Category Archives: policy

Boobies and Bronies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not Why This. Just Why Not That.

I like to argue why not a lot.

Why not public school choice? Because it won’t improve educational outcomes and will increase expenses. Why not higher standards? Because they are based on well-meant but foolish delusions about reasonable academic goals for large, heterogeneous populations. Why not poverty as a reason for the achievement gap? Because poverty is trumped by race, which is probably a proxy for cognitive ability distribution (which does not mandate a genetic cause). Why not blame unintelligent teachers? Why not blame unions that protect those teachers? Because teachers aren’t incompetent, there’s vanishingly little evidence that teacher smarts affect educational outcomes, and unions can be blamed for increasing costs, but not for educational outcomes of any sort. Why not believe we can change and improve public education? Because given its task, public education is not doing a bad job. Certainly not as bad a job as many people believe. Cf: blood from turnips.

What I don’t do is openly advocate for my own vision of public education, which entails ending, limiting, or at least challenging the reforms of the last 40 years.

I gave a brief history of education reform since 1965 or so in The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should, and so I shall quote myself:

So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.

From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.

I’ve written before of my perplexity on this point: Why has there been no organized effort to resist or repeal the legislation and court decisions that buttress progressive reforms?

For example, only recently has the reform movement taken up the tracking gauntlet again, and they are doing so most timidly—even blaming Americans for their reluctance to sort by ability. (Um. What?) And sometimes, they tentatively advocate reforms that teachers want, like discipline and tracking, but never with any acknowledgement that these restrictions weren’t organically generated by public schools, but rather mandates imposed by courts and lawsuits. Other reformers gently chastise us for even thinking about sorting by ability, which can “condemn these high-potential, low-performing students into lower classes…sadly, these “tracks” frequently become castes from which it is all but impossible to escape.” With nonsense like this, who needs progressives? Last summer, Checker Finn announced that private schools were being replaced by charters, as if we should celebrate the increased costs incurred by parents who might otherwise fork out money to educate Junior at a Catholic school. Just recently, Fordham tentatively suggested that districts band together to educate severely disabled students, and a decade ago, it cheered the reauthorization of IDEA without ever challenging it.

Whenever I ask why the right, broadly speaking, has abandoned the field to expensive federal intrusion, a commenter will post in a sepulchral voice, “Conservatives have given up. Regular people have given up. The game is lost.”

As I write this, conservatives are busily pushing voter ID and reviling the mainstream press for claiming the knockout game is a myth. So clearly, it’s okay to mock the liberal obsession with political correctness, access, and race…..except when education is involved?

In twenty years, the modern reform movement has certainly achieved results, but not public buy-in. They get legislative victories occasionally, but polls routinely show lukewarm support at best for their main objectives. The public likes public schools. Where’s the political opportunism, the craven catering to public whim? It’s very irritating.

So this next part is my best effort to interpret the absence of any attempt to push back on the original progressive reforms, and it’s….not to be taken as some grand scheme. Just a combination of typical advocacy fund hunger and genuine—and unobjectionable—political goals. And the absence does need explaining. The current reform movement really doesn’t make sense, given that lack of buy-in.

But advocacy groups need money and the group of education givers include a lot of billionaires, many of them conservatives. Not a group, I’m thinking, that would be open to the idea that public education is doing a good job, that teachers aren’t incompetent, that we should stop treating parents as consumers who can re-allocate their portion of tax dollars to the detriment of public schools. And of course, the billionaires who aren’t well right of center are way off to the middlebrow left and would not take kindly to cognitive reality. So they found their own group of “new left” reformers.

So that explains billionaires and the reform agenda, but it doesn’t explain Republicans as a whole. Why aren’t they pushing back on the reform agenda, which implicitly adopts the same progressive objectives of equity, access, and equal results? That, too, seems more a political strategy than a genuine effort to improve education. Teacher unions pour millions into the Democrat coffers. So I guess the thinking from the Republican point of view is why invite media castigation and endless legal battles on disparate impact, why piss off the extremely activist parents of disabled children, when the alternative is attacking and hopefully obliterating a major source of Democrat money? Once they kill the unions they can focus on actually improving public education. And so the culling of teachers for special opprobrium, for job features that apply to all government workers, particularly those relative bastions of Republican support, cops and firefighters.

Oh lord, you’re thinking, Ed’s gone the way of Diane Ravitch. No. Well. Yeah. But not because I think it’s bad. I’m fine with, you know, whatever. It’s fine to want to stop union money from going all Dem. It’s fine to want to end unions, if that’s your bag. I am not criticizing the goal or the desire to spend money to achieve a goal. If you’re a reformer insulted by my conclusion that you’re tailoring your message to please the moneymen, or a Republican angry that I doubt the purity of your motives, well, remember, I’m trying to figure out an interpretation of your stated objectives that doesn’t make you an idiot. At least naked opportunism and a political agenda makes you deviously dishonest.

So the groups that would logically push for ending or at least curtailing the progressive overreaches, the absurd mandates that hurt public education, are funded by people who, for various reasons, aren’t interested in kicking them over, and the political party most likely to push back sees a big pile of Democrat money. That’s my current take as to the puzzling absence of pushback on public education mandates and expectations.

Whatever the motives, the current reform agenda will only make things worse by delegitimizing and ultimately destroying the public school’s still-essential role as community resource, and increasing both direct and indirect costs at the same time. No, thank you.

Of course, my consistent rejection of reform means I support the status quo, imposed upon us by progressives. Yes. Not happily, and only as an alternative to reform goals. Remember, progressives aren’t deviously dishonest, in my paradigm. They’re idiots. No offense, progressives. But you didn’t need donors to cater to; you all had an entire academic infrastructure supporting your reforms, and a whole bunch of lawyers happy to sue for equal access, disparate impact, and a host of other millstones you hoisted around public education’s neck. And you did all this on purpose.

So here we are, billions wasted on ideas that most people understand won’t ever work. And no one openly challenges the modern mandates of public education.

I don’t spend much time arguing for an end to the progressive reforms. I’m not sure I want to end them all. I just want people to discuss it more, dammit. But I must confess to a temperament that prefers analysis to advocacy. If you put up a list of your top ten films, I’ll critique your choices. Where’s my list for you to critique? Don’t have one. Too limiting. Let’s get back to debating your list.

This gives rise to the claim that I’m just a naysayer. Okay. That I can’t be taken seriously unless I put up my own proposal. Whoops, back up. Sure I can. I am, in fact, taken seriously, far more seriously than I ever envisioned. Good opposition is best when it’s done by the relatively pure of heart. I have no agenda other than convincing you that everyone else is wrong.

This next part is what I set out to do five days ago when I began this essay, without the excessively long throat-clearing:

So suppose I were going to advocate for a particular vision. What would it entail? To which I say oh, please. I can’t even come up with a list of ten best films. However, I will offer up the questions, the issues, that I think we should seriously engage with:

  1. The public, not the parent, is the intended beneficiary of public education.
  2. The state should be able to charge immigrants, both legal and illegal, for their K-12 education.
  3. The state should not be responsible for the education of English Language Learners, whether immigrants or not.
  4. We should consider centralized schools, possibly federal, for educating the organically retarded or any students with physical disabilities requiring significant financial support. The familial retarded should remain as a local responsibility.
  5. Public schools should be able to organize their students by cognitive or demonstrated ability without consideration of race, class, religion, or gender.
  6. High school diplomas should denote tiers of ability, to better reflect a diverse population with a broad range of cognitive abilities.
  7. Publicly funded college should be restricted as described in this essay, and restricted to the top two tiers of high school diplomas.
  8. Adult education, as opposed to college, should be an offering for those who haven’t met the top two tiers.
  9. Immigration’s impact on public education and the job opportunities of the cognitive spectrum’s lower half should be a matter of national attention and debate.
  10. Public K-12 education should not include charters, magnets, gifted student schools, or any other specialized resource school that can restrict access.
  11. Select schools should be reserved for incorrigible students who disrupt education for others—and these schools should be educational, but not terribly fun. Hey. We could call them “reform” schools!
  12. Private school tuition should be tax deductible, with a cap. Benefits of deduction should accrue primarily to middle income savers, not the rich. (I’m in favor of this approach for tuition and other investments in education.)
  13. The federal government’s role in education should be limited to data collection and investigation. I would like very much to learn what, exactly, we can teach people with IQs lower than 100, for starters.

Far fewer words: roll back Plyler, Lau, IDEA, and any notion of evaluating for disparate impact (as opposed to actual racial discrimination which, for the record, I consider a Bad Thing).

There. I am not necessarily advocating for these positions (cop out! you betcha.) But these are the issues I’d like to see discussed.

We must broaden the field of debate. That’s agenda enough for the time being.

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

I went off to dinner a few minutes after I posted this, came back and read it again. Ack. Spent four hours rewriting it. The message is the same, but it’s much shorter and, I hope, more focused. Apologies if you read the earlier version.


