The Prima Donna Rock Star Tester Treatment

I met with her the first time last Sunday a week before the SAT, mother looking on, and the conversation went something like this.

“I want to specialize in one test. Which one should I take?”

“Yeah, okay, back up a bit. You took SAT test prep over the summer, right?”

“Yeah, but I knew everything they told me. It didn’t help.”

“What’s your course load?” (she goes to a 50% Asian school.)

” I’m taking a history honors class now, but it’s my first. Precalc for math.”

“And your GPA? What colleges are you considering? ”

Shrug. “3.8 or so. Colleges, I have no idea. But what I want to know is, should I specialize in the ACT or the SAT? And should I take the old one or the new one?”

“Do you have a target SAT score?”

“2000. What’s the equivalent in ACT? But I really think I should take the old SAT and be done. ”

“Your last practice test was a 1400.” She winced. “Even if all colleges take the old SAT for 2016 admissions–something I find unlikely despite assurances to the contrary–I’m not sure how you can find the time to focus on improvement between now and January, the last sitting of the old test. Besides, why the hurry?”

She waved dismissively. “I want to be done with all this. I hate the SAT. Maybe I should specialize in the ACT. I don’t want to learn the new SAT.”

“Yeah, we’re back to this whole ‘pick a test’ thing. Let’s discuss something touchier. Are you frustrated by the difference between your school performance and your test performance?”

She got very still. “Yes.”

“When I see an academic profile significantly higher than a test score, the student usually mentions it first. I’ve met many kids, a lot of them girls, with a profile like yours. They’ll tell me that they really just want to improve, to get their score into a respectable range, and that they haven’t had good luck with test prep so far. I didn’t hear any of that from you. Instead it’s ‘gotta pick a test’, need a 2000′ despite no college plans, without any acknowledgment of what must be a very disappointing practice history.”

I said all this as delicately as possible, but she was already surreptitiously wiping away tears.

” I don’t see your mom behind this. You’re causing your own pressure but are also very resistant to making more effort or exploring options.”

She started nodding before I finished, and her mom handed her a Kleenex. “I just think I’m wasting my time.”

“So let’s start there. Do you have trouble with school tests? No? How about your state tests? So it’s not a general testing problem, just big standardized tests. Is it nerves?”

She laughed, sadly. “No. My big problem is motivation.”

I snorfed involuntarily, and she looked up in shock. “Sorry. I’m not at all laughing at you. Just the idea that the kid I see in front of me barking orders like an executive suffers from motivation problems.”

The mother demurred here. “Well, her GPA is only a 3.8.”

“Forgive me, but you’re Chinese and prone to distortion on this point.” They’re American enough to laugh. ” I see an articulate, bright, driven girl who appears to have an intellect that I would put conservatively three or four hundred points above this practice score. You are using that intellect in school. I don’t see an obvious motivation issue.”

“No, not in school. Not studying. When I’m testing–you know, like the practice tests? I lose all motivation.”

Well, hey now.

“Tell me if any of this is familiar: The test begins and you’re working away, feeling good. Then you run into a problem that you don’t know how to solve and suddenly, as you try to figure the problem out, everything seems pointless. You give up, make a guess, go on to the next problem. Except now you aren’t sure what to do with this one, either. Suddenly, nothing matters. You simply stop caring. I see by your face that I’m not off-base.”

“How did you know?”

“I’ve seen it before. I describe it as a sort of stress reaction.1

” I’m not nervous at all.”

” You should be so lucky. Jitters don’t usually affect performance. You get bored by stress. What happens, best I can tell after hearing many students describe the feeling, is that your brain shuts down to avoid feeling stress.”

My first case was a short, slight blond boy back before the SAT changes, so before 2005. I was going through his practice test explaining the missed problems, and he’d finish my sentences. That is, he knew how to do many of the problems he’d gotten incorrect on the test.

So why the high error count, I asked.

It was after I got bored, he replied. Once the boredom hit, he’d start to randomly bubble. I was aghast. He may as well have told me he sucked dead chickens’ eyeballs for candy, so incomprehensible was his behavior.

“So what you have to start doing, have to understand, is that you are a testing prima donna.”

“A prima donna?”

“You know how movie stars always order off-menu? Because they’re just too special for the pre-arranged menu that the rest of us use. Or the ballerinas or opera stars who simply refuse to be rushed, because they are artists. Or rock stars, the kind who make huge demands for their hotel rooms sometimes—Van Halen famously demanded brown M&Ms be removed from the candy bowl (yes, I know they had another reason, but her parents are never going to let her listen to Van Halen, so I’m safe). You need to be a prima donna rock star tester.”


“Take two SAT sections daily, from the blue book. Use deadly serious test conditions. No music. No interruptions. No stopping the clock. No laying on the floor or on your bed. Sit at a table, door shut, start the timer.”

“That’s not even an hour.”

“And when the timer starts, I want you to take two minutes, at least, to go through the test and cherrypick. Circle the problems you’ll deign to do.”

“Um. What?”

“In math, pick and choose your problems. Circle the good ones. ‘This one, I shall do. This one, pah!’ Spit upon it. If you don’t instantly vibe to the question, avert your eyes and scratch an X next to that problem, which clearly must be for peasants and other little people. Can you do that?”

She giggled. “Really? What about reading?”

” Skip anything with long paragraphs that looks less desirable than root canal. You like sentence completions?”


“Do them first, then evaluate each reading passage to determine whether or not Her Majesty–that’s you–is interested. Which part of the writing section do you like best, the paragraph at the end?”

“How do you know this?”

“Do those six questions at the end first. Then go back to the front. The second–I mean the second—you find a long sentence you can’t instantly decipher, that question OFFENDS you. Turn up your nose. Move on.”

“So that’s all I want for the week. Two sections. Vary the subject. Every night. Take them like a rock star looking at candy bowls to make sure there are no…oh, look there’s a brown M&M. Skip it.”

“But I might only want to do four or five questions a section.”

“Great. Do those. Then, oh, hey. You’ve still got 20 minutes to kill. What’ll help pass the time? Let’s look at the other questions to see if they hold any interest. You are a movie star stuck in Podunk, in search of decent dim sum.”

“But the whole thing is a lie. The problems I can’t do aren’t stupid.”

“Sure, but we need to fake out your psyche. You have a fragile testing temperament that must be coddled and swathed in protective coating.”

The mom was a bit stunned, but accepting. “So none of the strategies she learned in test prep?”

“Mom, they didn’t work anyway. But what if I don’t have enough time to go back and do the problems that bored me?”

“Then you will have spent a whole test section working on problems you can do. How is that worse?”

“But if I try to read the long passages, I know I will get bored.”

“Well, I have some ideas for that later, but for now, read the passages that meet with your approval, and do the questions. Then for the rest, amuse yourself with the peasant passages. Do the vocabulary questions. The ones with line numbers. Don’t read them if they bore you. Normally, you understand, I wouldn’t suggest this.”

“So practice that all week. Eat pizza, chocolate, noodles, sesame balls with red bean paste, whatever your favorite food is Friday night. Saturday, have a good breakfast and visualize rejecting all those peasant problems.”

“What if I get bored anyway?”

“That’s a very real possibility. At the first moment you identify boredom, put your pencil down. Take a breath. Remind yourself that while it’s scary, this boredom is a valuable opportunity to practice dealing with it. That it only feels like boredom. Do not give up. Do not let yourself randomly bubble. If you feel done and can’t fight off the boredom, put your head down and take a nap. Otherwise, go back to the test and look for test questions that pique your curiosity.”

“But you said I didn’t have to read the passages.”

“Sure. But don’t randomly bubble, or give up. Estimate. Eliminate known wrong answers. Guess based on the context. But if you can’t kick off the boredom and feel hopeless, take a rest until the next section.”

“And here’s the important part: under no conditions are you to worry about your score. You’re not there for the score. You’re there to practice being a rock star who picks and chooses her projects. We’ll do scores later, if you like.”

“That’s okay. I don’t think I’m going to improve now, so at least I might know why.”

