Category Archives: reform

Well, no. (Short Takes and Snarks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAEP TUDA Scores—Detroit isn’t Boston

So everyone is a-twitter over NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment) scores. For those who aren’t familiar with The Nation’s Report Card, the “gold standard” of academic achievement metrics, it samples performance rather than test every student. For most of its history, NAEP only provided data at the state level. But some number of years ago, NAEP began sampling at the district level, first by invitation and then accepting some volunteers.

I don’t know that anyone has ever stated this directly, but the cities selected suggest that NAEP and its owners are awfully interested in better tracking “urban” achievement, and by “urban” I mean black or Hispanic.

I’m not a big fan of NAEP but everyone else is, so I try to read up, which is how I came across Andy Smarick‘s condemnation of Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland: “we should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts.”

Yeah, yeah. But I was pleased that Smarick presented total black proficiency, rather than overall proficiency levels. Alas, my takeaway was all wrong: where Smarick saw grounds for a federal takeover, I was largely encouraged. Once you control for race, Detroit looks a lot better. Bad, sure, but only a seventh as bad as Boston.

So I tweeted this to Andy Smarick, but told him that he couldn’t really wring his hands until he sorted for race AND poverty.

He responded “you’re wrong. I sorted by race and Detroit still looks appalling.”

He just scooted right by the second attribute, didn’t he?

Once I’d pointed this out, I got curious about the impact that poverty had on black test scores. Ironic, really, given my never-ending emphasis on low ability, as opposed to low income. But hey, I never said low income doesn’t matter, particularly when evaluating an economically diverse group.

But I began to wonder: how much does poverty matter, once you control for race? For that matter, how do you find the poverty levels for a school district?

Well, it’s been a while since I did data. I like other people to do it and then pick holes. But I was curious, and so went off and did data.

Seventeen days later, I emerged, blinking, with an answer to the second question, at least.

It’s hard to know how to describe what I did during those days, much less put it into an essay. I don’t want to attempt any sophisticated analysis—I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not trying to establish anything certain about the impact of poverty on test scores, an area that’s been studied by people with far better grades than I ever managed. But at the same time, I don’t think most of the educational policy folk dig down into poverty or race statistics at the district level. So it seemed like it might be worthwhile to describe what I did, and what the data looks like. If nothing else, the layperson might not know what’s involved.

If my experience is any guide, it’s hard finding poverty rates for children by race. You can get children in poverty, race in poverty, but not children by race in poverty. And then it appears to be impossible to find enrolled children in a school district—not just who live in it, which is tough enough—by poverty. And then, of course, poverty by enrollment by race.

First, I looked up the poverty data here (can’t provide direct links to each city).

But this is overall poverty by race, not child poverty by race, and it’s not at the district level, which is particularly important for some of the county data. However, I’m grateful to that site because it led me to American Community Survey Factfinder, which organizes data by all kinds of geographic entities—including school districts—and all kinds of topics–including poverty—on all sorts of groups and individuals—including race. Not that this is news to data geeks, which I am not, so I had to wander around for a while before I stumbled on it.

Anyway. I ran report 1701 for the districts in question. If I understand googledocs, you can save yourself the trouble of running it yourself. But since the report is hard to read, I’ll translate. Here are the overall district black poverty rates for the NAEP testing regions:


Again, these are for the districts, not the cities.

(Am I the only one who’s surprised at how relatively low the poverty rates are for New York and DC? Call me naïve for not realizing that the Post and the Times are provincial papers. Here I thought they focused on their local schools because of their inordinately high poverty rates, not their convenient locations. Kidding. Kind of.)

But these rates are for all blacks in the district, not black children. Happily, the ACS also provides data on poverty by age and race, although you have to add and divide in order to get a rate. But I did that so you don’t have to–although lord knows, my attention to detail isn’t great so it should probably be double or triple checked. So here, for each district, are the poverty rates for black children from 5-17:


In both cases, Boston and New York have poverty rates a little over half those of the cities with the highest poverty rates—and isn’t it coincidental that the four cities with the lowest black NAEP scores have the highest black poverty rates? Weird how that works.

But the NAEP scores and the district data don’t include charter or private schools in the zone, and this impacts enrollment rates differently. So back to ACS to find data on age and gender, and more combining and calculating, with the same caveats about my lamentable attention to detail. This gave me the total number of school age kids in the district. Then I had to find the actual district enrollment data, most of which is in another census report (relevant page here) for the largest school districts. The smaller districts, I just went to the website.



Another caveat–some of these data points are from different years so again, some fuzziness. All within the last three or four years, though.

So this leads into another interesting question: the districts don’t report poverty anywhere I can find (although I think some of them have the data as part of their Title I metrics) and in any event, they never report it by race. I have the number and percent of poor black children in the region, but how many of them attend district schools?

So to take Cleveland, for example, the total 5-17 district population was 67,284. But the enrolled population was 40871, or 60.7% of the district population.

According to ACS, 22,445 poor black children age 5-17 live in the district, and I want an approximation of the black and overall poverty rates for the district schools. How do I apportion poverty? I do not know the actual poverty rate for the district’s black kids. I saw three possibilities:

  1. I could use the black child poverty rate for the residents of the Cleveland district (ACS ratio of poor black children to ACS total black children). That would assume (I think) that the poor black children were evenly distributed over district and non-district schools.
  2. I could have take the enrollment rate and multiplied that by the poor black children in ACS—and then use that to calculate the percentage of poor kids from blacks enrolled.
  3. I could assign all the black children in poverty (according to ACS) to the black children enrolled in the district (using district given percentage of black children enrolled).

Well, the middle method is way too complicated and hurts my head. Plus, it didn’t really seem all that different from the first method; both assume poor black kids would be just as likely to attend a charter or private school than they would their local district school. The third method assumes the opposite—that kids in poverty would never attend private or charter schools. This method would probably overstate the poverty rates.

So here are poverty levels calculated by methods 1 and 3–ACS vs assigning all the poor black students to the district. In most cases, the differences were minor. I highlight the districts that have greater than 10 percentage points difference.


Again, is it just a coincidence that the schools with the lowest enrollment rates and the widest range of potential poverty rates have some of the lowest NAEP scores?

Finally, after all this massaging, I had some data to run regression analysis on. But I want to do that in a later post. Here, I want to focus on the fact that gathering this data was ridiculously complicated and required a fair amount of manual entry and calculations.

If I didn’t take the long way round, I suspect this effort is why researchers use the National Student Lunch Program (“free and reduced lunch”) as a poverty proxy.

