Category Archives: philosophy

Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me

Should we teach kids how to memorize?, asks Greg Cochran. It’s a worthwhile question, and I have some thoughts, but got halfway through that post and hit some snags.

The comments, though, got me thinking about memory in general.

Back in high school, I used to write out all the acting Oscar nominees in order, lefthanded, to keep me at least somewhat focused in math class. During college, I’d write out the Roman emperors, English rules from William I to Elizabeth II, or the US Presidents, again, left-handed, to keep myself focused during college. I outgrew this habit at some point, probably when people asked me what I was writing; by my 40s, in grad school, I know I just doodled. I rarely set out to memorize things, and get no pleasure from the knowledge. What I do enjoy is the memories that come back with the data. So 1934 was It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, which got me thinking of Roscoe Lee Karns and Cliff Edwards and all the other reporters in His Girl Friday. Then the throwaway movies until Gone with the Wind, all hail Olivia (who outlived her feuding sister), and thinking about what a great decade the 40s was, oops, losing track of the lecture, get back to writing names. Recalling information keeps me focused, but the information itself doesn’t give me much enjoyment.

So if I know all the actors who’ve won best supporting Oscar and then best acting Oscar, and I didn’t set out to learn it, have I memorized that information? Huh. I realized I didn’t know, so I went and Wiki’ed up on memory. This was a helpful read, although I’m sure I have some of it wrong. Take my descriptions at your own risk.

If I understand all this, my echoic memory is much better than my iconic; both being short-term memory associated with a sense (hearing and sight). My students get a kick out of the fact that I look at geometry figures probably five times while drawing them. I can forget which way a right triangle faces in the time it takes me to turn 180 degrees from the book to the board.

In practice, this means my short-term auditory memory would be termed eidetic if it were vision-based, while I suck at that game where they give you 30 seconds to look at a tray of items. I’ve known this for a while, that hearing is extremely important to my short-term memory. I can easily maintain five or six conversations at once (very useful in teaching). However, five days later, my recall isn’t better and often worse than anyone else.

Fun example of this: a few months ago, Steven Pinker tweeted a language and memory study. I started to take it and then ran into a hitch.

The problem was, for me, that the practice wasn’t anything like the test. In the practice, up comes four groups of two letters situated around a cross. Then the screen blanks out, and occasionally you’ll see an arrow pointing to the position to remember. Some time later, a letter pair appears in the space and you indicate if it’s the same pair or a different one.

So I went through 20 or so practices, and did great, getting them all right. Then comes the actual test format, and I fall out of my chair, howling with laughter:

gamechinese

No more letters.

Until today, I didn’t even have the words to describe this. But in the practice, I literally vocalized the four pairs, saying “yn, qg, ds, hm”. The arrow would come up, and I’d say “okay, that’s qg”. Up comes “qg”, it’s the same. The whole test, I did with my short-term auditory memory, the echoic.

I guess if I were Chinese, I could do the real test that way. But the minute it came up, I realized I couldn’t rely on my auditory memory, and that’s game over. I’ve come back to the test since he closed it for research (didn’t want to screw up his results), and practiced two forms of memory. In the first, I say them aloud: “x on top, 7 on left, double T on right” and that helps, but I can’t say it fast enough and the image blanks out. Then I try it using my iconic memory (as I now know it), and if I focus really hard, I can usually see three of them before it blanks out. But it’s really hard.

I wondered if maybe the researcher planned it, but wouldn’t the practice be part of the actual test? I guess for most people it’s not a huge change.

Anyway, it’s a great example of how I use auditory memory instead of iconic. Auditory and visual long-term memory, if there is a such a thing, reverses in strengths for me. I can only vaguely recall the names of my high school history teachers, but their faces are quite clear in my mind. I likewise remember student faces much better than names, which is weird given that my short-term visual memory (iconic) is dreadful, but I guess they aren’t linked. For names, I need not only appearance but position—I can be completely discombobulated if a student changes seats. Periodically, I will randomly screw up names. I went a month calling an Anthony Andrew, despite having taught him two years in a row. So it appears that long-term, I rely more on visual than auditory, whereas short-term it’s reverse. When I think of the word “capybara”, I visualize the page of Swiss Family Robinson, kids’ edition, where I saw it at seven, the picture and the words on the page. The memories of books I recall in this essay are all strongly visual.

Long-term memory breaks down into into explicit/declarative memory and implicit memory (also known as procedural memory). Explicit memory is composed of episodic (autobiographical) and semantic (factual and general knowledge).

So my semantic memory is outstanding. My episodic memory, not anything special, particularly if it’s not autobiographical (there is some difference there).

Reading all this made something very clear that’s bothered me for thirty years or more: I have a terrible time with implicit memory if it involves moving parts not under my direct control. Specifically: driving, horseback riding, skiing, tying shoelaces. I didn’t drive until I was 22, because the act of learning was just so unnerving. Ran away like a ninny from skiing, never bothered with horseback riding. My younger brother finally shamed me into learning to tie my shoes, although which brother, and our relative ages, changes as the years go by, the better to embarrass me. If everything’s under my control, no problem: cooking, typing.

This gave me an interesting new way to think about how I learn. I’ve thought of my memory as a database since I first knew what a database was. Every so often the database goes wonky. Sometimes it’s a random switch of names. Sometimes I just can’t get the name. Once, on a contract, I remember complaining about the fact that I couldn’t remember the name of the Vietnamese PC guy, the one with the really heavy accent. “Which one?” asked my boss. “There are two?” “Sure. Pham and Tran.” “Crap. I had a duplicate data key.”

And every so often I just file away a false fact. For a good decade or so, my memory said that Richard Nixon had been governor of California. It’s not that I thought he was. I knew he wasn’t. But my memory thought he was, so if I were writing out the presidents who had been governors, Dick Nixon would be on the list. Took me years to find and fix that key.

In most cases, I effortlessly add information to my semantic database, creating links and keys between “data” fields and update references—that is “learning”, without really thinking of it as such. Until I was 25 or so, I had no idea how to learn if the process couldn’t be added to the database. As described in the “learning math” essay, I was completely helpless in those cases. When I was younger, I was often told I was exceptionally bright, and while I didn’t disagree, there was always this nagging concern—if I’m so bright, why are some things utterly incomprehensible to me?

Thanks to my first real job out of college, I finally figured out that, when the learning process wasn’t invisible, I had to learn through an insane series of trial and error tasks in which I traverse the landscape like Wile Coyote waiting for something to blow up in my face—this is how I learned programming and most of the math that I know.

So, put into my new terminology (probably inaccurately), if the new information has no link to my current knowledge, if I have no way to store and access it, I have to go out and acquire a metric ton of episodic memories to create a database table for my semantic memory, to build the connections and cross references. I have always known that this is somewhat unusual; I’ve watched many folks listen to lectures and get right up to speed while I’ve been sitting around unable to focus. I’ve tentatively concluded that my data fields have far more attributes—more metadata, if you will (but not metamemory, which is different), which makes the initialization more labor-intensive, but more useful in the long run.

Obviously, storage and recall is a whole field of memory study, and in some way everyone struggles with the process I describe. But for me, it was a very clear gap between the information I could or couldn’t learn, and I had no way of bridging that gap for the first 25 years of my life. For a long time, whole areas of learning weren’t under my conscious control and I had no way of anticipating what they might be. The trial and error, Wile Coyote process was a huge breakthrough that changed my life and expanded my career paths.

So when people talk about memory palaces, like in The Mentalist or Sherlock, I’ve got no frame of reference. My memory is not spatial, but associative. It’s a database that I retrieve, not a room where I put things. Do not tell me that it’s just a simple technique that anyone can learn. I couldn’t. Full stop.

End the investigation into Ed’s memory.

I imagine that during ed school, I read something about semantic memory. Lord knows Piaget must mention it somewhere. I probably dozed through a Willingham post on it, or read it in a book. But you know me, it doesn’t get put into semantic memory until I have a data table and some crosstabs.

I am not trying to become an expert on memory, nor am I unaware of the fact that there’s probably all sorts of reading I could do simply to discuss it more intelligently.

But all this leads me to a few observations/questions.

First, it seems that the myth of ‘they’ve never been taught’, the problem of kids forgetting what they learned, could be framed as the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory. That is, the kids I’m describing remember the topic as an episode in their lives, not as reference information, and since it wasn’t a very interesting episode they lose it quickly.

Next, I’ve remarked before, and will do again, that many smart kids (in my work, almost entirely recent Asian immigrants) can regurgitate facts and learn procedures to a high degree of accuracy but retain none of them and even while knowing them have no idea what to do with them outside a very limited task set. Whenever you see kids screaming “we have to have the test today” they are kids who know they will lose the information. So these kids may be relying entirely on episodic memory? If this is true, our reliance on test scores as a knowledge indicator becomes, er, unnerving, particularly since this behavior seems so strongly linked to one demographic here in the US. And I speak as someone who likes test scores.