“It’s helpful just to know what the problem is,” her mother agreed.

They actually smiled as I left, both noticeably less anxious than they were when I arrived.

Note: she’s a junior, and has no reason whatsoever to take the SAT in October. I tried to talk the mom out of that, but she was determined to keep the date. Ideally, I wouldn’t send a student to try out this method on a live test, but that was the only option.

Will it work, this refusal to tolerate brown M&Ms and uninviting questions? Typically, yes, although since I’ve cut back on tutoring I haven’t run into the prima donna tester in several years. The cases I remember always saw an instant boost of 100-150 points the first time they took the test in rock star mode. In every case, they were also mentally exhausted afterwards. They’d never worked the entire test before, having mentally checked out. Prima donnas are fixable. The ones who go into a fugue state, not so much. Fortunately, that’s even rarer.

I started to make a larger point, but it’s too complicated and, since returning this August I’ve vowed to post more. I had too many ideas piling up that just weren’t…perfect, and so I kept putting them off, even though each idea had more than enough for a post. Time for me to limit scope and bite off achievable chunks. Otherwise I’ll think I’m bored and don’t care when really I’m stressed out….hey. Good thing I don’t get like this for tests.

So don’t read too much into this beyond an interesting behavior that I’ve learned to treat. Don’t apply it to policy. Do I think some people underperform their abilities on tests? Yes, I do. Do I think that tests can be gamed by people whose essential intelligence is high on mimicry and memory, giving the impression of skills they don’t actually have? Yes, I do. Do I think tests are mostly accurate? Yes, for most people. It’s a big ol’ world out there. Many cases exist simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I hope all you testers out there did well yesterday. And if you know any fragile testing temperaments, give this strategy a try.

1 While writing this piece, I googled and learned that researchers call it stress, too.

Handling Teacher Preps

I was initially horrified at my schedule when I first saw it last June. Having since conceded the possibility–just the possibility, mind you–that I might have overreacted, I thought I’d discuss teacher preps.

Preps is a flexible word. A teacher’s “prep period” describes the free period the teacher gets during the day, ostensibly to “prep”are. “I’ll do that during my prep” or “I go get coffee during “prep”. But if a teacher asks “How many preps do you have?”, the query involves the number of separate courses the teacher is responsible for. So a teacher could say “I have no prep, but I’m only teaching one prep–geometry” or “I’ve got three preps and it’s brutal” without explaining which prep is which.

Non-teachers can’t really understand preps properly without realizing something I’ve mentioned frequently: teachers, particularly high school teachers, develop their own curriculum.

Odd that I’m mentioning Grant Wiggins again, but a little over a year ago, he said that too many teachers are “marching page by page through a textbook”. I’m sure that’s true, but said even teachers who march through a textbook using nothing but publisher generated material, make decisions about which problems to work, which test questions to use, and, unless they are literally walking through the textbook as is, which sections to cover. And those are extreme cases. Most teachers that I would describe as “textbook users” still make considerable decisions about their curriculum, including going “off-book”.

So preps are a proxy for workload. A teacher with four preps has a much greater workload than a teacher with one prep.

I’ve taught at 4 high schools (including my student teaching) and observed how many others operate. So this next description is typical of many schools, but variations on the theme occur.

At both the middle and high school level, math teachers are kind of like the swimmers in Olympic sports—we’ve got the most events.

English has many courses, but more of them are electives (journalism, creative writing) and then there’s the “ELL” split that few teachers cross. Most students take a four year sequence by grade, either honors, AP, or regular. Science and history courses add up because unlike math, each course has an AP version. Science has a 3-year sequence that lower ability students take four years to get through; the rest take an AP course in one of the same subjects, or an elective. History has a four-course sequence over three years, and can’t take an AP course again, which is too bad.

High school math has a six-course sequence that students enter at different points–five course if you count algebra 2/trig as one. From geometry on, each course has an honors version. Calculus is generally offered in both general and AP versions AB and BC. Algebra often has a support course. Then there’s statistics and AP Stats, and usually Business Math. Toss in Discovery Geometry. What is that, 17? And unlike ELL vs. regular English, we math teachers cover it all.

English and history high school teachers rarely have more than two preps, often a primary and secondary. I won’t say never. Science teachers are the most likely to have single preps, or general and honors in the same subject, because they have specialized credentials.

Math teachers often have three preps. Larger high schools may have more specialization. Maybe in big schools you’ll hear someone described as a geometry teacher, or a calculus teacher. But that’s just never been the case in any school I’ve seen.

To the degree math teachers do specialize, it’s a range of the 6 year sequence. The most common is the algebra specialist, a gruesome job that others are welcome to. (It’s only been four years since algebra terrors, my all-algebra-all-the-time year, can you tell? I still get flashbacks.) Some algebra specialists have limited credentials and unlimited patience. Others are genuine idealists, determined to create a strong math program from the bottom up. All of them can go with god, so long as I don’t go with them.

Sometimes you find the high-end experts, the ones that teach AP Calc, honors pre-calc, AP Stats, or some combination of. Sometimes these folk are the prima donnas with the math chops. Other times, they just aren’t very good with kids so they get stuck with the most motivated ones—they also teach the honors algebra 2 and geometry courses sometimes, because they just can’t deal with kids who aren’t as prepared or motivated. (No, I’m not bitter. Why would you think that?) And while we don’t have a name for what I do, it’s not uncommon for a math teacher to focus on “the middles”, the courses from geometry to pre-calc.

But not all schools go the category route. Others require all math teachers to cover a low, mid, and high level course in the sequence to be sure that no one gets cocky.

So now, after that explanation of preps, go back to the beginning, when I mention my hyperventilation over easy, familiar preps that I thought would be boring. Many teachers would agree—quite a few colleagues in all subjects commiserated with my dismay. Other teachers consider it rank abuse of power when admins assign them two preps, much less three.

Why? Because some teachers love the additional workload, love building and developing curriculum, mulling over the best way to introduce a new topic. For teachers like me, that’s an essential element of teaching—and repetition, teaching the same content three or four times a day, is so not essential, but rather Groundhog Day tedious. Others see curriculum as something they want handed to them or will do, reluctantly, once. Or, something they’ve honed after umpty-ump years and it’s perfect so they aren’t changing a thing. To these teachers, curriculum is a distraction from their primary job of teaching, the delivery of that curriculum–the job they actually get paid for. Give them the day of the school year, they know what they’re teaching.

If you’ve never really considered teacher preps before, certain questions might come to mind. Does teacher effectiveness (however measured) vary with the number of preps? Does teacher effectiveness vary by subject? (I’ve wondered before if I’m just better at geometry than algebra, for example.) Could we improve academic outcomes by giving weak teachers one prep in a limited subject, and strong teachers multiple preps (assuming we know what that is)? Do teacher contracts negotiate the maximum number of preps that can be assigned? While Ed’s informed assertions are interesting, surely there’s better data that gives a better idea of how many preps high school academic teachers have, on average? Or middle school teachers?

What terrific questions. They all occurred to me, too. And while I’m a pretty good googler, I began to wonder if I wasn’t using the right terms, because I could find no research on teacher preps, no union contracts restricting preps.

Let’s assume that some research has been done, that some contracts exist but escaped my eagle Google. Teacher preps still are clearly not on the horizon. I can’t remember ever hearing or reading a reformer mention them. When I was in ed school, the subject never came up—how to identify the best combination of preps, what number was optimal, and so on. Given how little control teachers have over preps, ed schools may just count it as one more of the nitty-gritty elements of the job we’ll discover later.

Education reformers simply don’t understand the degree to which teachers develop or influence curriculum and the resources it takes. They don’t understand the tremendous range of curriculum development that takes within a school. Moreover, most reformers don’t even understand that preps exist or have any impact on teacher workload. Few of them ever taught at all. So they don’t really know what a “prep” is, and then assume that most teachers rely largely on a textbook. That doesn’t leave them much room to mull.

Researchers don’t discuss preps much, either. I’m not even sure Larry Cuban, who describes teacher practice better than almost anyone, describing here the multi-layered curriculum which explicitly describes teacher-designed curriculum, has never written about preps. Many researchers also tend to confuse textbooks with curriculum.