The problem is that the poverty proxy sucks, and we need to stop using it.

Schools and districts have noticed that researchers use National School Lunch enrollment numbers as a proxy for poverty, and it’s also a primary criterion for Title I allocations. So it’s hard not to wonder about Boston’s motives when the district decides to give all kids free lunches regardless of income level, and whether it’s really about “awkward socio-economic divides” and “invasive questions”. The higher the average income of a district’s “poor” kids, the easier it is to game the NCLB requirements, for example.

Others use the poverty proxy to compare academic outcomes and argue for their preferred policy, particularly on the reform side of things. For example, charter school research uses the proxy when “proving” they do a “great job educating poor kids” when in fact they might just be skimming the not-quite-as-poor kids and patting themselves on the back. We can’t really tell. And of course, the NAEP uses the poverty proxy as well, and then everyone uses it to compare the performance of “poor” kids. See for example, this analysis by Jill Barshlay, highlighted by Alexander Russo (with Paul Bruno chiming in to object to FRL as poverty proxy). Bruce Baker does a lot of work with this.

To see exactly how untrustworthy the “poverty proxy is”, consider the NAEP TUDA results broken down by participation in the NSLP.


Look at all the cities that have no scores for blacks who aren’t eligible for free or reduced lunch: Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Fresno, Hillsborough County, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego. These cities apparently have no blacks with income levels higher than 180% of poverty. Detroit can drum up non-poor blacks, but Hillsborough County, Boston, Dallas, and Philadelphia can’t? That seems highly unlikely, given the poverty levels outlined above. Far more likely that the near-universal poverty proxy includes a whole bunch of kids who aren’t actually poor.

In any event, the feds, after giving free lunches to everyone, decided that NSLP participation levels are pretty meaningless for deciding income levels “…because many schools now automatically enroll everyone”.

I find this news slightly cheering, as it suggests that I’m not the only one having a hard time identifying the actually poor. Surely this article would have mentioned any easier source?

So. If someone can come back and say “Ed, you moron. This is all in a table, which I will now conveniently link in to show you how thoroughly you wasted seventeen days”, I will feel silly, but less cynical about education policy wonks hyping their notions. Maybe they do know more than I do. But it’s at least pretty likely that no one is looking at actual district poverty rates by race when fulminating about academic achievement, because what I did wasn’t easy.

Andy Smarick, at any rate, wasn’t paying any attention to poverty rates. And he should be. Because Detroit isn’t Boston.

This post is long enough, so I’ll save my actual analysis data for a later post. Not too much later, I hope, since I put a whole bunch of work into it.

Social Justice and Winning the Word

Robert Pondiscio got cranky with me on Twitter. I don’t translate well to 140 characters. I barely translate to 1400 words.

In Who’s the Real Progressive?, Pomdiscio got all “in your FACE!” with Steve Nelson, head of Calhoun School (tuition $40K), who snippily dismissed Pomdiscio’s school as “not progressive”. Pomdiscio was outraged. How dare he say that a school dedicated to helping black and Hispanic kids succeed isn’t progressive?

I told him he was needlessly fussed. “Social justice” and “progressive” are two terms firmly ensconced in liberal ideology with specific meanings about means, not outcomes. He should know that. I was told off in no uncertain terms. Pondiscio pointed out that he didn’t ask me for advice. True enough, and if he didn’t want unsolicited responses, he might try email next time.

But since I’ve escaped the bonds of Twitter….

Twenty years ago, I used to say I agreed with the goals of feminism and then qualified that statement: I can’t stand NOW, I think feminism has gone far afield, blah blah blah. Now I say I’m opposed to feminism, because I believe that women should have equal rights and responsibilities.

But Ed, a feminist will say, feminism is about women having equal rights and responsibilities.

And I laugh. “Hahahahaha! Good one!”

Of course, at the heart of this exchange lies a cold hard truth: feminists won the word.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers (usually English and history) talk about how they want their kids to “develop a positive value system” in the context of a recycling program or anti-bullying week. If they are trying to institute “social justice” values then it’s a panel on gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Dream Act.

Me, I don’t participate in the recycle program. When the kids ask me why, I tell them I want to hurt the environment. I was bullied into accepting a sticker during anti-bullying week, but I didn’t wear it, telling my students I’m anti-bullying, but also anti-anti-bullying. When students tell me they oppose gay marriage, gun rights, or the Dream Act, I simply warn them to watch their audience or have a lawyer on call. I would also mention whether I agreed or disagreed, just as I would with students with opposing views.

And if I’m asked whether I support social justice, I say no, because I support free speech and the right to individual opinion.

But Ed, says a liberal teacher, social justice is all about free speech and the right to individual opinion.

Hahahahaha! I say. Good one!

Again, a sad truth at the heart of it all: liberals won the words.

And that’s all I was trying to tell Robert Pondiscio. By all means, take on the absurd assumption that a progressive school must teach a curriculum drenched in liberal propaganda and enforce a rigid ideology about “social justice” that only acknowledges “white institutionalized racism” and “white male patriarchy” as wrongs imposed upon a minority populace bravely struggling against the jackboot on their necks. I’m all for it. While you’re at it, go take on ed schools not for their curriculum (it’s not that bad) but for their routine violations of academic freedom and the elite ed schools’ systematic exclusion of conservatives or Republicans from their student population, implying, but never daring to say directly, that the right’s political agenda is incompatible with worthwhile educational outcomes. I’m there.

But spewing outrage when a progressive tells you that your school isn’t progressive because you believe in good test scores for and enforce tough discipline against black and Hispanic kids? Of course it’s not progressive to insist on homogeneous cultural success and behavior markers. Progressives don’t care about ends, they care about means. Did the teachers spout liberal values and espouse progressive dogma? It’s progressive. Otherwise, not. They won the word. Cope.

Of course, the real irony is that reformers, whether choice, accountability, or curriculum, rarely question the liberal ideal of “social justice” and “progressive values” in at least one key respect. As I’ve written before, reformers of all stripes have completely embraced the progressive agenda for educational outcomes: affirmative action, the DREAM act, special education mainstreaming (for public schools, not for charters, of course), support for non-English speakers. They’re only arguing about means.

Note that the students in Robert Pondiscio’s essay with the happy stories about college acceptance to Brown and Vanderbilt, are all black and they almost certainly got in with lower test scores than if they’d had the same income but were white or Asian. A substantial number of Americans don’t see social justice in the notion of accepting far less qualified kids, often of higher income, simply because of their skin color. And yet Pondiscio offers his story as an unalloyed example of a progressive outcome, of social justice.

