Category Archives: philosophy

Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Relay guarantee its students academic freedom? Wait—weren’t you paying attention? Their students don’t want it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Parents and Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On interviewing and ed school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learning from Mr. Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He hates me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom looked aghast. “It doesn’t?”

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

“It was a limit of sin(2x)/sin(3x).”

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

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

“Looks like it.”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________

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


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.


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