Tales from Zombieland, Calculus Edition, Part I

A couple weeks ago, I met with a charming math zombie who I coach for the SAT. “Could you help me study for a pre-calc test instead?”

She brought out her book, a hefty volume, and turned to chapter 4, page 320

I took one look and skidded to a stop.

“What the hell…heck. This is calculus.”

The mother sighed. “Yes, they cover calculus in pre-calculus so that everyone is ready for AP Calc next year.”

Huh. Remember that, folks, the next time you hear of a school with a 100% AP pass rate. They are teaching the kids some of the calculus the year before.

“OK, I can maybe help you with this but before we start: I don’t usually work in calculus. I’m pretty good conceptually, and my algebra is awesome, but at a certain point I’m going to have to send you back to the teacher.”

“That’s fine; I really need any help I can get.”

First up. “Use the limit process to find the derivative of f(x) = x2 – x + 4.”

“What on earth is the limit process?” I turn back in the book, leafing through the pages.

“I have no idea.”

“Well, you must have worked the problem before.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Maybe they mean the definition of a limit, the slope thingy.” I look at the next problem, which also focuses on slope, and decide that must be it.

“So you know the definition of a limit, right?”

“No, not really. I know the derivative of this is 2x-1.”

“Yes, but what is the derivative?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand this at all.”

“Um, okay. The derivative of any function is another function, that returns the slope of the tangent line for any given point on the original function. The tangent line represents…um, .not just the average rate of change between two points, but the instantaneous rate of change at that point.” (I am not using math terms; whenever mathies get together and talk about the “intuitive” definition of a derivative I want to slap them. I checked a few places later, like this one, and I think I’m on solid ground.)

“Yeah, but why do we care about the rate of change?”

I should mention here that her teacher and I went to ed school together, and I’m certain she (the teacher) explained this multiple times from various perspectives.

“You say you know the derivative is 2x-1, yes?”

“Right. You’re saying that’s the slope of the line?”

“Almost. The derivative is the means of finding the slope of a tangent line to any point on the function, with various caveats I’m going to skip right now. Remember, most functions do not change at constant rates. You can find the average rate by finding the distance between any two points, and finetune that average by picking two points closer and closer together. The slope of the tangent line, which means the line is intersecting only at one point, is the….” I can see she doesn’t care, and her understanding is definitely ahead of where it was just five minutes earlier, so I stopped for the moment.

She sighed hopelessly. “Look, can’t I just find the derivative?”

I scrawled something like this:

“Oh, I remember that. Okay.” And she plugged it all in and calculated rapidly. “How come I have an h left over?”

I was a tad flummoxed, but then remember. “Oh, h approaches 0, so it’s basically negligible. I think that’s right, but check with your teacher. Now, what does this represent?”

“I have no idea.”

“Suppose I ask you to find the derivative when x=1, or at the point, um, (1,4).”

“I plug 1 in for x in 2x-1, which is 1. Then I write the equation y-4=1(x-1).”

“So graph that.”

“I don’t know how. It’s a line, right?” She thinks a bit, then converts the equation to slope intercept. “Okay, so it’s y=x+3.”

“Now, graph the parabola.”

“Um…” I sketched it for her, and marked (1,4). “Now sketch the line.”


“See how it just intersects at the point, perfectly tangent? That’s what a derivative does–it returns the slope of the line through that point that will intersect at just one point.”

“Yeah, I saw this before.”

“And it made quite an impression. Stop waving this off. You want to feel less hopeless about math? This is why you have no idea what’s going on. So gut it up and focus.” She nodded, somewhat chagrined.

“The slope of the line at that point indicates the slope of the original function at that point, which is the instantaneous rate of change. Remember: most functions don’t change at a constant rate. Finding the rate of change at a single point is an essential purpose of calculus. So pick another point and try it.”

“OK, I’ll try -1. What do I do first?”

“What do you need to know?”

She looked at the graph. “I need to know the slope of the line….which I get from plugging in -1 to the derivative 2x-1, which is….-3. And then I—”

“Stop for a minute. Say it. What did you just find out?”

“The derivative for x=-1 is -3, which means…the slope of the line where it meets the graph is -3?”

“Slope of the tangent line. And what does that represent?”

She frowned in concentration and looked at the sketch I’d drawn. “That’s the rate of change at that point. But where is that tangent line intersecting? Oh, I need the plug that in…” She did some work. “So the point is (-1,6), and the slope is -3, and that’s why I use point slope, because I have a point and a slope.”

“And remember, you don’t have to convert from point slope to slope intercept. I just do it because I find it easier to sketch roughly in y-intercept form.”


“But how does this work in problem 2? They don’t give me an equation but they want me to find a derivative.”


“You can find the equation from the graph.”

“Oh, that’s right. But I checked the answer on this, and it’s just -1, which makes no sense.”

“Sure it does. Graph the line y=-1.”

She thinks for a minute. “It’s just a horizontal line.”

“And the slope of a horizontal line is…”

Pause. “Zero. But does that mean the derivative is 0?”

“Which would mean what?”

“The rate of change is zero?”

“How much does a line’s slope change?”

“It doesn’t.” I wait. “You mean a line has a zero change in its rate of change?”

“There you go. And doesn’t that make sense?”

