Monthly Archive for September, 2005

2005 List of Massachusetts Schools and School Districts on Federal Watch List

Watertown Middle School “didn't make enough progress [on the math MCAS] with one particular subgroup of students for two years” according to the 2005 List of Massachusetts Schools and School Districts on Federal Watch List. Ottoson Middle in Arlington, Brown Middle in Newton and Kennedy Middle in Waltham also received the same listing. The subgroup is typically special education students. On the State Department of Education watch list the same schools received the same designation.

Schools can be listed as—

* Identified for improvement: Fell short of overall expectations in math or English for two years running. This and the next designation are the least severe.
* Identified for improvement – subgroups only: A school or district that didn't make enough progress with one particular subgroup of students for two years.
* Corrective action: Hasn't improved enough to get off the list for four years and must take action, including overhauling curriculum and staff.
* Restructuring: Has remained on the federal list for five years in a row and can face full restructuring.

On the State Department of Education watch list Watertown appears in the list of  “DISTRICTS IDENTIFIED FOR IMPROVEMENT-SUBGROUPS ONLY.” Waltham also received this designation on the state list but Arlington and Newton did not.

Boston Magazine 100 Best Public Elementary Schools – Be Very Skeptical

The September issue of Boston Magazine ranks the top elementary schools in Boston and its suburbs. They also provide all the underlying data for 652 schools in eastern Massachusetts.

My advice is to disregard the straight rankings published in the magazine and focus instead on the overachieving rankings
you can find on the website. The straight rankings are seriously
biased towards, well, towards towns where they read Boston Magazine.
The overachieving rankings take median home price and tax rate (that
is, how much money the town takes in from property taxes) and then find
the schools where kids are scoring better than the tax revenues of
their town would predict. (Dr. Robert Gaudet of the UMASS Donahue
Institute found that most of the variation in school MCAS scores could
be explained by six socioeconomic variables obtained from census data.)
I’m surprised this ranking used median home price instead of average
income as I think that would have eliminated the towns where home
prices have shot up so much in the past few years that even the
people who own homes there couldn’t afford to buy there now.
Perhaps Boston Magazine didn’t want to be so obvious about their
bias toward wealthier towns.

Here is the formula used for the straight ranking:

Factor
analysis was used to group the variables and calculate the rankings.
Three factors were identified: The academic factor (50 percent of the
overall score) included the percent of students failing or needing
improvement on the MCAS tests in reading (3rd grade), English and math
(4th grade), and science and technology (5th grade). The
classroom/teacher environment factor (30 percent of the overall score)
included the absentee rate, suspensions, student/faculty ratio, and
percentage of teachers licensed in their discipline and percentage of
teachers rated as highly qualified. The costs/spending factor (20
percent of the overall score) included average teacher salary and
per-student spending.

50% of the rank was based
on how many kids struggle on the MCAS. Well, consider which kids
are most likely to be struggling in the early grades (or any grades for
that matter): kids for whom English is not their native language and
kids with special needs. Schools with the highest percentage of 3rd
graders earning Warning/Failing marks on the MCAS Reading exam are in
Boston, Lawrence and Lowell. And, surprise, where do you think the
highest concentrations of ESL kids are? Boston, Lawrence, and Lowell.
So school systems with a high percentage of ESL and special needs
students are likely to fare poorly in this ranking. A good example is
Watertown.

20% of the ranking is based on average teacher salary
and per-student spending. Now it would seem likely that if average
teacher salaries are high then the per pupil spending is going to be
high also. And since teacher salaries step up with each year of
experience, average teacher salaries are going to be high in school
systems with more experienced teachers. In fact if you do a
correlation analysis of those two factors you find that almost 7
out of 10 towns with high teacher salaries also have high per-pupil
spending.

If this ranking equates more experienced teachers
with a better school, that’s not always true. There are lots of great
highly experienced teachers out there who work constantly to learn new
subject matter and teaching techniques and tools and bring them into
their classrooms. There are also a lot of teachers who are nearing
retirement and are not inclined to be working to improve the way they
teach – the ones who are signing out the TV cart four days a week.

