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Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,’” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.

The Encyclopedia of Ed

It’s so weird. I thought I saw Old Andrew or Andrew Old or whoever publish a guide to the key posts on his site. Which gave me the idea. And now I can’t find it. Perhaps I hallucinated.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I thought it might be nice to categorize my essays by topic. So I did. Originally one big post. Then one big page, since I thought I might update the encyclopedia as time goes on. Then four pages, which Elegant Grunge, the theme of which I’m quite fond, wanted to put at the top of the page. I think I’ve convinced Grunge otherwise.

As I say in the intro:

Every so often I run across a forum conversation, in which one poster says “Hey, I remember reading a teacher who talks about HBD stuff” or “What’s the blog of that teacher who writes about IQ?” The answer always comes in a minute or two, and the answer is never not me. Like Michael Clayton, I ‘ve made a niche for myself. (I miss Sidney.)

So I’m the HBD teacher. But I write about a lot of stuff. Fox (sigh), not hedgehog. Occasionally, fans of one aspect of my work realize they were playing one of the blind men, with me as the camel. “Um, what? This awesome math teacher thinks immigration is bad for education?” (well, I might have made up the adjective.)

Hence the Encyclopedia, from Controversial to Universal.

They are on the sidebar. But what the heck, you’re here, so:

Part I: Things Voldemortean

Part II: The Players

Part III: Teaching

Part IV: Miscellany, Movies and Me

NAEP TUDA: Does Black Poverty Matter?

In my last post, I point out that it makes as much sense to compare black scores in Boston and Detroit as it does to compare white scores in Vermont and West Virginia (not that people don’t do that, too), given the substantial difference in black poverty rates.

There are all sorts of actual social scientists investigate race and poverty, and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I don’t need to prove that poverty has a strong link to academic achievement. Apparently, though, some people in the education industry need to be reminded. So part 2 of my rationale for digging into the poverty rates (with the first being lord, they’re hard to find) is that I wanted to remind people that we need to look at both factors. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if my data analysis here is correct or I screwed it up. If people start demanding to know how poverty affects outcomes controlled for race—whether my analysis is correct or not—then this project has been worthwhile. Even given the squishy data with various fudge factors, there appears to be a non-trivial relationship, as you’ll see.

But the third part of my rationale for taking this on is linked to my curiosity about the data. Would it support—or, more accurately, not conflict with—my own pet theory?

I expected that my results would show a link between poverty and test scores after controlling for race, although given the squishiness of both the data I was using, the small sample size and NAEP’s sampling (which would be by NSLP participation, not poverty), I didn’t expect it to explain all of the variance.

But I also think it likely that poverty saturation, for lack of a better word, would have an additional impact. So Detroit has lots of blacks, Fresno doesn’t. But they both have a high rate of overall poverty, and since poverty is correlates both with low ability and, alas, low incentive, the classes are brutally tough to teach with all sorts of distractors. Disperse the poor kids and far more of them will shrug and pay attention, with only a few dedicated troublemakers determined to screw things up no matter what the environment.

This is hardly groundbreaking; that belief is behind the whole push for economic integration, it’s how gentrifiers are rationalizing their charter schools, and so on. I don’t agree with the fixes, and of course I don’t think that poverty saturation explains the achievement gap, but I believe the problem’s real enough to singlehandedly account for the small and functionally insignificant increase in some charter school test scores. I have more thoughts on this, but it would distract from my main purpose here, so hold on to that point. For now, I was also digging into the data for my own purposes, to see if it didn’t contradict my own idea of poverty’s impact.

Poverty Variables

I thought these rates might be related, all for the districts (not the cities):

  • Percentage of enrolled black students in poverty (as a percentage of all black students)
  • Percentage of enrolled black students in poverty (as a percentage of all students)
  • Percentage of enrolled poor kids
  • Percentage of enrolled poor black kids (as a percentage of all poor kids)
  • Percentage of blacks in poverty (overall, adults and kids, from ACS)

In my last post, I discussed the difficulty of assigning the correct number of poor black students to the district. Should I assume the enrolled poverty rate is the same as the district poverty rate for black and poor children, or assume that the bulk of the poor children enrolled in district schools, thus raising the poverty rate? This makes a huge difference in schools that only enroll 50-60% of the district students. I decided to assign all the poor kids to the district schools, which will overstate the poverty levels, but nowhere near as much as the reverse would distort them. So all the above poverty levels involving enrolled students assume that all poor kids enroll in district schools–that is, I used the far right row of each of the three poverty measures shown in the table below.

