The Available Pool

(This is by far the most Voldemortean topic I’ve taken on in a while. Brace up.)

Some readers might have noted a potential flaw in my observation that ed schools can’t commit affirmative action. If the average elementary school SAT score is 500 per section, and the average content SAT score is 580 in the relevant subject, then there shouldn’t be a shortage. Plenty of African Americans have those scores, right?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “plenty”.

Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Four words I’d never thought I’d say. I liked Gladwell’s article about ketchup. I also find him useful as a predictive sorter: when I meet someone who admires his work, I run like hell.

But recently I came across a page I’d either missed or forgotten about since the last time I flipped through his book.

gladwelliqbarriers

Gladwell even cites Jensen.

Conceding what he sees as a minor aspect of IQ to make a larger point, Gladwell acknowledges that regions, or thresholds, of IQ exist. But beyond these broad ability differentiators, IQ differences are irrelevant compared to factors like luck, birth, language, rice paddy history. Given certain thresholds, IQ is relatively unimportant in outcomes.

And given certain thresholds, Gladwell’s not terribly wrong, as Jensen confirms.

There’s just one pesky little problem still left to plague modern society: the thresholds. The regions, as Jensen describes them, that differentiate between broad ability levels. The ones that even an IQ pishtosher like Gladwell accepts as given. They’re kind of an issue, if by “issue” you mean the fatal flaw lurking in most of our social and education policies.

Jensen’s regions correspond to the IQ standard deviation markers. The average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15. An IQ of 70 is 2 SD below the average of 50 (2nd percentile), 85 is 1 SD below average (16th percentile), 115–the marker for graduate level work, according to Gladwell and Jensen—is 1 SD above the mean.

Translating Gladwell and Jensen into standard deviations: in order for an American student to be ready for a college graduate program, he needs to have an IQ at the 84th percentile, with “average” (this is Gladwell’s word) as the 50th percentile. Give or take. IQ tests are finicky, no need to be purist. These are broad strokes.

Using those broad strokes, we know that average African American IQ is a little less than one standard deviation below that “average IQ” (again, Gladwell’s term), which means that the 84th percentile for all IQs is attained by just 2% of blacks. Test scores consistently prove out this harsh reality. While the mean African American IQ has risen five points since 1970, test performance has often remained stubbornly 1SD below that of whites. As Chistopher Jencks observes, “typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests”, and often as much as 85% (or 1SD). Much has been written about the 1 SD difference; you can see it in the SAT, the GMAT, and the LSAT. (The SAT is much easier these days; before the recentering, just 70 blacks got over 700 on the verbal, whereas today it’s 2100, or 2%. In 1995, 90% of African Americans scored below 430 on the verbal section whereas the unrecentered LSAT has a score distribution chart registering no black scores over 170.)

(You’re thinking oh, my god, this is Bell Curve stuff. No, no. This is Gladwell, remember? Secure position in the pantheon of liberal intellectual gods. It’s all good.)

We are oversupplied with whites with IQs over the 115 threshold, all of whom have the requisite tested ability to be lawyers and doctors and professors. Since these fields are highly desirable, the educational culling process weeds out or rejects all but the most cognitive elite candidates. Thus all the cognitively demanding fields have a sorting process for whites: medicine, law, academia, science, technologists, executives, politicians, venture capitalists, mathematicians, yada yada yada all the way down to high school teachers, the peasants of the cognitive elite.

The available pool of blacks with the requisite Gladwellian-approved IQs to test into graduate education is barely toe deep.

To build cohorts with blacks exceeding single digits, graduate schools in law, medicine, and business, to name just a few, commit deep discount affirmative action, regardless of legal bans. Ed schools can’t, for reasons I described in the last post. Given the wide range of choices blacks with anything approaching the requisite cognitive ability have, it’s hard to say if any sorting occurs at all.

Much has been written of the supposedly low standards for teacher licensure exams but what do we know about the standards for becoming a lawyer in Alabama or a doctor in Missisippi?

I often ask questions for which data is unobligingly unavailable. Sometimes I just haven’t found the data, or it’s too broad to be much good. Sometimes it’s like man, I have a day job and this will have to do.

Med school: Not much data. See Razib Khan’s efforts.

Law school: For all the talk about mismatch or the concern over dismal bar exam passing rates for blacks, the reality is that low LSAT scores, law school, and persistence can still result in a licensed black lawyer. State bar exam difficulties aren’t uniform (which is also true for teaching). This bar exam predictor says that a law school graduate with an LSAT of 139, three points below the African American mean, attending an Alabama lawschool not in the top 150, graduating in the bottom tenth of his class, has a 26% chance of passing the bar. In Iowa, the same person has a 17% chance–in California, just 4%.

If that predictive application has any validity, the cognitive abilities needed to pass the average high school math or science licensure test in most states are higher than those demanded to pass a bar exam in states filling out the bottom half of the difficulty scale. Passing the math or science licensure exams with an SAT score below the African American mean would be next to impossible in most states. English and history probably compete pretty well on that front as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cognitive demands needed to pass elementary school licensure tests in tough states (California) are greater than those needed to pass the bar exam in easy states (Alabama). (sez me, who has passed the tests in three subjects, and sez all available information on average SAT scores for passing candidates).

Here we are back at the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in the last post. Received wisdom says teachers are stupid. Reality says teacher credential tests have significant cognitive barriers, barriers that appear to exceed those for law and may do so as well for medicine—and the other professional tests are presumably easier still.

Before I looked into this, I would have assumed that licensure tests for law and medicine weeded out a “smarter” class of blacks than those weeded out of teaching. Now I’m not as sure. It seems law schools and med schools keep out the “not-as-smart”whites and Asians while admitting blacks and Hispanics who would only be “not-as-smart” if they were white or Asian. The med and law school licensure exams, in knowledge of this weeding, are gauged to let in the “not-as-smart”, secure in the knowledge that these candidates will be mostly black and Hispanic. (A number of “not-as-smart” whites and Asians will make it through, assuming they paid a small fortune for a low-tier law school, but jobs will be much harder to find.) Understand that I’m using “smart” in the colloquial sense, which means “high test scores”. And most evidence says these are the same thing. I’ve said before now I’m not as certain of this, particularly with regards to African Americans.

This isn’t enough to prove anything, of course, and I wanted more. What else could I could use to—well, if not prove, at least not disprove, what seems to me an obvious reason for a dearth of black teachers?

Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and ethnicity

I made some predictions going in:

  1. Blacks would be a higher percentage of elementary/middle school teachers than of high school teachers. I couldn’t sort out academic teachers from special ed and PE teachers, and I wasn’t sure whether sped teachers would be included in the count. But given the easier licensure test, I was betting the percentage would be higher.
  2. There would be more black school administrators than black high school teachers.
  3. The ratio of black lawyers and doctors to black high school teachers would be higher than the ratio of white lawyers and doctors to white high school teachers (in absolute numbers).
  4. The ratio of black social workers to black teachers would be much higher than the same ratio for white teachers.

So this table shows the total employed in each category, the percentage black and white, the absolute number black and white:
blackwhiteprofs

This table calculates the ratio of each non-teaching occupation to K-8 and high school teachers by race. So the number of black high school teachers is 25% of the number of black K-8 teachers, and there are 154% more black administrators than there are black high school teachers, and so on.

blkwhiteprofperc

I didn’t want to over-interpret the data, so this is just simple Excel, pulling the numbers right off the table (calculating white percentage by subtracting the other races). And I was right about a lot, except this very funny thing:

There are more white lawyers than white high school teachers!

Still, this data mostly bears out my predictions. I threw in some other categories: entertainment/media, and all health, just for compare/contrast.

Many blacks become social workers, far more than become high school teachers or even K-8 teachers. Now, I know teachers complain about low pay, but social work has really low pay, less attractive vacations, and a client base even less cooperative than the average high school student.

I was wrong about lawyers, obviously, but not about doctors. While black high school teachers and black physicians/dentists are in roughly equal supply, white doctors are just 87% of white high school teachers. Whites have to compete with Asians, who are 20% of doctors (and just 5% of lawyers), but if the professions were cognitively sorting on anything approaching an equal basis, there should be a lot more black high school teachers, shouldn’t there? And when expanding the field to all health care practitioners and technicians—therapists, optometrists, nurses, hygienists, pathologists—blacks outnumber black high school teachers by twice the ratio that white high school teachers are outnumbered.

So blacks are choosing skilled health care work over teaching at considerably higher rates than whites are making that same choice, and the number of black doctors have near parity with black high school teachers, while white doctors are a bit further behind.

Then there’s my amazing perspicacity in predicting the overrepresentation of black education administrators. Pretty obvious, really. Districts can only practice affirmative action in teacher hiring to the extent they have black candidates. But administrative positions are wide open for affirmative action. While I’m sure there’s a test, it’s got to be a piece of cake compared to the high school subject credential test. I can’t really take all the credit, though.
CJ Cregg first alerted me to affirmative action in principal selection. But before you shed all sorts of tears for Tal Cregg, remember that the Brown decision resulted in thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs, all in the name of racial equity and equal access.

