Category Archives: progressives

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.


Reform Math: An Isolationist’s View

For my sins, I periodically peruse the Method Math teacher blogs. I call them Method Math teachers because, much like those self-important thespians in the Actors Studio can’t just act, these guys can’t just teach. Not for them the order of a structured curriculum; no, they want “meaningful math”. They don’t want their kids to do well unless it’s the right kind of doing well. Do they love math? Do they have the proper respect and curiosity for math? What’s the student’s motivation?

They are correctly described as reform math teachers. In math, “reform” refers to the “progressive” side of the debate, in which math is not so much a field of study as it is an ideological value system. Discovery and complex instruction are the guiding lights of their lesson planning. However, since they are teachers, and most teachers don’t really care about education policy in any coherent sense, many teachers who embrace the tenets may not be aware of the ideological underpinnings of their chosen Method. They Like or Don’t Like, without much sense of anything beyond their classroom. (and in that, they are like most teachers).

Reform math is all about social justice, enabling blacks, Hispanics, and girls to “feel successful” about learning math. Actually being successful at learning math is a whole different thing; certainly these demographic categories are successful with their teachers, but when it comes to outside assessments, not so much—which is why reformers don’t much care for standardized tests. But in the classroom, constructivists and discovery-based lessons can accept multiple methods, which means no one method is wrong. And explaining! Explaining is vital. “Explaining your process” is the way that the “procedurally competent” kids (only in reform math is this a bad thing) can be flunked or at least marked down for not explaining their work, while other kids can find “other ways to be smart”. Convenient for grading, this value system allows teachers to dream up all sorts of ways for top kids to fail with the right answer, while tolerating all sorts of other ways for low ability kids to succeed with the wrong one.

(Ironically, these same people who focus on the importance of explaining the “why” are always insisting that teachers reduce the literacy demand of word problems, for kids who can’t read. That’s because the explaining aspect is meant to assist white girls weak on math but strong on literacy, whereas literacy reduction is all about making the problem set up easier for blacks and Hispanics to interpret.)

Reform math practitioners enthuse about this “open-ended discourse”, which avoids calculations and algorithms and, you know, answers. At least definitively right answers. Which teachers don’t give. Teacher explanations = failure. Hence Dan Meyer, the Lee Strasberg of the math blogosphere, famous for his Ted talk, has a blog that proudly bears the label “less helpful”.

Open-ended discourse requires curiosity and ability, which some might deem a feature, but the knowledgeable understand is a bug. Inquiry teaching deliberately eschews algorithms or process or anything resembling a structured approach (while allowing that “blind memorization” might occasionally be useful). Few reform teachers understand the underlying rationale for this method, which lies in the hope that open-ended problems will narrow the achievement gap—not by improving achievement of the lower half, but by narrowing all achievement into a much thinner band. Hence the importance of grading down the top students, and slowing (well, they call it deepening) instruction to be sure that no one is pulling too far ahead.

Ed schools ferociously pretend that all but a few racist fuddy-duddies teach using constructivist methods, but out in the real world, reform math is mostly fringe. The greatest penetration is at the suburban elementary school level, which has a teaching population disproportionately comprised of cheery young women who care more about their students’ interpersonal skills than intellectual development (a feature, not a bug). Complex instruction requires students to “share ideas and knowledge” and the strongest students are responsible for the weakest students’ learning, entrancing elementary school teachers with the delusion that math lessons can enhance social justice. Besides, elementary school teachers aren’t terribly strong at math to begin with, so a method that de-emphasizes algorithms reinforces their own preferences.

Since elementary school teachers rarely have the math chops to develop their own lessons, most reform curriculum development is found in middle school, where kids don’t stay long enough for the parents to complain and the teachers are knowledgeable—and teaching the subjects most attended to by reformers (pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry). So there’s a big support group and lots of material to build on.

Few high school math teachers embrace reform; those who are committed to the Method don’t have a long shelf-life. Most give it up after a few years, the rest show up at grad school where they can pretend that constructivism and complex instruction are valid, proven methods. They get a Phd and demand conformity from prospective teachers in ed school, successfully selling their dogma to a few eager apostles. These converts, alas, ultimately abandon the method or return to grad school where the cycle begins again. Thus Dan Meyer is no longer teaching math but getting his PhD at Stanford with Jo Boaler, Queen Mother of Reform Math. (Understand, however, that reformers do not practice what they preach in ed school. There aren’t multiple ways and many right answers when training new teachers. Heavens, no.)

To the extent reform math survives for any length of time, it does so in white, suburban elementary schools, although not without a struggle. Elementary teachers’ support is counterbalanced by well-educated parents who generally despise it. Parental protests have killed reform math programs at all levels for decades throughout the country. Districts have to balance happy teachers with howlingly angry parents. The high school battles ended over a decade ago, but elementary school parents have to deal with teachers who actually like the program.

But reform math wars are mostly a tale of suburban woes, as parents push back on well-meaning districts hoping to close the achievement gap of their bottom 10-20% by depressing their top performers. It stresses the parents out, but the kids will catch up. For all that reform math propagandists want to change the world for black and Hispanic kids, the techniques are abandoned quickly in high poverty, low ability schools, particularly at the high school level. The story goes like this: a complex instruction curriculum is introduced with great fanfare, math teachers complain, the complainers that can’t be fired are transferred, cue the fawning news coverage with much noise about “equity” and “access”, a few beaming parents who barely speak English talking about their children’s newfound love of math, clips of young black teens and Hispanic girls talking about how they like this math sooooo much better than “just being told what to do”…..and then the dismal state test scores come rolling in and all the canny zealots who once exhorted the grunts to be guides standing to the side are now publicly championing sage on the stage. Back comes explicit direct instruction and the cycle begins again.

The Jo Boaler brouhaha contains one such example, as James Milgram points out:

Indeed, a high official in the district where Railside is located called and updated me on the situation there in May, 2010. One of that person’s remarks is especially relevant. It was stated that as bad as [our work] indicated the situation was at Railside, the school district’s internal data actually showed it was even worse. Consequently, they had to step in and change the math curriculum at Railside to a more traditional approach. Changing the curriculum seems to have had some effect. This year (2012) there was a very large (27 point) increase in Railside’s API score and an even larger (28 point) increase for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, where the target had been 7 points in each case.

Railside High is San Lorenzo High School, in California. As Milgram says, its 2010 scores are dismal, while 2012 scores are improved. Not substantially—ain’t no getting around basic cognitive ability coupled with absurdly unrealistic expectations. But improved.

So I began this post to explain the tiny twitter tempest I began last week, and I’m not there yet. And to get there would take the post into specifics when thus far it’s been general. Sigh. For some reason, I’m writing very slowly this summer. But I didn’t have any clear description of reform math that I could link to in order to explain reform math as I see it, which is not quite as most critics see it.

If the Method teachers out there in the blogosphere do read this, they may confuse me for a traditionalist and, uh, no. My ed school is committed to complex instruction and inquiry-based learning, and I am very fond of my ed school. It’s not fond of me, of course, but then who is?