(Notice that in a few cases, the ACS poverty level is higher than the assigned poverty rate, which is nutty. But I’m creating the black child poverty rate by adding up children in and children not in poverty, rather than using children in poverty and total black children, to be consistent.)

Boston was the only school district I could find that provided data on how many district kids weren’t enrolled, what percent by race, and where they were (parochial, private, charters, homeschooled). Thanks, Boston!


How likely was it that all these kids were evenly pulled from every level of the income spectrum?

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the weakest schools have the greatest discrepancies in the two calculations. Particularly of interest is DC, which has a low black poverty rate, a low enrollment rate (because half the kids are in charters), and one of the lowest performers using my test metric (see below) Given that no one has established breathtakingly different academic performances between charter and public schools, it doesn’t seem likely that DC’s lower than expected performance is caused by purely by crappy teaching of a mostly middle class crowd.

Plus, I’m a teacher in a public school, and like most teachers in public schools, I see charter-skimming in action. I see the top URM kids go off to charter schools from high poverty high schools, and I see the misbehavers get kicked back to the public schools. To hell with the protestations and denial, I see cherrypicking in action. And there you see emotions at play. But only after two logical arguments.

So all the bullet points except the last one use that same assumption. And I know it’s a fudge factor, but it’s the best I could do. Here’s hoping the feds will give us a better measure in the future.

Other Variables

  • Percent of district kids enrolled (using ACS data and school/census enrollment numbers)
  • Percent of enrolled kids who are black (from district websites)
  • Percent of black students scoring basic or higher in 8th grade math

I decided to go with basic or higher because seriously, NAEP proficiency is just a stupidly high marker. This is the value I used as the dependent variable in the regressions.

Analysis and Results

What I looked for: well, hell. I don’t do math, dammit, I teach it. I figured I’d look for the highest R squared I could find and p-values between 0 and .05. When I started, I’d have been thrilled with anything explaining over 50% of the variation, so I decided that I’d give the results if I got 40% or higher for any one variable, and over 60% for multiple regressions. I used the correlation table to give me pointers:


The red and black is just my own markings to see if I’d caught all the possibilities. Red means no value in multiple regressions, bold means there’s a strong correlation, italic and bold means it might be a good candidate for multiple regressions. As I mention below, I kind of run out of steam later, so I’m going to come back to this to see if I missed any possibilities.

I don’t usually do this sort of thing, and I don’t want the writing to drown in figures. So I’ll just link in the results.

Single % Poor Enrolled (Approx) poor blks/Tot kids % Black Enrollment (frm dist) % Poor Kids in District Dist Overall Blk Pov
% poor blacks enrolled (approx) 0.463 0.520 0.607 0.593 0.551 0.574
% Poor Enrolled (Approx) 0.398 0.527 0.700
poor blks/Tot kids 0.516 0.640
% Black Enrollment (frm dist) 0.217 0.612
% Poor Kids in District 0.160
% blk kids poor in dist (ACS) 0.319
Dist Overall Blk Pov 0.488
% of 5-17 kids enrolled 0.216
Poor blcks/Poor 0.161

I ran some of the other multiple regressions and am pretty sure I didn’t get any other strong results, but honestly, yesterday I just ran out of steam. I have a brother showing up to help me move on Saturday, and he’ll be pissed if I’m not packed up. Normally I’d just put this off, but I’ve got two or three other “put offs” and I’m close enough to “done” on this that I want it over.