I only had one surprise. When I started this effort, I figured that I’d include a snarky remark like “Want more black teachers? Raise the cut scores for the bar exam.” But no, lawyers, it turns out, are whiter even than high school teachers. That might explain why the cut scores are set so low on the bar exam, and it suggests that the predictive application knows its stuff. The legal profession in many states is doing its best to bring in more black and Hispanic lawyers by lowering the cut score—in others, not so much.

Steve Sailer noticed something I’d missed in my original post on teacher SAT scores—namely, teachers had strong verbal scores regardless of the subject taught. Law, too, is a field heavy on the reading and talking. So maybe whites are drawn to fields that reward this aptitude. It’s arguable, in fact, that America’s entire educational policy through the century was informed, unknowingly, by its unusually large population of unambitious smart white people who like to talk. We might want to consider that possibility before we start demanding diversity.

Anyway.

Step one in investigating the lack of black teachers should start with the oversupply of black social workers and see why, given their strong interest in community work, they aren’t going into teaching. The uninformed yutzes who presume to opine on education policy think ed schools are either prejudiced against or just uninterested in recruiting black teachers. Those actually interested in creating black teachers think it’s the licensure tests. I’m with them.

So go find out. If I’m right, we can start talking about lowering the cut scores for k-3 licensure tests. Once we realize that the Common Core goals are a chimera, we might create high school teaching tiers, with easier tests for basic math and English classes. (In exchange, maybe, for loosening up the affirmative action grip on administrative positions, if such a grip exists.)

Given the tremendous overrepresentation of blacks in our prisons, I’d argue we need to spend our time and policy creating more black lawyers, not black teachers. Better pay, better status and who knows, maybe better justice.

The available pool of black cognitive talent is small. Tradeoffs must be made. If we want more black teachers, we’ll have to lower the cognitive ability standards required for teaching or reduce the number of black professionals in better-paying, higher-status jobs. To a certain extent, the first of those options make sense. The second one’s just stupid.

I got into this because of that damn TFA announcement saying that 1 in 5 of their teaching corps was black, and the congratulatory nonsense that spewed forth in the announcement’s wake. And you still should be wondering how TFA is getting so many blacks that can pass the licensure tests. Next up, I promise.


Teaching: The Movie

Another entry in “teacher as entertainer”:

Dave of Math Equality writes that Taylor Mali captures his zeal for teaching. Eh. I get vaguely embarrassed when they play Taylor Mali at PD sessions; he’s like teacher martyr porn or something. I naturally have all sorts of teaching miracle stories. But I don’t tell them to inspire you, dear readers, to convince you that here’s another wonderful, self-sacrificing teacher slaving away unappreciated and exploited, yet nobly giving every drop of sweat and blood to to help navigate self and soul to adulthood or sanity, whichever is needed more.

I’m saying “Look, another day at work turns out to be a F***ING MOVIE!” I made more money in tech, sure, but I didn’t ever experience moments where I thought jesus, people would pay money to watch this on screen and not feel ripped off.

Make no mistake: I am the STAR of this movie. I have a contract giving me a guaranteed audience of thirty for 90 minutes, three times a day. They are to be attentive, listen, watch, and if they learn too, well, cool.

Anyway, I had a moment today that many other teachers have had, and for me it was like, I’d have kicked back $20 to the district for the sheer joy of the experience.

It was fourth block, my prep, and I was just about to leave for Starbucks, as is my routine, when Steve, from third block, knocked on the door.

“Hey, why aren’t you in class?”

Steve, white, tall, skinny, glasses, shook his head. “Can’t handle it. It’s insane in there.” He pointed to the class next door.

The class next door is taught by a long-term sub, because we haven’t been able to find a math teacher. But of course, the big pain point for principals is firing bad teachers. (The AVP offered the job to first one, then the other of my interviews, both took other jobs.) This sub is a qualified physics teacher, new to teaching, just got work permit, teaching a brutal schedule (two Discovery Geometry classes. Shoot. me. now.) I’ve talked to her a couple times, given her some advice.

I got up. “Come on.”

Steve shook his head, “No, they’ll know I brought you over. Can I stay here?” I gave him a withering look–sissy!–and as I walked next door I have to admit I envisioned myself pushing open the saloon doors as the sheriff, come to beat this brawl down.

The sub opened the door and gasped, “Thank you for coming!” The room was….not quite a barroom brawl, but kids were talking and chatting and eating, purses and backpacks on their desk covering the handout. They were manifestly not doing math. One big guy with cornrows (and no, not black) in the back of the room was leaning back in his chair, texting. I took his phone and gave it to the sub.

“What are they supposed to be doing?” I asked, softly.

“They are taking a test.”

“A TEST?” Cue Ennio Morricone.

Heads swiveled. I walked to the front of the room, slowly, looking at students. At least ten of them are in my third block class (not math), and they quieted down immediately. Some of the others were still talking. Discovery Geometry is a tough crowd.

“Quiet.”

“Who are you?”

I just look at him, a big guy, Asperger’s, not malicious. He picked up on a facial cue (hey!) and didn’t demand an answer. The room got quiet in a hurry. Another, smaller guy (this one is black) is perched at the door, half open.

“Are you in this class?”

“Yeah, I have to go the bathroom. Waiting to see what you said.”

“Good plan. You can go. Be back in under two minutes.” To the class, which had briefly started to rustle: “I said QUIET.” Quiet.

“Purses and backpacks on the floor. Now.”

Instant obedience.

“You three are way too close together. You, in red, move to that desk. Then you two spread out. Girls, you in pink sit at the end of the table, other two spread out.” Again, obedience.

“You work the test in silence. I don’t want to hear about any problems. Next time I come here, it’s with an administrator. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Get to work.” They all instantly bend over their tests, except Texting Kid, who raised his hand.

“Yes?”

“Could I have a pencil?” (Keep in mind, he’s had the test for 20 minutes.) He got a pencil, and got to work.

I left as Bathroom Guy comes back, well under two minutes.

Steve hustled back to the test, gratefully, after taking my cell and room phone number so he could text or the sub could call me in the event of future disaster.

I never did get to Starbucks, so did some copying. On the way back to my room, who should I run into but Bathroom Boy.

“Hey. What are you doing out?”

“Had to go to the bathroom.”

“You already did that.”

“Had to go again.”

“Yeah, no.” Walked him back to the room. He didn’t even protest. I told the sub no one, but no one without health issues, goes to the bathroom twice in one day. They’d finished the test, and with fifteen minutes left in class, they were talking loudly with nothing to do. I told her no to that, too, in the future. But they’d worked harder and more quietly than ever before, she told me.

I remember an actor saying that in a performance if you have to cry, you can either dredge up a horrible memory or just use an onion. This was all onion. And yet it was also a good fifteen minute’s work. Kids learned someone was watching; they know it’s not free beatdown on sub week. But the whole time I was thinking “Oh, my god, this is SO COOL. I’m CLINT. Or at least the badass principal in The Wire.” Self-absorbed puppy that I am, there is my takeaway.

I am teaching two brand new classes, and an Algebra 2/Trig class I’m struggling to keep somewhat true to its name. It’s not an easy year, I’m not brimming with confidence—although I’m having a great time. So getting to be Clint or the badass principal was just a great moment, a reminder I still have teacher mojo.

Right about now, I realize son of a bitch, I’m a lot more like Taylor Mali than I’d like to think. Yes, I’m more Movie Star than Teacher Martyr, more audience participation than individual redemptions. But ultimately, I’m one of those teachers who can walk into a room of adolescents and command them—-to learn, to think, and sometimes just to obey. And just like Taylor Mali and the people clapping him on, I like what that says about me.

And hell, if you think it’s easy, you try it.


Ed Schools and Affirmative Action

Education policy rarely—hell, let’s say never—results in anticipated consequences. But usually, this acknowledgment turns our thoughts to bleak, dark places.

So let’s think of the one time when an education policy’s unanticipated consequences actually had a reasonably positive outcome—and opportunity for a chuckle. I speak, of course, of the 1998 Higher Education Act, specifically Title II, section 206: “Increasing success in the pass rate for initial State teacher certification or licensure, or increasing the numbers of highly qualified individuals being certified or licensed as teachers through alternative programs.”

The plan: force education schools to report their students’ licensure pass rates.

The pass rates were widely expected to be dismal. According to Sandra Stotsky, the 60% failure rate seen in Massachussetts, which had instituted a similar requirement a few years earlier, had provoked the federal law. The Democrats behind the bipartisan bill expected to see a tiered system result, with ed schools ranked by their licensure test pass rates. Those schools with pass rates below 80% would improve or be shot and put out of their misery. It’d be like law school.

The Republican politicians and reformers of all denominations saw this as a means of destabilizing the evil cartel. They were certain that all the ed schools would have low pass rates. It was not a coincidence that the 1998 law required states to provide alternative certification paths to a credential. Alternative certification was actually the secret sauce of the 1998 law which would, its advocates fantasized, enable an organic move from ed schools to alternative certification programs. Parents would learn that ed schools turned out students with abysmally low pass rates on simple tests, so they’d demand that their children’s schools hire from only those schools with high pass rates. Faced with the realization that traditional ed schools turned out simpletons, parents would join reformers in a push for alternative certification.