I wonder if researchers are prone to ignoring high school preps because they would have to acknowledge how questionable their conclusions are without taking preps into consideration. If a researcher compares two high school teachers using a new curriculum, does it matter if one teacher has one prep and is teaching the same topic all day? This may give that teacher more time to adjust, notice patterns, change instruction. Meanwhile, the busy teacher with three preps who is just teaching one class with the new curriculum may just be doing it as an afterthought. Alternatively, teaching one class all day may also bore the teacher to the point of rote delivery, while the teacher with one class jumps in with enthusiasm.

Once I really started thinking about preps from a policy perspective, I became really flummoxed at the lack of play it gets. I may be missing a whole field of research, that’s how odd it is.

Administrators keep preps firmly in mind; whether contracts require it or not, they rarely give high school teachers more than whatever a commonly agreed amount is (usually three). Ideally, they will limit new teacher preps, although my mentee from last year had three preps each semester. Now that I think on it, I had three preps, too. Never mind—they pile it on newbies, too.

If VAM ever gets taken seriously at the high school level (which I find very unlikely), preps are likely to become a contract issue. Teachers being judged on test scores will probably demand a large sample size, which means fewer preps.

Fewer preps for teachers, of course, means far less flexibility for administrators putting together the dreaded master schedule. Ultimately, it means more teachers on the pay roll or fewer courses offered, because fewer preps and less flexibility must be compensated for somehow.

And hey. I just realized that Integrated Math (bleargh) schools have fewer preps. Maybe this is another foul plot of Common Core.

For myself, I do not want limited preps, even if my feet are forced to the fire on the point that hey, I’m really enjoying this easier year. But honesty compels me to point out that preps should be explored for their impact on teacher satisfaction, teacher productivity and–to the extent possible–academic outcomes.

I have no real ideas here. Only thoughts to offer up and see what others have on tap.

However, there’s another issue never far from my mind that perhaps the above mullings cast some light on: that of teacher intellectual property. Stephen Sawchuk just wrote a great piece on various issues in the related arena of teacher-curriculum sharing, and mentioned IP and copyright. I have huge issues with the absurd notion that districts own teacher-developed curriculum, which I’ll save for another post.

But surely this post makes it obvious that if teacher preps vary, then one of two things must be true. Either teachers in the same subject are getting paid the same salary for doing dramatically different jobs–and I don’t mean quality here, just work expectations.

Or teachers are paid to teach, in which case the actual delivery is the same no matter how many preps we have. Teachers then have the choice–the choice–to use the book and supplied materials extensively, or develop their own, to do the job as they determine it should be done. This seems to me to be the obviously correct interpretation of teacher expectations and the “work” they are “hired” for.

And in my world view, teachers are not paid to develop the curriculum, and therefore the district can keep its damn paws off my lessons.


The Test that Made Them Go Hmmmm

So school has begun and despite my palpitations about the boredom of only two familiar preps, I’m pleasantly busy. Last year was a hell of a lot of work, and given the nosedive that my writing time took, I should maybe not be so eager for a less…familiar schedule. So instead of demanding new classes, I accepted the first semester, threw a minor temper tantrum when no one listened about second semester and all is well. Algebra 2 in particular is proving a delightful challenge, given my new emphasis on functions.

In no small part because of this planning breathing room (is anyone noticing I’m saying my panic was a total overreaction?), the senior Water Park Day registered in my awareness ahead of time. In prior years, I didn’t heed the warnings that half my class would disappear, and so would be forced to dump my lesson plan on the Day itself, when the smaller classes would just have a day to practice. But thanks to this old, familiar schedule that gives me more time, I anticipated the impact.

So for the first time, I was able to give serious thought to having a day to pursue math without regard to subject matter or schedule. I could have a “math day”! Then I remembered Grant Wiggins’ challenge to math teachers everywhere in the form of a conceptual knowledge quiz.


Grant proposed this as an actual test: I will make a friendly wager: I predict that no student will get all the questions correct. Prove me wrong and I’ll give the teacher and student(s) a big shout-out.

What math teachers think their kids would know the answers? I certainly didn’t. In some cases, they probably were taught, but in others, I doubt an elementary school teacher would ever think to bring them up. But even if all the concepts were taught by fifth grade, how many kids of that age could really appreciate the questions?

Most of the questions tease at the paradox….wrong word? tension? between the functional day-to-day applications of arithmetic, and the amazing truths that underlie them. John Derbyshire wrote, in Prime Obsession, that “arithmetic has the peculiar characteristic that it easy to state problems in it that are ferociously difficult to solve.” (I was rereading Prime Obsession last night; there’s tons of useful thought material for math teachers. I need to go get his book on algebra.)

Arithmetic looks easy. (And certainly in the last twenty years, the rush to shove everyone into calculus has led to a certain contempt for “basic arithmetic” classes.) But even if elementary school age children are capable of understanding its ideas fully (and most of them aren’t), they haven’t experienced several years’ utility of arithmetic. They haven’t had time to get bored of the routine rules that they are expected to remember (mind you, many don’t, but leave that for another day.) Yeah, yeah, invert and multiply. Yeah, yeah, you can’t divide by zero. Wait, what the hell do you mean multiplication isn’t repeated addition?

To really enjoy this test, to be fascinated by the underlying truths–or misconceptions–behind certain everyday math tools, requires familiarity with “the rules”. Time spent in the trenches of doing math just because.

That’s when a teacher can spend an enjoyable hour taking the kids back through a re-examination of the basics and what they really know. I’d much rather discuss these concepts with adolescents who have survived two or three years of high school math than try to force sixth graders to “demonstrate conceptual understanding” of dividing by zero.

I had no real expectations—no, that’s wrong. I had hopes. My sense was the students would be interested in the exploration, if I didn’t take on too much or dive in to the wrong end of the pool. But which end was the wrong end?

So for each of my four classes–two Algebra 2, two Trigonometry–I gave them the test and 20 plus minutes to write down their thoughts. I was alert to the possibility that kids would use five minutes to doodle and fifteen to giggle, but in each class the bulk of students asked for and got an additional five minutes to finish up. I collected their answers and will share some of them in later posts; they were often detailed and thoughtful.

After the writing time, the students had a few minutes to “share out” in their groups, so they could learn what questions puzzled their classmates—and also as reassurance that they weren’t alone in their befuddlement. Again, this seems different from Grant’s intent; he considered it a real test that the students would either answer correctly or leave blank in confusion. I listened in on many conversations; they were rich with exchange as the students realized they weren’t alone in their uncertainty.

But certain questions also sparked genuine debate and interest. More than a few students offered up multiplying negatives as an example of multiplication being something other than repeated addition. In every case I witnessed, their group members, who had written something to the effect of “isn’t it always repeated addition?” instantly recognized the roadblock that negative numbers posed to their definition. I came across more than one group arguing whether multiplying by zero counted as repeated addition (“yes, it does. If I have zero groups of five, I have zero!”). Interestingly, no one came up with the roadblock I was interested in, and I’d never once considered negative numbers until my students brought it up.

Their discussion time was about ten minutes. My goal wasn’t to have them determine the answers; rather, I wanted them all to have a shared experience before we discussed them as a class, and I gave them the “answers” (to the extent I knew them). That way, there’d be more of a sense of “we”–yeah, we thought of zero, too! yeah, we all have 3F=Y–that’s not the answer? yeah, we think dividing by zero gives you zero–it doesn’t?

So then we went through the answers as a group.

I had taken a subset of Grant’s list, ignoring the last three items. Doing it again, I would have swapped out question 2 for question 11 “appropriately precise”), because while question #2 is good, it really requires its own day. The rest of them are easily covered and discussed in at most 15-20 minutes each.

The questions I really wanted to spend time on, to explain in at least introductory depth, were 1, 3, and 5. From a practical standpoint, I wanted to be sure everyone understood why they got questions 4, 6, and 8 wrong, assuming most missed at least one of them. I was genuinely interested to see what they had to say about 7 and 9 but was going to take most of my lead from them. Question 10, I wanted to know if the trig students knew it; obviously, my algebra 2 students learn about imaginary numbers for the first time.