Scatter plots for the single regressions:

Apparently you can’t do a scatter plot for multiple regressions. Here’s what I did just to see if it worked, using the winning multiple regression of Overall Black Poverty and Total Enrolled Poverty:


I calculated the predicted value for each district using the two slopes and the y-intercept. Then I graphed predicted versus actual scores on a scatter plot and added a trend line. Is it just a coincidence that the r square of the trendline is the same as the r square for the multiple regression? I have no idea. If this is totally wrong, I’ll kill it later, but I’m genuinely curious if this is right or wrong, or if Excel does this and I just don’t know how to tell it to graph multiple regressions.

Again, I’m not trying to prove anything. I believe it’s already well-established that poverty within race correlates with academic outcomes. I was just trying to collect the data to remind people who discuss NAEP scores in the vacuum of either race or poverty that both matter.

And here, I’m going to stop for now. I am deliberately leaving this open-ended. If I didn’t screw up and if I understand the stats behind this, it appears that certain black poverty and overall poverty factors explain anywhere from 40 to 60% of the variance in the NAEP TUDA scores. Overall district poverty and total enrolled poverty combine to explain 70%. In my fuzzy, don’t fuss me too much with facts world view, this doesn’t contradict my poverty saturation theory. But beyond that, I want more time to mull this. I’ve already noticed some patterns I want to write more about (like my doctored black poverty number wasn’t as good as overall district black poverty, but my doctored total poverty number worked well—huh), but I’m feeling done, and I’d really like to get feedback, if anyone’s interested. I’m fine with learning that I totally screwed this up, too. Unlike the last post, where I feel pretty solid on the data collection, I’m new at this. If you want to see the very messy google docs file with all the data, gmail me at this blog name.

Two posts in two days is some sort of record for me–and three posts in a week to boot.

I’ll have my retrospective post tomorrow, I hope, since I’ve posted on Jan 1 every year of my blog so far. Hope everyone has a great new year.


I am not competitive, but I like comparisons. How is my little corner of the blog universe doing? Why am I getting all this traffic? Are people actually reading me? Are all these clicks just random clicks from autobots of some sort? For most of October, I wrote only two posts, but two days before the end of the month it had been my biggest month (click–can’t figure out how to render full-size).

That’s not impossible; my essays are often discovered after the fact. Mine is not a time dependent blog linking in news of the day. Still, I wonder.

So I figured out how to use Alexa, a little (click):


Alexa says that rankings are kind of sketchy until you’re under 100,000. Well. Diane Ravitch’s ranking is something like 161K. Education Excellence–the website, not the blog–is something like 220K. Diane is the only individual education blogger I could find with really high rankings; I didn’t include her on this because the scale eradicated all the other differences.

This is primarily a comparison of my site to those of education policy wonks and reporters, with the exception of Dan Meyer. Most individual teacher bloggers I looked up were well below my ranking; everyone I could think of was in the 2 million range or not ranked at all. I couldn’t look up individual edweek bloggers, so I have no idea how Sawchu, Hess, Gerwitz or Cody do, for example. Alexander Russo’s entire site (scholastic administrator) came in below a million—I didn’t include it because I’m not sure how his blog relates to everything else. Daniel Willingham’s site numbers are for everything, but I’m figuring his blog gets most of the traffic.

I can’t figure the whole thing out—it’s clear I improved a lot from a low point in May, but May was a huge month for me. June and July were big dropoffs. It’s also clear I ended “up”–if I’d done this a few weeks ago, I’d have been slightly below some of the bloggers I’m now above. Larry Cuban has been my own benchmark for a year; I used another site (Quantcast, I think?) and because we are both on wordpress comparisons were pretty easy. He’s usually right above me; it’s a fluke that right now I’m ranked slightly higher than he is.

However, I thought this was a helpful graphic. I’m not imagining things; Alexa thinks I’m doing pretty well in a relative sense. I mean, there’s really major bloggers who are in the same million rankings with me! And I do it for free. Kudos to Joanne Jacobs, who I’ve been reading for years and does it all on her own. Dan Meyer, also doing it all by himself, as a teacher no less, has great numbers, too.

Any ideas? Other sites to check out? Or do your own comparison.

200,000 Views in 20 Months

I remember reading once that an extravert sees a star fall and says, “Wow, a falling star!” while an introvert sees the same star and says, “Wow, I am watching a falling star!”