So you can imagine the anticipation back in November, 2001, when the first Title II report was released online. It got 7000 hits—no doubt all of them from ed school critics, eager to curate a list of dismal passing rates, looking for a high-profile target.

and…what’s this? They all passed?

Well. I laughed, anyway.

Ed schools had been accepting and graduating students who they knew wouldn’t pass the licensure test, in the name of affirmative action. Faced with a threat, they sacrificed their ideology and commitment to collect money from underprivileged students wanting a college degree, and made a new rule: No pass, no diploma.

And so, the much-anticipated Title II reports showed that most ed schools had 100% passing rates. All but a very few easily bested the 80% barrier. Far from showing a picture of unprepared, low quality candidates, the Title II reports gave a glowing picture of competence.

The “tiered” results dreamed of by the law’s supporters? Useless. As an example, just one of Kentucky’s 25 ed schools that first year had a low passing rate of 55%, while the others were all above the minimum. So schools with 93% passing rates were in the third tier. Definitely not planned. Several states reported 100% passing rates—California, for example, which doesn’t credential teachers with an undergraduate education degree, simply required all candidates to pass the tests to gain admission.

A simple policy change rendered the law irrelevant. And expensive, alas–states spend lots of money turning out largely useless reports.

(Here’s a more measured account of the law’s intent and why it went off the rails.)

Much gnashing of teeth ensued, much castigation, many claims that the tests were incredibly easy, testing just basic skills, so of course the passing rate was so high. They accused ed schools of gaming the requirement, states of lowering the pass rate. They castigated ed schools for having such low standards, for cheating, for wasting the government’s time. For a taste of the frustration and near rage of the enjoy this 2002 Edtrust diatribe or the NCTQ wishlist.

Critics regrouped. Subsequent retoolings of the law attempted to thwart the ed schools—for example, ed schools now have to report their student score average against the state average– and lord knows NCTQ knows how to push for meaningless requirements, but it’s been pretty much game over ever since. While alternative teacher certification programs have grown, ed schools aren’t worried about their market share. It still takes a lot of work and education to become a teacher. (Before you wave TFA at me–they all still go to ed school, Relay or otherwise.)

But the attempt to destabilize or “improve” ed schools was lost, and the proponents knew it. How extremely annoying. No differentiation, no high profile targets, no rationale to get the public pushing for alternative certification programs.

Ed schools were angry right back, of course, but you have to figure they had a whole bunch of smug in there. I mean, seriously, who could get mad at ed schools for requiring their candidates to pass the licensure tests? Wasn’t the point to raise teacher quality? In your face, Snidely. Foiled you again.

That’s the end of the funny part.

The strategy wasn’t free. Ed schools couldn’t commit affirmative action, at least not as most colleges do.

Ironic, really, that the profession notorious for its supposedly lax standards, is the only profession that denies itself the opportunity to give underrepresented minorities a chance at a good government job. This reality is utterly obscured liars or fools like Arne Duncan (your choice) complaining that a 95% pass rate shows the lack of rigor.

Reality: most of the tests are appropriately rigorous, and the pass rate is considerably less than 95%.

licensuretestpic

When people refer to the “high passing rate” of licensure exams, they’re either deliberately deceitful or extremely ill-informed. The exams leave carnage in their wake when all testers are considered, not just ed school graduates, and a substantial portion of that carnage is black and Hispanic.

We all know that many college students, indeed, many college graduates, lack basic skills. We all know that these individuals are, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. Colleges let them in and then graduate them anyway, both out of ideological zeal and a reasonable fear of lawsuits.

But alone among all the professions, the majority of prospective undergraduate teachers are now required to demonstrate that they have a given skill set (set by each state, much to the feds’ chagrin) at some point before they graduate. At the graduate level, they have to pass the test just to get in. Ed schools can’t use a different standard to accept black and Hispanic candidates. They are limited to those blacks and Hispanics that can both pass the tests and want to be teachers. And most ed schools aren’t selective, so those candidates are in, anyway.

I’m oversimplifying. Some ed schools are dedicated to underrepresented minorities: HCBU ed schools , and some smaller colleges who swallow the low pass rate on their Title II report for the tuition. Alternative credential programs, once envisioned as the elite corps of folks too good for traditional ed schools, are more commonly a means to produce black and Hispanic teachers, as they are immune from the Title II reports, and passing the tests is their primary curricular objective.

But traditional ed schools, both public and elite, the ones producing the bulk of all teachers, can’t realistically provide that extensive training for a small number of students, so they “counsel out” those who don’t pass the Praxis by a certain date–or require passage for admission.

But, you say, the tests have cut scores, set far below the average. Well duh. That’s because the states don’t want to shut out blacks and Hispanics. That’s where the affirmative action sneaks in—not by ed schools, but by the states, in setting the cut scores.

I don’t know the specifics of the math involved in setting the cut score. But it seems obvious that the bulk of whites (and Asians determined to infuriate their parents) are easily clearing the cut score—or the mean would be lower. It seems equally obvious that very few blacks and Hispanics are easily clearing the cut score—or the cut score would be higher. I suspect the cut scores for elementary school are letting through more than optimal, but I can’t find any data on this. The cut score is lower than the average, but not that many people are scoring far below that average—and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic, just as the states want.

Not only did most ed schools begin to require a passing score prior to graduation, but states raised the cut scores (still below the average, though) in response to No Child Left Behind. The mean scores jumped dramatically, both as a group and by race:

ETSsatpraxisverbal ETSsatpraxismath

The average scores by race, coupled with the average SAT scores for each type of teacher, suggest that the bulk of Hispanic and black passing the test are elementary school teachers.

Before the 1998 Act, many blacks and Hispanics ed school graduates who didn’t pass the test got an emergency license, which doesn’t require a test, and hired by schools on that basis, using the fiction that they were working towards their credential. No Child Left Behind cracked down on emergency credentials and closed this loophole. The ETS report points out that a disproportionately high number of Praxis testers from 2002-2005 were employed teachers who either had an emergency or otherwise unqualified credential, and these testers were disproportionately black. The Clarence Mumford ring’s clients were often black teachers with emergency credentials, as well as clients who couldn’t pass the original test.

This may be why there wasn’t a huge fuss about the failure of many black candidates to pass the Praxis in the 90s–they were able to get teaching jobs. Or maybe there was a fuss and google just doesn’t like me.

So most public and elite ed schools can’t commit affirmative action, can’t accept wholly unqualified candidates in the name of the diversity, take their money, push them through classes they don’t really understand, pressure professors into giving passing grades, graduate them, and let them figure out after it’s all over that they can’t pass the licensure test.

In other words, ed schools can’t be law schools.

This all came about because reformers and politicians had this bizarre delusion that the quality of the ed school had something to do with the licensure test pass rates, when in fact the licensure pass rates have everything to do with the quality of the student body.

So the 1998 law and the follow-on restrictions of NCLB, restrictions based on a profound underestimation of an average teacher’s intellect, didn’t even come close to having their desired impact. Meanwhile, the laws inadvertently took away the dream of teaching for many black and Hispanic teachers. The media steadfastly ignores this and wonders gravely where all the black and Hispanic teachers went.

I can’t see the change as a bad thing; while some of the black and Hispanic ed school grads who couldn’t pass the test found jobs with emergency credentials, I doubt they all did.

This way, eventually, the feds and the states will be forced to realize they need to lower cut scores, at least for elementary school teachers, if they want to have more black and Hispanic teachers. This, too, I see as a good thing.

But as I started with a chuckle, so I shall finish: the idea that Teach for America’s “diversity” is in some way comparable and thus superior to ed schools. That’s really, really funny.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re wondering how the hell TFA recruited so many blacks capable of passing the license tests. Yeah, me, too. I have some ideas. Another post.


Teaching Math a Third Way

I was reading Harry Webb’s advice to a new secondary teacher, describing his usual classroom procedure for “senior maths”, as an addendum to his earlier post on classroom management. And I thought hey, I could use this to fully demonstrate the difference in math instruction philosophies.

Harry’s lesson is a starting activity, a classroom discussion/lecture, and classwork.

So here’s what I did on Friday for a trig class, which is certainly “senior maths”: brief classroom discussion, class activity (what Harry would call “group work”), brief classroom discussion. And I think it’s worth showing that difference.

The kids walked in, sat in assigned seats grouped in fours—strong kids in back, weakest in front. I often forget and start before the tardy bell, just laying out what we’ll do that day. I never check homework—the kids take pictures and send it to me, and I eventually get it into the gradebook. I don’t really care if kids do homework or not. They take pictures of it and text or email me. I eventually check. If kids have homework questions, they’re to let me know during the tardy pause and I’ll review them on an as-needed basis. But yesterday, the kids hadn’t had homework, so not an issue.

When the tardy bell rang, I had just finished sketching this:

simrev

(this next bit is what I think Harry would call classroom discussion):

“Can anyone tell me the relationship these triangles have?”