“So….because a line has a slope, which is the same between every point, its derivative is zero. So the derivative is….oh, that’s what you mean when you say other functions don’t change at a constant rate. OK. So lines are the only functions whose derivative is zero?”

“Um, yes, I think. But a derivative can return zero even if the function isn’t a line. ”

She sighed. “It’s much easier to just do the problem.”

I’m going to stop here, because I want to go through several of the conversations in detail so I’ll do a Part 2.

In my last post, I pointed out that Garelick and Beals and other traditionalists are, flatly, wrong in their assertions that procedural competence can’t advance well in front of conceptual understanding.

At the risk of stating the obvious, here is a nice, charming, perfectly “normal” calculus student who understands how to find a derivative, how to work the algebra to find a derivative, and yet has absolutely no idea or caring about what a derivative is—and complains in almost identical words to the middle school girl in G&B’s article. She just wants to “do the problem.”

Our entire math sequencing and timing policy is based on the belief that kids who can do the math understand the math. Yet increasingly, what I see in certain high-achieving populations is procedural fluency without any understanding.

In case anyone wonders, I’m not engaging in pointed hints about East Asians (I tend to come right out and say these things), although they are a big chunk of the zombie population. The other major zombie source I’ve noticed is upper income white girls. I have never met a white boy zombie, or a black or Hispanic zombie of any gender, although perhaps they are found in large numbers elsewhere. But the demographics of my experience leads me to wonder if culture and expectations play a big part in whether a student is willing to put the time and energy into faking it. Or maybe it’s easier for people with certain intellectual attributes (a really good memory, for example) to fake it.

Anyway, I’ll do a part 2, and not solely to reveal zombie thinking. I was planning on writing about this session before the G&B piece appeared. Not only did I enjoy the chance to work with calculus, but I also have really started to understand how unrealistic it is to teach calculus in high school. I’m moving towards the opinion that most kids in AP Calc don’t understand what the hell’s going on, thanks to the unrealistic but required pacing.

Oh and yes, I don’t know much calculus. Forgive me if my wording isn’t correct, and feel free to offer better in the comments.

Understanding Math, and the Zombie Problem

I have been mulling this piece on the evils of explanations for a while. There’s many ways to approach this issue, and I highly recommend the extended discussion at Dan Meyer’s blog, as it captures experience-based teachers (mostly reform biased) with the traditionalists, who are primarily not teachers.

What struck me suddenly, as I was engaged in commenting, was the Atlantic’s clever juxtaposition.

All the buzz, all the sturm und drang about Common Core and overprocessed math has involved elementary school. The cute show your thinking pictures are from 8 year olds and first graders. Louis CK breaks our hearts with his third grader’s pain. The image in the Atlantic article has cute little pudgy second grade arms—with just the suggestion of race, maybe black, maybe Hispanic, probably male—writing a whole paragraph on math. The evocative image evokes protective feelings, outrage over the iniquities of modern math instruction, as a probably male student desperately struggles to obey meaningless demands from a probably female teacher who probably doesn’t understand math beyond an elementary level anyway. Hence another underprivileged child’s potential crushed, early and permanently, by the white matriarchal power structure unwilling to acknowledge its limitations.

And who could disagree? Arithmetic has, as John Derbyshire notes, “the peculiar characteristic that it easy to state problems in it that are ferociously difficult to solve.” Why force children to explain place value or the division algorithm? Let them get fluency first. Garelick and Beals (henceforth referred to as G&B) cite various studies finding that elementary school students gain competence by focusing on procedure first, conceptual understanding at some later point.

There’s just one problem. While the Atlantic’s framing targets elementary school, and the essay’s evidence base is entirely from elementary school, G&B’s focus is on middle school.

Percentages. Proportions. Historically, the bane of middle school math. Exhibit C on high school math teachers list of “things our students should know but don’t” (after negatives and fractions), and an oft-tested topic, both conceptually and procedurally, in college placement.

G&B make no bones about their focus. They aren’t the ones who chose the image. They start off with a middle school example, and speak of middle school students who “just want to do the math”.

But again, there’s that authoritatively cited research (linked in blue here):


Again, all cites to research on elementary school math. The researched students are at most fifth graders; the topics never move above arithmetic facts. G&B even make it clear that the claim of “procedure without understanding is rare” is limited to elementary school math, and in the comments, Garelick discusses the limitations of a child’s brain, acknowledging that explanations become more important in adolescence—aka, middle school, algebra, and beyond.

G&B aren’t arguing for 8 year olds to multiply integers in happy, ignorant fluency, but for 14 year olds to calculate percentages and simply “show their work”. And in the event, which they deem unlikely, that students are just going through the motions, that’s okay because “doing a procedure devoid of any understanding of what is being done is actually hard to accomplish with elementary math.” Oh. Wait.

Once you get past the Atlantic bait and switch and discuss the issue at the appropriate age level, everything about the article seems odd.

First, Beals and Garelick would–or should, at least–be delighted with math instruction in 8th grade and beyond. Reform math doesn’t get very far in high school. Not only do most high school teachers reject reform math, most research shows that the bulk of advanced math teachers have proven impervious to all efforts to move beyond “lecture and assign a problem set”. Most math teachers at the high school level accept a worked problem as evidence of understanding, even when it’s not. I’m not as familiar with middle school algebra and geometry teachers, but since NCLB required middle school teachers to be subject-certified, it’s more likely they profile like high school teachers.

