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Just a Job

So Michael Petrilli leads with a somewhat feckless proposal to limit college access but then his follow-up appears, in which he’s shocked—yea, shocked!—to discover that vocational education has significant cognitive demands!

I was pleased to see the second piece, although I’d spent much of the intervening time writing an ultimately unnecessary response. Some samples:

But vocational ed and career training is not for the low IQed. Many of the careers people have in mind for career tech training—plumbers, auto mechanics, manicurists, dental technicians—have cognitive ability demands that would get someone through college as we describe it today. Most votech programs have high standards that simply aren’t reachable without average cognitive ability. And the kids with 100 IQs aren’t the ones dropping out of college; they’re graduating with occupational health degrees, business administration degrees, or becoming secretaries and kindergarten teachers. Not college as it should be, but college as it is—they’re getting through.

The kids Petrilli describes, the ones in remedial courses who have a one in ten chance of getting through college don’t have IQs of 100, but much lower. They who bought into the dream, attended an all minority high school, charter or comprehensive, and have dedicated teachers and parents who push them past their ability level. So they can’t read well, but they have a 3.9 GPA. Kashawn Campbell or Dasmine Cathey. The other kids, the ones who didn’t buy in, who aren’t interested in pretending to academic success, who don’t like school, who aren’t good enough at sports for someone to help them fake it, who never bother with college?

So what is the plan for the kids with IQs below, say, 95? What would Petrilli see as an adequate, meaningful education? If I understand his current rhetoric, he denies these students exist. Yet I’m describing a population that includes over half of blacks and Hispanics and 10-20% of whites and Asians.

(again, this is production Ed quoting draft Ed)

Happily, Petrilli has advanced the narrative. even if he only published the “safe” version in Slate.

Anyway. Petrilli still pretends that these deficiencies are an “outrage” caused by poor schools that charters and choice and firing teachers will fix. But here’s the crux of his second piece:

So let’s assume, then, that for the foreseeable future many of our high schools are going to have a heck of a lot of entering students who are prepared for neither a true college-prep curricular route nor a high-quality CTE program. The high school will do its best, but in all likelihood, a great many of these young people will graduate (if they graduate) with low-level skills that won’t leave them prepared for college or a well-paying career. What should we do with these students while they are in high school? What education offerings would benefit them the most?

We’ve got all these kids that won’t be ready for a well-paying career, so what do we do with them while they are in high school? Seriously?

He skips right by the important question: what do these kids do for a job?

Petrilli’s entire reason for existing, professionally speaking, is to offer education as a silver bullet. He’s not someone who will cheerfully accept Paul Bruno’s data showing that education doesn’t fight poverty.

But even Petrilli has to acknowledge that our country has all sorts of jobs that don’t require any training.

What jobs require minimum skills? All the jobs reformers and progressives both describe in disparaging terms: Walmart clerk, hotel maid, custodian, garbage collector, handyman, fast food worker. The average elite makes these jobs sound unfit, an insult to even consider.

I had a kid who I will call Sam in my Math Support Class for Kids Who Didn’t Pass the Graduation Test. He wasn’t particularly memorable, charming or appealing, a slacker constantly trying to get out of any effort. If I didn’t take away his cell phone, he’d never work and even without his cell phone he’d be more likely to draw than practice the basic skills I tried to help him improve on. His skills are incredibly weak; like many low IQ kids he’s got good solid math facts but no ability to synthesize or generalize.

A couple months ago, long after he’d finished my class, Sam came bounding into my room beaming. BEAMING. He’d gotten a job at Subway. He was going to make a presentation in English class on how to make a sandwich, and he was wondering if I could help him edit his essay on the same topic. His essay was weak, but it demonstrated significant effort on his part, and he took my edit suggestions to heart and returned with a still-weak-but-much-improved version. I’ve seen him several times since, getting an update on his increasing hours, a raise, getting his GED because he can’t pass the graduation test. He’s got a purpose and he’s excited. He could give a damn if elites think his job’s a dead end.

Sam’s Indian. A recent immigrant. Weak English skills, which his parents (who are not college graduates) share. Given that many if not all the Subways in my area are franchised by south Asians, I am reasonably sure he got the job through family connections.

You know any women who get manicures? Ask them the last time they paid a non-Vietnamese woman for the service. Then wonder whether these salons would hire anyone who doesn’t speak the boss’s language.

Read this 1994 qualitative study, in which managers of large low or unskilled work forces describe why they hire more Hispanics, the power of networks, and the ability to get good workers for less because hiring by referral was cheaper, even if, or especially if, the workers were all Hispanic. Notice how the employers talk about black and white low-skilled workers, natives, who resented the treatment. Notice the discussion of different hostilities between blacks and Hispanics, but also the fact that Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans didn’t like working together. Then read the same author, Roger Waldinger, finding that second generation Hispanic immigrants are not, as was the case with other immigrants, moving up. So we imported millions of illegal Central Americans, they had kids that are now permanently low skilled workers—and still, as any employer can tell you, subject to the same inter-group hostilities, but now just as entitled as the blacks and whites are. This is a group we need more of?

Of course, all of these employers and managers in that research are white. As the Vietnamese cartel in manicure businesses suggest, Asians have taken to starting their own businesses where they mostly hire their own. Thought I was making it up about Subway and Indians? 1500 Patels in the Subway franchise database—I imagine there are all sorts of Singhs and Guptas, too. In hotels and motels, Indians own 50% of recent hotels and 60% of budget motels. With Cambodians, it’s doughnuts; the Cambodian community loans money to incoming refugees to start a franchise; the independent Cambodian shop owners have largely chased out Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and Winchells out of LA. Cambodians have no history of donuts and from all accounts just use powdered donut mix but thanks to the network effects of cheap money and a steady supply of other low-skilled Cambodian workers, often family members, and undiscriminating illegal Mexican customers looking for a cheap breakfast, they do pretty well. In much of the eastern US, >Dunkin Donuts franchises are dominated by Indians and Portuguese. Meanwhile, 90% of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Koreans where, as in LA, they sell to primarily black communities but never hire blacks to work in their stores. But in the main, Koreans left independently owned businesses and turned to franchises as well. Koreans pretty much own the frozen yogurt market: Yogurtland, Pinkberry and Red Mango have done much to challenge TCBY. I’ve never seen a Yogurtland that didn’t employ Koreans only, but I can’t find any demographics on their employee population.

Franchises and small business are not only dominated by immigrant populations who haven’t, er, gotten the memo on diversity and tolerance, but they are used as a way for non-Americans to get over here in the first place. Franchise Times: “The franchise community has been developing unique tools to secure additional capital. One exciting approach is the use of the EB-5 program (better known as “buying a Green Card”).”

Regardless of ownership, franchises and small businesses that use a lot of unskilled labor are usually hiring illegal immigrants—in fact, “undocumented” Hispanics seem to be the one non-Asian group that Asian small business owners don’t object to as employees, although Chinese illegals have been coming through the southern border in big numbers, so maybe that will change. In at least one quite horrible case, Pakistani 7-Eleven owners brought over illegal Pakistanis and locked them up to work in their stores 18 hours a day for well under minimum wage and committed all sorts of identity theft and money laundering to make millions.

We do not need immigrants to come over to America and exploit illegal aliens. This, manifestly, is a job that Americans are willing to take on.

So Mr. Petrilli wants to know how to best educate low-skilled high school students, but before I get to that, it’s clear that Mr. Petrilli needs some education.

The single most important thing we can do for low-skilled high school students is improve their job market opportunities and the quality of their work experience.

First step: stop importing competition. It’s not enough simply to crack down on Chinese and Hispanic illegal immigration; we should also realize that many immigrants are coming to America with family money and community networks to start businesses that aren’t positively affecting the low-skilled job market. Many of these immigrants are coming over via chain migration.

It is not immediately apparent to me that we gain when McDonalds and other franchise food chains reduce their company-owned stores in favor of franchises. Less risk for the companies, less transparency for the hiring processes, and improved deniability. Since it’s probably impractical to stop franchises, we should at least hold Subway, 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and the rest responsible for hiring violations—not just illegal employees, but also skewed employee demographics, which starts with increased reporting.

Small businesses owned by recent immigrants that only hire family members and take advantage of immigrant networks may have some positive impact on the economy. But not only are we importing competition for our low and unskilled workers, but our schools are required to educate their children, who are often very low-skilled, creating more classroom impact and oh, yeah, the reformers will then scream again about our lousy schools.

So the key to helping unskilled American workers is to improve their job opportunities by reducing or stopping immigration, insisting that immigrant employers follow the same hiring rules as everyone else, and demand transparency from large employers who are doing their best to avoid it by outsourcing to smaller companies to do their dirty work. If we tighten their labor market, many of the (abuses may stop as they don’t have a ready supply of willing victims. Hopefully, pay will increase.

But there’s plenty we could do in education, too, where reduced immigration will also allow us to focus more meaningfully on low-skilled citizens. High school vocational education could be expanded to include low-skilled jobs. Bill Gates and other well-meaning billionaires could open some franchises in districts with many unskilled students. Create training programs for kids to learn the importance of showing up on time, understanding customer service, identify assistant manager potential. Start a training program at Home Depot and Lowes, teach boys how to use all the equipment. Then tell the locals that they can call their local schools directly for miscellaneous labor needs and get a guaranteed source, rather than picking up whoever’s sitting out in front of Home Depot.