I got a good, solid chorus of “similar” from the room—not everyone, but more than a smattering. I picked on Patti, up front, and asked her to explain her answer.

“They have two congruent angles.”

“Good. Dennis, why do I only need to know about two of the angles?”

Dennis did the wait out game, but I’m better. After a while, he said, “I don’t know.”

“Do you know how many degrees are in a triangle?”

“180. Oh. OK. If they add up to 180, and two of them are equal, the third one has to be the same amount to get to 180.”

“See, you did know. Jeb, if two triangles are similar, what else do I know?”

Jeb, in the back corner, said “The sides have a constant ratio.”

“More completely, the corresponding sides of the triangle have a constant ratio. Good. How many people remember this from geometry?” All the hands are up. “If you had me for geometry, and about eight of you did, you may even remember me saying that in high school math, similarity is much more important than congruence, for high school math, anyway. Trigonometry will prove me right once again. So while I hand out the activity, everyone work the problem.”

When I got back up front, I confirmed everyone knew how to solve that, then I went on to this:
Simreview2

“I don’t want everyone to answer right away, okay? I’ll call on someone. Give people a chance to think. Which one of these variables can be solved without a proportion? Olin?”

Olin, very cautiously: “x?”

“Because…”

“I can just…see what I add to 8 to get 12?”

“Right. Now, that probably seems painfully obvious, but I want to emphasize—always look at the sketch to see what you know. Don’t assume all variables take some massive equation and brain work. Now, how can I find the length of the other side? Alex?”

“I’m just trying to figure that out.”

“You’re assuming the triangles are similar? Can she do that, Jamie?”

“Yes, because the lines are parallel.”

“Hey, great. Why does that help, Mickey?”

“I don’t know.”

“Cast your mind back to geometry. Which you took with me, Mickey, so don’t make me look bad. What did we know about parallel lines and transversals?”

“Oh. Oh, okay. Yeah. the left angles are congruent to each other, and the right ones, too.”

“Because….”

“Corresponding angles,” said Andy. I marked them in.

“Okay. So back to Alex. Got an equation yet?”

“I don’t know what I should match with what.”

“Okay. So this, guys, is the challenge of proportions. What will give me the common ratio that Jeb mentioned? I need a valid relationship. It can be two parts of the same shape, or corresponding parts from different shapes. Valicia?”

“Can I match up 8 and 6?”

“Can she?”

“Yes,” said Ali. “They are corresponding. But we don’t know what the short leg is.”

“We don’t need to,” says Patti. “6 over 8 is equal to y over 12.”

After finishing up on that problem, I turned to the handout.

GMhandout1

“I stole this group of common similar triangle configurations, just as a way to remember when they might show up. But we’re going to focus on the sixth configuration. Can anyone tell me what’s distinctive about it?”

“It’s a right triangle with an altitude drawn,” offered Hank.

“True. Anything unusual?”

“No. All triangles have altitudes.” He looked momentarily doubtful. “Don’t they?”

“They do. So take a look at this” and I draw a right triangle in “upright” position. “Where do I draw an altitude?”

“You don’t need to….Oh!” I hear talking from all points in the room, and pick someone up front. “Oscar?”

“That’s the altitude,” he points. I wait. “The—not the hypotenuse.”

“Melissa? Can you give me a pattern?”

Melissa, in back, quite bright but never volunteers. “If the leg is a base, then a leg is the altitude.”

“True for all triangles?”

“No. Just for rights. Because the legs are perpendicular.”

“Right. So back to Oscar, what’s different about this?”

“The hypotenuse is the base.”

“Right. So it turns out that the altitude to the hypotenuse of a right triangle is….interesting. Turn over the handout.”

The above conversation, which takes a while to write out, took about 15 minutes, give or take. I would expect Harry Webb has similar stories.

The next part of my lesson is the “group work” that Harry and other traditionalist think leads to “social loafing” and wasted time.

gmhandout2

The kids are in ability groups of four; they go to whiteboards spaced all around the room: two 5X10s, 3 4x4s, and self-stick on bulletin boards that works great—I even have graphs attached.

And I just give them instructions and say, “Go.”

Is this discovery math? Hell, no. I give them all sorts of instructions. I don’t want open-ended exploration. What I want for them is to do for themselves and understand what I would have otherwise explained.

In the next 50 minutes, using my instructions, each group had identified the three triangles:

3trianglesgm

There’s always a surprise. In this case, more of the kids had trouble proving the similarity (that is, all angles were congruent) than with the geometric mean. I actually stopped the activity between steps 1 and 2 to ensure everyone understood that the altitude creates two acute angles congruent to the original two–which I frankly think is pretty awesome.

rtwanglesmarked

Even before they’d quite figured out the point of the angles, they’d gotten the ratios:

gmratios

Each of the nine groups found the second step, proving the altitude (h) is the geometric mean of the segments (x & y) on their own; I confirmed with each group. Once they’d established that, I reminded them that the third step was to prove the Pythagorean theorem and to look for algebra that would get them there. Four of the groups had identified the essential ratios, identifying that a2 = xc and b2 = yc.

At that point, I brought it back “up front” and finished the proof, which requires three non-obvious steps.

a2 + b2 = xc + yc (reminding them about adding equations)

Then I waited a bit, because I wanted to see if the stronger kids pick up on the next step.

“Just think, a minute. Remember back in algebra II, when you were solving for inverses.”

“…Factor?” says Andy.

“Oh, I see it,” Melissa. “factor out the c.”

“Right. So then we have a2 + b2 = c(x+y)”

“Holy sh**.” from Mickey.

“Watch the language.”

“That is so cool.” says Ronnie, who is UP FRONT!

“if you don’t know what they’re saying, everyone, look at the diagram and tell me what x+y is equal to.”

And then there were a lot of “Holy sh*–crap” as the kids got it. Fun day.

I wrapped it up by reminding them that we were just doing some preliminary work getting warmed up to enter trig, but that they want to remember some key facts about the geometric mean, the altitude to the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Then I go into my spiel on the essential nature of triangles and we’re all done. Homework: Kuta Software worksheet on similar right triangles, just to give them some practice.

This lesson would rarely be included in a typical trig class, whether reform or traditional. I described the thinking that led to the sequence. But it’s a good example of what I do. (Also, as many bloggers have pointed out, my attention to detail is dismal, both in blogging about math and teaching it. Kids usually pick up on stuff I miss, and if it’s something big, I go back and cover it.)

I vary this up. Sometimes I go straight to an activity they do in groups (Negative 16s and Exponential Functions), other times I do a brief classroom discussion/lecture first (modeling linear equations and inequalities). Sometimes I have an all practice day or two—I’ve covered a lot of material, now it’s time to work problems and gain fluency (that’s when the tunes come out).

I originally had more but somehow the length got away from me, so I’ve chopped this down.

I have developed this method because I was never happy with traditional math, whether lecture or class discussion. The difference is not solely about the method of delivery; my method requires more time, and thus the pace is considerably slower.

The jury’s in on reform math: it doesn’t work well in the best of cases, and is devastatingly damaging to low ability kids. Paul Bruno refers to reform math as the pedagogy of privilege, and I agree. But it’s worth remembering that reform math evolved as a means of helping poor and black/Hispanic kids. Why? Because they weren’t interested in traditional math methods, and were failing in droves.

Ideally, we would stop forcing all kids into advanced math. But since that’s not an option, I think we need to do better than the carnage of high school math as we see it today: high failure rates, kids forced to repeat classes two or three times Given the ridiculous expectations, traditional math is due for some scrutiny, particularly in its ability to leave behind kids without the interest or high ability to carry them through. Let’s accept that most kids can’t really master advanced math. We can still do better. This is how I try for “better”.

I still have problems with students forgetting the material. I still teach kids who aren’t cognitively able to master higher level math. I’m not pretending the problems go away. But the students are willing to try. They don’t feel hopeless. They aren’t bored. I don’t often get the “what will we use this for” question—not because my math is more practical, but because the students aren’t looking for an argument. (And when they do give me the question, I tell them they won’t. Use it.) However, as I mentioned in the last post, I now have had students two or three years in a row. They were able to pass subsequent classes with different teachers, but they haven’t lost the ability to launch into an activity and work it, having faith that I’m not wasting their time. That tells me I’m not doing harm, anyway.


Opening Day as Opening Night

I really like our late start; why the hell are so many school districts kicking off in early August? (They want higher test scores, Ed.)

Anyway, I’m teaching trigonometry for the first time. In every course, I assess my kids on algebra I, varying the difficulty of the approach based on the level of math. What to do with trig? My precalc assessment was too hard, my normal algebra assessment too easy—or was it? I didn’t want to discourage them on the first day, but I also didn’t want to give a test that gave them the wrong idea about the class’s difficulty level. After much internal debate, I created a simplified version of an early algebra 2/trig quiz. I dropped the quadratics (we only had 45 minutes). Then, just to be safe, I made backup copies of my algebra pre-assessment. If the kids squawked and gave too much of the “this is too hard” whine, I’d be ready.

