Author Archives: educationrealist

About educationrealist

Teacher and tutor

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.


On interviewing and ed school

Up to now, when I spoke of interviews, I was the ‘-ee’. When our school recently had to hire some math teachers, I was naturally entranced at the very idea of being an “er” and gloriously, one of the interviews happened during my prep. For the first time, I got to sit at the other side of the table and see what happened.

I talked to the candidates about teaching, got a sense of their classroom demographics. What’s their grade distribution? What was their relationship with the cooperating teacher? I looked for their approach to teaching. Did they mix things up? Step away from their supervisor to try a different path? Do they build their own curriculum or assessments? What are their goals? I had no required answers. I don’t like too much certainty, unless it’s mine. I just want to know if they think about teaching, about the issues they face in the classroom.

I also asked them about policy via the questions on Common Core, heterogeneous classrooms, differentiation. What do they think about Common Core? Do they group kids, and if so, how? Could I get a conversation going with them? Could I see this new teacher handling the wide range of student personalities that they’d be facing?

Both the candidates I interviewed could talk readily and engagingly about teaching. They clearly gave a lot of thought to their work. Both of them faced student learning outcomes they were unhappy with and on their own initiative made changes to their classroom practice to improve results. Both talked readily about their goals, their planned next steps.

Both had made significant innovations on their own time. One had an excellent website that he used to build resources and put daily lessons. When kids missed a day (a big deal in a block schedule), he gave them the ability to come in and watch the lecture or power point at lunch, for a bit of extra credit. I tend to blow off missed days, even knowing the kids need the material, so I instantly felt guilty. This candidate acknowledged that it’d be much harder to keep up to date with a full schedule—a touch of reality there.

The other guy didn’t use textbooks, built his own curriculum and assessments, had a lot of fun illustrating activities, always had extra activities for his top kids when they finished early. Which might sound familiar to regular readers and, for that reason, I would have tilted slightly more towards this guy than the other, while being pleased to get either candidate.

Race: Between the principal, the AVP, me, and the two candidates, the Big Four all had representatives. The AVP and one of the candidates were the same race.

We had The List of Questions (see link above) that me and the AVP were to rotate through while the principal listened in. While we went through the List (differentiation, English language learners, classroom management, assessing understanding, etc), the format of the interview was much more freeform than not. I was apparently pretty good at asking good follow-up questions and getting the teachers to open up. Unless it’s normal to get an enthusiastic note of praise from both principal and AVP on my contributions, followed by the AVP’s decision that I interview the second candidate, even though it wasn’t during my prep. A oorah day all round, that was.

Both candidates were good. I have no idea who we actually hired or if we went in a different direction, but I would have been pleased with either one.

But here’s the interesting part. One of these candidates was articulate and well-informed on the policy questions. He had an opinion on Common Core, was fully informed about its impact on math instruction, and voiced sincere skepticism. On English language learners, he risked what might be considered a dangerous opinion (except I share it): language difficulties have to be really really major to interfere with math comprehension, and on a day to day basis few of us really have to give much thought to ELLs. He did group his kids, but put strong kids in with weak ones because he’d been advised to by his ed school professors. When I told him I group by ability, he was fascinated and we spun off onto a five minute dialogue.

The other candidate wasn’t nearly as familiar with Common Core; his school hadn’t begun implementation. He didn’t understand the ELL question without further clarification. He wasn’t aware of the “heterogeneous classrooms” debate.

I was taken aback, because he was clearly a thoughtful teacher who had a decent knowledge of math pedagogy. The other candidate had mentioned discussing Common Core in his ed school classes, so I asked how much discussion he’d had about Common Core in his classes. Answer: None. What kind of readings had his school done on heterogeneous classrooms? Answer: None.

The second candidate’s ed school hadn’t covered any of these issues in depth and, like all teachers, he wasn’t terribly interested in policy. So he was largely unaware of the ongoing pedagogical issues and debates in the field. In contrast, the school’s curriculum instruction was pretty good.

You ask why I could blame the ed school, and not the candidate? I wouldn’t have seen so much potential. My sense was he was a good, motivated teacher who’d been through a mediocre program. While I won’t go so far as to say teachers can only be born, not made, I do believe teaching is an art, not a skill. There isn’t a body of knowledge to be passed down as fact, no “how to” manual that we use to bone up on the basics. I’m new to the interviewing process, but felt very strongly that both candidates had “the stuff”, regardless of their teacher preparation.

The stronger institution wasn’t an elite ranked private university, but the local public university charged with producing a huge chunk of the state’s teachers. The other candidate attended a local private university.

Now, before someone points out the obvious, of course I know that hiring administrators don’t consider ed school quality. That’s not the point. Few would realize that the candidate with the stronger ,more informed answers had gone to a better ed school, because most interviews don’t get to the depth of discussion that you’d need to determine the source of the better preparation.

As I’ve said, I considered both to be excellent prospects, and communicated as much to the AVP. In no way should anything written here be taken as critical of either teacher.

But as a result of the interviews, I began mulling the value and purpose of ed school. Paul Bruno has been on a kick for a while about its utility; if I understand him correctly he would pretty much kill it entirely. We’ve had several twitter exchanges on the topic; I also discuss it frequently with Stephen Sawchuk, the only reporter I’m aware of who really groks teacher certification. These conversations paint me, fairly accurately, as a fence-sitter who leans towards ed school.

I’ve been reluctant to argue about this, because I can’t really say that ed school of any sort is essential. I could have started teaching right away, without forking out the cash for a credential. I’ve known good TFAers who were reasonably functional despite a “training” program that’s little more than hours of indoctrination.

But so what? I could also pass the bar without going to law school and everyone says that law school doesn’t teach lawyering. Upon reflection, I realize I am willing to argue for the utility of ed school, that traditional ed school, with all its flaws, is closer to what we need than TFA or the various gulags of highly regarded alternative teacher education (MATCH, KIPP, Teaching Fellows, I’m looking at you).

So in a followup post, I’m going to try and define what ed school should do, where current ed schools fall short, and why they are still better, on average, than any other teacher preparation method.