At that ed school, my all-discovery, all-inquiry, all-complex-instruction master teacher provided me with the best learning experience of my life, adopting effortlessly to my strengths and skepticisms to give me fantastic advice that I hark back to this day. I am, to put it mildly, Not Easy to Teach. That I got six months of valuable education counts for a lot. Thanks to that teacher’s willingness to focus on goals, not methods, I learned to do the same. I can find a lot of good in reform objectives, and steal interesting concepts in their lessons. I might think reform methods are awful but, like progressive educators in general, reformers are thinking about how to teach math, which as it happens is a subject much on my mind.

I am not and never will be a member of the Method group. I am Switzerland, or the US between world wars. Ignore the fact that my first year out I put my students in rows for three weeks until I couldn’t stand it anymore and put them in groups. Second year out I lasted 10 days. Third year out and beyond, I gave into the inevitable and just put the kids in groups from the start. I use manipulatives, introduce units not with facts but with activities that illustrate facts, minimize my use of algorithms, and always remind students that I’ll take a good estimate in lieu of a calculation (and give most of the credit). Anyone evaluating my teaching practice would conclude I have much more in common with the Method crew than I have with traditionalists.

Still, they are profoundly wrong, and their nonsense grates on me much more than the many ways in which the traditionalists err. That’s what led to my tweet, which yes, I still haven’t explained. But I’m ready to start explaining now, so that’s a step up.

Edited later to add:

A couple points. First, I welcome comments on this much because it will help me determine whether I’m getting the right ideas across. I know I can be tough on commenters who misinterpret me, much as I try not to, but I will really try not to if you want to complain about something you’ve misinterpreted on this particular post.

Second, I paint in broad brushes. Keep that in mind!

I’m going to try hard to get the second part of this up faster than normal, for me. I’m hoping for a couple days, but if I fail, know that I tried.


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

I had a huge month in April, over 25% larger than my last winner, November. My blog has a total of 121,000 page views (since January 1, 2012) and have 178 followers on Twitter. The last probably doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but I literally started with 0 followers. I told no friends or family of my blog, although three or four found me over the months. I had just 7000 pageviews in June 2012, when I created a Twitter account. (First follower: the hyperliteral Paul Bruno, of This Week in Education, who I argue with via twitter but quite enjoy as a writer.)

I have absolutely no idea what this means in relative audience size. What matters to me is that, in a loyal band of regular readers, interspersed between teachers, parents, and Dark Enlightenment folk, I count more than a few policy wonks and reporters—and even a publisher, apparently. I might not have a large crowd following my every tweet, but well over half of my followers do. I started this blog to inform and persuade. So far, so good.

I often check my top posts, reading the growing numbers in awe and wonder, because they, too, confirm that my blogging goals have been and continue to be met. The most popular posts cover pedagogy, policy, some unique data analysis or exposure, and my somewhat scathing opinions about the reform crowd. (I don’t much care for progressives, either, but plenty of people are around to debunk them.)

Since my audience has grown again, I thought I’d remind everyone of my most popular posts, in case someone wanted to check them out. Most of my essays represent at least five or six hours work (I worked on the Philip Dick essay for over a month, the algebra pointlessness one for two weeks), and I think any of the 1000+ view entries are worth a look for a general audience.

Title Views Written
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 4,733 Aug 12
Escaping Poverty 3,664 Nov 12
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 3,417 Jan 12
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 2,992 July 12
Homework and grades. 2,576 Feb 12
The Gap in the GRE 2,280 Jan 12
Why Chris Hayes Fails 2,240 June 12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 2,102 April 13
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 1,907 Nov 2012
An Alternative College Admissions System 1,553 Dec 2012
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 1,525 Mar 13
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 1,137 April 13

I left off my “About” page, but both it and “Who am I” right below were nowhere on the horizon last December, so more people are checking out my bio. Neat, if unnerving.

So then we have the 800-900 views, also worth a read for the general audience unless you really have no interest in math pedagogy or curriculum, in which case skip the obvious suspects. But I’m incredibly proud of those curriculum posts; googling modeling linear equations brings up my post in the top two or three as of this writing; likewise a search for binomial multiplication area model brings my post up right near the top.

Title Views Written
Who am I? 966 Jan 12
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 918 Mar 13
Teaching Polynomials 917 Mar 12
Modeling Linear Equations 907 Jan 12
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 871 Aug 12
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 820 Jan 12
More on Mumford 817 Nov 12
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 790 Sept 12

And now the less viewed posts that represent my favorites of the rest. I really wish people would read more of these, particularly the Chris Christie post and the Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. So pick a few to check out. You can also check my year in review for posts I’m fond of.

Policy:

Title Views Written
Why Chris Christie picks on teachers 699 Aug 12
Radio silence on Clarence Mumford 660 July 12
Learning Math 605 Aug 12
American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People? 602 Apr 13
557
Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help 555 Jan 13
Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.) 548 Jan 13
Boaler’s Bias (or BS) 521 Oct 12
Picking Your Fights—Or Not 501 Apr 13
Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. 493 Dec 12
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? 483 June 12
The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform 454 Sept 12
The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring 219 June 12

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Probably not too interesting unless you’re a teacher. But I have to say that Modeling Probability is pretty kick ass.

I realize these probably come off as vanity posts, but for me, they’re a great way to take stock. I have had a genuinely terrific year, between blogging and teaching, and it’s fun to write it all down.


Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat

…but anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about education reform knows that kids experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter kindergarten at age five matter a whole lot in terms of how well they are going to do once they are in school, and I would say that even hardened cynics would concede that high quality preschool programs could make a dent in our mile-wide achievement gaps.” — Michael Petrilli, around the 1:24 mark.

As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.Charles Murray

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K. Dick

You know how every one mentions the Perry project as the gold standard, a small “hothouse” study that had good results but the fear is the results can’t be replicated? Here’s the data they’re talking about comparing cohorts at age 27 and age 40 (click to enlarge):

So all those people tweeting and posting excitedly about the pre-school initiative—this is what they’re worked up about? “Hey, if we take really incredibly at-risk kids and spend billions on them in pre-school and manage to replicate the very best outcome we’ve ever managed, only 1 in 3 of them will be arrested five times by their 40th birthday, instead of 1 in 2!”

That’s the gold standard, the “good news” in preschool programs: the achievement gap moves barely a nudge, measured cognitive ability goes up a tad, and the jail gap isn’t quite as spectacularly awful. Pick your own personal favorite preschool research and you’ll still get the same results: not anything to complain about, but the subjects are still much more similar to the control group than to any middle-class norms.

And yet, do-gooders keep talking up preschool, despite Russ Whitehurst‘s appeal for hardheadedness. They blow past the so-far indifferent results and talk up the happy day when we’ll do it right. Then they combine that dream with the current meme on the Vocabulary Deficit—currently in vogue because of E. D. Hirsch and the NAEP results—and so you see folks on the right, left, and even the supposedly unbiased talking up the possibility that vocabulary instruction, or the lack thereof, is causing the achievement gap.