My trig classes are quite different in nature. Both are small, just 25 in each. Both are doing quite well; I have no kids who simply shouldn’t be there, as I did last year. My first block class is stronger, on average, but has more surly kids who mouth off. It’s very irritating, frankly, since the five or six kids giving me quite nasty sass are seniors who are doing relatively well (Bs and Cs), and who openly acknowledge that they think I’m a hell of a teacher. Two of the surlies had me last year for algebra 2, when they were much less trouble, and had been switched into my class because they were failing with another teacher. But these other teachers, who they didn’t like (and often failed, forcing them to retake a fake summer school course if they couldn’t switch to my class), didn’t get nearly the lip. I’m a tad flummoxed. My second block class has more kids who are amiable and interested but not taking the class as seriously as they should, so several more low scores on the first test. First block has a stupendous top tier, but it’s just three or four kids. Second block has a top tier of close to eight, but they aren’t quite as strong.

Anyway, I was expecting more interesting conversation from second block, and I had it backwards. First block was on point, even the cranky ones. They loved the test, wrote detailed responses, discussed it thoroughly in group, and were wildly participatory in the open discussion. Easily 90% of them came up with the correct response to imaginary numbers (and the ones from my algebra 2 class identified multiplying by i as 90 degree rotations in the complex plane, which was quite gratifying, thanks so much). Second block, the amiable, mildly uninterested ones pulled things down slightly, goofing around and making jokes while the stronger kids would have preferred more time to explore things. The conversation was still great, the students learned a lot and enjoyed the discussion, but I had the enthusiasm levels backwards.

My algebra 2 classes, I nailed in terms of expectations. Block three is a fairly typical profile, except I have a lot more sophomores than usual (which is due to our school successfully pushing more kids through geometry as freshmen). But still a good number of seniors who barely understood algebra I, a lot of whom are just hoping to mark time til graduation without ending up in summer school. (One of my specialty demographics.) And in between, juniors and seniors who are often thrilled to find themselves actually understanding math and succeeding beyond anything they’d ever hoped (another specialty of mine). Typically, many of the seniors were in class, as they lacked the the behavior or grade profile (and sadly, in some cases, the money) to go to the water park. So I expected conversation here to be a bit lower level, with less interest. Happily, everyone engaged to the best of their ability and many told me later how much they loved just “talking about math”. I spent much more time on questions 4, 6, and 8, and could see them all really registering why they’d made the mistakes they did. But they still were enthralled by questions 1, 3, and 5, which is great because it’s going to give them some memories when we review percentages in preparation for exponential functions.

Last up was block 4 algebra 2, a ridiculously strong class; only five students are of the usual caliber I expect. The seniors are all well above average ability level. Two of the kids are so skilled that I’ve already introduced three dimensional planes and the matrix, while still forcing them and the other really strong kids to deal with complex linear word problems (mixture questions! I usually skip them, so it’s a trip). They stomped all over the test, writing at great length, discussing it with their teams and then shouting out to other groups to see what they’d answered for multiplication. The class discussion took so long that I actually allowed it to continue for 20 minutes into the next day, when I invited one of my mentees to watch. He came away determined to try the test in his honors geometry class.

Look, the whole day was teacher crack. Take a day. Try the test. I’ll be discussing individual questions and my explanations in future posts, but this introduction is offered up as invitation. High school teachers working in algebra 2 or higher would be a good starting point. Honors classes in algebra and geometry would also benefit. Every math teacher can find links from this test to their math class—but then, that’s not the point.

As for me, I started out the day with hope, but also a determination to see it through as part of a way to honor Grant Wiggins, who felt very strongly that students needed to do more than just march through curriculum. I promised myself I wouldn’t abandon the effort even if it went wrong. It didn’t go wrong. Quite the contrary, the test sparked delighted interest and intellectual curiosity among students who are often hard to push into exploring mathematics in depth. So hey, Grant, thanks for the idea–and the inspiration.

Education Proposals: Final Thoughts

I’m trying to remember what got me into this foray into presidential politics last July.

It’s the age of Trump. Many people I greatly admire or enjoy reading, from Jonah Goldberg to Charles Krauthammer to Charles Murray, are dismayed by Trump. Not I. What delights me about him–and make no mistake, I’m ecstatic–has nothing do to with his views on education policy, where I’m certain he will eventually offend. I cherish his willingness to say the unspeakable, to delight in unsettling the elites. I thought Megyn Kelly was badass for telling her colleagues not to protect her. I also think she’s tough enough to deal with an insult or three from The Donald, and I imagine she agrees. What’s essential is that the ensuing outrage wasn’t even a blip on the Trump juggernaut.

Why, given Trump’s popularity, haven’t other Republican candidates jumped on the restrictionist bandwagon? Why did John Kasich, who I quite like, go the other way and support amnesty?

To me, and many others, the reason is not that the views aren’t popular, but because some vague, nebulous top tier won’t have it that way. The rabble are to be ignored.

This isn’t bravery. Politicians aren’t standing on their principles, looking the people in the eye firmly, willing to lose an election based on their desire to do right. Ideas with regular purchase out in the real world are simply unmentionable and consequently can’t become voting issues. Americans on both sides, left and right, feel that they have no voice in the process. I could go on at length as to why, but I always sound like a conspiracy nut when I do. The media, big business, a vanilla elite that emerged from the same social class regardless of their political leanings…whatever.

And along comes Trump, who decides it’d be fun to run for President and stick everyone’s nose in the unsayable.

I understand that conservatives who oppose Trump are more than a bit miffed that suddenly they’re the ones on the wrong side of the Political Correctness spectrum, given their routine excoriation by the media and the left for unacceptable views. Better political minds than mine will undoubtedly analyze the Republican/conservative schism in the months and years to come.

I don’t know how long it will last or what he will do. I just hope it goes on for longer, and that Trump keeps violating the unwritten laws that dominate our discourse. The longer he stays that course, the harder it will be to instill the old norms. That’s my prayer, anyway.

Anyway. Back in July, someone complained that education never mattered in presidential politics and expressed the hope that maybe Common Core or choice would get a mention. Maybe a candidate might express support for the Vergara decision!

Every election cycle we go through this charade, yet everyone should know why education policy doesn’t matter at the presidential level. No presidential candidate has ever taken on the actual issues the public cares about, but rather genuflects at the altar of educational shibboleths while the Right People nod approvingly, and moves on.

So I decided to demonstrate how completely out of touch the political discourse is with the Reality Primer, a book the public knows well, by identifying five education policy issues that would not only garner considerable popular support, but are well within the purview of the federal government. (They would cut education spending and reduce the teaching population, too, if that matters.)

I support all five proposals in the main, particularly the first two. But my agenda here is not to persuade everyone as to their worthiness, but rather illustrate how weak educational discourse is in this country. All proposals are debatable. Negotiable. We could find middle ground. The problem is, no one can talk about them because the proposals are all unspeakable.

No doubt, the Donald will eventually come around to attacking teachers or come up with an education policy that irritates me. I’m braced for that eventuality. It won’t change my opinion. Would he be a good president? I don’t know. We’ve had bad presidents before. Very recently. Like, say, now.

But if he’s looking for some popular notions and wants to continue his run, he might give these a try. Here they are again:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates

In the meantime, at least let the series serve as an answer to education policy wonks and reporters who wonder why no one gives a damn about education in politics.

As for me, I got this done just an hour before the Starbucks closed. I will go back to writing about education proper, I promise.

Education Proposal #5: End English Language Learner Mandates

In the 1973 decision Lau vs Nichols, the Supreme Court, ever vigilant to prove the truth of primer rule #5, ruled that schools had to provide “basic English support”:


Congress has been enforcing this decision for the past 40 years through various versions of the Bilingual Education Act. The law’s a joke, since states and districts have wildly varying tests and classification standards for ELLs, making metrics impossible but by golly, the schools collect the data and get judged anyway.