So it’s not that my blog hit 200,000 page views, but my discovery of this milestone that matters.


Here’s the growth by month and other time units (click to enlarge):


My blog really took off in June 2012, which I associate with my starting Twitter, coupled with my growing readership among Steve Sailer fans. I had 7100 views in May of 2012. Cut those off, and I averaged about 12.5K views per month from June 2012 to August 2013. For this year alone, I’ve averaged 15.5K views per month through August.

This seems to me like a tremendous amount of activity from someone who has only 354 Twitter followers, although these followers are an influential crew, many of whom have many thousands of followers. My essays do not routinely see more than a few comments, although my regular commenters always have interesting things to say.

But I have no one to compare my activity to. I used to be able to use Quantcast for other wordpress bloggers, but something has changed at Quantcast and I’m too lazy to try and figure it out.

So I will just say again that I am stunned, truly, at these numbers, even if some of them are search spiders—are they still called that?

Primary referrers (click to enlarge): topreferrers200000

First of all–Thanks, Steve! My referrers are very much on the HBD side of things. I don’t believe that hbdchick or Chateau heartiste has ever discussed one of my posts directly, but I’m on their blogrolls and get a huge amount of traffic. Thanks to both of them, too. Full disclosure: I can’t understand a single thing that hbdchick says (science is above my head), Roissy is a shocker to the unprepared. Discover Magazine links are from Razib Khan, Taki Magazine and VDare links are from John Derbyshire—thanks to both of them, too.

Joanne Jacobs is the only major education blogger who hits my top referrer list–thanks, Joanne! (The rest of the sites mentioned are where my pieces are linked in to the comments, not blogger referrals. About 25% of those are me citing my own pieces, the rest are other commenters.)

So if you look at my referrals, it looks like my work doesn’t get discussed or read much out of HBD circles.

However, when you look at my outbound clicks, it’s a different story, supported by my most clicked images (not the same as my most linked images, which I didn’t include). From this aspect, it’s clear I’m read by a number of teachers who use my work.

Then there’s my aforementioned twitter follower list, which, small as it is, is filled with teachers, education policy wonks, both think tanks and professors, and education reporters—not people who routinely follow, say, Steve Sailer (although Steve, too, is followed by journalists and writers, of course). I assume they are reading my work? I’m not a devout tweeter, and use it primarily to send out my essays and responses to other education writing. I’m sure they don’t all agree with me, but clearly the education world at large, not just teachers, notices my existence. While I have no idea how to get twitter referrer stats, it’s Twitter that drives a lot of my ed world traffic. I get a lot of deeply appreciated retweet support from Charles Murray, David Pinsen, HBD Bibliography, and Paul Bruno (and there’s a “one of these things just doesn’t belong there” joke in that list somewhere), and if there’s a way to get a complete list to thank, I don’t know how. But thanks to everyone who retweets my work.

I apparently get mentioned on Facebook, but I don’t know how to find these mentions. Thanks to those of you who post about me.

But here’s the weird thing—the other thing that is clear from my referrer stats is that I get a whole lot of search engine traffic. WordPress gives me the most common searches:


Many people are looking for me, and find me. Whoohoo. It’s also clear that my pedagogy posts get a lot of reuse; this makes me very happy. But this is about 5500 posts, which is a long way from the over 30,000 hits I’ve gotten from search engines in the same time period (January 1, 2012 to now). What’s up with that?

I notice this a lot on a daily basis—I’ll be having a big day, based solely on search engine hits. But my blog is not even remotely SEO friendly. It’s clear that people are finding my work for various reasons, but I don’t know who or how.

Back in early May, I listed my most popular essays; you can compare them to the list below.

I remember the first time, back in the 90s, I read a list of the Best Selling Albums of all time and noticing that the list was a combination of recent hits and solid performers over time. I don’t think The Eagles ever had the best selling album in any given year, but Greatest Hits Volume I and Hotel California are well-represented among the top 30 albums. Of course, a musician can have a huge album that is also big over time (just ask Michael Jackson or Fleetwood Mac).