I know nothing about how state and local employers hire meter maids, garbage workers, and the like. I bet most reformers don’t either. How about finding out? How about internship programs, again funded by all those well-meaning billionaires, that give kids summer experience writing parking tickets, picking up recyclables, collecting bridge tolls—are any of these jobs outsourced? Suppose we have a discussion about that.

As for education, we can teach kids how to read, write, calculate, and engage their brain on the issues of the day without moving beyond an 8th grade vocabulary. We can even extend that 8th grade vocabulary a bit. Teach them how to read newspaper articles, how to write their opinions in an organized fashion, how to write a letter to the editor—how to craft a job application letter specific to the situation. Certainly we could teach them the basics of business entrepreneurism for those who would like to try self-employment or small business. How about living opportunities? Many kids in this situation can’t afford an apartment and so live with their parents, feeling infantilized. Perhaps they need to be educated on their opportunities: sharing rentals, more affordable regions, and so on.

We don’t even really know yet how to educate people with IQs less than 100, which is probably the most important educational research we aren’t doing. Maybe we can move some of the kids from unskilled to skilled technician jobs, with the right approach.

I’m glad Michael Petrilli has acknowledged reality. But in doing so, he’s opened a big can of worms for the reform movement. Once we realize that the bulk of the kids reformers have been focusing on, the lowest achievers, can’t be educated in the manner they demand, then it becomes clear that employment, not education, is the key area for reform.

Let me finish by referring back to the Sam anecdote. We should not be importing families who will add to the unskilled labor pool, but have an advantage because of immigrant social networks and capital.

But I can’t begin to tell you how completely transformed Sam was when he got his job. He had a purpose. He felt useful. I remember vaguely in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a time when she made a contemptuous remark about their work and hurt a co-worker’s feelings. The co-worker didn’t think the task was a waste of time; she was proud of getting it done correctly.

Progressives and reformers hold these jobs in low esteem because they simply can’t conceive that for low skilled people, these jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. But other times, they’re just jobs, just something that people do to make money and live. “Just a job” isn’t an insult. It’s an objective. It’s a goal. It’s time to start focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for the entire population, instead of giving immigrants the jobs our unskilled workforce needs.


Finding the Bad Old Days

Michael Petrilli wrote an extremely aggravating article suggesting we tell unqualified kids they aren’t ready for college and go to CTE and then a much improved follow up that acknowledges the racial reality of his idea.

In his first piece, Petrilli only mentions race once:

PetrilliCTEquote3

This is a common trope in articles on tracking, a nod to “the bad old days” right after the end of segregation, that time immediately after Brown and ending sometime in the late 70s, or when Jeannie Oakes excoriated the practice in Keeping Track.

In the bad old days, the story goes, evil school districts, eager to keep angry racist white parents from fleeing, sought a means of maintaining segregation despite the Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act. So they pretended to institute ability grouping and curriculum tracks, but in reality, they used race. That way the district could minimize white flight and still pretend to educate the poor and the brown. That’s why so many brown kids were in the low ability classes, and that’s why so many lawsuits happened, because of the evil racist/classist methods of rich whites keeping the little brown people down.

The bad old days are a touchstone for anyone proposing an educational sorting mechanism. So you have Petrilli advocating a return to tracking, who tell us the bad old days are a thing of the past: yeah, we used to track by race and income, pretending to use ability, but we’ve progressed. Districts pretended to use IQ, but they were really using culturally biased tests to commit second-order segregation. Today, we understand that all races and all incomes can achieve. Districts don’t have to distort reality. The bad old days are behind us, and we can group by ability secure that we aren’t discriminating by race.

Before ed school, I accepted the existence of the bad old days, but then I noticed that every reading asserted discrimination but didn’t back it up with data. Since ed school, I’d occasionally randomly google on the point, looking for research that established discriminatory tracking back in the 60s and 70s. And so the Petrilli article got me googling and thinking again. (What, buy books? Pay for research? Cmon, I’m a teacher on a budget. If it’s damning, the web has it.)

I first reviewed Jeannie Oakes, reaffirming that Oakes holds tracking itself, properly applied, as the operative sin. Discriminatory tracking isn’t a main element of Oakes’ argument, although she points out that “some research” suggests it occurred. Oakes’ third assumption, that tracking is largely made on valid decisions (page 4) is accepted at face value. So the grande dame of the anti-tracking movement has completely neglected to mention the bad old days—which, at that time, would have been contemporary.

On I move to Roslyn Mickelson, who does charge Charlotte Mecklenburg schools with discriminatory tracking.

I wasn’t much impressed for a number of reasons–not least of which a big error, which you can see here (lines 8-9):

mickelson5

Not unusual, apparently. In Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Judge Richard Potter eviscerates her expert testimony, finding faults with her credibility, her accuracy, and her logic.

Bottom line, however, Mickelson’s research shows that high achieving scorers in year one are not consistently placed in high achieving classes six years later. While both whites and blacks with high scores end up in low tracks and vice versa, more whites get high placement than blacks. But generally, her data shows something I’ve documented before, that achievement falls off each year because school gets harder.

Both whites and blacks experience the falloff, even though Mickelson seems to think that the pattern should be linear. The achievement scale simply gets larger as kids move up in grade levels, and fewer blacks make the top tier. This is consistent with cognitive realities.

There might be a smoking gun in research. But I couldn’t find it.

Then I suddenly realized duh, what about case law? If districts were tracking by race, there’d be a lawsuit.

I started with three legal articles that discussed tracking case law: 1, 2 and 3. They were all useful, but all failed to mention a significant case in which the district routinely used different standards or sorted directly by race or zip code.

From these articles, I determined that Hobson vs. Hanson was the original tracking case, and that the McNeal standard was for many years (and may still be) the test for ability grouping.

So I created a reading list of cases from the late 60s to the early 90s:

Only two of these cases involved schools directly accused of using race to sort students. In Johnson v. Jackson, the schools were forced to integrate in the middle of a school year. The black kids were ported over to white schools and the classes kept intact. The court ordered them to fix this. From first integration order to the fix order: 4 months.

The second case, Rockford, was decided in the early 90s, and the judge directly accuses the district of intentionally using race to ability group. However, Jeannie Oakes was the expert witness, and the judge drank every bit of Koolaid she had to offer and licked the glass. Oakes is presented as an expert witness, with no mention that she’s an anti-tracking advocate. Her testimony appears to be little more than readings from her book and some data analysis.

The proof of “intentional racism” was pretty weak and largely identical to Mickelson’s described above. Major difference: the judge accepted it.

Leaving aside these two cases, I couldn’t find any case in which the district was found to misuse the results of the test, either by using different racial standards or ignoring the tests entirely. The tests themselves were the issue.

In the south, school systems that weren’t “unitary” (that is, were previously segregated districts) couldn’t use ability testing. Since blacks would have lower scores based on past racial discrimination, the use of tests was discriminatory, an intent to segregate.

For school systems that were found to be unitary, ability testing isn’t in and of itself invalid and racial imbalance isn’t a problem (see Starkville case for example).

In all these cases, I couldn’t find a district that was tracking by race. They were guilty of tracking by test. Everyone knew the tests would reveal that blacks would have lower ability on average, and therefore ability grouping was by definition invalid in previously segregated schools. This was an era in which judges said “The court also finds that a Negro student in a predominantly Negro school gets a formal education inferior to the academic education he would receive, and which white students receive, in a school which is integrated or predominantly white.” (Hobson)

Once the system is declared unitary, or that was never an issue, the record is mixed. When judges did accept the results as valid, they ruled in favor of the school districts (Starkville, Hannon). In Pase v Hannon, the judge actually reviewed the test questions himself and determined they were unbiased with few exceptions, all of which were far above the IQ level in question.

In California, on the other hand, where de jure segregation wasn’t an issue*, the mere existence of racial imbalance was still a problem (Pasadena, Riles). In Riles, Judge Robert Peckham banned all IQ testing of blacks in California for educational purposes. He later extended the ruling even if black parents requested testing, but later withdrew that order. Peckham’s reasoning is much like the other judges who believed in cultural bias:

Even if it is assumed that black children have a 15 percent higher incidence of mild mental retardation than white children, there is still less than a one in a million chance that a color-blind system would have produced this disproportionate enrollment. If it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed towards black children.

Notice the reasoning: of course it’s not possible that blacks have a 50% greater incidence of an IQ below 75. Except it’s worse than that.

This image is from The Bell Curve (borrowed from here) reflecting the frequency of black/white IQ distribution:

BCFreqblkwhiteIQ

As many blacks as whites populate the sub 75 IQ space, but the population distribution being what it is, blacks are far more likely to have low IQs.

When Charles Murray researched this for The Bell Curve:

In the NLSY-79 cohort, 16.8 percent of the black sample scored below 75, using the conversion of AFQT scores reported in the appendix of TBC and applying sample weights. The comparable figure for non-Latino whites was 2.2 percent. In the NLSY-97 cohort, the comparable figures were 13.8 percent for blacks and 2.7 percent for non-Latino whites.

