know the fundamentals of learning. My K-12 experience was all about learning  those fundamentals.

The contemporary mantra of learning is Education, but rarely does the mantra of education specify Learning. In one county college in New Jersey, the average enrollment for successful Associate Degree candidates is four years.  In reality, the students' first 2 years of study is remedial and all of these students are high school graduates.  Has there been no meaningful learning for these students during their high school years?  Is the curriculum of the college they attend so poorly crafted that qualified students cannot survive the for-credit curriculum? The answer to both of these questions is, probably, yes.

Per pupil spending in the K-12 sending district referenced  above has increased from $7,725 to $12,429 in the past ten years --about  38%. In 1999 the Heritage Foundation published an article: The Folly of an Education Spending Race.  The article describes how education spending had become the new  "third rail" of political discourse:

"education spending is the issue that every politician feels compelled to embrace. And the level of spending proposed is now the measure of a lawmaker's commitment to America's children"

"There is no evidence that simply increasing spending improves education.
If there is one lesson that should have been learned about education, it is that money does not cure the problems ailing America's schools.
The most comprehensive survey of spending and performance was conducted by Professor Eric Hanushek, chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Rochester. After reviewing close to 400 studies of student achievement, Hanushek found no strong or consistent relationship between student performance and school resources, at least after variations in family inputs are taken into account. "1

If increasing spending doesn't benefit achievement or learning in public school districts, what measures have colleges in general and community colleges, specifically, taken to improve the quality of learning for the modern college-bound high school graduate?

In 1960 about 45% of high school graduates enrolled at a higher-education institution; by 2007, that number had increased to about 68%  According to a 2005 published study of community colleges in California, funding for community colleges has outpaced the rate of growth of candidate students and enrollment growth funding has outpaced the total enrollment growth. With an excess of dollars to fund the annual increase of college bound students, there is little financial incentive for community colleges to adapt  their core curricula to a surplus of under-qualified student candidates.  Community colleges have the money to admit the under-qualified student and enroll them in remedial pre-credit programs and keep those funded candidates until the candidates skills have risen to college standards, or until those students drop out.

 The core problem may be that too many students are now automatically considered as candidates for higher education.  Unless the students have mastered fundamental learning skills in lower education, there is no reason to expect them to succeed in the advanced levels.  Maybe students in today's K-12 schools should be prodded and poked to study James Joyce , Avogadro and Andre' Ampere rather than prepped to study a test that purports to demonstrate the quality of their education. And maybe 35 years past their high school commencement, they will sometimes sit around and puzzle over how a Conic Section can be intercepted by a Plane in order to describe  a Parabola.

Northeast Connect Conference

I put in my registration for the Northeast Connect Fourth Annual Conference: Leading and Inspiring Change for Successful Learning Friday, on November 14, 2008, at Montclair State University.

I see by the schedule that I have a before-lunch slot for a presentation I titled "Tear Down The Walls." That edupunk title probably sounds more revolutionary than the presentation deserves, but as learning spaces continue to evolve and web tools further erase the physical walls of classrooms, libraries and other educational settings, it seemed appropriate.

I'll be looking specifically at our use of LibGuides, a web 2.0 content management and information sharing system. It was designed with libraries in mind, but is being used by us at Passaic County Community College (and other schools) as a collaborative web tool. This hosted service offers opportunities to create and share reusable content, tagging, widgets, embedded video, polling, commenting, RSS, and easy integration with other tools like Delicious, Digg and Facebook with a very gentle learning curve for users. The LibGuides community allows PCCC to collaborate with more than 300 institutions using it worldwide.

The conference keynote is Curt Garbett who will base his talk on the book Who Moved My Cheese? Why have a business speaker at an education conference? Actually, I'm not a big fan of business creeping into teaching. When we view students as customers and talk about the return on investment in creating an online course, it usually makes me angry. Nevertheless, I will sometimes write here about the long tail and other business concepts that have applications to learning. It makes more sense to have Garbett if you know that the 1998 book has sold 5 million copies - many of those copies handed out by managers to their employees - and that Who Moved My Cheese? is subtitled "An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life." Inspiring change is the conference theme, so I hope his presentation will address the educational take on this.

Conference attendees are all invited to a special post-conference party 5-8 PM with music, food, and drinks - all in the name of "networking," of course.

For more information and registration visit

New Digs

At long last we've been moved. Not that some posts and many comments haven't moved us in the spiritual sense, but we've finally moved into our new physical-virtual-cyber domicile.

After more than 2 and 1/2 years on a solid, but development, server at NJIT we've moved into our new spot on a 64 bit, smokin' fast, 8 CPU piece of hardware running a rock-solid operating system, FreeBSD 7.1. 