Anyway, that’s the analogy I see in my own essays. Some of them are huge at one point in time, then fall off. Others never had huge numbers, but are solid performers over time. I linked in some performance history—Escaping Poverty and Why Chris Hays Failes were very big by the end of last year, but neither have seen much action lately. The math teaching posts on my list, on the other hand, see unspectacular but solid numbers every month. The true puzzler is my #1 essay, still, Algebra and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing. It gets a huge amount of action, but I never see anyone mention it. Maybe so many people linked it in that the numbers are just google keeping up with its indexing.

I’m sure more knowledgeable people can explain some of this. I look forward to it.

Anyway. For the past year, this blog has so far exceeded my wildest dreams that I’m starting to think I need to upgrade my goals. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Title Written Views
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 04/13

Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 01/12

The Dark Enlightenment and Me 08/12 4,025
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 07/12 3,966
Escaping Poverty 10/12 3,919
Homework and grades. 02/12

The Gap in the GRE 01/12

Kashawn Campbell 08/12 2,791
Why Chris Hayes Fails 06/12 2,713
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 11/12 2,330
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 03/13 2,072
Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers 08/13 1,968
An Alternative College Admissions System 12/12 1,913
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/12 1,910
Jason Richwine and Goring the Media’s Ox 05/12 1,803
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 01/12 1,611
An Asian Revelation 06/13 1,473
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 09/12 1,347
Teaching Polynomials 03/12 1,314
Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 05/12 1,196
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 08/13 1,170
Who I Am as a Teacher 07/13 1,132
Modeling Linear Equations 01/12 1,125
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 03/13 1,101

These are my works that have over 1000 views; pretty soon I might have to have a higher cutoff. (why won’t it do the spacing properly? Makes me crazy.)

In the Interim, Your Thoughts?

Sometimes the pauses between my essays isn’t confidence freeze, but actual busy-ness. Other times, I am just researching or mulling. This pause has been a combination of the above, plus I’ve been doing a lot of reading today, preparing for what I hope will be the next essay.

In the meantime, I thought I’d throw out the things I’m thinking about and see if anyone has any thoughts or links that might be interesting. Because even though I don’t always respond to my commenters, I read them and mull.

  • Why Private Schools are Dying Out—this is, in fact, what I’m working on a response to. If you routinely follow my blog, you can probably predict my response, but anyone just showing up, you may want to check out The Parental Diversity Dilemma, Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop, Charter Hypocrisy, Diversity Dilemma in Action. If anyone has any links or interesting article about education reform in the early-mid 90s, I’d love to hear about them.
  • Teacher Intellectual Property–and here I don’t mean the Teachers Paying Teachers aspect, but the larger point—specifically, what is a teacher’s job?
  • Geometry topic sequencing and maybe something about this article. Yeah, I know that my non-teacher population is thrilled with this one. But I have been sequencing my geometry in what appears to be a unique way, and I want to talk about it. So if you have opinions on the fact that special right triangles and right triangle trig are actually forms of similar triangles and can all be taught in that sequence, let me know so I can at least say I’m not unique.
  • The current irritating eduformer meme arguing that school districts are “creaming by geography”, as a way of striking back at the charter school creaming charge.
  • My Philip K. Dick article, which is the first serious challenger to Algebra and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing as my most-read post, mentioned that I would leave my ideas for high school for later. I would like to get back to that, and figure if I put that desire down on blog, it might up the odds.

Not sure all of these will make it to a post, but those are my current mullings. If you have thoughts or any other questions/comments, put them in comments or if you want to email—is there not a link on the blog somewhere? I should check—my email is the blog name at gmail.

One other thing, sparked by Steve Sailer’s recent donations drive and my discovery that my US web audience is predominantly high income males without kids: would anyone be interested in a Donate button? I can promise only that I will spend the money on sushi, cheap student white board markers, and more expensive beer. Well, maybe pool some of it into a savings fund that will make me feel braver about taking the summer off, instead of working as I’m currently planning. Feel free to shout “HELL, NO!” in the comments; my feelings won’t be hurt. I’m more interested in the possibility that people are thinking gosh, if Ed would just post a link, I’d send cash.