In fact, he wouldn’t even be writing happy stories about poor whites or Asians, just as you don’t see KIPP cutting admission deals for white and Asian students, because reformers aren’t starting charter schools to help poor whites or Asians.

Suburban upper-income whites, sure. Reformers are all about wealthy suburban whites for the same reason that Willie Sutton robs banks. Progressive charter schools for liberal whites trying to escape the overly brown and poor population of their local schools are on the rise. These schools aren’t reliant on philanthropists, but well-to-do parents willing to provide seed money to bootstrap the initial efforts. Poor or even middle class whites need not apply: they don’t bring the color the schools will need to prove the “diverse” population. They can apply for the lottery, eventually. (“Poor” Asians are a different story; it’s largely how the Chinese takeover of American Indian Public Charter went unnoticed. Chinese and Koreans bring all sorts of money from back home but have little money on paper, so often count as “low income”. Doesn’t stop them from buying up real estate, often, literally, with cash.)

You’ll go a long, long time looking for reformers’ advocacy of any issue that benefits poor whites, or even suburban whites not rich enough to write a check for seed money. In fact, I’d argue that increased choice is one aspect of reform that will hurt poor and middle-class whites, since no one’s interested in starting schools for them.

So Pondiscio’s brouhaha: Steve Nelson claims he’s progressive because he enforces liberal think on a bunch of rich white students and gives lip service to getting low income black and Hispanic kids get into college, probably with a couple–but not too many–Calhoun scholarships. Robert Pondiscio claims he’s more progressive because he works for a school that gets more black and Hispanic kids get into elite colleges, thanks to progressive universities’ belief in affirmative action and wealthy conservative organizations eager to fund selective charter schools instead of writing $40K scholarships, the better to prove that traditional schools and unionized teachers suck.

The cataclysmic nature of their disagreement on progressive values involves the degree to which culturally homogenous discipline should be enforced while pursuing the unquestioned good of allocating resources for a select group of black and Hispanic students. And, I guess, whether $40K tuition scholarships for low income black and Hispanic students are morally inferior to them winning a lottery to a nominally public school funded by billionaires directly, rather than through scholarships.

Okay. Well. Glad we got thatstraightened out.

Meanwhile, we’re a long way from a world in which we give all low income kids an equal shot, regardless of race. We’re not even at the point where each demographic has its own group of interested billionaires to fund selective schools for a lucky few.

Bah, Humbug.

Unstructured Musings on Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snicker. Hey, whatever works! sez Neal.

Kidding. Kind of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core Meltdown Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we could have an argument that matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight years?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Older Teachers

So I’m the opposite of “blocked”, lately. Lots of ideas and a laptop that’s annoying me. I had two, gave one away and the one I kept hangs so often (memory problems) that I get distracted waiting and watching Broadchurch (not too happy with who the murderer is obviously going to end up being on that one) or not watching Breaking Bad (me and four other people, apparently). Then I fall asleep because hey, it’s the first month of school and that’s how it rolls. So now I have four different ideas, plus two or three straightforward teaching writeups to do, and that’s not good because then I feel overwhelmed and start watching TV shows I’ve already seen 50 times (hello to the mother ship, L&O). I don’t know how actual bloggers do this. Fortunately, I’m just an essayist.

Then a friend who relocated for her job mentions that her husband, a 42 year old teacher, hasn’t yet found a job. I remember telling her when she first got the job to assume that he wouldn’t get hired (she makes enough for that not to be a problem), and she said that I wasn’t the only one to warn her. He has a lot of experience and two master’s, but in most inter-district (much less state) transfers, teachers lose next to all their seniority, so it’s not just about money. It’s a lot about money, but not all.

So I thought I’d talk about older teachers. This is purely an opinion piece; I’m not even sure how much of it I’ll think in a year.

If you know any successful 40-something idealists who dream of “giving back to the community” by becoming teachers, ask if they have jobs lined up. If they don’t, ask them if they are spending a lot of money on their teaching credentials. If they are, tell them to go to a state school. It’s well documented that ed school selectivity is irrelevant in hiring decisions, and they’re going to have enough trouble finding jobs without worrying about loan forgiveness. I can’t really say I’m sorry I went to an elite ed school, but I never fail to consider it an example of luxury spending, as opposed to an educational investment.

Research on this subject is thin, but I did find one study on CPS principal hire/fire decisions on new teachers:

(Note: I suspect the bias against male teachers is at the elementary school level. At the high school level, I see a huge preference for male teachers that I’ve mentioned time and again.)

Anything else I say would be anecdotal. Check any teacher training cohort and see who’s last to sign with a school—assuming they have any candidates over 40, they’ll be the last hired, if they are so lucky. Read any story about “firing ineffective teachers” with deep skepticism. And giving administrators full hire/fire over all teachers would lead to a lot of forty-plus teachers losing their jobs. I saw three teachers, two of them in math, targeted and forced into retirement because the principal wanted “new blood” (the principal said as much, often, to anyone who would listen). All teachers have stories like that. All teachers know that the reason job applications ask about education credits is to weed out older applicants. And some teachers think it’s a great idea.

Lately, there’s been a push to reform pensions, push more money to teachers up front. After all, the thinking goes, it will be fairer to teachers who leave the profession:

First, districts should jettison their current approach to retirement benefits, in which teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age. In its place, districts should adopt retirement systems where benefits accrue smoothly, year after year, without sudden, arbitrary jumps late in a teacher’s working life. This would allow talented people to teach for part of their career, or teach in more than one district, without harming their retirement security. It would also end an unfair practice that places the majority of teachers on an insecure retirement savings path in order to support more generous pensions for the minority who work a full career in one system.

So we’ll make it easier for teachers to quit and get a little bit of money, and not have to pay as much in pensions. Saves money, right? Fine. Stop talking about fairness to new teachers, then, and focus on cost-savings.

Education reformers are profoundly clueless about what really drives teacher benefits and, I think, genuinely clueless about what really drives administrators. Paul Bruno has an interesting idea that teacher tenure is a perk. Bruno cites Mathew DiCarlo, who reviews the same study I linked in above from a different perspective (although he agrees that the discrimination against men and older teachers is troubling):

…there is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will – or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by “better” alternatives – despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so.

What I take away from all this is complicated, but I think relevant. First, coupling the study with my own anecdata and that of many years in the workforce: principals, like all management, exercise their biases. Given the peculiar nature of teaching and its employment structure, I can build a good case that principals be prevented from doing this more than managers in the private sector. Managers pay a price in productivity if they fire good people purely because of their biases. Principals don’t, in the main. Productivity in schools is a complicated issue.

