Cabinet reminders

As a reminder, hearings are continuing this week on President Trump’s cabinet nominations. Please call your senators. This is one of the most effective things you can do to support those who are doing the right thing, and to sway those who are about to make a mistake.

Under consideration this week are Ms. DeVos (Education), Mr. Price (HHS), and Mr. Pruitt (EPA), and they are homophobic, anti-healthcare, and a climate-change denier, respectively.

If you need a script to help when you call, I highly recommend the guide at

If you need a phone number, you can call 202-224-3121 to get a switchboard that will connect you to the senator of your choice, or you can check the Senate Phone Directory if you’d rather call directly. You can also call their state offices if you prefer.

Health and Human Services

It’s really difficult to teach a starving student.

It’s hard to teach a sick student, or one who hasn’t gotten enough sleep. They’re low on energy. Their minds are slower. They forget more easily. They miss classes or fall asleep during them.

It’s even harder when a student drops out of school to provide for an ailing parent. It’s heartbreaking.

This is one reason to oppose Rep. Tom Price’s nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Tom Price has worked – and is still working – to repeal the ACA, which provides healthcare for some of our most vulnerable students. Millions of students rely on programs like Medicaid, which Mr. Price is also working to dismantle. Millions more of their parents do as well.

If we want a healthy school, full of bright, alert students, we can’t do that without someone taking care of them at home.

The AFT has started a petition to oppose Rep. Price’s nomination. You can also contact your senator or representative and ask them to involve themselves in the support of the ACA, Medicaid, and other health programs.

Office of Management and Budget

Massachusetts is a state known for its education and for its science research. We have eight institutions classified as “Research 1“, including MIT, Harvard, and Tufts. All of them rely on government funding for basic science research.

The currently proposed nominee for the Office of Management and Budget is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who does not believe that the government should be in the business of funding science research.

Imagine MIT without basic science research. Now imagine CalTech, Berkeley, UIUC, Duke, Ohio State, Georgetown, Stanford, Yale, USC, and every other university in the USA ending up without funding for research in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science.

This is called a “brain drain.” Scientists who cannot find funding will go where they can find it. If they don’t want to work in the corporate world (and many of us don’t), they’ll find it in Canada. Or the UK. Or anywhere. If you believe that the US should be great when it comes to science and education, losing some of our best scientists is a crummy way to start that.

To contact your governor, you can start at, or you can probably find the office phone number with a quick Google search. Call. Ask them to speak out against this.

The AP Stands Up

Quick post today: If you’re writing news articles and hoping to get picked up by larger organizations, the Associated Press is the place to do it right this moment. Here’s why:


…whenever “alt-right” is used in a story, be sure to include a definition: “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,” or, more simply, “a white nationalist movement.”

If you would like to contact Reuters (the other major news article supplier) and encourage them to adopt a similar definition in their style guide, their “general contact” phone number is (646) 223-4000. To thank the AP, call (212) 621-1500.

Secretary of Education part II

Welcome back from Thanksgiving.

The new front-runner for Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos.

Many of you may not know who she is. I certainly didn’t when her name came up, so naturally I did some research.

It turns out that Ms. DeVos is stridently anti-homosexual. She and her immediate family have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight against marriage equality.

I don’t care that she’s not a big fan of public education as it is right now. Neither am I, to be honest. She likes vouchers; that doesn’t bother me. It makes me nervous that she’s been so heavily into religious education, but not so nervous that I would campaign against her on that basis alone. No, what bothers me is that she’s a bigot. Her donations have already damaged the rights of some of the most vulnerable students in our education system, at a time when things were finally starting to look up.

If this bothers you too, please call your union, and then call the other union. Remind them about the Stop the Hate letter, and urge them to put forth a better candidate.

EDIT: The AFT and NEA have both condemned DeVos’ nomination (those links are to their letters). These should be thank-you calls – but also, please urge them to put forth a better candidate.

National Education Association: (202) 833-4000
American Federation of Teachers: (202) 879-4400

AFT responds, and Attorney General

Last week I talked about contacting your union regarding Ben Carson as Secretary of Education. Fortunately, he has withdrawn himself for consideration (with the most bizarre rationale I’ve ever heard). I was going to focus on the Attorney General this week, for reasons I’ll explain below, but it turns out that the AFT has done me one better.