G&B don’t even begin to make the case that “explaining math” dominates at the middle school level. They gave an anecdote suggesting that 10% of the week’s math instruction was spent on 2-3 problems, “explaining thinking”.

This is the basis for an interesting discussion. Is it worth spending 10% of the time that would, presumably, otherwise be spent on procedural fluency on making kids jump through hoops to add meaningless detail to correctly worked problems? And then some people would say well, hang on, how about meaningful detail? Or how about other methods of assessing for understanding? For example, how about asking students why they can’t just increase $160 by 20% to get the original coat price? And if 10% is too much time, how about 5%? How about just a few test questions?

But G&B present the case as utterly beyond question, because research and besides, Aspergers. And you know, ELL. We shouldn’t make sure they understand what’s going on, provided they they know the procedures! Isn’t that enough?

Except, as noted, the research they use is for younger kids. None of their research supports their assertion that procedural fluency leads to conceptual understanding for algebra and beyond. We don’t really know.

However, to the extent we do know, most of the research available in algebra suggests exactly the opposite–that students benefit from “sense-making”, conceptual approaches (which is not the same as discovery) as opposed to entirely procedural based instruction. But researching algebra instruction is far more difficult than evaluating the pedagogy of arithmetic operations—and forget about any research done beyond the algebra level. So G&B didn’t provide adequate basis for making their claims about the relative value of procedural vs conceptual fluency, and it’s doubtful the basis exists.

I’ll get to the rest in a minute, but let’s take a pause there. Imagine how different the article would be if G&B had acknowledged that, while elementary school research supports fact fluency over sense-making (and fact fluency seems to be helpful in advanced math), the research and practice at algebra and beyond is less well established. What if they’d argued for their preferences, as opposed to research-based practices, and made an effort to build a case for procedural fluency over comprehension in advanced math? It would have led to a much richer conversation, with everyone acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of different strategies and choices.

Someday, I’d like to see that conversation take place. Not with G&B, though, since I’m not even sure they understand the big hole in their case. They aren’t experienced enough.

Then there’s the zombie quote, where Garelick and Beals most tellingly display their inexperience:

Yes, Virginia, there are “math zombies”.

In high school, math zombies are very common, particularly in schools with a diverse range of students and thus abilities. Experienced teachers commenting at Dan Meyer’s blog or the Atlantic article all confirm their existence. This piece is long enough without going into anecdotal proof of zombies. One can infer zombie existence by the ever-growing complaints of college math professors about students with strong math transcripts but limited math knowledge.

I’ve seen zombies in tutoring through calculus, in my own teaching through pre-calc. In lower level classes, I’ve stopped some zombies dead in their tracks, often devastating them and angering their parents. The zombies, obviously, are the younger students in my classes, since I don’t teach honors courses. Most of the zombies in my school don’t go through my courses.

Whether math zombies are a problem rather depends on one’s point of view.

There are many math teachers who agree with G&B, who rip through the material, explaining it both procedurally and conceptually but focus on procedural competence. They assign difficult math problems in class with lots of homework. Their tests are difficult but predictable. They value students who wrote the didactic contract with Dolores Umbridge’s nasty pen, etching it into their skin. They diligently memorize the cues and procedures, and obediently regurgitate the procedures, aping understanding without having a clue. There is no dawning moment of conceptual understanding. The students don’t care in the slightest. They are there for the A and, to varying degrees, play Clever Hans for math teachers interested only in correctly worked procedures and right answers. Left as an open issue is the degree to which zombies are also cheating (and if they cheat are they zombies? is also a question left for another day). For now, assume I’m referring to kids who simply go through the motions, stuffing procedures into episodic memory with nothing making it to semantic, all to be forgotten as soon as the test is over.

Math zombies enable our absurd national math expectations. Twenty or thirty years ago, top tier kids had less incentive to fake it through advanced math. But as AP Calculus or die drove our national policy (thanks, Jay Mathews!) and students were driven to start advanced math earlier each year, zombies were rewarded for rather frightening behavior.

G&B and those who operate from the presumption that math can easily be mastered by memorizing procedures, who believe that teachers who slow down or limit coverage are enablers, don’t see math zombies as a problem. They’re the solution. You can see this in G&B’s devotion and constant appeal to the test scores of China, Singapore, and Korea, the ur-Zombies and still the sublime practitioners of the art, if it is to be called that.

For those of us who disagree, zombies create two related problems. First, their behavior encourages math teachers and policy makers to raise expectations, increase covered material, accelerate instruction pace. They allow schools to pretend that half their students or more are capable of advanced, college level math in high school while simultaneously getting As in many other difficult topics. They lead to BC Calculus pass rates of 50% or more (because yes, the AP Calc tests reward zombie math). Arguably, they have created a distortion in our sense of what “college math” should be, by pretending that “college math” is easily doable by most high school students willing to put in some time.

But the related problem is even more of an issue, because the more math teachers and policies reward zombies, the more smart, intellectually curious non-zombies bow out of the game, decide they’ll go to a state school or community college. Which means zombie kids just aren’t numbered among the “smart” kids, they become the smart kids. They define what smart kids “are capable of”, because no one comes along later to measure what they’ve…well, not forgotten, but never really learned to start with. So people think it really is possible to take 10-12 AP courses and understand the material (as opposed to get a 5 on the AP), and that defines what they expect from all top rank students. Meanwhile, those kids–and I know many–are neither intellectually curious nor even “intelligent” as we’d define it.