Just so we don't break any archives or links to older documents, the server will be alive and kicking for awhile, yet.  We'll leave that in place until we get a DNS namechange and this new server sports the name, too. That all should be mostly invisible; no one should need to move or change any bookmarks or links to Serendipity35.

And, no, we really haven't moved into a Cray server (see photo), but from a system administrator's perspective, it sure feels like we have.


Poetry and Paradise

Waterloo Village

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival starts today. It is held at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey and runs through Sunday, September 28. This is the 12th biennial festival. I have attended ten festivals (missed that first one!) and it has always been the poetry highlight of that year.

I'll be there today through Saturday this time, so there will be no Internet and no live blogging for me.

Billy Collins wrote about the festival:

"To understand the nature of this cultural beast, this mother of all poetry gatherings (”Wordstock” is another name for it) you need to set aside any inherited notions of what poetry readings are all about. Forget the image of a few devotees huddled in a library meeting room or a church basement, and tear up the picture of a coffeehouse where one of the undernourished is inflicting his verse on a few unsmiling listeners. Instead, you need to visualize a kind of Bedouin camp of tents where, for four days, thousands of people navigate their way through a mad-dash schedule of events. The Dodge Poetry Festival is the largest poetry event in North America and it is the most energetic, festive, and high-spirited celebration of poetry I have ever seen."

Check out the list of poets, storytellers & musicians who will there this year. Lots of the big names in poetry - Coleman Barks, Coral Bracho, Billy Collins, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Martín Espada, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Linda Pastan, Charles Simic, C.D. Wright, and Franz Wright.

The setting is great, though the festival is getting so big that it's hard for the historic Waterloo Villagew to handle the crowds. (The village was actually taken over by the State of NJ for improvements and they are reopening it just for this festival.) They expect audiences of up to 20,000 for the four days of poetry. It's an old canal stop along the Musconetcong River with historic buildings that are used for readings along with tents among the trees and a huge main stage tent for larger readings and music events.

What originally got me into the festival was participating in some of the the great other programs that the Dodge Foundation does in supporting teachers and students to use poetry.

Today is student day with buses of high school students coming. There's a kind of 1960's feel to seeing them wander from reading to reading, hanging out and trying to look literary cool or totally bored with poetry. There's a place for their open readings and you'll see little groups of them on the grass reading, writing and talking.

Teachers who pre-registered are admitted at no charge on Thursday and Teacher Day on Friday. They expect about be about 2000 teachers this year. (There were 1500 teachers from 30 states and all grade levels on hand at the 2006 Teacher Day.)

It's not just readings. There are Poets on Poetry sessions with discussions about their own sense of poetry, partly through reading and discussing poems by others that have been important to them, and partly through reading and discussing their own poems. Poetry Conversations bring together two to four poets to discuss topics like “On the Life of the Poet,” “Going Public with Private Feelings,” “Poetry and Jazz,” and “The Mysterious Life within Translation.” Poets for Teachers sessions, reserved for teachers, provide opportunities to discuss with a Festival Poet ways to bring poetry to life inside and outside the classroom.

In the big tent, about 20 Festival Poets will each read two or three poems in the very popular Poetry Samplers. There are also evening programs on the main stage that generally include music and poetry.

Saturday and Sunday are the big days for the general public, but you can get tickets for the day or all 4 days.

Harborside, Atlantis, Paradise Island
For many festivals, I was a steady tent camper for the four days, but after one very rainy 4-day festival, I made the upgrade to cabin camping at Panther Lake.  That's where I have been the past four festivals along with my friend Steve and an assortment of festival types.

Then on Sunday, my wife and I head to the Bahamas for some vacation time on Paradise Island. I'm not taking the laptop there either. I think there's an Internet cafe and the library has some computers where you can grab 15 minutes to check email, but I'm not planning much online time from there either. I have some posts in the draft stages that I might finish up and release for that week, but it may just be up to Brother Tim to pick up the slack for a few days.

Portions of this post first appeared on my Poets Online blog.

Are Admissions Officers Checking Applicants On Social Networking Sites?

According to a survey done by Kaplan of 320 admissions officers from some "top colleges and universities", one out of ten admissions officers has visited an applicant's social networking site as part of the admissions decision-making process.

September 18, 2008   -   A word of caution to college applicants: be careful what you post online. The good news: a quarter of those who report viewing applicants' sites say that these viewings have generally had a positive impact on their evaluation. The bad news: a greater percentage (38 percent) report that applicants' social networking sites have generally had a negative impact on their admissions evaluation