The 2016 Presidential candidates should call to end federal classification and monitoring of English Language Learners.

I mulled for weeks about this last of my highly desired but virtually unspeakable presidential education policy proposals—not because I couldn’t find one, but because the obvious fifth choice was so…old hat. I remember my swim coach bitching about bilingual education in the 70s. I’d lived overseas until then and when he explained this weird concept my teammates had to assure me he wasn’t kidding. The only thing that’s changed since then is the name.

And so I’ve been flinching away from finishing up this series because really? that’s the last one? After you called for restricting public education to citizens only, it’s the weak tea of English Language Learning?

Besides, someone will snark, if public education is citizen-only, then there’s no need to discuss ELL policy, is there?

Ah. There. That’s why this is #5.

Because the answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is: quite the contrary. Immigrants aren’t even half of the ELL population.


Citizens comprise from just over half to eighty percent of the ELL population, depending on who’s giving the numbers, but while the estimates vary, the tone doesn’t: no one writing about English language instruction seems to find this fact shocking.

Twenty percent of elementary school kids and thirty percent of middle and high school ELL students have citizen parents. Their grandparents were immigrants.

Pause a moment. No, really. Let that sink in. I know people who don’t think categorizing US citizens as non-native English speakers is, by definition, insane. I know people who would protest, talk about academic language, the needs of long-term English language learners (almost all of whom are citizens), and offer an explanation in the absurd belief that more information would mitigate the jawdropping sense of wtf-edness that this statistic invokes. But for the rest of us, this bizarre factoid should give pause.

Don’t blame bad parenting and enclaves, the Chinatowns and barrios and other language cocoons where English rarely makes an appearance. English fluency at time of classification is, to the best of our knowledge, unrelated to speed of transition. Those classified in kindergarten are going to transition out of ELL by sixth grade or they’re not going to transition, sez most of the hard data. No reliable studies have been conducted whatsoever on ELL instruction, so take any efficacy studies you learn of with a grain of salt.

Don’t sing me any crap songs about “native language instruction” or “English immersion” because I’ve heard them all and not one of the zealots on either side takes heed of the fact that neither method is going to make a dent in the language skills of a six year old born in this country who doesn’t test as English proficient despite being orally English-fluent.

Read any study on long term ELLs, the bulk of whom are citizens classified LEP since kindergarten, and it’s clear that most are fluent in oral English—that English is, in fact, their preferred language, the one they use at home with friends and family. They just don’t read or write English very well. And then comes the fact, expressed almost as an afterthought in all the research, that long-term ELLs don’t read or write any language very well.

Knowing this, how hard is it to predict that in California, 85% of Mandarin speakers are reclassified by 6th grade, yet half of all ELLs are not? That the gap within ELLs dwarfs the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs? That academic proficiency in the ELL student’s “native” language predicts proficiency in English?

While undergoing an induction review for my clear credential, the auditor told me that I hadn’t given enough support to my English Language learners.

“I didn’t have any issues with students and language,” I told him–the more fool I.

“You had ELLs in your classroom.”

“Sure, but most of them did very well and those who didn’t weren’t suffering from language problems. They just struggled with math, and I supported that struggle.”

“Math struggles are language struggles.”

“Um. What?”

“Yes. If an ELL is struggling in math, you must assume it’s language difficulties.”

“But I paid careful attention to my struggling kids, looking for every possible reason they could be having difficulties. Strugglers with and without ELL classification were indistinguishable. But I reduced the language load considerably for these students. You can see that in my section on differentiation.”

“Your differentiation is just varying curriculum approaches. I need to see ELL support. Let’s meet again in two days. That should give you enough time to re-evaluate your instruction.”

It didn’t take me two days. It barely took me two minutes. All I did was relabel my “Differentiation” section to to “Language Support”, demonstrating the many curricular changes I built to support my struggling students English Language Learners.

So here’s the dirty secret of ELL classification: Students fluent in English who are nonetheless classified as ELL are unlikely to ever reach that goal, because the classification tests are capturing cognitive ability and confusing it with language learning. All the nonsense about “academic vocabulary” and “writing support” is not so much useless as simply indistinguishable from the differentiation teachers use to support low ability students, regardless of language status.

Long-term ELLs in high school, fluent in English but not in writing or reading, are simply of below average intellect. That’s not a crime.

It’s also not worth calling out as a category. Unlike the uncertainty involved in maneuvering Plyler, there’s almost no legal uncertainty in ending federal mandates for bilingual instruction. Whatever the justices who wrote Lau vs. Nichols had in mind, they clearly were addressing the needs of students who spoke and understood no English at all. They were not concerned with language support to citizens orally fluent in English. If nothing else, ending this language support doesn’t count as “discrimination against national origin”, since they were born here.

Ending ELL classification wouldn’t end the support that schools give long-term English Language learners. We’d just…pronounce it differently.

Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only

I’ve been sketching out education policy proposals to contrast with the platitudes we usually see from reporters and wonks asking “questions” about “education platforms.” The policies I’m proposing would, alas, be too popular. So they can’t be mentioned.

Onto the fourth.

Last year, when President Obama’s amnesty decree flooded the school system with thousands of relocated students, the DoE and the DoJ issued a stern warning to force remind states to accept these students.


I have long been fascinated by Plyler vs. Doe, in which the Supreme Court held that states cannot deny school funding for educating illegal immigrants. I re-read it periodically to try and grasp its legal reasoning, as opposed to reacting purely as a citizen wondering what the hell the justices were thinking.

Plyler, in brief (sez a non-lawyer):

a) Illegal aliens are protected by the 14th Amendment.
b) Although aliens are not a suspect class and education is not a fundamental right, it’s an important one, so the state must provide a compelling interest for denying children education.
c) Undocumented status alone is not compelling interest.
d) Preserving limited resources for education of lawful residents is also not sufficiently compelling interest, as no evidence was presented that excluding illegal aliens would improve the state’s ability to provide high-quality education.

The Court emphasized their dismay that children were being punished for their parents’ choices. Moreover, the Texas law was enacted in part to discourage illegal immigration, and the Court pretty much decided that denying illegal minors education was a “ludicrously ineffectual” means of achieving this goal.

My reading of Plyler does not suggest that the justices placed an absolute ban on restricting access to a basic education, but rather that Texas had not made the case for it. The Court later denied a illegal minor access to schools based on parent residency (the child was living with his aunt), and of course not even Americans can go to any school they want to. So schools have maintained their right to restrict access, in some situations. Importantly, the Court continued to hold that education is not a fundamental right. In fact, to win a 5-4 majority in Plyler, Justice William Brennan had to keep Justic Lewis Powell on board and this point was a dealbreaker.

While the states have made efforts before to challenge this restriction, (notably California and Alabama), no one seems to have looked at Plyler as a map of what needs to be done.

Any law seeking to restrict access to American schools can avoid triggering Plyer, in my non-legal reading, by not singling out illegal minors or arguing such restrictions could reduce illegal immigration. To get around the Civil Rights Act, the law can’t discriminate by race, religion, or national origin.

So why not restrict public school to citizens?

Restrict Title I and IDEA funding to citizen students. Or, perhaps, withhold funding from all states that don’t restrict access to K-12 schools. Congress could also bring back the Gallegly Amendment with alterations to restrict immigrant access to public schools. Or a federal law could simply hold that no penalties would be imposed on states that restricted K-12 access to citizens.

Rationale: our citizens deserve our best effort and full resources in order to educate and develop our national potential. The expense and resources required to educate immigrants detract from our ability to educate our own citizenry.

The restriction would not discriminate against anyone based on race, income, or national origin. Any citizen born in Africa, Australia, Europe, South America, or Asia is welcome in our schools. Moreover, this law would not eliminate the compulsory education requirements. Immigrants would still have to educate their children in America. They just can’t use public schools.