The Garelick/Beals piece is just a symptom of this mindset, not a cause. They don’t even know enough to realize that most high school math is taught just the way they like it. They’d understand this better if they were teachers, but neither of them has spent any significant time in the classroom, despite their bio claims. Both have significant academic knowledge in related areas–Garelick in elementary math pedagogy, which he studied as a hobby, Beals as a language expert for Asperger’s—which someone at the Atlantic confused with relevant experience.

Such is the nature of discourse in education policy that some people will think I’m rebutting G&B. No. I don’t even disagree with them on everything. The push for elementary school explanation is misguided and wasteful. Many math teachers reward words, not valid explanations; that’s why I use multiple answer math tests to assess conceptual knowledge. I also would love–yea, love–to see my kids willing to work to acquire greater procedural fluency.

But G&B go far beyond their actual expertise and ultimately, their piece is just a sad reminder of how easy it is to be treated as an “expert” by major publications simply by having the right contacts and backers. Nice work if you can get it.

And the “zombie” allusion, further developed by Brett Gilliland, is a keeper.

What I Learned: Year 3

I want to continue my teaching retrospective, if only for my own edification. Year 3 in particular led to major changes in my curriculum and pacing.

To recap: my first year was spent in a very progressive school, where I taught algebra, geometry, and humanities, both literature and history. I loved teaching, didn’t much care for the school, and definitely wasn’t sufficiently of the left to stay there. Years 2 and 3 were at a Title I school, 65% Hispanic/ELL. As I’ve said before, year 2’s all algebra all the time schedule was my toughest schedule ever as a teacher; I do not expect to see its like again. Which is good, because I still get flashbacks. I have, in fact, never officially taught algebra 1 since that time although most people would consider what I teach in Algebra 2 to be, in fact, Algebra 1.

Year 3 was at the same school, but I was assigned Algebra 2 and Geometry. And that made all the difference.

Establishing Classroom Ambiance

My 65 geometry students included twenty I’d taught the previous year in Algebra I, students who knew and liked me.

First day, I started one class a bit early when in walked Robbie, redheaded, pale, anxious, diagnosed with Asperger’s but almost certainly a high functioning autistic. I told him to have a seat, and didn’t immediately realize that the little freshman was utterly aghast at the idea that he was late to class. He was murmuring “class starts at 9:15, I was here at 9:12” over and over again, slowly working up to a meltdown by the time I noticed. Before I could react Augustin, a junior, first student I’d met at this school the year before, leaned over from a desk in the same group.

“Relax. Teacher started early. Never cares about time anyway. You’re good.”

Meltdown over. Robbie was awestruck that a junior had deigned to notice him. He also remembered all year that I “never cared about time”, which did much to keep him balanced and happy with a teacher incapable of a predictable routine. I have always remembered Augustin for his offhand kindness to an odd kid.

My geometry classes gave me the feeling of being a known quantity, a teacher with student cred, something I’d long easily established in my Asian enrichment classes, as well as my Kaplan test prep, but never felt in a public school before. I’d always been a loose disciplinarian, an easy classroom controller, and this isn’t as easy in test prep as you might think—it’s why I got so much work. I knew that teaching outside of private instruction would be different, but I found the change more challenging than I expected.

For my first two years in public school, I struggled to recreate the friendly “we’re all in this together” atmosphere I expected to achieve easily. My first year, only my humanities class ever achieved the ambiance I took for granted in private instruction. Only two of my 4 algebra classes (one was a double block) had that cheerful noisiness that is now a trademark of my public school classes. I wasn’t a failure as a teacher; in many ways, I was doing exactly what I anticipated and dealing with expected obstacles. But I had secretly mourned the loss of my standing as a popular teacher. And now, suddenly, I had my mojo again.

My algebra 2 classes were more like my algebra 1 classes from the year before; I didn’t have yet the same easy rapport that I had with my geometry students. This gave me a chance to study the difference. Would I always need to have repeat students, or was there something I could do to establish the environment of easy fun with hard work–or at least some effort?

Over time, I learned that some students find me harder to understand than others. They often don’t grok my ironic asides. They do not understand that I “blast” without malice. They assume I hold grudges, that I count misdemeanors in a black book somewhere. They don’t understand I am often somewhat ruthlessly focused on one objective. As I’ve said before, teaching is a performance art, and the act of engaging students to convince them to learn is often an arduous mental task.

And so I’ve learned to explain this up front. That I am often sarcastic, and think attempts to ban this essential classroom management tool are Against God. That I’m not often annoyed, and usually harmless. But when I am annoyed I yell first, ask questions later when I remember to, which I often don’t. That I am unlikely to remember what I was mad about 20 minutes later, much less hold a grudge. In fact, the only behaviors that I remember are cruelty and cheating. That I love teaching, and like all of them. Except Joe. I can’t stand Joe. And frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of Alison. But except them. And Mario. Don’t care for Mario much. But everyone else. Really. (Yeah, see that, kids? Mild irony. Get used to it.)

