Advanced Placement Test Preferences: Asians and Whites

I just finished my AP US History survey course, and a glorious time it was. But I will save the specifics of my three to four hour lectures, and whether or not this is a good way to teach history for another post. I will also, hopefully, weigh in some time on what value add I think I bring to history. (If you’re curious, in public school I taught history of Elizabethan theater and a truly awesome 50s science fiction film course, in which students were to analyze the movie’s foreign policy approach by Walter Russell Mead’s paradigm.)

I always end my AP class by discussing the students’ course selections for next year. APUSH is a junior course, and I have about ten kids in this particular class, and the conversation is always the same.

“What are you taking?”

“Calc BC, AP Physics C, AP Bio, AP Gov.”

“You?

“AP Chem, AP Stats, AP Psych,…”

“So you’ve already taken BC?”

“Yeah, just took the test. Piece of cake. I’m taking intro to MVC.”

“What about AP English?”

All the heads shake. “God, no. Way too hard.”

One kid says “I’m taking AP Gov, I heard it’s easy.”

“I’m taking Macro Econ, one of our teachers has all the info you need to pass the tests.”

I laugh. “Jesus. Embrace the stereotype.”

They all get it and laugh, shamefacedly.

“Who’s taking AP English this year?” Two hands rose. “AP English next year?” No hands.

“So here’s what I don’t understand. You are all trying to get into college, and the reason you are taking these tough classes is to make yourself look good for colleges.”

“Sure.”

“And I see only Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans in front of me, all either FOB or citizens with parents who lived most of their lives in China, Korea, or India. Moreover, as I imagine you’ve heard, and certainly your parents have heard, universities often engage in some form of discrimination against Asians.”

“Wow,” one of the students laugh-gasped. “I never thought I’d hear an American admit that.”

“An American, or a white person?”

“They aren’t the same?”

“You born here?” Pause, as I see that datapoint register. Yes. She’s an American. (We’ll leave aside the fact that they don’t consider blacks and Hispanics American, either. I’ve written about this before; it’s still weird to see.)

“Anyway. All of you avoid classes that involve reading literature or written analysis because they would be too difficult.”

“Well, yeah.”

“So the stereotype is all wrong.”

“What, the stereotype that says we’re good at science and math?”

“No, the stereotype that says you work hard, that you take on challenges.”

“Oooooh, SNAP.”

I smiled, too. “Look, there’s a serious point here. You’re a college admissions officer, reading through approximately 16 billion Asian resumes that all read exactly the same: 4.2 GPA, BC calculus as a sophomore ( with the occasional underachiever waiting until junior year), several AP science courses, APUSH for those of you who can string a sentence together, AP Chinese for those of you lucky enough to win the language lottery, and so on. What’s going to stand out? Not one more STEM course.”

“Yeah, but I hate reading.”

“You think the universities don’t know that? Oh, look, one more Asian kid who’s a machine at math and can memorize all the facts in AP Bio but uses Cliff notes for Hamlet. College admissions is a numbers game anyway, and I’m not pretending anything is going to make a huge difference,, but…”

“My dad says colleges are reducing Asians born here…American Asians [score!] for Chinese and Koreans.”

“Your dad’s right. So given all the work you’re putting in clearly to just get that last inch of consideration, may I suggest that the path to differentiation lies in showing the admissions reviewer that you take on challenges in all subjects, as opposed to taking classes you know you’ll get an A in.”

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

I was going to just post this little anecdote, but then I got to wondering just how prevalent the behavior is—it is exclusive to my little corner of the country, or are the recent Asian immigrants showing up in national data?

One of the problems with AP data is that you simply can’t make too many assumptions. For example, much has been written about the fact that the mode AP score for blacks is 1. Not only do most blacks fail the AP test, people wail, but they fail it completely! Twice as many blacks get a failing score as get a passing score! Our teachers are failing black children!

Yeah, no. The black AP population is a combination of at least three different groups. First, the group of genuinely qualified, academically prepared black students. Small group, I know, but each year hundreds of African American students take and pass the BC Calculus test, many with a score of 5 (however, 1 is still the mode for BC Calc). Second, the group of average or higher ability blacks with relatively little interest in academic success, who have nonetheless been put in AP classes by desperate suburban school officians who are under fire from the feds for their “opportunity gap” numbers. These are kids who could, with good teaching, achieve a respectable “3″ on a number of tests, and probably do.

The problem, alas, is that a teacher can focus on getting middle achievers over the hump, or on challenging a bunch of smart kids. Can’t do both in the same room, not easily and probably not at all. Thus bringing in more marginal black students and coaxing them to a three occasionally has a depressing effect on suburban AP scores, as the top white kids aren’t being taught at the top of their ability. But I digress.

The third group, and it’s huge, are low income urban and charter schools gaming the GPA and Jay Mathews Challenge Index. These are kids who are barely literate, often aren’t even taught the course material, but boy, by golly if they get the butts in the seats they’ll show up on Jay’s list somewhere. All at taxpayer expense.

While the AP tests results disaggregate Mexicans and Puerto Ricans from the rest of Hispanics, Mexican performance has the same conflation of three groups as black results do, and are equally useless. The Hispanic mode score is also one.

Asian scores aren’t disaggregated, but the Big Three (Chinese, Koreans, and Indians) dominate.

So are Asians showing a preference for science and math over the humanities AP tests?

AP testing populations by race–mostly. It would have been a huge hassle to add up all the URM categories, so I just subtracted whites and Asians from the total. So “Decline to state” is categorized as a URM, when it’s probably mostly white. I checked a couple values, it wasn’t a big difference. These are the top 20 tests by popularity, in order from left to right1.

2013aptablebyrace

The visual display is useful—look for big green, little blue, or a relatively high number of URMs, fewer Asians. See? Asians live the stereotype. Don’t assume that blacks and Hispanics are drawn to the Humanities courses—it’s just easier for schools to shove unprepared kids into English, Geography, and History classes than it is to science and math courses. Fewer prerequisites.

Here’s the same data in table form. I added one column, Asians as a percentage of the Asian/white total, to clear away the URM noise. Then I highlighted the tests for each column that were more than one average deviation away from the mean, both higher and lower–I don’t know from stats (irony alert), but that seemed a better measure of central tendency than standard deviation. I bolded any values that were more than two average deviations away from mean.
2013aptablebyrace

Whites are the most tightly clustered, URMs next. Asians tilt strongly towards and against.

There’s a lot more to explore here, and I hope to do that soon. But for now, I wanted to stay focused on Asian vs. white preferences. So I next compared the top 20 Asian test preferences to those of whites. (Actually, I did 22 for Asians because I thought #22 was revealing.)

AP totals include many multiple testers, so I took the number of testers for any given test as a percentage of the total for that race. This is not a perfect measure, for obvious reasons. Or maybe not so obvious. Say, for example, that an entirely different group of Asians take the English Lit test than take the Calc AB test, but the white students have a significant overlap. In that case, the percentage of testers would be saying something entirely different about each group than if both Asians and whites had overlapping testers.

However, in either case, it would be revealing. If more whites than Asians took both math and English tests, or if one group of Asians took math tests and another group took English (or the same case of whites), the percentages are still showing a preference. I think. I’m sure there’s a way to describe this more technically, but it’s late, the school year’s almost over, so put the correct text in comments and I’ll change it.

Anyway.

whitestop20ap asiantop22

And here it is graphically, ranked again by test popularity. The blue and green columns are the percentage of white or Asian testers taking that test. The graph above was percent of each test population that was white/Asian/URM. These columns show the percent of white or Asian population taking that particular test (the blue column “% of total” in the tables immediately above). The line graph is the percent of each group that scored a 5 on that test.

apasianwhitepref

(You notice something weird? Spanish is the tenth most popular test–but it barely makes the top 20 for either whites or Asians. How could that be? Who on earth is taking all those Spanish tests?)

So again, I want to write more about these results but I thought I’d put them out there and let people chew on them. Here’s a few preliminary observations:

  • Whites appear to be the utility players, good in a number of subjects and not expressing huge preferences. They are stretching more into STEM than Asians stretch into writing.
  • Asians appear to be avoiding writing-intensive tests relative to whites, no matter how you interpret the data.
  • Asians tend to choose tests that are more likely to yield high scores, and avoid tests that give out fewer 5s. Until recently, AP Bio doled out 5 scores like candy; they clearly changed scoring in some significant way this year (without announcing it, I guess). Environmental Science, which has a deservedly crappy rep, is actually pretty hard to get a high score on, so Asians avoid.
  • The real difference between Asians and whites in both preferences and scores is in the science tests, not math. Asians have higher scores in all tests—and while that’s probably a reflection of cognitive ability, you really can’t understand the difference in preparation and grinding until you see it—but the real gaps are in the sciences. AP Science courses are, in my opinion, pretty horrible to begin with. Yes. It’s the subject I don’t teach. Bias alert.

TL, DR: Asians across the land reflect the same biases. They may or may not be working hard, but they appear to be avoiding subjects that are more difficult for them, and don’t yield as high a score. This may also be why they avoid the ACT. Or not.

More on this later. Let me know what you think and of course, point out any errors.