At the same time, most principals don’t fire teachers often because it’s incredibly hard to find new ones. Better the teacher who shows up on time and gets the job done than too many unknown quantities in any given year.

So a principal who is allowed to exercise biases could always defer to his or her particular preferences on a one-off basis, firing probationary or even tenured teachers for age, gender, race, or teaching philosophy, while in the main keeping teachers when in doubt because of the pain of hiring new teachers. Even more unnerving, that principal could keep genuinely weak teachers while firing/dumping good teachers that just happen to activate a bias. For example, keeping an ineffective new young teacher completely intimidated by her students, while dumping or threatening to dump a new older teacher who does a good job. (Not anything I’d have any experience with, nope.)

But wait, say reformers. Principals are constrained by productivity just as private sector management is! Yeah, this is me laughing at them: ha, ha. Of course, private sector management can exercise bias around the edges, and do. But in the case of older teachers, there’s that pesky money problem, too. Older workers in the private sector can adjust their salary if need be, if their value to the company isn’t as great as it once was. Teachers can’t. So take an existing bias against older teachers and toss in the added expense they usually represent, and the whole situation gets worse.

Ah, says the eduformers. That’s why we should revamp teaching entirely! Change the salary structure, don’t reward older teachers as much, and there’ll be less of a bias against them. Let teachers change districts! Let them move to different states! Let districts shift teachers around where they are most needed! (Hey, one of these things is not like the others.)

To which I say, again, eduformers, you aren’t reading the tea leaves. Finding teachers is the holy grail, not firing them. Most people don’t really have a clue about the enormous scale required to maintain millions of people in a job that has quite a few constraints on it—from regimented potty breaks to fingerprint checks to college degrees and competency tests.

So suppose we create the freedom to hire and fire at will, and we give teachers the same ability.

Let’s imagine some possibilities: A teacher can contract with three different districts to teach a popular AP US History course. Or maybe he’s just really good teaching math to low ability kids, and works three classes at two schools. Still other 50 year old teachers kick back and decide they have enough money. They want to teach three classes and then consult as a master coach in another district. Still others teach a couple classes and then go work in ed schools.

Not just 50-somethings, either. A lot of 5-year veterans decide they want to take off and raise their kids for a while, but are happy to put in a few classes here or there.

Meanwhile, very few teachers with any seniority or any talent are ever found at low income schools. No reason. Nothing to keep them there. In fact, any teachers with any talent have realized they have an easier life contracting out a couple classes a year part-time to a suburban district than teaching full-time in a low income district. Once districts are allowed to actually compete on salary, paying by negotiation instead of salary schedules, rich districts will compete heavily for desirable new teachers. Schools with undesirable kids, not matter how much money they have, will be forced to rely on teachers who view the work as a calling, not being able to count on seniority-bound teachers who probably would have switched elsewhere if they weren’t financially precluded from doing so.

In other words, if teachers are allowed to compete on skill and salary, the results might not exactly be what eduformers imagine. They appear to envision a world in which teachers are still committed to a district, with just a few more options on each side. I very much doubt that’s what will happen.

I do know that if districts and administrators were asked to consider a world in which everyone had more freedoms, they would almost certainly reject it out of hand. Charter schools operate on a very small level. That's part of the problem.

All of this goes back to older teachers. They’re a straw that almost everyone—principals, districts, reformers, well-meaning liberals who think they understand education, even a lot of genuine progressives—would like to remove, or redirect to some other area. But I'm not sure that one straw leaves without a bunch of others coming along. And very few people seem to understand what that could mean.

This is my fifth year of teaching, a job I love with a passion that surprises me. Yet I'm relieved that I qualify for both a pension and a lot of loan forgiveness at the end of this year because it's entirely possible I won't ever get tenure. I love my current school; it's the only one of my three that I say that about. I think they like me, but I'm expensive. I'm also old, and this district can keep teachers as temporary or probationary for a very, very long time (some teachers here have been temporary for seven years; in elementary school it's worse). Since I'm in math, it should move more quickly for me. But I'd be a liar and a fool if I didn't fear the possibility that right around the time I should be qualifying for tenure, the administration team will find some fault with my teaching, after x years of thinking I'm just fine, and blammo, I'm gone. I would never voluntarily leave this school, even if I didn't love it, because finding another job has routinely been a crapshoot that goes until less than a month before school starts. My usual line is "I've gotten this far because I look young for my age, but around the time I'm fifty-five I'm going to look forty-five and then it's game over."

And what, specifically, led to this maundering post, Ed? It's eval time, baby. And the principal who reviewed me last year took a new job. Keep your fingers crossed.

The Takeaway from the TFA Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the takeway of the TFA study.

Can someone mention this to CAEP?

Two Math Teachers Talk

Hand to god, I will finish my post about the reform math fuss I twittered in mid-week, but I am blocked and trying to chop back what I discuss and I want to talk about something fun.

So I will discuss Dale, a fellow math teacher who was a colleague at my last job. Dale is half my age and three days younger than my son. Yes. I have coworkers my son’s age. Shoot me now.

He and I are very different, in that he is an incredibly hot commodity as a math teacher, whose principal would offer him hookers if he’d agree to stay, and gets the AP classes because he’s a real mathematician who majored in math and everything. He turns down the hookers because he’s highly committed to his girlfriend, who is an actual working engineer who uses math every day. I am not a hot commodity, not offered hookers, and not a real mathematician. I also don’t have a girlfriend who is an actual working engineer using math every day, but there’s a lot of qualifiers in that last independent clause so don’t jump to too many conclusions.

He and I are similar in that we both were instantly comfortable with teaching and the broad requirements of working with tough low income kids who don’t want to be in school, and extremely realistic about cognitive ability. We also don’t judge our students for not liking math, or get all moral about kids these days. (Of course, he is a kid).

We are also similar in that we like beer and burgers (he has a lamentable fondness for hops, but no one’s perfect), and still meet once or twice a month at an appropriate locale to talk math. I tell him my new curricular ideas, which he is kind enough to admire although his approach is far more traditional, and ask him math questions, particularly when I was teaching precalc; he tells me that most of the department wants him to be head, despite his youth and relative inexperience. We also talk policy in general. It’s fun.

“I have some news for you,” I told him, “but you will laugh, so you should put down your beer.”

He obligingly takes a pull on his schooner of Lagunitas IPA and sets it down.