Then the opposite case: in math, at least, I’ve noticed that fact fluency is not required for understanding of higher math, and that it’s not at all unusual to see kids who are fact fluent but can’t grasp any abstraction. It may be that these kids are filing math facts into implicit memory, as tasks. Or maybe that’s always the case in math.

It goes without saying that memory is linked to cognitive ability, right? Oops, I said it anyway.

I’ve also noticed that teaching, like police work, is a profession with limited need for semantic memory (the content fact base, rules of the job) and a tremendous need for episodic memory (what worked last time). This may be why teaching isn’t given much respect as a profession, and also why smarts, past a certain level, doesn’t appear to play much of a role in teaching outcomes.

And so, Greg Cochran asks whether we should teach kids to memorize.

Realize too that the memorization battles are just another front in the skills vs. knowledge debate. The skills side, touted primarily by progressives and, separately, many teachers themselves, emphasize the need for students to know how to do things—think critically, problem solve, analyze information. The knowledge side, headed by the great E. D. Hirsch, complain about the skills stranglehold and want to emphasize the need for students to know things—facts organized into a logical curriculum. Those pushing for memorization are squarely on the knowledge side of things, and often mock teachers for being too stupid to understand the importance of knowledge.

I have not entered this debate because until now I haven’t had a framework for my answer of “it depends”. Do we want to reward bright kids for memorizing content knowledge without a clue about what it means and little ability to use it, as is de rigueur in many Asian immigrant populations? I submit that we don’t. Do we want our kids of middle ability or higher to memorize math facts and general content knowledge, the better to improve their reading comprehension and understanding of advanced math? I submit that we do. And how much memorization, exactly, can we expect and demand from our low ability kids? I submit that the answer is “We don’t know, and are scared to find out”.

In other words, memorization requirements, like everything in education, is ultimately set by student cognitive ability, which we aren’t allowed to discuss in any meaningful way. But teachers like me, who are required to deal with a 3-4 year range in ability levels, with a canyon-sized gap in content knowledge from high to low, have to make decisions about skills vs knowledge debate every day. Those on the outside should realize that teachers have many good reasons for pushing back on the memorization point, given the students they teach and the expectations forced on them by those who don’t know any better.

Yeah, I said six essays a month? Feel free to laugh at me. But I have a part 2 on this one, and I’ll try to finish it soon.


My #FF list, or Ed Folks I Read

If you want to know why Mike Petrilli irritates me, look no further than his recent post on top education Twitter feeds. Does Petrilli not know the difference between propagandists advocates, analysts, and hobbyists? What the hell is the point of putting Arne Duncan at the top of the list?

New annoying buzzword: curate. Petrilli should have curated. He’s a major education policy propagandist advocate; what would be interesting is his own personal list of education policy writers and specialists. Not completely out of the question is the possibility that Petrilli picks his twitter feed based on Klout score, so he was giving us his reading list.

I thought I’d show Petrilli what he should have done—assuming he was trying to advise people who actually are looking for education policy writers, as opposed to providing a self-congratulatory fist bump list for the Twitter Titans. And, since many of my readers aren’t solely or even primarily interested in education, I’m writing for a novice audience.

I don’t have a reader. My blogroll is randomly selected to demonstrate range, not totality. I periodically peruse my twitter followers—that is, the ones that I don’t follow—to see what they are up to. If I don’t follow you, it doesn’t mean I don’t read you at all. I go to blogs just as it occurs to me, and I find Twitter, which I’ve used for only a year, to be very helpful in keeping up with education topics. The people on this list have either a blog or a Twitter account, usually both. The names are in no strict order.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher, has his own blog and used to write (still writes? Not sure) at This Week in Education. Bruno is the only blogger/writer who I identify with, whether we agree or not. We need more teachers writing on ed policy from an analytical perspective, rather than advocating for one side or another.

Joanne Jacobs–the best reporter’s education blog out there. Joanne rarely links to one article; she anticipates the objections and finds an effective advocate for the opposition. Everyone should read her.

Stephen Sawchuk, at Teacher Beat, is often stuck writing about topics that should be insanely boring—union conferences, pension reform, teacher preparation standards—and he does a great job making them interesting and understandable. Joanne goes wide, Sawchuk goes deep. He wins extra points for being the only person, other than, say, me, who raises red flags about minority teachers in the current push to “raise teacher quality”. I read him frequently; his stuff often leads me to interesting questions.

While you’re on the site, most of the Ed Week blogs are worth evaluating. While some of them are just advocacy sites, I find Catherine Gewertz’s Curriculum Matters useful, and many of the teacher blogs are worth checking out occasionally.

Tom Loveless–He doesn’t have a blog that I know of (AEI blogposts) and I was only able to include him here because he’s on twitter. But he’s badass. Let me put it this way, and he’s the only one on this list I say this about: if I ever disagreed with him, I’d worry I was wrong. For about 90 seconds. But still.

Larry Cuban‘s blog is excellent and wide-ranging; he never offers easy answers but always interesting questions.

John Fensterwald at Ed Source is a good reporter, particularly for California education news. He’s invaluable on Twitter.

Another valuable twitter resource is USA Today’s Greg Toppo, whose education reporting is also good stuff. No blog. Start one, why don’tcha.

Alexander Russo‘s blog, This Week in Education, is very good, but he, too, plays a major role in my information queue on Twitter, where he’s always got interesting stuff I hadn’t otherwise found.

Andrew Old (pseudonym, I think), who blogs at Teaching Battleground, is a traditionalist advocate, but I follow him because he’s a great source of info on education policy in England (UK? Britain? Great Britain?) and through him I get a lot of insight into what’s going on. I don’t know who that person is in Australia or if there are Scandinavian teachers tweeting in English, but if there are, I would like to know about them. Through Andrew Old, I’ve found bloggers like Harry Webb who I enjoy reading as well.

Mathew DiCarlo is the only guy I read at Shanker Blog. I find his analyses very useful. His resulting policy conclusions, on the rare occasions he mentions them, are often puzzling, since they seem contradicted by his analysis.

The Cato libertarians Jason Bedrick and Neil McCluskey (not much of a fan of the big boss, Andrew Coulson) are both excellent reads. I agree with almost every word of their analyses and then politely skip over their prescriptions. Both have been particularly outstanding on Common Core issues.

As I understand it, Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess don’t work for the same organization, but for some reason they show up on a lot of videos together. For that reason, I suppose, I think of Hess as Wally to Petrilli’s Beave (god, I’m old). I’ve also referred to Petrilli as a “gormless Richie Cunningham” and following his writing for any length of time invariably calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up (“Squirrel!”). And yet, he’s one of the few people on the reform side I consistently read. Go figure.

On his excellent blog, Hess spends so much time criticizing the reform movement that the newcomer might not realize he wants that team to win. He’s mostly wrong about reform, but his criticism of the movement goals is excellent. I thought his article Our Achievement Gap Mania was outstanding, but I haven’t really enjoyed any of his books I’ve read thus far. Where Petrilli looks up Klout scores, Hess comes up with an interesting, original metric to rank education scholars. A number of the AEI staffers (I guess they’re called) are worth reading, too, particularly Michael McShane.

Daniel T. Willingham rarely mentions cognitive ability (geez, I can’t think why) which allows him to post more happy talk than perhaps he should. I read him anyway.

Deborah Meier is another progressive I find to be largely on the money and, like Cuban and unlike most other education advocates, she spent a long time teaching.

Robert Pondiscio used to be the reason I read Core Knowledge’s blog. He’s doing something else with civics now, but he’s still very useful on Twitter.

Pedro Noguera is on twitter, although I don’t follow him, but that qualifies him for my list despite his lack of a blog. I rarely agree with him, but like Meier and Cuban, I find him thoughtfully progressive.

Teacher bloggers—not the same as teachers who happen to write blogs—are mostly a group that doesn’t interest me. I do like Michael Pershan, who’s enthusiastic without the slightest degree of tedium. All math teachers should check out his blogs and if he ever starts writing more about policy, he’d be very good at it. Reformers should like him–he doesn’t have a credential, I think.

If you’re a teacher who wants to become a teacher blogger, Larry Ferlazzo is the go-to guy to find out who’s blogging and what you might like–again, good blog, balanced approach, not my kind of thing.

The Math Twitterverse Blogosphere, or whatever it is called, is very angry at me for my meeeeeeeean Dan Meyer post and then for what they see as my racist writing, but in fact, I’ve checked into Meyer’s blog on and off for three years or so. I thought I posted fairly about his good points, but his comments section is really where the action is. If you’re a math teacher who hasn’t really engaged online, start with his blog and blogroll and you’ll find plenty of food for thought.