But I’m going to ask everyone to think about Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox, sort of.

Say a single welfare mom has a sixth baby that she doesn’t really want and in a moment of grief and despair she sticks the baby in a box with a subatomic parti….no, wait, that won’t work. But she puts the baby in a box and leaves it on a street corner in front of a security camera—and then, right after she drops the baby off, the camera breaks and the last shot we have is of the foundling sitting in the box, while a rich, childless couple approaches, just after having been rejected by their ninth adoption agency, in search of a child to whom they can devote their lives and considerable income.

We don’t know what the child’s ultimate fate is. Maybe the rich, childless couple happen upon the baby and raise it as their own. Or maybe the single welfare mom comes to her senses and returns to her baby, which she raises with her other five kids by different fathers. The security camera image doesn’t say, so as with Schrödinger’s cat, we can imagine either outcome.

According to the vast majority of educated elites, the adopted version of the child would be successful and happy, starting preschool with a rich vocabulary and, after an academically demanding high school career, embarking on a successful adult journey. The version raised with the welfare mother would, in contrast, start preschool with a vocabulary deficit in the thousands of words, which a struggling public school with incompetent teachers won’t be able to fill, and embark upon adulthood in a life of poverty—assuming that adulthood didn’t start earlier than eighteen with either a pregnancy or a jail term.

According to the experts who actually study these outcomes, the environment in which the child is raised would have relatively little impact. Adoption studies don’t usually track granular academic achievement such as grades and test scores, but they do track IQ and personality and long-term academic outcomes (highest degree received, etc), and all available evidence from adoption studies says that by adulthood, IQ tracks more closely to the biological parent than the adoptive parents.

So if we were staring at that last frozen image from the security camera, wondering if the rich parents or the struggling welfare mom ended up with the baby, we could console ourselves on this point: academically, the outcomes would probably be a wash.

For the past twenty years or so, our educational policy has been devoted to ignoring the considerable mountain of data that suggests neither government nor parents can do much to mitigate the academic and life outcomes of children living in poverty, because the outcomes aren’t really caused by the poverty. All research suggests that the child’s IQ is linked closely to the biological parents’ and IQ, not poverty, has the strongest link to academic outcomes.

To point this out in public is to commit heresy or, as Steve Sailer puts it, to invite a “point and sputter” fest. Blah blah Richard Nisbett, blah blah French adoption study, blah blah blah BLAH Malcolm Gladwell, blah blah Duckworth (who did, after all, find that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation”).

If you are genuinely wondering what to believe, don’t cherrypick. Read a summary of generally accepted understanding (Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns). Definitely take any claims of making young children smarter with a big dollop of skepticism, since fadeout is a nearly universal downer when looking back at early childhood studies. And if you ever see a mention of the Flynn Effect, go ask James Flynn himself:

The most radical form of environmental intervention is adoption into a privileged home. Adoptive parents often wonder why the adopted child loses ground on their natural children. If their own children inherit elite genes and the adopted child has average genes, then as parents slowly lose the ability to impose an equally enriched environment on both, the individual differences in genes begin to dominate.

(I guess Nisbett missed that, given his liberal appeal to the expert Flynn, coupled with what seems to me a major misrepresentation of adoption studies.)

Actual experts, in other words, will point out that E. D. Hirsch and all the pre-school advocates probably have it backwards, that vocabulary deficits don’t cause low cognitive ability, but that low cognitive ability is the source of vocabulary deficits. Knowing more vocabulary doesn’t make you smarter. Smarter people know more vocabulary.

But time and again, the world will be assured by some well-meaning elite that really—no, really—all IQ really measures is a person’s education. People with high IQs were given a good education, people with low IQs were not. Preschoolers with high vocabularies are just reflecting their superior education. But here’s a nice overview of three recent studies that specifically test whether education drives cognitive ability or the other way around. All three found that cognitive ability (IQ) drives education achievement to a great degree. (Richard Nisbett doesn’t mention those studies, either. But then, he also says that The Bell Curve was widely acclaimed by an uncritical press. Um. What?)

We don’t have a lot of research on IQ and specific educational outcomes—say, correlating reading ability or middle school algebra results with IQ. You’d think that the people who wince at the very mention of IQ would be pushing for unequivocal research on IQ and test scores of school age kids. After all, research would prove all these pernicious myths about IQ were wrong once and for all, right? Take, say, a longitudinal study of 10,000 children, from preschool to adulthood, of all incomes and races. Test their IQ, vocabulary word bank, and other cognitive markers as appropriate. Collect parental SES, parental education, parental marital status, parental behaviors (do they read to their kids? Do they beat their kids? Do they have drugs in the house? and so on), early education status, race, location….pick your demographic data. Then yearly collect their GPA and test scores, their transcripts as they move through high school. And see what pops up. How well did IQ predict test scores and GPA? How much did poverty impact the scores kids with high IQs? How much did parental wealth influence the outcomes of kids with low IQs?

But there won’t ever be that kind of study. Why?

Because poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids so consistently that it would make the news if they didn’t. Here’s a cite from 1991 test scores, back before the College Board stopped sorting by both income and race: satscoresbyraceincome91 (As well as my usual standby cite)

and here’s a recent study that establishes the SAT as a reliable IQ predictor.

But it’s not just the SAT; low income whites outperform “not-poor” blacks everywhere—the NAEP data ruthlessly collects this data every year:

2011naepreadingraceincome

2011naepraceincome

California’s CST scores show the same thing: economically disadvantaged whites outperform non-economically disadvantaged blacks and basically tie with non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics.

So no one in the educational policy business is in any hurry to call for long-term research on income, IQ, and test scores (state, SAT, AP, whatever). Much easier, really, to continue talking about poverty, environment and really crappy teachers, secure in the knowledge that anyone observing the naked emperor will be castigated as a racist.

But just suppose we completed this study I propose, and tracked school/NAEP/SAT test scores by IQ over a long period of time. Tracked from age 2 on, imagine the study shows that low-income kids with higher than average IQs have test scores and academic skills comparable, if not quite as high, as higher than average middle and high income kids. Likewise, high-income kids with low IQs have test scores and skills similar to low income kids with equivalent cognitive abilities. Imagine that we remove every shred of a reason to blame poverty for anything more than a high distribution of kids with low cognitive ability, thus making the schools hard to manage and blunting slightly the brightest kids’ ability to learn in such a loud environment.

In other words, imagine the unthinkable: the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution.

Do I hope this hypothetical study would result in this finding? No. I would, in fact, be pleased to learn that poor, high IQ kids faded due to lack of development and support in their schools, drowning in low ability kids, and that rich kids with low IQs do substantially better than poor kids with the same IQs. That’s a problem we could fix. But I worry that for the most part, such a study would end with the hypothetical results I propose, because based on available data, it seems the most likely finding.

But again, all I’m asking here is that you imagine this outcome. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: what conclusions would we be required to accept, however reluctantly?

If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.

It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race.