I’ve also learned to reach out on things that don’t matter as much to me but I’ve realized matter much more than I realized to students. I’ve always been one to say “Hi!” in the hallways and chitchat for a moment with past and present students but in truth honestly don’t care about football games or sporting events. Still, kids really do like it when you show up at the games, or ask about the outcomes, or call out a student who had a great game or ran a PR. I ban the singing of Happy Birthday because the noise is unbearable, but after they beg, I give them a count of three and we all shout the phrase at once. And all my classes delight in realizing how easy it is to drive me off-topic by asking about food or politics.

All my ability to deliberately set a classroom environment came from the lucky break of teaching geometry to some of the same students I’d just passed in algebra.

Coverage vs. Comprehension


I sure hope Bud Blake got credit for this 1974 classic, reproduced daily in ed school and professional development lessons everywhere.

I used to take state tests more seriously, and was quite proud that my first year out, I “hit the dinger” in geometry and algebra. I hadn’t rushed, and even back then had deemed many topics non-essential, or at least far less important than others. My students were doing reasonably well on tests, which were free-response that year.

But towards the end of the year, I realized with a shock that many of my mid-tier students had forgotten most of the content. Students who understood the Pythagorean Theorem were now marking up triangles with SOHCAHTOA when they had two sides and just needed the third. Algebra students were plugging linear equations into the quadratic formula. Cats were sleeping with dogs. All was not right. It was as if they’d never been taught.

Year two, I was primed to look for learning loss but pacing was so impossible with the wide ability range that I instituted four levels of differentiation. I succeeded in slowing down instruction and letting students absorb more information.

But year three saw my first attempts to help Stripe learn to whistle.

In geometry, the first sign of change came in October. I’d explained transversals of parallel lines. I’d done a great job. Brilliant, even. Not content to simply lecture, I asked questions, prompted discussion, ensured students saw the connection and sketched the familiar representation.

And the lesson didn’t thud. All the students obediently worked the problem set. They asked reasonable questions.

So I don’t know, really, what compelled me to double check.

“Am I picking up a weird vibe? You all are working, but I have this sense that you’re still confused.”

Murmurs of agreement.

“How about everyone close their eyes and we’ll do a thumb check?” (I rarely use such obvious CFUs these days, but they’re still a great tool for uncertain situations.)

Most of the thumbs came up sideways.

So I told the kids I’d think about this for a while, and came back with an activity, one that required about $70 in materials that I still use to this day.



It worked. The transversal angle relationships were easier to understand with the physical representation, the students could see the inevitability, see how the angles “fit”. And from that point, they could easily see that unless the transversal was perpendicular, each transversal over parallel lines formed only two distinct angle measurements: an obtuse and an acute.

A nifty transversal lesson wasn’t the important development, even though my geometry students still enjoy the activity almost as much as they enjoy creating madcap patterns with the boards and rubber bands.

Sensing confusion despite a generally successful lesson, I had developed an illustration on my own to develop a stronger understanding. I was beginning to spot the difference between teaching and learning.

I still struggle with this. It’s very easy to get sloppy, particularly in a large class with ability ranges of 4 to 5 years, with kids in the lower ranges happily sleeping through classes, stirring themselves only enough to beg me for a passing grade. But ultimately, I circle back with yet one more pass through, coming up with an illustration or series of problems to shine a light on confusion.

I’ve written extensively of Year 3’s other major development. Faced with the reality that I’d wasted a semester covering linear equations and quadratics that students didn’t remember in the slightest, I decided to start over, beginning with modeling linear equations. Not only did I completely change my approach to curriculum, I also flatly punted on coverage from that point on, focusing on the big five for every subject. As I improve at introducing and explaining concepts, my students become capable of taking on more challenging topics; the interaction between my curriculum and student understanding is very much a positive feedback loop.

Ironically, my decision to abandon coverage was driven in part because Algebra 2 was a terminal course, meaning it was to be offered only to remedial seniors, students were not expected or in fact allowed to take any other math course. For this reason, I felt free to craft my own course to focus purely on getting the students ready for college math. But at least half of my students were juniors, and most of them took pre-calc the next year. This was my first exposure to Algebra 2’s dual nature. More on that later.

Mentoring Colleagues

For my first two years, I had almost no contact with colleagues. Year 3, two new math teachers joined and we instantly hit it off. Went for coffee on late start mornings, beers after work. I was their resource; both of them found me far more helpful than their assigned mentors. I still meet up with both of them four or five times a year at least.

I left that year for my current school, and went over two years again without any real colleagues. I missed it. Having spent most of my professional life working without colleagues that liked lunch, beer, coffee, whatever, I can map out the exception eras, and treasure them. Last year I began mentoring, and now have lunch, coffee, whatever with them individually and together.

I’m not chummy enough, much less normal enough, to bond easily with other teachers. But I’m a good mentor, and that seems to be how I make friends as a teacher.

Finally, Year Three taught me how to cope with genuinely unfair treatment, which I haven’t often had to deal with. I never go into details about it, but while I wasn’t crazy about the school, I didn’t want to look for jobs again. Being a fifty year old teacher without a job is a Very Bad Thing—of course, take out the word “teacher” and it’s still true, probably more so.

On the other hand, while I wasn’t crazy about that school, I am very happy at this one. What do they call that, perspective?

On the Spring Valley High Incident

So the Spring Valley High School incident is yet another case of a teenager treating a cop like a teacher. This is, as always, a terrible idea.