Dave, blogging at Math Equality, manages to make teaching seem miserable and joyless, but he’s exceptionally good at documenting just how brutally hard it is to teach unprepared kids at both ends of the spectrum–he teaches both calculus and algebra to kids who aren’t even close to ready for the subject. If you think I’m just making things up, go read Math Equality.

And of course, Eeyore, Gregory Taylor, who should start some sort of comic book with his math serializations.

Teacher advocates also aren’t a group I find appealing, but the best of these are all progressive: Anthony Cody, John Thompson, Gary Rubinstein are all effective, but predictable. Of these three, I think Rubiu8nstein is the only one currently teaching. They all write solid blogs and all have experience working with tough kids: Cody in Oakland, Thompson in Oklahoma, Rubinstein for TFA in Houston (although the last has been teaching smart kids in a selective school for the past decade or so, he approaches his work using his formative experience with tough kids). I read all of them occasionally, but not regularly; they just aren’t what I look for. If there are any genuinely interesting working teacher reform advocates, I’m unaware of them.

People you should probably investigate if you’re looking for education policy reporters/writers/think tankers, even though they aren’t part of my regular reading list: Andrew Rotherham (I’m really not a fan of any of the folks at Bellwether, but everyone else is), Lisa Fleisher, Stuart Buck, Andy Smarick, both Porter Magees, Lisa Hansel, Dana Goldstein, Jay P. Greene, California Teachers Empowerment Network, Rishawn Biddle, Valerie Strauss, Jay Mathews, National Association of Scholars, John Merrow. And of course, branch out from there.

People I actively advise against:

  • Diane Ravitch, not because she’s terrible, but because you’ll drown. And hell, you’ll hear if she wrote anything interesting through the other people you follow, so let them wade through the onslaught. Read her books instead; her early histories are outstanding. While I agree with most of her critics, reporters and reformers both show a tremendous distaste for her that is, I think, based on her cult-like following of teachers. After all, teachers are morons, so anyone they think is awesome can’t be all that.

    Something that’s a bit off topic but I’ve been meaning to write for a while: Ravitch is attacked for what critics see as unhinged assaults; in this particular example she is attacked for being mean. Note to ed policy wonks, and the reporters who cover them: Folks, the bulk of you are mean to teachers Every. Single. Day. When you talk about kids being trapped in failing schools, when you talk about the need for more talented teaching candidates, see neighborhood schools as death traps, when you argue that teachers unions (but not teachers, no!) care only about adults, and when you push Common Core training because teachers don’t know the subject matter—you are insulting teachers. To the bone. Go right ahead, I’m not saying you should stop. But don’t think you’re somehow superior because you don’t call teachers out by name. You’re saying we’re not terribly bright, that we don’t care about kids, that we are failing at our jobs (unless we teach at charters). You insult all of us in ways well beyond the pale as a matter of course. And you look like jackasses when you whine that one of yours is being insulted just because his name is used.

  • Michelle Rhee or Students First. Hack. For all Ravitch’s many faults, she has at least had original ideas and a coherent vision—which is why her conversion mattered. Michelle Rhee owes her entire existence to felicitous connections; the woman has never had an original thought or accomplishment in her life, and she’s a thug. I really wonder why her marriage to an accused sexual harasser and her role in the cover-up isn’t getting more attention.
  • Any union website, twitter, or representative. I’m not saying they’re wrong, they’re just not very interesting. If Randi Weingarten has had an original thought, she’s kept it well-hidden.
  • National Council on Teacher Quality–I’m not a huge fan of Jay Greene, but his takedown of NCTQ’s ed school ratings was perfect. These guys aren’t just boring and predictable, they’re flat out wrong. They don’t know what they are talking about. They lower the IQ of a website just by showing up.

So there you go. A lot of people I read and enjoy (Charles Murray, Razib Khan, Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Drum, Robert Verbruggen, Steve Sailer, Megan McArdle, Dave Barry) only occasionally or never touch on education. And HBDers looking for ed recommendations, um, there’s a reason I’m the only education writer on the network.


Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers

I have at least one more post on reform math, but I got distracted while looking for examples of Dan Meyer’s teaching (as an example of his math in action) then realizing that many of my regular readers wouldn’t know Dan Meyer, and so started to construct a brief bio. In doing so, I got distracted again in considering Meyer’s quick-yeast rise and what it says about the gatekeepers in the education racket and access to microphones.

This may seem like insider baseball, but I hope to illustrate that Dan Meyer is an unobjectionable guy with a good idea, whose unhesitating adoption by the elites represents a real problem with educational discourse in this country. I will probably overstate and paint a picture that suggests plan and intent by those causing the trouble, when in fact it’s fuzzy and reactive with only big picture general directions, but probably not to the extent that Diane Ravitch (or, indeed, Dan Meyer) commit that particular sin.

Dan Meyer, 31, is in the process of becoming a celebrity math teacher (hey, it’s a small group). Much of his rapid trajectory upward can be explained by his message, which involves a digital curriculum that will (he says) instantly engage and perplex kids and thus resolve all classroom management issues (more on this later), a message tailor-made to appeal to both techies, since it implicitly attacks all teachers, and progressive educators, since it is inherently constructivist.

Most of the rest of his said trajectory can be explained by his excellent luck in his early audience—not only were they progressives and techies, but they were influential progressives and techies–Chris Lehmann, O’Reilly Publishing folk like Kathy Sierra, Nat Torkington and Tim O’Reilly himself, Brian Fitzpatrik of Google, and Maggie Johnson of Google and Stanford.

A teeny-tiny bit–ok, maybe more–of that trajectory can be explained by the Great White Hope factor. As I’ve written many times, every corner of education is desperate for young teachers, particularly young male teachers, most especially young white male teachers. Smart young white male pushes technology-based teaching, implicitly or explicitly declaring that all those old teachers (mostly white female grandmas) are doing it wrong. Hard to resist. So attractive message, demographic felicity, and luck. Not bad.

I’m going to summarize what I see as the relevant points of Meyer’s career thus far, but go straight to the source: Meyer describes his teaching career in this excellent video, which I recommend watching to instantly “get” his appeal. Go watch. I’ll wait.

He taught his first year at a Title I school in Sacramento, CA and, as he says above, was both miserable and ineffective, which he blames on his failure to create a “classroom ethos”. The improvement in classroom ethos began during his second year at San Lorenzo Valley High. It apparently never occurred to him to wonder whether the “classroom ethos” improvement at his second school, was helped along by a student demographic that was 87% white. Meyer actually noted the novelty of a non-English speaking Hispanic student which is the only time he ever mentions a minority student on his blog, best I can see.

While he made numerous videos that ended with the tagline, “I like to teach”, he in fact wasn’t all that attached to teaching. At the beginning of his third year, he was already predicting he’d be in school for either an administrative credential or doctorate by the end of the next year (he was off by two), because “I’m just keenly aware how much of my strength as a teacher derives from my ability to relate to student culture, to talk like they talk and dress like they dress” and his awareness that he feels “obliged to entertain”. He often implied that he’d mastered the technical aspects My personal favorite::

I am at a place, for example, where classroom management no longer challenges me. Not that every day is all smiles and hard work, just that I have identified the mix of engaging instruction, mutual respect, and tough love that eluded me for years.

Four ENTIRE years, this eluded him! This meme runs throughout his blog and is, in fact, the seed of his image-based curriculum. Meyer states time and again that he worked hours on end to keep from boring his students, thinks student approval as essential to improved learning outcomes and thus presents his curriculum as a better way to entertain kids, to perplex them in a way they will value, and once entertained and perplexed, they will learn.

Then, at the end of five years, he declared he was quitting teaching because he’d been transformed from “miserable to happy, incompetent to competent” (astonishing, really, how few of the commenters openly laughed at his hubris). He originally planned to attend UC Santa Cruz’s PhD program but his aforementioned contacts got him a year as curriculum fellow at Google, and he taught part-time for one more year. While at Google, he made his first TV appearance on Good Morning America (probably via Google) to discuss his theory as to whether regular or express grocery lanes were faster.

At some point after that, he pulled a TEDx invitation—very nice work if you can get it—which got him onto CNN and good lord, how could Stanford let him get his doctorate at Santa Cruz, after all that publicity? So now he’s at Stanford in year 3 of his doctoral program.

A star was born.

Like most teachers, Meyer’s a good talker; unlike many teachers, he’s good with any audience. He’s a bright guy and his videos are genuinely entertaining (go to the end to catch his early work), and I say that as someone who disagrees with very close to all of his primary assertions. As a young white male teacher he could demand nearly anything, and he nonetheless stayed in algebra and geometry, rather than push for advanced classes that his principal, eager to keep him, would easily grant. I suspect that some of his willingness to stay in low status classes was caused by his short-timer’s attitude, while another part of it was caused by his 70-hour work week. Anyone working that hard and long on classes he’s been teaching for years is unlikely to embrace new subjects. But those stated priorities nonetheless reveal a guy who is well beyond committed and flat out obsessed with doing a good job.