(Charles Murray, personal communication)

So at the time of Peckham’s decision, blacks didn’t have a 50% higher chance of an IQ below 75, but rather a several hundred percent higher chance, a chance that is still in the triple digits today.1 Peckham couldn’t even begin to envision such a possibility, and so no IQ testing for blacks in California.

(As for the lower frequency of blacks in the “trainable” mentally retarded division, as it was called then, an interesting but rarely discussed fact: Low IQ blacks are often higher functioning that low IQ whites. They are less likely to be organically retarded, and more likely to be capable of independent living. This despite the fact that their IQ tests and academic outcomes are identical. Arthur Jensen discovered this phenomenon, and I highly recommend that article; it’s fascinating. I wonder if the difference is somehow related to crystallized vs. fluid intelligence, but haven’t read up enough on it.)

So there it is. Obviously, if I missed a key case in which a major district was found to have deliberately tracked kids by race, please let me know.

But despite extensive efforts, I couldn’t find the bad old days of discriminatory sorting. What I found, instead, was a judicial rejection of IQ and other ability tests, coupled with an inability to conceive of the actual distribution patterns of cognitive ability.

Please understand my limited objective. Many Southern districts did everything they could to avoid integration. See, for example, US v Tunica, where the school tried to assign students based on test scores, but were denied because of the achievement testing ban and required to reassign students and teachers to achieve integration. The teachers refused assignment to integrated schools and resigned, white parents withdrew their kids, then the white schools set up shop at local churches, classes largely intact. Money? Not an issue. They used taxpayer dollars, since the district paid the teachers who resigned and the kids took all their school books with them.

But believe it or not, there’s no mention that the district was only pretending to use test scores, actually assigning students by race. And this is a place where I’d expect to find it. Opposition to integration, absolutely. Achievement testing used as a way to minimize racially mixed classes? Sure.

In many other cases, schools or districts instituted tracking as a genuine attempt to educate a much wider range of abilities, or even had a tracking system in place before integration.

The inconvenient realities of cognitive ability distribution being what they are, the test scores would be depressingly indifferent to intent.

Then there’s the messy middle, the one that Mickelson probably found in Charlotte and Oakes found in Rockford and any one looking at my classrooms would find as well. All tracked classrooms are going to have inconsistencies, whether the schools use tests, teacher recommendations, or student choice. The honors classes fill up or a teacher suddenly dies or all sorts of other unforeseen situations mean some kids get moved around and it’s a safe bet high income parents bitch more about wrong assignments than poor parents. Go through each high score in a “regular” class and each low score in a tracked, and each one of those test scores will have a story—a story usually doesn’t involve race or malign intent. The story occasionally does involve bad teachers or district bureaucracy, but not as often as you might think.

Teacher recommendations are supposed to mitigate the testing achievement gap but teachers are moralists, particularly in math, as I’ve written before. It doesn’t surprise me that new study shows that controlling for performance, blacks are less likely to be assigned to algebra as 8th graders by teacher recommendation. I can’t tell you the number of bright Hispanic and black kids I’ve run into (as well as huge number of white boys, including my son) who don’t bother with homework and have great test scores. So their GPA is 2.7, but their test scores are higher than the kids who got As–and the teacher recommendations.

Parents: some parents insist that their kids need to be in the top group to be challenged. Others feel that their kids do better when they feel secure, able to manage the challenge. Then there are the parents who don’t give a damn about their kids’ abilities but don’t want them in a noisy classroom with kids who don’t give a damn about education. White and Asian parents are disproportionately represented in the first group, black and Hispanic parents take up more than their share in the second, and all parents of all races worry about the last.

So let’s stop using teacher recommendation, stop allowing parents or students to ask for different placement. Test scores are destiny.

But test scores today still reflect the same reality that the judges assumed, back then, could only be caused by racism or bias.

The tests haven’t changed. The kids haven’t changed much.

The judges are another story.

Richard Posner, in a much-quoted 1997 decision on an appeal to the People Who Care v Rockford did what he has done before–made my point with much greater efficiency:

Tracking is a controversial educational policy, although just grouping students by age, something no one questions, is a form of “tracking.” Lawyers and judges are not competent to resolve the controversy. The conceit that they are belongs to a myth of the legal profession’s omnicompetence that was exploded long ago. To abolish tracking is to say to bright kids, whether white or black, that they have to go at a slower pace than they’re capable of; it is to say to the parents of the brighter kids that their children don’t really belong in the public school system; and it is to say to the slower kids, of whatever race, that they may have difficulty keeping up, because the brighter kids may force the pace of the class. …

Tracking might be adopted in order to segregate the races. The well-known correlation between race and academic performance makes tracking, even when implemented in accordance with strictly objective criteria, a pretty effective segregator. If tracking were adopted for this purpose, then enjoining tracking would be a proper as well as the natural remedy for this form of intentional discrimination, at least if there were no compelling evidence that it improves the academic performance of minority children and if the possible benefits to the better students and the social interest in retaining them in the public schools were given little weight. The general view is that tracking does not benefit minority students…although there is evidence that some of them do benefit… All this is neither here nor there. The plaintiffs’ argument is not that the school district adopted tracking way back when in order to segregate the schools. It is that it misused tracking, twisting the criteria to achieve greater segregation than objective tracking alone would have done. The school district should be enjoined from doing this not, on this record, enjoined from tracking.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg case mentioned above cited Posner’s reasoning. The third of my case law articles discusses Holton v Thomasville II, which doesn’t mention Posner but does say that racial imbalance in ability grouping isn’t of itself evidence of discrimination, and points out that the time for judicial interference in educational decisions is probably over:

holtoncase

Most districts ended tracking out of fear of lawsuits. It may be time for parents to demand more honors classes, test the limits.

So what does this have to do with Petrilli? Well, less than it once did, now that Petrilli has acknowledged the profound racial implications of his suggestion.

But if the bad old days of racial tracking never really existed, then Petrilli can’t pretend things will be better. Yes, we must stop devaluing college degrees, stop fooling kids who have interest but no ability in taking on massive loans that they can never pay off. And with luck even Petrilli will eventually realize as well that we have to stop forcing kids with neither interest nor ability to sit in four years of “college preparation” courses feeling useless.

So what comes next? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

*************************
*Commenter Mark Roulo points out that California did commit de jure segregation against Hispanics and was ordered to stop in Mendez v. Westminster. See comments for my response.

1See Steve Sailer’s comment for why black IQs might have been biased against lower IQ blacks and the 97 data more representative.


SAT’s Competitive Advantage

Asians taking the SAT: 196,030 out of 1,640,047, or about 11.9%.
(No response: 62,603)

Asians taking the ACT: 71,677 out of 1,799,243, or about 3.9%
(No response: 110, 305)

I can’t tell if these numbers are US-based only, or including overseas testers. The ACT has a small international market. The SAT dominates, particularly in the Asian countries. 50,000 Chinese visit a Hong Kong testing site in just one year. While I couldn’t find totals for Korea, 900 students got their scores cancelled in 2007, clearly just a fraction of the total testers. In India, the College Board has 32 test centers (up from 20 just four years ago), the ACT has 60 testers.

So if the ratio above, in the tests’ national reports, are indeed just for the US, then the overall Asian preference is even greater than the 2.75:1 brand preference for Asian American testing. Since I can’t find any verification of this, let’s assume the ratio is overall preference.

In either case, the numbers are stark. The SAT is already losing out to the ACT. Why would it make changes that, if accurately described, would make the test less attractive to Asians, who have largely rejected the ACT?

Before I get to that: outside of the knowledgeable education reporters, the coverage has been nonsense. Contrast this relatively solid piece by NYTimes reporter Tamar Lewin, (whose twitter tagline should be “not half as ignorant and less than a quarter as irritating as Motoko Rich”) with this obsequious David Coleman profile by author Todd Balf. Discussing his work, Balf described the “checks” that restrain the College Board from using its power, :

Either Coleman does something about [the dissatisfaction with the SAT], or at the college level more and more schools will go test optional. Coleman wouldn’t say that the reforms are in response to places like Wake Forest, but it is hard to ignore.

Sigh. A few thousand colleges or university systems use the SAT as a first round placement test: University of Georgia, University of California, University of Michigan, University of Nevada, University of Wisconsin, a whole bunch of community college systems, and oh, yeah, the largest university system in the country. Any number of private universities do, as well, including Baylor, Columbia, and Duke.

So the SAT and ACT allow many schools to avoid the hassle and expense of placing hundreds of thousands of students each year.

But yeah, the College Board is all worked up about Wake Forest going exam optional.

People who try to prognosticate the changes are mostly being silly. I like Peter Wood, but his rant here doesn’t add up. Like most non-experts, Wood completely ignores the existence of the ACT, which has the same “biases” that Wood thinks the SAT is trying to fix. The College Board can’t “dumb down” the test. If blacks suddenly started scoring at the 80th percentile on the SAT, but were still scoring at the 35th on the ACT, people would notice.