And so in they came, 23 guys, many of them burly, a few of them black, none of them both, and 11 girls. Fully half the students I’d taught before, two of them I was teaching for the third time. (one poor junior has only had one high school math teacher.) Perhaps their familiarity with me helped, but for whatever reason they charged right in and demonstrated understanding of linear equations, systems, a shaky understanding of inequalities, and willingness to think through a simple word problem. Good enough. Great class—rambunctious, enthusiastic, way too talkative, but mostly getting the job done.

I’m still not much of a planner, which is why I gave no thought to my trig sequencing until I saw how they did with the assessments. If they’d tanked, I would have done a simple geometry activity to give me time to regroup, start after the weekend with some algebra. But they didn’t tank, so how did I want to start?

Special Rights. Definitely. I would use special rights to lead to right triangle trig. All clear. But how to get to special rights? Algebraic proof of the ratios. But why special rights? It seems random to start there. As long as I’m going to be random, and since trigonometry has something to do around the edges with right triangles, why not start with right triangles? At that moment, this image popped into my head:

Hey. One step back to geometric mean, and I’ve got a nice intro unit all set up.

So the next day, I started with this:

geomeanquestion

Note: I told them the questions were separate—that is, the square was equal only to the area in #1 and only to the perimeter in #2.

I wasn’t happy with the questions. They gave too much away. But every rewrite I tried was even more confusing, and in a couple cases I wasn’t sure it was an accurate question. Besides, on the second day of school, you want to release to something achievable. Better too straightforward than have the kids feel helpless this early.

And it went great. Top kids finished in under five minutes; I had them test out the process for cubes vs rectangular prisms. All the rest completed the work in 15 minutes or less, with some needing a bit of reassurance.

I had to prompt them to recognize that the perimeter to side relationship is the “average” algorithm (that is, the arithmetic mean). “If I add two numbers and divide by 2, what is the result?” I think I noodged for a few minutes before someone ventured a guess.

I followed with a brief description of geometric mean, reminded them of the various measures of central tendencies, pointed out that now they all knew why the SAT followed “average” with arithmetic mean. Finished up with practice problems.

I was stumped briefly when a student noticed that the arithmetic mean always seemed larger. Argghh, I’d mean to look that up. I told them I’d look up the answer and get back to them. Meanwhile, I wondered, could the two means ever be equal? I made the stronger kids do some algebra, and let the others just talk it through.

Great lesson, not so much from the content, but from the energy. Look, I was winging it. I do that when I have a good idea that isn’t fully fleshed out. I cut back goals, keep things very simple, and watch for opportunities. I always advise new teachers to avoid mapping things out—they are often wasting time, because things will go off the rails early in some cases. Keep it broad, tell the kids that you’ll adjust if needed, and go.

The rest of the opening “unit”: a brief review of similarity and then use of geometric means in right triangles, leading to my favorite of the Pythagorean proofs. Then onto special right triangles, deriving the ratios algebraically. This puts things nicely in position for introduction of right triangle trig and I can drop in a quiz. Well, I’ll probably put in a day of word problems first.

After school today I ran into a group of football players waiting for practice to start, many of them previous students and two of them currently in that trig class. After hearing what they were all up to, how their summers had panned out, what the team’s chances were, Ronnie, one of the two current students, said, “I’m glad I have you; I would hate to be dumped for low grades my senior year.”

“Ah, yes, that’s my claim to fame. I’m not a great teacher, but by golly, I give passing grades.”

Shoney, the other of the two, a big, burly, not black senior, was laying along a school bench calmly watching the conversation, and spoke for the first time.

“You know. Trig was….fun today. It really was.”

Ronnie nodded.

The point is not oh, gosh, Ed is a fabulous teacher who makes kids love math. That’s never my goal, and it’s not what Shoney meant.

Recently, Steve Sailer writes that “school teaching can be thought of as a very unglamorous form of show biz, which involves stand-up performers (teachers) trying to make powerful connections with their audiences (students)”. He’s right. Education and entertainment are both, ultimately, forms of information transmission.

His next paragraph is dead on, too:

We are not surprised that some entertainers are better than other entertainers, nor are we surprised that some entertainers connect best with certain audiences, nor that entertainers go in and out of fashion in terms of influencing audiences. Moreover, the performances are sensitive to all the supporting infrastructure that performers may or may not need, such as good scripts, good publicity, and general social attitudes about their kind of performance.

People tend to construe the “education as entertainment” paradigm as “show the kids movies all day” or “keep the kids laughing”, but just as all entertainment isn’t comedy and happy endings, so too is education more than just giving the kids what they want.

I’m a teacher. I create learning events. I convince my audience to suspend disbelief, to engage. Learning happens in that moment. Some of the knowledge sticks. Other times, only the memory of learning remains, and I’m starting to count that as a win.

And so the year begins.


A Talk with an Asian Dad

Summer enrichment ended two weeks ago. I enjoyed my classes as always, although the commute, now that I’ve moved, was brutal. Not sure I’ll take it on next summer, but that’s a while away.

On the last Monday Nick asked me if I’d speak to his dad.

“I’m happy to, but you have to run it by the director.”

At Kaplan, parent management is turned over to the tutor. Not so here, or at other hagwons I’ve known of. At first, I assumed the company just didn’t want parents trying to privatize the tutor and cut out the middleman. Until six years ago, when a parent whose child I was tutoring in APUSH got my number somehow and called me fourteen times, leaving agonizingly long messages giving her schedule to ask when I could meet, asking over and over again if I could meet more frequently, telling me she’d call at x o’clock, then calling up to cancel the scheduled call, asking for a report on progress each day, wondering idly if I could meet directly with them but assuring me she couldn’t afford high fees—all during a 3-day period after I’d met with her daughter for the first time. I told my boss, he threatened to fire the parent, I didn’t get any more calls.

Run all parent contact by the director. This is a rule I follow.

So after class the next day I sat down with Nick and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman.

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”

“Nothing.”

“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests—which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year—he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60–even 65–then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”

*************************

On our last day, I showed The Sixth Sense, which went over very big.

“Okay, I want you to heed me well on this. You must never tell anyone the ending.”

“You mean that he’s a….”

“STOP! Yes. That’s what I mean. Some movies—and it’s a small list—have surprises that take you out of the conventional, that take the story in a direction you never dreamed of anticipating. Tell people and you’ve robbed them. Never tell.”

“It’s like giving away the ending?”

“Worse. So, kids, we’re at the end. I’ve loved working with you. Do your best to take away the lessons from the summer. Speak up! Don’t just sit like a lump. Have ideas. Ask yourself what you think. Keep aware of what’s going on in the world. Remember that a 4.0 GPA has no bearing on whether you’re an interesting companion or a valuable ally in a bar fight.”

“But my parents…” Lincoln starts.

“Ahahah. Stop. I’m not telling you to disobey your parents. But your decisions, ultimately, are your own.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You’re right. But I can give you a strategy, provided you promise never to say it came from me.”

“Get caught cheating?”

I look around for something to throw. “That’s not even funny. DO NOT CHEAT. I know you have pressures and it feels like the easiest way to have a life and keep your parents off your back.”

Way, way too many nods.

“Don’t. I mean it. Never mind the morality, never mind how deeply wrong it is. Every time you cheat to get that better grade, you are adding to the pressure you already feel.”

Wide eyes.

“Anyway. Here is a strategy. First, you have to make an appointment with the counsellor at your school. The white counsellor.”

“But my mom always tells me to go to the Asian counsellor.”

“Yes, I know. For this, you need a white counsellor. Then you prepare. Irene, you take in your notebook, and have it open to all sorts of dark, depressing pictures. Ideally, one with you sitting in a corner, distraught. The rest of you don’t have that out, but make yourself look sad, and exhausted.”

“I am exhausted.” from Ace.

“And if I get a B, I’ll be really sad,” said Ben.

“So it should be easy. Then you tell the counsellor how much pressure you feel, how you feel like you can’t ever screw up, that your parents will be sooooooo disappointed if you ever don’t get an A, that you sometimes can’t sleep thinking about how much they expect, and how bad you are for letting them down, by not being perfect. The counsellor will want to contact your parents. You look horrified at first, say they’ll be angry. The counsellor will back off, and then try again. You reluctantly agree. The resulting meeting will be something your parents will not want to repeat. They will either soften their behavior, or take you back to China, Korea, India, wherever, so they don’t have to deal with these crazy soft white people.”

They’re all howling with laughter by this point.

“Because remember boys and girls, in white people world, Asian parenting styles shock and appall. If you went to a white therapist, that therapist would tell your parents to stop.”

“Oh, god, that makes me laugh just thinking about their faces.” Irene says. “I’d never do it, of course.”

“But at least I can think I have a choice,” from Ellen.

“Exactly. Which is my point. Choose to become genuinely well-educated and thoughtful people. Don’t be satisfied with a report card that lies about you. Now, get out of here. Enjoy the dregs of summer.”

Nick stayed behind.

“My dad is changing the spreadsheet.”

“What?”

“He has a spreadsheet with my classes through senior year.”