Unstructured Musings on Choice

I had a brief twitter talk with Neal McCluskey about Jay Greene’s article arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to take state tests.

Best line: “So, the state only pays for its own vision of a good education but you have to pay extra if you want to pursue something else. “. Um. Yeah. Similarly, the state only pays for its own vision of law enforcement, its own vision of unemployment funds if people don’t have jobs, and so on. Why should education be any different?

This sort of proposal seems, at first glance, to be breathtakingly full of horseshit chutzpah. Like, so let me get this straight. You base your whole argument for choice on the fact that public schools are cesspits of failure and incompetence. Give parents a choice! you say, don’t force them into terrible public schools. Don’t force black kids to go public just because of race, let them choose! Give them vouchers! Create charters! But then, when it comes to proving that choice actually results in increased learning, heavens, no! These schools are different. Parents chose them because they wanted something other than the state’s idea of education. Don’t make them take those pesky tests!

Huh? The entire impetus for choice, the entire rationale that won the day for vouchers, the reason the Supreme Court finally approved vouchers even for religious schools, was not “Hey, parents should get a choice for their children” but “parents without economic means need a way to escape failing public schools”. Choice advocates think the rationale is broader than that, of course, but time and again they lost that fight. In fact, even now, choice people are pushing “tax credits” over “vouchers” because, I think, they realize how untenable choice is without the spectre of poor kids with few options.

So the whole basis for choice is failing public schools! If you weren’t convinced they were incompetent cesspits, what the hell? What’s your basis for choice?

To which Neal McCluskey says hello? See who I work for? We never wanted state-run schools! Choice all the way down the line.

At which point I feel like Henry Clay arguing with western farmers about killing the bank. Wait. You’re for soft money. Jackson’s a hard money freak. Why the hell are you on his side?

Snicker. Hey, whatever works! sez Neal.

Kidding. Kind of.

So this used to puzzle me, but then I read an old review by James Q. Wilson of a Checker Finn book, in which he spelled out three different reform remedies. The first is to reform pedagogy/methods/curriculum—fix what and how the schools teach. The second remedy is choice, which will improve schools through competition. The final remedy involves the belief that schools are failing because the rules are flawed. Change the rules and measure the schools by those rules, and they’ll improve through accountability.

This was very enlightening because Wilson, an advocate for choice, delineates the difference between accountability and his own preference, which aligns fairly well with the distinction between Jay Greene and the folks at Fordham, to pick one at random, or the libertarians at Cato with Michelle Rhee. (The third pedagogy et. al is a much broader group, including constructivism and content knowledge, for example, and we’ll leave that alone for now.)

The Common Core argument you see among reformers is in part a split between these two groups. Accountability advocates want the Common Core—more federal control! Choice advocates see the federal control as intolerable. This doesn’t cover all of it—progressives and teachers mostly don’t like common core, and Tea Party folks like public schools, I believe, but want local control. Still, it explains the big split at the wonk level that is playing out as I write this.

No Child Left Behind was also accountability, not choice. But I think it caused less of a split because first, the law left testing up to the states, and second, the law allowed choice when schools failed to live up to the standards, and everyone knew that schools wouldn’t live up to standards. Many reformers thought NCLB was a failure because parents didn’t exercise choice.

I really shouldn’t be the person explaining this, hence the title of this essay. But it’s interesting to consider the differences. Half the accountability people and all the choice people hate the political power that teacher unions represent. The accountability Republicans seem to just want Republicans to be in power, or at least reasonably represented. The choice people don’t really want anyone to be in power educationally speaking, but also hate the political power of unions because they see them as, oh, I dunno, more committed to increased federal power. No, that can’t be right. But something along those lines. ( The other half of accountability folks, the Andrew Rotherhams, the Dems who want to reform schools with unions, them I don’t get, so leave them out for now.)

(Wait, Ed, you don’t understand. All that political stuff might be true, but you forget these people are working for good schools. Yes, yes, reform opponents want good schools, too, but these guys actually want results. Why are you laughing, Ed?)

So the accountability people just want more voices for charters to help destabilize public schools and unions. In return, accountability people give lip service to vouchers, but their hearts aren’t really in it.

It seems to me that choice people themselves understand that this might be the best they can get, which is why they’ve mostly hitched their wagon to the accountability star, getting more choice around the edges and corners. They can’t get it outright for the reasons I described early on. The public is not going to give parents money to send their kid wherever. Consequently, Jay Greene’s article makes no sense, strategically, because it completely undercuts their admittedly opportunistic basis for pushing choice. Hence my surprise.

Accountability advocates have a stronger position, but then, it’s a bit fuzzy what their position is. There’s a reason Michael Petrilli calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up. (“Squirrel!”)

Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways that the officially designated accountability advocates ignore entirely. For example, public schools are held accountable if they suspend too many black or Hispanic students. They are held accountable if they group kids by ability and the racial demographics are unrepresentative of the school community. They are held accountable if girls can’t play football, or LBQT students are referred to by the wrong gender. They are held accountable if their students use social media to torment each other about events that occurred off-campus, on the weekend, with no school involvement.

This sort of accountability goes by another name: lawsuits. Lawsuits or the threat thereof are highly effective accountability measures, and are much scarier than Mike Petrilli and Andrew Rotherham. Or even Michelle Rhee. Unfortunately, giving in to these accountability measures does nothing to improve public education and often, in fact, does much to harm it. Not that this matters to lawsuits. Or schools fearing them.

So what, exactly, is accountability as Fordham and Bellwether envision it, separate from choice? Beyond the scope of this essay. Back to choice.

Going back to Neal’s “hey, don’t look at me! I don’t want accountability” wave-off, I just want to ask: do pure choice people really want an education system with no state control? An open marketplace? I realize that we’re supposed to pretend that all parents value school and be insulted at the implication that they wouldn’t want what’s best for their kids, but reality, alas, intervenes, which is why truancy officers are a major profit center for urban schools.

So suppose we just let the kids whose parents didn’t care go to terrible schools or just not go to school at all. Would we get nothing more than unhappy kids on street corners, or would we get something like the scenario portrayed in this comment, during the CTU strike? Any takers?

Teachers are cheaper than cops and prisons and by this I do not mean “uneducated kids will end up in prison” or whatever pious do-gooders might say about the value of education. I mean it literally: some substantial chunk of kids who are now forced to stay in school will get out onto the streets three to eight years earlier and crime will increase. That seems quite obvious.

Someone will undoubtedly say “Wow, Ed, you don’t see yourself as anything more than a glorified babysitter?”

It’s this sort of response that causes most teachers to realize how little the outside world gets it. Because hell yes. That’s what public schools are, sometimes. And have always been. Babysitters. Education will fail to reach a significant portion of the kids who are both low income and low ability. That’s a fact. We do it anyway, in part because, as I said, it’s cheaper than jails and cops. But in part because some number, and it’s not a small number, will be reached, will be persuaded to keep in the game, play by the rules, and eventually get something approximating a paying job in this new economy. That’s what we work for, to increase the number of the kids who do more than mark time until jail.

So don’t think you’re insulting me by calling me a glorified babysitter, and get back to the issue I raised: can you prove that all parents will react responsibly to unfettered educational choices for their kids? Remember, mind you, that a good number of those parents should still be in school themselves, and clearly demonstrated their utter contempt for the value of that institution by getting knocked up or doing the knocking. Many parents make dreadful choices and it’s unpopular to give them tax dollars to screw up any more than we already have to.

Another question: if you’re against public schools, why advocate for charters? As any Cato wonk knows, charters are killing private schools. Increasing charters increases public school spending. More charters will increase the number of kids under government oversight, give even more control to the states and ultimately the federal government. So why are choice people pro-charters? Charter schools purport to give choices but actually just drive up public education costs for the express benefit of a lucky few underrepresented minorities or suburban whites and Asians too cheap to send their kids to private school. As long as I’m ordering the world, choice folks, can’t you go back to pushing tax deductions for private schools? Then let Bill Gates pay tuition scholarships for URMs rather than fund meaningless and usually unsuccessful initiatives in his public school sandbox.

Finally, this: eventually, all three reform positions will realize that they can’t have what they want, that our schools aren’t failing, that their expectations are ludicrous. I just hope, when that happy day arrives, we will take a look at what we can do to convince more low ability kids to leave off marking time in order to work towards adulthood and responsibility. Higher standards, no. Better jobs, yes.

Instead, liberals are getting all excited about a brave new world in which super-rich employers are teaching their Wisconsin nannies about quinoa. Because it’s Wisconsin nannies who will cause all the trouble when we’ve got an entire generation of disaffected youth in a society that didn’t worry about jobs for people who read at a sixth grade level and pretended instead that more choice or tougher standards would give them the intellectual skills for college.


Core Meltdown Coming

I’ve stayed out of the Common Core nonsense. The objections involve much fuss about federal control, teacher training, curriculum mandates, and the constructivist nature of the standards. Yes, mostly. But so what?

Here’s the only important thing you need to know about Common Core standards: they’re ridiculously, impossibly difficult.