So leaving aside what people who don’t really understand things think, and leaving my random thoughts about certain changes for another day, and then pointing out that I liked this analysis by Eduwonk, not usually a favorite of mine, my big question is still why would the College Board deliberately screw over Asians, the customer base with the strongest preference for its product?

The Chinese test prep companies are less than thrilled about the changes, which they believe will prevent them from teaching students to game the test . I am asserting this as fact: many Chinese international students openly acknowledge they don’t have the underlying ability their SAT scores denote.

Not much outrage from the Koreans, but then they just buy early versions of the test and distribute it to paying customers. Obviously, this method works regardless of underlying test modifications. Cheating is so rampant in South Korea that again, I am asserting as fact that many of these testers lack the underlying knowledge that their SAT scores supposedly indicate.

I doubt either country is exclusive in its approach. Presumably, the Chinese cheat and the Koreans game.

Indians seem cautiously optimistic—hey, they mostly do speak English, right?

I consider the SAT changes completely irrelevant. The interesting question to me is, assuming no one changes their behavior, how will this all play out?

The one thing I feel pretty confident of: faith in Coleman is wholly unjustified. Leaving aside the value of his Common Core work, note the lack of follow-through. Typical consultant, he jumped in long enough to tell people what to do, then left before all the errors in his ideas are revealed through disastrous implementation results.

In the same way, Coleman’s never run a major business, and has no idea about the political realities of helming the most visible, if not the most popular, college admissions and placement test. He has a story, but no plan. Meanwhile, boy, he’s happy to diss the test his predecessors pushed—and he makes free with insulting his competitor, too.

But for all Coleman trashes his predecessor, Gaspard Caperton, the ex-Appalachian governor has big shoes that I very much doubt Coleman can fill. Complain all you like about the writing section, it was pure genius as a business decision. On Caperton’s watch, the College Board dumbed down an existing test that a couple hundred thousand kids took, made it cheaper to grade, and forced a million kids to pay a higher price to take it as part of the “new” SAT, even though lots of colleges don’t use the section score—and let everyone think that the UC forced the change. The company made millions in a single year. At his behest, the College Board abandoned the claim that test prep doesn’t work, and sold its own product, which had to be taken off the Amazon bestseller list because everyone found it too upsetting. And that’s just the SAT’s profit center. Caperton also presided over the Advanced Placement’s stunning growth, achieved by taxpayers shoveling money into the CB’s coffers for entirely unqualified kids to take tests in order that Jay Mathews put their school on his Index.

In contrast, Coleman has just made the essay optional and harder to grade, ordered a complete redesign of the test with a stable competitor ready and willing to pick up the doubters, and pissed off his most dedicated customer segment. I wouldn’t be surprised if he declared that his purer company won’t profit from the filthy lucre of test prep, having turned that function over to Khan Academy (which long before its College Board arrangement has neglected to provide free services for the ACT). God knows what Coleman has planned for the AP suite.

Coleman could have some grand plan that I can’t anticipate (other than, as Steve Sailer puts it, all students should Be Like Me.) But reasonable people can and should wonder if he is wholly ignorant of the SAT’s market position, or if he actually believes that his Common Core curriculum is going to increase student ability and end the achievement gap. From there, it’s easy to postulate a scenario in which the College Board spends a fortune redesigning the test in a vacuum, not discovering until field tests that the changes either widen or narrow the achievement gap unforgiveably. Worse still, what if they make the test too hard? All of these possible outcomes wouldsend testers and their parents running into the arms of the Midwestern Mama, all safety and security.

In such an event, I trust the remainder of the College Board regroups before rollout. That’s been done before: the 2005 essay was originally supposed to be 50% of the writing score, but worrisome field tests led to the essay getting just a third of the section weight. A complete backout, cancel, reset is not impossible. The ETS cancelled its first set of GRE changes, despite a significant investment. Like the ETS, the College Board has a known quantity of a test to fall back on—just fire Coleman and move on.

I find that outcome very possible. But suppose that the SAT redesign works as promised. The achievement gap remains intact, the test is as described, the scores among American students are roughly compatible with the old SAT and the current ACT.

So then back to the big question: why, exactly, are Asians favoring the current SAT so strongly, and what will they do in the face of an altered test? The usual reason offered for their brand loyalty is the Asians aren’t aware of the ACT.

They figure out to game the SAT, they buy advanced copies of the SAT so their kids can cheat, they’re aware of and concerned about SAT changes, but somehow they’ve never heard of the SAT’s competition. Yeah. Not buying.

That leaves a few possibilities. First, the Asian test prep companies just don’t see the point in spending the money and time cracking a second test given their certainty on the first. Second, they haven’t actually cracked the test, aren’t really gaming it, but in fact are all using the Korean method of buying the test. All the coverage on the gaming is just sham. So they either can’t or haven’t yet paid to achieve the same penetration of the ACT’s secrets.

Third, and this is the fun one, they’ve tried cracking the ACT and can’t.

Eighteen months ago, I thought the possibility that Asians were artificially inflating their scores was theoretically possible, but unlikely. Over the next year, my experiences and additional research has changed my view. I now think it likely that both here and overseas, a decent percentage of Asian testers are either cheating or gaming the SAT and AP tests—-or both. I’ve written up some of this but not all, and I’m not expecting anyone to just take my word for it.

But when I start from that premise, and look at the SAT as a test that can be gamed, I see loads of potential.

Naturally, a purchased test is still the best guarantee—certainty being so much more reliable—but Big Data could identify many patterns. A few years back, you could see open discussion of an LA based test prep company with a largely Asian clientele that promised a reduced (300 or fewer words) vocabulary list, that was supposedly built by on analyzing previous tests and predicting a rotation cycle for the words. Or maybe they just had an in at the College Board, as the comment suggests.

Maybe they’ve analyzed each type of reading comprehension question and noticed a pattern beyond “pick C”, but rather a particular type of wording that is associated with a correct answer. This is something all bright people can do, of course, but it’s hard to teach as a system without mountains of data. The SAT’s grammar questions have all sorts of patterns that could likewise be broken down and systematized. Obviously, they’ve collected the essay prompts and found certain theme patterns that they use to teach kids to memorize essays verbatim. It goes without saying that the students didn’t write the essays. Or maybe they just had prior knowledge.

But assume, for the moment, that it was gaming, not cheating. I’m not an expert on Big Data or psychometrics, but I’m knowledgeable about both the SAT and the ACT, and the latter doesn’t lend itself to that sort of patterning. English, Reading, and Science test on passages with aggressive time requirements. While their questions do have patterns, the patterns are heavily reliant on context. You have to understand the text at least slightly in order to find the correct answer for the particular type of question. At least, that’s how it seems to me. (But then, I looked at the memorization necessary to game the SAT and thought it unlikely, so what do I know?)

Imagine that College Board successfully screws over the barely-English-speaking Asian market with their new test. Suppose also that both companies are ethical and no one is selling advance data on the test (which, in fact, I do assume). Suppose, in other words, that Asians with extremely limited English skills, here and abroad, are no longer able to misrepresent their abilities with SAT tests.

Is that really what colleges want?

Balf’s right about one thing–the colleges are the ultimate test customer. Public universities have dramatically increased their foreign admits, most of them Chinese, because they can charge them out of state fees for all four years.

They admit these students already knowing that the Chinese applications are largely fraudulent, and are well aware of the gaming and cheating, since they end up with students who can’t speak English and cheat here, too.

All this knowledge hasn’t slowed down their Asian international student admission.

Does this sound like a customer base that really wants to lock out non-English speaking Asians?

No matter which of these scenarios play out, I don’t see how the ACT doesn’t benefit. Why would any student opt for a complete unknown when they can prepare for the ACT using test prep materials and experts who’ve been working with the same test for years? I expect test prep companies to step up their offerings. If they don’t, then I throw up my hands and declare confusion.

This all strikes me as considerably more relevant than pipe dreams about the end of test prep, much less the achievement gap. And much more interesting.


Assessments with Multiple Answers

Multiple Answer Math tests are my new new thing, and I’m very pleased with how it’s going so far. I thought I’d talk about some of the problems in depth, see if anyone has suggestions.

Most of these questions come from an A2/Trig test I wrote this weekend, focusing on systems of equations, but my tests are always cumulative.

MAexamp1

One of the things I really like about this format: I can combine free response and selected responses very easily. So here they had to graph the plane, then answer questions which may or may not have to do with the graph. So I could both test their ability to graph a plane see if they understand how distance works in three dimensions, check out their attention to detail, and see if they remember what a trace is. Query: is “slope of a trace line” acceptable? I’ve never taught 3-dimensional systems before, and the book only said “trace”. But when I was teaching it, I kept forgetting and say “trace line”. I wanted them to demonstrate they could visualize the plane in three dimensions and see the slopes of the lines forming the plane, and I couldn’t find any sample questions. Probably an oddball question.

“a” and “e” contain typos. I originally had a different line, until I realized it’d be too hard to graph on the coordinates I provided. So I changed everything, or tried to. Missed two things. First, I intended “a” to be correct, but forgot to change the constant. That’s okay, it will allow for attention to detail. But “e” is just a kluge question, since I changed the points but forgot to change the distance. Before, it was a test of evaluation; now it’s a more obvious wrong answer.