“A new study came out,” I said, “and apparently, many high school algebra and geometry courses have titles that don’t actually match the course delivered.”

Dale, who clearly thought I was going in a different direction, did a double take. “Wait. What?”

“The word used was ‘rigor’. Like, some Algebra I courses don’t actually cover algebra I. Same with geometry.”

He looks at me. Takes another pull. “Like, not all algebra teachers actually cover the work formula?”

“Like, not all algebra teachers cover integer operations and fractions for two months. Like not all algebra teachers spend two weeks explaining that 2-5 is not the same as 5-2.”

“Uh huh. Um. They did a study on this?”

“They did.”

“They could have just asked me.”

“They can’t do that. They think math teachers are morons. But there’s more.”

“Of course there is.”

“Apparently, the more blacks and Hispanics and/or low income students are in a class, the less likely the course’s rigor will match the course description.”

He sighs. “I need more beer. Ulysses!” (that’s actually the bartender’s name.) “I’m assuming that nowhere in this study did they even mention the possibility that the students didn’t know the material, that the course content depended on incoming student ability?”

“Well, not in that study. But you know what happens when we point that out.”

“Oh, yeah. ‘It’s all that crap they teach in elementary schools!’ Like that teacher in that meeting you all had the year before I got here. ‘Integer operations and fractions! Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?‘”

“Yes. Actually, the researchers blamed the textbooks, which was a pleasant change from the platitude–and-money-rich reformers who argue our standards are too low.”

“Did anyone ever tell them if it were that simple, whether textbook or teacher, then we could cover the missing material in a few weeks and it’d all be over? Wait, don’t tell me. Of course they told them. That’s the whole premise behind….”

Algebra Support!” we chorused.

“But then there’s that hapless AP calculus teacher stuck teaching algebra support. He spent, what, a month on subtraction?”

“And the happy news was that at the end of the semester, the freshmen went from getting 40% right on a sixth grade math test to 55%.”

“The bad news being at the end of the year, they forgot it all. Net improvement, what–2 points?”

“Hell, I spend the entire Algebra II course teaching mostly Algebra I, and while they learn a lot, at the end of the course they’re still shaky on graphing lines and binomial multiplication. And I don’t even bother trying to teach negative numbers, although I do try to show them why the inequality sign flips in inequalities.”

“But it’s our fault, right?”

“Of course. But that’s not the best part.”

“There’s a best part?”

“If you like black comedy.”

“The Bill Cosby sort, or the Richard Pryor catching himself on fire sort?”

“Someone doesn’t know his literary genres.”

“Hey, we can’t all be English majors. What’s the best part?”

“The best part is that Common Core is supposed to fix all this.”

“Common Core? How?”

“By telling us teachers what we’re supposed to teach.”

I’d forgotten to warn Dale, who was mid-gulp. “WHAT???”

I handed him a napkin. “You’ve got beer coming out your nose. Yes. Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli always use this example of the shifty, devious schools that, when faced with a 3-year math requirement, just spread two years of instruction over three!”

“Wow. That’s painful.”

“Well, they don’t much care for unions, either, so I guess they think that when faced with a mandate that’s essentially a jobs program for math teachers, we teachers use it as an opportunity to kick back. But that’s when they are feeling uncharitable. Sometimes, when they’re trying to puff teachers up, they worry that teachers will need professional development in order to know the new material.”

“How to teach it?”

“No. The new material.”

“They think we don’t know the new material?

“Remember, they think math teachers are morons. On the plus side, they think we’re the smartest of teachers. (Which we are, but that’s another subject.) There’s still other folks who complain because ed schools don’t teach teachers the material they’re supposed to be teaching.”

“But we know that material. That’s what credential tests are for. You can’t even get into a program without passing the credential test.”

“Do not get me started.”

“So when the test scores tank, they’ll say it’s because teachers don’t know the material?”

“Well, they’ve got the backup teachers don’t have the proper material to teach the standards, in case someone points out the logical flaws in the ‘teacher don’t know the material’ argument.”

“Sure. If it ain’t in the textbook, we don’t know it’s supposed to be taught!”

“Don’t depress me. Yes, either we don’t know what’s supposed to be taught or we don’t know how to teach it without textbooks telling us to.”

Dale starts to laugh in serious. “I’m sorry, Governor. I would have taught vectors in geometry, but since it wasn’t on the standards, I taught another week of the midpoint formula.”

“I’m sorry, parents, I would have dropped linear equations entirely from my algebra two class, but I didn’t know they were supposed to learn it in algebra one!”

“Damn. A whole three weeks spent teaching fraction operations in algebra when it’s fifth grade math. I could have spent that time showing them how to find a quadratic equation from points!”

“I didn’t know proofs were a geometry standard. Why didn’t someone tell me? Here I had so much free time I taught my kids multi-step equations because my only other option was showing an Adam Sandler movie!”

“Stop, you’re killing me.”

“No, there’s too many more. Who the hell went and added conics to the standards and why wasn’t I informed? Here I spent all this time teaching my algebra II kids that a system of equations is solved by finding the points of intersection? Apparently, my kids didn’t bother to tell me that they’d mastered that material in algebra I.”

“I can’t believe it! Four weeks killed teaching kids the difference between a positive and a negative slope! Little bastards could have told me they knew it but no, they just let me explain it again. No wonder they acted out–they were bored!”

My turn to snarf my beer.

“Jesus, Ed, I’ve wondered why we’re pulling this Common Core crap, but not in my deepest, most cynical moments did I think it because they thought we teachers just might not know what to teach the kids.”

“That’s not the most depressing, cynical thought. Really cynical is that everyone knows it won’t work but the feds need to push the can—the acknowledgement that achievement gaps are largely cognitive—down the road a few more years, and everyone else sees this as a way to scam government dollars.”

“New texbooks! New PD. A pretense that technology can help!”

“Exactly. I’d think maybe it was another effort to blame unions, but no.”

“Yeah, Republicans mostly oppose the standards.”

“Well, except the ‘far-seeing Republicans’ who just want what’s best for the country. Who also are in favor of ‘immigration reform’.”

“Jeb Bush.”

“Bingo. You’ll be happy to know that libertarians hate Common Core.”

“Rock on, my people!”

“Yeah, but they want also want open borders and privatized education.”

“Eh, nobody’s perfect.”

“But all that depressing cynicism is no fun, so let me just say that I would have taught sigma notation except I thought that letter was epsilon!”

“Hey, wait. You do get sigma and epsilon confused!”

