Category Archives: reform

Profiting from Master’s Degrees, or Not

In Who Profits From the Master’s Degree Pay Bump For Teachers?, Matthew Chingos never actually answers the title question, except he’s pretty clear that most teachers don’t.

Chingos is shocked that teachers are actually losing money, taking on something like $50K in debt just to pay bump tat comes with an MA. Naturally, if the teachers stay in the profession a long time, they make back the money, but Chingos has lately been very worried about the teachers who leave the profession, and wants them to know that a master’s degree won’t pay off.

Okay, so this entire research line is nonsense. Half of all teachers are not taking on massive debt at their local universities to get a relatively small bump in salary with a master’s degree in education.

But I thought it’d be interesting to discuss, for two reasons. First, because if you know anything about this issue, it’s pretty instantly clear that the logic and assumptions are absurd, and not to be engaged with seriously. Chingos has no real desire to alert teachers to a risky debt. He’s in favor of merit pay and other strategies that would lead to most teachers taking a pay cut. This whole argument line is just a branch in the reformer effort to end the compressed, one-size-fits-all pay scale that teachers have in favor of differential (or merit) pay. Merit pay consistently fails to win takers, so presumably the new front involves finding short-term teachers who argue that they had to leave the profession because they couldn’t afford the cost of a master’s to get a salary increase. None of these sidebars are the real issue.

Besides, demonstrating the massive holes in Chingos’s thinking requires an explanation of teacher entry points that some might find useful, even though the information is not complete. In fact, I gave up on this piece several times until I decided it still had some value in its open-ended state.

I don’t really dispute Chingos’s underlying point—that additional education doesn’t improve teacher quality. Chingos only cares about test scores, I’d go farther: I doubt additional education improves teacher quality on any spectrum.

That said, the first of many things Chingos seems utterly unaware of is that some states require a master’s degree for a permanent credential. New York requires teachers to acquire a master’s in the first three years of their professional experience; I keep that Massachussetts has the same requirement, but don’t see it stated on the website. Ohio recently discontinued the requirement.

In fact, Chingos seems to ignore entry path to teaching entirely, as well as the state mandates, at every point. He must know that many teachers began their career with master’s degrees—or at least additional education beyond the bachelor’s—but he seems not to consider it relevant.

Typical entry points—there may be a few more, but the details would probably push them into one of these categories.

  1. Education Majors: 4 year degree in education includes a teaching credential.
  2. Teaching credential without masters: 4 year degree in something else, stayed a fifth year or later entered a credential program.
  3. Teaching credential with masters: 4 year (and possibly graduate) degree in something else, entered a graduate program that provides a masters along with the credential. (I took this route).
  4. Alternate I—the TFA kind, aka an internship program that allows them to take a job before they’ve finished the credential.
  5. Alternate II—The Call Me Mister kind, focusing on low ability candidates who can’t easily pass the credential tests. (I wrote about the struggles of black and Hispanic candidates and the 1998 HEA.)

As I’ve been saying forever, not all teachers have education degrees, and not all education BAs become teachers. I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.

But a substantial number of teachers get credentialed in a graduate program that does not result in a master’s.

How many? I couldn’t find out.

I couldn’t determine how many elementary teachers took the option 2 route after degreeing in some other subject. My best guess says that not all elementary teachers are ed majors, that some non-trivial percent, maybe hovering around a quarter, maybe less, majored in something else and then signed up for a fifth year of ed school.

A far larger number of secondary teachers take option 2, and get credentialed without the master’s, is my guess. How many? Not sure.

I wish I knew if this data existed somewhere. Title II reports only break down by traditional vs. alternate. Some numbers are a bit hard to believe, like this National Education Information Survey: In 2011, about two out of three (65 percent) teachers surveyed had entered the profession through a traditional college-campus-based undergraduate teacher education program and an additional 18 percent had prepared to teach through a traditional graduate teacher education program.

Sixty five percent of teachers have ed majors? Really? I’m wondering if the survey is conflating non-master’s graduate programs with undergraduate programs (options 1 and 2). I’m prepared to believe that only 18% of teachers start off with masters’ in education, but two thirds of all teachers have education degrees? Deeply skeptical. But I could be wrong.

Does this matter to Chingos’s point? Well, he’s aghast that half of teachers have invested in master’s degrees, so you’d think it’d be relevant that a number of them started with MAs, or substantial post-graduation credits.

Then Chingos goes through a bit of a bait and switch. His data source makes no distinction between type of master’s degrees, and at the start of the piece, Chingos doesn’t either: The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research. No mention of degree type.

Then, about halfway through, he makes it clear he’s thinking of MA Ed (all emphasis mine):

I address this question by merging salary schedule information from the NCTQ database with data on the tuition cost of an education MA degree at colleges and universities located near each school district
….
For teachers who plan to spend “only” 10 years in the classroom, earning an MA in education is likely a waste of money and effort.