I will focus here on math, but I’m an English teacher too, and could write an equivalent screed for that topic.

I’m going to make assertions that, I believe, would be supported by any high school math teacher who works with students outside the top 30%, give or take.

Two to three years is required just to properly understand and apply proportional thinking–ratios and percentages. That’s leaving off the good chunk of the population that probably can’t ever truly understand it in non-concrete situations. Proportional thinking is a monster. That’s after two to three years spent genuinely understanding fraction operations. Then, maybe, they could get around to understanding the first semester of first year algebra–linear equations (slopes, more proportional thinking), isolating variables, systems, exponent laws, radicals—in a year or so.

In other words, we could use K-5 to give kids a good understanding in two things: fractions and integer operations. Put measurement and other nonsense into science (or skip it entirely, but then remember the one subject I don’t teach). Middle school should be devoted to proportional thinking, which will introduce them to variables and simple isolation procedures. Then expand what is currently first semester algebra over a year.

Remember, I’m talking about students outside the top 30% or so (who could actually benefit from more proportions and ratios work as well, but leave that for another post). We might quibble about the time frames and whether we could add a little bit more early algebra to the mix. But if a math teacher tells you this outline is nonsense, that if most kids were just taught properly, they could learn all this material in half the time, ask some questions about the demographic he works with.

Right now middle school math, which should ideally focus almost entirely on proportions, is burdened with introductions to exponents, a little geometry, some simple single variable equations. Algebra I has a whole second semester in which students who can’t tell a positive from negative slope are expected to master quadratics in all their glory and all sorts of word problems.

But Common Core standards add exponential functions to the algebra one course load and compensate by moving systems of equations and exponent laws to eighth grade while much of isolating variables is booted all the way down to sixth grade. Seventh grade alone bears the weight of proportions and ratios, and it’s one of several curricular objectives. So in the three years when, ideally, our teachers should be doing their level best to beat proportional thinking into students’ heads, Common Core expects our students to learn half of what used to be called algebra I, with a slight nod to proportional thinking (and more, as it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

But you don’t understand, say Common Core devotees. That’s exactly why we have these higher, more demanding standards! We’ve pushed back the timeline, to give kids more time to grasp these concepts. That’s why we’re moving introduction to fractions to third grade, and it’s why we are using the number line to teach fraction numeracy, and it’s why we are teaching kids that whole numbers are fractions, too! See, we’ve anticipated these problems. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be fine.

See, right there, you know that they aren’t listening. I just said that three to four YEARS is needed for all but the top kids to genuinely understand proportional thinking and first semester algebra, with nothing else on the agenda. It’s officially verboten to acknowledge ability in a public debate on education, so what Common Core advocates should have said, if they were genuinely interested in engaging in a debate is Oh, bullpuckey. You’re out of your mind. Four years to properly understand proportional thinking and first semester algebra? But just for some kids who aren’t “smart”? Racist.

And then we could have an argument that matters.

But Common Core advocates aren’t interested in having that debate. No one is. Anytime I point out the problem, I get “don’t be silly. Poor kids can learn.” I point out that I never mentioned income, that I’m talking about cognitive ability, and I get the twitter version of a blank stare somewhere over my shoulder. That’s the good reaction, the one that doesn’t involve calling me a racist—even though I never mentioned race, either.

Besides, CC advocates are in sell mode right now and don’t want to attack me as a soft bigot with low expectations. So bring up the difficulty factor and all they see is an opportunity to talk past the objection and reassure the larger audience: elementary kids are wasting their time on simple math and missing out on valuable instruction because their teachers are afraid of math. By increasing the difficulty of elementary school math, we will forcibly improve elementary school teacher knowledge, and so our kids will be able to learn the math they need by middle school to master the complex, real-world mathematical tasks we’re going to hand them in high school. Utterly absent from this argument is any acknowledgement that very few of the students are up to the challenge.

The timeline isn’t pushed back for algebra alone. Take a look at Geometry.

Geometry instruction has been under attack for quite some time, because teachers are de-emphasizing proofs and constructions. I’ve written about this extensively (see the above link, here, and here). Geometry teachers quickly learn that, with extensive, patient, instruction over two-thirds of their classes will still be completely incapable of managing a three step proof. Easy call: punt on proofs, which are hard to test with multiple choice questions. Skip or skate over constructions. Minimize logic, ignore most three dimensional figures (save surface area and volume formulas for rectangular prisms and maybe cylinders). Focus on the fundamentals: angle and polygon facts (used in combination with algebra), application of pythagorean theorem, special rights, right triangle trig, angle relationships, parallel lines, coordinate geometry. And algebra, because the train they’re on stops next at algebra II.

Lowering the course requirements is not only a rational act, but a sound curriculum decision: educate the kids in what they need to know in order to succeed pass survive have some chance of going through the motions in their next math class.

But according to everyone who has never worked with kids outside that 30%, these geometry teachers are lazy, poorly educated yutzes who don’t really understand geometry because they didn’t major in math or are in the bottom third of college graduates. Or, if they’re being charitable—and remember, Common Core folks are in sell mode, so charity it is—geometry teachers are just dealing with the results of low expectations and math illiterate elementary school teachers.

And so, the Common Core strategy: push half of geometry down to middle school.

Here’s what the Common Core declares: seventh graders will learn complementary and supplementary angles and area facts, and eighth graders will cover transversals, congruence, and similarity.

But wait. Didn’t Common Core standards already shove half of algebra down to middle school? Aren’t these students already learning about isolating variables, systems of equations, power laws, and proportions and ratios? Why yes, they are.

So by virtue of stuffing half of algebra and geometry content into middle school, high school geometry, as conceived by Common Core, is a stripped-down chassis of higher-order conceptual essentials: proofs, construction, modeling, measurement (3 dimensions only, of course), congruence and similarity, and right triangles.

Teachers won’t be able to teach to the lowest common denominator of the standards, not least because their students will now know the meaning of the lowest common denominator, thanks to Common Core’s early introduction of this important concept, but more importantly because the students will already know the basic facts of geometry, thanks to middle school. The geometry teachers will have no choice but to teach constructions, proofs, logic, and all the higher-order skills using those facts, the part of geometry that kids will need, intellectually, in order to be ready for college.

Don’t you see the beauty of this approach? ask the Common Core advocates. Right now, we try to cover all the geometry facts in a year. This way, we’re covering it in three years. Deeper understanding is the key!

High school math teachers treat Common Core much like people who ignored Obamacare until their policy got cancelled. We don’t much care about standards normally: math is math. When the teachers who work with the lower half of the ability spectrum really understand that the new, dramatically reduced algebra and geometry standards are based on the premise that kids will cover a good half of the math now supposedly covered in high school in middle school, that simply by the act of moving this material to middle school, the kids will understand this material deeply and thoroughly, allowing them, the high school teachers, to explore more important topics, they will go out and get drunk. I did that last year when I realized that my state actually was going to spend billions on these tests. I was so sure we’d blink at the money. But no, we’re all in.

Because remember, the low proficiency levels we currently have are not only based on less demanding standards, but they don’t include the kids who don’t get to second year algebra by their junior year. That is, of the juniors taking Algebra II or higher, on a much harder test, we can anticipate horribly low proficiency rates. But what about the kids who didn’t get that far?

In California (I’ll miss their reports), about 216,000 sophomores and juniors were taking either algebra I or geometry in 2012-2013. California doesn’t test its seniors, but to figure out how many seniors weren’t on track, we can approximate by checking 2011-12 scores, and see that about 128,000 juniors were taking either algebra I or geometry, which means they would not have been on track to take an Algebra II test as juniors. That is, in this era of low standards, the standards that Common Core will make even more rigorous, California alone has half a million students right now who wouldn’t have covered all the material by their junior year. So in addition to the many students who are at least on paper on track to take a test that’s going to be far too difficult for–at a conservative guess–half of them, we’ve got the many students who aren’t even able to get to that level of math. (Consider that each state will have to spend money testing juniors who aren’t taking algebra II, who we already know won’t be able to score proficient. Whoo and hoo.)

Is it Common Core supporter’s position that these students who aren’t in algebra II by junior year are by definition not ready for college or career? In addition to the other half million (416,000 or so) California students who are technically on track for Common Core but scored below basic or far below basic on their current tests? We don’t currently tell students who aren’t on track to take algebra II as juniors that they aren’t ready for college. I mean, they aren’t. No question. But we don’t tell them.

According to Arne Duncan, that’s a big problem that Common Core will fix:

We are no longer lying to kids about whether they are ready. Finally, we are telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education.

If all we needed to do was tell them, we could do that now. No need for new standards and expensive tests. We could just say to any kid who can’t score 500 on the SAT math section or 23 on the ACT: Hey, sorry. You aren’t ready for college. Probably won’t ever be. Time to go get a job.

If we don’t have the gumption to do that now, what about Common Core will give us the necessary stones? Can I remind everyone again that these kids will be disproportionately black and Hispanic?