It’s not as if legal immigrant children aren’t doing their bit to overburden our schools. According to the 2010 census, 2.6 million K-12 students were not born in this country, or about 1 in 20. Assume all but a few are not citizens. Does it matter if they are here legally when considering costs? They aren’t scattered evenly throughout the country. Asians and Hispanics in particular are heavily concentrated in districts and many of these students are not citizens, legal or not. So while only 5% of all students would be denied access, many districts would see substantial cost reductions in doing so.

Remember, too, that states foot the bill to educate all those refugees imported with federal blessings– Bosnians in San Francisco, Somalians in Portland, the Congolese and Bhutans in North Dakota, and the Syrians all over—and what they don’t cover, the federal government does through Title I. Immigrants can also take advantage of “choice” and create their own charter schools with public funds to self segregate.

Employers of skilled immigrants protest that they don’t impose costs, but that’s nonsense. Techies and professors tend to have kids with high test scores, but they still require teachers, classrooms, and services. Many tech-heavy regions have local schools that are from 40-80% Asian. These regions have much higher teacher salaries (and therefore pensions) because immigrants have driven up housing costs, too.

The usual arguments about immigration benefiting the local economy—whether true or not, once externalities are factored in—are irrelevant here, because school expenses are no longer local or even limited to the states.

Taxpayers foot the bill for all those education extras for immigrants, too. Like bilingual education, thanks to the Supreme Court and Lau v. Nichols, which requires that the states provide education in a student’s native language . About half of all ELL students are foreign born, so we could at least cut those costs in half. (Yes, most ELL students are born here. Worse than that, really. A good chunk of them had parents that were born here. In fact, over 50% of high school ELL students are second or third generation.)

Then all the IDEA special education services described earlier are granted to immigrant students as well. Schools have to assume the full costs of “educating” a child with traumatic brain injury, blindness, or executive function processing issues no matter where he was born.

All those immigrants are then lumped into the melting pot of data that the feds and education reformers of all stripes use to beat schools up for the misfortune of having students with low skills and spotty attendance. School services are expected to support students with multiple issues in multiple languages, yet somehow it’s a shock that schools have more employees who don’t teach.

The advantages of this approach go way beyond just reduced education costs and tremendous popularity for the politicians who support it. Corporations and academic institutions would be forced to limit hires to childless immigrants or compensate for private schools as part of immigrant employment. Citizens would be in a better position to compete for jobs. Similarly, refugee organizations would no longer be able to dump traumatized children on an unsuspecting school district; bringing in refugees would require they fund education costs at private school rates. Chain migration efforts would be stymied; bringing family members over is a much more costly endeavor if education costs aren’t covered.

As for illegal immigrants, they’d be more likely to leave their kids back home, being unable to afford private school.

But although this restriction has tremendous potential to reduce immigration, that must not be the point of the legislation, if we follow the Court’s strictures. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg could show their support for immigration by ending their “philanthropy” for public schools and fund scholarships for illegal immigrant children to attend private schools.

Assuming that tech companies and universities keep hiring skilled immigrants, the private education market would expand tremendously to provide services. The same public schools that pay millions to educate immigrants with public funds would be laying off teachers by the dozens, if not hundreds, once the requirement was lifted, so the private schools could pick up staff cheap.

Yes, immigrants pay taxes. But taxpayers, immigrant or no, don’t always qualify for the services they pay for. Immigrants get considerable benefits from coming to America. They can decide whether or not the benefits are worth the price they pay.

Recently, a Twitter follower tried to gently remonstrate with me when I mourned John Kasich’s loyalty oath to the GOP powers that be, the promise that he’s Jeb in all things immigration.

Immigrants are people too, kiddo.

Because the only reason that anyone could possibly have for wanting to limit immigration is a total absence of contact with the people themselves.

In our national immigration conversation, no one seems to get beyond “immigrants are a threat to America” or “immigrants are hardworking salt of the earth”. Rarely in this debate do you hear the voices of people who routinely work and live with immigrants enough to know that immigrants are both, and neither, and everything in between.

As a teacher, I interact daily and meaningfully with kids of every race from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Legal and illegal. Educated and uneducated. Rich and poor. Brilliant, average, and slow. I’m not serving them dinner, making their lattes, helping them negotiate food stamps, handling their visas, or any other one and done service. Nor am I an expert deeply clued in to one particular immigrant community, be it Hispanic, Hmong, or Haitian.

I form sustained working relationships with all the variety, all the time, all at once: Nigerian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican Republic, ethnic Chinese, actual Chinese, Korean, Indian, Bengalese, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Fijian, Nepalese, Afghan, Iranian, Russian, Syrian…the list goes on. I teach them math, talk about the day’s events, get them to listen to me, yell at them when they don’t. I try to figure out how to engage them, help them learn what they care little about. I talk about movies, music, values, politics. I deal with their parents, codeswitching to comprehend different educational value systems with each conversation.

I very much doubt that anyone in the country has more exposure to the reality of immigration in all its many forms—although many others can tie. Most of those others are teachers. None of those others are in public office, much less running for president.

Only those people are as aware as I am that immigrants are people, too.

My students have my love and dedication regardless of their birthplace. I want the best for all of them.

And that’s why our free education should be reserved for citizens.

Every time Congress, the courts, or the voters institute another educational requirement, they are constraining resources, demanding tradeoffs. At the micro level, as a teacher who wants the best for all my students, every minute I spend with an immigrant is a minute I can’t spend with a citizen.

Move from the micro-level on up.

Every textbook purchased, every IEP negotiated, every special ed kid on a dedicated special ed school bus, every free meal provided, every language published in….every service that goes to an immigrant, resources are taken away from citizen students.

Every teacher hired to reduce class size, teach support classes, offer advanced classes, every school resource officer hired to maintain order in high poverty schools, every truant officer hired to keep tabs on absentee students, every school clerk tasked with ensuring federal compliance ….and every pension paid to same…all that money spent on immigrant students removes possibilities for citizens.

It’s very close to zero sum. Everything we spend to service immigrant students in our educationial system is money we can’t spend on citizen students. Not just educational resources for those endless math and reading standardized tests, but custodial resources for clean bathrooms and trash-free campuses, more computer labs, later library hours, better gyms, more auditoriums, fewer participation fees, longer air conditioning, and a whole host of amenities that have dropped off the list of services our schools used to provide for free.

Is it too much to ask that we devote our resources to our own? I ask this particularly for our American students living in poverty. Bad enough, in my view, they compete for jobs and college access with immigrants that our country welcomes, officially or no, without thought to their impact on the economy and labor pool. But even as schoolchildren, our citizens, no matter how needy, are forced to stand in line for time and resources behind those whose parents came here for a job or a safe place to live and have already received tremendous benefits just by being allowed to live here—legally or not.

A larger debate can, of course, be had about school spending. But in demanding so much from our schools, why are they required to take on such enormous responsibilities and expenditures for other countries’ children?

What does America owe its own children?

Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA

I’ve gone through the low-hanging fruit of my ideas for presidential campaign education policies. Now we’re into the changes that take on laws and Supreme Court decisions.

And so this dive into “special education”, the mother of all ed spending sinkholes.

We’ve been living in the world of IDEA for forty years. IDEA forces the states to provide free and appropriate education to all disabled students in the least restrictive environment.

Special ed is the poster child for primer #5 and the courts’ unthinking disregard for costs. In most special ed cases, the courts read the law in the manner most favorable to the parents, who don’t have to pay court costs if they win, even if the losing school or district operated in good faith.

While IDEA promises that the federal government will pay 40% of sped services, the feds have never coughed up more than 15-20% while always telling the states to pay more. What’s more? Well, in 2013, the federal allocation for special education was $12.8 billion. That’s less than a fifth.

States all have varying percentages of special education students, which suggests that classifications are more opinion than diagnosis. But regardless of the definition, research hasn’t revealed any promising practices to give those with mild learning disabilities higher test scores or better engagement. And that’s just where academic improvement might be possible. In many cases, expensive services are provided with no expectation of academic improvement.