Here’s a hint: Everything NCTQ says is wrong. But then, ’twas ever thus.


Profiting from Master’s Degrees, or Not

In Who Profits From the Master’s Degree Pay Bump For Teachers?, Matthew Chingos never actually answers the title question, except he’s pretty clear that most teachers don’t.

Chingos is shocked that teachers are actually losing money, taking on something like $50K in debt just to pay bump tat comes with an MA. Naturally, if the teachers stay in the profession a long time, they make back the money, but Chingos has lately been very worried about the teachers who leave the profession, and wants them to know that a master’s degree won’t pay off.

Okay, so this entire research line is nonsense. Half of all teachers are not taking on massive debt at their local universities to get a relatively small bump in salary with a master’s degree in education.

But I thought it’d be interesting to discuss, for two reasons. First, because if you know anything about this issue, it’s pretty instantly clear that the logic and assumptions are absurd, and not to be engaged with seriously. Chingos has no real desire to alert teachers to a risky debt. He’s in favor of merit pay and other strategies that would lead to most teachers taking a pay cut. This whole argument line is just a branch in the reformer effort to end the compressed, one-size-fits-all pay scale that teachers have in favor of differential (or merit) pay. Merit pay consistently fails to win takers, so presumably the new front involves finding short-term teachers who argue that they had to leave the profession because they couldn’t afford the cost of a master’s to get a salary increase. None of these sidebars are the real issue.

Besides, demonstrating the massive holes in Chingos’s thinking requires an explanation of teacher entry points that some might find useful, even though the information is not complete. In fact, I gave up on this piece several times until I decided it still had some value in its open-ended state.

I don’t really dispute Chingos’s underlying point—that additional education doesn’t improve teacher quality. Chingos only cares about test scores, I’d go farther: I doubt additional education improves teacher quality on any spectrum.

That said, the first of many things Chingos seems utterly unaware of is that some states require a master’s degree for a permanent credential. New York requires teachers to acquire a master’s in the first three years of their professional experience; I keep that Massachussetts has the same requirement, but don’t see it stated on the website. Ohio recently discontinued the requirement.

In fact, Chingos seems to ignore entry path to teaching entirely, as well as the state mandates, at every point. He must know that many teachers began their career with master’s degrees—or at least additional education beyond the bachelor’s—but he seems not to consider it relevant.

Typical entry points—there may be a few more, but the details would probably push them into one of these categories.

  1. Education Majors: 4 year degree in education includes a teaching credential.
  2. Teaching credential without masters: 4 year degree in something else, stayed a fifth year or later entered a credential program.
  3. Teaching credential with masters: 4 year (and possibly graduate) degree in something else, entered a graduate program that provides a masters along with the credential. (I took this route).
  4. Alternate I—the TFA kind, aka an internship program that allows them to take a job before they’ve finished the credential.
  5. Alternate II—The Call Me Mister kind, focusing on low ability candidates who can’t easily pass the credential tests. (I wrote about the struggles of black and Hispanic candidates and the 1998 HEA.)

As I’ve been saying forever, not all teachers have education degrees, and not all education BAs become teachers. I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.

But a substantial number of teachers get credentialed in a graduate program that does not result in a master’s.

How many? I couldn’t find out.

I couldn’t determine how many elementary teachers took the option 2 route after degreeing in some other subject. My best guess says that not all elementary teachers are ed majors, that some non-trivial percent, maybe hovering around a quarter, maybe less, majored in something else and then signed up for a fifth year of ed school.

A far larger number of secondary teachers take option 2, and get credentialed without the master’s, is my guess. How many? Not sure.

I wish I knew if this data existed somewhere. Title II reports only break down by traditional vs. alternate. Some numbers are a bit hard to believe, like this National Education Information Survey: In 2011, about two out of three (65 percent) teachers surveyed had entered the profession through a traditional college-campus-based undergraduate teacher education program and an additional 18 percent had prepared to teach through a traditional graduate teacher education program.

Sixty five percent of teachers have ed majors? Really? I’m wondering if the survey is conflating non-master’s graduate programs with undergraduate programs (options 1 and 2). I’m prepared to believe that only 18% of teachers start off with masters’ in education, but two thirds of all teachers have education degrees? Deeply skeptical. But I could be wrong.

Does this matter to Chingos’s point? Well, he’s aghast that half of teachers have invested in master’s degrees, so you’d think it’d be relevant that a number of them started with MAs, or substantial post-graduation credits.

Then Chingos goes through a bit of a bait and switch. His data source makes no distinction between type of master’s degrees, and at the start of the piece, Chingos doesn’t either: The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research. No mention of degree type.

Then, about halfway through, he makes it clear he’s thinking of MA Ed (all emphasis mine):

I address this question by merging salary schedule information from the NCTQ database with data on the tuition cost of an education MA degree at colleges and universities located near each school district
….
For teachers who plan to spend “only” 10 years in the classroom, earning an MA in education is likely a waste of money and effort.

And then, in the comments Chingos says:

If subject-specific MA degrees have benefits in the high school grades, it would not show up in this research. This suggests that we need more systematic research on teaching in the high school grades, and that a more sensible policy regarding MA degrees might be to reward subject-specific degrees (for teachers working in the relevant subjects) but not general education ones.

Clearly, Chingos assumes that all teachers are just going back to school to get a master’s degree in education for the pay bump. But in fact, not only do many teachers have to go back to get that master’s, but also Chingos has no idea how many teachers are getting MA Eds. One huge overlooked area: many teachers go back to school to pursue an administrator’s credential, where the payoff is considerably larger and has nothing to do with the master’s bump.

These may all seem like just quibbles. So who cares whether Chingos has any understanding of teaching entry points, or how teachers get paid for education? He’s trying to warn teachers off of getting a master’s that isn’t cost justified based on the pay bump.

But Chingos doesn’t seem to completely understand the pay bump, either. For teachers who started an MA their first year in the profession, Chingos assumes it takes 4 years and that the payoff is “the MA salary bump, which begins in the teacher’s fifth year and continues as long as he stays in the district.”