Writing for free, but not as a Writer

I can write, but I am not a Writer. Not only am I not a Writer, but the conditions for Writers today are simply not that good, in part because there are people like me who write, but are not Writers.

Razib Khan

I didn’t think the Nate Thayer hooha had any relevance to my life until I read Razib’s post and realized that I, too, am not a Writer, but someone who can write. Once I wrote a political website that started from scratch six weeks before an election and was selected for the Library of Congress Web Archive; not only wasn’t I paid, I actually forked out some funds for the domain name. I didn’t expect even a token payment when my two op-eds were published in top-ten circulation newspapers, so I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the past year writing two essays, which both got a nice reception, for free. I was filling out an application today and was surprised to see how often I mentioned an unpaid writing project as an achievement worth mentioning on my resume.

I didn’t accept non-payment to build up my reputation as a Writer, so that some day I’ll be able to charge for my work, but because I want the validation that comes from a reputable source publishing my ideas, and I want an audience, whatever audience exists to read my ideas. Writing is just the means of creation of a package of ideas, and the ideas are what drive me to write.

Take this blog, which represents hundreds, and eventually thousands, of hours of unpaid writing time. Ideally, it will never be publicly linked to the person who wrote those op-eds and essays for free. It will not be picked up by Education Week and provide me an additional paycheck. I can’t use it on my resume, either. Yet this blog represents my greatest writing achievement and a source of considerable pride, a package of information and ideas validated by the growing audience and the recognition by advocates and reporters. Not in the slightest does it matter whether people know it’s me.

I like to think I write well. But I could never be a Writer. Never mind that I’m too slow, and too long, to do this for pay. Never mind that I love teaching and wouldn’t want to give it up. I don’t want to be a Writer because I’m not interested in telling someone else’s story. Advocacy groups would want me to support one particular position. News sites would want me to offer neutral analysis—except, of course, most education reporters are anything but neutral. Straight reporting would require too many tradeoffs in story selection and that I keep my opinions out of the story. Columnists (at least these days) have to find their place on the political spectrum and get a following, or they won’t be columnists. None of these functions sound appealing—assuming anyone would want me in a paid position in the first place, or that I could convince anyone to pay me to write for them.

So for someone like me, publication at a reputable, critically-acclaimed outlet offers exposure to a larger, or different, audience. The more that people read my work and realize that education is complicated, that pretty much every advocacy position is flawed, and that there aren’t any easy answers, the more I have achieved my goal—with or without money. The only payment that would further my goals would be, say, a book deal, and even then, it wouldn’t be the advance or the status of Writer that mattered, but the validation and the audience that comes with it.

None of this is to say I don’t sympathize with the Nate Thayers, the Writers who are seeing a near cataclysmic decline in income. The Atlantic is seeing record profits, a rare happy tale in a the recent publishing landscape. What does it mean if a publication can only achieve record profits by refusing to pay for the manufacture of its product? It’s one thing to occasionally pick up a well-written piece by an amateur who wants the audience. It’s quite another to just survey the landscape of written work and scavenge the pickings for the article that has the potential to increase their click—wait, we’re calling it “hits” now—count with an author who’ll value the exposure over cash. Is that the future of magazines without a deep pockets dilettante? Editorial vision and quality control secondary to manufacture?

If so, that will ultimately redound to people like me, who write but aren’t Writers, and who have done their bit to contribute to this situation, because one key aspect of our goal is “reputable outlet validating our work”. We’ll just have “hit”-whoring publications who will only care about quality after traffic, and billionaire mouthpieces that pay well, but require a certain viewpoint. And of course, to a certain extent, what else is new?—but really, it’s worse. The market is fragmenting even further, and the disintegration of another gold standard is nigh.

I find it increasingly difficult to get excited about technological innovations any more.