1I actually did this work from the bottom up. So in the first chart, which was actually the last one I did, there are only 19 tests. Guess which one I left off, and why. The other charts all have 20 tests.


Reading in the Gulag of Common Core

(if you’re here to see KPM’s bio scrub, scroll down to the bottom)

I have five other pieces going and a serious case of writer’s ADD, but Kathleen Porter Magee just really annoyed me.

Porter Magee works part-time at Fordham Foundation, recently tasked with churning out paeans to or defenses of Common Core, and also at the College Board, where she works for the guy who wrote the Common Core, and I’ve yet to see the media inquire as to whether this might be a conflict.

KPM, as she is often called, has been singing the praises of Teach Like a Champion Doug Lemov for a couple years now, which is inconvenient because Lemov pushes prior knowledge, and her new boss Coleman spits upon it. But anyway, she’s trying to thread both needles here—push Lemov and the Common Core insistence that all students be forced to read “grade level books”.

The money quote bolded:

And the pushback against this particular CCSS directive is growing. For example, self-described “small-town English teacher” Peter Greene likened assigning texts based on grade level “without regard for the student’s reading level” to “educational malpractice.” This pushback is backstopped by an entire industry built up over decades on the premise that students should be kept away from complex texts at all costs.

Really? Are you kidding me? There’s an industry devoted to keeping students away from complex texts? Cite, please? The organization that says “my god, we can’t have kids reading hard words!”

That’s insane, but so is her position that teachers should ignore their students’ actual reading ability and insist on assigning books the polite kids just pretend to understand and the impolite kids just ignore entirely. That opinion is very North Korea, frankly, although NK and the chubby new Leader would be much tougher on the impolite kids.

For the record, there is in fact no industry dedicated to keeping kids from reading Metamorphosis. More immediately relevant, KPM is wrong in insisting that teachers should ignore reading ability when assigning texts.

I was interested to realize that Common Core standards differ by subject in their willingness to acknowledge the below-level student.

So the math standards include some advice on what to do with kids who are behind and , like NCLB, has nothing new to offer: tutoring, algebra support, summer school. Yeah, thanks for the tip. None of them worked last time, either.

But the ELA standards largely refuse to acknowledge the reality of struggling readers—not even, I was a bit stunned to see, much recognition for English Language Learners, flatly rejecting the notion that they might struggle a bit and leaving any support to the states to figure out. Common Core’s refusal to placate the massive ELL lobby is telling, because in that case there’s going to be no recognition of native English speakers who simply aren’t smart enough to read at grade level, so English teachers, you’re screwed. Just kidding, because as we all know, standards throughout history have always called for kids to read at grade level, and teachers have and undoubtedly will continue to pick texts targeted to student ability whenever possible (it isn’t always). They’ve always done that, which begs the question why Fordham Foundation is acting like a wild hair has intruded someplace uncomfortable on the subject.

My conclusion: the big focus on “grade appropriate texts” and emphasis on teachers’ refusal to use the Common Core “exemplars” is just strategy. Common Core’s going to fail, so why not build the terrain for the inevitable blame game that’s coming by arguing that even now, at the beginning, teachers are ignoring Common Core by assigning texts their kids can understand, instead of grade-level texts. KPM’s broadside insult to teachers or an unspecified “industry” desperately working to keep kids away from “sedulous” and “balkanization”—and remind me why, again, she’d go work for the guy who’s planning to scrub the SAT of these words?—is, in my view, part of an effort to position the foundation for the standards’ inevitable failure.

And so, their demand that teachers pretend that all kids from kindergarten on have equivalent reading abilities. Yes, some kids don’t read as well, but that’s because they go to the low income schools that have bad teachers who assign some students Dr. Seuss in second grade instead of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. In this way, the seven year olds are denied the ability to debate whether the speaker was referring to his eventual death or his desired but delayed suicide, thus preventing them from being excellent readers on their way to college readiness.

I haven’t opined on the totality of the ELA standards yet, but on this one point I have been consistently shocked ever since Fordham released the study in which it declared, with a straight face, their horror that English teachers were using their students’ reading abilities to assign texts. Usually reformers insist on behavior that at least logically makes sense if you don’t have a clue about the reality of education. But the stance on this is absurd. Why would anyone insist on forcing kids to read books they can’t understand?

I taught humanities for one year in public school, to freshman with reading abilities ranging from sixth grade to college level, and I can state with confidence that the low ability kids did not benefit in any way from being forced to pretend to read Twelfth Night. They liked the movie, though. As I describe in that post, I gave up SSR with my students because they simply stared at books they didn’t want to read. When I took away their choice and gave the weaker students enrichment activities designed for bright fifth graders, they engaged and acquired content knowledge. Why would anyone seriously argue against that?

For the past eight plus years, I’ve taught reading enrichment to a mostly Asian crowd of freshmen, with abilities ranging from FOB to reasonably competent (rarely do I have a stupendous reader and writer, but it does happen). Here, too, I have not seen them benefit from reading texts they don’t understand because, despite their outstanding test scores, the kids I teach have mediocre reading abilities thanks to dismal active vocabularies and weak content knowledge. Much of my teaching time is spent, again, assigning them reading they can understand and demonstrating the importance of remembering content knowledge.

So while I haven’t taught a lot of English in public school, my experience with early high school readers is extensive, and Fordham’s position is flatly ludicrous.

On a slightly different note, I’m getting a bit tired of KPM pushing her teaching experience. Her Linked In profile shows clearly that not only has she avoided anything approaching students for over a decade, but that she was only at the Washington Archdiocese, a prominent mention in all her bios, for ten months. She didn’t leave an impression. Likewise at Achievement First, her title may have been impressive but she still worked part-time, according to her husband, and the only document I can find with her name on it suggests she was basically HR. Achievement First is known primarily for its questionable application of “No Excuses” discipline, not its great curriculum.

She was probably a teacher for some period of time from 1997 through 2000, the three years after she graduated from Holy Cross with a degree in French and Political Science before she started her master’s degree. Maybe she just doesn’t list her credential education. More plausibly, she taught for a year or so at a Catholic school, maybe language, maybe French.

Back when she married Marc Magee, teaching was such an important part of her bio that she never mentioned it, only listing her work at Progressive Policy Institute, Hoover, and Fordham. Her footprint at every place but Fordham is non-existent.

I have mentioned before that very few education policy people on either side have any extensive teaching experience, but better to just plead out than pretend.

Maybe she’s got more experience than I can find, or slipped in some teaching while working at Fordham part time. Maybe a reporter will ask her to be specific, produce documents of her curriculum work and her lesson plans. Hahahahaha!

Anyway. If it comes down to a choice between an reticent Kathleen Porter Magee and me, an anonymous teacher blogger….wait. Never mind.

Look, I’m not expecting you to take my word for anything. But if you still accept policy hack bios at face value, think again.

As for the Common Core Reading Gulag, where everyone must read at or above grade level because the Great Leader says so, I’ll leave you with a simple application of logic.

On one side, you have an education reform organization, dependent on the will of its funders, insisting that English teachers everywhere are failing their students by assigning them texts that will be more likely to engage them and thus increase content knowledge, rather than texts randomly declared “grade level” by wishful thinkers. On the other side, you have the majority of English teachers, insisting through their actions that students are best served by reading words they can understand.

Michael Petrilli has tacitly admitted (and said so explicitly on the Gadfly show, as I recall) that he never believed in the NCLB goals of getting all students to proficiency, but he had a boss, and that was the party line. Now, he’s pushing the Common Core party line.

You can believe that Petrilli and KPM are pushing a party line because they get paid to, or you can believe that teachers are part of a gigantic industry dedicated to ensuring that students are never exposed to complex text.

It’s up to you.

PS–I just liked the title; don’t take it too seriously.

**********************************
Addendum, June 12

I am delighted to see that KPM’s bio at Fordham has been thoroughly scrubbed.

Here’s how it appeared when I wrote this piece, on May 17th. It was in place through May 30th, at least, as you can see by the dates of the articles.

kpmbefore

And here’s what it looks like now. A lot shorter. All the company names gone, no mention of her teaching, just “working directly in schools”. Still a bit squiffy, but hey, they had to save face.

kpmnow

Think it was me? I hope it was me. It’d be fun if it was me. It probably was me.


Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines

I know this article was the first I read on the Corona del Mar cheating scandal, because it didn’t mention the private tutor’s name and I was absolutely certain that the name would be Asian.

I wasn’t distracted by the description of the school and local environment. Sure, the school is “located in an extremely wealthy coastal area of Orange County “ and yeah, Corona del Mar is a “seaside enclave of quaint old homes and cliff-top mansions” but all the talk about pressure, plus the coordinated nature of the cheating screamed “Asian” (which, for blog newcomers, is a shortcut to describe first or second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants).

So I looked up the school demographics: 9% Asian. Definitely not an “Asian school”. Heavens. I don’t like error.

Then I noticed that Corona del Mar is right next to Irvine. Ah. Irvine’s Asian population has increased 25% in the past decade, and much of that is from new growth. Many recent immigrants, mostly Chinese and Korean (although this article mentions something I’ve noticed as well–in booming Asian towns, the first ones into politics tend to be Vietnamese. No clue why). So the Asians in Newport Beach could be spillover, and if so, were less likely to be long-established families. Not certain, just possible.