And then, in the comments Chingos says:

If subject-specific MA degrees have benefits in the high school grades, it would not show up in this research. This suggests that we need more systematic research on teaching in the high school grades, and that a more sensible policy regarding MA degrees might be to reward subject-specific degrees (for teachers working in the relevant subjects) but not general education ones.

Clearly, Chingos assumes that all teachers are just going back to school to get a master’s degree in education for the pay bump. But in fact, not only do many teachers have to go back to get that master’s, but also Chingos has no idea how many teachers are getting MA Eds. One huge overlooked area: many teachers go back to school to pursue an administrator’s credential, where the payoff is considerably larger and has nothing to do with the master’s bump.

These may all seem like just quibbles. So who cares whether Chingos has any understanding of teaching entry points, or how teachers get paid for education? He’s trying to warn teachers off of getting a master’s that isn’t cost justified based on the pay bump.

But Chingos doesn’t seem to completely understand the pay bump, either. For teachers who started an MA their first year in the profession, Chingos assumes it takes 4 years and that the payoff is “the MA salary bump, which begins in the teacher’s fifth year and continues as long as he stays in the district.”

However, in many districts, teachers move across columns by acquiring credits, no matter where they lead, and then get a separate stipend for a master’s degree, PhD, or board certification.

Some examples: LA Unified (which flips steps and columns) pays on both education acquired and then adds a bonus for master’s and doctorates. A South Carolina district gives a boost for 30 BA credits, then it looks like a master’s is needed to get more pay. Then, once master’s is acquired, the teacher can keep acquiring more credits. Montgomery County in Virginia is made of sterner stuff, granting pay bumps only if program leads to a master’s—but it doesn’t have to be a teaching or career related one, so MoCo teachers, go get that MBA. DC schools provide an either/or option.

Generally, teachers are going to see pay benefits from the additional coursework long before they get the master’s. In many districts, a teacher could never bother with any education classes and just take interesting technology seminars that never lead to an advanced degree and still see the same salary boosts as someone working directly towards a master’s.

So once we weed out the states that require the teachers to get a master’s degree in order to keep their credential, and eliminate some non-trivial amount of teachers start with a master’s, and remember still others aren’t going to have to invest in the full cost of a master’s because they only need a few credits, who exactly are we talking about that might jump in for a full-fledged master’s degree purely to get a big salary hike? Elementary school teachers, that’s who.

Even in assessing just those teachers getting a master’s for the boost—and I absolutely grant the behavior exists—Chingos appears to be overestimating the expense. Not that we can tell for sure, because he doesn’t provide his data or the average cost per master’s per region. But Chingos assumes they are all going to their local college, and he seems to be saying that the average debt is $35K.

Naturally, Chingos is terribly worried that elementary school teachers are sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a master’s degree, and while the obvious solution is to dump the bump, in the meantime the states “should instead encourage the creation of low-cost MA programs.”

Yeah. Because without Chingos to point this out, no businesses ever would have looked at the teacher market and figured out that a doling out low-impact master’s degrees to people looking for a pay bump was a good market.

The most popular teaching universities are almost all online and often for-profit; the University of Phoenix costs 10K/year. National University comes in at around $16K, assuming the teacher applies professional development time towards the credits.

Ironic, given Chingos does research in online education, that he’d completely ignore the online diploma generators lowering the cost of getting a salary bump.

I don’t know what number Chingos came up with, nor do I know how much teachers are actually paying for a master’s. But unlike Chingos, I don’t think teachers are morons, and I do know they make cost benefit analyses when deciding how much teaching education to pay for. I used to wonder why so many teachers who didn’t major in education would take option 2, above (credential only) rather than get the master’s, as I did (option 3). After asking around I realized that the year-long master’s program at a fixed cost is largely restricted to the elite ed school programs. Most universities offer both the credential and a master’s, and the latter takes longer and costs more. The credential-only route is the cheapest way for most non-education majors to become teachers.

By the way, a great deal of these loans are forgiven. My master’s degree cost a bundle, but around $35K or so was wiped away, or will be (one more year for some of it).

One last thing Chingos ignores, although this is much more in the Paul Bruno bailiwick: having lots of education makes it harder to get jobs, particularly as a second career teacher. You’re old and expensive. Adding education also adds to the already considerable disincentive for teachers to leave districts: senior teachers always lose steps (most schools give 5 or 10 years at most) and unless schools are specifically looking for a veteran (usually because of outreach), they aren’t interested in paying an experienced teacher when they can get new ones for cheap. Every class a teacher takes increases district ties, making it less likely that the teacher will leave. As Paul Bruno is fond of pointing out, reformers and others who opine on education without understanding it are prone to confusing policy with job perks.