He’s hard to pin down ideologically not because he’s an original thinker but because he was, and is, profoundly uninterested in education policy. So no coherent philosophy, but Me Like, Me No Like. He would disavow the charge that he is on the “reform” side of the math wars, although less vehemently than a few years ago—Jo Boaler, High Priestess of Reform Math, is his adviser, after all. But even now, a few years after starting a Stanford PhD program, he’s very foggy about the specifics of major debates in math education. So he’s been trying to consolidate his positions, but he’s not always sure what the right ones are. In his earlier iterations, for example, before he became well-known, he often adopted strong education (not math) reform positions—he had an “educrush” on Michelle Rhee. In the early years of the blog, he dripped contempt on most teachers, particularly older ones, including coworkers. Early on he harped often on the need for professionalism, and asserting we’d be better off without teachers that do it just for love. But once Stanford put him on the doctoral payroll, he’s become more typically math reform, which means he’s disavowing education reform positions and doing his best to walk all that talk back. Well, not all of it–here he is on a forum last year talking about the need to train teachers on Common Core:

I think if you’ve taught for thirty years under a particular style of teaching, it has to distort what your perception is of math and how it should be taught. It’s unavoidable, to be steeped in that for so long. So to realign yourself, I imagine, is a very difficult thing. So PD that involves problem solving, involves reasoning, argumentation, that’ll be essential going forward.

So the nastiness to older teachers, still there. I don’t blame anyone who wonders if promoters consider that a bug or a feature.

Meyer’s writings never describe his “classroom action” in detail relative to other math bloggers (e.g., Fawn Nguyen, Sam Shah, Michael Pershan, Kate Nowak and, okay, me). He rarely describes the success or failure of a particular lesson, or gives any kind of walkthrough. He never describes a lesson in full detail, down to the worksheets and responses. He often went to the data collection well, and just as often failed, as in his two-month long “Feltron” project in which half the class dropped out early during data collection and had to be given other tasks, or this similar project

Meyer and metrics aren’t a natural fit. A few years ago, he was, comically, shocked by news of California’s Hispanic achievement gap. Dude, didn’t you get the memo? He never blogs about it, never discusses it, then out of the blue: Damn! We’ve got an achievement gap! And then he rarely mentions it again, save for this recap of Uri Treisman’s speech. He almost never discusses his student’s test scores and when he does, they are usually not great, although he mentions once in passing that his algebra students beat the department (no data, though). He cheerfully talked about standards-based grading for a year or two and blew off the commenters who wondered if the students were retaining the skills they’d “mastered” twice in a week. When he did finally get around to looking for that data, the answer was no, and it’s quite clear that he’d never before wondered about this essential element of success. So while I suspect that Meyer was a popular teacher who convinced a lot of kids–mostly white boys–to work hard at math, there’s little evidence of that in his written history of his years teaching.

I can find little evidence of intellectual achievement in education once he left teaching, either. At Google, he and three other curriculum fellows worked for a year on computational thinking projects. When his project shipped he wrote, somewhat obscurely, “Near as I can tell, of the sixty-or-so modules listed, only one of them ….is mine. I always admired Google’s lack of sentiment in deciding when to invest itself and when to divest itself. Still it’s strange to see a year of work reduced to a single entry in a long list.” (emphasis mine)

At Stanford, his qualifying paper was not hailed as an instant masterpiece:

The criticism I remember most vividly: a) my weak review of the literature, b) the sense that I wasn’t really taking myself anywhere new with the study, and c) a claim about equity that had me reaching beyond my data.

In short, he didn’t set the curriculum world on fire at Google, and the critiques of his qualifying paper suggest an analytical lightweight—which is pretty typical for salesfolk. So thus far Meyer has established himself as a stupendous salesman, but not much of an intellectual—at least, not of the sort that Google and Stanford like to pretend they invest in. He was even wrong in the GMA segment. Unsurprisingly, he was unflustered.

Realize that I know all of this because of Dan Meyer’s blog, so he’s not hiding anything. Hell, he doesn’t need to.

But he was brought to Google and then to Stanford and then Apple gets involved, and now we’re talking three of the most elite institutions in the country are pushing him not because they have any evidence of his ability to close the achievement gap, or even whether his digital curriculum works, but simply because he’s Dale Carnegie, and boy oh boy, is that a depressing insight into their motivations, just as his success is indicative of the desires of the larger educational world. It’s not “go develop your ideas and expand and prove them” but “here’s a bunch of elite credentials that will make your sales job easier”. So they dub Dan an “expert” and give him a microphone—which makes it a whole lot easier for a largely ignorant general media to hear him.

No, I’m not jealous. My karmic destiny demands that I enter new communities with neither warning nor fanfare and utterly polarize them within a month, usually without any intention of causing trouble. Lather, rinse, repeat. I gave up fighting that fate fifteen years ago. I have attended two elite institutions in recent memory; one of them ignored me desperately, the other did its best to hork me up like a furball. I don’t want to go back. Academia isn’t for me. And if a corporation handed me money to sell my message, they’d be facing a boycott. My blog has fifty times the readership and influence that I ever imagined, and I love teaching. I am content.

Previous paragraph notwithstanding, this essay will be interpreted by some as an attack on Dan Meyer, who is largely unfamiliar with anything short of worshipful plaudits from eager acolytes (he occasionally heeds polite dissenters, but only occasionally) since he began his blog. But while he’s a dilettante as a teacher, I think his simplistic curriculum ideas have interesting potential in teaching certain demographics, and I wish him all success in developing a coherent educational philosophy. Oh crap, that was snarky. I wish him all success in his academic and business career.

Dan Meyer’s rapid rise isn’t the problem. Dan Meyer himself isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the Gatekeepers: with Stanford, who knows that Dan’s not the solution, with Google, Apple, and publishing companies like Shell Centre (well, they’re in England) and Pearson. That intersection between academia and business, the group that picks the educational platitudes and pushes them hard, while ignoring or banishing dissent. They’re the ones granting Meyer the credentials that cloak him in the illusion of expertise. And I believe that, at least in part, they grant those credentials with a clear eye to the attributes that are diametrically opposed to the attributes they pretend to focus on. It’s no coincidence that Dan Meyer is a young white male. It’s the point. It’s not a fluke that he primarily taught white kids, many of whom were obviously sent to him with strong skills by teachers who valued homework above ability. It’s the only way he could have come up with his curriculum. Yet his message is adopted and embraced by elites who castigate education, particularly teachers, for failing black and Hispanic kids. I don’t know if they do this consciously or if they genuinely believe that all teachers are just meanspirited morons who don’t know math and deliberately deprive certain kids of meaningful math experiences. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

I suspect Meyer and others will ignore this essay (Meyer snarked obscurely at my reform piece, assuming this tweet means what I think it does), but whether that’s because he doesn’t like dissent or, more probably, because he subscribes to the Voldemort View, I couldn’t tell you. But maybe this piece will make reporters and educational wonks a bit more wary about the backgrounds of the “experts” they quote, and the gatekeepers who create them.


On Graduation Rates and “Standards”

Stephanie Simon has a piece out on the increasing graduation rate (while I’m at it, mad props to Simon for the charter school piece, which probably did a lot to alert the general audience to charter selections), and various tweets are hailing the good news but—and this is the funny part—expressing concern that this increase rate might be due to schools lowering standards. Checker Finn has also written disapprovingly of credit recovery.

hahahahahaha. This is me, laughing.

Imagine you have forty 18 year olds, who all read and calculate at the 6th grade level, and another group of forty who all read and calculate at the 10th grade level. They are all high school seniors in a state that requires graduation competency tests. Of this overall collection of eighty, the following distribution is entirely unexceptional (and of course, not the only one possible):

  1. Fifteen screwed around from the moment they entered high school, have a GPA in the tenths, and are currently in alternative high school filling out worksheets. No reason to worry about high school graduation tests, though, because they passed them first time out.
  2. Fifteen are, on paper, identical to the previous group, except they haven’t passed any of their graduation tests and so some of their high school time is spent in test prep instead of worksheet completion.
  3. Fifteen are far behind because they went to a charter school that prided itself on making kids repeat grades, and after two years of failure they went back to public school. They’ve passed the high school graduation tests, and have been doing well since they left the charter, GPAs of 2.0 or so. But they’re far behind, so are taking two hours every day to do online credit recovery.
  4. Fifteen are at a charter school, where they have a 4.0 GPA with a bunch of AP courses on their transcripts, (thanks, Jay Mathews and your horrorshow of a Challenge Index) but haven’t passed the high school graduation tests.
  5. Ten recovered from an early bad start, have a solid 2.5 GPA, but haven’t passed their state graduation tests. Half of them have IEPs and official learning disabilities (which means, of course, they aren’t in charters), and so they’ll just waive the requirement. The others will keep plugging away.
  6. Ten have a solid 2.5 GPA after an early bad start and have passed their state graduation tests.