I can tell you one thing that Common Core math was designed to do—push us all towards integrated math. It’s very clear that the standards were developed for integrated math, and only the huge pushback forced Common Core standards to provide a traditional curriculum–which is in the appendix. The standards themselves are written in the integrated approach.

So one way to avoid having to acknowledge a group of kids who are by definition not ready for career and college would be to require schools to teach integrated math, as North Carolina has done. That way, we could mask it—just make sure all students are in something called Integrated Math 3 or 4 by junior year. If so, there’s a big problem with that strategy: American math teachers and parents both despise integrated math. I know of at least one school district (not mine) where math coaches spent an entire summer of professional development trying to convince the teachers to adopt an integrated curriculum. The teachers refused and the district reluctantly backed down. Few people have mentioned how similar the CC standards are to the integrated curriculum that Americans have consistently refused. But I do wonder if that was the appeal of an integrated curriculum in the Common Core push—it wouldn’t increase proficiency, but would make it less obvious to everyone how many students aren’t ready. (Of course, that would be lying. Hmm.)

At around this point, Common Core supporters would argue that of course it’s more than just not lying to the kids! It’s the standards themselves! They’re better! Than the lower ones! That more than half our kids are failing!

And we’ll only have to wait eight years to see the results!!!

Eight years?

Yeah, didn’t anyone mention this? That’s when the first year of third graders will become juniors, the first year in which Common Core magic will have run its full reign, and then we’ll see how great these higher standards really are! These problems—they just won’t be problems any more. These are problems caused by our lower standards.

Right.

Or: As we start to get nearer to that eight year mark, we’ll notice that the predictions of full bore Common Core proficiency isn’t signaling. With any luck, elementary school test scores will increase. But as we get nearer and nearer to high school, we’ll see the dreaded fadeout. Faced with results that declare a huge majority of our black and Hispanic students and a solid chunk of white and Asian students are unready for career and college, what will we do?

Naw. That’s eight years out! By that time, reformers will need a next New Thing to keep their donors excited, and politicians will have figured out the racial disproportionality of the whole college and career ready thing. We barely lasted ten years with No Child Left Behind, before we got waivers and the next New Thing. So what New New Thing will everyone be talking about five to six years out, what fingers will they be pointing, in which direction, to explain this failure? I don’t know. But it’s a good bet we’ll get another waiver.

Is it at all possible that the National Governors Association thought up the Common Core as a diversion, an escape route from the NCLB 100% proficiency trap? It’s not like Congress was ever going to get in gear.

But it’s an awfully expensive trap door, if so. Much cheaper to just devise some sort of Truth In Education Act that mandates accurate notification of college readiness, and avoid spending billions on tests and new materials.

Notice how none of this is a public conversation. At the public debate level, the only math-based Common Core opposition argues that the math standards are too easy.

At which point, I suddenly realize I need more beer.


Teacher Quality Report: Lacking a Certain Quality

October flew by. I actually did a lot of writing, but not where anyone can see it. Plus, I’ve had my butt kicked, bronchially speaking. Apparently I’m asthmatic, but the only thing that means to me is that I hang on to coughs forever. So here it is October and just two posts? 20 days between? That might be a record. Even weirder, this has been my biggest month–25K+ views. Go figure. But let’s see if I can get two done in a day.

First up is a bit of a greatest hits montage occasioned by this report on Gains in Teacher Quality by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

I noticed some, er, broad claims.

Smart Teachers are Better?

From the report: And the evidence on the importance of teacher academic proficiency generally suggests that effectiveness in raising student test scores is associated with strong cognitive skills as measured by SAT or licensure test scores, or the competitiveness of the college from which teachers graduate.

Nice to see a mention of licensure test scores, although not in the right context. But as Dan Goldhaber himself observed,

..we see that Black and other minority students appear to benefit from being matched with a Black teacher regardless of how well or poorly that teacher performed on the Praxis tests, and these positive effects due to matching with Black teachers are comparable in magnitude to having the highest-performing White teachers in the classroom. Removing the lowest of performers on the exam would necessarily remove some of the teachers that appear to be most effective for this segment of the student population.

He also found that there’s no relationship between licensure scores and reading effectiveness, but that licensure test scores operate as a reasonable screening device for white teachers and math. But not black teachers, I guess.

And RAND found less than that:

The results show large differences in teacher quality across the school district, but measured teacher characteristics explain little of the difference. Teacher licensure test scores are unrelated to teacher success in the classroom. Similarly, student achievement is unaffected by whether classroom teachers have advanced degrees. Student achievement increases with teacher experience, but the linkage is weak and largely reflects poor outcomes for teachers during their first year or two in the classroom.

Is there anything relating teacher quality to SAT scores? I couldn’t find it, but (and I mean this seriously) I may have missed it. Can You Recognize an Effective Teacher When You Recruit One? says there isn’t much of a link:

some researchers have found that teachers with stronger academic backgrounds produce larger performance gains for their children (see, for example, Clotfelter et al. (2006, 2007), in addition to the reviews cited above). However, there are also a number of studies which do not find this relationship (e.g., Harris and Sass (2006) on graduate course work and Kane et al. (2006) on college selectivity). …While several early studies failed to find a significant relationship between college admissions scores and principals’ evaluations of new teachers (e.g., Maguire (1966), Ducharme (1970)), a well cited study by Ladd and Ferguson (1996) did find a link between scores on the ACT exam and student achievement growth.

I often notice a study mentioning the “consistent” or “pervasive” link between teacher cognitive ability and student achievement, but all the research I find says that no conclusive link has been found, that some studies find a relationship, some don’t. Research is no more supportive of the smarter teachers campaign than it is for stricter gun control or tougher drug laws. Sorry.

Teachers used to be smart women, but no more

Another quote:

Over the course of the next 35 years, women still made up the vast majority of the teacher workforce, but their academic credentials began to decline. Research by Sean Corcoran, William Evans, and Robert Schwab indicates that the likelihood of a female teacher having been among the highest-scoring 10 percent of high school students on standardized achievement tests fell sharply between 1971 and 2000, from 24 to 11 percent.

Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab said that, but they said a lot more:

In the results presented here we find some evidence of a slight but detectable decline in the relative ability of the average new female teacher, when ability is measured as one’s centile rank in the distribution of high school graduates on a standardized test of verbal and mathematical aptitude. The magnitude of this decline is even greater when measuring ability using standardized scores. We also find that examination of the entire distribution of new teachers is more informative than trends in central tendency alone. Over the 1964–2000 period, women near the top of the test score distribution became much less likely to enter the teaching pro- fession than their peers near the middle of the distribution. The apparent conse- quence has been a much lower representation of women of very high academic abil- ity in the pool of elementary and secondary teachers. While the sample sizes of male teachers are much smaller, we detect the opposite trend among men.

Huh. So on average, women teachers are mostly as bright. (Consider that we have a lot more special ed teachers, who are predominantly female and who have scores as low or lower than elementary teachers.) But fewer really really smart women. Count that as a big “so what”, particularly since, as the report observes, we’re getting some more bright men.

But again, we don’t even know if we need really smart teachers.

We have no data on teacher quality

Absent persuasive evidence on the impact of efforts to raise the bar, some people have speculated that the rise of test-based accountability associated with NCLB and the ongoing push to establish more-rigorous teacher evaluation systems have made teaching less attractive and thereby contributed to further decline in the quality of the teaching corps. (emphasis mine)

Oh, come on. That’s crap. ETS has been telling the world that teacher metrics, particularly in elementary and middle school, have increased dramatically. I’ve written about this extensively, but I’ll just link in #5 on the list of heavily trafficked posts, Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II, which has the most linked image on this site, and a link to this ETS report on teacher quality:

In summary, the following can be said about overall licensure patterns and academic quality during the last decade, at least for the states included in this study:

  • Passing rates have decreased substantially.

  • The academic profile of the entire candidate pool has improved.
  • The academic profile of those passing the Praxis tests has improved.
  • These improvements are consistent across gender, race/ethnicity, and licensure area.
  • Profiles are markedly different for secondary subject teachers in contrast to elementary, special education, and physical education teachers.
  • The decrease in passing rates is likely attributable to increasingly demanding testing requirements put in place during these intervening years.

Yeah, the licensure tests! How about those?

Things that Shouldn’t Make You Go Hmmmm

After going through the many ways in which teacher metrics have improved over a seven year period, the authors scratch their heads:

What explains the apparent rise in academic competency among new teachers? As we show, the SAT scores of those seeking and finding employment in a teaching job differ in different years. It is possible that alternative pathways into the teaching profession have become an important source of academic talent for the profession. Unfortunately, we cannot explore this issue in any depth because the way in which teachers were asked about their preparation has varied over time. Regardless, alternative routes are unlikely to be the primary explanation for the changing SAT trends given that, with a few high-profile exceptions like Teach for America, alternative certification programs are not highly selective.

Wow, introduce alternative certification and before I have a chance to get huffy, walk it back. Damn skippy alternative certification programs are not highly selective. Many are set up specifically to recruit URM teachers, and in many ways “alternative certification”, outside of TFA, is a proxy for black and Hispanic teachers.