However, in many districts, teachers move across columns by acquiring credits, no matter where they lead, and then get a separate stipend for a master’s degree, PhD, or board certification.

Some examples: LA Unified (which flips steps and columns) pays on both education acquired and then adds a bonus for master’s and doctorates. A South Carolina district gives a boost for 30 BA credits, then it looks like a master’s is needed to get more pay. Then, once master’s is acquired, the teacher can keep acquiring more credits. Montgomery County in Virginia is made of sterner stuff, granting pay bumps only if program leads to a master’s—but it doesn’t have to be a teaching or career related one, so MoCo teachers, go get that MBA. DC schools provide an either/or option.

Generally, teachers are going to see pay benefits from the additional coursework long before they get the master’s. In many districts, a teacher could never bother with any education classes and just take interesting technology seminars that never lead to an advanced degree and still see the same salary boosts as someone working directly towards a master’s.

So once we weed out the states that require the teachers to get a master’s degree in order to keep their credential, and eliminate some non-trivial amount of teachers start with a master’s, and remember still others aren’t going to have to invest in the full cost of a master’s because they only need a few credits, who exactly are we talking about that might jump in for a full-fledged master’s degree purely to get a big salary hike? Elementary school teachers, that’s who.

Even in assessing just those teachers getting a master’s for the boost—and I absolutely grant the behavior exists—Chingos appears to be overestimating the expense. Not that we can tell for sure, because he doesn’t provide his data or the average cost per master’s per region. But Chingos assumes they are all going to their local college, and he seems to be saying that the average debt is $35K.

Naturally, Chingos is terribly worried that elementary school teachers are sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a master’s degree, and while the obvious solution is to dump the bump, in the meantime the states “should instead encourage the creation of low-cost MA programs.”

Yeah. Because without Chingos to point this out, no businesses ever would have looked at the teacher market and figured out that a doling out low-impact master’s degrees to people looking for a pay bump was a good market.

The most popular teaching universities are almost all online and often for-profit; the University of Phoenix costs 10K/year. National University comes in at around $16K, assuming the teacher applies professional development time towards the credits.

Ironic, given Chingos does research in online education, that he’d completely ignore the online diploma generators lowering the cost of getting a salary bump.

I don’t know what number Chingos came up with, nor do I know how much teachers are actually paying for a master’s. But unlike Chingos, I don’t think teachers are morons, and I do know they make cost benefit analyses when deciding how much teaching education to pay for. I used to wonder why so many teachers who didn’t major in education would take option 2, above (credential only) rather than get the master’s, as I did (option 3). After asking around I realized that the year-long master’s program at a fixed cost is largely restricted to the elite ed school programs. Most universities offer both the credential and a master’s, and the latter takes longer and costs more. The credential-only route is the cheapest way for most non-education majors to become teachers.

By the way, a great deal of these loans are forgiven. My master’s degree cost a bundle, but around $35K or so was wiped away, or will be (one more year for some of it).

One last thing Chingos ignores, although this is much more in the Paul Bruno bailiwick: having lots of education makes it harder to get jobs, particularly as a second career teacher. You’re old and expensive. Adding education also adds to the already considerable disincentive for teachers to leave districts: senior teachers always lose steps (most schools give 5 or 10 years at most) and unless schools are specifically looking for a veteran (usually because of outreach), they aren’t interested in paying an experienced teacher when they can get new ones for cheap. Every class a teacher takes increases district ties, making it less likely that the teacher will leave. As Paul Bruno is fond of pointing out, reformers and others who opine on education without understanding it are prone to confusing policy with job perks.

And so Chingos’s original research paper, the one he did with Peterson, is irrelevant, because districts aren’t under the illusion they are paying for quality. District officials almost certainly consider the education bump a means of keeping staff because, as I’ve written many times, keeping staff is a much bigger concern than firing staff.

Chingos’s ostensible concern is for the teachers going into debt to get more money that won’t pay off. He’s almost certainly wrong on that, as I’ve observed. His secondary concern is these silly districts that don’t understand they’re paying for quality they don’t get but that, too, is a misunderstanding of what districts are actually paying for.

In the main, I’m not bothered by the possibility–indeed, the likelihood—that the education bumps are nothing more than pay to play.

But only provided I don’t think about it for too long.

When I do think about it for too long, say the time it took me to write this, I am bothered by the possibility that many teachers go through the motions to get a master’s degree just to get a pay bump, for much the same reason that Jay Mathews Challenge Index offends me. States pay test fees to the College Board for tests that the kids will fail all so that the schools will have a higher ranking and, hopefully, improved property values. Teachers take out (small) loans to pay to a university for a no-brainer master’s so that the state will pay them more money. I’m all for free enterprise, but both the universities providing easy master’s degrees and the College Board are raking in dough that they really didn’t do much to earn through their business acumen or excellence. They’re just the purveyor of the credential that isn’t even a proxy.

So if there is, as I suspect, a good chunk of teachers forking out money to somewhat undeserving businesses to get largely meaningless credentials just for a raise, I think that’s a Bad Thing. I think it’s worth having a discussion about eliminating columns. However, like Chesterton’s Fence, eliminating an activity without knowing why it started often leads to difficulties. Paul Peterson says that rewarding teachers for education credits came about as a compromise to convince high school teachers to accept a compressed pay scale that put them on the same footing as elementary school teachers. If in fact most high school teachers start out two or three columns ahead of K-6 teachers, then eliminating columns leads to lower pay for high school teachers. Not a good plan.

Ah, say some, but that would lead us to another compromise. If we can’t have merit pay, surely we should at least pay teachers based on the relative demand of their skills. Pay high school teachers more than elementary teachers, and then within high school teachers, pay math and science teachers best because that way we can upgrade the profession, get more skilled people.

Okay, so focus hard: MATH AND SCIENCE TEACHERS ARE SMART ENOUGH. And the field pays well enough for people who want to be math and science teachers, particularly those who are happy to teach kids who will struggle to remember what a negative slope looks like.

Discussion at hand: what to do with the “column” money if the education columns are eliminated? In answering the question, accept that the outcome will only reallocate the money saved to a teaching population that looks just like the current one.