Then I found the tutor’s name: Timothy Lance Lai. And his picture:

So I went back to thinking I’m right, because this is a schlub. Rich white people don’t often hire schlubs, of any race. Yes, I am making use of egregious stereotypes, but they can be quite useful when playing percentages. And remember, I tutor (or did, I’ve mostly dropped tutoring this year) rich white kids, so have a fair bit of anecdotal behavior with which to construct my discriminatory profiles.

But perhaps the schlub had compensating factors, something that would compensate for the horrible haircut. I googled around for Timothy Lance Lai and discovered that the guy simply doesn’t exist in the Internet prior to the first cheating reports.

Huh.

If Lai really was a high-end tutor of rich whites, schlub or not, I wouldn’t necessary expect an online footprint about his tutoring services. Rich white kids don’t talk about their tutors almost ever, certainly not online. But I would expect lots of information that told me his background, education, his lamentable preference for Taco Bell, a facebook page, whatever. Google me, for example, and you’ll find plenty of information that reassures and even intrigues your average rich white parent, even though none of it would be about my tutoring services for mostly rich white kids.

If he were a tutor of mostly Asian kids of the cocoon, the ones going to 80% Asian schools, the ones who don’t know white kids can be smart, the ones whose friends also have parents that scream in horror at a B+, then I would expect a website, glowing testimonials, and all sorts of recommendations or naysayers on yelp and College Confidential, because kids yap endlessly online about their tutors, their hagwons, the books they use and so on. Yes, again, egregious stereotyping.

But this guy doesn’t have any online footprint, which means he doesn’t fit the profile of a tutor of either white or Asian kids.

About the only thing reporters could discover was his many traffic violations.

And then he disappeared. Completely. They’ve been looking for the guy since December.

The kids were recommended for “stipulated expulsion”, a form of plea bargain that allows kids to attend other district schools and seals the record. Full expulsion restricts access to all district schools. (PSA: if your kid, god forbid, ever gets in the kind of mess that has administrators mentioning that E word, get a lawyer. District expulsions are routinely overruled by the county or other oversight committee, but only if the student and his parents fight, which isn’t allowed in stipulated expulsions—which is why districts push them. Make them blink. Stare them down. No, I’m not against school expulsions. I’m just pro due process. Change the rules if they’re stupid–and they are.)

Jane Garland, a district official, resigned in protest. The reasons appear fuzzy. Garland, who was in charge of a new “restorative justice” program, seemed to have goofed by brokering an expulsion deal with the parents, then making public statements about the use of restorative justice, which may as well been a neon sign saying “kids got off light”. This led to a small explosion of fury and the district officials immediately canceled aspects of the deal, reassuring the community that no, the kids wouldn’t be allowed to skate, they’d be expelled.

When all the kids were expelled, Garland quit, saying the school was engaged in a coverup, that the kids were all expelled for very different crimes, that the school had known about this for much longer and not done anything. am not sure how true Garland’s charges are, and anyone who works in favor of restorative justice is most likely a flake. But this interests me, given that the reporters are carefully avoiding the mention of race:

In her email, Garland questioned why Scott had removed one student from the list of those being recommended for expulsion. She wrote that the student “was given special treatment.”

When Garland asked Superintendent Frederick Navarro about the student’s removal from the list, he told her that officials “didn’t feel they had enough on him,” Garland wrote.

If all the expelled kids are Asian, and the kid who wasn’t expelled was either white or rich (or both), perhaps Garland was just galled by the willingness to boot the outsiders.

Am I making up the part about race? Just imagining it? When I first found the story, I had stereotypes. Rich whites don’t hire young Asian schlubs, Irvine is a town filled to the gills with recent Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants who, as a group, cheat mightily and shamelessly. Very little to go on. I’m happy to speculate, but I wanted more teeny tiny facts to interpret. So I waited.

In mid-March, I found two stories written in mid-February that gave me all sorts of data between the lines. (Incidentally, the LA Times has been less than useless on this story. Score big points for the local papers, The Daily Pilot, Newport Beach Indy, and the Orange County Register.)

“One of the most important lessons he’ll learn”–a piece dripping with sympathy for the students, told via Jane Garland and the mother, name withheld, of an expelled student. The description and conversation with the mother provides more speculation fodder.

First, dead giveaway: “When [the mother] arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.”

Dingdingding. As a tutor, I go to lots of houses, predominantly white, often Asian (occasionally both). White parents say “Hey, can I offer you something to drink?” and I ask if they have diet coke. Asian parents say, “Would you like some tea?” If they’ve been in the US for a long time, or were born here, they say, “Would you like tea, or water, or a soft drink?” But they do that because I’m white. Asian parent to Asian tutor would almost certainly say “Would you like some tea?””

Second: “She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.”

She just said he was at her house. Now her son goes elsewhere for sessions? That’s unusual. Tutors either have their own office, meet at the library or, most likely for high school students, meet at their houses. When I say unusual, I mean dishonest. I think the mother is just talking, saying words she thinks will evoke sympathy. Also, notice the kid is bragging about how smart and rich Lai is. Whether the mother is telling the truth or lying, the family in question is not rich and probably not white. White kids of any income level would not be impressed by a tutor’s wealth. Rich white kids, definitely not.

Third: “Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.”

What? That’s insanely cheap. Rich people would be very skeptical.

Yet in a sympathy piece about the impact of the cold, cruel district on this kid’s life, no mention is made of the mom’s marital status. If she were single or divorced, surely the reporter would point out the triumph of a single mom going it alone, able to afford tutors for her high achieving kid. Even more remarkable, she did all this without working for a living. She’s home when the tutor comes by. She’s apparently home when the school calls.

Yeah. Unlikely. So on second thought, she’s probably not unmarried, not divorced, not a struggling single mom. She’s probably married. But if she’s married, surely the reporter would mention what her husband, the dad, thought of all this.

So whether the mom is married or single, the reporter’s left a huge hole in the story. Which doesn’t make sense, does it?

Takeaways: I’m getting closer and closer to right. At least one of the kids is Asian. The mom’s probably lying. And the reporter is sculpting around something.

The other piece, Missing tutor leaves questions blank at Corona del Mar High, tiptoes close to actually stating reality, rather than just hinting at it.

First hint that many of the parents involved are Asian: “Interviews with families and administrators paint a picture of Lai as someone who learned how to profit from well-intentioned parents who were eager to send their children to the best colleges and had the money to see that happen.”

Notice the parents aren’t mentioned as being connected, as being powerful, as being “rich”, just that they “have money”? Not the same thing. Chinese families have money because the grandparents have only one grandchild. Koreans don’t always have money, but they’ll spend themselves into serious debt. Indians are usually rich, I grant you.

Second, just to prove a point, you know how I said that tutors have footprints? Here are google searches for the tutors mentioned in the article: Clifford Lau, Tutor Genius, Laura Rickhoff, Amanda Rubenstein, Jeffrey Haig

Then: “While Lai taught high-level math and science to dozens of students striving for the Ivy League, he didn’t get his own bachelor’s degree until recently, at age 26, from University of California Irvine. His major: psychology.”

How, exactly, do the authors know that Lai graduated from Irvine? Did they get that from an interview? Did they visit his condo and see a diploma on the wall? Did they confirm it with UCI? I ask because, as mentioned, I exercised my mad Googling skillz to their utmost extent and could find nada damn thing on the guy. Without supporting data, I’d start with the presumption he didn’t graduate from anywhere.

Next, given the story so far, why would they say that Lai “taught” students anything at all?

So the reporters assume that he has a bachelor’s in psych (or verified it without mentioning source), and then hint that such a person wouldn’t be qualified to tutor kids in high level math.

To me, the big neon light isn’t whether or not he’s qualified, but why the parents would hire him without any other signals. You’re thinking yo, Ed, aren’t you an English major who teaches higher level math and history and whatever the hell else kids ask for? Why, yes, as it happens, I bear no small resemblance to Timothy Lance Lai in this respect. (I’m probably a schlub, too.) But when I began tutoring, I was attending a name-brand university getting a master’s degree in a technical subject. I’d been self-employed in technology. I was a parent of a teenaged white boy. I was working for Kaplan as well, which is one of the few companies that can require a high score on an IQ test. Then I went to a really top-tier education school. All sorts of signals. In my experience, the parents check. They don’t do anything as formal as a vetting, but they google me, they ask casual questions, they check with their kids.

I am unfamiliar with parents who let their kids arrange tutors, even though my clients are often the people who go out of town for a weekend and return to find their kids arranged a party, and now one of the girls or her parents have arranged a lawsuit.

So the fact that Lai had a psych degree from a mid-tier UC, coupled with the red flags in the first article, further suggests that the mother’s story is, er, invented.

Oddly, given the circumstances, I could find only one source that mentioned Lai as an “alleged tutor”–Corona Del Mar officials pointedly refer to him as such in their public statements. Reporters, on the other hand, unhesitatingly call him a tutor whilst describing his cheating assistance as “alleged”, whilst oh, my goodness, the poor parents just “welcomed [Lai] into their homes to work with their children without knowing much about him, other than his ability to raise grades. He had become so successful that he had as many as 150 clients.”