I watch the video and wonder about the teacher. I wonder if he’s wondering what I’d wonder in his shoes. Teachers aren’t just focused on the recalcitrant girl who refuses to comply, who hits the police officer, who gets arrested. Teachers notice the girl directly behind the cop and the defiant kid, the one who wasn’t a troublemaker, was just sitting in class doing her work and nearly gets clobbered by the flipped over desk. Or the other kids trying not to watch–suggestion, I think, that the shocking events aren’t a common occurrence. Teachers notice that the kids are working with laptops and hope none of them fly off a desk into another student. (Teachers probably also notice the photographer’s test has many wrong answers. Occupational hazard.)

He’s got to be wondering, now and forever, if he could have prevented this. One time, a student in my class inexplicably left her $600 iPhone on her desk during a class activity that involved working at boards, and it disappeared, which required a call to the supervisors and a full class search. I told them who I suspected, then left because I didn’t want to know. When I came back, they’d detained the strongest student in the class–not for stealing the phone, which was never found. I have decided it’s better not to say why, but it was one of those things that lots of kids do in violation of policy because they’re unlikely to get caught. But if they get caught, it’s bad. (No, not drugs). He was suspended for the maximum time period and had to worry about more than that, although more was mostly scare talk.

The point is, I felt absolutely terrible. The student who left the phone out was careless and silly, the student who stole the phone was a criminal, the student who got suspended was knowingly in violation of a major school policy without the slightest thought for his long-term prospects. But if I’d just seen the damn phone on the desk, none of this would have happened.

So when I look at this video, like many if not most teachers, I’m not thinking about whether the girl deserved to be flipped about, because that’s the cop’s problem. I’m wondering was there anything that teacher could have done to avoid having the cop there in the first place.

Reports say that the student initiated the event by refusing to turn over a cell phone—also offered up is refusal to stop chewing gum, which I find unlikely. However, it’s clear the student was refusing several direct orders that began with the teacher and moved up through the administrator and the cop.

Defiance is a big deal in high school. It must not be tolerated. Tolerating open defiance is what leads to hopelessness, to out of control classrooms, to kids wandering around the halls, to screaming fights on a routine basis. Some teachers care about dress code, others about swearing, still others get bothered by tardies. But most teachers enforce, and most administrators support, a strong, absolute bulwark against outright defiance as an essential discipline element.

Let me put it this way: an angry student tells me to f*** off or worse, I’m likely to shrug it off if peace is restored. Get an apology later when things have settled. But if that student refuses to hand me a cell phone, or change seats, or put food away, I tell him he’ll be removed from class if he doesn’t comply. No compliance, I call the supervisor and have the kid removed. Instantly. Not something I spend more than 30 seconds of class time on, including writing up a referral.

At that point, the student will occasionally leave the classroom without waiting for the supervisor, which changes the charge from “defiance” to “leaving class without permission”. The rest of the time the supervisor comes, the kid leaves, comes back the next day, and next time I tell them to do something, they do it. Overwhelmingly, though, the kids just hand me the phone, put away the food, change seatswhen I ask, every so often pleading for a second chance which every so often I give. Otherwise, the incident is over. Just today I had three phones in my pocket for just one class, and four lunches on the table that had to wait until advisory was over because I don’t like eating in my classroom.

We have a school resource officer (SRO), but I’d call a supervisor for defiance, and I’ve never heard of a kid refusing to go with a supervisor. If there was a refusal, at a certain point the supervisor would call an administrator, and it’s conceivable, I guess, that the administrator could authorize the SRO to step in. So assuming I couldn’t have talked this student down, I would have done what the teacher did, and called for someone else to take over—and long after I did something that should have been no big deal, this catastrophe could conceivably have happened.

I ask you, readers, to consider the recalcitrance required to defy three or four levels of authority, to hold up a class for at least 10-15 minutes, to refuse even to leave the classroom to discuss whatever outrage the student feels warrants this level of disruption.

Then I ask you to consider what would happen if students constantly defied orders (couched as requests, of course) to turn over a cell phone, or change seats, or stop combing their hair, or put the food away. If every time a student defied an order, a long drawn-out battle going through three levels of authority ensued. School would rapidly become unmanageable.

So you have two choices at that point: let madness prevail, or be unflinching with open defiance. Students have to understand that defiance is worse than compliance, that once defiance has occurred, complying with a supervisor is a step up from being turned over to an administrator, which is way, way better than being turned over to a cop. (Note that all of this assumes that the parents aren’t a fear factor.)

Some schools can’t avoid the insanity. Their students simply don’t fear the outcomes enough, and unlike charters, they are bound by federal and state laws to educate all children. If the schools suspend too many kids, the feds will come in and force you into a voluntary agreement. This is when desperate times lead to desperate measures like restorative justice, where each incident leads to an endless yammer about feeeeeeeeelings as teachers play therapist and tell their kids to circle up.

Judge the cop as you will. I can see no excuse for putting other students in danger; the fight could have seriously injured the girl sitting directly behind the incident. He could have cleared the area first, making sure all students were safe. I believe that’s his responsibility.

However, once the administrator asked the SRO to take over, the student was dealing not with a school official, but with a cop. At that point, she was disobeying a police officer’s order. On government property. And she is clearly hitting him, in this video.

And, like I said, disobeying a cop is a bad idea.