That’s an interesting question, but one that I suspect opens large cans of squiggly worms and when we all look inside, we’ll say hell, just let University of Phoenix et al get some undeserved profits.

Besides, that’s not a discussion that Chingos and other reformers want to have, because despite being the ones to raise the point, they aren’t interested in fixing the problem, but in forcing a solution.

Okay, I’ve been working on this long enough. Punting and posting.


On ending the year

Year 2 I did finals on the last day of class, because the school required it and my room was in the center of campus. I was returning—probably. (I looked for new jobs; an offer came in too late to accept). Better part of something not to flout administration, so I did the final on the intended day.

Every other year, I’ve a series of finals or one big one in the days before, and show a movie during the two hour final period. I’d misplaced my copy of Rear Window the year before, so on Friday it was the featured film in all three classes.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really give a damn if my kids love math or just survive it, find “Hamlet” enthralling or torture, or are really interested in what the Founding Fathers thought of strict vs. loose Constitutional construction. But they will by god not turn up their noses at classic films.

And so three times, my film buff’s heart just went pitty-pat thump thump with satisfied joy as twenty to thirty kids shrieked in horror when Lars Thorwald came around the corner of the hall while Lisa was still in the apartment, or gasped and flinched when Burr realizes who’s been watching him.

One girl had seen it already, and she confided that the beginning was slow.

“That’s because you’re used to a different style of movies. But think of this as a novel you’re analyzing for lit class. Look for subtle changes in Stewart’s behavior, for the first time he openly reaches for Lisa instead of fending her off. Or look at the window stories and see how many of them are just reinforcing the different outcomes for women and relationships. And remember this: at the end of the first 30 minutes, Lisa asks if either of them can ever change. Consider that the rest of the movie as an answer to that question.”

She came up to me after it was over to say that she’d never before realized that movies were “just like books”.

“I could write an essay about Rear Window for the SAT!”

“You could indeed. Make a nice change from Martin Luther King.”

Anyway. A richly rewarding experience. Maybe even for my students.

On to the year-end check out.

While the last days of school are usually pretty easy, the very last day of duty is a hassle. Teachers have to get signed off on a bunch of things over the summer, turn in their keys, and leave. You can tell the teachers who count every second of the summer, who have been preparing their room for the end days for at least a week, who know the checkoff list by heart and have it all done before the last bell rings. They’re the ones waiting in line on Friday morning for an admin signoff so they can prove to the principal’s secretary that they’ve changed their voicemail password and turn in their keys.

Then there are teachers who make a day of it–eh, summer’s here, they won’t rush. These are teachers for whom the most significant task—room cleaning—is something they’d rather not think about. They come in late, sigh at the mess of their room, do some grading, get grades in, lackadaisically pack up a few boxes, go get coffee, come back and sigh at the mess of their room, shove a bunch of stuff into their car, go get lunch, toss a bunch of stuff they’d been saving in case they needed it, jam anything left over into their cars, and then look at the sign-off sheet to see what other tasks they need. By this time it’s usually late afternoon and everyone’s left, so they skate the things like turning in two copies of grades, turning in keys, changing voicemail and so on. They email the principal’s secretary and drop by a few weeks later to turn in their keys.

You’ll never guess which sort of teacher I am. Go ahead, guess.

Year 1 and Year 3, I was leaving the schools, so I’d taken all my belongings home earlier. The actual last day, I looked at the various things acquired at the school, remembered where I’d found them, realized no one would give a damn if they were gone, so shrugged and took them, too. Like the really cool geometry book I found stuffed into the corner of a box of books the previous teacher had left for the trash, or the white board found jammed into the back of a junk room that had “3/5/04″ on the meeting agenda written (but still removable) on it. Or the massive trunk of fantastic manipulatives, taken from a room stuffed with such trunks that the book clerk told me had been there for five years because “no one used them”. Indeed, at my school, I was the only one who used them, along with the set of 30 student-sized white boards that I talked up to all my colleagues, who all looked at me perplexedly. “They’d just use them to draw on, or scribble obscenities.” “Sure. but sometimes they do math.” No takers. They’ve been put to good use. Those years I was usually the last one out, or close to it, but would usually turn in my keys early and then just prop my door open.

Years 2 and 4, I didn’t leave schools but changed rooms, which required me to pack my car much as if I was leaving because lord knows what gets lost in a move. Last one out both years, had to drive back to the schools to turn in my keys later.

Year 5: I am staying for a third year. No room change. My summer job doesn’t start until Tuesday, so I have an actual brief break to enjoy. Vowing to commemorate the occasion with a behavior change, I stay late both Wednesday and Thursday, finishing all but a bit of my grading, and get much of my room boxed up. On Friday, little to do but finish up grading and pack the boxes, computers, printer, lots of books, office supplies into my storage closet—nothing to come home! Then I bought a lock at the Dollar Store. Last thing in the closet, just before the lock, my class rules sign, made in Year 2, a big piece of thin yellow paper. I don’t like throwing things away.

What was left? Grades done. What was the stuff I usually skated because I was late? Oh, print out copies of grades. Check. Change voicemail. Well, I never set it up to start with, so that should be easy. But the preset password didn’t work. Oh, that’s right, our voicemail system had crashed. Use the system default. Didn’t work.

I sat there, perplexed. Wait. Is it possible that I did set it up after the crash? I vaguely remember the principal’s secretary telling us that the system would be upset if passwords were left in default. Could it be that I’d complied? I never do voicemail. Never. But if I had done voicemail, my password would be….

“You have three messages.”

Only three? Pretty good. Does this mean I’d set up a voice recording?

“Hi, this is Ed. I’m happy to get in touch with you, but to ensure a record of all my interactions, I prefer that parents contact me via email. If this is a problem, please send a note in with your student and I’ll be happy to contact you. ”

The only three messages were system-wides from other teachers. It worked!

I must have set this up in an extra five minutes I had between classes. Not a single memory of it, though.

I was done! Everything signed off, grades done. Turned in the keys. People were still cleaning their rooms. It was 3:30. I wasn’t last!!!!

Then I realized I’d left my laptop and the few take-home things in the classroom. To which I no longer had the keys.

