Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, he attended the local community college, where he also had a 4.0 GPA. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit with my sister, who balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them who aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense is worth it. I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.

So I educated my sister and niece on the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. I took my nephew on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system, including a stop by the transfer admissions office, where he learned he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier. His text to me was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country.

The cool thing about this story, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

Ysenia had a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes, at the request of his special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.


Teaching Oddness #4: Student Teachers

Student teaching is definitely an oddness, but it’s an oddness with an old history. In the early days of public education, prospective teachers were given a smattering of content in a “normal school”, and then sent out under the tutelage of a more senior teacher to learn the ropes. Then, as now, the actual mechanics of a student teaching experience had a ridiculously broad implementation range, from getting a few weeks learning how to take attendance to a legitimate practicum with an experienced teacher giving advice and feedback.

Here’s what anyone can tell you about student teaching, the stuff that’s so obvious even the hacks at NCTQ can figure out: Cooperating, or mentoring, teachers are hard to find. Undergraduate ed school programs, in particular, are desperate for any warm bodies to shepherd teachers through the practicum.

My own (excellent) ed school provided an entire 12 months of student teaching, first in a summer school program and then a full school year in a classroom. We all had total responsibility for at least one class for a semester. This school had a relatively small program, turning out fewer than a hundred teachers a year. And their search for cooperating teachers was….intense. Generally, the priority was for teachers committed to group work and complex instruction, progressive teachers. But even with the school’s considerable prestige, finding sufficient cooperating teachers by September often meant unseemly begging and attitudes common to businessmen in bars at 2 am.

And that’s a well-regarded ed school. At online schools, the students themselves are required to find cooperating teachers. My current cooperating teacher gig began because I got an email, funneled through the district and the department chair, asking for a teacher with more than three years math teaching experience. Why this district? Because that’s where my student teacher lives. Why my school? Because it’s Title I. They were pleased to learn I was squishy and went to a great ed school, but there were no other takers.

(BTW, I’ve mentioned the need for “warm bodies” before, in other contexts. Quality control expectations of public education shrivel away in the blazing inferno of the billion suns generated by “we are legally required to have a warm body present for X activity”. Grasp this fact, and much becomes clear.)

Researchers don’t often bother with student teaching; this Goldhaber work on student teaching vs. employment locations is interesting, but doesn’t give any insight into the practice. Much of what I find is qualitative research on student teacher experience (everyone I know says their student teacher experience was the most important part of their training). But no one has really written meaningfully on the challenges I found with my first student teacher.

Arthur is my age, which means he’s a second-career teacher starting seven years in age later than I did. He’s retired early, financially comfortable (he takes me out to lunch in his Mercedes!), and relatively unconcerned about getting a full-time job, although he’d certainly like to. He’s Chinese, but a long-time immigrant, having moved here in the 70s. His language is a bit tough to follow sometimes, which I have issues with, but he’s dedicated to working with at-risk kids.

Arthur has largely taken over my geometry class. I was initially happy to turn over the job to Arthur and just watch from afar. My job is to be as disconnected from the classroom as possible, consulting with him on curriculum and objectives before and after, but to let him operate independently, sinking or swimming without interference, in the main. I did this well at first. Then I realized that the impact of having a student teacher was going to be an issue in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In one sense, my geometry class is tailor-made for him: relatively small, just 21 kids, 8 speds, 1 ELL (Chinese). In another sense it’s a tough class for any student teacher. The ability distribution isn’t a normal curve, but rather clumped: (1) too bright for the class, (2) ready for the class and motivated, (3) ready for the class and unmotivated, (4) unmotivated to the point that readiness is irrelevant. A histogram shows groups 1 & 2 combined is n=8, group 3 also n=8, and group 4 is n=5. Much better to have a bigger group 2 to balance out group 3 and drown out group 4. This is why I like big classes. This small class is an extraordinary management challenge.

And so, I find myself wondering constantly about when or where to jump in or pile on. Not obviously, not in the “stepping in because Arthur can’t cope” manner, so that the kids would notice. But this would be a hard class for anyone to teach. What to do when he doesn’t wrap it up in a way that will hit it home, get the kids to see what they’ve been doing, give them a mental link to access the next day? What to do when I can see the kids aren’t attending, that he’s explaining too much? Meanwhile, both Arthur and I can both see that a couple of the unmotivated are just itching for a chance to cause trouble, say that they’d be doing great if it wasn’t for the dumb new student teacher.