The American Federation of Teachers, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and dozens of other groups (including the NEA and the AFL-CIO!) have signed a letter asking Mr. Trump to denounce hate crimes and reject Steve Bannon as strategist. They also have a public petition, which I encourage you to sign.

So when you call the AFT or NEA this week, please thank them for this. Their phone numbers are at the bottom of this post.

Now, on to the Attorney General. I know some of you may be wondering why an educator (or an education blog) would care about the Attorney General.

Here’s why: Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action is still necessary.

We do not have racial equality in this nation. We also do not have good mobility between economic classes. Improved education is one of the ways that we push for equality. Whether your parents have a college degree is one of the strongest predictors for whether you will succeed in schooling yourself. Regardless of whether you think everyone should go to college, everyone should at least have the option, because it opens doors for both people and for their children. Affirmative Action is a push for equality, not just in school demographics, but in society at large.

The current front-runner for Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions, whose opinion is that the KKK is ok with him. He tried to put that off as a joke. That’s not a joke. He also said, on the record, that he would not characterize grabbing women’s genitals without permission as sexual assault. This is a man who, if appointed, will help to set legal policy in our schools and universities.

It seems unlikely that Mr. Session would support Affirmative Action, which will undoubtedly come under fire in the next few years. It also seems unlikely that he would promote gender equality or women’s on-campus safety in any way.

Here’s the info from the last post. Please thank your unions for the action they’ve taken so far, and ask them to keep it up.

National Education Association: (202) 833-4000
American Federation of Teachers: (202) 879-4400

Union Contacts

There are several matters coming up for which you may want to contact your union representatives. The one that is most directly relevant to this blog is the potential appointment of Ben Carson, a young-Earth creationist, to the position of Secretary of Education. This is sort of like putting a rabbi in charge of your mosque, or hiring a soccer player to coach American football. There are so many better choices.

Call. Do not e-mail, do not use the contact form. Call. Write a letter if you must. Go to your local union, but call the national as well. Call even if you are not a member.

National Education Association – 2.9 million members
Education International affiliated
(202) 833-4000
Lily Eskelsen García, president
National Education Association
1201 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-3290

American Federation of Teachers – 1.6 million members
AFL-CIO affiliated
(202) 879-4400
Randi Weingarten, president
American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
555 New Jersey Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20001

You can also contact the education union for your particular state (or even city in some cases).

Graduate students: contact your local union rep. They will no doubt be eager to speak with you, as most graduate students are less than active in their unions.

Education Heartbreakers (and hiatus)

I seem to be taking an unintentional hiatus thanks to my real work and my personal projects. I might as well make it official – after this post, I’m on hiatus until further notice.

I’m going to use an analogy from gaming to talk about things happening in online education right now. The initial example is from tabletop roleplaying games, but I’ll add a few examples from other areas as well.

The “fantasy heartbreaker” is a concept in RPG design circles. This phrase comes from a post by Ron Edwards over a decade ago, with more detail in a follow-up post and many years of refinement. You need to know a little context to unpack the whole meaning, so let me give you the short version.

Dungeons and Dragons is the great grandaddy of fantasy RPGs. It is well-known and well-beloved, having been many people’s first game. Not everyone enjoys it, but everyone who plays RPGs knows it. Most of the folks who’ve played it for many years know that it has a few idiosyncrasies, oddities, and failings. Many of us create “house rules” that change the game in one way or another.

A “fantasy heartbreaker” is a case where someone takes their house-ruled version of D&D and goes through the difficult work of publishing it, usually with cover text that extolls its virtues in comparison to D&D. The problem with this is that we gamers already have our own house rules that work for our group. This person’s “new” game offers one or two tweaks to a game that we’d then have to re-learn. There’s little incentive to pick it up, regardless of how much “better” it is or how much “simpler” or “more realistic” it is. There are dozens of fantasy heartbreakers littering the gutters of game design. Most of them have one or two great ideas… but one or two great ideas do not make a good game, and they especially don’t make a game that can take down the D&D juggernaut.

To give a few other examples: Imagine that someone who comes up with a motorized bicycle, without realizing that motorcycles, motor-scooters, or vespas existed. Imagine someone who comes up with a “phenomenal, new” seven-card version of five-card-draw poker. Imagine someone who creates a smartphone, but this time, with a physical keyboard. Imagine further that these folks think their inventions would revolutionize the field. They’re earnest. They’re hard-working. They really believe. They really don’t know. It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s coin a related phrase for a few things I’ve seen in the past year: the Coursera Heartbreaker.