Thank god a custodian was walking by right then. He didn’t even laugh at me.

And so summer begins.

*************************************
If you want to assist me in enjoying my summer:

Apple for Paypal, for Square Cash or Google Wallet are all welcome. Use the email educationrealist at the big G.

I vow to use all funds for nothing more than a better class of beer, more sushi, or airfare to see my adorable granddaughter.

I’m just happy you’re reading. But money’s nice, too. Thanks again to all who have contributed.


Rick Hess Recycles

So Rick Hess, after delivering a bracing face slap to reformers on their complaints about pesky little implementation details, apparently decided to be evenhanded and talk tough to educators about their desires to run schools without the interference of those pesky politicians:

I had smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems. About pols who weren’t willing to spend enough on schools. About why pols don’t listen to them or ask their advice. About how the pols ought to stick to their own business, and let educators run the schools.

And what does he tell them?

Mostly, I tell edu-leaders to get over themselves. Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public policies. Whether made by legislators or bureaucrats, and in Washington or locally, those policies sketch what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

And when educators respond by saying but wait, this is new behavior, what does he say?

Two answers: One, you’re wrong. Pols have always written regs about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. Two, the reason today’s policy feels more invasive is because there’s substantial dissatisfaction with how schools are doing and with the effects of these older rules and regs. So, new policies focused on accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, and the rest, are an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well served and that public funds are spent effectively.

Besides, we have to sympathize with the life of a politician looking to improve schools:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

But why do they get to make policy?

it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can argue that educators should have an untrammeled right to spend public dollars, educate the public’s kids, and run public schools as they see fit. But you can do so coherently if, and only if, you think military officials should have a free hand to make national security policy, police should get a free hand to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like health policy or whether police racially profile, then you need to recognize that folks expect educators to live by those same rules.

Well, he sure told off educators. But I have a few….……Wait. Wait. HOLD ON!

I’m so embarrassed. I am using the wrong Rick Hess tells off educators column! He wrote this one nearly two years ago. How could I screw up like that?

Here’s the one he wrote this week.

Talented educators regularly gripe to me about dumb accountability systems, teacher evaluation schemes, and such. They gripe about politicians who aren’t willing to spend enough on schools, to listen to them, or to ask their advice. They exclaim that policymakers ought to mind their own business and let educators run the schools.

And his response?

I get it. It’s an understandable premise, especially for a hard-working, talented teacher. But I tell these folks they need to step back and look at this with fresh eyes. See how it looks to the policymakers, say. After all, public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public officials. Those officials are going to set the policies that shape what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

Hey. They don’t have to get over themselves any more! But apparently, these educators still think it’s new behavior, and:

There are two responses here. One, is that you’re wrong. Politicians and state bureaucrats have always written regulations about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, which textbooks would be used, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. We’re used to all this, though, so it can be less noticeable. Two, the reason that today’s policy feels more invasive is because policymakers have been convinced that these older rules and regulations weren’t getting the job done. So, they’ve adopted new policies around accountability, school choice, teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and the rest, in an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well-served and that public funds are well spent.

No change there. He still wants sympathy for the politicians, and he “puts it the same way”:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level or high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable to think you need to do something about it. Now, it’s totally cool to disagree with what policymakers are doing: to think it’s misguided or wrong-headed. But you’re in an infinitely better place to cage-bust if you start with an appreciation for where they’re coming from.

And why do these politicians get to make policy?

If you’re wondering why people who aren’t experts on schooling get to make policy, it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can wish that educators should be free to spend public funds and run public schools as they see fit. But that’s not the way it works. In any event, you can only make that argument in good conscience if you think military officials should have a free hand to craft national security policy, police to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical reps to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like whether we invade other nations, what health care should look like, or what our laws say, then educators need to be prepared to live by those same rules.

You’re wondering how I recognized this. I’d love to say I commit Rick Hess’s work to memory, but in fact I responded to the earlier piece, in one of my favorite posts: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. You should read it. Rick Hess did, because I emailed the post to him and we had a nice conversation about it. My conclusion:

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

I was tempted to just repost this whole essay and see if anyone noticed, but I’m not as famous as Rick and I doubt anyone would. Notice.

Note to Rick: I know you’re busy with the books and all, but I have to tell you this didn’t end well for Jonah Lehrer.


Keeping Teachers New

So John Merrow of Taking Note discusses “teacher churn” . Merrow, who I don’t really object to much, is a bit like another veteran education reporter Jay Mathews in that he’s superb at hard reporting but should avoid analysis. (At least Merrow hasn’t been responsible for massive grade fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars. Thanks, John!)

… somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years…The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job.

And in fairness, his flawed reasoning here isn’t any worse than the crap that most policy advocates, particularly on the reform side, go through.

But flawed it is. One, we are hiring more teachers. Two, more teachers are leaving the profession after a few years….but wait. No, we don’t know that more teachers are leaving the profession, as a percentage of the population, since 1988. It’s a bit like an SAT inference question, isn’t it?

Teacher turnover has been an area of study since at least the late 70s. Murnane is a name that pops up often. An early paper by Linda Darling Hammond calls for more data collection, challenging the then received wisdom that teacher turnover and teacher quality were problems that would inevitably lead to shortages—heavens, that sounds familiar. I don’t in fact know that teacher turnover is worse (and trying to hunt that data down is the kind of research that leads to increased lag time between my posts), but certainly it’s been an area of study for close to forty years.

So while Merrow doesn’t actually state that turnover is increasing, he does imply that turnover, or “churn”, is why we’re hiring more teachers. But that’s obviously not the only possibility. The late 70s to early 80s were a tough time for teachers, as the boom generation finally left K-12 education and the “baby bust”, coupled with fiscal issues, led to layoffs. The following echo boom would have required more teachers.

Reduced class size initiatives, the huge increase in special education mandates, charter growth—all of these would lead to increased teacher hiring without entailing turnover. Charters rarely take away enough students from a single school for a one-to-one teacher exchange, and of course charters are allowed to cap growth (nice work if you can get it).