So the question is not what should the cop have done, but why did the administrator call the cop? And what would you have had the administrator do instead? Don’t focus on that single incident, because teachers, administrators, and cops don’t have that luxury. They have to handle it in such a way so that defiance doesn’t become a regular routine, that students customarily obey their teachers, maybe with some backtalk, maybe with ample opportunities to walk a bad mistake back. Ultimately, though, students have to comply. If a school backs away from that line, defiance gets contagious. It’s one thing for new, inept teachers to have trouble controlling their students, quite another for an entire school to give up.

I recently had an exchange with David Leonhardt on his NAEP scores article, and he asked me “I assume you agree school quality should be linked to amount students learn, yes?”

Well, not the way we currently measure it, probably not. But I do think school quality should be linked to established order and by “order” I don’t mean an Eva Moskowitz gulag. Control freaks like Moskowitz fail to allow for normal mood swings and eruptions from kids who are, after all, engaged in an involuntary activity for eight hours a day.

Schools that fail to establish order are those like Normandy High School, with out of control violence, open defiance of teachers and administrators, and students in constant danger of assault. Students should have the opportunity to learn, even if they aren’t mastering material at the rate our policy wonks would allow. Schools that can’t enable that are genuine failures.

The Moskowitz contingent point to schools like Normandy as rationale for their despotic rules. Look, they say. Let “these kids” think they can act however they like, and you end up with screaming, chaotic classrooms, truancy, assaults and fights on and between students, ineffectual teachers, and worst of all, low test scores. Teach them to behave respectfully, five times more compliant than suburban white kids, and you’re doing them a favor, saving them from “those schools”. Better Animal Farm than Clockwork Orange

Any school with a solid percentage of kids who’d really rather be somewhere else has to find a balance. Make enough kids want to comply so there’s room to expel the kids who routinely don’t. This isn’t achieved by Eva Moskowitz tyranny, but nor will restorative justice get the job done. It’s hard. There has to be limits. There has to be balance. Administrators who think they have the perfect mix are probably kidding themselves.

In the meantime, if, like Martin O’Malley or Chris Hayes, you’d be “ripped ballistic” if a cop did this to your kid, familiarize yourself and your children with the dangers of disobeying a cop and resisting arrest.

Braindumping the PSAT: A Few Questions for David Coleman

The day after the first PSAT sitting, two parents (at least, I think they were parents), posted this this exchange
on College Confidential (click to enlarge):


The day of the PSAT carried this slightly more obscure exchange:


Suzyq7’s comment seems to come out of nowhere, because almost certainly the College Confidential moderators purged a post or two. It appears that FutureMMAChamp or some other poster explained that some testers knew exactly what they’d gotten wrong because they had an early copy of the test, which led to Suzyq7’s outburst. That post got purged, so it’s hard to make sense of the conversation, but the gravamen of the charge comes through.

Notice the lack of “what on earth are you talking about?” responses. These posters aren’t being challenged for their grasp on reality.

So on October 4th, someone posted actual PSAT content. No one knew for sure it was PSAT content, I assume, which is why the content remained on the site until October 15th. At that point, it appears, the moderators became aware of the posts and purged them. Or maybe the posts are still online, although lord knows I’m a determined searcher and I can find no record of them. The moderators also deleted or modified posts referencing the content whenever possible.

From October 3rd until some point after October 15th, actual PSAT test questions were readily available on a forum that sees about 2 million unique viewers a month. Then that same forum, with the help of Google, Reddit, Twitter, Tumbler, and other social media sites, provided October 28th testers with a roadmap of all the questions on the test.

You really have to chuckle, don’t you?

All those reporters writing indulgently about the PSAT testers violating their promise to refrain from discussing test questions. Most or all of the tests passage texts have been revealed: Frederick Douglass 4th of July speech, the Jason Goldman’s article on researchers establishing differences between dogs and wolves (images included), and Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome (the one about Herminia and her papa). Brian Switek’s piece on Nasutoceratops, the large nosed horn faced dinosaur or a similar piece was used in the writing section.

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation went so far as to include tweets with images from the test, and thinks it’s a big joke because the PSAT is “a test which everyone takes essentially on the same day” (it’s not. More on that in a minute). But then, Peter tells his students that the “P” stands for “Practice”, so hey. (It’s “Preliminary”, but then, the SAT doesn’t stand for anything any more, so maybe Peter thought he could just invent a P.)

I can only assume that the journalists, idealistic humanity majors sorts, found the tumblr posts creative. They might not have been as thrilled by the more, er, explicit discussions that were taking place out in the open Internet.

For example, the google doc in which participants discuss as many of the questions as the participants can remember. You can check out the original, but my pdf takes less time to load and omits the first page of obscenities. (The first link the author made was apparently deleted by Google as a violation of the terms of service.)

The google doc participants discuss the math and reading questions, with the occasional English query as well. They go into considerable detail; the enterprising student can become considerably aware of the pitfalls even without authoritative answers. This isn’t a particularly impressive brain dump file compared to the SAT recreations I’ve written about. But of course, the reddit thread where I found the google doc contained links to the several of the reading passages directly, and another thread openly discussed the specifics of a math problem. An employee or founder of Wave Tutoring was cheerfully in the same thread as the google doc link, giving advice and offering his services.