Most
of the towns with the highest per-pupil spending are also the
wealthier towns with schools that also appear in the top-100 rankings:

Top 10 towns for per-pupil spending
Lexington
Cambridge
Waltham
Lincoln
Weston
Boston
Watertown
Newton
Brookline
Bedford

Again
a notable exception is Watertown, which has no schools in the top-100
yet spends more per pupil than all but six towns in eastern
Massachusetts. Here’s the interesting data on education spending in Massachusetts

Massachusetts’s
progressive school-finance system, the product of reforms made in 1993,
begins by establishing a minimum per-pupil spending figure—the
foundation budget—that accords low-income children a premium of about
42 percent over that allotted other children. (According to “Quality
Counts 2005,” 23 state formulas have an adjustment for low income, but
most provide no more than a 25 percent premium.) State aid in
Massachusetts is targeted at districts that cannot meet the foundation
budget out of local funds, so the state’s education dollar is
concentrated on poor districts. Rich districts may choose to spend more
than their foundation budget out of locally generated funds, but on
average they still spend less than poor districts do.

Click here to see what Watertown spends and receives from the state.

There are a few possible explanations:

1) A high percentage of older teachers making higher salaries. Looking at the number of teachers retiring
in Watertown over the past couple years here and the number that will
be retiring in the coming few years this seems to make sense.

2)
High per-pupil spending often correlates with higher percentages of
ESL, low income and special needs students and Watertown has both.
From the state statistics, Watertown spends about two times more to
educate special needs students (less than the state average). The state
also assumes it costs about42 percent more to educate low-income children.

3)
Retirement health insurance costs are a major expense for school
systems. Schools with a high percentage of living retirees relative to
the number of students are going to have higher per-pupil spending. So,
growing communities where the number of students is increasing faster
than the number of retired teachers are likely to fare better in this
ranking. Towns with a stable or shrinking number of students, like
Watertown where enrollment has declined each year since 2000, are
likely to fare poorly.

30% of the ranking is a strange mix. It
factors in the number of discipline and attendance problems with the
student/faculty ratio and the quality of the teachers. I’m not sure how
these factors relate and how they have been combined. I can assume that
low discipline problems, a low absentee rate, a low student/faculty
ratio, and a high number of qualified teachers teaching what they
are trained in are all good.

 

What's wrong with the auto insurance industry in Masachusetts

In 2002 Ilyse was backing out of our driveway and hit a car parked directly opposite about three feet from the curb. There was no damage to our car but the dent in the other car’s door cost $1,250 (because it was an Audi).

With that accident, Amica immediately eliminated our $500 annual safe driver discount for the next SIX YEARS! So, for a claim on which they paid out $1,250, Amica is charging us an extra $3,000.

Massachusetts is the only state that regulates insurance rates. We are paying $2,568 per year for two cars in Watertown, each of which we drive less than 7,500 miles per year. There is something wrong with this.

An article in the Boston Globe in January reported

Romney has a task force working on sweeping proposals to overhaul the auto insurance system. He wants to attract national insurers to Massachusetts by reducing state regulation and letting insurers set premiums themselves.

The article also reports that meanwhile, the insurance industry is fighting changes and claiming that their rates aren’t high enough:

During the 1990s, companies sought to increase their market share by offering discounts of as much as 20 percent, but since 1999 the size of the discounts has steadily declined, along with the number of companies offering them. Auto insurers say the drop-off reflects an inadequate rate structure and an unfriendly regulatory climate.

While group discounts continue, officials at several companies said their ability to keep offering them may be jeopardized by changes recently approved by Romney's insurance commissioner in the way high-risk drivers are apportioned among companies. Many of those changes will not take effect until next year.

Commerce, the largest auto insurer operating in the state, with 28 percent of the market, has sued Insurance Commissioner Julianne M. Bowler to block the new rules.

I’m going to shop around

Plymouth Rock Assurance Co., of Boston, offers 10 percent discounts to members of the Conservation Law Foundation and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, while Premier Insurance, of Worcester, offers a 10 percent discount to employees of Boston University.

A list of approved group discounts is at www.state.ma.us/doi. Select “consumer service” and then “auto.”

UPDATE: I called Plymouth Rock about the 10% discount. The corporate office told me I had to go through an agent. The agents they referred me to said that agents don’t offer the discount and I would need to go through the corporate office. So much for that.

UPDATE: Tried Plymoth Rock corporate again and, with some persistence, got through to someone who was able to generate a quote. $2,476 ($1,019 for the VW and $1,457 for the Toyota). This compares favorably to $2,568 ($1,012 / $1,556) for Amica. But it’s probably worth $100 to keep everything with one company since I get a “multi-line” discount on my homeowners insurance.

Steve Jobs' Commencement Address at Stanford

“I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal.
Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents'
savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5ยข deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky – I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation
- the Macintosh – a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me – I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I retuned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.
I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever e
ncountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.
Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the
words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.” – Steve Jobs – June 2005

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