“Ah.”

“I’m taking honors English and history this year, instead of a second independent studies project. Then he’s moving the pretty easy biotech class to junior year, and AP Chem to senior year. And I’m going to take a programming course during the summer, rather than during school. That way I’ll be able to focus on AP English and US History as well as BC Calc next year.”

“How’s it feel?”

“Really good.” His beam matched mine. “I’m going to try and talk him down to AB Calc, even. Thanks for helping out.”

One dad at a time.


Doug Lemov’s Creation Myth

So Elizabeth Green wants to tell us why Americans stink at math, an article promo for her book—apparently builds on all the negatives she incorporated in the article Building a Better Teacher, the hagiography on charter consultant Doug Lemov that served as a launching point for his book. I hadn’t read “Building a Better Teacher” since I began blogging, so I refreshed my memory and was about to click out to write a furious article on journalists functioning as little more than PR hacks…

….and then the phrase caught my eye, “After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder,”

Well, hey now. I knew that wording, often used to obscure the fact that the person in question hadn’t done much time in teaching. Back when I wrote the Wonks piece, I’d done Lemov the mild credit of assuming he was someone who could properly call himself a teacher.

As her tweets make obvious, Green is doubling down on Great Lemov, so I decided to take an upclose look at his resume, so Green’s readers, and Lemov’s (what, you didn’t know he had a book coming out in few months? It’s, like, a complete coincidence!) can have some context.

I started with Green’s original NYTimes article, supplemented with her book—I don’t have an early copy, but Google Books is very obliging—however, it’s possible that the search wasn’t perfect, and I try to keep that in mind throughout. Then I compared Lemov’s version, as told to Green, to Lemov’s resume, page 1,2, 3, 4. (The PDF was here, but now that link is auto-sent to a home page.)

After getting a degree in English from Hamilton College in 1990, Lemov taught English at Princeton Day School, a private school in New Jersey, as an intern the first year (image here). His resume doesn’t make much of his teaching experience; it’s just one element of his job stressing the additional responsibilities he was given: peer counsellor, Admissions Assistant, soccer coach. This is pretty normal for teachers who are on their way to administration; they aren’t as interested in the nuts and bolts of what and how they teach as they are in moving into leadership positions.

He then left Princeton Day School for National Public Radio, where he was a production assistant for shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and worked with Robert Siegel on The NPR Interviews. I can find no mention of this job hop anywhere in Green’s writing on Lemov. Checker Finn describes Lemov as a“former journalist” but no mention of NPR. In all the NPR interviews with Lemov after the 2010 launch, I can’t find any mention of this association. There’s no way to describe this absence without making it sound sinister, which is not the case and not the point.

But with NPR unmentioned, there’s a 3-year hole in Lemov’s resume, and Green fills it. In 1994, says Green, when Doug was in grad school at Indiana University, he was assigned to tutor Alphonso, an illiterate football player whose grades just didn’t match his abilities. The football tutor supervisor told Lemov that poor Alphonso’s troubles were all the fault of his high school, and Lemov was filled with “moral outrage” that spurred him to action.

In fact, according to his resume, Lemov didn’t go to Indiana University until 1996, and got his MA in 1997.

If this is true, then it’s hard to see how Green’s account of APR’s founding could have happened. In her version, Lemov called up Stacey Boyd in 1994, and they vowed to start a school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim. Boyd, another reformer who married Scott Hamilton, yet another reformer who got the KIPP guys their bootstrap money, confirms this story. In founding the Academy of the Pacific, Green says, Boyd and Lemov “discarded” all sorts of education “conventions”, heeding the “horror stories” told them by teachers coming from traditional schools, and jettisoning any hint of progressive education from their doors and creating a “Learning Guarantee”. Even the architecture was different: “the school occupied the second floor of the Most Precious Blood parochial school.”

Green is offering up the “Stacey and Doug founded APR” origins story of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, also promulgated by Checker Finn and Green, as well as Boyd herself, to say nothing, of course, of Lemov.

But then very casually, Green mentions other “founding board members” had “attended Asian schools” and “handed the charter over to Stacey, who had taught in Japan, with a mandate to blend the best of East and West.” Checker, too, briefly mentions other founders.

In the second APR origins story which, unlike Lemov and Boyd’s claim, is well-documented, Academy of the Pacific Rim was founded by Dr. Robert Guen, a Chinese dentist, and a host of community members, who went through tremendous effort to produce one of the earliest charter applications, began in 1994 but delayed to 1995 to make a stronger pitch. The community founders clearly anticipated a primarily Asian school, although they promised to seek a diverse class. The original 1995 application shows the founders had not yet hired a principal. One of the core founders, Robert Consalvo, says he “was very involved in the running of the school, especially in the early years, when he would typically speak with administrators a couple of times each week to ensure that the concept for the school was successfully translated into action.” In addition to the charter application, an Education Week story and Katherine Boo’s New Yorker article, “The Factory”, use this version. Note that both these stories use the same student, Rousseau Mieze, who Green also features. Note also that neither story mentions the influence or “founding” work done by Boyd and Lemov.

The original application for the Academy of Pacific Rim has hundreds of signatures, all looking very Chinese and many supporting letters, often written in Chinese (the links are just samples, the application has 40 pages of letters and signatures). Clearly, the school was originally intended to be an Asian school, vows of diversity not withstanding. Original plans called for the school to be located in Chinatown, but when the lease fell through, the school opened in Hyde Park. No mention of a desire for different architecture initiated by Boyd and Lemov. In fact, the school was originally going to be co-located with Don Bosco Technical High School.

The Chinese American community was not enthusiastically supporting a school for underachieving Haitians. Boo’s New Yorker piece says that Robert Guen was looking for a school to serve Asian students, who he felt were overlooked in Boston’s “black-and-white politics”. Perhaps because of the building move, black students signed up en masse and very few Asians showed, despite their initial overwhelming interest. (Given Guen’s obvious intent, all credit to him for not only continuing his work with the school after the demographics changed, but for sending his own daughters to it.)

Given the extensive documentation and timing of Guen’s efforts to start APR, it’s hard to see how Lemov could have been involved. Boyd’s history after she left Hamilton but before she started working at APR is hard to pin down. She graduated from Hamilton in 1991, probably (I’m guessing) taught middle school in Japan for a year or so, was at Edison Projects in 1992 to 1994 or so. I can find no footprint of Boyd at Edison, nor can I find a resume or other reference with an explicit date for her Harvard graduation with an MBA and MA in Policy, although the most consistent story is that she graduated two weeks before she started at APR. Best guess she probably worked at Edison for a couple years as well, assuming she did actually work there.

So were Lemov and Boyd merely two of the earliest APR employees in 1997 and, if so, is their self-description as “founders” accurate? Or were they working summers to help out? Given their utter absence in the early documentation, it’s reasonable to wonder if Guen just hired Boyd, who brought in Lemov. One might also wonder if Boyd hired on to lead a school of overperforming Asians, based on her one year in Japan, or a school of underperforming low-income blacks, based on her work at Edison?

Stacey Boyd beamed out of APR after a year and moved to San Francisco, starting Project Achieve in late 1998. Lemov replaced her as principal, after a year of teaching occasionally; his primary focus that first year appeared to be Dean of Students, aka AVP of Discipline. He left to go work for Charter Schools Institute at SUNY—a government job, as Vice President of Accounting. According to Peter Murphy , a charter school advocate, Lemov was in charge of overseeing charter schools’ academic accountability. After two years of this, he went to Harvard for his MBA, then became a consultant. This makes sense. Many’s the lad who went to work at a government job to learn how the game is played then parlayed that knowledge into a gig persuading eager customers to please his replacement.

Green gets this backwards, by the way:

….three years after APR opened, he decided to leave for business school at Harvard, where he hoped to learn skills to improve school accountability. ..Eventually, Doug put the idea into practice at a new dream job, managing the accountability system for charter schools across New York State

(emphasis mine).

Lemov’s involvement in the Academy continues beyond his reign as principal; although he is working for a charter governance program (in a different state), he is listed as a board member in 2002 and 2003 (but not as a founding trustee).

Maybe reformers call themselves “founders” if they are early employees. John B. King, NYC czar of public schools, writes in his dissertation that the founding group behind Roxbury Prep, of which he, a black and Puerto-Rican teacher, was a member, spoke “explicitly” of their goals in the charter application. But Michele Pierce, who graduated from Stanford’s Teacher Education Program was the person identified to work with founder Evan Rudall to run the school, modeled after their work at Summerbridge. I found a google search of King mentioning that Evan Rudall decided to delay a year, and that King joined the team in spring of 1999 (same website, can’t even see the cached version, just the text from google). So King wasn’t involved in the charter application and wasn’t technically a founder, either.

If you came here looking for a smoking gun, some sort of declaration that Lemov is a complete fraud, leave disappointed (or reassured). Assuming they can’t be explained, none of these discrepancies are fraudulent so much as self-serving. But that’s really the question—why did he bother to obscure his actual resume?

Why would Lemov deny Guen and the APR founders their place in history? Why would Green fail to mention Lemov’s two or more years at NPR?