MAexamp4

This question makes me very happy. Transformations, function operations, evaluation, and then a transfer of knowledge test! We’d never done any problems like “e” before. No one squawked, and I even saw some kids solving it graphically.

MAexamp3

(I stole this graph from online, but can’t find it any more. If it’s yours, let me know and I’ll provide a link.)

I tiptoed conceptually into linear programming, but we did a lot with feasibility regions and of course, systems of inequalities. I describe my approach for Algebra II, but I step it up a bunch of paces for A2/Trig. I expect them to be able to graph lines and inequalities. They get review during the modeling section, but that’s all.

MAexamp2

Another one I just think is elegant because it approaches the absolute value from so many different angles: algebraically, graphically, and then a function conceptual question for good measure.

MAPCexamp3

I use this on both Algebra II and Algebra II/Trig. We math teachers try to beat into the kids’ heads the idea that a function can be defined or expressed in four ways: verbal, algebraic, graphic, and tabular. If this were a multiple choice question, students would just test one value and see what happens. But it’s multiple answer, and plugging in numbers takes a long time. Plotting the points and sketching the lines, on the other hand, works very nicely and very quickly—if you know how to graph those lines.

Every so often you can really mess with the kids’ minds, like this:

MAexamp5

None of the “obvious” answers are right. The kids really have to trust their abilities.

MAexamp6

This is almost pure concept. I introduced the algebra of rational expressions; we’ll do the graphs later. Well over half the kids correctly selected e, but a lot missed b. Ack.

Here’s a couple that work for either pre-calc or algebra II. The quadratic runs the gamut from conceptual to technical. The circle question is more purely technical, but that’s because there’s a lot to test.

MApcexamp1

MApcexamp2

I’m having a much easier time grading these now, once I realized I was actually creating True/False tests.

Still to be resolved, however: I have to distinguish between “left the problem blank because I didn’t know” and “not true”. Right now, I evaluate the test to determine what the student is doing, but in the future I think I’m going to have a field they can mark “T” or “F”. If it’s blank, it’s wrong.

So, for example, take a look at this question again:

MApcexamp1

Answers A, D, and E are true. The others are false. I give this question 14 points, 2 for each letter.

Almost all my students correctly select A as true, because they’ve built the equation themselves as an exercise and understand the parameters. They likewise know that B is false. Some of them read “maximum” as “initial” and wrongly select C, but many otherwise weak students with good attention to detail get it correct. So even my weak students are likely to get 6 points on these three letters.

Then we get to the tougher ones (they aren’t always in order of difficulty). Students have to understand what elements of the parabola equate to max height, time to max height, and zero height. Obviously, I cover these extensively, but kids have a harder time with this. I don’t just teach them a method. I expect them to know that max height is the parabola’s vertex, so that the x value is time to max height, and the y value is the height.

I had at least 12 students who correctly factored the problem, thus correctly NOT selecting E, but also NOT selecting D. Strong technically, weak on the concept of a “zero”. I gave them partial credit (a point) and yelled at them on the paper: things like “Noooooooooo!” and “Arggggghhhh.” and arrows and question marks and “Yo! What do you think (2t-3) means, exactly!?!”

The vertex questions E and G give students the most trouble, but that seems to be less about concept and more about a reluctance to work with fractions. My algebra II students actually do better than my precalc students because we spend a whole unit on this, as opposed to a few days in precalc.

So an average weak student will get 8-10 points out of 14. Very few students get all 14 points, maybe 8 out of 60. Most get 10-12. If they show their work and I can see they were on the right track with just an algebra error, I give partial credit. Other times, I can clearly see their math was terrible, even if they got the right answer. In those cases, I mark the question correct and then dock them 2 points for bad math.

While I don’t normally review tests, I always go through these and give the correct answers and discuss grading decisions.

I strongly recommend giving these a try. They’re lots of fun to make and again, typos are a lot easier to hide.


Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . ..as your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,’” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.


Boobies and Bronies

So Grayson Bruce can take his My Little Pony backpack to school. All hail tolerance.

Matt Walsh and Sean Williams (neither of whom I’ve ever read before) have covered most of one aspect of this insanity—namely, there’s something wrong with a 9 year old boy taking 4-year-old girl paraphernalia to school, and parents have a responsibility to help their kids recognize reality. (I’m not entirely convinced that there isn’t something wrong with naming a 9 year old Grayson Bruce, but let’s leave that aside.)

But since reasonable people can disagree, surely public schools or their districts should be able to decide what approach they want to take. They might, for example, realize that nine-year-old kids are developmentally prone to demand peer pressure, so set behavior guidelines that keep the circle pretty small. So when a boy with a little girl’s backpack faces derision and taunting, the school might see both the taunting and the backpack as problems. But no, the mother takes the story public, and a wide range of idiots go out of their way to denounce the school for not letting a 9 year old boy have a my little pony backpack.

Or, at a time when kids are still figuring out the difference between boys and girls, a district might prefer to gently restrict a gender-confused kid to the bathroom of his or her biological birth. But no, state cobbles together a law that allows kids to choose what gender they are and use the gendered bathroom of their choice.

Or suppose a district has clear policies for handling online bullying on Twitter or Facebook between studens. Meanwhile, two sophomores from School A go to an unsupervised party in an entirely different district. While at that party, they make snarky remarks about a student who attends School B. Other kids from School A join in. Pretty soon, they start to tweet these remarks, and put a few of them on facebook. Other School B kids mention this to the student, who becomes upset. The parents come in with a lawyer to talk to School B’s principal, demanding that this stop because schools are responsible for cyber-bullying. School B’s principal is now held responsible for behavior that didn’t occur on campus, wasn’t committed by his students at a party that wasn’t even in his district.

Or, districts or schools might decide to eliminate the scenario of 15 year old boys snickering about their boobie bracelets, shrieking “I HEART BOOBIES!” as the girls with the actual boobies giggle and ask if they heart ALL boobies? Like these ones here? So the district says no bracelets in school. Meanwhile, a couple of middle school girls—yeah, girls. Because girls wearing the bracelets are the problem—decide to sue. The federal court sides with the ACLU and says kids wearing the bracelets “want to remove the stigma of breasts”—and then the Supreme Court, with all those conservatives, sides with the ACLU. So now, teachers have to tolerate freshman boys leering and saying they ‘heart boobies’ and do so in the knowledge that the state and federal courts valued their ability to do that more than the ability of districts to maintain reasonable decorum.

It is sometimes hard not to conclude that the public is the greatest enemy of public education. But at this point, I’ve still got courts in the first slot, the feds in the second, and state legislatures in third.


Why I Blog

I’m pretty sure Dan Meyer wasn’t asking the likes of me, but as I read through the comments, I was reminded again that many teachers blog because they want a community.

I do not want a community, either virtual or meat space. In 20 years, I have had an actual casual acquaintance with just one neighbor, although I can’t remember his name. I may never have known it. He was a chain-smoking, beer guzzling truck driver, we both had teenage sons. A few years ago, the fire alarm at my last apartment complex went off in three buildings at 2:00 am, and so awful a sound was it that we all ran from our apartments fearing not fire but the very real possibility that we’d stab our eardrums with corkscrews in hopes of ending the torture. So we’re all downstairs milling about, dozens if not hundreds of Chinese, Indians, and the occasional Filipino, all of them complete strangers to me and each other, and everyone looking to me for answers. I thought at first they assumed the only white person in sight was custodial staff or maybe off-duty management (hey, I have an ego), but apparently they had designated me the person in charge of conversing with the fire fighters. When the big red trucks showed up, I represented with authority, telling the firemen (they were all men) that, while the community would not be ungrateful for any conflagrations found and extinguished, the Really Important Thing was to stop that horrible noise, which was this sound at this frequency. The firefighters obligingly made the dreadful noise go away, and I got all the credit—perhaps the Chinese thought money was involved, I don’t know. Anyway, the firefighters told me it was a false alarm, I thanked them, and started the trek back upstairs when a Indian gentleman approached me and asked for a status update. Good lord, I’d forgotten my leadership role. I turned, found a small mound of lawn to stand on, and they gathered round while I told them to go back to bed. They smiled, waved, and I never saw any of them again.

I’m not anti-social; in fact, I’m quite friendly. I can’t easily explain why I don’t seek out communities, but perhaps this OCEAN profile (that’s Big Five, right?) explains the paradox (I took the test for the first time last month when a commenter linked it in). Notice that I’m slightly above average on extraversion (in fact, it probably overstates my sociability) but abnormally low on agreeableness—that is, I’m quite comfortable with rudeness. In Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTP, but I’m very much a gregarious introvert.

All of this is to say that I occasionally run into trouble with math teacher bloggers. They’re mad because I disrespected Dan, or because I simply think they’re wrong or because I hold that cognitive ability plays a role in educational outcomes or….you know, I can’t really keep track of all the reasons.

Some of the problems arise because I’m blogging for an entirely different reason than most teachers are, particularly most math teachers. I’m not seeking bonds, looking for collaborative opportunities, looking to share, to network, to get validation. In fact, I’m not really a blogger at all. I’m a writer. I write to convince, to argue, to persuade–even, I hope, to entertain. But I’m not having a conversation.