The 1998 Higher Education Act required ed schools to prove that 80% of their candidates passed all licensure tests. If I understand the politics correctly, the law was intended to force ed schools to spend more time covering content, which is absurd. Ed schools responded predictably—who the hell wants to teach 6th grade math in college?—requiring candidates pass at least one licensure test to be eligible for admission. A couple years later, NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” criteria led to a wholesale increase in elementary and middle school content knowledge requirements, reflected in much tougher licensure tests.

So the 1998 Higher Education Act, coupled with the tougher licensure tests of the NCLB era, led to a tremendous decline in black and Hispanic teachers overall, and their virtual disappearance from education schools. Alternative certification programs sprung up as a way to bring in more URM teachers—they aren’t bound by the 1998 law, so they can bring in candidates and then spend most of the training time teaching them the content to pass the test.

Have you been paying attention? Because it’s pretty friggin’ obvious why the “academic competency” of teachers has improved. I’ve been writing about this forever. THE LICENSURE TESTS ARE HARDER. I shouted this back in March (It’s the test, Zitbrains!) and at least twice on the Clarence Mumford case, and I don’t know how to holler it any louder.

This authors mention the licensure tests twice, but never for the right reason. They never once consider whether the tests might be a source of the increase. In fact, they never seem to realize that their report is largely redundant, since ETS covered the same ground six years ago.

Meanwhile, despite this big boost in teacher “academic competency”, which I’ve been writing about for two years, we aren’t seeing a corresponding huge boost in student academic outcomes, and all research continues to show that, at best, the link between teacher cognitive ability and student outcomes is twitchy and unreliable. All research continues to play the Reverse Drinking Game and ignore student cognitive ability. Math professors assure us that the only difference between “math people” and everyone else is effort, and that anyone with an IQ of 70 can learn algebra.

So, here’s what I think, but can’t prove: our teachers are pulled roughly from the same pool as always, which is the 35-50% for elementary and special ed teachers, and 50-75% for secondary content teachers. But the bottom quintile or so is gone because of higher licensure standards, so the average has increased. This has resulted in far fewer black and Hispanic teachers, particularly black teachers. Existing black teachers are also being forced out of the profession by new requirements (hence the Mumford impersonation fraud ring).

Remember, anyone who pushes for improved teacher qualifications is saying, in effect, we need fewer black and Hispanic teachers. And, as the recent TFA study’s big takeaway shows, all you get for largely eradicating black and Hispanic teachers is, maybe, .07 of a standard deviation.

Just today Dara Zeehandelaar commented on my blog:

The point is that students might benefit if traditional certification programs were more selective in who they admitted (for example, by admitting students with higher GRE scores, higher undergraduate GPAs, undergraduate or even graduate coursework in the content area in which they want to teach, professional experience, etc. — the same things that TFA looks for). “Selectivity” in this case has nothing to do with race.

She said this with a straight face, too.

Sorry, Dara. Selectivity in this case has everything to do with race.


The Takeaway from the TFA Study

Jersey Jazzman’s list of cautions mirrors my own on the TFA study. I would add that the TFA skew towards middle school (in the study) makes a big difference; TFAers push testing excitement heavily in middle school, something that’s very tough to do with high schoolers.

I had an interesting twitter exchange with Morgan Polikoff who, can I just say, makes me feel both ancient and unproductive, about the “significance” of the TFA improvement margin. He explained that hey, that’s what researchers have always used. Well, yeah. I know that. I’m not questioning the study’s use of that particular metric, I’m questioning the value of that particular metric.

Recently, the august NY Times declared that “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education” but alas, all this knowledge “has another hurdle to clear: Most educators, including principals and superintendents and curriculum supervisors, do not know the data exist, much less what they mean.”

Y’all are going to tell us about it, right? While us teachers are supposed to just go “Wow, thanks! We’ll go put this in action!” (Now I sound like a typical teacher who values practice over data, which I actually don’t, and I find this very annoying.)

But in fact, teachers are actually reading more research than at any time in the past, if only because reformers are presenting us all as a bunch of incompetent buffoons whose results aren’t just equaled, but improved, by smarter, ambitious, desirable college graduates who are in it for the resume improvement. It’s just slightly possible, isn’t it, that when a bunch of teachers become familiar with “research practice”—created by people who usually have very little teaching experience or have been told to ignore that experience in favor of “research practice”—they might question that practice?

Note to those who want to start “educating” teachers on research: expect pushback if you try to sell “significant” improvement that translates to something like a couple questions more on a test. Here’s a small sample of what math teachers will want to know on this particular study: did the TFAers do better at teaching linear equations, factoring quadratics? Were the additional correct questions random, or specific to a content area? Was the improvement consistent over each subject taught, or specific to one subject? Did the classrooms have similar behavior referral rates? Mind you, we’ll see the “significance” as irrelevant either way, but at least we’ll know whether it’s “real”.

But accept the results as “significant” and here’s the big takeaway, hinted at by Dara Zeehandelaar of Fordham:

Both TFA and Teaching Fellows have less experience than their peers, are less likely to be minorities, more likely to have graduated from more selective colleges, less likely to be math majors but more likely to score higher on tests of math content. However, only years of experience and, for high school, math content knowledge were associated with higher student achievement. These findings add to the glut of research indicating that traditional certification programs could benefit from greater selectivity, indeed from a radical overhaul.

Dara is celebrating a future teaching force with fewer blacks and Hispanics. Me, I look at it from the opposite side of the mirror, where it reads something like this:

CAEP, the ed school accreditation organization, is setting new standards that include higher candidate selection benchmarks. Selective ed schools have been left some wiggle room, in that the cohort, not each individual candidate, has to have an average GPA over 3.0 and average test scores in the top third of a nationally normed achievement test. However, it will annihilate predominantly black/Hispanic teacher schools, which include no small amount of public universities. Only 6% of African Americans and 10% of Hispanics get over 600 on each section of the SAT, which is roughly the top 30% nationwide.

So if CAEP doesn’t blink, or ed schools don’t get creative, we will soon have almost no black and Hispanic teachers, since blacks and Hispanics who get over 600 on each section of the SAT go off to become doctors and lawyers and Wall Street hedge fund managers. While the test score requirements will almost certainly be loosened or eliminated as the import becomes clear, our nation will see a lot fewer black and Hispanic teachers. We’ve already cut into the supply back during the NCLB changes, and people are already scratching their heads about these “missing” minority teachers, as Mokoto Rich of the New York Times has termed this, blithely ignoring the reality right in front of her. If the CAEP standards have the intended effect, we’ll lose even more.

But that’s okay, right? Because sure, we’ll lose in the current generation, but the next generation, taught by those newer, brilliant teachers who really care about their kids and aren’t just doing it because it’s some pesky job will raise achievement! Blacks and Hispanics will score the same as whites and Asians! Stricter drug laws will eliminate addiction! Tougher gun laws will prevent Newtowns! Dogs and cats will live together in peace and harmony! Hell, Israel and Palestine will straighten things out.

So the TFA study gives us a preview of that brave new world. TFAers were three times as likely to be white; the control group of teachers had seven times as many blacks. And lo! you see the predictable one standard deviation difference in test score means between the groups. The TFA group is exactly the
highly qualified, selective crew of new penny bright teachers everyone says they want.

And you get .07 of a standard deviation difference in student outcomes.

Of course, we already knew that, since it was an example of what the clearinghouse on education research knows doesn’t work:

For example, Michael Garet, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research group, led a study that instructed seventh-grade math teachers in a summer institute, helping them understand the math they teach — like why, when dividing fractions, do you invert and multiply?

The teachers’ knowledge of math improved, but student achievement did not.

“The professional development had many features people think it should have — it was sustained over time, it involved opportunities to practice, it involved all the teachers in the school,” Dr. Garet said. “But the results were disappointing.”

So maybe we can add the TFA study to the clearinghouse as additional evidence that past a certain point (unknown), increased teacher ability doesn’t result in improved student achievement. Or are we going to still pretend that .07 of a standard deviation is 2.6 months of instruction, that, as Jerseyman says, the increase is actually “practically” instead of “statistically”, significant?

Both reformers and progressives push “improve teacher quality” as an easy mantra that really doesn’t have much basis in fact. However, reformers go farther. Reformers look at the existing state of affairs and see obvious failure, failure so manifest that it’s a simple matter to fix. Low test scores? Give them teachers who care. Smarter teachers. Higher standards. Over the past decade, their enthusiasm has been blunted a tad by the realization that at best, their “obvious” improvements, if you squint really hard and pretend peer environment is irrelevant, will improve outcomes a squidge around the edges. But still, they keep coming back for more. And so, they push this study as evidence that TFA works, not realizing that the study foretells the lackluster improvement they’ll see at the expense of a virtually closed career path for blacks and Hispanics.

That’s the takeway of the TFA study.

Can someone mention this to CAEP?