“Special ed” is a huge, complex canvas of services, and definitions invoke thoughts of the five blind guys and a camel so far as the public is concerned, so it may not mean what you think it means. The feds collect data on the following narrow definitions but most general education teachers think in terms of broad categories:

  1. Learning disabilities: ADHD, executive function, auditory processing.

  2. Emotional disturbances/mental illness: See definition
  3. Physical handicaps: wheelchairs, blindness, diabetes, and the ilk. No cognitive issues.
  4. Moderate mental handicaps: The highest of the low IQs, or educable.
  5. Severely handicapped: Eventual institution inhabitants, or assisted living. At best, “trainable”. At worst, this.

The role of special ed teacher varies, but they all have one common role: overseeing compliance. Their jobs have a substantial paperwork burden: producing the Individualized Education Plans in accordance with federal law. They schedule and run the review meetings, deliver IEPs to gen ed teachers.

High school special ed teachers for group 1 can’t be academically knowledgeable in all subjects, so they are basically case managers who run study halls, a full period that designated special ed kids can use to complete tests or do homework (or do nothing, as is often the case). They also do much of the assessment work for initiating IEPs. In this, they are akin to life-coaches or social workers. Since they are working with a lower level of academics, elementary sped teachers are more likely to be instructing students, whether in in self-contained classrooms designing easier lessons for students with mild learning disabilities, or in a pull-out class that would be called “study hall” in high school.

Group 1 sped teachers also manage group 3 student plans (e.g., wheelchair bound, diabetics) with no cognitive disabilities. These students, who don’t usually have study halls, are also more likely to be handled with 504 plans. They need health or access accommodations, often have expensive aides to see to their needs during the day. Other handicaps (visual, auditory) usually require a specialist credentialed in that disability, as well as an IEP.

Mildly retarded and emotionally troubled students (groups 2 and 4) are usually in self-contained classrooms by high school. They have little contact with general ed students on average, and are taught middle school level material by a special education teacher. At the elementary school level, general ed and special ed teachers share these responsibilities (here’s where the inclusion and mainstreaming debates are the sharpest).

Teachers who work with group 5 “students” at any age are providing specialized day care.

All sped teachers work with a wide range of aides, from those who help handicapped kids use the bathrooms, to those who lead blind children around, to those who help relate to the emotionally disturbed kids to those who babysit severely disabled children who can’t walk, talk, or relate on a scale handled by k-12.

I say none of this to be dismissive or cruel. Sped teachers I work with (the case managers with study halls) and their aides are caring and realistic; sped teachers who work with mentally limited students are incredibly gifted and dedicated, in my experience. But a massive chunk of them are not doing what we would normally refer to as teaching, and in another world we’d be able to question whether we are getting our money’s worth generating paperwork for the feds.

I don’t want to make feds the only bogeyman here. States are greedy for federal dollars, and special education spending gets more expensive each year for reasons unknown. Education has been put under tremendous additional constraints over the past 40 years, and the states should be asking why the hell they are forced to pour funds into a service that takes precedence over all the other needs in their district. Why should they be paying for aides to change diapers instead of giving study halls for disadvantaged kids who struggle academically? Why are they spending teacher head count and sections on study halls and case managers—especially since no evidence shows that pull outs and extended time improves academic outcomes of kids with executive function issues?

One (or more!) of the Republican candidates (pretty much has to be Republican) should emblazon “REPEAL IDEA” on his education policy webpage.

He could call it “state choice”.

Sure. Let states decide how to provide education, special or general. All special education services won’t instantly appear on the chopping block. But not having the federal courts hanging over every parent’s demands, cheerfully adding zeros to every expense, they might…well, trim. After a while, even cut.

Remember, many disabled students are still protected with 504 plans, which aren’t part of IDEA. Moreover, there’s this other federal law that doesn’t hesitate to interfere in state and local affairs if judges feel that people with disabilities aren’t getting their due. But allow states to decide if they want to bow to judges wishes in public schools, or provide separate facilities, without the anvils of FAPE and LRE mandates hanging over them.

Let the states and voters decide how to provide services for those students who can’t be educated within the K-12 framework, and how much support to give students with learning disabilities as opposed to disadvantaged students, arts education–or hey, even exceptionally bright students. If these services were left to the states, parents and other disability advocates could duke it out with other parent interests. And if some districts want to cut some special education services to keep the athletic teams, then states can decide based on the PR/Twitter storms, not federal law. (notice the line about “Athletics represent one of the largest costs that the school system carries that isn’t mandated by law.”? Think Fairfax parents would trade in some sped study halls for a football team?)

I make this sound so easy, don’t I? New York City alone has something like 38,000 special ed teachers. The National Association of Special Education Teachers will not be pleased. Nor will the teachers’ unions, I’m thinking.

But actual teachers? the rest of them? Maybe not quite so unhappy. Teachers see lines drawn and services provided to sped kids with no academic issues when gen ed kids who struggle academically get no services because they don’t have a disability, or economically disadvantaged kids who don’t qualify for special education resources, extra time, and study halls but could clearly benefit. Furthermore, elementary teachers are often….unenthused about the required inclusion of moderately to severely disabled students they have to cope with and pretend to educate in addition to their usual rambunctious kids with an already wide range of abilities.

Naturally, any teacher displeasure pales next to the onslaught of sped parental fury at the notion of killing IDEA, the massive anvil they have on the scales when making demands of their schools for their kids.

Kill SPED! doesn’t have the same ring or instant recognition of Ban College Remediation! or Bring Back Tracking!

But special education mandates are not only shockingly pricey straitjackets on schools, but a forcibly applied value system that many Americans don’t entirely share, at least not when it comes to stripping resources from their public schools. Politicians who face down the inevitable shaming attempts that would accompany this proposal could really open up the debate to reveal what Americans really want in their education system, as opposed to services they’ve been forced to pay for.

Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart.

Our national education policy has led to an absurd paradox: colleges charge students full freight tuition for a suite of remedial classes that high schools are effectively banned from offering for free.

The ban is most noticeable in math. Some examples: In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped., giving students and their counsellors no other options. A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult. Many state diploma requirements specify three years of math ending in algebra 2, which means the student must get a passing grade in algebra 1 by sophomore year. Some states just indicate “3 years of math” but a close read of the fine print shows that pre-algebra doesn’t count as a credit, but only as an elective (e.g., NYC, Ohio)

It’s less discussed, but English, history, and science have few differentiators other than Advanced Placement classes, and occasionally honors. This story on Madison’s attempt to detrack their English (and eventually science) classes based on reading scores is so completely typical it’s practically a template of the process of course restriction–just change the locations. All students reading at 9th grade level (which was questionably set at the 40th percentile of 8th grade reading scores) were put in “advanced” classes. Those below the 40th percentile were put in “regular” classes, and 8% of that group were given remedial reading. In other words, all but the genuinely illiterate were expected to understand 9th grade material.

The rationale for this wholesale purging of high school course catalogues is well-documented. States or districts are faced with a dramatic racial gap in test scores, which everyone attributes to the equally dramatic imbalance in high school college track course enrollment. Federal mandates, as well as civil rights organizations armed with class action lawsuits, demand the end to imbalance in enrollment, the better to end the gap in test scores . Unlike other education reforms that take money, training, and buy-in to implement, course catalogs and transcripts are entirely under administrative control. Shazam! The courses many students need disappear, leaving only the college track option.

So students who enter high school with elementary reading skills and no basic math facts are put in exactly the same classes as students with college level reading skills and impatient algebra readiness. Schools are given no ability to offer alternate easier courses except by going the extreme route of declaring the students incapable of participating (that is, putting them in special ed). Students have no choice in their education.

Sadly, the problem was misdiagnosed, in large part because many people want to ignore primer rules 1, 2, and 4. Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged. The data on this approach shows failure that’s not only discouraging but depressingly consistent: But then, as Tom Loveless has observed, the “push … is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence”.

Most people address this issue from the other end, complaining that inclusion of weak students damages the education of stronger students. I agree, and see the results of this every day. Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students. Maintaining rigor requires failure for those who can’t achieve it.