(Note: In case it’s not clear, the kids who can pass the state grad tests are the ones with tenth grade abilities, the ones who can’t are the ones with sixth grade abilities).

Any diverse high school district in the country, surveying its population in comprehensive, alternatives, online campuses, and charters, could assemble those eighty kids without breaking a sweat.

On the lower half of the ability spectrum, grades and credits are utterly pointless differentiators. Once you accept that we graduate thousands of kids who can’t read, write, or add, there’s no reason to cavil at the method we use to boot them out of the schoolhouse.

No, don’t yammer at me about persistence or compliance or god spare me “grit” of illiterates plugging away at school and therefore being more deserving of the diploma than the lazy but somewhat smarter kid. The concern about the increase was not about persistence or compliance or grit, but academic ability.

And so, rest easy, people. We are already graduating illiterates. The increased graduation rate is not achieved by teaching more kids more effectively, nor is it achieved by shovelling through the bottom feeders and thus devaluing high school diplomas. We are simply taking kids, whether near-illiterate or low but functional ability, who fell off the path that our other near-illiterate or low but functional ability kids stayed on, and putting them on a different conveyor belt.

How? As Simon’s article makes clear, by spending lots and lots of money:

* Launching new schools designed to train kids for booming career fields, so they can see a direct connection between math class and future earnings

* Offering flexible academic schedules and well-supervised online courses so students with jobs or babies can earn credits as their time permits

* Hiring counselors to review every student’s transcript, identify missing credits and get as many as possible back on track

* Improving reading instruction and requiring kids who struggle with comprehension to give up some electives for intensive tutoring

* Sending emissaries door-to-door to hound chronic truants into returning to class

Notice that only one of the techniques used actually involved teaching the kids more—not that I’m in favor of forcing kids to give up electives for intensive tutoring (I still have nightmares). But most of the money spent involved forcing or coaxing the kids back to school—and while the kids are mostly low ability, they are no less and often considerably more intellectually able than kids who just happened to jump through the right hoops.

How does this happen, you ask? As I’ve said many times: grades are a fraud.

Or you could put it another way: the increased graduation rate is a triumph of administrators over teachers. Teachers, except those in majority minority urban schools, are flunking kids with little regard to ability and a whole bunch of regard to compliance, with no regard to administrative or societal cost. Administrators are spending money to work around teacher grades.

In this context, bleats about academic standards do seem a bit….well, silly, don’t they?

And now someone is going to say, “You’re absolutely right. We should be failing kids who don’t or can’t do the work, put teeth into the Fs. That’s the only way to raise academic standards.”

Sorry, that fool’s wrong, too. Higher standards are impossible. No, really. Common Core advocates, much like Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights, are parading their favorite toy in front of a mirror in the desperate hope they’ll convince themselves, if no one else. (What, too much? Yeah, it’s late. I’m feeling bleak.) I very much doubt Common Core will ever be implemented (no test, no curriculum, baby), but if it is, nothing will change.

People assume that kids in the bottom half of the ability barrel are there because they suffered a deficit in environment, in parental attention and expectations, in teacher quality. Would that this were so.

Given all the money we’re spending on truancy officers, online credit recovery, counsellors to spot missing transcripts just to push kids through to a diploma, we might just want to consider teaching low ability kids less at a slower pace and stop pretending that they have a “deficit” that can be addressed by college level work and high expectations. We could create a hell of a curriculum for high school kids using nothing more than 8th grade math and vocabulary.

But we won’t do that for the same reason we won’t track, and for the same reason that adminstrators are spending a fortune coaxing kids back to school: namely, the racial distribution would make everyone wince.


Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk.

No, I’m not going to argue that education policy wonks must all spend time in the classroom. But it’s instructive to look at the major names in educational circles today and see what kind of teaching experience they have.

Andrew Rotherham was a corporate trainer, a curriculum designer who “taught civics to high school students” as a curriculum designer (which means he did demo classes?), and from there, went into full-fledged wonkery.

Diane Ravitch began life as an editorial assistant and then an education historian before she began wonking.

Arne Duncan played professional basketball player in Australia, where he spent time with underprivileged children before he ran a non-profit education foundation and then supervised Chicago’s schools.

Linda Darling Hammond spent a year teaching English as a public school teacher in a mostly white Pennsylvania suburb.

Andrew Smarick has no teaching experience, but he was a co-founder of a KIPP school that was closed.

Checker Finn taught public high school for a year, and by his own admission, quit because he was a terrible teacher.

Mike Petrilli had what looks to be a job as a camp counsellor.

Michelle Rhee was a public school teacher for two years and lied misrepresented let people think she had raised test scores. Her classroom management skills were so poor that she made her students wear duct tape to keep quiet. (It’s also possible that Rhee is lying about that story, since no one can really believe she wouldn’t have been fired for that stunt. If she lied, though, it means that Rhee’s so ignorant about teaching that she thinks the story is believable.)

Rick Hess taught in Baton Rouge for two years, and then quit in part because he wasn’t able to teach the AP Econ course he wanted to, even for free.

John Chubb wasn’t a teacher or even a businessman when he got involved with Edison Schools, but by golly, he wants us to have the best teachers in the world. Who apparently aren’t at Edison.

Alfie Kohn emphasizes that he has been a teacher,but keeps most of his teaching career away from the watchful eye of Google. He does mention that he taught “existentialism to high school students”. Cough.

Rick Hess publishes a list of highly visible edu-scholars; of the top ten on the list, only five have any experience in teaching, according to their CVs, and just one, Larry Cuban, has had extensive experience teaching and leading public schools.

I can only think of two educational experts with extensive K-12 teaching experience—Cuban and Deborah Meier. Neither have spent much, if any, time in government, nor have they sought to influence public policy to any large degree (as opposed to Moe, Hanushek, Darling-Hammond, and so on). Meier is a pure play teacher-administrator (if she even has an advanced degree, her bio doesn’t mention it).

Obviously, my list is incomplete; I read a great deal and tried to get a representative group. But I’d be surprised if I’m missing more than one or two counterexamples. It’s hard to find an educational expert with extensive teaching experience who isn’t at least skeptical about the current brand of reform. Cuban, one of my favorite education wonks, is a skeptic with a mildly progressive edge, Meier a committed progressive. On the other hand, if eduformers have any well-regarded educational experts with more than a decade in public schools, it’s a well-hidden secret.

So where are the teachers in the debate? Well, as I’ve written before, teachers are, as a group, astonishingly uninterested in policy. Even union issues engage maybe 20-30% of the teachers at any meeting I’ve attended; the rest are checking their watches. This is a function of personality. Wonks and teachers are from opposite ends of the spectrum. Teaching appeals disproportionately to concrete thinkers interested in the immediate payoff, attributes largely antithetical to the average policy wonk job.

When you run into actual, honest-to-god teachers out there pushing ideas, they usually fall into these categories:

  • Teach Like I Do Marketers: Rafe Esquith, Doug Lemov. These guys have no research or stats to back up their claims; they are lauded as good teachers because their methods impress powerful edupundits. They write a lot of books or consult.
  • It’s the Curriculum, Stupid, aka the Core Knowledge folk (Robert Pondiscio, Jessica Lahey, Barry Garelick, etc): I have nothing bad to say about these guys; they are earnest, somewhat right, but absurdly unrealistic because they mostly work with high-achieving kids. They also have something to sell: the value of the Core Knowledge curriculum. (Note: I originally wrote that CK wanted to sell the curriculum. Robert Pondiscio notes in the comments that the Core Knowledge curriculum is free, and can be downloaded. Fair enough, and I welcome the news, and the correction. However, I believe it’s fair to say that they are still advocates, and in that limited sense, “selling”. I am a fan of CK, fwiw.)
  • Bandwagon Reformers: The “I did my two” sorts who are in the process of getting out by writing an op-ed as a job application. Some of them went into teaching sincerely, and are really pissed at all the pink slips they’ve been getting, winning cites from reformers looking to shore up their credibility. (Look! Real teachers agree with us!) Short shelf lives, as a rule. Either they get that reform think tank job, or they quit teaching.
  • Diane Ravitch’s fan club: The name says it all. Well, I do like Gary Rubenstein, but his obsessive focus on TFA and reform gets a bit old. He needs to branch out.

So most teachers found in the debate have something to sell, or are firmly in one of the two major camps.

What I don’t run into very often are full-time teachers who read a lot about policy, engage with the data, put it up against their own experience working with the average kid (mid to low ability), and then opine about that policy based on their own analysis, which includes both their experience and their knowledge of existing educational policy.

That is, we don’t hear from teachers much as subject matter experts. Few of them are interested in policy because they aren’t wired that way. Most of the rest out there agitating have an agenda.