No reason to think the increase in teacher hiring has been caused by increased churn, then.

Given that Merrow hasn’t even really built the case for increased teacher churn, it makes sense that his culprit is totally off.

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.[3] Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

Right, it’s ed schools! They aren’t turning out bad teachers because of their own incompetence, but because it feeds the need for their service!

Except, um, ed schools already overproduce elementary school teachers. (I don’t think they do so deliberately—my sense is a lot of unmotivated women who just want a degree go this route without ever really intending to be teachers. No evidence, but there’d be a lot more complaining if that many teachers each year couldn’t find employment.)

Besides, ed schools benefit from the “step and column” pay structure, in which teachers are paid both by time and acquired education. Most pay scales dramatically slow the “step” increases after year eight to ten, deliberately pushing teachers towards professional development. Teaching is apay to play occupation—the state makes us pay to jump through a bunch of hoops. Ed school benefits from the whole process, not just the entry point. No increased steps, no column. No incentive for massive churn.

As I’ve observed before, teachers and cops have a lot in common and wow, check out the research on cop turnover. Like teachers, policing is a state government job that requires intelligence, doesn’t have a huge amount of upwards growth, but offers qualified people an interesting challenge or a safe job, depending on their inclinations and abilities. And both occupations turn out to be harder than they appear to the outsider, thus leading to what I assume is a higher than average degree of turnover for a professional occupation. Thus I don’t see any sinister cause for teacher churn.

Please God, spare us all from the Linda Darling Hammond solution of more, longer training.

All that said—and in this next part, consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive—I pointed out in the Chris Christie piece above that teachers are clearly targeted in a way that cops aren’t, despite the fact that they’re more expensive, work fewer years and take longer pensions (or disability) and just as hard to fire.

A growing conventional wisdom is forming among the elites—the opinion makers, business leaders, political leaders—that teaching should be a short term job, that they aren’t worth the government expense. While they probably feel this way about cops, too, current memes dictate respect to the men (and they are, usually, men) who fight—crime, terrorists, fires, and the like. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly like elites except not as smart—because otherwise, they wouldn’t go into teaching—and far more female. Hence the emphasis on their supposedly weak qualifications and determined ignorance of all evidence showing the qualifications aren’t weak. To put it in political terms: the center-left is supportive of cops and critical of teachers in a way that’s relatively new. The bulk of the people defending teachers and criticizing cops (these days on stop and frisk) are way, way to the left.

Acceptable targets change over time. Teachers moved up the chain, cops moved down. Makes sense, really—the crime rate was an issue in 80s and early 90s, then crime rates improved. Meanwhile, we’d spent twenty years thinking that affirmative action and equal opportunity would end the achievement gap and that didn’t pan out—time to blame teachers.

So teachers should hunker down, I guess—attentions and fashions will change again.

Certainly, reformers are trying to discourage long-term teaching careers. I see no evidence that cops, judges, firefighters, professors, or lawyers, to pick a random sample, are studied for “effectiveness”, much less found to be more “effective” with years in service. Nor do I see any mention of police use of sick leave, judges’ work load, or state university academics use of sabbaticals. Somehow, the fact that teachers don’t “improve” with time on the job is put forward again and again as evidence that they should be paid differently than any other government worker. And it’s hard to see Andrew Rotherham’s otherwise ludicrous obsession with teaching pensions as anything but an attempt to increase the sweetener for short-termers at the expense of lifers, to encourage teachers to find another line of work after a few years.

But hey, that’s how reformers make their bones.

The problem with teaching is that all “sides” of the debate accept as a given that we are failing to educate our kids, that we could do a much better job. In fact, we aren’t failing, and there’s no evidence we could be doing much better. But so long as everyone agrees that “schools are failing”, teachers will be on the firing line, and “churn” will be seen as either desirable or not based on absurd expectations and beliefs.

Cops were rescued from public condemnation by a dramatic reduction in crime—which they may or may not have contributed to. Teachers won’t be rescued by a decreased achievement gap. We’ll just have to wait for a new scapegoat to another big policy problem. Alternately, for society to accept that we’ll never end the achievement gap.

Which means we better wait for another policy problem. Hey, folks, did you know that firefighters don’t actually fight fires?

*********************
Fundraising time:

Apple for Paypal, for Square Cash or Google Wallet, email Educationrealist at the big G.

I’m just happy you’re reading. But money’s nice, too.


200 Posts

I did 100 posts in 10 months, but I had a number of ideas backlogged. 200 posts took me 19 months. At the rate I’ve been going, 300 posts will take me 25 months.

I want to change that, but I’m not sure how. I like each essay to be stand alone, and the best way to increase my output is to chunk thoughts. So I did that with Finding the Bad Old Days and Just a Job, which I’d originally planned as one piece. I likewise have chunked Memory Palace for Thee, but Not for Me and the Advanced Placement analysis. But I haven’t gotten back to Memory Palace, and am not sure when I’ll get back to the AP work. On the other hand, if I hadn’t posted that much, when would you all have seen it? I’m still pushing to get to 5 essays a month, but thus far I’ve been hardpressed to keep to four. However, as Mark Zuckerberg said to Cory Booker, “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT”. Billionaires are all Js, in Myers Briggs terms, so I’m going to try and up the J of this blog and downplay the P-ness. (haha! MB joke, that.)

Anyway. I have just hit 385,000 views, have 560 or so Twitter followers, and have long since given up tracking posts that made over 1000 views. I have nine posts that have exceeded 5,000 page views, four of which I’ve written since October of 2012—in fact, all of four have been written since April of last year.

Leaving popularity aside, here are some favorites from the last 100 posts, in rough order of my preference:

And if you’re interested, here’s my most recent take on why I blog.

Which I do for free but hey, if you want to change that:


You can send via Paypal in the above link, or Square Cash or Google Wallet, using email educationrealist@ the big G. Many, many thanks to those of you who have shown appreciation!

All monies offset the expenses of a better brand of beer, more sushi, or my next generations.