Okay. So let’s continue through this hypothetical and posit that we accepted these conclusions. (ha ha! this is me, laughing at my hopeless optimism. But work with me.)

For starters, we could accept that academically speaking, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment would not yield dramatically different outcomes and that preschool isn’t even a tiny bit of a magic learning pill. We might be satisfied with preschool that, as Charles Murray says, “buys some [low income children] a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home”. Maybe we’d stop holding preschool responsible for long-term academic outcomes and ask instead how it helps poor kids with unstable home environments and parents with varying degrees of competency, convincing these kids that their country and community cares about them and wants them to be safe.

Maybe we’d get to the point where we start exploring the best educational methods for kids with low cognitive ability. Sure, we’d start with Direct Instruction, although I can’t be the only teacher who doesn’t see a miracle at work in this old video. Show me the part where they remember it a month later and I’ll be impressed. And if you add “for kids of low to mid-cognitive ability” to the end of every E. D. Hirsch sentence, you’d have a perfect prescription for elementary and middle school education. The problem with Hirsch, as I mentioned to Robert Pondiscio in the comments of this post, lies in our “cultural diversity”—that is, teaching specific content leads to “cultural homogeneity” and no, no, no, that just won’t do. Better to not educate our low ability blacks and Hispanics at all then educate them in a useful content knowledge that wasn’t Afro or Latino-centric.

Someone’s going to chime in when I finally post this and say “But Ed, you don’t understand. If we teach them with Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge, the achievement gap will disappear! Look at KIPP’s results! Look at Rocketship Academy!” and I warn him to beware the false god of elementary school test scores. If the achievement gap is a function of IQ distribution, then effective education methods will not fix the gap, but rather help us educate low-IQ kids in a way they find meaningful and interesting, which will keep them invested in the process rather than giving up.

Let’s leave what to do about high school for a different post, because this one will be long enough.

What the results of such a study would do, I hope, is force everyone to stop thinking of low test scores as a missed opportunity to create more computer programmers or doctors but rather as a natural outcome of IQ distribution. With luck, well-meaning reformers will realize that they must stop looking at low test scores as an indictment of the educational system. Well-meaning progressives might cease their declarations that poverty and the evils of income inequality are stopping our poorest children from achieving college. Perhaps the results would stop educators from making low IQ kids feel utterly hopeless by declaring that more school, more learning, is their only possible chance for success, and end permanently the moralistic drumbeating for “lifelong learning”. Maybe we’d start using our considerable creativity to address the obvious pitfalls that could come about if we accepted the reality of low IQs. We don’t want to return to a educational world in which such kids are relegated to dreary, regimented education, because we must give all our kids as many skills and as much knowledge as they can absorb. Acceptance does not mean resignation and abandonment.

And most of all, I hope, any reasonable person who understood the impact of IQ on academic and life achievement would instantly realize that we must stop importing low-skilled competition to further reduce the opportunities for our own citizens. Once everyone stops fooling themselves about the quality of American education and realizes that we aren’t doing all that badly once we control for IQ, surely immigration enforcement and even reduction must follow. If enforcement means more illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Chinese head on back home, then our own unskilled and low-skilled workers have more opportunities, even if it raises restaurant prices to pay for legal cooks and busboys, forces homeowners to take care of their own lawns, and makes farmers finally invest in mechanization, or whatever other dire outcome businesses currently predict. Reducing immigration flow means low ability children have less competition for funding, because lord knows our current generous immigration policies forces schools to channel a whole bunch of money into teaching low-IQ kids, both legal and illegal, who weren’t born here and to whom we owe allegiance only because of our own generosity. Maybe we’d even get toughminded enough to realize that the best DREAM Act legislation would send the well-educated undocumented kid back to their country of origin with a little note saying “Hey, this one’s really bright. Give him a job!”

But of course, I’m just positing a hypothetical. We don’t know that the bulk of our kids living in poverty have low test scores because they have low IQs. And we don’t want to find out. Instead, we’ll just refuse to believe in IQ and pray it goes away.


Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.)

A brief, illustrative Jo Boaler anecdote by Dan Meyer, currently one of her doctoral students:

I was talking to Jo Boaler last night (name drop!) and she admitted she didn’t really get the whole blogging thing.

I laughed. Some background:

Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor, conducted a longitudinal study of three schools that’s widely known as the Railside paper. She presented the results to a standing room only crowd at the National Meeting of the National Council of Math Teachers in 2008, convincing almost everyone that “Railside” High School, a Title I, predominantly Hispanic high school outperformed two other majority white, more affluent schools in math thanks to the faculty’s dedication to problem-based integrated math, group work, and heterogeneous classes.

“Reform” math advocates, progressives whose commitment to heterogeneous classes has almost entirely derailed the rigor of advanced math classes at all but the most homogenous schools, counted this paper as victory and validation.

Three “traditionalists” were highly skeptical of Boaler’s findings and decided to go digging into the details: James Milgram, math professor at Stanford University, Wayne Bishop of CSU LA, and Paul Clopton, a statistician. They evaluated Boaler’s tests, the primary means by which Boaler demonstrated Railside’s apparently superior performance, and found them seriously wanting. They identified the schools and compared the various metrics (SAT scores, remediation rates) and demonstrated how Railside’s weak performance called Boaler’s conclusions into question. Their resulting paper, “A close examination of Jo Boaler’s Railside Report”, was accepted for publication in Education Next—and then Boaler moved to England. At that point, they decided not to publish the paper. All three men were heavily involved in math education and didn’t want to burn too many bridges with educators, who often lionize Boaler. One of the authors, James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford, posted the paper instead on his ftp site. Google took care of the rest.

The skeptics’ paper has stuck to Boaler like toilet paper on a stiletto heel; she’s written a long complaint about the three men’s “abusive” determination to get more information from her. From an Inside Higher Ed report on her complaint:

[S]he said she was prompted to speak out after thinking about the fallout from an experience this year when Irish educational authorities brought her in to consult on math education. When she wrote an op-ed in The Irish Times, a commenter suggested that her ideas be treated with “great skepticism” because they had been challenged by prominent professors, including one at her own university. Again, the evidence offered was a link to the Stanford URL of the Milgram/Bishop essay.

“This guy Milgram has this on a webpage. He has it on a Stanford site. They have a campaign that everywhere I publish, somebody puts up a link to that saying ‘she makes up data,’ ” Boaler said. “They are stopping me from being able to do my job.”

Boaler is upset because ordinary, every day, people aren’t merely taking her assertions at face value, but are instead challenging her authority with a link to a paper that, in her view, they shouldn’t even be able to read. So you can see why I laughed. This is a woman with absolutely no idea how the web works. “It’s not even peer-reviewed!!!” That people might find the ideas convincing and well-documented, with or without peer-review, isn’t an idea she’s really wrestled with yet.

Identifying the Schools
As I mentioned a while back, I had a strong reaction four years ago when reading an earlier work by Jo Boaler. A few months later, while still in ed school, I perused her Railside paper, which struck me as equally, er, not credible, a product of wishful deception, maybe? Or maybe just wishful thinking. I googled around to see if I was the only doubter and found the Milgram/Bishop/Clopton paper.