I want to be clear that I’m not asserting any of my thinking as fact. More likelihoods and probabilities.

But reading between the lines, I figured the most likely scenario as follows: This guy was not a tutor. He provided a service to the Irvine community of Asian parents (it must be parents, if true), fixing kids grades through a variety of means, but most likely with the er, innovative tech tools. He may or may not have offered the same service to the rich white kids in the community, but if he did so with the knowledge of their parents, I’d be surprised. Timothy Lance Lai is probably living in Hong Kong, paid off by one of the parent clients.

I’ve written before about cheating and Asian immigrants before, but this is new. First, as many news reports have suggested, hacking into a school system is very Matthew Broderick in War Games, an underachieving, over-privileged white boy trick. So hey, cultural crossover!

This certainly isn’t the first hacking scandal a school has faced, and Corona del Mar isn’t the first sign that hacking has expanded beyond its original demographic, although there’s no pattern to the incidents I’ve found. The Winston Churchill High hacking incident was two white kids, but Tesoro High was Asians. This story on Haddonfield Memorial High School doesn’t mention race but does mention one of the kids came back from vacation “deeply tanned”, so I’m going with stereotype and calling it white–they’re also a couple years younger than the juniors and second semester seniors in the other stories, who would be changing their grades for college applications.

The other concerning aspect, whether this habit of stays restricted to Asians or crosses over to ambitious white kids, is the intent of the grade changes. Matthew Broderick changed his grade to a C; he changed Ally Sheedy’s to an A, to impress her. But your average underachieving white teenage boy hacker is trying to get his parents off his back, not create a resume to fool Harvard. I don’t know how prevalent this will get, but I find it worrying that kids have now moved from faking the underlying abilities to just faking the grades.

And can I just say how tedious it is to try and read between the lines? Perhaps I’m imagining all this. But I have to balance my analysis and subject matter knowledge against the likelihood that the media will do its best to obscure race if it doesn’t involve whites. It’s not a close call.


Just a Job

So Michael Petrilli leads with a somewhat feckless proposal to limit college access but then his follow-up appears, in which he’s shocked—yea, shocked!—to discover that vocational education has significant cognitive demands!

Petrilli still pretends that these deficiencies are an “outrage” caused by poor schools that charters and choice and firing teachers will fix. But here’s the crux of his second piece:

So let’s assume, then, that for the foreseeable future many of our high schools are going to have a heck of a lot of entering students who are prepared for neither a true college-prep curricular route nor a high-quality CTE program. The high school will do its best, but in all likelihood, a great many of these young people will graduate (if they graduate) with low-level skills that won’t leave them prepared for college or a well-paying career. What should we do with these students while they are in high school? What education offerings would benefit them the most?

We’ve got all these kids that won’t be ready for a well-paying career, so what do we do with them while they are in high school? Seriously?

He skips right by the important question: what do these kids do for a job?

Petrilli’s entire reason for existing, professionally speaking, is to offer education as a silver bullet. He’s not someone who will cheerfully accept Paul Bruno’s data showing that education doesn’t fight poverty.

But even Petrilli has to acknowledge that our country has all sorts of jobs that don’t require any training.

What jobs require minimum skills? All the jobs reformers and progressives both describe in disparaging terms: Walmart clerk, hotel maid, custodian, garbage collector, handyman, fast food worker. The average elite makes these jobs sound unfit, an insult to even consider.

I had a kid who I will call Sam in my Math Support Class for Kids Who Didn’t Pass the Graduation Test. He wasn’t particularly memorable, charming or appealing, a slacker constantly trying to get out of any effort. If I didn’t take away his cell phone, he’d never work and even without his cell phone he’d be more likely to draw than practice the basic skills I tried to help him improve on. His skills are incredibly weak; like many low IQ kids he’s got good solid math facts but no ability to synthesize or generalize.

A couple months ago, long after he’d finished my class, Sam came bounding into my room beaming. BEAMING. He’d gotten a job at Subway. He was going to make a presentation in English class on how to make a sandwich, and he was wondering if I could help him edit his essay on the same topic. His essay was weak, but it demonstrated significant effort on his part, and he took my edit suggestions to heart and returned with a still-weak-but-much-improved version. I’ve seen him several times since, getting an update on his increasing hours, a raise, getting his GED because he can’t pass the graduation test. He’s got a purpose and he’s excited. He could give a damn if elites think his job’s a dead end.

Sam’s Indian. A recent immigrant. Weak English skills, which his parents (who are not college graduates) share. Given that many if not all the Subways in my area are franchised by south Asians, I am reasonably sure he got the job through family connections.

You know any women who get manicures? Ask them the last time they paid a non-Vietnamese woman for the service. Then wonder whether these salons would hire anyone who doesn’t speak the boss’s language.

Read this 1994 qualitative study, in which managers of large low or unskilled work forces describe why they hire more Hispanics, the power of networks, and the ability to get good workers for less because hiring by referral was cheaper, even if, or especially if, the workers were all Hispanic. Notice how the employers talk about black and white low-skilled workers, natives, who resented the treatment. Notice the discussion of different hostilities between blacks and Hispanics, but also the fact that Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans didn’t like working together. Then read the same author, Roger Waldinger, finding that second generation Hispanic immigrants are not, as was the case with other immigrants, moving up. So we imported millions of illegal Central Americans, they had kids that are now permanently low skilled workers—and still, as any employer can tell you, subject to the same inter-group hostilities, but now just as entitled as the blacks and whites are. This is a group we need more of?

Of course, all of these employers and managers in that research are white. As the Vietnamese cartel in manicure businesses suggest, Asians have taken to starting their own businesses where they mostly hire their own. Thought I was making it up about Subway and Indians? 1500 Patels in the Subway franchise database—I imagine there are all sorts of Singhs and Guptas, too. In hotels and motels, Indians own 50% of recent hotels and 60% of budget motels. With Cambodians, it’s doughnuts; the Cambodian community loans money to incoming refugees to start a franchise; the independent Cambodian shop owners have largely chased out Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and Winchells out of LA. Cambodians have no history of donuts and from all accounts just use powdered donut mix but thanks to the network effects of cheap money and a steady supply of other low-skilled Cambodian workers, often family members, and undiscriminating illegal Mexican customers looking for a cheap breakfast, they do pretty well. In much of the eastern US, >Dunkin Donuts franchises are dominated by Indians and Portuguese. Meanwhile, 90% of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Koreans where, as in LA, they sell to primarily black communities but never hire blacks to work in their stores. But in the main, Koreans left independently owned businesses and turned to franchises as well. Koreans pretty much own the frozen yogurt market: Yogurtland, Pinkberry and Red Mango have done much to challenge TCBY. I’ve never seen a Yogurtland that didn’t employ Koreans only, but I can’t find any demographics on their employee population.

Franchises and small business are not only dominated by immigrant populations who haven’t, er, gotten the memo on diversity and tolerance, but they are used as a way for non-Americans to get over here in the first place. Franchise Times: “The franchise community has been developing unique tools to secure additional capital. One exciting approach is the use of the EB-5 program (better known as “buying a Green Card”).”

Regardless of ownership, franchises and small businesses that use a lot of unskilled labor are usually hiring illegal immigrants—in fact, “undocumented” Hispanics seem to be the one non-Asian group that Asian small business owners don’t object to as employees, although Chinese illegals have been coming through the southern border in big numbers, so maybe that will change. In at least one quite horrible case, Pakistani 7-Eleven owners brought over illegal Pakistanis and locked them up to work in their stores 18 hours a day for well under minimum wage and committed all sorts of identity theft and money laundering to make millions.

We do not need immigrants to come over to America and exploit illegal aliens. This, manifestly, is a job that Americans are willing to take on.

So Mr. Petrilli wants to know how to best educate low-skilled high school students, but before I get to that, it’s clear that Mr. Petrilli needs some education.

The single most important thing we can do for low-skilled high school students is improve their job market opportunities and the quality of their work experience.

First step: stop importing competition. It’s not enough simply to crack down on Chinese and Hispanic illegal immigration; we should also realize that many immigrants are coming to America with family money and community networks to start businesses that aren’t positively affecting the low-skilled job market. Many of these immigrants are coming over via chain migration.

It is not immediately apparent to me that we gain when McDonalds and other franchise food chains reduce their company-owned stores in favor of franchises. Less risk for the companies, less transparency for the hiring processes, and improved deniability. Since it’s probably impractical to stop franchises, we should at least hold Subway, 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and the rest responsible for hiring violations—not just illegal employees, but also skewed employee demographics, which starts with increased reporting.

Small businesses owned by recent immigrants that only hire family members and take advantage of immigrant networks may have some positive impact on the economy. But not only are we importing competition for our low and unskilled workers, but our schools are required to educate their children, who are often very low-skilled, creating more classroom impact and oh, yeah, the reformers will then scream again about our lousy schools.