“No, I don’t, or I wouldn’t call the pointy E stuff sigma notation, dammit. I just see either E shape out of context and think epsilon. Why the hell did Greeks have two Es, and why couldn’t they give them names that start with E? Besides, the only two greek letters I have to deal with are pi and theta, and really, in right triangle trig there’s no difference between theta and x.”

“Well, you’re going to have to stop making that mistake because thanks to Common Core, you’ll know that you’re supposed to teach sequences and series.”

“Damn. So I won’t be able to teach them binomial multiplication and factoring and let them kick back and mock me with their knowledge, which they have because they learned it all in algebra I.”

“Here’s to Common Core and math research. Without them, America wouldn’t be able to kid itself.”

We clinked glasses just as Maya, Dale’s girlfriend walked in, a woman who actually uses centroids, orthocenters, and piece-wise equations in her daily employment. The rest of the evening was spent discussing my search for more real-life models of quadratics that don’t involve knowing the quadratic formula first. She offered road construction and fruit ripening, which are very promising, but I still need something organic (haha), if possible, to derive the base equation. So far area and perimeter problems are my best bet, which gives me a good chance to review formulas, because until Common Core comes out I won’t know that they learned this in geometry. I wondered if velocity problems could be used to derive it. Dale warned me that it involved derivations. Maya was confused by my describing velocity problems as “-16 problems”, since gravity is either gravity is either 32 ft/sec/sec or 9.8 m/s/s. Dale interpreted. I’m like Jeez, there are people who know what gravity is off the top of their heads? This is why I don’t teach science. (edit: I KNEW I should have checked the numbers. I don’t do physics or real math, dammit. Fixed. )

But all that’s for another, happier, post.

Teaching and Intellectual Property

So consider Teacher A and Teacher B.

Teacher A: Most days, the kids come in, teacher tells them to turn to a page in the book or gives a lecture, puts some notes on the board, works some examples, assigns problems to be done both in class and for homework.

Teacher B: Most days, the kids come in. Every thing else depends. Some days it’s an activity leading to notes leading to problems, some days it’s class discussion leading through a topic, some days it’s a whole bunch of problems practicing skills coming out of the activity or class discussions, some days it’s a little bit of all three. Every so often the book makes an appearance. Homework is simple and often distinct from the class sets.

Teacher A has carefully organized boardwork, copied from notes stored in a notebook or a lesson plan. The actual board is erased daily.

Teacher B has somewhat chaotic boardwork that is generated on the fly, and photographed at the end of class or whenever it is erased, which might be days later.

Teacher A generates tests using a software tool provided by the textbook publisher, or reuses tests created years ago, typed on a Selectric with hand-drawn diagrams.

Teacher B reuses tests, but tweaks them based on the classes for that year. Teacher B is an expert in Office or Google Docs or Open Office or whatever gets it done.

Teacher A has no idea how to use Office or Google Docs, or uses them infrequently, and wrinkles a confused brow at the notion of intellectual property.

Teacher B still shudders in horror at the near miss when a techie wiped a hard drive without realizing B didn’t have a network account, thus obliterating everything on the hard drive—which, thank all that’s holy, was nothing, because Teacher B stores an extensive, personally-developed curriculum library on Dropbox.

Of course, these practices are a spectrum that extend beyond Teachers A and B. I imagine somewhere in the world exist Teacher As using copied versions of an original mimeograph, and Dan Meyer and Fawn Nguyen are way out there in crazyville, totally unstructured gosh, math is something kids should DO not be TOLD about land, creating everything on the fly each day.

But here’s the point: Teacher B almost certainly puts in far more hours than Teacher A, spends a lot more time thinking about each day’s activities and how to craft a lesson specific to each classes’ needs. Teacher A teaches the subject, not the class.

Teacher A and B are paid by the same step and row scale. And that’s how it should be.

Most teacher contracts are very specific on hours: teachers shall be in the classroom from 0X:00 a.m. to 0Y:00 p.m. They shall sign up for Z hours of supervision duty. There are W hours committed to staff meetings and in-house professional development. Teachers have to be in class every single day unless blah blah blah.

Look up curriculum in a contract, on the other hand, and it’s very vague. Teachers shall go to professional development for multi-cultural curriculum. Or maybe teachers shall teach agreed-upon curriculum. Or sometimes new teachers shall meet with mentor teachers to consult on curriculum development.

Most contracts have a section on resolving disputes over “curriculum mandates”, when the districts require teachers teach one particular method, use one particular book, or follow one particular schedule.

Teacher evaluations are typically based on observations. Prior to the observations, they are often asked to submit lesson plans as evidence that they are considering the needs of all students: ELL, special ed, struggling, Hispanic/black. The administrator evaluates based on execution of the plan, as well as observed teacher qualities during the lesson: does the teacher constantly check for student understanding, are the students engaged, are the students behaving, and so on.

As everyone knows, reformers and politicians are anxious to change that evaluation process, because by golly, more teachers need firing. Firing more teachers is best accomplished by linking student outcomes to teachers, since teachers have less control over student outcomes than any other aspect of their performance.

So teachers are evaluated by planning, classroom performance and management and, possibly, student test scores.

Are they ever evaluated on the curriculum they develop? Is that part of the recent push? Compare google results for “teacher evaluation” “test scores” and teacher evaluation” “curriculum development” and it’s pretty clear that evaluating teacher’s personally developed curriculum is not on the horizon.

Of course, any teacher could tell you that. Teachers are not evaluated on the content of their classroom curriculum. They are not asked to submit examples of our personally developed curriculum. They aren’t asked to build curriculum as part of their jobs.

To put it in legal terms as I understand it, curriculum is not what teachers are hired to do. From Wikipedia:

A work made for hire (sometimes abbreviated as work for hire or WFH) is a work created by an employee as part of his or her job, or a work created on behalf of a client where all parties agree in writing to the WFH designation. It is an exception to the general rule that the person who actually creates a work is the legally recognized author of that work. According to copyright law in the United States and certain other copyright jurisdictions, if a work is “made for hire”, the employer—not the employee—is considered the legal author. In some countries, this is known as corporate authorship. The incorporated entity serving as an employer may be a corporation or other legal entity, an organization, or an individual.[1]

Andrew Rotherham has written about Teacher Pay Teachers, as has the NY Times, and both articles mention the legal aspects of teachers selling curriculum. Since districts are paying teachers to develop curriculum, the thinking goes, shouldn’t they own the curriculum? Apparently, one NY court said the district owned the curriculum because it provided the facilities on which the teacher developed the plans, but there’s little case law on the topic.