I can’t think of many teachers who write on policy, period. Some who do have jobs at the top end of the teaching totem pole, which means they don’t have a clue what it’s like to teach low ability kids—and their opinions show this lack. Patrick Welsh writes pretty well about policy and really uses his experience to inform his policy opinions, although I don’t often agree with him. John Thompson left teaching recently, I think, but taught at high-poverty Oklahoma schools for a long time, and it shows. Paul Bruno, also writing on Alexander Russo’s blog, is a middle school science teacher working with “underserved” populations. Both Thompson and Bruno are well-read on policy, skeptical of most bromides, and have views informed by their teaching without being purely dominated by it.

Part of the problem, of course, is that teachers can get fired or otherwise penalized if they have opinions too far outside the mainstream. I’m not the only teacher who thinks cognitive ability shapes the large outlines of academic achievement and that low scores in “failing” schools are caused neither by insufficient money nor bad teachers but fundamentally flawed expectations. And while Richard Posner agrees with me, I’m not going public with my views any time soon.

The larger educational policy world doesn’t really think about teachers as analysts. Progressives are convinced they do care about teachers, and view with suspicion any teacher who rejects their expertise. Reformers think most teachers are union hacks. Both progressives and reformers are constantly calling for an upgrade in teacher qualifications, which means they think teachers are too stupid to have anything of value to offer—except as props.

So here we are: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, wonk. And without a concentrated effort to get teacher expertise into the debate, things won’t change.


Escaping Poverty

Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”

I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:

Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:

  1. Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.

  2. If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.

  3. Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  4. Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.

  5. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.

  6. Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.

  7. Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).

    But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.

    Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.

  8. Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.

If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.

It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.


100 Posts

I started this blog on January 1 with two primary goals. As I mentioned in my initial post, I’d gone a whole year without writing anything for publication (under my real name, which is not Ed). I wanted to initiate more and respond less, and I wanted my writing here to spur me to write more under my real name. As a second goal, I hoped to reflect the full spectrum of my views on education and teaching—and nothing more. I wanted to write both about teaching and educational policy. I teach a great many subjects, and the joys of teaching composition, literature, American history, and text prep ideally needed some of my writing attention, while I expected to write primarily about the challenges of teaching math (yes, I am saying there are relatively few joys in teaching math, but that doesn’t mean I’d give it up.) When the subject turned to educational policy, I expected to focus on the degree to which Voldemortean avoidance prevents us from sane, realistic objectives, but I also intended to discuss the very real problems I saw with both eduform and progressive math philosophies.

Thus far, the blog has exceeded my goals. I had one very successful piece go out under my own name, and to the extent I haven’t written more it’s been because of time constraints. I have plenty of ideas, which was not the case a year ago, when I felt hamstrung. I also think my posts fairly reflect all my teaching interests.

What I didn’t expect, and has been deeply satisfying, is the degree of attention many of my posts have had. Here are the top six posts:

  1. Algebra, and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing

  2. The myth of “They weren’t ever taught…”
  3. Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II
  4. Why Chris Hayes Fails
  5. The Gap in the GRE
  6. Homework and Grades

I wrote all but one of these hoping they’d get a big audience—Homework and Grades is the exception; while it got a nice bump when it first came out with a link from Joanne Jacobs, most of the activity has been from consistent attention over time. People refer to it a great deal, for some reason. (Actually, half of my big pieces got link love from JJ, and a host of smaller ones as well, which means a lot because she’s the best pure education blogger out there. Other bloggers who contributed a lot of readers to the above pieces: Steve Sailer and Gene Expression.)

Three policy pieces that I was personally pleased with, audience or not: Why Chris Christie Picks on Teachers, On the CTU Strike, and The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform.

Three teaching pieces that are regularly linked to or used as references by teachers: Modeling Linear Equations, Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard, and Teaching Polynomials.

Total views at the time of this post: 38,000

I’d also like to shout out to my commenters and Twitter readers. Thanks for your great feedback.

So on to the next 100. I’d say I’ll try to keep them brief, but that’s a big lie.


Boaler’s Bias (or BS)

I began this piece a week ago intending to opine on the Boaler letter. However, I realized I have to confess a strong bias: I read Boaler in ed school and nearly vomited all over my reader. And that will take a whole post.

Experiencing School Mathematics: Traditional and Reform Approaches to Teaching and Their Impact on Student Learning

Boaler, a Brit who has held math education academic positions in England as well as at Stanford, performed a three-year study of two English schools, matched up in demographics and test scores. Phoenix Park believed in progressive, student-centered instruction, whereas Amber Hill taught a traditionalist method—more than traditionalist, they taught math by rote and drill, which is by no means required for teacher-centered instruction.

Boaler was ostensibly investigating the two instruction methods, but the fix was clearly in. Despite Boaler’s constant assurances that the Amber Hill teachers were dedicated and caring, the school presents as an Orwellian fantasy:

One of the first things I noticed when I began my research was the apparent respectability of the school. Walking into the reception area on my arrival, I was struck by the tranquility of the arena. The reception was separated from the rest of the school by a set of heavy double doors. The floors were carpeted in a somber gray; a number of easy chairs had been placed by the secretary’s window and a small tray of flowers sat above them. …Amber Hill was unusually orderly and controlled. Students generally did as they were told, their behavior governed by numerous enforced rules and a general school ethos that induced obedience and conformity. All students were required to wear a school uniform, which the vast majority of students wore exactly as the regulations required. The annual school report that teachers sent home to parents required the teachers to give the students a grade on their “co-operation” and their “wearing of school uniform.” The head clearly wanted to present the school as academic and respectable, and he was successful in this aim at least in terms of the general facade. Visitors walking around the corridors would see unusually quiet and calm classrooms, with students sitting in rows or small groups usually watching the board. When students were unhappy in lessons, they tended to withdraw instead of being disruptive. The corridors were mainly quiet, and at break times the students walked in an orderly fashion between lessons. The students’ lives at Amber Hill were, in many ways, structured, disciplined, and controlled

(page 13)

Phoenix Park, on the other hand:

…had an attractive campus feel. The atmosphere was unusually calm—described in a newspaper article on the school as peaceful. Students walked slowly around the school, and there was a noticeable absence of students running, screaming, or shouting. This was not because of school rules; it seemed to be a product of the school’s overall ambiance. I mentioned this to one of the mathematics teachers one day and she agreed, saying that she did not think she had ever heard anybody shout—teacher or student. She added that this was particularly evident at break times in the hall: “The students are all so orderly, but no-one ever tells them to be.”…. Students were taught all subjects in mixed-ability groups. Phoenix Park students did not wear school uniforms. Most students wore fashionable but inexpensive clothes such as jeans, with trainers or boots, and shirts or t-shirts worn loosely outside. A central part of the school’s approach involved the development of independence among students. The students were encouraged to act responsibly—not because of school rules, but because they could see a reason to act in this way.

(emphasis mine) (page 18)

And yet, while the Amber Hill students were well-behaved little automatons, the Phoenix Park kids–the ones who simply behave well by choice and idealism, not some lower-class aspiration to respectability–ran amok:

In the 100 or so lessons I observed at Phoenix Park, I would typically see approximately one third of students wandering around the room chatting about non-work issues and generally not attending to the project they had been given. In some lessons, and for some parts of lessons, the numbers off task would be greater than this. Some students remained off task for long periods of time, sometimes all of the lessons; other students drifted on and off task at various points in the lessons. In a small quantitative assessment of time on task, I stood at the back of lessons and counted the number of students who appeared to be working 10 minutes into the lesson, halfway through the lesson, and 10 minutes before the end of the lesson. Over 11 lessons, with approximately 28 students in each , 69%, 64%, and 58% of students were on task, respectively [the corresponding numbers at Amber Hill were in the 90%s].
….
More important than either of these factors, however, is that the freedom the students experienced seemed to relate directly to the relaxed and non-disciplinarian nature of the three teachers and the school as a whole. Most of the time, the teachers did not seem to notice when students stopped working unless they became very disruptive. All three teachers seemed concerned to help and support students and, consequently, spent almost all of their time helping students who wanted help, leaving the others to their own devices.

(page 64, 65)

But far from criticizing the school for abysmal classroom management, Boaler blames the students.

However, this freedom was also the reason the third group of students hated the approach. Approximately one fifth of the cohort thought that mathematics was too open, and they did not want to be left to make their own decisions about their work. They complained that they were often left on their own not knowing what to do, and they wanted more help and structure from their teachers. The students felt that the school’s approach placed too great a demand on them—they did not want to use their own ideas or structure their own work, and they said that they would have preferred to work from books. What for some students meant freedom and opportunity, for others meant insecurity and hard work. There were approximately five students in each class who disliked and resisted the open nature of their work. These students were mainly boys and were often disruptive— not only in mathematics, but across the school. (page 68)

In every mathematics lesson I observed at Phoenix Park, between three and six students would do little work and spend much of their time disrupting others. I now try to describe the motivation of these 20 or so students, who represented a small but interesting group. The students who did little work in class were mainly boys, and they related their lack of motivation to the openness of the mathematical approach and, more specifically, the fact that they were often left to work out what they had to do on their own. …..Many of the Phoenix Park students talked about the difficulty they experienced when they firststarted at the school working on open projects that required them to think for themselves. But most of the students gradually adapted to this demand, whereas the disruptive students continued to resist it.