So the key to helping unskilled American workers is to improve their job opportunities by reducing or stopping immigration, insisting that immigrant employers follow the same hiring rules as everyone else, and demand transparency from large employers who are doing their best to avoid it by outsourcing to smaller companies to do their dirty work. If we tighten their labor market, many of the (abuses may stop as they don’t have a ready supply of willing victims. Hopefully, pay will increase.

But there’s plenty we could do in education, too, where reduced immigration will also allow us to focus more meaningfully on low-skilled citizens. High school vocational education could be expanded to include low-skilled jobs. Bill Gates and other well-meaning billionaires could open some franchises in districts with many unskilled students. Create training programs for kids to learn the importance of showing up on time, understanding customer service, identify assistant manager potential. Start a training program at Home Depot and Lowes, teach boys how to use all the equipment. Then tell the locals that they can call their local schools directly for miscellaneous labor needs and get a guaranteed source, rather than picking up whoever’s sitting out in front of Home Depot.

I know nothing about how state and local employers hire meter maids, garbage workers, and the like. I bet most reformers don’t either. How about finding out? How about internship programs, again funded by all those well-meaning billionaires, that give kids summer experience writing parking tickets, picking up recyclables, collecting bridge tolls—are any of these jobs outsourced? Suppose we have a discussion about that.

As for education, we can teach kids how to read, write, calculate, and engage their brain on the issues of the day without moving beyond an 8th grade vocabulary. We can even extend that 8th grade vocabulary a bit. Teach them how to read newspaper articles, how to write their opinions in an organized fashion, how to write a letter to the editor—how to craft a job application letter specific to the situation. Certainly we could teach them the basics of business entrepreneurism for those who would like to try self-employment or small business. How about living opportunities? Many kids in this situation can’t afford an apartment and so live with their parents, feeling infantilized. Perhaps they need to be educated on their opportunities: sharing rentals, more affordable regions, and so on.

We don’t even really know yet how to educate people with IQs less than 100, which is probably the most important educational research we aren’t doing. Maybe we can move some of the kids from unskilled to skilled technician jobs, with the right approach.

I’m glad Michael Petrilli has acknowledged reality. But in doing so, he’s opened a big can of worms for the reform movement. Once we realize that the bulk of the kids reformers have been focusing on, the lowest achievers, can’t be educated in the manner they demand, then it becomes clear that employment, not education, is the key area for reform.

Let me finish by referring back to the Sam anecdote. We should not be importing families who will add to the unskilled labor pool, but have an advantage because of immigrant social networks and capital.

But I can’t begin to tell you how completely transformed Sam was when he got his job. He had a purpose. He felt useful. I remember vaguely in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a time when she made a contemptuous remark about their work and hurt a co-worker’s feelings. The co-worker didn’t think the task was a waste of time; she was proud of getting it done correctly.

Progressives and reformers hold these jobs in low esteem because they simply can’t conceive that for low skilled people, these jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. But other times, they’re just jobs, just something that people do to make money and live. “Just a job” isn’t an insult. It’s an objective. It’s a goal. It’s time to start focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for the entire population, instead of giving immigrants the jobs our unskilled workforce needs.


Finding the Bad Old Days

Michael Petrilli wrote an extremely aggravating article suggesting we tell unqualified kids they aren’t ready for college and go to CTE and then a much improved follow up that acknowledges the racial reality of his idea.

In his first piece, Petrilli only mentions race once:

PetrilliCTEquote3

This is a common trope in articles on tracking, a nod to “the bad old days” right after the end of segregation, that time immediately after Brown and ending sometime in the late 70s, or when Jeannie Oakes excoriated the practice in Keeping Track.

In the bad old days, the story goes, evil school districts, eager to keep angry racist white parents from fleeing, sought a means of maintaining segregation despite the Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act. So they pretended to institute ability grouping and curriculum tracks, but in reality, they used race. That way the district could minimize white flight and still pretend to educate the poor and the brown. That’s why so many brown kids were in the low ability classes, and that’s why so many lawsuits happened, because of the evil racist/classist methods of rich whites keeping the little brown people down.

The bad old days are a touchstone for anyone proposing an educational sorting mechanism. So you have Petrilli advocating a return to tracking, who tell us the bad old days are a thing of the past: yeah, we used to track by race and income, pretending to use ability, but we’ve progressed. Districts pretended to use IQ, but they were really using culturally biased tests to commit second-order segregation. Today, we understand that all races and all incomes can achieve. Districts don’t have to distort reality. The bad old days are behind us, and we can group by ability secure that we aren’t discriminating by race.

Before ed school, I accepted the existence of the bad old days, but then I noticed that every reading asserted discrimination but didn’t back it up with data. Since ed school, I’d occasionally randomly google on the point, looking for research that established discriminatory tracking back in the 60s and 70s. And so the Petrilli article got me googling and thinking again. (What, buy books? Pay for research? Cmon, I’m a teacher on a budget. If it’s damning, the web has it.)

I first reviewed Jeannie Oakes, reaffirming that Oakes holds tracking itself, properly applied, as the operative sin. Discriminatory tracking isn’t a main element of Oakes’ argument, although she points out that “some research” suggests it occurred. Oakes’ third assumption, that tracking is largely made on valid decisions (page 4) is accepted at face value. So the grande dame of the anti-tracking movement has completely neglected to mention the bad old days—which, at that time, would have been contemporary.

On I move to Roslyn Mickelson, who does charge Charlotte Mecklenburg schools with discriminatory tracking.

I wasn’t much impressed for a number of reasons–not least of which a big error, which you can see here (lines 8-9):

mickelson5

Not unusual, apparently. In Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Judge Richard Potter eviscerates her expert testimony, finding faults with her credibility, her accuracy, and her logic.

Bottom line, however, Mickelson’s research shows that high achieving scorers in year one are not consistently placed in high achieving classes six years later. While both whites and blacks with high scores end up in low tracks and vice versa, more whites get high placement than blacks. But generally, her data shows something I’ve documented before, that achievement falls off each year because school gets harder.

Both whites and blacks experience the falloff, even though Mickelson seems to think that the pattern should be linear. The achievement scale simply gets larger as kids move up in grade levels, and fewer blacks make the top tier. This is consistent with cognitive realities.

There might be a smoking gun in research. But I couldn’t find it.

Then I suddenly realized duh, what about case law? If districts were tracking by race, there’d be a lawsuit.

I started with three legal articles that discussed tracking case law: 1, 2 and 3. They were all useful, but all failed to mention a significant case in which the district routinely used different standards or sorted directly by race or zip code.

From these articles, I determined that Hobson vs. Hanson was the original tracking case, and that the McNeal standard was for many years (and may still be) the test for ability grouping.

So I created a reading list of cases from the late 60s to the early 90s:

Only two of these cases involved schools directly accused of using race to sort students. In Johnson v. Jackson, the schools were forced to integrate in the middle of a school year. The black kids were ported over to white schools and the classes kept intact. The court ordered them to fix this. From first integration order to the fix order: 4 months.

The second case, Rockford, was decided in the early 90s, and the judge directly accuses the district of intentionally using race to ability group. However, Jeannie Oakes was the expert witness, and the judge drank every bit of Koolaid she had to offer and licked the glass. Oakes is presented as an expert witness, with no mention that she’s an anti-tracking advocate. Her testimony appears to be little more than readings from her book and some data analysis.

The proof of “intentional racism” was pretty weak and largely identical to Mickelson’s described above. Major difference: the judge accepted it.

Leaving aside these two cases, I couldn’t find any case in which the district was found to misuse the results of the test, either by using different racial standards or ignoring the tests entirely. The tests themselves were the issue.

In the south, school systems that weren’t “unitary” (that is, were previously segregated districts) couldn’t use ability testing. Since blacks would have lower scores based on past racial discrimination, the use of tests was discriminatory, an intent to segregate.

For school systems that were found to be unitary, ability testing isn’t in and of itself invalid and racial imbalance isn’t a problem (see Starkville case for example).

In all these cases, I couldn’t find a district that was tracking by race. They were guilty of tracking by test. Everyone knew the tests would reveal that blacks would have lower ability on average, and therefore ability grouping was by definition invalid in previously segregated schools. This was an era in which judges said “The court also finds that a Negro student in a predominantly Negro school gets a formal education inferior to the academic education he would receive, and which white students receive, in a school which is integrated or predominantly white.” (Hobson)

Once the system is declared unitary, or that was never an issue, the record is mixed. When judges did accept the results as valid, they ruled in favor of the school districts (Starkville, Hannon). In Pase v Hannon, the judge actually reviewed the test questions himself and determined they were unbiased with few exceptions, all of which were far above the IQ level in question.

In California, on the other hand, where de jure segregation wasn’t an issue*, the mere existence of racial imbalance was still a problem (Pasadena, Riles). In Riles, Judge Robert Peckham banned all IQ testing of blacks in California for educational purposes. He later extended the ruling even if black parents requested testing, but later withdrew that order. Peckham’s reasoning is much like the other judges who believed in cultural bias:

Even if it is assumed that black children have a 15 percent higher incidence of mild mental retardation than white children, there is still less than a one in a million chance that a color-blind system would have produced this disproportionate enrollment. If it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed towards black children.