In a much bigger galaxy, far far away, think about The View. The math teacher bloggers see themselves as Barbara, Joy, Whoopi, and so on (please don’t make me look up the names, the only time I watch the show is when my dad’s in town). Maybe Ellen. They want to exchange opinions and ideas in a safe place, with people they trust, the audience and the stars all part of a big, productive conversation in which everyone can express opinions in a restricted range in a polite voice. If so, they will be respected and heard, disagreement will be polite and constructive. To put it mildly, that’s not how I roll. In that galaxy, I’m akin to a Krauthammer, Brooks, McArdle, albeit several thousand rungs lower on the ladder. It’s kind of fun to imagine how these writers would response to Barbara Walters asking them, sternly, if they thought their columns were contributing to a productive conversation.

So every so often some teacher blogger tells me in frustration that I’m not being productive, that I’d get a better response if I were more constructive, engaged more, and I’m like dude, what are you talking about? I have so much bigger an audience than I ever dreamed of when I began two years ago. But while I’m happy to welcome them to my audience, they aren’t really who I’m writing for. And they can’t conceive of what I’m talking about, because they are writing for each other, to reaffirm their connections, their community, their sounding boards. (Keeerist, it sounds so very girly.)

I don’t want to make it sound like Them and Me. The vast majority of these folks don’t know I exist until I do something to offend. Many of them have far bigger teacher audiences than I, and are far better known. And while they don’t like me, I like many of them as teachers, read their blogs frequently and comment occasionally. But even in my comments, it’s clear I’m coming from a different planet.

Paul Bruno, the only other US teacher I know of who writes broadly about policy, doesn’t seem to experience this dichotomy between his writing and his place in the teacher “community” . But then, he doesn’t write much about teaching, and of course he has, er, a different Big Five score. Probably not as comfortable being rude.

Anyway. I thought I would write this post for the teacher audience, so the next time I’m lectured for being unproductive, I can just link this in.

I also blog for the reasons expressed here.


Well, no. (Short Takes and Snarks)

The items below would take me a good eight months to write about in full (I made that number up), and most of them would drop off the table for the dog to snatch up (I don’t have a dog). How can someone who writes as slowly as I do still write so much?

So briefly (yes, laugh), while working on memory and math and wondering if Corona del Mar has successfully buried its cheating incident, I read many sentences that made me go “Well, no.”

  1. “Even if that was necessary to success — and it’s not — surely she’ll have plenty of time later to agonize about putting a foot out of place.”–Megan McArdle, chastising America for forcing a tenth grade student to think she needs straight As.

    Well, no. For kids with no legacy, no sports, no ethnic desirability (that is, lacking URM status), and no real money, a GPA less than 4.0 puts them out of contention for a top 30 school, certainly, and probably a top 40 school as well. Now, I agree that success can be achieved from almost any starting point, but for any smart kid with strong ambition, a top-30 school should be a reasonable goal. But many kids are out of the game by freshman year, despite excellent brains, challenging transcripts, and sterling test scores, simply because they don’t obsess about grades the way that sophomore does. The problem isn’t the fear of failure, but the corrupt admissions process that has put GPA ahead of everything else. I’m a big fan of Megan McArdle, but when she shows empathy by offering up her devastation at having to settle for 7th-ranked Penn, she’s out of touch with reality—unless her column is meant as no more than a self-help guide for wealthy parents.

  2. “Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A.”–Thomas Friedman, on his key insight after a free trip to the Googleplex.

    Well, no. First, as far as I’m concerned, Google just flat-out lied to Friedman. Specifically, according to Bock himself, Google does require GPA and transcripts for recent college grads. In previous years, Google demanded them from all applicants, no matter how much work experience. Less specifically, Google implies that you should just be a good, creative, humble person and they’ll take a serious look at your resume with its BS in Cognitive Science from Chico State. Please don’t believe that. Quite the contrary: you could be a really good, smart, creative person with a recent degree from Chico State and Google will laugh at your hubris in thinking you could work with God’s Chosen Few. Daniel Willingham raises his eyebrows at Google’s “purported” (ooooh, delicate, that) practices and says “Everything Bock says is probably not true, and if it were true, it would not work well in organizations other than Google.” Indeed.

  3. “For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16.“–Ethan Gray, CEO of CEE, posting at Eduwonk.

    Well, no. That’s not context. You can’t have test score context without race.

    The Kansas City Public School district is 59% black, 26% Hispanic. The bulk of these students are also poor. The average black ACT score is 16.9, average Hispanic score is 18.8

    Considering that most blacks and most Hispanics aren’t poor, the simple truth is that Kansas City schools are probably neither better nor worse than any other urban, high poverty, black and Hispanic school district.

    But boy, it sounds sooooooo dramatic. Like, you know, the teachers are doing a bad job and if they’d just let the reformers come in, they’d have those high poverty kids at a 20 ACT score in no time.

  4. “While middle school and high school may have brought a few more male teachers into the mix, the truth is, the teaching profession was and really still is, dominated by women.”Amy Mayhew of the Tri-County Times.

    Well, no. As the article itself observes, ” male educators make up 2.3 percent of the overall pre-K and kindergarten teachers, while male elementary and middle school teachers constitute 18.3 percent of the teaching population. It evens out a little more at the high school level with men representing about 42 percent of the teachers overall.”

    Perspective: Law enforcement is roughly 20% female, federal and state combined, but the specifics vary both by agency and
    city. Meanwhile, 4% of firefighters are female, or at least were in 2008.

    So preschool and kindergarten teachers are predominantly female, just as firefighters are predominantly male. Elementary and middle school teachers are as male as cops are female, more so in many cases. And what, exactly, is the problem with the gender balance in high school? You all have got to stop treating it as one occupation.

    If you need to point and sputter at a female profession, try nursing.

  5. “As for the school board, what it should do is feel ashamed for once again putting students, families and educational achievement at the bottom of its priority list.”LA Times Editorial, on LAUSD’s refusal to renew two Aspire charters.

    Well, no. LAUSD rejected the charters because they refused to join the district’s special ed services group, or SELPA, opting instead to pay El Dorado County a small fee to basically funnel their state funds right back to them, with a much smaller haircut than LA takes. Which sounds reasonable, except California takes a $2 billion loss every year providing IDEA-mandated services that the feds don’t pay for (hi, unfunded mandate!), and much of that loss is passed on to local districts. Both San Diego and Los Angeles lose millions each year paying for mandated special education services, and they spread that cost among all the kids. But California gave charters in region the ability to pull out their kids, thus increasing the cost to all the other kids in the district who don’t go to charters. El Dorado, presumably, doesn’t take a bath on special education, so is able to do nothing except give charter funds a hair cut and send them right back. So not only do LA charters have fewer special education students, but they also aren’t required to pay for all the special ed students in the region, like all the other district schools are. (I suspect the charter schools that stay with the district do so because it’s more cost effective, and no, I don’t know why.) Special education is expensive and frustrating, and I understand why any school, any district, would get out from under its thumb. But it’s very, very weird that El Dorado gets to sit back and collect money from charters who just want to escape the costs that everyone else in their district shares. However, the shame here points directly at the LA Times. There’s all sorts of additional reporting to be done on this story, but they can’t be bothered to even really investigate how much money is funneled through El Dorado County, or why charter students are allowed to skate the burden of regional special education. Because the district kids are suffering under a bigger share of the costs, while the LA Times is bleating on behalf of the lucky lottery winners who, as the paper points out, won’t lose their schools despite all the sturm und drang.

  6. “In truth, the well-off kids went to far better “common” schools. The less well-off and minority students went to schools that didn’t give them an equal shot in life. “Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire, on the reformer’s dream “common schools”.

    Well, no. It’s not the schools and teachers that didn’t give students an equal shot, but rather the students’ cognitive ability, their parents’ income, and their peers. The only one of those that schools can mitigate, somewhat, is the peer group. That, not higher quality teachers or a better curriculum, remains the appeal of charter schools, private schools, and districts with well-protected zipcodes. Tracking and a better understanding of the impact of low incentive kids would give public schools much better weapons to fight the problems caused by mixed ability and mixed incentives. Alas, the feds keep threatening public schools if their discipline records aren’t racially balanced. Meanwhile, highly sought after charter schools often expel undesirable students, often free from scrutiny, although taken in total, charters and publics have roughly the same suspension and expulsion rates. And no one wants to talk about tracking. Peer environment remains the huge unmentionable.


In Teaching, Even Caitlin Flanagan Has Her Uses

In my Saturday enrichment class, I wrote the opening paragraph to Caitlin Flanagan’s The Dark Power of Fraternities on the board:

(1) One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: (2) he would shove a bottle rocket up his a** and blast it into the sweet night air. (3) And perhaps it was an excellent idea. (4) What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket.(5) What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

The class, the same students I’ve been teaching weekly since September, were finishing up a brief assignment as I wrote. You are wondering, perhaps, why I didn’t just print out the passage, but that question gives me more credit for planning than I am due.