2012 in review

In October, I reached 100 posts, which is a lot for a slow writer, so I did a summary of my work thus far. I had 37,000 views in October; by year end, I had 67000. Calculated on a purely monthly basis, my blog has 5628 views per month. However, it’s clear that things took off in June, which is when I created a Twitter account. June through December accounts for 60,000 of my 67,000 page views, or 8627 views per month. I did not achieve this by writing more posts; as you can see by my calendar archive at the bottom I wrote 25 posts in January, 13 posts in February, and 10 or less every subsequent month, so I apparently grew my audience. So I thought I’d do a retrospective; maybe new readers would find something that interested them.

Page views by month:


Rather than list posts by viewership, I thought I’d look into the numbers by month, as it’s obvious I started off big, then faded back, then hit my stride over the summer, which I connect to Twitter but may be caused by something else.


  1. The Gap in the GRE, currently 8th in my overall list, has actually gotten more views over time than in its original posting. Steve Sailer discussed it in June, and it’s getting more interest over time. As a 99.999% verbal performer, I’m proud to have increased awareness of that gap.
  2. Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II. This article was responsible for most of the atypically high activity in January and is third on my overall list. Google “teacher SAT scores” and the search returns my article on the first page. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been reading a blog on an entirely unrelated subject and seen commenter A sneer about crappy teacher SAT scores, and commenter B slam back with a link to this article. This is a high information value post that gets used a lot. Deeply satisfying. Eat that, Biggs and Richwine.
  3. Another post that gets a lot of attention, relative to what I expected, is Modeling Linear Equations. Google “linear equations modeling” and it comes up on the first page, and is 13th overall in page views. Teachers use this post as a direct homework assignment or as an example, and its usage has also increased over time.
  4. Oh, yeah, I explained the Voldemort View, a phrase I borrow from an anonymous teacher.


  1. Another sleeper post, Homework and Grades. Joanne Jacobs linked it in, giving it the first boost, but it’s been a big performer over time, and is the seventh most read post.
  2. I think my unit on Twelfth Night has some great ideas.
  3. I also introduced the lurker in the teacher quality debate—namely, race. I’ve returned to this several times with my Mumford posts.

March, April, and May

These were all very slow months, primarily because I didn’t take on hot topics and talked mostly about teaching. No big posts, but I’m very happy with the method outlined in Teaching Trig, and thought this post on induction and its crappiness was good. My History of Elizabethan Theater I, II, and III are worth a read, too. I only wrote 4 posts in May, because I was focusing on a piece I wrote under my own name, but this piece is a lot of fun: Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard.


  1. Why Chris Hayes Fails got a big immediate reaction, winning links from both Steve Sailer and Razib Khan, and is currently #5 on my overall. This post, too, gets a lot of repeat links because of its disconcerting evidence in two big areas: a) blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get test prep than whites, and b) wealthy blacks score lower than poor whites on the SAT, something I return to often.

  2. What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT—The difference between these tests will, at some point or another, become relevant to your life, and I’m one of maybe fifty people in the country (and that’s being generous) who have spent a decade prepping wealthy, middle class, and poor kids of all races on both the SAT and the ACT. Please keep it in mind.
  3. Difference between tech and teacher hiring . I’m fifty. It’s frigging brutal, getting hired as a teacher. If you know anyone planning on becoming a second career teacher, send them this link to discourage them from spending a lot of money on the effort.
  4. The problem with fraudulent grades: For seven years, I’ve taught an ACT class to low income, black and Hispanic students, and seen the profound differences in GPA, course transcript and demonstrated ability based on whether or not they went to a charter school or comprehensive high school. My contempt for GPA and AP for all is close to boundless because of my experience.

July was my first huge month, nearly double June, and 60% of January through June combined. I found it intimidating, frankly.

  1. The myth of “they weren’t ever taught”–probably my single favorite post, an effort to explain to non-teachers what it is like to teach a demanding cognitive subject to low to mid-ability kids. Razib Khan and many others linked this in; thanks for the attention!
  2. Google Clarence Mumford and my original post is still on the first page as of today. In August, it was third. This story was completely ignored for four months, in my opinion because it points the way to what will certainly occur (and has occurred) if teacher content knowledge requirements are raised.
  3. The False God of Elementary Test Scores–another idea I return to frequently. Many believe that raising elementary test scores and achievement will lead to stronger high school achievement. No evidence of that, folks.