Notice the reasoning: of course it’s not possible that blacks have a 50% greater incidence of an IQ below 75. Except it’s worse than that.

This image is from The Bell Curve (borrowed from here) reflecting the frequency of black/white IQ distribution:

BCFreqblkwhiteIQ

As many blacks as whites populate the sub 75 IQ space, but the population distribution being what it is, blacks are far more likely to have low IQs.

When Charles Murray researched this for The Bell Curve:

In the NLSY-79 cohort, 16.8 percent of the black sample scored below 75, using the conversion of AFQT scores reported in the appendix of TBC and applying sample weights. The comparable figure for non-Latino whites was 2.2 percent. In the NLSY-97 cohort, the comparable figures were 13.8 percent for blacks and 2.7 percent for non-Latino whites.

(Charles Murray, personal communication)

So at the time of Peckham’s decision, blacks didn’t have a 50% higher chance of an IQ below 75, but rather a several hundred percent higher chance, a chance that is still in the triple digits today.1 Peckham couldn’t even begin to envision such a possibility, and so no IQ testing for blacks in California.

(As for the lower frequency of blacks in the “trainable” mentally retarded division, as it was called then, an interesting but rarely discussed fact: Low IQ blacks are often higher functioning that low IQ whites. They are less likely to be organically retarded, and more likely to be capable of independent living. This despite the fact that their IQ tests and academic outcomes are identical. Arthur Jensen discovered this phenomenon, and I highly recommend that article; it’s fascinating. I wonder if the difference is somehow related to crystallized vs. fluid intelligence, but haven’t read up enough on it.)

So there it is. Obviously, if I missed a key case in which a major district was found to have deliberately tracked kids by race, please let me know.

But despite extensive efforts, I couldn’t find the bad old days of discriminatory sorting. What I found, instead, was a judicial rejection of IQ and other ability tests, coupled with an inability to conceive of the actual distribution patterns of cognitive ability.

Please understand my limited objective. Many Southern districts did everything they could to avoid integration. See, for example, US v Tunica, where the school tried to assign students based on test scores, but were denied because of the achievement testing ban and required to reassign students and teachers to achieve integration. The teachers refused assignment to integrated schools and resigned, white parents withdrew their kids, then the white schools set up shop at local churches, classes largely intact. Money? Not an issue. They used taxpayer dollars, since the district paid the teachers who resigned and the kids took all their school books with them.

But believe it or not, there’s no mention that the district was only pretending to use test scores, actually assigning students by race. And this is a place where I’d expect to find it. Opposition to integration, absolutely. Achievement testing used as a way to minimize racially mixed classes? Sure.

In many other cases, schools or districts instituted tracking as a genuine attempt to educate a much wider range of abilities, or even had a tracking system in place before integration.

The inconvenient realities of cognitive ability distribution being what they are, the test scores would be depressingly indifferent to intent.

Then there’s the messy middle, the one that Mickelson probably found in Charlotte and Oakes found in Rockford and any one looking at my classrooms would find as well. All tracked classrooms are going to have inconsistencies, whether the schools use tests, teacher recommendations, or student choice. The honors classes fill up or a teacher suddenly dies or all sorts of other unforeseen situations mean some kids get moved around and it’s a safe bet high income parents bitch more about wrong assignments than poor parents. Go through each high score in a “regular” class and each low score in a tracked, and each one of those test scores will have a story—a story usually doesn’t involve race or malign intent. The story occasionally does involve bad teachers or district bureaucracy, but not as often as you might think.

Teacher recommendations are supposed to mitigate the testing achievement gap but teachers are moralists, particularly in math, as I’ve written before. It doesn’t surprise me that new study shows that controlling for performance, blacks are less likely to be assigned to algebra as 8th graders by teacher recommendation. I can’t tell you the number of bright Hispanic and black kids I’ve run into (as well as huge number of white boys, including my son) who don’t bother with homework and have great test scores. So their GPA is 2.7, but their test scores are higher than the kids who got As–and the teacher recommendations.

Parents: some parents insist that their kids need to be in the top group to be challenged. Others feel that their kids do better when they feel secure, able to manage the challenge. Then there are the parents who don’t give a damn about their kids’ abilities but don’t want them in a noisy classroom with kids who don’t give a damn about education. White and Asian parents are disproportionately represented in the first group, black and Hispanic parents take up more than their share in the second, and all parents of all races worry about the last.

So let’s stop using teacher recommendation, stop allowing parents or students to ask for different placement. Test scores are destiny.

But test scores today still reflect the same reality that the judges assumed, back then, could only be caused by racism or bias.

The tests haven’t changed. The kids haven’t changed much.

The judges are another story.

Richard Posner, in a much-quoted 1997 decision on an appeal to the People Who Care v Rockford did what he has done before–made my point with much greater efficiency:

Tracking is a controversial educational policy, although just grouping students by age, something no one questions, is a form of “tracking.” Lawyers and judges are not competent to resolve the controversy. The conceit that they are belongs to a myth of the legal profession’s omnicompetence that was exploded long ago. To abolish tracking is to say to bright kids, whether white or black, that they have to go at a slower pace than they’re capable of; it is to say to the parents of the brighter kids that their children don’t really belong in the public school system; and it is to say to the slower kids, of whatever race, that they may have difficulty keeping up, because the brighter kids may force the pace of the class. …

Tracking might be adopted in order to segregate the races. The well-known correlation between race and academic performance makes tracking, even when implemented in accordance with strictly objective criteria, a pretty effective segregator. If tracking were adopted for this purpose, then enjoining tracking would be a proper as well as the natural remedy for this form of intentional discrimination, at least if there were no compelling evidence that it improves the academic performance of minority children and if the possible benefits to the better students and the social interest in retaining them in the public schools were given little weight. The general view is that tracking does not benefit minority students…although there is evidence that some of them do benefit… All this is neither here nor there. The plaintiffs’ argument is not that the school district adopted tracking way back when in order to segregate the schools. It is that it misused tracking, twisting the criteria to achieve greater segregation than objective tracking alone would have done. The school district should be enjoined from doing this not, on this record, enjoined from tracking.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg case mentioned above cited Posner’s reasoning. The third of my case law articles discusses Holton v Thomasville II, which doesn’t mention Posner but does say that racial imbalance in ability grouping isn’t of itself evidence of discrimination, and points out that the time for judicial interference in educational decisions is probably over:

holtoncase

Most districts ended tracking out of fear of lawsuits. It may be time for parents to demand more honors classes, test the limits.

So what does this have to do with Petrilli? Well, less than it once did, now that Petrilli has acknowledged the profound racial implications of his suggestion.

But if the bad old days of racial tracking never really existed, then Petrilli can’t pretend things will be better. Yes, we must stop devaluing college degrees, stop fooling kids who have interest but no ability in taking on massive loans that they can never pay off. And with luck even Petrilli will eventually realize as well that we have to stop forcing kids with neither interest nor ability to sit in four years of “college preparation” courses feeling useless.

So what comes next? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

*************************
*Commenter Mark Roulo points out that California did commit de jure segregation against Hispanics and was ordered to stop in Mendez v. Westminster. See comments for my response.

1See Steve Sailer’s comment for why black IQs might have been biased against lower IQ blacks and the 97 data more representative.


SAT’s Competitive Advantage

Asians taking the SAT: 196,030 out of 1,640,047, or about 11.9%.
(No response: 62,603)

Asians taking the ACT: 71,677 out of 1,799,243, or about 3.9%
(No response: 110, 305)

I can’t tell if these numbers are US-based only, or including overseas testers. The ACT has a small international market. The SAT dominates, particularly in the Asian countries. 50,000 Chinese visit a Hong Kong testing site in just one year. While I couldn’t find totals for Korea, 900 students got their scores cancelled in 2007, clearly just a fraction of the total testers. In India, the College Board has 32 test centers (up from 20 just four years ago), the ACT has 60 testers.

So if the ratio above, in the tests’ national reports, are indeed just for the US, then the overall Asian preference is even greater than the 2.75:1 brand preference for Asian American testing. Since I can’t find any verification of this, let’s assume the ratio is overall preference.

In either case, the numbers are stark. The SAT is already losing out to the ACT. Why would it make changes that, if accurately described, would make the test less attractive to Asians, who have largely rejected the ACT?

Before I get to that: outside of the knowledgeable education reporters, the coverage has been nonsense. Contrast this relatively solid piece by NYTimes reporter Tamar Lewin, (whose twitter tagline should be “not half as ignorant and less than a quarter as irritating as Motoko Rich”) with this obsequious David Coleman profile by author Todd Balf. Discussing his work, Balf described the “checks” that restrain the College Board from using its power, :

Either Coleman does something about [the dissatisfaction with the SAT], or at the college level more and more schools will go test optional. Coleman wouldn’t say that the reforms are in response to places like Wake Forest, but it is hard to ignore.

Sigh. A few thousand colleges or university systems use the SAT as a first round placement test: University of Georgia, University of California, University of Michigan, University of Nevada, University of Wisconsin, a whole bunch of community college systems, and oh, yeah, the largest university system in the country. Any number of private universities do, as well, including Baylor, Columbia, and Duke.