Newcomers, you can check out the Encyclopedias, which I’ve updated:
Encyclopedia of Ed:
Things Voldemortean
The Players
Teaching
Movies, Miscellany, and Me

Repeating myself: this blog has a readership and influence that has wildly exceeded anything I envisioned, not only when I started two years ago, but to this day. Thanks again for following me on twitter, on the blog, for your comments (even when I’m cranky), and for taking the time to stop by.

PS: Go ahead, Pershan, mock me.

Anyway.


Learning from Mr. Singh

I first heard about Mr. Singh (not his real name) the first week at my school, working through a modeling problem with a student.

“Come on, you know the perimeter formula for a rectangle, don’t you?”

“No. I had Singh last year for geometry,” the kid says matter-of-factly. A nearby student rolls her eyes.

“Oh, I had him two years ago! He flunked me. He was making mistakes all the time, everyone told him, he said no, they were wrong.”

I was taken aback. I had never run into students who called teachers incompetent before. But then up to that point, I’d taught at much tougher schools, where the “bad teachers” were the ones who couldn’t control their classrooms full of kids who didn’t give a damn. (We have difficult kids here, but the ratio is something approaching a fair fight.) I was not in any way used to kids complaining that teachers didn’t know their subject.

I forget which student this was—it’s been almost eighteen months, and the whole pattern had yet to form. But I remember distinctly the kid wasn’t a math rock star. Just an ordinary student in algebra II, telling me he knew more than a math teacher, enough to realize the teacher was ignorant. I shrugged it off at the time, but I heard it routinely through the next semester. Occasionally, I’d get it from parents, “Well, my son had Mr. Singh two years ago and told me the man had no idea what he was doing.”

When I started teaching pre-calc, the occasional comments became a constant. I began with my usual response: state it’s unacceptable to criticize one teacher in front of another, whatever the reason. But at a certain point I flat out banned that anti-Singh jokes.

I don’t know Mr. Singh well; math teachers aren’t a chummy crew. He did not and does not strike me as incompetent in any way. Like at least half my colleagues, he privately thinks I’m a pushover, too willing to give kids passing grades. But when some members of the department pushed for a higher fail rate to ensure that we only had qualified kids in advanced math, he was on the side of the demurrers (I did more than demur, of course, because I’m an idiot). He is younger than I am, Asian, speaks English well, with only a slight inflection. I don’t know if the kids are openly disparaging him to other math teachers, and haven’t asked.

Last fall semester (for newcomers, we teach a year in a semester, then do the whole thing again, four classes at a time), I had a handful of very bright seniors who were refusing to go on to Calculus the next semester, because “Mr. Singh’s an idiot”. I got fed up and told the crew in no uncertain terms that they should all have taken honors pre-calc anyway, that I was tired of them not challenging themselves and using teachers as scapegoats, and they were to get their butts into Calculus. They gulped and obeyed, “but we’ll show you that he doesn’t have a clue; he’s just using the book as a guide!”

So the whole passel of them, along with a number of my precalc students from the previous spring, would occasionally drop by during lunch to tell me about how Mr. Singh was wrong, how everyone was telling him he was wrong, but he kept insisting he was right. What the hell is going on in these classes, that he’s arguing, I’d wonder, and tell the kids I didn’t believe them, that I found it incredibly hard to believe Mr. Singh was wrong and certainly wouldn’t take their word for it. If they were so sure, bring me a specific example.

A couple months ago, Jake came rushing into my room, triumphant. Very bright kid, Korean American (grandparents immigrated), and if you want to know how white folk world might change Asians over the generations, he’s a good place to start: refused to take honors pre-calc “because of Mr. Singh”, took Calculus at my orders only, and is going to a junior college (where he easily qualified to start in Calculus).

“I can prove it. I took a picture of the board!” This incident happened long before I’d thought of writing about it, and I can’t remember the specific problem. It was a piece-wise function, a complicated one, and he sketched out the graph he’d captured on his smartphone. “See? He’s saying it’s negative for x < -1, and it can’t be, because [math reason I don't remember].

I frowned at the board. “Hang on, let me think. I see what you’re saying, but I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with that approach, like a mistake I’ve made before but can’t remember why.” Frowned some more. “Look, Mr. Singh knows way more math than I do. Why don’t you go ask him about this?”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“No, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Oh, wait. Duh.” and I turned back to my computer and brought up Desmos to graph the function. Desmos agreed entirely with Mr. Singh.

“Wow.” Jake is utterly gobsmacked. A world view shattered. “But how the hell does [technical math question I don't remember anymore]?”

“Here’s a thought, Jake: go ask Mr. Singh.”

“He hates me.”

“I can’t think why. You’re just this punky jerk who disrupts classes with arguments because the possibility that the teacher might just know more than you hasn’t crossed your peabrain.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I’d hate me, too.”

“So go up to him and say ‘Hey, Mr. Singh, I’ve been reviewing this function and I can’t figure out why the graph looks like this when x is less than negative one. Can you help me figure it out?’ He will like you for this. I promise.”

Jake had the conversation, reported back, explained to me why we both thought it should be something else (and the minute he mentioned the reason, which I still can’t remember, I went “yeah, that was it! I made that mistake before!”)

This happened periodically over the next two months, but Jake grew increasingly tentative, uncertain of his own certainty. Rather than rolling in confident he held evidence that would convince me of Singh’s stupidity, he was now doublechecking with me. Mr. Singh said this, but I think that, what do you think? Sometimes I knew the answer, in others I’d look it up, but I would always send him back to Mr. Singh for either more information or confirmation. Eventually, he started going to Mr. Singh first and then reporting the results to me.

His new data points had an impact. Now, when Jake and the others came in to say hi, they don’t have any tales of Mr. Singh’s errors but instead have all sorts of stories about how they pwned a classmate with their awesome math skills.

(Does this seem weird? Remember that at my school, Calculus is third tier from the top—AB and BC Calc are ahead of it. They’re all bright but not quite nerds. Many of them are my favorite sort of kid—more interested in learning than good grades. But they’re boys, so posture they will.)

Last Thursday Tom, a white junior who’d taken my precalc class as a sophomore, came by during our “advisory” (brief tutorial period after lunch).

“Do you know anything about L’Hopital’s Rule?”