Lemov’s resume from 2000 on has no classroom time. Zip, nada, zilch. Look at the first two pages of his resume. The man spent the ten years before Green launched him as a consultant, and he wasn’t advising his clients on the finer points of teaching. He visited classrooms, yes. He trains principals and teachers, yes. But on what basis does he claim expertise, other than all those visits? And what kind of teacher calls charter governance a “dream job”?

My best guess: Lemov can’t really sell the image of a man fascinated by teaching, so obsessed by the subject that he went out and studied teachers for hours and hours, dedicated to discovering, as Green puts it, “an American language of teaching.” His real resume makes it much harder present himself as an innovative dreamer (and dreaming about teaching, not checking schools’ test scores), given that he appears to have been more of an….employee for his first twelve years. His little creation myth lends credibility to his teaching primer and allows him to sell his charter system as an education option whose founding members are dedicated to all aspects of learning. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who sought to escape the classroom as quickly as possible; he’s got to be the guy who dreams of the perfect lesson. His resume forces us to take his word for his real values. The creation myth has the evidence built right in.

Of course, Lemov can push whatever creation myth he likes. The real shame is that he’s gotten Green to help him. While many “anti-reform” folk complain about Chalbeat’s relationship with Bill Gates, I wonder whether she’s acknowledged the potential bias in taking money from SeaChange Capital, a primary investor in Uncommon Schools, Lemov’s organization.

But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, too.


Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on ed school, when someone retweeted Peter Sipe’s op ed about his ed school training, which he went through at the same time his wife went through med school.

It’s a good piece that accurately captures, not caricatures, graduate ed school (the only type I’m discussing). My ed school did not make us throw around a medicine ball. I recall posters and drawings and gingerbread men.

But I part ways with the second half of Sipe’s article, and our difference characterizes an important philosophical conflict in teacher training.

The difference begins and ends here: “The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything.”

Ed schools, the complaint goes, want their teachers to “reflect” on their philosophy and methods, but don’t teach the “hows” and the “what’s”. I find this charge to be somewhat misguided. While most ed schools don’t spend a lot of class time on these topics, they require apprenticeships in the form of student teaching where plenty of hows and whats are discussed. Leave aside the issue of the quality of student teaching experiences for the minute. Ed schools as currently designed explicitly allow for teachers to experiment with the hows and the whats. But yes, ed schools do not mandate a specific list.

A second charge against ed schools is their lack of academic freedom. Ed schools are disastrous and keep FIRE in business, say the critics, because the “teacher dispositions” criteria allows them to expel anyone who just, well, doesn’t have the personality or the right qualities to be a teacher, providing a convenient tool to reject or expel students lacking the correct ideology.

So ed schools are insufficiently prescriptive on technique and overly prescriptive on political ideology.

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

As Paul Bruno observes, both reformers and progressives argue that teachers should be more like lawyers and doctors. But law schools and med schools aren’t exactly bastions of academic inquiry and experimentation. Peter Sipe’s wife spent all her free time memorizing madly. Law and medicine have huge bodies of knowledge, and candidates don’t get to challenge the professors or argue about the necessity of given approaches and techniques.

In ed school, teachers are actually encouraged to examine approaches and try them out. Paradoxically, despite the legitimate complaints about ideological demands, ed schools grant teachers far more academic and intellectual freedom than law and medical schools do (at least in their early years), and are in that sense more like MBAs. Think of ed school as the equivalent to the last year of law or medical training, when students have demonstrated mastery of the basics and encouraged to explore options and specialize. (this is necessarily simplified, I know). In ed school, the content knowledge tests are “the basics” and we demonstrated that competency as an admissions requirement. From that point, all we have to do is explore options, find our identities as teachers, develop an education philosophy.

So why is ed school so open-ended? And here we come to the issue that has plagued education policy since its inception: teaching doesn’t have an extensive body of knowledge. It never has. The profession has no best practices. I started to expand on this, but really, it’s best to just read David Labaree. I may put some more thoughts down in a second post, whenever it arises. For now, even those who disagree with this assertion would not dispute the lack of agreement about best practices.

Given the lack of any accepted body of knowledge, any attempt to put a stake in the ground is necessarily ideological. .

As an example, consider an ed school that mandates one particular set of hows and whats: Relay Graduate School of Education. (Facts pulled from various places but mostly here)

Charter schools that can’t or won’t hire credentialed teachers hire college graduates who are then shuttled through an alternate certification program while they teach. Back in 2005, Norman Atkins of Northstar and David Levin of KIPP decided they could eliminate the middle man. Rather than using alternative credential programs, they built their own program. They began by running their program through a university (Teacher U), but it was pretty clearly their goal from the start to have their own ed school.

Relay’s teacher “trainees” are put through a largely scripted curriculum, the instructors often literally reading from a script. The program is “competency based” (critics would say bereft of theory or any intellectual exercise).

I put “trainees” in quotes because Relay students aren’t actually training. They’re teaching, usually at a charter school, often KIPP, ACHIEVE, or Uncommon Schools. Students must be full time elementary or middle school teachers—that is, students must have obtained a teaching job without a credential, which limits their hiring pool almost entirely to charters. They can only graduate when they have demonstrated that their students make a full year of academic progress—which again, limits their hiring pool to schools that will boot absentee kids, troublemakers, and unmotivated low achievers.

Is Relay using an accepted body of knowledge? No. They don’t claim to–and in some cases, they are using the same content that ed schools would use anyway. Does Relay have a research base to prove its effectiveness? No. Were Relay’s methods developed to enforce a strong ideological bias about education? Yes. Relay’s ideological canon includes notions like test scores are the only accurate measure of effective teaching (not a given at all) , that more time on task is equivalent to more learning, that rigid control is essential for effective teaching, that effective schools must have uniform education philosophies, and that teachers and schools can and should make behavior demands of low income children and parents as a condition of their education, to name just a few.

Could Relay’s techniques be used to educate all teachers? Oh hell no. Relay’s techniques are designed for mid-ability, low income black and Hispanic children in elementary and middle school whose parents are desperate to remove them from schools that aren’t allowed to expel troublemakers. In return for a guarantee of expelled troublemakers, the parents sign up for all sorts of commitments and expectations that parents with any other choice would laugh at. And Relay’s methods won’t work without that anvil hanging over the kids’ heads. Or, as I said in my last post, white kids don’t do KIPP.

Leaving aside the parents, a significant chunk of the potential teaching population would never sign up for Relay’s ideology. As just one example: Relay provides videos of what it considers exemplary teaching—most of them from Doug Lemov, whose taxonomy drives a lot of Relay’s methods. (at the link, look for Strong Voice, Transitions, or Supportive something or other, as examples. Or check out Doug Lemov’s videos).

Regular teachers often find these exemplaries…..unconvincing. My terms range from “flatly incompetent” to “pretty damn creepy”. Carol Burris goes further and while I don’t agree with everything she says here, my general vibe is way more “right on” than “don’t be ridiculous.” Paul Bruno feels this characterization is extremely unfair. You do not need to agree with me about the videos, but understand that many teachers vehemently disagree with the methods and ideology on display.

But remember, Relay doesn’t want typical teacher profiles. No Excuses charter schools are pulling in a fairly high-performing group for their two years and out teachers. The teacher “trainees” drawn to this approach are, as a rule, control freaks who have just (checks watch) two years to save the world before they go to law school or work for a hedge fund. They are the best of the best of the best, to quote Lieutenant Jake Jenson, and they want no truck with those slouchy teachers who didn’t even get straight As and don’t make baggy pants look nearly as cool as Will Smith does. It doesn’t matter that Doug Lemov isn’t a professor, what matters is the man has an MBA from Harvard. He’ll show the way, and they’ll get it done, just like they always do, unlike those idiot teachers who created this mess they’ll have to fix. They are usually privileged, usually white recent college graduates who just want to know the best way of drilling simple facts and good behavior into “disadvantaged” (read really, really poor) black and Hispanic elementary and middle schoolers using a required set of procedures.

As a university, Relay must guarantee its students academic freedom, but as the alert reader may have noticed, Relay’s students want methods and answers, not intellectual challenge. They don’t give a damn about academic freedom.

But good form demands we inquire whether Relay guarantees its students academic freedom. We are assured of its existence. I’m skeptical, but not because I doubt Relay’s commitment to the idea.

Say a teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter is required to use those creepy finger waves that you see in the video. He wants to try to manage his class without the finger waves. But if he doesn’t use the finger waves, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t have a job, he can’t complete his education at Relay.

If all charters that accept Relay mandate that behavior and Relay mandates employment in order to be in the program, and the only jobs for uncredentialed teachers are at charters, is Relay offering academic freedom?

If other charters allow their teachers the freedom to decide on their own methods and techniques, then maybe Relay will see a test of its values at some point. Would Relay tolerate a teacher in its program saying “the finger waving is some sick stuff and I won’t do it. And the countdown nonsense? I didn’t get into teaching to turn out robots. White parents wouldn’t put up with this crap.”