Railside High School

The article indicated that the three schools were identifiable. So I just googled algebra “bay area” boaler and in the first 2-3 pages I found this report on San Lorenzo High School:

San Lorenzo’s relationship with Stanford was based on their participation in a longitudinal study conducted by Professor Jo Boaler and her colleagues at the university. ….According to the CAPP liaison to the project, Weisberg, the researchers also found that SLHS math teachers rated high for their constructivist approach to teaching when compared to teachers at the other two high schools in their study.

Praised for their constructivist approach? In five minutes, I’d not only identified one of the schools. I’d identified the big Kahuna–Railside, the star of Boaler’s report, the school whose dedication to complex instruction, problem-based integrated math, and heterogeneous classes had propelled the Stanford professor to fame and glory. Bow to my greatness.

Happily, Boaler’s paper included CST scores for 2003, so I could match them up (as did MBC in their followup paper):

BoalerCSTScores

I could easily confirm that San Lorenzo High School CST scores for freshmen match exactly to Railside’s:
SLHS2003

(you can confirm here, it’s in Alameda County. The Algebra column for freshmen only. See? 1% 15% 33% 36% 15%. 188 students. )

San Lorenzo is an California East Bay suburb, so I’m not sure why Boaler would describe Railside as “an urban school”. California has any number of high poverty, Title I suburban schools.

One down, two to go. But the original MBC paper didn’t specify how the men identified the schools, and google gave too many possibilities for the other two study participants. Besides, I had other things to do, like find a teaching job, so I put away childish things.

Greendale High School

Then four years later, Jo Boaler complains and, in his response, James Milgram explains how they identified the schools:

We took the data above from Table 5, and one of us…checked the entire publicly available 2003 California STAR data-base, looking for schools for which any column was identical to one of the columns in Table 5. In each case we found that there was one and only one school that had that data.

Hey. I could do that. I had Access (the database), even. Which you need, because the CST file is too big for Excel.

Using this method, I identified the other two schools.

I downloaded the 2003 data to a text file, imported it to Access. I know mySQL’s interface but have never used Access before. I feel sure there’s an easier way than the path I took, which was to treat poor Access like Excel: go to the TestResults table, highlight the “total students tested” row, and search for 125, looking to the right for 0,6,27,55,12. It sounded something like this:

ClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClickno ClicknoClicknoClicknoClickWAITcrap that was it!go back! What, there’s no Reverse?Christ?Where was it?crapcrapcrapscrollbackscrollbackClicknoClickn…yes! There it is!

What, you don’t see it? Click to enlarge:

GD2003AccTableView

I found Greendale!! Whoohoo!

All I had to do was tab to the left a bit and look up the school’s identifying number. Then I went to the form in Access to look up the school and tada!

GD2003CST

According to Jo Boaler, “Greendale High School is situated in a coastal community, with very little ethnic or cultural diversity (almost all students are white).”.

Well, she’s half right. Greendale is definitely mostly white, but it’s in the mountains, not in the excessively wealthy mountains, in the much much much Greater Bay Area. Well, really, it’s juuuuust outside the much much much Greater Bay Area. Very pretty place. If you look at it on Google Maps, you would barely see blue, way off to the left.

It is not coastal.

Hilltop High School
Back to Access and clicknoclicknoclickgobackack!clicknoclickstop!tableft and there! I have Hilltop.
HT2003AccTbleView

Here are the CST scores to match:
HT2003CST

Boaler on Hilltop: “Hilltop High School is situated in a more rural setting, and approximately half of the students are Latino and half white.”

Demographics, right. Location, wrong. Boaler has just described Greendale’s location, not Hilltop’s. Find Hilltop’s town on a map and the blue is just to the left. One would describe Hilltop as “coastal”.

So Boaler flipped the school descriptions, but not the demographics? Was that on purpose, or an error?

I feel pretty confident, therefore, that in Boaler’s report:

  • Railside High School is San Lorenzo High School, in San Lorenzo. Title I school, mostly Hispanic.
  • Greendale High School is located in one of the mountain chains surrounding the Bay Area. Rural community, economically diverse, mostly white.
  • Hilltop High School is in a coastal community just outside the Bay Area, half Hispanic, half white. Greendale and Hilltop are not neighbors, but much closer to each other than either is to the edges of the Bay Area, much less San Lorenzo.

I originally planned to reveal the names of all three schools. I used publicly available data and Boaler’s own study to identify them. The schools have nothing to be embarrassed about. They participated in a study to help further knowledge about effective math instruction. How is that a bad thing? Their scores are already available on government website. Boaler isn’t directly critical of any school. No downside is immediately apparent, at least to me.

But still. In San Lorenzo High School’s case, their participation is easily searchable, so I identified the school. But the other two schools take quite a bit of work to find in Google, and the principals might not want to wake up and find their schools in a blog, even if the news wasn’t bad. This way, they can have some warning—again, with the understanding that this is publicly available data. Using Access is the cleanest way to find them, but at the end of this post I will give some other info to help interested people identify them.

So What Does This Mean?

Well, let’s assume that I didn’t miss schools with identical CST scores (I checked every entry, but who knows, I might have clicked too fast) and that these are, in fact, the schools in the study.

With just a bit of effort, interested parties can now review the Milgram/Bishop/Clopton report and confirm its claims about the overall math performance of the three schools. I’ve spot checked a lot of it, and I haven’t found any errors yet.

I’m not terribly detail-oriented, yet I saw two huge issues.

First, the 2003 CST data I matched up? Boaler provides this data as an external validator, showing how well the Railside kids did compared to the other two groups, thanks to the superior instruction of reform math. As is evident from the screen prints of the actual CST data that Boaler is using freshman 2003 data. But in Table 6, reproduced here:

table6year3

Boaler provides Year 3 data and clearly indicates that the students are juniors in 2003. The freshman algebra scores are not from her cohort. So why is she using this data as evidence of how great the program was? Shouldn’t she be using Algebra II data?

I went back two years to see what algebra scores were like, and discovered San Lorenzo High School (Railside) had fewer than ten freshmen taking algebra—in fact, the school has no math subject-specific scores at all. The other two schools did have freshmen algebra classes. So what, exactly, was Boaler comparing?

Milgram et al cover all of this in greater detail, and they also cover the other big red neon warning I see: if San Lorenzo High, which didn’t track, put all of its freshmen in algebra, while Greendale and Hilltop put their mid-to lower ability students in Algebra while the top freshmen took Geometry and Algebra II, then Boaler should not assert that San Lorenzo High is outperforming the other two schools based on freshman Algebra scores.

Of course, since she’s using the scores from the wrong cohort, she didn’t really demonstrate that the studied cohort from San Lorenzo HS outperformed the other two schools in the CST to begin with.

Why bother?