And so Chingos’s original research paper, the one he did with Peterson, is irrelevant, because districts aren’t under the illusion they are paying for quality. District officials almost certainly consider the education bump a means of keeping staff because, as I’ve written many times, keeping staff is a much bigger concern than firing staff.

Chingos’s ostensible concern is for the teachers going into debt to get more money that won’t pay off. He’s almost certainly wrong on that, as I’ve observed. His secondary concern is these silly districts that don’t understand they’re paying for quality they don’t get but that, too, is a misunderstanding of what districts are actually paying for.

In the main, I’m not bothered by the possibility–indeed, the likelihood—that the education bumps are nothing more than pay to play.

But only provided I don’t think about it for too long.

When I do think about it for too long, say the time it took me to write this, I am bothered by the possibility that many teachers go through the motions to get a master’s degree just to get a pay bump, for much the same reason that Jay Mathews Challenge Index offends me. States pay test fees to the College Board for tests that the kids will fail all so that the schools will have a higher ranking and, hopefully, improved property values. Teachers take out (small) loans to pay to a university for a no-brainer master’s so that the state will pay them more money. I’m all for free enterprise, but both the universities providing easy master’s degrees and the College Board are raking in dough that they really didn’t do much to earn through their business acumen or excellence. They’re just the purveyor of the credential that isn’t even a proxy.

So if there is, as I suspect, a good chunk of teachers forking out money to somewhat undeserving businesses to get largely meaningless credentials just for a raise, I think that’s a Bad Thing. I think it’s worth having a discussion about eliminating columns. However, like Chesterton’s Fence, eliminating an activity without knowing why it started often leads to difficulties. Paul Peterson says that rewarding teachers for education credits came about as a compromise to convince high school teachers to accept a compressed pay scale that put them on the same footing as elementary school teachers. If in fact most high school teachers start out two or three columns ahead of K-6 teachers, then eliminating columns leads to lower pay for high school teachers. Not a good plan.

Ah, say some, but that would lead us to another compromise. If we can’t have merit pay, surely we should at least pay teachers based on the relative demand of their skills. Pay high school teachers more than elementary teachers, and then within high school teachers, pay math and science teachers best because that way we can upgrade the profession, get more skilled people.

Okay, so focus hard: MATH AND SCIENCE TEACHERS ARE SMART ENOUGH. And the field pays well enough for people who want to be math and science teachers, particularly those who are happy to teach kids who will struggle to remember what a negative slope looks like.

Discussion at hand: what to do with the “column” money if the education columns are eliminated? In answering the question, accept that the outcome will only reallocate the money saved to a teaching population that looks just like the current one.

That’s an interesting question, but one that I suspect opens large cans of squiggly worms and when we all look inside, we’ll say hell, just let University of Phoenix et al get some undeserved profits.

Besides, that’s not a discussion that Chingos and other reformers want to have, because despite being the ones to raise the point, they aren’t interested in fixing the problem, but in forcing a solution.

Okay, I’ve been working on this long enough. Punting and posting.


Keeping Teachers New

So John Merrow of Taking Note discusses “teacher churn” . Merrow, who I don’t really object to much, is a bit like another veteran education reporter Jay Mathews in that he’s superb at hard reporting but should avoid analysis. (At least Merrow hasn’t been responsible for massive grade fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars. Thanks, John!)

… somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years…The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job.

And in fairness, his flawed reasoning here isn’t any worse than the crap that most policy advocates, particularly on the reform side, go through.

But flawed it is. One, we are hiring more teachers. Two, more teachers are leaving the profession after a few years….but wait. No, we don’t know that more teachers are leaving the profession, as a percentage of the population, since 1988. It’s a bit like an SAT inference question, isn’t it?

Teacher turnover has been an area of study since at least the late 70s. Murnane is a name that pops up often. An early paper by Linda Darling Hammond calls for more data collection, challenging the then received wisdom that teacher turnover and teacher quality were problems that would inevitably lead to shortages—heavens, that sounds familiar. I don’t in fact know that teacher turnover is worse (and trying to hunt that data down is the kind of research that leads to increased lag time between my posts), but certainly it’s been an area of study for close to forty years.

So while Merrow doesn’t actually state that turnover is increasing, he does imply that turnover, or “churn”, is why we’re hiring more teachers. But that’s obviously not the only possibility. The late 70s to early 80s were a tough time for teachers, as the boom generation finally left K-12 education and the “baby bust”, coupled with fiscal issues, led to layoffs. The following echo boom would have required more teachers.

Reduced class size initiatives, the huge increase in special education mandates, charter growth—all of these would lead to increased teacher hiring without entailing turnover. Charters rarely take away enough students from a single school for a one-to-one teacher exchange, and of course charters are allowed to cap growth (nice work if you can get it).