These four boys: smart, engaged (even Francis, who still hugs the wall when I let him), fluid writers, ready readers. A joy. When I refuse to let them have “word banks”, they thrive on the challenge. When I turn over discussion to them, I get three boys eagerly arguing for their interpretation of events, individuals, authorial intent. (I have to noodge Francis). Dino is still the leader, the punky Korean kid with cowlick and attitude to spare, but Arthur and Bruce are more than willing to stand up for their own ideas. I would be happier if they remembered paper and pencil more often (here, Francis shines, always prepared, always lending out supplies, whereas I snark at the others routinely for their failure to live up to the stereotype), but in all other ways, a dream class.

Example: Our previous book was Hound of the Baskervilles. After we’d finished the book, I gave them a prompt in which I asserted my opinion, that the women of the book were opportunistic whiners, morally inferior in every way to the men, that they were weak ninnies who cared only for their own interests. They were to agree or disagree, using specific characters and their actions to support. Dino generally agreed with my position, citing Laura Lyons’ betrayal of Sir Charles, and Beryl Stapleton’s rage upon realizing her abusive husband had been cheating on her. Bruce and Arthur sympathized with the women, pointing out that they had very little control over their lives. Francis agreed with the “no choice” position, but used Mrs. Barrymore, who I honestly hadn’t even considered in writing the prompt, pointing out that she was entirely dependent on her husband to help her brother—all she did was cry about it.

So how to step it up? Last week, I dug up some of the vocabulary and grammar workbooks we keep around, and gave them each one.

“But these words are easy,” sniffed Dino.

“I haven’t seen any of them in your essays,” I noted.

“Oh,” said Arthur, always the one to see pedagogical intent. “We are working on writing?”

“Yes, I’ve been mulling the best way to challenge you, to keep this class a step beyond just an acceptably interesting way to spend Saturday afternoon. You are all effective readers who understand the importance of content knowledge. I trust you’re going to continue to build on that. So I decided you’re going to focus on writing quality. We’re going to study grammar and vocabulary in part to incorporate the deeper knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure, and in part to give you a means to focus in on the act of writing—not the ideas and content, but the expression itself.”

So it’s a week later, and I’d told them to write three sentences using any three vocabulary words, using the structure of Subordinate Clause, Independent Clause. I had originally planned to put them on the board, go through the “work/glue” routine (more on that in a minute), and then have them rewrite.

But just then, I thought of the Flanagan piece. Like I said, not much of a planner.

The kids had finished up while I was writing, and I could hear the rustle of shock as they figured out the gist.

“This paragraph opens an article by Caitlin Flanagan on fraternities, and for now, it’s not important if you don’t know what they are. In journalism, the opening paragraph is known as the lede; when your English teachers talk about the hook, they’re describing the same thing in an annoying way.”

“Why would she write about an idiot?” asked Dino, ever the challenger.

“How did someone so stupid get to college?” Bruce wanted to know.

“Both worthy questions, but not what I want you to focus on. Anything else you notice?”

Pause.

“She doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” offered Arthur. Francis, the Clarence Thomas of my class, still silent.

“You are all focusing on the content. I knew you would. That’s a big part of my point. Not one of you ever considered the quality of the writing. How many sentences do you see, if you count the colon break as a sentence?”

“Five.”

I marked them out (as you see now).

“What do you notice?”

Pause again, but this time they examined the sentences, not the content.

Arthur: “So, okay, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the first sentence is really, really long.”

Dino: “Yeah, and then the next one, what he’s going to do” (they giggle) “is short. And….specific. Like, you have to kind of figure out what the first sentence is about, but the second one is, like…..” he searches for a word. “blunt.”

Me: “Brutal, even.”

“The shortest sentence is the third one,” Bruce: “Which is weird, because it’s not an excellent idea.”

“Nice,” I said. “It’s almost like a bridge, a pause, to the second half of the paragraph. Go back to the first sentence, again. Dino has a good point—it’s a meandering sentence, in a way. What is it saying?”

“He’s stupid.”

“He’s young,” Francis stepped up.

“What does inebriant mean?” I asked.

Silence.

“So you ever heard of someone being inebriated?”

“Oh, is he drunk?” asked Arthur.

“Hey, ether is an alcohol, too!” from Bruce.

“So being young is like being drunk.”

“But he was drunk, too.”

“She never used the word drunk,” observed Dino. “My English teacher always tells us to be clear, not use big words just to use them.”

“Good point. Flanagan, the author, wrote this for the Atlantic, so was directing it to a highly educated audience. But you bring up an interesting point: when are writers using appropriate synonyms, bringing in the full richness of the English language, and when are they just ‘using big words’? “

“It’s weird, too, because she’s real direct after the colon,” Arthur observed.

“Hey, excellent point. After all that lyrical description of youth and alcohol, suddenly we get the brutality.”

Dino smacked the desk. “Contrast!”

“There you go.”

“Oh, I see” Bruce leaned forward. “She kind of leads you in, it’s a nice night, he’s drunk but kind of in a nice-sounding way, and he’s young, so he has an idea.”

“Francis?” we all waited. And waited. And waited.

“It’s like the short sentence in the middle stops it.”

“Interesting. What do you mean?” we all waited some more. Dino wanted desperately to talk; I waved him down.

“Like, not telling you what happened…”

“..yet. I totally agree.” Dino could wait no longer. “It’s like she’s giving time to process what this idiot did before going on to say what happened.”

“And then she tells us what happened, and both sentences are different from the first three.” Arthur pointed out.

“What do you notice?”

“It’s like…parallel? The 20-year-old hahahahaha, um, and then the 20-cent bottle rocket.” Bruce pushed back his glasses. “So she tells you why things went wrong (eww).”

“Nice. Notice at the end, the use of two general terms that convey exactly what happened: ‘successful blastoff’ and ‘failure to launch’.” They all laughed. “So first she explains why things went wrong, then she tells you what happened, generally, and your imagination fills in the details.”

“Eww.”

“Good discussion; you’ve talked about how her writing achieved her goals. What you haven’t mentioned one way or the other is the quality of the writing.”

“I don’t know what good writing is.” from Arthur.

“Look at the board.”

They looked again, and were quiet.

“I could give you some of the technical ways in which it’s great. Remember the many times we’ve discussed working words and glue words? Let’s go through it again.

(Note: C. Edward Good’s oops book transformed my writing a decade or so ago. Good gives full credit for work/glue concept to the originator Richard Wydick, but Wydick didn’t get specific the way that Good does. I teach a modified form of Good’s structure.)

myworkglue

“So how much glue do you see?”

Silence.

“Wow. Not much.”

“Remember, glue is not a matter of bad or good. Articles are essential, as are conjunctions and pronouns. She uses the simple word ‘it’ to great effect. And starts a sentence with ‘And’!, which some teachers say is wrong, but they’re wrong. She opens with ‘a young man named’, when ‘Travis Hughes’ would do nicely. It’s not all about following rigid rules.”

“She uses ‘to be’ as a main verb, too.”

“Right, another thing that shouldn’t be taken to excess but is used beautifully here. And let me tell you something: I am not a fan of Caitlin Flanagan’s ideas. If she’s against fraternities then I’m strongly tempted in favor of them. But if I ever wrote an essay that’s half as evocative, as rich, as this five-sentence paragraph, I’d count it as a good day. So now, look down at your three sentences.”

They all groaned. I laughed.

“No, I’m not trying to make you feel inadequate! That’s not the point. Here’s the question: how much work did you put into crafting them? How much time did you spend choosing words, thinking about active verbs, how much did you think about how much weight each word could pull?”

“None.”

“Right. You just wanted to get the assignment done. Well, this is what I mean by our new focus on writing. When I ask you to write sentences, using a particular style, I don’t want you to just get it done. I want you to think about the words, form a picture in your head of what you want your sentence to do, or the idea you want to communicate. It’s easier at first to work with images or actions, but over time, you want to spend the same time making your ideas as vivid. But the point here is the quality of your writing, not simply putting together a grammatically correct sentence. You all have the stuff to become strong writers.”

Writing is thinking, you always say.”

“That’s right. That’s stage one. That’s what everyone has to understand first. You’ve got that part down, all of you. Now it’s time to craft your thoughts, make them compelling, think about presenting those thoughts to their greatest advantage.”

I’ve been teaching English longer than I’ve been teaching math, really, although not in public school. Math, at its core, has a procedural, structural component rarely found in the study of either composition or literature, once you get past grammar. Writing or literary analysis doesn’t involve procedures, but an approach, a quality of thought.

I started into a full jeremiad against English high school instruction today, but decided against it. I don’t know enough about what goes on in the average classroom. Suffice it to say this: from what I see, we spend almost no time in high school English teaching students how to write well, or how to analyze literature to the extent of their ability. No, Common Core won’t fix this.