Like most mathematicians, MBC are vehemently opposed to reform math. Both Milgram and Bishop spend a lot of time working with parents or districts that are trying to get rid of reform curricula. In his rebuttal, Professor Milgram says,

Indeed, a high ranking official from the U.S. Department of Education asked me to evaluate the claims of [the Railside study] in early 2005 because she was concerned that if those claims were correct U.S. ED should begin to reconsider much if not all of what they were doing in mathematics education. This was the original reason we initiated the study, not some need to persecute Jo Boaler as she claims.

However, given both men’s determination to oppose reform math, and their willingness to work with parent groups organizing against reform math, Boaler believes, as Milgram says, that the paper was an attempt to discredit reform math, as opposed to an honest academic inquiry.

I have no opinion on that, but then I spend a lot of time on the Internet. MBC all seem pretty mild to me.

I’m not a traditionalist. I’ve written many times in this blog that for a pro-tracking, pro-testing discovery-averse teacher, I am stupendously squishy. Milgram, Bishop, Clopton, and Professor Wu would undoubtedly disapprove of my teaching methods. My kids sit in groups, I use a lot of manipulatives, I don’t lecture much or give notes, use lots of graphic organizers. To the extent I have a specialty, it lies in coddling low ability, low incentive kids through math classes whilst convincing them to learn something, and what they learn isn’t even close to the rigorous topics that real mathematicians want to see in math class. (Some lesson examples: real life coordinate geometry, modeling linear equations, triangle discovery, factoring trinomials, teaching trig and right triangles.) Nonetheless, I firmly believe that discovery, problem-based math, and complex instruction are ineffective with low to mid ability kids and think tracking or ability grouping is essential. So I’m not really tied to either camp in the math wars.

Besides, the math wars have largely been resolved. Lectures won’t work for low ability kids, but neither does discovery. High ability kids need fewer lectures, fewer algorithms, more open-ended problems, more challenges. Traditionalists have a lot of energy around reform math, but I think they could dial it back. For the most part, reform has lost in schools, particularly high schools.

Since Boaler will, if she acknowledges this post at all, complain about my motives, let me say that I am not a Boaler fan, but my disapproval is based purely on her opinions as revealed through her work: the Amber Hill/Phoenix Park paper, the Railside paper, and yeah, her recent bleat struck me as a big ol’ self-pity fest. But I’m not actively seeking to hurt her reputation, and while my tone is (cough) skeptical, I’m perfectly happy to learn that all of these questions I raise involve perfectly normal research decisions for academics.

However, I am constantly surprised at the unquestioning acceptance of educational research, particularly quantitative research.

Remember, this is a hugely significant paper in the math wars. Boaler is the hero who went out and “proved” that reform math gets better results. Suppose it’s academically acceptable for Boaler to assert that San Lorenzo High School algebra students outperformed the algebra students from two more affluent schools, based on the test results of students not in her study cohort. Would it nonetheless be important for education journalists to point out that the San Lorenzo students included the best students in the school, while the Greendale and Hilltop schools’ best students were in more advanced classes? And that a component of her success metric relied on scores of students who were two years behind her cohort?

To the extent I have an objective, there it is. Educational researchers may, in fact, engage in entirely acceptable behavior that nonetheless hides information highly relevant to the non-academic trying to use the research to figure out educational best practices.

Who’s responsible for bringing that information to light?

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

Identifying the schools

Ironically, when I was originally searching for the schools four years ago, I came across a link that identified Greendale. I just didn’t realize it for reasons that will be clearer once you find the link. Since MBC discuss the Greendale parents’ demand for a “traditional” program, and the school’s reluctant compliance, I tried to use that history to figure it out, googling (exactly): “interactive mathematics program” california high schools traditional. In the first couple pages, I found a link written by one of the MBC authors that references that parental demand as well. There are several schools mentioned in the paper, but only one of them is rural.

I’d also found a link with the Hilltop school in my initial search but had dismissed it, thinking the schools would all be in the Bay Area. But since MBC mentions that the school district forced Hilltop to cancel, I’d googled “interactive mathematics program” california district canceling. That will bring up, in the first two or three pages, a blog post from a once fairly well-known education specialty blogger (since gone inactive) on the school. This battle went on for some time, and the New York Times covered it earlier, but I won’t give the query for that.

A couple other clues: Many of Jo Boaler’s doctoral students posted in support of her complaint. An early supporter, who has a well-regarded math blog, taught at Greendale High School, although after the years of Jo Boaler’s study. That is probably not a coincidence. Jo Boaler thanks teachers in the paragraph in which she also mentions the schools that participated in her study. Maybe check out those teachers and see where they teach (or taught).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Teach Like I Do Marketers: Rafe Esquith, Doug Lemov. These guys have no research or stats to back up their claims; they are lauded as good teachers because their methods impress powerful edupundits. They write a lot of books or consult. (ETA a couple years later–and it turns out, Lemov never did much teaching).
  • It’s the Curriculum, Stupid, aka the Core Knowledge folk (Robert Pondiscio, Jessica Lahey, Barry Garelick, etc): I have nothing bad to say about these guys; they are earnest, somewhat right, but absurdly unrealistic because they mostly work with high-achieving kids. They also have something to sell: the value of the Core Knowledge curriculum. (Note: I originally wrote that CK wanted to sell the curriculum. Robert Pondiscio notes in the comments that the Core Knowledge curriculum is free, and can be downloaded. Fair enough, and I welcome the news, and the correction. However, I believe it’s fair to say that they are still advocates, and in that limited sense, “selling”. I am a fan of CK, fwiw.)
  • Bandwagon Reformers: The “I did my two” sorts who are in the process of getting out by writing an op-ed as a job application. Some of them went into teaching sincerely, and are really pissed at all the pink slips they’ve been getting, winning cites from reformers looking to shore up their credibility. (Look! Real teachers agree with us!) Short shelf lives, as a rule. Either they get that reform think tank job, or they quit teaching.
  • Diane Ravitch’s fan club: The name says it all. Well, I do like Gary Rubenstein, but his obsessive focus on TFA and reform gets a bit old. He needs to branch out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma

Ah, the eduformers have discovered the progressive charter:

Fueled by a confluence of interests among urban parents, progressive educators, and school reform refugees, a small but growing handful of diverse charter schools like Capital City has sprouted up in big cities over the past decade…These schools attract children of city workers, project residents, New York Times reporters, and government officials, and simultaneously attempt to address the weaknesses of “no-excuses” charter schools, progressive education, and school segregation: “Usually in the places that are all about accountability it doesn’t feel like there is a ton of learning going on as the primary outcome,” says Josh Densen, a former KIPP teacher who is set to open Bricolage Academy next year. “In schools where it’s all about learning, discovery, and projects and teamwork, there seems to me to be an absence of or a reluctance to have any kind of accountability.”

Russo, who’s a pretty even-handed education reporter, touches delicately and indirectly on the cause for the attention: progressive, “diverse” charters spring up in “diverse” environments precisely because the environments are diverse.