And there’s still good ol’ College Confidential, which has been the venue for organized SAT braindumping for years. The moderation appears a bit more vigilant this year, although the goal seems to be hiding evidence that cheating occurs rather than, you know, actually ending cheating.

So this page is blank because the moderator purged it, but the cache shows detailed question recollection. (Image capture in case cache disappears.) When a poster expresses surprise that there isn’t more specific chatter, he or she is told that just minutes earlier three pages of comments had been wiped out, presumably because students had been actively and specifically discussing the test.

I wonder if the reporters would have written cheerful stories about the google docs, the reading questions and topics, and the carefully worked math problems. Well. Not really. What I really wonder about is why the reporters can’t be bothered to write about the google docs, the reading topics, and the carefully worked math problems.

In the meantime, you can see why it’s all worth a chuckle. All this effort: the google files, the Tumbler memes, the careful hints, the chuckles, the sly media approval, and all this time the entire test was available online—and, undoubtedly, in hard copy for the right price.

Another College Confidential thread on SAT cheating via the forum inquires of the moderators why they allow blatant discussion of SAT questions without banning and posting a list of the offenders. A moderator responded that they have created a friendly place and that “public shaming” is not productive.

The discussion continues on to debate whether the site should be shut down so that the 10/28 PSAT isn’t compromised by all the “specific questions” being discussed.

What, you didn’t know that the PSAT isn’t over for the year? October 28, this Wednesday. Many high schools districts across the country take the PSAT on the “alternate date”: North Colonie Central Schools, Greenville High School, West High School, Dos Pueblos High School, Ridgefield High School, and the entire Seattle Public School District.

Is it the same test? Probably. I’m pretty sure the College Board used the same test for the “alternate” test date (note the wording) in the past. This year, with a new format, an entirely different test is probably impossible.

Wouldn’t it be cool if someone asked the College Board about it? Maybe a reporter, even.

Hey, David Coleman! Has your company discussed the publication of actual test material at College Confidential? The ACT constantly monitors the College Confidential boards for mention of their tests, but your company doesn’t. That’s why people routinely post passages and answers to SAT tests for the Chinese and Koreans too poor to pay for the actual tests from organized Chinese crime rings, while the ACT has almost no international market. But you don’t care about market advantage, right? You’re “non-profit”. In the future, are you planning on using previously issued tests for the international market, so the Chinese and Koreans can buy copies of the tests and pretend they are capable of 800 SAT reading scores when in fact they can’t even read English?

And speaking of the the Chinese SAT cheating ring, are your employees selling the tests? Maybe they’ve decided to develop a sideline in PSAT tests for Americans? Or perhaps the source is just a corrupt principal who sold a few copies to a test prep company and well, kids talk. But given the huge dollars schools pay for your product, have you considered delivering and proctoring the tests with College Board employees?

Do you have a different test planned for 10/28? If so, how will you ensure that the two different test dates are equally reliable?

If not, do you think it’s fair that all 10/28 PSAT testers, as well as 10/14 testers who had an actual copy of the test are better prepared to compete for the National Merit Scholarship Program, winning recognition and scholarships?

And please, Dave, don’t try and fob off questions with “Only a few schools take the test on the alternate date” or “The College Board spends millions on test security but we can’t be responsible for corrupt high school principals” or “We rely on our students’ honor and integrity and while there are sadly a few bad apples, the majority of our testers act responsibly”.

This is your product! You sell it to schools in exchange for a metric ton of money and student information–which you then turn around and sell to colleges, along with….oh, yeah, the TEST SCORES from a test that was available online for two weeks before the first sitting.

You’re busy breaking your arm patting yourself on the back for paying Khan Academy to provide low cost test prep to disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics—because you’re basically ignorant of the fact that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get test prep than whites (all races are pikers compared to East Asians). Given your products’ abysmal integrity, why shouldn’t blacks and Hispanics abandon test prep and get in on the advance knowledge action? Right now, it’s probably (but not certainly) restricted to Asians, but that will change if you continue to shrug off the blatant test corruption that happens every month, every year–corruption that the ACT does not have in anything approaching the same level.

And while I’m on the topic, hey, Tim McGuire, president of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation! Have you ensured that PSAT is issued fairly and consistently, giving all testers an even shot at the scholarships you offer? Or are you so worried about constantly losing colleges that you ignore the fact that the PSAT is becoming as corrupt as its parent? Have you considered perhaps using an ACT product for scholarships?

Tish tosh, you say. No one really cares about the PSAT. It’s just a “practice” preliminary test. The scores don’t matter. They aren’t used for college admissions. So what’s the difference?

Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t point out that the kids most likely to use the advance copies are the kids who have a shot at National Merit scholarships. I shouldn’t remind everyone that the braindumping for the SAT, another College Board product, is exponentially worse than the violations I’ve discussed here. I shouldn’t worry that we’re becoming as corrupt as China. I shouldn’t worry that taxpayers pay millions to the College Board, a non-profit company, to deliver a testing product whose validity and reliability can’t be assured. I shouldn’t care that reporters don’t care enough to worry the College Board enough to bother scaring College Confidential, that reporters, like the colleges dropping the National Merit Program, only care about the average performance by SES and race.

What I really worry about, frankly, is all the organized braindumpers thinking jesus, that Ed. What a dolt. Only losers use College Confidential. You can download advance copies of all College Board products at darknet/yangchan for a small fee.

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.


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