College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences

The Big Reveal on Cal’s holistic admissions process created much fuss, most of it on behalf of Asians who are clearly the victims of discriminatory behavior.

I’m fussed, too. But most people don’t completely understand how this “problem” came about, and why the UC and other universities are discriminating against Asians. It’s not so much “affirmative action for whites” as it is unintended consequences of being forbidden to use affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics.

The GPA Demographic Footprint

In November of 1996, the UC system was told by the people of California that it was not allowed to consider race in admissions anymore. The UC system, like all universities in this country, wasn’t about to listen to the rabble. So, as Saul Geiser writes, the system went looking for a reason to reduce the weight given test scores.

Such differences in the demographic footprint of HSGPA and standardized tests are of obvious importance for expanding access and equity in college admissions, especially at those institutions where affirmative action has been curtailed or ended. … at those institutions where affirmative action has been challenged or eliminated, admissions officers have been forced to reevaluate the role of standardized tests as selection criteria.

The result has been a de-emphasis of standardized tests as admissions criteria at some institutions.
UC introduced “comprehensive review,” an admissions policy that more systematically took into account the impact of socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and family income, on students’ test scores and related indicators of academic achievement. [note: this is the process described in the NY Times article]. UC also revised its Eligibility Index, a numerical scale which sets minimum HSGPA and test-score requirements for admission to the UC system; the revised index gave roughly three-quarters of the weight to HSGPA and the remainder to standardized tests. … Under this policy [of Eligibility in the Local Context], which also took effect in 2001, students’ class rank within high school was determined solely on the basis of their HSGPA in college preparatory coursework, so that the effect of this policy, too, was to diminish the role of standardized tests in UC admissions.

So de-emphasize those evil, racist tests that traditionally represent, in the typical progressive’s mind, a means of reinforcing the institutionalized hegemony of the white man’s values. Grades, in contrast, reflected the school’s values, the school’s priorities. So majority URM schools, both charters and inner city, can put whatever grades they like on classes that can be called whatever they want. UC officials made the change, along with Eligibility in the Local Context, so that majority URM schools could lie about their students’ academic abilities properly reflect the students’ diligence and abilities in subjects simply not valued by the institutional racists at the College Board.

The problem is, alas, that UC admissions made changes to their policy based on the “demographic footprint” of tests, but they forgot about the demographic footprint of grades.

Namely: Asians, particularly recent immigrant Asians, kill whites on grades. The test score advantage is getting (suspiciously) worse, but the grade advantage is huge.

That wasn’t part of the plan. Look, universities know the game as well as anyone: grades are a fraud. That’s why, until relatively recently, all universities weighted test scores as high or higher than grades.

If high school grades were objectively accurate, why does the University of California have an entry level writing requirement?—and why is that writing requirement either a test or a college level course? (And I have my own doubts of college level courses, but more on that later.) Why is remediation a huge issue in state colleges? If high school grades meant anything, schools could just accept students with high grades and hey, presto. Problem solved.

But Saul Geiser is a good researcher, and his study finds that HSGPA is as good or better a predictor of freshman GPA as test scores. Sure. But that brings up another point: Freshman GPA is pretty worthless, too. It’s a metric that goes back to a time when everyone took the same classes. It’s ancient. It predates the growing disconnect between grades and ability.

I’d go further and argue that in total, college GPA is worthless for much the same reasons that high school GPA is. We hear constant stories about grade inflation at elite schools, while public universities are under tremendous pressure to pass as many wholly unqualified blacks and Hispanics as they can, given the huge number that can’t even get past the remedial classes. How can grade point average mean anything in a world that requires some students to pass calculus and while others only take remedial math (which they can skip if they got an SAT score of 600+)?

If college grades were objectively accurate, the “mismatch theory“, for better or worse, couldn’t even be conceived of. If an A at Harvard is the same as an A at Berkeley which is the same as an A at Florida State, then lower ability students couldn’t get higher GPAs at Florida State and Richard Sanders shouldn’t be pushing his mismatch theory. Besides, what do you suppose the renewed push for a college exit exam is about? And in a world where we did require an exit exam, what would be the best predictor of passing rates—college grades or incoming SAT scores? Everyone knows that answer: unless the exit exam was rigged, we’d find that passing rates were best predicted by SAT scores, which would show a distressing, racially uneven, distribution.

I understand that GPAs are a useful metric because the people who use them filter the data through context—race, school, major, and so on. That’s fine, but not when you have the University of California claiming that HSGPA predicts four-year college outcomes when the university in questions sending easily half of its URM admits into remediation classes.

UC knows this. The whole GPA thing is just cover. What did a little lie matter, if it allowed them to bring in more blacks and Hispanics and thwart the will of California voters? The only people hurt would be the kids who didn’t get 4.0s.

Except that turned out to be a whole hell of a lot of kids with really good SAT scores, a whole lot of them white. So let’s look at four UC campuses:

Campus Ranking 3.75+ GPA Non-Res SATR SATM SATW600
% 600+ % 700+ % 600+ % 700+ % 600+ % 700+
Berkeley 1 79 540 38 36 28 56 34 46
San Diego 3 86 1530 42 15 41 42 46 22
Santa Barbara 5 75 228 41 13 47 24 44 17
Santa Cruz 7 33 16 26 6 31 7 24 7

The reality of demographic footprints being what they are, the kids represented by these numbers are almost exclusively white or Asian. Any black or Hispanic getting scores above 600 are usually going to a higher ranked private school. Keep in mind that these stats are leaving out UCLA, Irvine, and Davis, technically ranked second, fourth, and sixth, although the difference between UCSB, Irvine, and Davis metrics are primarily in the demographics.

In other words, a hell of a lot of kids are getting 2000+ SAT scores who aren’t getting into the top 3 schools, while a whole bunch of kids with 1800-2000 scores are. And the difference, for the most part, is grades. In the days before California banned affirmative action, the UCs weighted grades and test scores much closer to evenly—a 3.8 GPA with excellent test scores and a demanding schedule could easily get into Cal or UCLA. No more.

So the GPA edge led to unanticipated consequences and a huge advantage for Asians. But that was just one of the problems.

Changing the SAT

The UC system wasn’t content with just devaluing test scores, so they tried another change that had terrible blowback, again in the Asian category. First, in 2002, Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT and a greater use of the SAT Subject tests. By 2005, the SAT had been completely revamped, the College Board having clearly understood the hint.

While I can’t be certain, I think the original changes were intended to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics eligible by making the test burden lighter. At this point, the UC doesn’t appear to have been thinking about Asian overrepresentation. I’m not sure this was caused by anything other than Atkinson’s pet fancy, which is sad, given the consequences—which have gone well beyond Caliornia.

I haven’t been a fan of the new SAT. My sense has always been that it became much easier, and more amenable to swotters. But not until I worked on this piece did I realize how much easier, and how much more apparently coachable it is, particularly for those who take hundreds of hours of test prep. The College Board releases percentile ranks by race and ethnicity, but I can’t find the original files for anything before 2005. (If anyone can, then you’re a hell of a googler and send them my way.)

However, I found a book that cites exactly the file I want.

satpercentileasians1995

So in 1995, 14% of Asians, 5.8% of whites, and .6% of blacks scored over 700 in math, which means that the percentile for 700 was 86%, 94%, and 99%. In 2010 (confirm here), those percentiles were 77%, 94%, and 1%.

Only Asians got a lot smarter? Weird. Not impossible. A lot more Chinese and Koreans are taking the test. Not my pick as an explanation, though.

In 1995, the verbal percentile ranks for 700 were (I think) 98.2% Asian, 98.7% for whites, and 99+% for blacks. While this article doesn’t mention it, the 2010 rankings show that the corresponding 700 percentile rankings are now 92%, 94%, and 99%.

Have whites and Asians have gotten a lot smarter in verbal? No. If you won’t take my word for it, check out GRE scores during that time, which was very similar to the 1995 SAT throughout the 90s and before and after, did not see a corresponding increase in scores.

Or–my pick–the reading test has gotten a lot easier, which I’ve been telling to anyone who will listen, and, in my opinion, it’s gotten easier in a way that allows it to be coached more effectively. And the coaching has become more effective over time. Let’s look at all the data together, with a couple more years from the new SAT:

Year Math 700 %ile Verbal 700 %ile
Asians Whites Asians Whites
1995 86 94 98 99
2006 81 94 93 95
2010 77 94 92 94
2012 75 93 91 94

(Cite for 2006, 2012).

Weird. SAT scores are generally pretty stable. Until I started researching this, I had no idea that the Asian increase was that dramatic, and it is part of a series of discoveries over past year making me wonder if the big gap between Asian and white test prep use (and time spent in test prep) is doing more than just giving Asians a slight edge. This piece is long enough without bringing up the ACT, but I believe that a 700 M corresponds to a 32—or it used to, anyway—and notice that a 32 is only 85%ile for Asians. I have been working on these two essays for ten days or so, and I haven’t yet been able to find ACT percentiles by race over the past ten years or so. Reading and English appear to be roughly the same. However, almost three times as many Asians take the SAT as take the ACT.