So the SAT and ACT allow many schools to avoid the hassle and expense of placing hundreds of thousands of students each year.

But yeah, the College Board is all worked up about Wake Forest going exam optional.

People who try to prognosticate the changes are mostly being silly. I like Peter Wood, but his rant here doesn’t add up. Like most non-experts, Wood completely ignores the existence of the ACT, which has the same “biases” that Wood thinks the SAT is trying to fix. The College Board can’t “dumb down” the test. If blacks suddenly started scoring at the 80th percentile on the SAT, but were still scoring at the 35th on the ACT, people would notice.

So leaving aside what people who don’t really understand things think, and leaving my random thoughts about certain changes for another day, and then pointing out that I liked this analysis by Eduwonk, not usually a favorite of mine, my big question is still why would the College Board deliberately screw over Asians, the customer base with the strongest preference for its product?

The Chinese test prep companies are less than thrilled about the changes, which they believe will prevent them from teaching students to game the test . I am asserting this as fact: many Chinese international students openly acknowledge they don’t have the underlying ability their SAT scores denote.

Not much outrage from the Koreans, but then they just buy early versions of the test and distribute it to paying customers. Obviously, this method works regardless of underlying test modifications. Cheating is so rampant in South Korea that again, I am asserting as fact that many of these testers lack the underlying knowledge that their SAT scores supposedly indicate.

I doubt either country is exclusive in its approach. Presumably, the Chinese cheat and the Koreans game.

Indians seem cautiously optimistic—hey, they mostly do speak English, right?

I consider the SAT changes completely irrelevant. The interesting question to me is, assuming no one changes their behavior, how will this all play out?

The one thing I feel pretty confident of: faith in Coleman is wholly unjustified. Leaving aside the value of his Common Core work, note the lack of follow-through. Typical consultant, he jumped in long enough to tell people what to do, then left before all the errors in his ideas are revealed through disastrous implementation results.

In the same way, Coleman’s never run a major business, and has no idea about the political realities of helming the most visible, if not the most popular, college admissions and placement test. He has a story, but no plan. Meanwhile, boy, he’s happy to diss the test his predecessors pushed—and he makes free with insulting his competitor, too.

But for all Coleman trashes his predecessor, Gaspard Caperton, the ex-Appalachian governor has big shoes that I very much doubt Coleman can fill. Complain all you like about the writing section, it was pure genius as a business decision. On Caperton’s watch, the College Board dumbed down an existing test that a couple hundred thousand kids took, made it cheaper to grade, and forced a million kids to pay a higher price to take it as part of the “new” SAT, even though lots of colleges don’t use the section score—and let everyone think that the UC forced the change. The company made millions in a single year. At his behest, the College Board abandoned the claim that test prep doesn’t work, and sold its own product, which had to be taken off the Amazon bestseller list because everyone found it too upsetting. And that’s just the SAT’s profit center. Caperton also presided over the Advanced Placement’s stunning growth, achieved by taxpayers shoveling money into the CB’s coffers for entirely unqualified kids to take tests in order that Jay Mathews put their school on his Index.

In contrast, Coleman has just made the essay optional and harder to grade, ordered a complete redesign of the test with a stable competitor ready and willing to pick up the doubters, and pissed off his most dedicated customer segment. I wouldn’t be surprised if he declared that his purer company won’t profit from the filthy lucre of test prep, having turned that function over to Khan Academy (which long before its College Board arrangement has neglected to provide free services for the ACT). God knows what Coleman has planned for the AP suite.

Coleman could have some grand plan that I can’t anticipate (other than, as Steve Sailer puts it, all students should Be Like Me.) But reasonable people can and should wonder if he is wholly ignorant of the SAT’s market position, or if he actually believes that his Common Core curriculum is going to increase student ability and end the achievement gap. From there, it’s easy to postulate a scenario in which the College Board spends a fortune redesigning the test in a vacuum, not discovering until field tests that the changes either widen or narrow the achievement gap unforgiveably. Worse still, what if they make the test too hard? All of these possible outcomes wouldsend testers and their parents running into the arms of the Midwestern Mama, all safety and security.

In such an event, I trust the remainder of the College Board regroups before rollout. That’s been done before: the 2005 essay was originally supposed to be 50% of the writing score, but worrisome field tests led to the essay getting just a third of the section weight. A complete backout, cancel, reset is not impossible. The ETS cancelled its first set of GRE changes, despite a significant investment. Like the ETS, the College Board has a known quantity of a test to fall back on—just fire Coleman and move on.

I find that outcome very possible. But suppose that the SAT redesign works as promised. The achievement gap remains intact, the test is as described, the scores among American students are roughly compatible with the old SAT and the current ACT.

So then back to the big question: why, exactly, are Asians favoring the current SAT so strongly, and what will they do in the face of an altered test? The usual reason offered for their brand loyalty is the Asians aren’t aware of the ACT.

They figure out to game the SAT, they buy advanced copies of the SAT so their kids can cheat, they’re aware of and concerned about SAT changes, but somehow they’ve never heard of the SAT’s competition. Yeah. Not buying.

That leaves a few possibilities. First, the Asian test prep companies just don’t see the point in spending the money and time cracking a second test given their certainty on the first. Second, they haven’t actually cracked the test, aren’t really gaming it, but in fact are all using the Korean method of buying the test. All the coverage on the gaming is just sham. So they either can’t or haven’t yet paid to achieve the same penetration of the ACT’s secrets.

Third, and this is the fun one, they’ve tried cracking the ACT and can’t.

Eighteen months ago, I thought the possibility that Asians were artificially inflating their scores was theoretically possible, but unlikely. Over the next year, my experiences and additional research has changed my view. I now think it likely that both here and overseas, a decent percentage of Asian testers are either cheating or gaming the SAT and AP tests—-or both. I’ve written up some of this but not all, and I’m not expecting anyone to just take my word for it.

But when I start from that premise, and look at the SAT as a test that can be gamed, I see loads of potential.

Naturally, a purchased test is still the best guarantee—certainty being so much more reliable—but Big Data could identify many patterns. A few years back, you could see open discussion of an LA based test prep company with a largely Asian clientele that promised a reduced (300 or fewer words) vocabulary list, that was supposedly built by on analyzing previous tests and predicting a rotation cycle for the words. Or maybe they just had an in at the College Board, as the comment suggests.

Maybe they’ve analyzed each type of reading comprehension question and noticed a pattern beyond “pick C”, but rather a particular type of wording that is associated with a correct answer. This is something all bright people can do, of course, but it’s hard to teach as a system without mountains of data. The SAT’s grammar questions have all sorts of patterns that could likewise be broken down and systematized. Obviously, they’ve collected the essay prompts and found certain theme patterns that they use to teach kids to memorize essays verbatim. It goes without saying that the students didn’t write the essays. Or maybe they just had prior knowledge.

But assume, for the moment, that it was gaming, not cheating. I’m not an expert on Big Data or psychometrics, but I’m knowledgeable about both the SAT and the ACT, and the latter doesn’t lend itself to that sort of patterning. English, Reading, and Science test on passages with aggressive time requirements. While their questions do have patterns, the patterns are heavily reliant on context. You have to understand the text at least slightly in order to find the correct answer for the particular type of question. At least, that’s how it seems to me. (But then, I looked at the memorization necessary to game the SAT and thought it unlikely, so what do I know?)

Imagine that College Board successfully screws over the barely-English-speaking Asian market with their new test. Suppose also that both companies are ethical and no one is selling advance data on the test (which, in fact, I do assume). Suppose, in other words, that Asians with extremely limited English skills, here and abroad, are no longer able to misrepresent their abilities with SAT tests.

Is that really what colleges want?

Balf’s right about one thing–the colleges are the ultimate test customer. Public universities have dramatically increased their foreign admits, most of them Chinese, because they can charge them out of state fees for all four years.

They admit these students already knowing that the Chinese applications are largely fraudulent, and are well aware of the gaming and cheating, since they end up with students who can’t speak English and cheat here, too.

All this knowledge hasn’t slowed down their Asian international student admission.

Does this sound like a customer base that really wants to lock out non-English speaking Asians?

No matter which of these scenarios play out, I don’t see how the ACT doesn’t benefit. Why would any student opt for a complete unknown when they can prepare for the ACT using test prep materials and experts who’ve been working with the same test for years? I expect test prep companies to step up their offerings. If they don’t, then I throw up my hands and declare confusion.

This all strikes me as considerably more relevant than pipe dreams about the end of test prep, much less the achievement gap. And much more interesting.


Assessments with Multiple Answers

Multiple Answer Math tests are my new new thing, and I’m very pleased with how it’s going so far. I thought I’d talk about some of the problems in depth, see if anyone has suggestions.

Most of these questions come from an A2/Trig test I wrote this weekend, focusing on systems of equations, but my tests are always cumulative.

MAexamp1

One of the things I really like about this format: I can combine free response and selected responses very easily. So here they had to graph the plane, then answer questions which may or may not have to do with the graph. So I could both test their ability to graph a plane see if they understand how distance works in three dimensions, check out their attention to detail, and see if they remember what a trace is. Query: is “slope of a trace line” acceptable? I’ve never taught 3-dimensional systems before, and the book only said “trace”. But when I was teaching it, I kept forgetting and say “trace line”. I wanted them to demonstrate they could visualize the plane in three dimensions and see the slopes of the lines forming the plane, and I couldn’t find any sample questions. Probably an oddball question.