Look at the history of most progressive charters and you’ll find they are initiated by white people who fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • Unnerved by the high percentage of low-achieving, low-income kids at their neighborhood school.
  • Unwilling to risk the lottery system for the good schools in their district.
  • Unable to afford private school, or a house in a homogenous suburb.
  • Unsure their kids are going to be able to compete with the top kids in their neighborhood school (particularly in high school)
  • Unhappy with the public school’s treatment of their idiosyncratic little snowflake.

These are people who would move to homogeneous environments, but can’t.

So a bunch of well-off but not super-rich white folks* who don’t want to or can’t move and don’t want to or can’t pay for private school live in a school district in which low-income black/Hispanic kids must be a part of their kids’ school environment. This is not optimal. However, if they can create a charter school and require a bunch of commitments, they can skim the cream off of this population, minimize the impact of low ability kids on their own child’s education, get their kids something close to straight As with far less work than they’d have to do in a public school, congratulate themselves on their tolerance and dedication to diversity, and all for less than the cost of a mid-tier private school. Such a deal.

Unlike low-achieving, majority URM charters, which are generally funded with billionaire grant money or for-profit charters, progressive charters are normally started by parents who are willing to fork out $10K or so apiece to get a charter school off the ground for their kids. Then, once they’ve got seed money, off they go in search of a reasonable amount of low income URM kids.

This kicks off a big hooha with the local school district. First, the charter will never be as “diverse” as the local school district. It will always run considerably behind in URMs. Then, the local school districts will accuse the charter of creaming just the motivated students, of URM attrition, of creating rules and expectations that are tough for the low-income (read Hispanic/black) parents to follow. Then there’s the yearly squabble as the local school district points out that the charters are pulling the public schools’ top achieving low income Hispanic/African American kids whilst leaving behind low incentive kids, special ed kids, English language learners, thus lowering the district school scores, while the charters congratulate themselves for their diversity, tolerance, humanity, generosity and high test scores. The local school district will often reject the charter’s extension, only to be overridden by lawsuits or the state. All done ostensibly in the name of good intentions and diversity, all done actually in the name of minimizing their own kids’ exposure to the lower achieving, poorly behaved low income blacks and Hispanics. (Of course, if the charter’s in a rich enough district, then they don’t even have to worry about finding URMs.)

Am I painting this in the worst possible light? Probably, but it’s not all that pretty. Using taxpayer dollars for upscale liberals (they are, usually, liberals) who don’t want their kids in the overly “diverse” local schools or have a little snowflake who just isn’t good enough to compete in a more competitive public school, gaming the system and using their own dollars to bootstrap a plan to qualify for state and federal dollars? If you’re going to do it, then own it. We can argue about whether or not it’s appropriate to create charters for entirely low income populations, schools that skim the motivated kids without any disabilities or sped problems from the local public schools overloaded with all that and more and then take those kids and mercilessly beat information into them in the hopes of moving them to a better-educated life and middle class jobs. But at least, there, we are working with kids who have no other options, who are being funded largely by grants from billionaires who want to pat themselves on the back for helping the little people.

None of this means that the teachers aren’t hardworking and dedicated and that some low income kids are getting a much safer education than they otherwise would. (In high school, however, it does mean that the kids are all getting much, much better grades than they would be getting in their local comprehensive high schools, which gives them a huge advantage in college admissions.)

The eduformers have started to notice these progressive, “diverse” charters, as well as gentrifying urban schools, which spring from the same motivations. Mike Petrilli** has a book out (What, you didn’t know? You must not be on his Twitter feed.) celebrating the parents who seek out this choice for their kids, despite their concerns about performance and their own little snowflakes’ educations. Why, Petrilli himself suffered through the “diverse schools dilemma”. His own local school in Takoma Park had a student body in which THIRTY FIVE PERCENT of the students qualified for free lunch! I mean, that school almost qualified for Title I! Oh, the humanity. So you can see why Petrilli felt the need to write a book celebrating the parents who brave these schools full of the great illiterate unwashed, and showing them how to find schools that only looked bad on the outside, but weren’t, you know, actually bad.

In fairness, Petrilli, like all educational policy folks, is fixated on elementary and middle schools, which are far more segregated than high schools. So 35% probably seems like a rilly rilly high number to him. But I can list at least five high schools in my general vicinity that have are 65% free-reduced lunch and 65% ELL (mostly Hispanic) with a 30% population of white students, ranging from working class to well-off, a situation that’s becoming increasingly common in many suburbs. So Petrilli’s intro has already spotlighted him as a dilettante. I mean, gosh. 35%!!!

But Petrilli as a eduform policy wonk has been focused on pulling in whites to the reform movement for a while—in fact, I’m deeply skeptical that he ever really researched the issue for his own kids, given how neatly this book ties in with his clear policy goals. In his summary of takeaways from the 2012 election, #1 on his list is “don’t piss off the suburbs”. (And of course, Petrilli didn’t take any of his own advice, running away from the scarily “diverse” Takoma Park in favor of uprooting his family to an expensive house in the suburbs and sending his kids to lily white Wood Acres Elementary, a school he tsks tsks in the intro for being over 90% white. Really, who hands out book deals to people like this?)

So call me uncharitable, but I figure Petrilli and other eduformers are pushing “diversity” as a means of gently tempting house-poor or other economically stretched white folks into seeking out charters in order to further undercut public schools, while also reassuring the suburbs that the reform movement won’t drill and kill their kids to test heaven.

Of course, the real “dilemma” is one I wrote about earlier:

….why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic….So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

And so the dilemma Petrilli and others write about involving both progressive charters and “gentrifying” public schools: how can white middle to upper class parents who can no longer afford to move to a homogeneous district sculpt the schools they want while minimizing the impact of the undesirable students?

Clearly, step one is for the parents to publicly congratulate themselves. They’re not avoiding diversity, they’re seeking it out! (They just don’t mention the part about controlling it.)

And then, wait patiently for step two: Eventually, all but the best low income students will either behave badly enough or get tired of the rules and leave the charter schools for the required-to-take-them comprehensives, and eventually, gentrification will be complete and all the low income students, good and bad, will go off to an exurb somewhere.

So all they have to do is cope until that happy day, and avoid the lawsuits. Tiptoe tentatively around the cultural issues in the meantime. If you want to worry, worry that you bet on the wrong neighborhood and that gentrification won’t take hold.

That’s the diversity dilemma, in a nut shell: a white parents strategy to minimize the impact of low income low ability students on their kids without the expense of a private school or a new house. If the economy or the housing market picks up, expect the trend to fade. Sorry, eduformers, but by and large, white folks like big high schools and full-service middle schools.

Anyway. Russo touches on another point directly: the upper middle class white funded charters are, in almost every case, progressive. They hire their teachers from straight from top-ranked ed schools, all of them thoroughly steeped in the tea of social justice, heterogeneous classrooms, complex instruction, and Freire. Teachers dedicated to closing the achievement gap not by drill and kill, but by shrinking the range by pulling the top-end in sharply. Not, to put it mildly, teachers who will provide an academically rigorous education.