One other thing to keep in mind—the number of native Chinese and Koreans taking the test has exploded. Are they fluent in English? Ask any university freshman at an elite school with a Chinese or Korean grad student instructor. So by any stretch, the Asian mean should have been dropping slightly, shouldn’t it? Which means either Asian Americans have gotten phenomenally better, the Chinese/Korean nationals are also getting high Verbal SAT scores, or….what? What explains this jump?

Whites had increased scores in reading, which I believe supports my contention that the 2005 changes were easier. Why did white math scores stay stable? That’s part of a longer post that’s all intuition on my part. Suffice it to say that the SAT math section is both shorter and easier. This helps people with high attention to detail who aren’t as intuitively strong in math. (yes, I know, the SAT supposedly tests higher math since 2005. Too long for this post, but I would disagree.) However, I do understand there could be other factors at work.

I’ll write more about various things that might be the cause of the extremely strange boost in Asian math and verbal scores in the next post, but for now, let’s leave it at this: UC had a big problem. The changes they had hoped might improve scores for blacks and Hispanics (my interpretation) had instead led to unimaginable increases in high Asian scores in the SAT.

More Subject Tests! No, wait. No Subject Tests!

The College Board obligingly did UC’s bidding in making the test easier (my read), but UC continued to follow Atkinson’s directive by requiring two optional subject tests. Previously, applicants had to take two required tests that were much easier than the others (Writing and Math 1C), and then one optional test. Now, the Writing and Math 1C tests were disallowed, and students had to choose two of the “harder” subject tests to take. This requirement handed Asians an enormous advantage over whites. To see why, just check out the percentile rankings of the subject tests—but before you do, close your eyes and stereotype like mad. What subject tests do you think Asians are more likely to take? Okay, now look. Get a load of those Chinese and Korean tests! Roughly half of all takers get an 800–and check out how many of the testers are native speakers. My goodness gracious.

Notice, too, the skew on the Math 2c test. I’ve tutored students in both the Math 2c and English Lit tests for around a decade. It is far easier to prep students for the Math 2c than it is the English Literature test. The test is considerably more difficult as well, because high schools directly cover the math subject matter, but don’t cover the English Lit subject matter, which relies far more on, dare I say, innate literary analysis skills.

In general, subject tests aren’t subjected (hahahaha) to the same scrutiny as the SAT. It’s well known, for example, that the score distributions are wacky, and that in certain tests–Physics, I’m looking at you–the lowest score is higher than the usual 200. I’m not a psychometrician, but I’d love to have someone make the College Board explain this document. Why, if more people finish the English test and get the same amount right, are the scores so much lower? Why, given the much higher accuracy rate of the Korean and Chinese listening tests, aren’t the tests made more difficult? But I digress.

And so, just a decade after Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT as an admissions tool and complete reliance on the Subject tests, UC does a complete 180, ending the use of subject tests in admissions. Asians knew instantly this was All About Them, and there was little attempt to deny it:

It was also noted that white students seem to be the winners under the new guarantee; this should be of concern to Council. BOARS Chair Rashid acknowledged that the percentage of white students does indeed go up and the percentage of Asian students goes down. The reason for this is that Asian students seem to be very good at figuring out the technical requirements of UC eligibility. If the subject exam is removed, even more white and Asian students meet the requirements of eligibility. Political perception is another concern. This proposal should also not be viewed as the ultimate solution to diversity. It was also noted that the numbers of females goes up under either scenario.

(emphasis mine.)

Please note that bolded comment. They aren’t saying drats, Asians are smarter. Or drats, we need diversity.

Read the rest of the memo to see the various hoops they jumped through in order to get this cover.

Back where it all started
You know what would have been much easier? Require four Subject tests: English Lit, Math 2c, American History, and a Science. Asians would still do well, but it would have been harder. Dump the SAT, dump or devalue grades. If nothing else, we’d be giving smart kids of all races a chance to show their stuff purely through test scores, imperfect as they may be, rather than the vagaries of teacher assessment.

But that gets UC right back to the problem it started with, the reason it emphasized GPA over test scores in the first place, the problem that it created just to give them a cover story for ignoring the will of the California voters (and, eventually, the constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court). A test-score only admissions process would eliminate almost all blacks and Hispanics from consideration. The problem: every attempt to bring in more blacks and Hispanics leads to more Asians.

Problem? Why is it a problem? Shouldn’t the universities just let the chips fall where they may? If the schools are overwhelmingly Asian, so what?

Well, for starters, relying exclusively on grades leads to Kashawn Campbell at the low end—hell, Kashawn’s story singlehandedly reveals the need for test scores, the fraudulence of high school grades, and the sketchy nature of college grades in one neat little package.

But more importantly, a huge number of the Asians admitted are either nationals or first and second generation Chinese, Koreans, and Indians.

None of what I’ve written or will write is intended in any way to rationalize the discrimination against Asians. Quite the contrary. Any fair admissions process would lead to overrepresentation of Asians. But I hope to persuade readers that college admissions in its current form, in both private and public schools, is so corrupt that getting outraged about discrimination for or against any one demographic is pointless. Any outrage you find is counterbalanced by another, and no, it’s not as if it all works out.


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.


Who I Am as a Teacher

As I thought about writing specific disagreements I have with reformers, I realized that time and again I’d be having to break off and explain how my values and priorities differed. So I thought I’d do that first.

At my last school’s Christmas party (Year 1 at that school, Year 2 of teaching), the popular, widely respected “teacher at large” showed up an hour late. A PE teacher whose credential had been disallowed by NCLB-wrought changes, he was at that point responsible for coming up with plans to help “at-risk” kids.

“Yeah, I was having all sorts of fun reviewing the Lists.”

“The Lists?” asked another teacher.

“Top 25 Discipline Problems, Top 25 Kids On Probation for Felonies, Top 25 Absentee/Truancy Students, Lowest 25 GPAs, you name it. I look for the kids who aren’t on more than one or two lists and try to reach them before they qualify for more lists.”

“I think I have a few of those kids.” groused a teacher.

“A few? Pity Ed here.” He nodded at me. “Half the kids on each list are in one of your classes.”

I think he made up the felonies list. I hope.

Fall of year two was about as tough a time as I’ve ever had as a teacher.

Getting quiet for teaching was job one. I’d separate inveterate chatters, then I’d move the worst offenders to the front groups, and then, if one of them still didn’t shut up, I’d pull the desk forward all the way to a wall (with the kid in it). The rest of the class would snicker at the talker—at, not with.

“It’s not like I’m going to pay attention to you up here. I’ll just go to sleep,” one of them said, defiantly.

“You say that as if it were a bad thing.”

He or she often did go to sleep, which gave me some quiet from that corner, anyway. Otherwise, I wrote a referral. I also wrote referrals when they called me a f***ing [noun of your choice, profane or not], a sh**ty f**ing boring teacher (boring! I ask you), when they threw things, when they got up and wandered around the room refusing to sit, when they texted in open view and refused to give over the phone, when they left the room without permission, when they howled I HAVE TO PISS at the top of their voices (usually one at a time), and so on—all during the time that I was trying to teach the lesson “up front”. Once I released them for work it got easier, as I wasn’t trying to maintain order and some notion of what I’d been doing before the last interruption, but rather walking around the room helping students and telling others to shut up.

As bad as I make it sound, every senior teacher I worked with was astonished at how well I did, given the pressure; all the previous teachers stuck with all algebra all the time had routinely lost control of the classes and had supervisors posted. Administrators didn’t approve of my approach, alas; since my kids were mostly Hispanic, my referrals were, too. So I was caught between an administration who would really rather I’d have flailed ineffectually than kick kids out for order, and the bulk of my students, who opined frequently that I should boot students more often and earlier.

The beginning of the way back up that year began in second period when I’d thrown out the third kid of the day, and Kiley said “Could you toss out Elijah, while you’re at it?” and much of the class laughed. Elijah stood up and said “Yeah, send me, too! I don’t want to be here! Let me go!”

I tend to stay pretty focused on teaching; rarely do I give A Talk. Today, I have no idea why I made an exception.

“Why don’t you want to be here, again?”

“Because I hate math? F***ing duh.”

“What is it you think I want?”

“You want me to shut up.”

“Well, yeah. But why?”

“So you can teach!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s your job!”

Because I want everyone to pass this class.” And to this day, I thank all that’s holy that I caught the class’s sudden silence and realized that my remark had an impact.

“Maybe I need to make that clearer. I want every single person in here to pass algebra and move onto geometry. Remind me again, how many people have taken algebra more than once?” Almost everyone in the class raised a hand, including Elijah.

“Yeah. Don’t raise your hand, but I know at least ten students in here are taking it for the third time, including some people who get tossed out of class regularly. I don’t kick kids out for fun. I kick them out because I need to teach everyone. I have kids who want to excel in algebra. I have kids who would like to get better at algebra. I have kids who simply would like to survive algebra, although many days they think that’s a pipe dream. And I have kids who don’t want to be here at all. I figure, I kick kids out from the last group, I’m meeting everyone’s goals but mine.” I actually get a couple laughs; they’re listening.