  1. #1 on the most read list: Algebra and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing, my “curating”, as it’s called today, of the argument set off by Andrew Hacker. I didn’t take a position but rather explained why everyone else was wrong.
  2. SAT Prep for the ultra-rich and everyone else—another very useful useful primer on test prep.
  3. Why Chris Christie picks on teachers—for that matter, why eduformers pick on teachers and leave cops and firefighters alone. Is it completely a coincidence that teachers are mostly white women and the other two are primarily white men?

A relatively light month, but with a number of pieces I’m happy with.

  1. The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform—this piece has never gotten all that much attention. Basic idea: both progressives and “reformers” have been pushing legislation onto schools without any research supporting their objectives. Useful overview of education legislation over the past 40 years.
  2. On the CTU Strike—another piece I like a great deal, suggesting why reformers might be failing so spectacularly at winning the hearts and minds of the public.
  3. The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics—Stuart Buck throws out what he assumes is a gotcha, and I amiably agree.


  1. Escaping Poverty—what advice do you give a 15 year old who wants to get out of poverty? In a little over a month, it achieved second place on my most read list.

  2. Boaler’s Bias—it was opinions like these that made my life at ed school difficult.
  3. Teaching Students with Utilitarian Spectacles—Every so often, I take a piece of academic writing and show what it means when working with a student at ground level. This is one of my favorites; thanks to Joanne Jacobs for discussing it.
  4. Best Movie About Teaching. Ever.–I like writing about movies.


  1. Parental Diversity Dilemma—jumped to six on my overall list. I’m pretty hard on Mike Petrilli, the parents pretending they want diversity, and charter advocates. All in all, a good day’s work. John Derbyshire included me on his dark enlightenment reading list, as did Steve Sailer
  2. More on Mumford—finally, the media noticed the Clarence Mumford story, and I slam down hard on the education pundits who scoff at the “stupid” people who can’t pass the Praxis without cheating.
  3. The End of Pi—Like Twelfth Night, a rare post when I talk about teaching literature.
  4. Algebra Terrors—in which I discuss the PTSD I suffer from teaching all algebra, all the time.


  1. Alternative College Admissions System–#9 on my most read list, an answer to Ron Unz’s controversial article about the myth of american meritocracy
  2. Fake Grades and Big Money–I use KIPP data to show why I think grades are useless, and why KIPP pledges are so problematic.
  3. Push the Right Buttons—another student anecdote that I’m very fond of.
  4. Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, wonk—useful if you want to know the teaching history of most major eduwonks. Answer: not very much.
  5. Diversity Dilemma in Action—Obligingly, the Rancho Elementary School in Novato comes forth to prove why I have such a low opinion of Mike Petrilli’s new book.

So there’s my year. Thanks for reading!

No Jeans for Teachers? Seriously?

Teacher dress code means banning jeans.

Are you one of those people who thinks that these dress codes will “restore professionalism” and “instill respect” into teaching? I can’t remember the last time I saw a doctor who wasn’t in jeans or dockers. My dentist is an overdresser, it’s true, but her receptionist never moves beyond jeans. Casual Friday died the death in corporate America a decade or more ago; we dressed down every day of the week. Hell, lawyers don’t even wear suit and ties routinely unless they’re at court.

So spare me the pieties about teachers’ clothes. Many of us want to wear jeans, or shorts, or sweat pants. Unless there’s research proving that kids achieve better when their male teachers wear ties and the female ones wear dresses, then take a big cup of shut up. Curb the excesses, fine. No holes, no spaghetti straps, no tattoos, sure. But jeans? Please. The era of suit and ties is over—not just for teaching, but for the country. You want to bring it back, start with an occupation that pays in the six figures first.

Hey, I’m on Twitter

For an ex-techie with a distressing number of website domains, I’m not a faithful blogger and I avoid most social media. But I wanted to try to respond more quickly–that is not necessarily with a blog post–to articles that interest me. We’ll see how it goes. I will probably get bored with it.


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