What this means in practice is that progressive charters (and, probably, the gentrified publics) do not have a high-achieving white population–particularly at the high school level. The parents who start progressive charters are more likely to have idiosyncratic kids who would be labelled weird in their public school. Others, like the parents of Emily Jones in Waiting for Superman, are worried their kids wouldn’t track into the top group in their local suburban high school, and thus be stuck with the lower achieving kids. Still others just know their kids won’t work terribly hard and will get weaker grades at the local high school than they would at a progressive charter where they’d be the top students (and where, of course, they will be donating quite a bit of money for that sort of consideration). Parents with high achievers are either going to seek out academic charters (which are rare) or leave their kids in the comprehensive high school, where they are able to compete and perform at the top level.

You can see this reality reflected in the research on charter schools, with one of its key findings: Study charter schools’ impacts on student achievement were inversely related to students’ income levels.

Yep. Drill and kill works great for low ability kids, but heterogeneous complex instruction is a lousy way to teach a mixed ability classroom without many high achievers.

But that’s predictable, isn’t it? After all, progressive charters are a hybrid of the worst of both sides of the education debate. Progressive instruction and goals, social justice crap given full rein, all in an organizational structure designed to pull off exactly the sort of kids who wouldn’t benefit from it, courtesy of the reform movement.

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

* I know many nice parents who send their kids to charters. I get it. But stripped of all the rationalizations, this is what’s left.

**I am normally a middling fan of Petrilli. He does come off a bit like a hyper-enthusiastic, gormless Richie Cunningham. But the minute he decided to move his family out to the homogenous zone, he should have dropped the book deal.


100 Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boaler’s Bias (or BS)

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

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

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

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

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

(page 13)

Phoenix Park, on the other hand:

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

(emphasis mine) (page 18)

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

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

(page 64, 65)

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

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

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

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

(page 73) (emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, the Amber Hill girls were miserable:

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

(page 139)

(all emphasis mine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Chris Hayes Fails

Chris Hayes has a book to sell and guilt to expunge. The poor lad feels guilty that he benefited from the Evil Mostly White Meritocracy:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Here, Hayes is relying on the cheapest and most meretricious of the education myths: the rich have the ability to improve their test scores, SAT or otherwise, through expensive test prep, while the low income blacks and Hispanics do not. The higher scores are not genuine, and thus the acceptance is not truly meritocratic.

There’s just one tiny glitch in this mythology:

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites. Cite, cite, and oh look, this cite has a table:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

The idea that blacks and Hispanics don’t have access to test prep is some sort of delusion that all the reality in the universe can’t shake out of progressives.

Within a ten mile radius of my home, at least 10 organizations are dedicated to providing free test prep, college admissions advice, and academic support to low income, first generation college blacks and Hispanics. Double the radius and the count will be in the dozens, if not hundreds–as it probably is anywhere in America. Any low-income black or Hispanic who wants SAT/ACT test prep and thinks he or she can’t afford it is the victim of criminally ignorant high school advisors–and the facts suggest that this isn’t a big problem.

Low income whites are a different story; few charitable organizations are dedicated to improving their test scores. Of course, given that low income whites trounce high income blacks on the SAT (Cite, cite, and
cite), I guess maybe organizations figure there’s no point making the gap worse? But of course, the very fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks pretty much kills whatever remained of Hayes’ theory about the test score advantage of the rich and powerful.

Furthermore, as Steve Sailer and commenters to Hayes’ article point out, Hayes complete ignores another reality: the huge shift in Hunter College High School demographics isn’t so much from low income to high income, but from whites to Asians.

If you read of a school that’s suddenly moved to elite status or seen a dramatic rise in test scores (e.g., AIPCS), or heard that a test prep process has gotten out of control, it’s a sure thing that it’s become “an Asian school”, as we call them in my area. Once a school “goes Asian”, hitting a tipping point of about 40%, it’s a short step to 60-80%. Check out the top-scoring comprehensive high schools by SAT average, and the highest ones will be “asian schools”. They end up Asian because of white flight. It’s not that whites don’t like Asians, but their kids will lose access to AP/honors courses and get lower GPAs—not because they have lower abilities, but because the white parents haven’t managed to convince their kids that the world will end of they don’t get straight As. Donations, as a rule, decline with this demographic change, which is why wealthy school districts get more than a little annoyed when their schools are at risk of “going Asian”, and come up with all sorts of odd rules to discourage it (giving up class ranking or limiting AP grade bumps).

Hayes engages in yet another fiction (and that’s just in this excerpt!): that through test prep, the rich are distorting their abilities. The poor and the rich have similar abilities in a purely meritocratic world but thanks to test prep, the rich are making themselves look smarter, even though it’s a mirage.

Clearly, that can’t be true, or rich blacks would have higher test scores.

But here I will bring in personal experience in test prep. For the past nine years, I’ve been preparing students for the SAT, the ACT, the Subject tests (Math, Histories, English Lit), the high school admissions tests (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT), and all grad school tests except the MCAT (although this last not as much as I used to). I do this both through private instruction institutions (Kaplan in the past, an SAT academy now) and private tutoring (with rates in line with those in tony Manhattan, apparently). I work with Asians of all income levels, wealthy and upper income whites (as well as middle income whites in my Kaplan days), low income Hispanics, and low income African Americans.

In other words, unlike many people who yammer on about test prep, I actually have some experience preparing people of all races and all demographics for all sorts of tests, and will draw upon that experience to assert this as fact: test prep primarily helps people use their existing abilities more effectively. With some people, the bump is huge, with others it’s minimal, with still others, non-existent. In only a very few cases are students actually distorting their abilities by improving their test scores, but rather showing their abilities in the best possible light.

Is it possible to game the test, to prep so much that the score is a blatant misrepresentation? Yes, but it’s rare. The people who are most likely to do this are not the rich of any color, who can buy their way into whatever school they want. And it’s not low income blacks or Hispanics, who I’ve coached and seen huge increases that still only bring the majority of the kids to just below national averages. It’s certainly not middle-class or low income whites, who are clearly the least likely to even use test prep.

No, the students who might be actually distorting their abilities through test prep would most likely be Asian. (Please note that this statement is only assuming such distortion is possible.) I work at an Asian SAT “cram school”, teaching book clubs and math enrichment. Their parents call it “SAT school”, even though the kids are rising freshmen and sophomores for book club, and rising seventh and eighth graders for geometry, because as far as the parents are concerned, the kids are doing this as part of a five year program to improve their SAT scores. Junior summer, they are in SAT boot camp: 20 hours a week (plus a test) for 10 weeks in the summer, and then Saturday school until the test.

The kids I’m working with, dozens of hours per year, aren’t distorting their abilities, but going through all that work for the last 10 or 20 points possible of their score range. That’s leaving aside the Korean cram schools, which somehow enable kids with limited English skills to score an 800 on the SAT reading section. Now that, I would argue, is distortion.

Unfortunately for Hayes, though, these Asians aren’t rich. Wrong again.

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.


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