Education Reform and Our Better Angels

This week the New Haven Independent made the decision to close its doors to commenters. As someone who has been using the Internet to discuss politics since a young age it’s not difficult to understand the decision. The reason that most people have a rule that politics is not discussed at the dinner table is that people get heated, views are strong, and feelings get hurt. Places that allow free form comments like the Independent may have some good discussions but as Bass points out too often it turns nasty and negative. If discussions are to be successful they usually require moderation to keep tempers in check. Too often people engage in these discussions with the purpose of promoting an agenda instead of learning from others, and that is where they turn sour.

Yet powerful opinion has the power to drive discussion and bring new insights to old issues. Gadflies like Jon Pelto have managed to shape some of the debates and use research and rhetoric to show different sides to issues facing the state of Connecticut. Some of the most powerful writing at the New York Times comes from opinion writers like Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman. Yet these widely circulated opinion makers are not immune from controversy. We saw that this week when the Courant took down a cartoon by Bob Englehart after he was eviscerated for some insensitive comments. Colin McEnroe wrote a thoughtful analysis on the issue but then he too was torn to shreds by some commenters on twitter. Unfortunately it seems tempers might be a little high to address the substantive issue at hand.

Education reform is a complicated subject that I am not an expert in. My exposure involved attending a public school in the suburbs of Connecticut, working on a Board of Education Campaign, attending briefings on the issues while I interned for Congressman Larson, and attending a Connecticut Forum panel on the topic. I have also seen Waiting for Superman and as a matter of full disclosure I have friends who are teachers. So I have had exposure from many sides but do not have a dog in the fight.

From the outside looking in, the questions seem to revolve less around education reform and more around power and accountability. Good school teachers and districts rightfully would like to be left alone so they can continue doing what they do best. The hard part is figuring out how to address the poorly performing districts and students. There is a faction that believes teachers are the biggest independent variable and in spite of all the other factors involved if you have excellent teachers these other issues can be overcome. Others point out that teachers are not the only factor and if students are not doing well then it’s not the fault of the teachers but administrators or parents or society as a whole.

Who is right? Both sides. Good teachers are important to education; they are powerful forces for good in the lives of their students. Teachers are and should be evaluated and given help if they are not doing well. If they still are having trouble then it is in the best interest of everyone that they find a different field. There will be plenty of good teachers to take their place. However it is not enough to address the issue of teachers alone. Other factors like infrastructure, public health, and language barriers need to be tackled if all students are going to perform at the same level.

Unfortunately everyone is already fired up. Instead of collaborating and working together to find the best solutions for the students it seems both sides of the reform debate are ready to march into war. The harsh rhetoric on the tenure reform debate seems unwarranted after viewing the Governor’s proposal. The two sides of the education reform debate want the same thing: a good education for the children. I do not believe their ideas are that far apart. Yet after reading some of the critiques of the plan you would think that they are on different planets.

The Strange Case of Megaupload

I’ve been following the Megaupload case with interest over the past few days with updates from places like the New York Times, Tech News Today, and most recently NPR. The latest NPR article talks about the extent that the Justice Department went to go after the alleged pirates:

"What we're talking about here is, you know, copyright infringement," McSherry says. "And that may be a serious problem, but it's a little bit chilling if that can get you dragged from your house in the middle of the night." It's not just rousting people out of bed or executing search warrants in eight different countries. From the indictment, it's clear the Justice Department pulled out all the stops, getting a judge's permission to try to put the Hong Kong-based company out of business by seizing domain names and, according to one federal source, getting a judge to approve search warrants for private emails that Megaupload officials were sending to each other.

via Privacy Lawyers Process Megaupload Copyright Case : NPR.

What the NPR article left out was a Mission Impossible sounding adventure that the police engaged in where they had to defeat multiple electronic locks and cut the owner of Megaupload out of a safe room before arresting him. Another weird twist involved an advertisement that famous artists like participated in for the website. later claimed to not have authorized his participation, even though his words explicitly advocated and promoted the website.

Readers that are familiar with copyright law will remember that MGM v. Grokster held that producers of technology that induce copyright infringement can be held liable for that infringement. Sites that do not induce infringement are protected by the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions. This is why sites like YouTube are able to exist while Napster and Grokster cannot. The United States government alleges that megaupload was inducing this type of copyright infringement.

I share these links because the facts are entertaining and movie-like. However I do not think the questions here are difficult. The precedent is settled that inducing infringement is not legal and if the government can prove its case then megaupload should not exist in its current form. There are plenty of great companies like dropbox and amazon that do the same thing and do not promote breaking copyright law.

Wethersfield Democratic Town Committee Elections

Tonight I will be attending the elections of the Democratic Town Committee in Wethersfield. This is a bi-annual event that few people outside politics know about or participate in. Yet this election is one of the most important events because being a member of the committee gives you a vote and voice in the direction of the local party. The party committee elects delegates to the larger conventions and also nominates candidates for local office. For anyone who wants to have a voice in the political process joining the committee is an important first step. Unlike Hartford or other big cities there is no competition for the town committee seats.

If anything interesting happens I’ll update this post later tonight. My prediction is that things will be pretty quiet. For better or worse the majority of the town seems to be unengaged and I think the biggest hurdle the committee as a whole faces is finding ways to get more people involved.

Cool Find of the Day — AfterTheDeadline

Sometimes when I write blog posts they are not quite as polished as my regular writing. I tend to view it as a stream of consciousness and I’ll sometimes go back and edit it a day or two later. However I recently discovered a neat tool called After the Deadline that can help provide some extra polish to that first or final draft. Not only does it check spelling but it also provides other hints and grammatical advice for your writing. WordPress provides it as a plug-in and you can also get it as a plug-in for Word or Google Chrome. They even have a website you can paste text from a word document into or an OpenOffice plug-in. It’s worth the installation if you are a writer.

Cool Find of the Day — DuoLingo (and the story behind CAPTCHA)

A friend of mine posted the following TED talk to facebook and I thought it was a great one to share:

At the end the speaker links to a cool new website that is going to launch soon and will help you learn a foreign language while translating content from the web: DuoLingo. It seems to be in private beta at the moment but I look forward to trying it once it comes out.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.