So I wrote up my case of Teacher A and Teacher B to articulate what seems to me the obvious argument in favor of giving teachers ownership of their intellectual property. Both teachers are doing the job they are paid to do. Teacher B is additionally developing curriculum. Teacher B is not hired to create curriculum, therefore the worksheets, activities, and the rest are not “work made for hire”.

As any contract makes obvious, teachers are paid for their hours in school. They are not tasked with developing curriculum, they aren’t evaluated on their individually developed curriculum. They are given a set of hours and objectives. How they complete the objectives, within given constraints, is largely up to them. That’s why curriculum mandates so often require mediation, because teachers are used to making their own classroom decisions and object when it’s imposed from the outside. Curriculum is ours.

To quote Rotherham again: What we consider schools are often just loose confederations of independent contractors, each overseeing his or her own classroom.

Notice the name is Teachers Paying Teachers. It’s not the districts or the schools buying the activities. Perhaps some of the teachers are turning around and billing the district, but I suspect most of them think of these purchases as their professional responsibility to find curriculum to engage their students. Some teachers just use the books. Some create their own activities. Some work together with their departments, sharing out curriculum responsibilities cooperatively (if you surveyed teachers, a plurality would choose this as their desired method, although very few schools seem to do this consistently.) Some turn to google. Others buy from other teachers. But it’s the teachers’ purview to make curriculum decisions.

The districts are entirely removed from this process. In all but a few cases, they aren’t giving teachers clearly delineated lesson plans and activity worksheets, daily schedules, tests—all perfectly aligned with their students’ actual abilities, not the pretense that we’re actually teaching Hamlet to kids who can read at a sophomore level, or second year algebra to kids who know the difference between a positive and negative slope. No, they provide books that teachers can choose to use or not, and in some cases benchmark dates for interim tests. On occasion, they will mandate professional development taught by middle school teachers who wanted out of the classroom. The teachers will show up and, usually, snicker politely. But when the door closes, the district is nowhere to be found, and it’s all on the teachers to decide on the daily lesson and teach what they determine is necessary.

So then, if a teacher is particularly good at developing lesson plans, sequences, or activities that other teachers spot and want to use, even pay for, then the district wants in on the money? Yeah, I think not.

I believe that even the issue of where the material is developed is irrelevant, although I can see a better case for that. Unless a teacher develops all material during a prep period, then the material was developed off the clock. If a teacher stays after school to build a great handout or activity for the next day, that time is unpaid. The district and school get the immediate benefit from the lesson–which is again what they pay the teacher for.

Consider, too, that teachers often reuse lessons and activities they developed at other districts. The districts see the benefits from this reuse free of charge. They aren’t required to pay the previous districts for the use of its computers or teacher time spent developing that material. I imagine these districts demanding ownership rights of curriculum have no interest in hunting down the previous districts to reimburse them for the value they are now getting.

Teacher intellectual property is an odd concept to discuss in a world that shows little respect for teacher brains or creativity. But I believe that a close reading of any contracts and the ample evidence of Teacher As and Teacher Bs, all getting the same money despite profoundly different work product, would show that teachers are paid purely for the time spent teaching, not the materials that they use to teach with. Therefore, any materials they create to teach are not work made for hire. And if a district has inserted contractual text saying otherwise, then it should be challenged on this.

Apparently the NEA agrees with me, so I doubt any such text is going to be showing up much in the future:

Furthermore, education employees should own the copyright to materials that they create in the course of their employment. There should be an appropriate “teacher’s exception” to the “works made for hire” doctrine, pursuant to which works created by education employees in the course of their employment are owned by the employee. This exception should reflect the unique practices and traditions of academia.

All issues relating to copyright ownership of materials created by education employees should be resolved through collective bargaining or other process of bilateral decision-making between the employer and the affiliate.

The ownership rights of education employees who create copyrightable materials should not prevent education employees from making appropriate use of such materials in providing educational services to their students.

I am, clearly, a Teacher B, so this is something I feel pretty strongly about. Not that I’d ever sell my lessons—I’m way too much of the tech open source tradition for that. You want it, ask me. It’s yours for everything but selling under your name. To the extent I want control over my intellectual property, I want it to a) prevent any district from benefiting from it monetarily and b) maybe put it in a book some day, if a publisher is ambitious.

But the larger point, I think, is what this means both for Common Core and the curriculum purists like Core Knowledge. Education reformers often don’t understand the point Rotherham makes: teachers are independent operators, particularly at the high school level. Enforcement of a particular curriculum is very nearly impossible. I’ve been focusing on the way curriculum breakdown happens at the teacher level, but Larry Cuban has an excellent essay, The Mult-Layered Curriculum, that lays out the other ways in which the curriculum goals break down.

So behind the issue of teachers’ intellectual property lies a much bigger issue: why do teachers have intellectual property? Why are they developing their own material? To many people—including a whole bunch of teachers—this is a problem. To others, including many Teacher As and all Teacher Bs, this is a feature. If you took away my ability to develop my own material, you would remove a lot of the joy I take in teaching. I’d still teach, I think, but many others of my ilk would not.

Think about this and before long it starts to become clear that education reformers constantly argue for two goals that are potentially in conflict: powerful standards that articulate a cohesive required curriculum and bright, creative, resourceful teachers. Because if the standards don’t have buy-in—and make no mistake, neither Common Core standards nor any curriculum like Core Knowledge have anything approaching buy-in—then bright, creative, resourceful teachers will develop their own curriculum and ignore anything they disagree with.

I am not arguing that all Teacher As are soulless drones and all Teacher Bs are mythical enchanting woodland sprites who make magic in their classrooms. Teacher As have intellectual property as well; it’s just harder to see. What I am saying is that the very notion of teacher intellectual property reveals the problems with any attempts to create broader standards or a common curriculum.

But on the basic point, I think things should be pretty clear: teachers are not paid to develop curriculum. Since curriculum isn’t work for hire, the worksheets, activities, and lesson sequences, and any other resource development is theirs to do with as they wish.

Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

I’m going to start by observing that I’m not convinced that teachers’ use of sick leave is a problem. This Clotfelter et. al study observes that teachers’ absentee rate in and of itself is nothing to be fussed about:

Although absence rates in teaching tend to be higher than ostensibly comparable figures for other similar occupations and sectors, however, they are not wildly out of line. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the opportunity to take the occasional day off that makes a teaching career attractive to many people with children. Except for schools and districts with persistently high rates of absence, then, the rate of teacher absences itself should probably not be a cause for great concern.