Unfortunately, failure requires blame these days. To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Alas, many students still fail these classes, even given our dedication to keeping them on track despite content that is beyond their capabilities and/or interest. But remember, the schools offer no courses to fall back to after failure. Kids just have to take the subject again.  America spends millions teaching the same kids the same course twice, or even three times, both during the school year and in summer school and other credit recovery programs. Many of them don’t learn much the second time or third time through, of course, but teachers and administrators are fully aware of primer rule #3, which is why we pass them anyway, eventually. That way, at least, they can go to college and get the remedial classes we can’t offer, even if the poor kids will have to pay for them.

Those of you who focus on lost opportunities for the high achievers, I ask you to take a moment and ask yourself what it’s like for kids at the other end, to constantly fail courses that they have no choice in taking, no interest in, and no ability to genuinely understand. And to make it worse, once students are identified as strugglers whose test scores will hurt the school, they’re shoved into “support” classes for math and/or English, stuck for twice as long in classes they already despised. Why even try, when they know that if they stick it out eventually they’ll get a passing grade? And who can blame them?

This must change. High schools need to be able to teach all students at the appropriate pace and content level, which for many doesn’t begin to approach the expectations of our absurd national education policies. Pre-algebra, arithmetic and basic math literacy and general purpose reading and composition are necessary to allow students who needs those skills to acquire them without having to go to college to pay for them. Science and history need to be appropriately gauged as well, so that students can learn basic information at the pace they need.

The many students challenged by these simpler topics will be unlikely to progress to college level work. Ever. Algebra during senior year might often be a worthwhile goal. However, all students, regardless of underlying ability and interest, can learn to use the knowledge and skills they have and we can, indeed must, learn to build curriculum to challenge and extend their capacity. But schools can’t do this while lying about student capacity, which is what schools are forced to do when policies prohibit them from offering a full range of courses that meet student interests at the appropriate cognitive level.

So what can a presidential candidate do? Well, since the states have made these changes in response to federal pressure, a good place to start is get rid of the pressure. Praise the new ESEA bill for returning accountability back to the states. Promise to collect data, but accept that student learning is a complex mix and leave it at that.

Then promise to fund efforts to research and develop challenging yet accessible high school curriculum and course sequences to assist in educating the students who weren’t able to absorb the information from the prior eight years of schooling. Everyone fears that putting students into remedial classes will involve thought-obliterating worksheets piled on one after the other. I’ve taught remedial classes, and have been able to develop or borrow engaging curriculum. But the risk is legitimate.

A presidential candidate can also address the most compelling objection to this proposal: fear that schools will just place black and Hispanic kids into the lowest level classes by default. I think that fear is overrated; I once went looking for the bad old days and couldn’t find many (if any) cases of schools deliberately, systematically putting high-scoring black students into low ability classes. Many schools used test scores, which created the imbalance, as test scores by race always will. However, there’s still a messy middle in which white parents and black parents make different demands for kids with identical test scores, or badly behaved low income students who are nonetheless quite bright are failed by teachers who confuse behavior with ability.. Testing and required placement will help mitigate that risk. The federal government can certainly require proof that schools and districts are appropriately placing students with strong test scores, regardless of race. (States, schools, and districts will need that data to avoid lawsuits.)

But here’s the real education policy proposal for the candidates of 2016: Stop pretending education is the answer to poverty. Many kids who don’t care for school are galvanized by the possibility of a job. Stop offloading national responsibilities onto the schools. Schools can’t give students jobs with good wages. The economy can. Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels, by squashing requests for more H1B visas, scrutinizing citizen layoffs for cheap Indian labor, and enforcing our immigration laws. You build an economy with the workers you have, not the workers you can import at the price you want.

To say this proposal is at odds with the zeitgeist is to reveal how thoroughly at odds the public is with the “white professional ghetto”, as Harold Myerson describes the intelligentsia. The public doesn’t believe that everyone can achieve equally; that’s a delusion reserved for people who’ve never spent time in the schools they want to “fix”.

Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

So if any presidential candidate is out there looking for ideas–particularly you Republicans–here’s my first proposal:

Colleges and universities have been constantly complaining for 30 years or so that incoming students are in dire need of remediation1. These complaints inevitably lead into a conversation about failing high schools, accompanied by fulminations and fuming.

The correct response: Why are remedial students allowed to matriculate in the first place?

It’s not as if the knowledge deficit comes as a surprise. Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test. Those who don’t make that cut have to take a placement test. Community colleges usually cut straight to the placement test. The most common placement tests are also developed by the Big Two ((Accuplacer is SAT, Compass is ACT).

So why not just reject all applicants who aren’t college-ready?

Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard.

Most states (or all?) offer two levels of post-secondary education: college and adult education. As colleges have sought to increase access to everyone who can demonstrate basic literacy (and far too many who can’t even manage that), adult education has withered and nearly died.

Pick a level and split them. My cutoff would be second year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education, which is not eligible for student loans, but we could probably give some tax credits or something for self-improvement.

Adult education could be strengthened by repurposing the funds we now spend on remedial education. The existing community college system could, for example, be split into two tiers—one for actual college level work or legitimate AA degrees, the other for adult education courses, which are currently a weak sister of K-12.

The federal government could enforce this by refusing to back Pell grants for remedial courses in college, as Michael Petrilli and others have called for. State legislatures could arguably just pick a demonstrated ability level and restrict funding to those public universities that ignore it.

Of course, some argue that college is for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This path leads to a complete devaluation of the college degree, of course, but if that is to be the argument, there’s an easy solution. If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

Proposal #2: Put Remedial Classes Back in High School


1College remediation in its present form came about during the seventies, when colleges expanded access largely to give opportunities to blacks and other minorities. At the time, remedial education was dubbed “compensatory”. Believing that socio-economic circumstances and poor schools led to a correctable deficit….well, see, I can stop right there. If you want the whole history, check out CUNY’s version of it; similar responses took place in campuses all over the country. But I don’t have to explain why that was a flawed belief. Just see the primer items 1-4.

Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics

Every election year, someone bemoans the fact that education is never a major factor in presidential politics. This year might be an exception, because of Common Core. But the reality is, presidential aspirants never talk about the issues that really interest the public at large.

Instead, politicians read from the same Big Book Of Education Shibboleths that pundits do.

To wit: Our public schools are a national disgrace with abysmal international rankings. Our test scores that haven’t budged in 40 years. Unions prevent bad teachers from being fired. Teachers are essential to academic outcomes but they are academically weak and unimpressive, the bottom feeders of college graduates. Administrators are crippled because they can’t fire bad teachers. We know what works in education. Choice will save our country by improving student outcomes. Charters have proven all kids can learn and poverty doesn’t matter. And so on.

All the conventional wisdom I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph is false, or at least complicated by reality. Any education reformer with more than two years experience would certainly agree that the public is mostly unmoved by rhetoric about teacher quality, tenure, curriculum changes, and choice—in fact, when “education reform” is a voting issue, the voters are often going against reform.

Education reformers are very much like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: All this time I thought he didn’t want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.  

Yeah, sorry. Your ideas, reformers, they just don’t do it for the public.

So I put together some policies that a lot of the public would agree with and many would consider important enough to make a voting issue. In each case, the necessary legislation could be introduced at the state or federal level.

There’s a catch, of course. These proposals are nowhere on the horizon. But any serious understanding of these proposals will lead to an understanding of just how very far the acceptable debate is from the reality on the ground.

To understand these proposals, a Reality Primer:

1) Some children cannot learn to the desired standard in an acceptable timeframe or, in the case of high school, in any timeframe.
2) The more rigorous the standard, the greater number of students who will be incapable of learning to that standard.
3) As a result of the first two immutable facts, schools can’t require an unbendable promotion standard.
4) By high school, the range of student understanding in any one classroom is beyond what most outsiders can possibly conceive of.

and somewhat unrelated to the previous four:

5) Education case history suggests that courts care neither about reality or costs.

The primer is important. Read it. Embrace it. In fact, if you read the primer and really get on board, you’ll be able to come up with the proposals all by yourself.

Some additional reading to remind readers of where I’m coming from:

I originally had all the proposals as one huge post, but I’ve been really short on posts lately. Here’s the list as I build it:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates


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