“Vaguely. Something to do with limits. I have a Stewart Calculus text, and can inquire. Why?”

“Because he marked me wrong on a test. I got the right answer! But when I asked him about it, he said that I couldn’t use the Quotient Rule, that I had to use L’Hopital, and that it was a fluke I got the right answer.”

I looked up L’Hopital’s Rule, page 289. “If I understand this correctly, L’Hopital’s Rule is intended at least in part for cases where you can’t use the Quotient rule. If you have an indeterminate result, like dividing zero by zero or infinity by infinity, the Quotient rule won’t apply.”

Tom looked aghast. “It doesn’t?”

“Not according to this book and, I’m betting, not according to Mr. Singh.”

“It was a limit of sin(2x)/sin(3x).”

“Well, I know the limit of sine isn’t infinity, so I’m guessing it’s…”

“Zero. Oh, I can’t divide by zero. So he was right. It was just a fluke I got the answer.”

“Looks like it.”

“It’s so weird. There’s always like fifteen ways to do something in calculus, then sometimes, only one way.”

“Hah. But look. I don’t know much about this. I want you to go back to Mr. Singh. My guess is this test question was specifically designed to assess your understanding of the cases for L’Hopital’s Rule. But you need some clarity, and he’s the guy to explain.”

“Okay.”

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

This story began nearly two years ago, and not until a few days ago, when I read this piece of utter Campbell Brown crap, did I think of writing about Mr. Singh, me, and his students. But at one point Brown quotes a student who said ““There were certain teachers that you knew, if you got stuck in their class, you wouldn’t learn a thing. That year would be a lost year” and I realized how often I had read that sentiment. Kids know who the bad teachers are. Parents know who the bad teachers are. They just know. Word gets around.

Well, no. They don’t. Students are, I think, the best judge of teacher quality in classroom management. They know when a teacher can’t control the kids. But they are usually incapable of evaluating teacher content knowledge. I hope this story shows that students can form fundamental received wisdoms that are simply false. From average to excellent, Mr. Singh’s students all thought they knew more than he did. And they didn’t. I’m pleased that I now have a knowledge base that allows me to do more than just tell the kids not to discuss Mr. Singh. I can laugh at them—“Yeah, I heard that before. Every time someone tells me Mr. Singh’s wrong, I ask for proof. Turns out the student doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You want to play?”

But my tale has a few more object lessons. First, teachers and parents, please note what I am proudest of. I sent the kids back to learn from Mr. Singh.

We want kids to form trusted networks. We want them to find resources when they feel lost or doubtful about education, so they don’t lose hope or quit because they feel isolated. And when they do come to their trusted resource, it’s incredibly tempting for that resource, whether teachers and parents, to regard the kids’ trust as an ego feed—see, I’m the one they really need, the safe place, the wise soul. This is particularly tempting for teachers, because it’s practically a job requirement that our personality type value trust and respect over pay. However, when a kid is using you as a resource not just to get more information or clarity, but as a substitute for the teaching process, you send him back. He or she has to learn how to use the educational process as it’s intended, to push the teacher for more information, to make sense of the unfamiliar. Ideally, students must learn not to just do what feels safe—complain to another teacher—but what feels terrifying, and ask for help. Sure, sometimes it won’t work. That’s a lesson, too. You’ll be there to help them figure it out, if needed.

Then please note what I have used everything short of neon signs to highlight: Mr. Singh knows far more math than I do (see the comments if you have issues with my description of L’Hopital’s Rule). The kids know this. I make it clear to them. Yet they still came to me for help.

And that, readers, is an important takeaway from this little essay, a truism people mouth without really thinking about what it means. Teaching involves trust. You can’t just have content knowledge and run a fair classroom. Your students have to trust your ability and your judgment. Your students’ parents have to believe that you have their interests at heart.

Reformers might do well to remember that, as they wonder what went wrong in Newark, in DC, in Chicago and Indiana. It’s not enough to tell everyone you want excellent schools. They have to believe you.

Yes, sometimes that trust will be misplaced. That is a huge reason why the charter market doesn’t work, in fact, because parents are taking schools they trust to keep their kids safe over the schools the charters want them to demand. No doubt, reformers in general think that misplaced trust is why teachers and their unions continually win the long game. But regardless, reformers aren’t trusted by the very populations they say they want to help. And alas, trust has nothing to do with test scores.

Finally, please note: in no way am I suggesting that I am a superior teacher to Mr. Singh. When I am tempted to that conclusion, I remind myself of the occasional students of mine who go running to other teachers (including, no doubt, Mr. Singh) to get a straightforward lecture or template. When I learn that students have done this, I always remind them that they can ask me, that if they need more structure, see me and I’ll give it to them. I wish those teachers would let me know when students come to them for help with my class. And then I remember that I haven’t said a word of this to Mr. Singh.

___________________________________________

Postscript: The comments have been revealing of the way people are filling in gaps. First, my kids are doing well in Singh’s class. Most of them are getting As, the occasional B. They understand the math. Second, this is NOT a case of a teacher refusing to allow students to point out errors. Third, my students drop by for many reasons—it’s not like this is all a constant bitchfest about Singh. I’m just pulling out representative moments.


Teacher Appreciation

A little over a year ago, I sketched out some ideas I was mulling for the summer. The status:

And at the end of the post, I mentioned that I might want to put together a “Give Me Money” button. Well, that took a while, but here it is.

I’m happy to accept PayPal. The only way I can let people specify an amount is to use the “donor” button.

If you’re more comfortable with Square Cash or Google Wallet, I’m happy to try them out. As far as I can figure out, I don’t have to set anything up for those except to provide my email? Educationrealist at the big G.

This is not a tax-deductible donation, and I’ve made that as clear as I can (here’s why). I’ve now got a donor for student whiteboard markers, but I still promise to spend much of any funds I receive on a better brand of beer and more sushi. Plus, like Star Trek, my family tree now has a next generation, so I might kick a few coins of any cash I get towards my granddaughter (oy).

And yes, it was Steve Sailer’s pledge drive that reminded me. Again. You should kick some money his way, too.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 843 other followers