On the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are going to get louder in the days to come.

My own use of sick time is next to non-existent. I have used 2.something days in 4 years. My first year, I had a recurring and dangerous infection that simply wouldn’t go away. Moreover, each recurrence required use of some really severe antibiotics that made me so sick that one morning I literally walked/ran out of class to throw up in the huge garbage can parked conveniently outside my door (not there, I hasten to add, for that purpose). I walked back in, a student gave me a fresh bottle of water (the school didn’t have drinking fountains), and I finished the day without incident. I took a partial day when the infection first showed up, and one full day when the infection returned overnight; in both cases I had to go to the doctor and then wait for the meds to take effect.

My second year, I took no sick days, but was forced to use a sub for six days of required professional development. Had I not been completely inept at using the automated absentee system, I would have been gone for eight days, but in two instances I screwed up and no sub was available at the last minute, so I skipped PD. (I should have made the same mistake 6 more times, but I was afraid they’d notice.)

Last year, I taught an entire day with a scratched cornea, wondering why the hell my head hurt so much. Two hours after school ended, I decided I may as well stop in at an urgent care to see why my allergies weren’t responding to medication, and was amazed when the doctor made the problem go away with some anesthetizing eyedrops—one of the only times a doctor has genuinely helped me with a medical issue. He then gave me some antibiotics to put in my eye overnight. They did the job, but an allergic reaction to the ointment made my eye look like something out of a horror film. I went into school, asked for a sub, taught first period with my sunglasses on to spare my students the trauma of my eye (most of them demanded a peek anyway), and left when the sub showed up. I then came back in after school for a department meeting. So, one day.

This year, I haven’t taken any days off. Several students have commented, unprompted, that I’m the only teacher they have who’s never used a sub.

In other words, my proposed remedy to any purported “sick leave” problem is that of someone with extraordinarily good health, a ridiculously high pain tolerance, and no kids at home. Before teaching, I spent only five and a half years in a full-time job, which is the only time I had paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance. I’ve spent the majority of remainder of those twenty years working contract or temp, as an admin worker, a tech consultant, or a test prep instructor/tutor. In those careers, I got no sick time. Ever.

I agree with every word of Paul Bruno’s comments here. The year of forced professional development was nightmarish; I knew the kids would waste the day, but I had to prepare for it anyway. Math and science teachers have it tougher than English and history teachers here, I’m sure. If I were ever to think of taking a day off, the amount of preparation work would quickly banish any appeal.

It’s clear that most teachers either don’t agree with us or have compelling reasons to be absent—or both. I remember one day at my last school seventeen teachers called in sick on one day, and at least one day this year so many teachers were absent we ran out of subs and covering teachers and the admins had to step in. However, I’ve never gotten the impression that the admins considered this more than a minor inconvenience; teacher absenteeism at both schools is a non-issue. I know my last school district simply wouldn’t pay a teacher who took the Monday or Friday off around a 3-day weekend unless it was a documented illness. That seems a simple enough remedy. I don’t think my current district does this. (One question that arises in these discussions: are the absentee rates distinguishing between professional development and teacher-initiated absences? The Clotfelter study does make that distinction; I’m not sure all do.)

I often read ignoramuses who vent about the supposed idiocy of including unused sick time in teacher pension payouts, or advocate “use it or lose it” restrictions. Here’s a fun one:

Imagine two teachers, identical in every way except unused sick time. They’ve each been teaching for 30 years, have final average salaries of $86,636 and retire at age 60. One has the average 1.84 years of unused sick time; the other has none. The difference in lifetime pension payouts is more than $115,000. When you consider that there are 91,000 retired teachers collecting a pension, that difference starts to add up.

Jesus, this is irritating.

Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $4500.

Teacher B takes no sick leave. In June, she is paid the $350/day as an incentive for not using sick leave. Total cost: $3500.

So spare me the crap arguing that paying teachers for unused sick leave is just another entitlement, okay? Wail about pension costs, fine. Give the teachers the money at the end of each year—perhaps with the option of putting it into a separate retirement account, also fine. Argue for reduced sick days for all teachers, go to town. But do not for a moment pretend that paying teachers who didn’t use their sick days is an injustice, because even leaving student achievement aside, these teachers are bargains.

If pension costs for teachers and other government workers are exacerbated by reimbursing them for unused sick leave at retirement, then by all means pay them their entire daily rate for the unused time at the end of each year.

But while this will solve the pension problem, it won’t necessarily solve the costs of teacher absenteeism—substitutes and, perhaps, weaker student achievement.

Most studies I’ve read (admittedly, I haven’t researched extensively) don’t address the dual problems of teacher sick pay and absenteeism—that is, they are focused entirely on either pension costs or day to day costs, and so want to decrease overall sick time or accrued sick time. They ignore the fairness problem I’ve outlined above: teachers who don’t take sick leave are costing the district less than those who are. Not reimbursing them for the money they’ve saved the district is simply unfair. Besides, without reimbursing them, any “use it or lose it” policy for teachers is a foolish idea, since it will increase absenteeism among teachers who otherwise wouldn’t think of taking time off. Any teacher—yes, even me—is going to take sick days if they will otherwise lose them.

I like this Clotfelter study (he’s done more than one on absenteeism) because it focuses on an approach for reducing teacher absenteeism, proposing “A revenue-neutral policy change , incorporating $100 in savings associated with averted payments to substitute teachers, would thus increase teacher salaries by roughly $400 per year, in exchange for teachers accepting a $50 charge for each sick day taken”.*

Thus my proposal to both reduce pension costs and teacher absenteeism:

  • Give teachers a fixed number of sick/personal days to use during the year.
  • Charge teachers $50 for each sick day taken up to the contracted amount.
  • At the end of each school year, pay teachers their full daily rate for their unused sick time.
  • Districts that want to give teachers even more incentive for staying in the classroom can give more money upfront and charge more for absences. I really like the idea of a separate retirement account (teachers have something but lordy, I can’t remember what it’s called), possibly with a matching payment in appreciation of their dedication to maintaining consistent student learning environments.

So if, as Kate Walsh asserts, paying teachers for not costing their districts more money is the new blame game, reformers might want to get it right the first time, by rewarding teachers who don’t use their time, while asking those who do to offset some of the costs.

Most teachers will hate it, of course. But when has that stopped reformers?

*(Note: the study uses North Carolina data, in which the teachers are charged $50 for each day taken after their allocated sick leave, but the researchers propose moving that fee to the first day and beyond.)


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