In Years 9 and 10, I interviewed six of the most disruptive and badly behaved students in the year group: five boys and one girl. They explained their misbehavior during lessons in terms of the lack of structure or direction they were given and, related to this, the need for more teacher help. These students had been given the same starting points as every-body else, but for some reason seemed unwilling to think of ways to work on the activities without the teacher telling them what to do. This was a necessary requirement with the Phoenix Park approach because it was impossible for all of the students to be supported by the teacher when they needed to make decisions. The students who did not work in lessons were no less able than other students; they did not come from the same middle school and they were socioeconomically diverse. In questionnaires, the students did not respond differently from other students, even on questions designed to assess learning style preferences. The only aspect that seemed to unite the students was their behavior and the fact that most of them were boys. The reasons that some students acted in this way and others did not were obviously complex and due to a number of interrelated factors. Martin Collins [one of the Phoenix Park teachers] believed that more of the boys experienced difficulty with the approach because they were less mature and less willing to take responsibility for their own learning than the girls. The idea that the boys were badly behaved because of immaturity was also partly validated by the improvement in the boys’ behavior as they got older .

(page 73) (emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, the Amber Hill girls were miserable:

All of the Amber Hill girls interviewed in Years 9 and 10 expressed a strong preference for their coursework lessons and the individualized booklet approach, which they followed in Years 6 and 7, as against their textbook work. The girls gave clear reasons why these two approaches were more appropriate ways of learning mathematics for them; all of these reasons were linked to their desire to understand mathematics. In conversations and interviews, students expressed a concern for their lack of understanding of the mathematics they encountered in class. This was particularly acute for the girls not because they understood less than the boys, but because they appeared to be less willing to relinquish their desire for understanding…..Just as frequently, I observed girls looking lost and confused, struggling to understand their work or giving up all together. On the whole, the boys were content if they attained correct answers. The girls would also attain correct answers, but they wanted more. The different responses of the girls and boys to group work related to the opportunity it gave them to think about topics in depth and increase their understanding through discussion. This was not perceived as a great advantage to the boys probably because their aim was not to understand, but to get through work quickly. These different responses were also evident in response to the students’ preferences for working at their own pace. In chapter 6, I showed that an overwhelming desire for both girls and boys at Amber Hill was to work at their own pace. This desire united the sexes, but the reasons boys and girls gave for their preferences were generally different. The boys said they enjoyed individualized work that could be completed at their own pace because it allowed them to tear ahead and complete as many books as possible….The girls again explained their preference for working at their own pace in terms of an increased access to understanding. The girls at Amber Hill consistently demonstrated that they believed in the importance of an open, reflective style of learning, and that they did not value a competitive approach or one in which there was one teacher-determined answer. Unfortunately for them ,the approach they thought would enhance their understanding was not attainable in their mathematics classrooms except for 3 weeks of each year .

(page 139)

(all emphasis mine)

So in each school, there were students who really hated the teaching method used. But Boaler blames the complex-instruction haters at Phoenix Park (of course, it’s just a coincidence they are mostly male), for their immaturity and disruption, because they didn’t like the open-ended discovery method she so vehemently approves of. Meanwhile, she not only sympathizes with the Amber Hill girls, poor dears, who didn’t like the procedure-oriented teaching method at their school, but continually slams the Amber Hill boys who do enjoy it because those competitive, goal-driven little twerps aren’t interested in learning math but just doing more problems than their pals.

It was at this point I threw my reader across the room.

Moreover, reading between the lines of Boaler’s screed shows clearly that both schools are doing what I would consider an utterly crap job of teaching math. Boaler also mentions Phoenix Park is the low achiever in its affluent school district, and both schools have dismal test scores (which, let me be clear, could be true even if both schools were doing an outstanding job in math instruction).

Indeed, Boaler’s entire thesis—that the “reform” approach leads to better test scores—is poorly supported by her own data. Boaler received special permission to evaluate the students’ individual GCSE scores. She coded problems as either “procedural” or “conceptual”.

Amber Hill, of the dull, grey school and the dreary uniforms, actually outscored Phoenix Park, the progressive’s paradise, on procedural questions. While Phoenix Park outscores Amber Hill on conceptual problems, it wasn’t by all that much.

Like any dedicated ideologue, Boaler misses the monster lede apparent in these representations: Phoenix Park’s score range is nearly double that of Amber Hill’s, suggesting that discovery-based math helps high ability kids, while procedural math helps low ability students. Low ability students lost out at Phoenix Park, because they couldn’t cope with the open-ended, unstructured approach. Boaler didn’t give a damn about those kids, because they were boys. Meanwhile, high ability kids do better with an open-ended approach, gaining a better understanding of math concepts.

This finding has been well-documented in subsequent research—at least, the research done by academics who aren’t hacks bent on turning math education into a group project. I wrote about this earlier.

Here, too, is a takedown of some of the specifics in her research. You can read the whole thing, but here are the primary points in direct quotes:

  • “Also these scores are very similar. A notable difference is that rather a lot of students at Amber Hill fail, whereas more students at Phoenix Park get the very low grades E,F,G. Boaler sees this as a positive thing about Phoenix Park. A possible explanation (which Boaler does not give) has to do with the fact that the GCSE is actually not one exam, but three exams….. it is perfectly conceivable that at Amber Hill many students aimed higher than they could achieve and failed. Note that it is essential for further education to receive at least a C, so that participating in the basic exam is virtually useless. The figures show that nonetheless at Phoenix Park at least 43.5 percent of the students (the Fs and Gs) participated in this exam and by doing this gave up their chance at higher education without even trying.”
  • “This indicates that, compared to the nation, the students at Phoenix Park did worse on the GCSE than they did on the NFER. So Phoenix Park seems not to have done its students a lot of good. The same is of course true for Amber Hill, which performed very similarly to Phoenix Park. I also took a look on the internet at typical average scores of schools on the GCSE. It seems that Phoenix Park and Amber Hill are just about the schools with the worst GCSE scores in the UK. I cannot help but think that Amber Hill was specifically chosen for this fact.”
  • “Boaler doesn’t say anything about the GCSE scores of Amber Hill at the moment that she decided to include this school in her study, but there is not reason to believe that it was markedly different from the above mentioned scores for Amber Hill. If that is the case, then Boaler seems to have been stacking the deck in favor of Phoenix Park and its discovery learning approach to mathematics teaching.”
  • “Boaler also doesn’t mention that the grades for the GCSE at both schools are lower than one would expect given the NFER scores. She seems determined to interpret everything in favor of Phoenix Park. ”

If you’ve read anything about the Boaler/Milgram/Bishop debate, some of these Boaler critiques may sound a tad familiar. But don’t get them confused. This is a different study. Which means Boaler has pulled this nonsense twice.

It was reading horror shows like Boaler that made me loathe progressive educators. It took me a while to acknowledge that they weren’t all dishonest hacks bent on distorting reality. Not all progressives are determined to create an ideological force field that repels all sane discussion of the genuine advantages and disadvantages of different educational approaches, and an honest acknowledgement that student cognitive ability—which appears unevenly distributed by both race *and* gender, at least as we measure it—is a factor in determining the best approach for a given student population. And ultimately, I find myself slightly more sympathetic to progressives than reformers because at least progressives (and here I include Boaler) actually know about teaching, even if they often do it with blinders on.

So getting all this out of my system means I’m not writing—yet—about Boaler/Milgram/Bishop. But then, I imagine my opinion’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

Ironically, I know people who know Boaler, and assure me she’s quite nice. But then, she’s British. It’s probably the accent.


The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics?

Stuart Buck on KIPP critics:

It’s unwitting, to be sure; most of the critics haven’t thought through the logical implications of what they’re saying, and they would sincerely deny being racist in their thoughts or intentions. But even granting their personal good will, what they are saying is full of racially problematic implications. These KIPP critics are effectively saying that poor minority children are incapable of genuinely learning anything more than they already do. If poor minority children seem to be learning more, it can’t really be true; there must be some more sinister explanation for what’s going on.
…..
Now here’s the key point: If selection and attrition is what explains KIPP’s good results, then that logically means that several hundred extra hours a year being instructed in reading, math, music, art, etc. do NOT explain KIPP’s good results. But wait a minute: what does that really mean?
….
Nothing less than this: several hundred hours a years instructing kids doesn’t actually make much difference. Recall that KIPP’s critics say that if KIPP’s students seem to be learning more, it must be an artifact of how KIPP selects kids and then pushes out the low-performers. In saying that, KIPP’s critics are implying, however unwittingly, that no amount of effort or study could possibly get poor urban minorities to learn anything more.