“a” and “e” contain typos. I originally had a different line, until I realized it’d be too hard to graph on the coordinates I provided. So I changed everything, or tried to. Missed two things. First, I intended “a” to be correct, but forgot to change the constant. That’s okay, it will allow for attention to detail. But “e” is just a kluge question, since I changed the points but forgot to change the distance. Before, it was a test of evaluation; now it’s a more obvious wrong answer.

MAexamp4

This question makes me very happy. Transformations, function operations, evaluation, and then a transfer of knowledge test! We’d never done any problems like “e” before. No one squawked, and I even saw some kids solving it graphically.

MAexamp3

(I stole this graph from online, but can’t find it any more. If it’s yours, let me know and I’ll provide a link.)

I tiptoed conceptually into linear programming, but we did a lot with feasibility regions and of course, systems of inequalities. I describe my approach for Algebra II, but I step it up a bunch of paces for A2/Trig. I expect them to be able to graph lines and inequalities. They get review during the modeling section, but that’s all.

MAexamp2

Another one I just think is elegant because it approaches the absolute value from so many different angles: algebraically, graphically, and then a function conceptual question for good measure.

MAPCexamp3

I use this on both Algebra II and Algebra II/Trig. We math teachers try to beat into the kids’ heads the idea that a function can be defined or expressed in four ways: verbal, algebraic, graphic, and tabular. If this were a multiple choice question, students would just test one value and see what happens. But it’s multiple answer, and plugging in numbers takes a long time. Plotting the points and sketching the lines, on the other hand, works very nicely and very quickly—if you know how to graph those lines.

Every so often you can really mess with the kids’ minds, like this:

MAexamp5

None of the “obvious” answers are right. The kids really have to trust their abilities.

MAexamp6

This is almost pure concept. I introduced the algebra of rational expressions; we’ll do the graphs later. Well over half the kids correctly selected e, but a lot missed b. Ack.

Here’s a couple that work for either pre-calc or algebra II. The quadratic runs the gamut from conceptual to technical. The circle question is more purely technical, but that’s because there’s a lot to test.

MApcexamp1

MApcexamp2

I’m having a much easier time grading these now, once I realized I was actually creating True/False tests.

Still to be resolved, however: I have to distinguish between “left the problem blank because I didn’t know” and “not true”. Right now, I evaluate the test to determine what the student is doing, but in the future I think I’m going to have a field they can mark “T” or “F”. If it’s blank, it’s wrong.

So, for example, take a look at this question again:

MApcexamp1

Answers A, D, and E are true. The others are false. I give this question 14 points, 2 for each letter.

Almost all my students correctly select A as true, because they’ve built the equation themselves as an exercise and understand the parameters. They likewise know that B is false. Some of them read “maximum” as “initial” and wrongly select C, but many otherwise weak students with good attention to detail get it correct. So even my weak students are likely to get 6 points on these three letters.

Then we get to the tougher ones (they aren’t always in order of difficulty). Students have to understand what elements of the parabola equate to max height, time to max height, and zero height. Obviously, I cover these extensively, but kids have a harder time with this. I don’t just teach them a method. I expect them to know that max height is the parabola’s vertex, so that the x value is time to max height, and the y value is the height.

I had at least 12 students who correctly factored the problem, thus correctly NOT selecting E, but also NOT selecting D. Strong technically, weak on the concept of a “zero”. I gave them partial credit (a point) and yelled at them on the paper: things like “Noooooooooo!” and “Arggggghhhh.” and arrows and question marks and “Yo! What do you think (2t-3) means, exactly!?!”

The vertex questions E and G give students the most trouble, but that seems to be less about concept and more about a reluctance to work with fractions. My algebra II students actually do better than my precalc students because we spend a whole unit on this, as opposed to a few days in precalc.

So an average weak student will get 8-10 points out of 14. Very few students get all 14 points, maybe 8 out of 60. Most get 10-12. If they show their work and I can see they were on the right track with just an algebra error, I give partial credit. Other times, I can clearly see their math was terrible, even if they got the right answer. In those cases, I mark the question correct and then dock them 2 points for bad math.

While I don’t normally review tests, I always go through these and give the correct answers and discuss grading decisions.

I strongly recommend giving these a try. They’re lots of fun to make and again, typos are a lot easier to hide.


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. . . ..as 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.


Boobies and Bronies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why I Blog

I’m pretty sure Dan Meyer wasn’t asking the likes of me, but as I read through the comments, I was reminded again that many teachers blog because they want a community.

I do not want a community, either virtual or meat space. In 20 years, I have had an actual casual acquaintance with just one neighbor, although I can’t remember his name. I may never have known it. He was a chain-smoking, beer guzzling truck driver, we both had teenage sons. A few years ago, the fire alarm at my last apartment complex went off in three buildings at 2:00 am, and so awful a sound was it that we all ran from our apartments fearing not fire but the very real possibility that we’d stab our eardrums with corkscrews in hopes of ending the torture. So we’re all downstairs milling about, dozens if not hundreds of Chinese, Indians, and the occasional Filipino, all of them complete strangers to me and each other, and everyone looking to me for answers. I thought at first they assumed the only white person in sight was custodial staff or maybe off-duty management (hey, I have an ego), but apparently they had designated me the person in charge of conversing with the fire fighters. When the big red trucks showed up, I represented with authority, telling the firemen (they were all men) that, while the community would not be ungrateful for any conflagrations found and extinguished, the Really Important Thing was to stop that horrible noise, which was this sound at this frequency. The firefighters obligingly made the dreadful noise go away, and I got all the credit—perhaps the Chinese thought money was involved, I don’t know. Anyway, the firefighters told me it was a false alarm, I thanked them, and started the trek back upstairs when a Indian gentleman approached me and asked for a status update. Good lord, I’d forgotten my leadership role. I turned, found a small mound of lawn to stand on, and they gathered round while I told them to go back to bed. They smiled, waved, and I never saw any of them again.

I’m not anti-social; in fact, I’m quite friendly. I can’t easily explain why I don’t seek out communities, but perhaps this OCEAN profile (that’s Big Five, right?) explains the paradox (I took the test for the first time last month when a commenter linked it in). Notice that I’m slightly above average on extraversion (in fact, it probably overstates my sociability) but abnormally low on agreeableness—that is, I’m quite comfortable with rudeness. In Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTP, but I’m very much a gregarious introvert.

All of this is to say that I occasionally run into trouble with math teacher bloggers. They’re mad because I disrespected Dan, or because I simply think they’re wrong or because I hold that cognitive ability plays a role in educational outcomes or….you know, I can’t really keep track of all the reasons.

Some of the problems arise because I’m blogging for an entirely different reason than most teachers are, particularly most math teachers. I’m not seeking bonds, looking for collaborative opportunities, looking to share, to network, to get validation. In fact, I’m not really a blogger at all. I’m a writer. I write to convince, to argue, to persuade–even, I hope, to entertain. But I’m not having a conversation.

In a much bigger galaxy, far far away, think about The View. The math teacher bloggers see themselves as Barbara, Joy, Whoopi, and so on (please don’t make me look up the names, the only time I watch the show is when my dad’s in town). Maybe Ellen. They want to exchange opinions and ideas in a safe place, with people they trust, the audience and the stars all part of a big, productive conversation in which everyone can express opinions in a restricted range in a polite voice. If so, they will be respected and heard, disagreement will be polite and constructive. To put it mildly, that’s not how I roll. In that galaxy, I’m akin to a Krauthammer, Brooks, McArdle, albeit several thousand rungs lower on the ladder. It’s kind of fun to imagine how these writers would response to Barbara Walters asking them, sternly, if they thought their columns were contributing to a productive conversation.

So every so often some teacher blogger tells me in frustration that I’m not being productive, that I’d get a better response if I were more constructive, engaged more, and I’m like dude, what are you talking about? I have so much bigger an audience than I ever dreamed of when I began two years ago. But while I’m happy to welcome them to my audience, they aren’t really who I’m writing for. And they can’t conceive of what I’m talking about, because they are writing for each other, to reaffirm their connections, their community, their sounding boards. (Keeerist, it sounds so very girly.)

I don’t want to make it sound like Them and Me. The vast majority of these folks don’t know I exist until I do something to offend. Many of them have far bigger teacher audiences than I, and are far better known. And while they don’t like me, I like many of them as teachers, read their blogs frequently and comment occasionally. But even in my comments, it’s clear I’m coming from a different planet.

Paul Bruno, the only other US teacher I know of who writes broadly about policy, doesn’t seem to experience this dichotomy between his writing and his place in the teacher “community” . But then, he doesn’t write much about teaching, and of course he has, er, a different Big Five score. Probably not as comfortable being rude.

Anyway. I thought I would write this post for the teacher audience, so the next time I’m lectured for being unproductive, I can just link this in.

I also blog for the reasons expressed here.


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