“But make no mistake, that’s my goal. I want everyone in here to pass.” I looked at Elijah, who’d slipped back into his chair, his eyes fixed on me.

“You could tell me about your troubles, and I’ll give you an ear, but here’s a basic truth: there’s not a single situation in your life that gets worse if you pass algebra. And there’s a whole bunch of things that improve.”

“I could get a work permit, for one thing,” Eduardo muttered.

“Get back on the football team,” said DeWayne.

“And now I know some of you are thinking sure, there’s a catch. No. I didn’t say I want you to like algebra. I didn’t even say I want you to understand algebra, although I guarantee that trying will improve your understanding. I’m making a simple commitment: show up and try. You will get a passing grade. No catch.”

The rest of second period, the toughest class, went so well that I decided to repeat that little speech for every class, and in every class, I got utter quiet. I don’t say that all the problems were solved that day, but from that point on far more of the kids “had my back”. Psychologically, their support made it much easier for me to develop a strategy to teach algebra in the face of these challenges.

Here’s how I taught it, and here’s how they did. I only failed 10 kids out of the final 90, or 11%. (Elijah had left. Eduardo got his permit, and DeWayne made it back onto the football team.) That’s the highest failure rate I’ve ever had, but then it’s the last time I taught algebra I. It’s easier to work with kids in geometry and algebra II—they’ve got skin in the game, and graduation becomes a real objective as opposed to the remote possibility it presents to a sophomore taking algebra I for the third time.

The wise reader can infer much about my students and a great deal, although certainly not all, about my values and priorities as a teacher from that tale.

First, I mostly teach kids from the lower third to the middle of the cognitive ability spectrum, with a few outliers on each end. That’s who takes algebra in high school. No more than 10% of my students in any year are capable of genuinely comprehending an actual formal math course in geometry or algebra (I or II). Another 30-50% of the rest are perfectly capable of understanding geometry, algebra and even more advanced topics in applied math, even if they couldn’t really master a formal math course, but they’d have to try a lot harder and want it much more. About a quarter of my students each year are barely capable of learning basic algebra and geometry well enough to apply it in simple, rote situations. A much smaller number can’t even manage that much.

For other teachers, the percentages are skewed heavily to the first and second categories; some of them don’t even know there’s a third and fourth category. A teacher covering precalc and honors algebra II/trig in high-income or Asian suburb, teaching mostly freshmen and sophomores, would have a much higher percentage of students who could master a formal course; their notion of “struggling kids” would be those who aren’t working hard enough. But that’s not my universe—and it’s not the universe I signed up for, although I wouldn’t mind visiting occasionally.

Until this year, my assignments weren’t deliberate. I was just an unimportant teacher who schools didn’t care about losing. In fact, the following year at that same school the administration assigned Algebra II/Trig classes to a teacher who was not qualified to teach the subject while I, who was qualified, was given the lower level Algebra II classes. The administration knew full well about the distinction, which necessitated a “your teacher is not highly qualified” letter to some 90 kids, but that teacher was more valuable than than I was, and so it goes. I’m not bitter, and I’m not marking time until I get “better” kids. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. But every teaching decision I make must be considered in light of my students’ cognitive abilities and, related to that ability, their motivation.

Second, I am a teacher who doesn’t overvalue any individual student at the expense of the class, which means I have no compunction about kicking kids out for the day. You run into these teachers philosophically opposed to removing kids from class; how can these students learn if they aren’t in class, they bleat. These teachers never seem to worry about how all the other kids learn with a disruptive hellion wreaking havoc because, they strongly hint (or outright assert), the right curriculum and caring teachers would eliminate the need to disrupt.

I ask these teachers, politely, do you have kids with tracking bracelets and/or probation officers? Do you have students who have fathered two kids while wearing that tracking bracelet, or gave birth to one? Do you have students who have been suspended or expelled for putting other students in the hospital, or for having a knife in their backpack? Do you have students who routinely tell you to f*** off and don’t bother me? Do you have all of these students plus twelve more who have just enough motivation that, given no distractions, would be able to learn some math but with a distraction will readily jump over to the side telling you to f*** off? And with all that, are you math teachers trying to help students with a four-year range in skills figure out second year algebra? Because otherwise, you can go sing your smug little songs of no student left behind to someone with kids who really shouldn’t be kicked out of the classroom. Okay, maybe not politely.

Come back the next day or even the same day, hat in hand, and no harm, no foul. I don’t only act like it didn’t happen, I have completely forgotten it happened. But get out of my class if you won’t shut up or can’t consider the day a success unless you’ve sucked in three other kids with your distractions.

The biggest pressure on teachers like me these days is the huge pushback they get from administration, district, and state/federal education agencies when they try to maintain an orderly classroom. And charter schools’ ability to a) have none of these kids to start with and b) kick moderately ill-behaved kids back to public school when they act out can’t be overstated as factor in their “success”.

That’s a shame. Because invariably, the bulk of my unmotivated rabble-rousers realize that I really mean it about that whole “passing” thing, if they would just shut up and give the class a shot. And so they do.

Next, I am a teacher who explains. I don’t mean lecture; my explanations always take the form of a semi-Socratic discussion, leading the kids through a process. But when I start to talk, the conversation has a direction and that directed conversation, to me, is the heart of teaching. One of my favorite memories of an ed school classmate came about as we were driving to our placement school.

“I’m really enjoying working on aspects of my teaching that I don’t like. For example, explanations. I hate doing that.”

“Um, what? You hate explanations?”

“Yeah. I’d rather never explain anything.”

Pause.

“What is teaching, if it’s not explaining things?”

I thought it was a rhetorical question. I was wrong. He went on and on about other aspects of teaching: curriculum, motivation, role modeling, assessing students, and so on. Huh. Interesting. Eye-opening. It’s not that I disagreed, but how can you be a teacher if you don’t like to explain things?

And as I began to develop, I realized that teaching is not synonymous with explaining. Still. It’s my go-to skill, it’s what I do best, it’s a big part of my success with low ability students, and it’s why I prioritize getting my students to shut up while I’m teaching up front.

Next, the story reveals that I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. The kids were shocked into silence when they realize that my most heartfelt goal was to pass everyone in the class.

I learned a key lesson I still use every time I meet a new class, and make it clear I want to help them achieve their goals, which usually involve surviving the class. I do not understand why so many teachers set out objectives based on the assumption that they will successfully re-align their students’ value systems.

And in a related revelation, you can see how I frame my task. In his TED talk, Dan Meyer asks the audience to imagine:

“you really loved something…and you recommended it wholeheartedly to someone you really liked…and the person hated it. By way of introduction, that is the exact same state in which I spent every working day of the last six years. I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.”

All math teachers can relate to this statement; it’s clever, funny, and does a good job of introducing the fundamental dilemma of high school math teachers: most kids hate math and are required to take it. Many dedicated math teachers would not only relate, but agree with Dan’s framing of his task as a sales job, regardless of their teaching ideology. When I say I disagree, it’s not because Meyer is wrong but because we approach our jobs in fundamentally different ways. I don’t love math, and I’m not selling a product.

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Were it not for the unfortunate plot point about Joe Gideon’s motives for hiring Victoria for the show (he was a hounddog who had her in bed an hour after they first met), I suspect more math teachers would reveal that they can quote this scene from All That Jazz verbatim.

And those math teachers mostly would agree with me. Teaching math, for us, isn’t about creating mathematicians. It’s only occasionally about working with kids who want to be engineers, doctors, or architects. Mostly, it’s about giving kids enough math skills to pass a college placement test so they won’t end up spending a fortune on remedial math classes and never get any further—or at least enough skills so they’ll pass a remedial math class and move on. Or giving kids enough math so they look at a trade school placement test and think, “Hey, I can do this.” Or just giving kids the will to pass the class and keep them out of mindless credit recovery in alternative institutions, letting them feel part of the educational system, not a failure who couldn’t cut it at normal high school.

We don’t promise miracles. We do promise “better”.

Finally, though, the story indicates that I am acutely aware of all my students’ motivations, that not all my students just want to pass. I have bright kids in almost every class, I have highly motivated kids, I have kids with specific objectives, most of whom want to learn as much as they can. I never forget them, and if I can’t dedicate my entire teaching agenda to meeting their goals, it’s only because I owe allegiance to all my students. I never stop looking for better ways to give these kids what they need while still ensuring I meet my overall responsibility. Many other teachers say these kids should come first. I always worry they might be right. But as I said above, I do not overvalue any individual kid over the needs of the entire class.

This tale doesn’t tell much about how I teach, but that particular topic gets plenty of coverage in other essays.

Anyone who is familiar with reform math can probably infer not only my teaching values and priorities, but also a lot of reasons why I’m not crazy about reform math. But I’ll go into details in the next post.


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