No reason to think the increase in teacher hiring has been caused by increased churn, then.

Given that Merrow hasn’t even really built the case for increased teacher churn, it makes sense that his culprit is totally off.

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.[3] Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

Right, it’s ed schools! They aren’t turning out bad teachers because of their own incompetence, but because it feeds the need for their service!

Except, um, ed schools already overproduce elementary school teachers. (I don’t think they do so deliberately—my sense is a lot of unmotivated women who just want a degree go this route without ever really intending to be teachers. No evidence, but there’d be a lot more complaining if that many teachers each year couldn’t find employment.)

Besides, ed schools benefit from the “step and column” pay structure, in which teachers are paid both by time and acquired education. Most pay scales dramatically slow the “step” increases after year eight to ten, deliberately pushing teachers towards professional development. Teaching is apay to play occupation—the state makes us pay to jump through a bunch of hoops. Ed school benefits from the whole process, not just the entry point. No increased steps, no column. No incentive for massive churn.

As I’ve observed before, teachers and cops have a lot in common and wow, check out the research on cop turnover. Like teachers, policing is a state government job that requires intelligence, doesn’t have a huge amount of upwards growth, but offers qualified people an interesting challenge or a safe job, depending on their inclinations and abilities. And both occupations turn out to be harder than they appear to the outsider, thus leading to what I assume is a higher than average degree of turnover for a professional occupation. Thus I don’t see any sinister cause for teacher churn.

Please God, spare us all from the Linda Darling Hammond solution of more, longer training.

All that said—and in this next part, consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive—I pointed out in the Chris Christie piece above that teachers are clearly targeted in a way that cops aren’t, despite the fact that they’re more expensive, work fewer years and take longer pensions (or disability) and just as hard to fire.

A growing conventional wisdom is forming among the elites—the opinion makers, business leaders, political leaders—that teaching should be a short term job, that they aren’t worth the government expense. While they probably feel this way about cops, too, current memes dictate respect to the men (and they are, usually, men) who fight—crime, terrorists, fires, and the like. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly like elites except not as smart—because otherwise, they wouldn’t go into teaching—and far more female. Hence the emphasis on their supposedly weak qualifications and determined ignorance of all evidence showing the qualifications aren’t weak. To put it in political terms: the center-left is supportive of cops and critical of teachers in a way that’s relatively new. The bulk of the people defending teachers and criticizing cops (these days on stop and frisk) are way, way to the left.

Acceptable targets change over time. Teachers moved up the chain, cops moved down. Makes sense, really—the crime rate was an issue in 80s and early 90s, then crime rates improved. Meanwhile, we’d spent twenty years thinking that affirmative action and equal opportunity would end the achievement gap and that didn’t pan out—time to blame teachers.

So teachers should hunker down, I guess—attentions and fashions will change again.

Certainly, reformers are trying to discourage long-term teaching careers. I see no evidence that cops, judges, firefighters, professors, or lawyers, to pick a random sample, are studied for “effectiveness”, much less found to be more “effective” with years in service. Nor do I see any mention of police use of sick leave, judges’ work load, or state university academics use of sabbaticals. Somehow, the fact that teachers don’t “improve” with time on the job is put forward again and again as evidence that they should be paid differently than any other government worker. And it’s hard to see Andrew Rotherham’s otherwise ludicrous obsession with teaching pensions as anything but an attempt to increase the sweetener for short-termers at the expense of lifers, to encourage teachers to find another line of work after a few years.

But hey, that’s how reformers make their bones.

The problem with teaching is that all “sides” of the debate accept as a given that we are failing to educate our kids, that we could do a much better job. In fact, we aren’t failing, and there’s no evidence we could be doing much better. But so long as everyone agrees that “schools are failing”, teachers will be on the firing line, and “churn” will be seen as either desirable or not based on absurd expectations and beliefs.

Cops were rescued from public condemnation by a dramatic reduction in crime—which they may or may not have contributed to. Teachers won’t be rescued by a decreased achievement gap. We’ll just have to wait for a new scapegoat to another big policy problem. Alternately, for society to accept that we’ll never end the achievement gap.

Which means we better wait for another policy problem. Hey, folks, did you know that firefighters don’t actually fight fires?

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Learning from Mr. Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He hates me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom looked aghast. “It doesn’t?”

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

“It was a limit of sin(2x)/sin(3x).”

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

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

“Looks like it.”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________

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


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:

ACSdistrictblkpoverty

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:

ACSblk517poverty

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.

Results:

naepdistenrollrate

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.

naepweightingpov

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.

naepfrlelig

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.

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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:
adminhire1
and
adminhire2

(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?


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