Okay, let me be clear that I am not speaking for any other KIPP critic. While I don’t talk much about KIPP, I am certainly one who thinks their results are due to attrition, creaming, and the benefits that accrue from a homogenous and motivated population.

But yeah. In a nutshell, I’m saying this:

IF you take low ability kids (of any race or income) and IF you select for motivation in the parents, at least, and IF you remove the misbehaving or otherwise highly dysfunctional kids who don’t share their parents’ motivation, and IF you enforce strict behavioral indoctrination in middle class mores and IF you give them hundreds of hours more education a year and IF they are in middle school and IF they are simply being asked to catch up with the material that middle to high ability kids learned fairly effortlessly—that is, elementary reading and math skills…..

…then they will have a slightly better test scores than similarly motivated low ability kids stuck in classes with the misbehavers and highly dysfunctional kids and fewer hours of seat time and less behavioral indoctrination into middle class mores, but their underlying abilities will still be weak and just as far behind their higher ability peers as they were before KIPP.

I’ve written before, improving elementary school or middle school scores is a false god when it comes to improving actual high school outcomes. Children who need tons of hours to get up to grade level fundamentally differ from those reading at or above grade level from kindergarten on, and this difference matters increasingly as school gets harder. High school isn’t the linear steps through increased difficulty that occurs in grades K-8, but a much different and far more difficult animal, now that we make everyone take college prep classes. There’s no evidence that KIPP students are learning more or closing the gap in high school, and call me cynical but I’m really, really sure we’d be hearing about it if they were. KIPP is not transforming low ability kids into high ability kids, or even mid-level ability kids.

I am comfortable asserting that hours and hours of additional education time does nothing to change underlying ability. I’m not a racist, nor am I a nihilist who believes outcomes are set from birth. I do, however, hold the view that academic outcomes are determined in large part by cognitive ability. The reason scores are low in high poverty, high minority schools is primarily due to the fact that the students’ abilities are low to begin with, not because they enter school with a fixable deficit that just needs time to fill, and not because they fall behind thanks to poor teachers or misbehaving peers.

That doesn’t mean we can’t improve outcomes, particularly in high school, when we do a great deal of harm by trying to teach kids what they can’t learn and refusing to teach them what they can learn. And it doesn’t mean we couldn’t tremendously improve elementary school outcomes in numbers, if not individual demonstrated ability, by allowing public schools to do what KIPP does—namely, limit classes to motivated kids of similar ability.

Paul Bruno, another KIPP skeptic (whose views in no way should be confused with mine), thinks it’s wrong to dismiss KIPP achievements, because they show that public schools for low income kids simply need much more money. I disagree. What KIPP “success” shows is the importance of well-behaved, homogeneous classes.

So here’s my preferred takeaway from KIPP and other successful charter schools:

Since it’s evident that much of these schools’ success stories come from their ability to control and limit the population, why are we still hamstringing public schools? Here’s a thought: how about KIPP schools take those really, really tough kids and only those kids? Misbehave too often in public schools and off you go to a KIPP bootcamp, where they will drill you with slogans and do their best to indoctrinate you into middle class behavior and after a while you’ll behave because please, god, anything to get back to the nicer public schools! You could also create KIPP schools for special ed kids–put the special ed kids with cognitive issues and learning disabilities in their own, smaller schools. Meanwhile, public schools could extend the school day a bit, help the kids catch up as much as possible while still making school fun. While the average test score might not improve much, this approach would keep a lot of kids engaged in school through elementary school instead of lost, bored, or acting out in chaotic classes disrupted by a few unmanageable or extremely low ability kids.

See, that would scale a lot better. Instead, we set up small schools for what is actually the majority of all low income students—reasonably well-behaved, of low to middle ability and, with no one around to lead them astray, willing to give school a shot. Only a few kids get into these schools, while the rest of them are stuck in schools where just a few misbehavers make class impossible and really low ability kids take up a lot of addtional teacher time. Crazy, that’s what it is. But what I just laid out is completely unworkable from an ideological standpoint, and as I just explained in an earlier post, school policy is set by ideology and politics, not educational validity. To say nothing of the fact that KIPP doesn’t want to teach “those” kids.

Anyway. The reality is that yes, a low ability kid, regardless of income or race, will not, on average, become a high or mid ability kid simply because he spends a lot of seat time working his butt off in a KIPP school. Sorry Stuart.


Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing

The whole algebra debate kicked off by Hacker’s algebra essay has…..well, if not depressed me, then at least enervated me.

A recap:

Hacker:

We shouldn’t make everyone take algebra. No one needs algebra anyway; we never really use it. Statistics would be much more useful. Algebra is the primary obstacle to high school success; millions of kids are failing because they can’t manage this course. If we just allowed students to have an easier time in high school, more of them would graduate successfully and go on to college.

Outraged Opposition:

Algebra is essential to college success and “real life” and one of many obstacles to high school success. No one is happy with the current state of affairs, but it’s clear that kids aren’t learning algebra because their teachers suck, particularly in elementary school. We need to teach math better in the lower grades, rather than lower our standards. Besides, the corollary to “not everyone should take algebra” is “some people should take algebra” and just how are you planning to divide up those teams? (Examples: Dan Willingham, Dropout Nation)

Judicious Analysis:

Sigh. Guys, this is really a debate about tracking, you know? And no one wants to go there. While it’s true that algebra really isn’t necessary for college, colleges use success in advanced math as a convenient sorting mechanism. Besides, once we say algebra isn’t necessary, where do we stop? Literature? Biology? Chemistry? But without doubt, Hacker is right in part. Did I say that no one wants to go there? Or just hint it really, really loudly?
Examples: Dana Goldstein, Justin Baeder Iand II.

Voldemort Support:

Well, of course not everyone should take algebra, trig, or calculus. Or advanced literature. Or science. Not everyone has the cognitive ability or the interest. We should have a richer and more flexible curriculum, allowing anyone with the interest to take whatever classes they like with the understanding that not all choices lead to college and that outcomes probably won’t have the racial distributions we’d all prefer to see. Oh, and while we’re at it, we should be reviewing our immigration policies because it’s pretty clear that our country doesn’t need cheap labor right now.

Hacker, Outraged Opposition and Judicious Analysis to Voldemort Support:

SHUT UP, RACIST!

So really, what else is left to say? The Judicious Analysis essays I linked above were the strongest by far, particularly Justin Baeder II.

Instead, I’m going to revisit a chart I updated from the last time I posted it:

These are California’s math scores by grade and subject, the percentage scoring basic/proficient or higher on the CST. Algebra entry points differ, so the two higher (and slightly longer) of the four short lines are the percentages of “advanced” students with those scores—those who took algebra in 7th or 8th grade. The lower, shortest lines represent the scores of students who began algebra in 9th grade.

Notice that advanced students don’t match the performance of the entire elementary school population through 5th grade. Notice, too, that the percentage of advanced students scoring proficient or higher is just around half of the population. When I just considered algebra students who began in 8th grade (see link above), the percentage never tops 50. Notice that around 40% of the kids who started algebra in 9th grade achieved basic or higher.

NAEP scores show the same thing—4th grade math scores have risen, while 12th grade scores stay flat. In fact, Daniel Willingham, who declares above that we’re doing a bad job at teaching elementary math, was considerably more sanguine about teacher quality back in December, citing the improved elementary school math performance shown in the NAEP. So the strong elementary school performance, coupled with a huge dropoff in advanced math, is not unique to California.

These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades. Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.

What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.

Break it down by race and the percentages vary, but not the pattern. I skipped Asians, because California tracks Asians by subcategory, and life’s too short. I’m going to go right out on a limb and predict that Asians did a bit better than whites.

(Note: I know it’s weird that in all cases, 9th graders in general math have nearly the same percentages as 9th graders in algebra, but it’s easily confirmed: whites, blacks, Hispanics).

Whites in the standard math track perform as well as advanced math blacks and just a bit worse than advanced track Hispanics. Sixty to seventy percent of blacks and Hispanics on the standard track fail to achieve a “basic” score.

Some people are wondering how poverty affects these results, I’m sure. Let’s check.

Hey! Look at that! The achievement gap disappears!

Just kidding. This chart shows the results of blacks and Hispanics who are NOT economically disadvantaged and whites who ARE economically disadvantaged. You can see it on the legend.

So that’s how to make the achievement gap disappear: compare low income whites to middle class or higher blacks and Hispanics and hey, presto.

And that’s all the charts for today. I’m not detail-oriented, and massaged this all in Excel. You can do your own noodling here. Let me know if I made any major errors. The 2012 results should be out in a couple weeks.

Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.


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