A Coursera heartbreaker is an online course delivery platform that purports to “fix the problem with online education” in much the same way that fantasy heartbreakers “fix the problems with D&D.” It does so by recreating an existing course delivery platform to about 90% accuracy, and then adding The One Feature That Will Fix Everything.

(Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Coding is not fast or easy. These systems recreate the most basic features of an existing system, meaning that for the first few years of their life they will lack the majority of interesting and/or difficult features. They will lack polish, depth, and reliability.)

want to see things that revolutionize education. So do the people who create these heartbreakers. I’m worried that these hard-working folks were inspired by people who knew nothing about the field they were entering and changed it completely by creating something amazing and unexpected. Such things absolutely do happen in this world. Unfortunately, those are one-in-a-thousand events. Not knowing what else already exists is more often a handicap than an advantage. In the case of both fantasy heartbreakers and Coursera heartbreakers, people re-tread the same ground that dozens of others have walked, wasting time losing out because of it. Skipping your research is not a laudable act.

These pieces of software are heartbreaking not because they’re bad, or because they’re unpolished, but because their creators are earnestly putting them in competition against juggernauts without doing their research. There’s nothing wrong with creating them, but there is something unfortunate about parading them around, and at this point I just sort of sigh when I see one.


Side note: Interestingly, there is a phenomenon where some games that might once have been heartbreakers take off and survive. There’s this “old-school revolution” within game design, with games that are throwbacks to older versions of D&D. They’re not huge (well, with one exception that most people don’t consider as old-school), and they’re a very splintered market, but they do fairly well and are well-respected. They’re a lot more like expansions and supplements for older games, intended to evoke a particular feel, rather than games designed to fix a particular problem with the old game.

Old-school education (of many different varieties) is still very much in vogue, so if the RPG market is an indicator, these might have a chance of surviving in a niche market. Most Coursera heartbreakers, though, are labors of love that are doomed by their very design.

This Is Not Science

Today is more about science than education. Here are two links to recent stories of bad science. The second one is rather larger, but the first one reminded me of it.

I’m not going to go off on some kind of “science is bad and the scientific method has has failed us” rant here, not because I have “faith in science”, but because the failures that those articles are describing are not science.

Lack of randomized studies, lack of control groups, pay-to-publish, prestige publishing, these aren’t science. They’re trying to wear science’s clothing like it’s some kind of game. It’s not a game. People use these results to create, to build, to teach, to treat and heal. When someone uses a medical study to treat patients and then finds out that the study was a fraud, the cost for that is measured in corpses.

I’m against people pretending that their research is solid when it turns out to be primarily opinion. I couldn’t care where they’re faking it. Weakening one area of scientific endeavor weakens the whole, even if only in the realm of public perception.

There’s a comment from the second article about the need for “naming and shaming”, and a suggestion for a Consumer Reports-style journal that reviews other journals. In the interest of that, here’s a link to Jeff Beall’s list of predatory journal publishers.


The two boarding schools I worked at, Northfield Mt. Hermon and Hyde School, both lost some great people in recent weeks. NMH lost David Demaine, and Hyde lost Paul Hurd.

Paul died in a car crash – he had apparently had a heart attack while driving. Luckily, no one else was injured. I barely met Paul, but I knew him by reputation. He was one of the Old Guard at Hyde, a staunch advocate of character education and someone who really knew how to jump in with both feet.

David died due to complications from cancer surgery. His wife Gail died in January of last year. I knew David tangentially from my time as a student – Gail was my Sophomore english teacher, and their son David and I took Russian together – but also from my time as a faculty member. David and Gail both were very warm and helpful to me in my year at NMH. They always had time to listen, and were there with a hand on the shoulder when I needed encouragement.

Boarding schools see their share of grief. Tragedies can take children and adults of all ages. As both a student and teacher, I appreciated that these diverse but tight-knit communities would come together in the face of loss, to remember the good that people brought to the world. Some people had their church or family or neighborhood to turn to. We had our teachers and classmates, students and colleagues, and in that time they were family.

I think you never really know someone until you see them through someone else’s eyes – it is a shame that we so often wait until people are gone to share what we see in them. Hyde and NMH are both poorer for the loss of these teachers, and richer for the things they left behind.

David’s obituary

Joe Gauld’s goodbye to Paul