Suppose a teacher decides her students are better served by teaching them more slowly, giving them time to explore additional content. Her students don’t make a year of academic progress. She gets excellent results, has few discipline problems, accomplishes miracles with students who would otherwise be expelled and sent back to comprehensive schools, but Relay won’t give her a credential because her students didn’t make a year of progress. Where is her academic freedom, her ability to make pedagogical choices for her students?

These are all just hypotheticals, because most Relay students are Koolaid drinkers who bought into the ideology before they started.

But if you want to skip ed school and Relay’s your only choice, keep FIRE on speed dial.

I am being deliberately flip. My disdain for Relay is irrelevant as anything other than illustration of a basic truth: many, many people are repelled by the school’s techniques. If you want a considered assessment of the different approaches, read this excellent Stephen Sawchuk piece on intellectual vs. technical teacher preparation. And the charter demand for a prescriptive approach goes way beyond No Excuses schools; progressive charters are just as ideologically biased.

A prescriptive method for producing teachers simply won’t work as anything other than a specialized fringe method with a guaranteed market. It’s one thing to mandate a fixed procedure for subcuticular stitches, quite another to mandate weighting homework as 40% of the grade or requiring students to sit in groups or in rows, still another to make teachers force kids to perform transition steps in unison or use a 3-second “wait time” with “strategic narration”.

I believe an open-ended approach to teacher training is the only possible method of preparing teachers. Like legions of teachers, I felt entirely prepared to walk into my first classroom and can’t figure out what the hell Peter Sipe is complaining about. That doesn’t mean traditional ed schools couldn’t be improved. But it’s worth remembering that most of them do a lot of things pretty well, and that many teachers—good ones, even—don’t agree with the prevailing “received wisdom” of the chattering class. Which is what I’ll be writing about the next time I take the topic on.

Okay, I’ve been chewing on this long enough. Posting. Maybe I’ll edit later.


Parents and Schools

John Merrow, a solid education reporter who should stay away from analysis proves me right once more.

If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?

So I shall start with the mild compliment: he has nicely identified a bit of hypocrisy. Leave aside the vagueness of “professional educators” (he later declares that a 1st grade teacher is not a professional educator. I presume he’s teaching for free?). Without question, school leaders, many teachers, educational policy wonks make big noises about how important a role parents play in their children’s education and they don’t really mean it.

But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks. We don’t need them to do anything other than their jobs. As parents. You know, feed them, potty train them, give them some semblance of understanding of institutionalized behavior, obedience and self-discipline, and most of all, get them to school.

Alas, when it comes to our basic expectations of parents “doing their jobs” as educators define them, low income parents (disproportionately, but not entirely, black and Hispanic) are most likely to fall down on those essential tasks. Moreover, schools are now assessed on student outcomes and the students most likely not to meet the outcomes expected have parents with performance problems on those essential tasks. Many of their kids are absent a great deal, and when they’re present they aren’t on time, aren’t behaving, they aren’t obedient, aren’t really interested in success, and often aren’t fed.

So yeah, educators talk a good line about parental involvement because they are looking for a way to get buy-in from low income, mostly-but-not-all black and Hispanic parents on the school’s expectations—and it’s a bit tacky to say to everyone else no, really, we just mean them.

Schools might be better off without the pretense and speak honestly about the specific behavior they want. But that brings up other issues. Most educators are white females, which means their behavior expectations have been defined by middle class and higher Americans, mostly whites but also blacks, Hispanics, and 3rd plus generation Asians. Most of the time the behavior expectations are reasonable; some of them are probably not. Like many others, I’m dismayed that the feds are enforcing disparate impact regulations on school discipline measures. But somewhere between “black and Hispanic kids misbehave more” (generally true) and “schools and teachers are racist” (generally false) lies the reality: many teachers discipline—or worse, grade—kids of all races, but disproportionately black and Hispanics, for not meeting their own cultural expectations without having really considered the impact on their students.

Public schools can’t require parents or students to comply with behavior norms, and as you see, the feds will step in if their disciplinary attempts are racially skewed. Charters can require both parents and students to meet their cultural and behavioral requirements, and on this count alone, charters should not be called public schools.

It is, of course, a complete coincidence that the No Excuses brand of charters, like KIPP, specialize in working with just that demographic that disproportionately falls down on parental expectations. That the selective “No Excuses” schools are desired by parents from this demographic who want to do their job, but live in districts filled with parents who don’t and can’t afford to move to a district filled with parents who do, is also entirely a matter of random chance.

Also utterly unrelated: “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

Parents with real choices would never tolerate this from a school, which is why white kids don’t do KIPP, or any other of the schools requiring absurd behavior. And since whites aren’t there, No Excuses schools can suspend or expel black and Hispanic kids in willful abandon, free from federal intervention, which is why the cities that pride themselves on their charter saturation also have shockingly high expulsion and suspension rates.

So back to John Merrow. Remember Merrow? This is a post about Merrow. (need a cite, o young uns?)

He clearly thinks that schools should think of parents as partners, that they should live up to their rhetoric. Fine. I disagree, but no matter. Merrow didn’t try to make the case for the essential nature of parental involvement. Were he to try and make that case, he’d run smack into the problems I just spend the first thousand words pointing out. If schools can’t require parental involvement—and public schools can’t—then they can’t depend on it.

The rest of his post is insulting, when it isn’t risibly foolish. Here’s the best part:

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

He thinks this is profound. Because it’s never once occurred to “education” that parents want their children to succeed. No, educators’ default assumption is eh, these parents, they just don’t give a damn. They’ve never tried to treat them as partners. They’ve never spent millions of dollars on outreach. For the entire history of American education, no one in policy, teaching, or administration has really given much thought to parents.

Like I said. The man should stay away from opinionating. He’s a hell of a reporter.

So no one asked me, but most people have this backwards. Parents aren’t supposed to support schools. Schools are supposed to support parents.

Teachers aren’t monolithic, on this or any education issue. Some agree with Merrow and blame schools for not seeking ever more input from parents. Some demand an annoying degree of parental involvement. Others blame the parents for not valuing education sufficiently. Still others, like me, think parents largely irrelevant to their job. It often depends—I know you will find this shocking—on their student demographics.

But regardless of these differences, few teachers would deny that their job involves supporting parents. Teachers are the primary adult outsiders in any child’s life from six through eighteen. There’s a reason we’re mandated reporters, why we are legally responsible for our students in our classroom, why you don’t hear stories about teachers running away when the crazed gunman shows up at the door. Most parents have to send their kids to school. Most teachers and the schools they work for take that responsibility seriously. We want your children to be safe and productive, in that order, while in our care. And we have insights and observations about our students—intellectual, social, emotional—that parents might want. Or might not. It’s their call.

Parent interaction isn’t a huge part of the job, thank god. Not that I don’t like parents. I was a parent long before I became a teacher, and my sympathy for the typical suburban parent frustrations is deep and genuine, while my disdain for the usual teacher niceties makes me fairly popular with working class parents of all colors (doesn’t hurt that I came from that strata). But I didn’t get into teaching to be a team player; my quality time is in front of a class and building curriculum. (I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!) So I like my parental interaction to be done via email, with the occasional meeting as needed. No phones, please.

When I mention this view, I invariably get a litany of complaints about the many teachers who don’t return emails within 3 hours, who won’t personally check Sally’s backpack daily because the poor girl has executive function problems and forgets her homework, the principals who didn’t take Bobby’s fear of PE seriously, and, of course, the many stories about teachers and principals who are actually jerks.

We aren’t servants or employees, and you aren’t paying us by the hour. And rare is the teacher who excels at all aspects of communication, while also being a fabulous pedagogue. Just as many teachers and schools (KIPP, I’m looking at you) are unrealistic in their expectations of students, so too are many, many parents absurdly unrealistic in their demands of teachers.

And this information and support is never going to function ideally. Schools are necessarily imperfect, as are parents. All I’m doing is articulating a basic truth: parents need information, feedback, and support from schools.

Perhaps we should frame the discussion that way and discuss reasonable expectations, rather than engage in the pretense that schools need parents.

What, you’re waiting for the ed school insights? Me, too.


Building Narratives

I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.

Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.

They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.

“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”

No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….

Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”

“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”

Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.

“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”

While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:

The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.

“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”

“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”

“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”

David came back with his essay, and I found the line:

My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.

“Where’s that kid?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”

Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”

“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”

“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”

“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”

Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”

I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”

“My discovery of anime music?”

“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”

On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:

My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.

“What’s the heart of this story?”

“Um. The heat?”

“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”

“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”

“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”

“It’s too short.”

“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”

Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.

“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”

“The end? Is it wrong?”

“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”

He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”

I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”

“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”

“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded.

“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”

Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.

“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”

“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”

I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”

“You like big vacations?”

“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.

“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…

“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.

“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”

“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”

“Indians, is this a thing for you?”

“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”

“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.

“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”

“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”

“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”

“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”

“And the adults didn’t stop him?”

“They were in another RV.”

“But they apologized?”

“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”

“Bad idea.”

“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”

“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”

“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”

“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”

Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.

“It sucks, right?”

“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.

“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”

Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.


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