In math, improvement doesn’t count until the kid gets The Right Answer. Writing and literary analysis both have a big advantage in that respect: all improvement counts. I’ve taught ACT classes in which I’ve taken low ability kids from single incoherent paragraphs to five paragraph essays—still weak in language and grammar, but considerably improved from where they began and infinitely greater in self-expression. I’ve watched students with sixth grade reading skills suddenly realize that in two chapters of his memoir that cover Haiti, Rick Bragg barely mentioned that the oppressors and the oppressed were all black, and wonder why he avoided direct mention of this key fact, leading to great discussions of audience and ideology. None of the kids ended with significantly stronger reading skills or much more in the way of vocabulary—although they usually retain a much stronger understanding of grammar. However, they all improved in using the skills they had to think and express their ideas.

Best of all is when you get smart kids who understand what’s on offer. I can’t give them procedures. I can give paths, methods, considerations, advice. But not a flowchart on how. Sorry, Don Hirsch. It’s not all about content.

Of course, that’s what makes it so fun.


Math Instruction Philosophies: Instructivist and Constructivist

Harry Webb has been on a tear about discovery vs. traditional explanations. The hubbub has pulled the great god Grant Wiggins, originator of backward design, which is a bible of ed schools as a method for developing curriculum.

Now, let us pause, a brief segue, to reflect on those last two words. Developing curriculum. I’m talking about teachers, yes? Teachers, building their own unit lessons, their own tests, their own worksheets. As I’ve written, teachers develop their own curriculum and, to varying degrees, have intellectual property rights (I would argue) to their material. So when reformers, unions, politicians, or whoever stress the importance of curriculum, textbooks, and professional development in implementing Common Core, there’s a whole bunch of teachers nationwide snorfling at them.

So Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, which describes their framework and approach to curriculum. It is, as I said, a bible of ed schools. I have a copy. It’s good, although you have to look past their irritating examples to figure that out.

(Note: See Grant Wiggins’ response below. I’ve reworded this slightly and separated it to respond to his concerns. Also throughout, I changed “direct instruction” to some other term, usually instructivism.)

The book clearly states that there’s no one correct approach for every situation, that arguing between instructivism and constructivism creates a false dichotomy. So I was jokingly sarcastic before, but my point is real: it’s hard to read Grant Wiggins and not think that, so far as K-12 curriculum goes, he leans heavily towards constructivist. As one example, in a text section that discusses the fact that there’s no one right approach, he includes this table on the activities dominant in each approach. When I look at this table, I see a clear preference for constructivist approaches. I also see it in this highly influential essay and much of his writing. But as Wiggins states in the comments, and in the book, he clearly denies this preference. However, Wiggins’ book is the bible of ed schools for a reason, and it’s not for its categoric embrace of all things instructivist. So put it this way: what he says are his preferences and what any instructivist would take away from his preferences are probably not the same thing. I say this as someone who periodically rereads his work because of the value I find in it once I shift my focus away from the trappings and focus in on the substance. I encourage anyone who agrees with my impression of Wiggins’ preference to read him closely, because he’s done a lot over time to inform my approach to curriculum development.

(end major edits–I put the original text at the bottom)

So Wiggins reads all this hooha, and comes out with this outstanding description of lectures and why they are a problem. I agreed with every word of this post (there are two others), so much so that I tweeted on it. (Note: I agree for math. History’s a different issue.) As I did so, I was vaguely disturbed, because look, while I don’t write a lot about ed school per se (and even defend it, slightly), I spent a lot of time in class naysaying. And if they’d been saying reasonable things like this about lectures, what had I been disagreeing about?

And then Harry comes through brilliantly, answering my question and pointing out a huge hole in Wiggins’ 3-part series:

Wiggins writes of a survey of teachers in order to support his view that different pedagogies are required to achieve different aims. Unsurprisingly, the teachers give the right answers; the ones that they probably learnt at Ed School. However, the survey response that is taken to represent lecturing is called, “DIRECT TEACHING Instruction on the knowledge and skills.” Now, although I do not recognise my practice in Wiggins’ definition of lecturing, I do recognise myself in this definition wholeheartedly. And so I think we are being invited here to see all direct teaching – dare I say direct instruction – as non-interactive lecturing that lasts for most of a period.

Hey. Yeah. That’s right! Wiggins naysays the lecture in his essay, but the overall debate is between instructivism, of which lectures are just a part, and it’s , and it’s instructivism that has a bad name in ed school, not solely lectures. Harry says that he explains in classroom discussion, but rarely lectures. Which may sound like someone else.

Harry scoots right by this, because he’s all obsessed about the fuzzy math and constructivist debate, and it occurred to me that this area needs elucidation, because most people—and reporters, I am looking at you—don’t understand this difference.

So here it is: not all explanation is lecture, and not all discovery is constructivist.

In an effort to not turn all my posts into massive tomes (don’t laugh), I’m going to write about this difference later. Here, I’m just going to show you the difference through different teachers.

Before I start: labels are hard. Roughly, the terms reform, student-centered, constructivist, “facilitative” (Grant Wiggins’ term) all refer to the open-ended investigative approach. Instructivist, teacher-centered, traditionalist, direct instruction are all terms used to describe the approach where the teacher either tells you how to do it or wants you to figure out the way (not a way) to do it. (Note: I left “direct instruction” in here, because I believe it’s still an instructivist approach.)

Very few math teachers are pure constructivist. We’re talking degrees. I have no data on usage rates, but I’d be pretty surprised if 80% of all high school math teachers didn’t use traditional instruction-based approach for 90% of their lessons. I speak to a lot of colleagues who dislike pure lecture and would like to teach a more modified instructivist mode, but they aren’t sure how it works. However, most high school math teachers are instructivists who lecture. Full stop.

Constructivist Approach (aka investigation, reform)

Dan Meyer: Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Meatballs
Fawn Nguyen: Barbie Bungee
Fawn Nguyen Vroom Vroom
Michael Pershan: Triangles and Angles (he calls this investigation. I’d personally characterize it as “in between”, but it’s his call.)
Cathy Humphries: Investigation into Quadrilaterals

This is a partial list. Dan’s blog has links to all his various projects, as well as other bloggers committed to the investigative approach.

(By the way, I am dying to do the Vroom Vroom one, but I’m not enough of a mathematician to understand the math behind it. Neither does Fawn, apparently. The math looks quadratic. Is it?)

I’m not a fan of the open-ended reform approach, but I like all sorts of the activities the constructivists come up with. I just modify them to be more instructivist.

Remember that both Meyer and Nguyen use worksheets, practice skills, and many other elements that are pure instructivist. Pershan rarely does open-ended activities. In contrast, Cathy Humphries is very close to pure constructivist math. Total commitment to reform.

Traditional Instructivism (Lectures)

Much MUCH harder to find traditionalists bloggers. I’ve included two of my “lectures” that have relatively little discussion, just to fill out the list:

Me: Geometry: Starting Off
Me: Binomial Multiplication and Factoring with the Rectangle

Dave at MathEquality is traditionalist, a guy who works hard to explain math conceptually, but does so for the most part in lecture form. However, it’s also clear he keeps the lectures fairly short and gives his students lots of in class time for work.

But he’s the only one I can find. Right on the Left Coast appears to be a traditionalist, but he writes more about policy and his disagreement with traditional union views. (Huh, I should have mentioned him in my teacher blogger writeup of a while back.)

In order to give the uninitiated a good idea of what lecture looks like, three google searches are informative:

factoring trinomials power point

holt math power point

McDougall Litell math power point

Many high school teachers build their own power point explanations. Others just take the ones provided by publishers.

Still others use a document camera or, if they’re extremely old-school, transparencies.

What they look like is mostly this:

Khan Academy: Isosceles Right Triangles

Many teachers are really, really irritated at the fuss over Khan Academy because all he does is lecture his explanations—and not very well at that.

The most vigorous voices for traditional direct instruction comes from people who don’t teach high school math. That’s not a dig, it’s just a fact.

Modified instructivist

I’m not sure what to call it. There’s not just one way to depart from instructivist or constructivist. The examples here generally fall into two categories: highly structured instructivist discovery, and classroom discussions with lots of student involvement.

Me:Modeling Linear Equations
Me: Modeling Exponential Growth/Decay
Michael Pershan: Proof with Little Kids
Michael Pershan: Introducing Polar Coordinates
Michael Pershan: The 10K Chart
Ben Orlin: …999…. and the Debate that Repeats Forever.
Ben Orlin: Permutations and combinations

For a complete list of my work, check out the encyclopedia page on teaching. I likewise recommend Pershan and Orlin’s blogs.

A question for Grant Wiggins, and anyone else interested: what differences do you see in these approaches?

A question for reporters: when you write about reform or traditional math, do you have a clear idea of what the fuss is about? And did these examples help?

Question for Harry Webb: You sucked me into this, dammit. Satisfied?

If you have good examples of math instruction that falls into one of these categories, or want to propose it, tweet or add it to the comments. I’m going to write up my own characterizations of this later. Hopefully not much later.

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Here’s what I originally said in the changed paragraph:

So Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, which describes their framework and approach to curriculum. It is, as I said, a bible of ed schools. I have a copy. It’s good, although you have to look past their irritating examples to figure that out. The book clearly states that there’s no one right answer, that arguing between direction instruction or constructivism creates a false dichotomy, but then there’s this table on the activities dominant in each approach. Cough. Okay, no one right answer, but a strong preference for facilitative/constructivist.


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