Which brings up another issue, one that I’m also quite conscious of: how do parents feel about their kids being subjected to a trainee? Then I think about TFA trainees, who don’t have an experienced teacher in the room, and I feel better. Back at ed school I knew cases of parental complaints about a classmate taking over that led to….difficulties. From the parent’s point of view, the training teacher as damaging their child’s learning experience. From everyone else’s point of view, the student was using the newbie teacher as a scapegoat, and that was indeed usually the case. But my school doesn’t often train student teachers, and I don’t want to have that complaint aired.

And then, there’s the problem of my curriculum. Specifically, much of it is in my head. I’m not an easy teacher to learn from; my skills lie in explanation and seemingly random curriculum development. I can’t give Arthur a textbook and tell him to check out chapter 6 to pick some lessons to run. He can’t anticipate what I’m going to do; half the time I’ve just decided it the night before.

As he’s taken over more of the planning, we’ve found a routine. I’ve told him what topics I want him to cover. He researches and develops a lesson. I offer suggestions and changes. Mostly, EXPLAIN LESS. Either give them foolproof tasks to do, or do it together with explicit instructions. But no lecture, here’s a worksheet, go. Not just because I don’t like it, but because (and he sees this readily) the class can’t handle it and sits around doing nothing.

In addition to curriculum development, he’s getting a solid course in teaching delivery. My own advice to him often sounds like stage direction: “Work the room. Own it. Make your presence bigger.” and he has really done well in that regard, becoming more expansive and performance-oriented, while not distorting his natural style. I just closed up a lesson for him a couple days ago, and he said he’d finally started to grasp what I meant about punching the finish, closing with a big picture, not a repeated explanation. So there’s that.

Since I’m not a planner, to put it mildly, I sought out a new teacher I’d previously mentored (the second one in that essay), and asked what he did to plan. His method struck me as very sensible, so I sent Arthur to him for some consultation. This was a resounding success, so now Arthur has another resource.

Do other teachers have this problem? Or do they hand over curriculum, either pre-developed or in textbook form, and just let the student teacher prepare in advance? Maybe I should just tell Arthur teach from the book. But he doesn’t want to, and his ed school is actually quite happy that he’s working with a curriculum developer. Besides, Arthur does pretty well. He’s made improvements to my switch and stay game that were so sensible I instantly adopted them. He picks good model problems.

Anyway. I leave the room at times when I see things are going well to give him full authority. Other times, as mentioned, I “close up” for the lesson, to illustrate key issues or transition to the next day’s work, with him turning it over to me. I film him other times, which forces me to shut up.

These issues are never really discussed, and maybe they don’t have to be. Why should parents be alarmed at having a student teacher, when they might have a TFA candidate with no training, or a bad first year? For the most part, I subdue my classroom control freak tendencies, and Arthur runs the room. I’ll keep getting better at it. And he sez that he’s learning a lot, so there’s that.

Another really, really important thing for student teachers to understand about their apprenticeship: student teaching has an incredibly wide range of acceptable outcomes, provided the cooperating teacher doesn’t complain or in some way declare the student teacher unacceptable. If the CT rejects the student teacher, it’s game over. Even if the CT is a jerk. Even if the CT is wrong. Even if the ed school agrees that the CT is a total jerk entirely in the wrong.

Timing is everything in student teaching. An approved stint has to happen in that semester, in that quarter, in that pre-determined time period. If it doesn’t happen then, consider the impact the equivalent of the damage a Mack truck does to a bunny rabbit. The student teacher has to pay for another quarter, has to find another teacher, and oh, by the way, usually has to delay graduation. There’s really no equivalent in anything other than maybe med school with no appeals system. Student teaching is required–ironic, in a world where schools pay a premium to hire TFA.

Student teaching is one of the few genuine apprenticeships left in the modern workforce. Even before unpaid internships got a bad name, we all know they weren’t really about learning the job. But even the worst student teaching gig with an obnoxious cooperating teacher and unwilling students gives the candidates some small sense of the job. Without question, some gigs are better than others. But life twas ever thus.

My advice to teaching candidates is keep your head down, don’t complain, recognize your near complete powerlessness and if you sense any weirdness early on, do your best to find someone else before you’ve lost too much time. Because most cooperating teachers, like me, can’t imagine rejecting a student teacher for anything other than outright cruelty. We know it’s a rite of passage. We want to help.

Yes, it is an oddness.

Why would I approve a student teacher in almost case? I remember my own (excellent) cooperating teacher saying that the really important thing was that the kids loved me and thinking yeah, fine, but so what? And now here I am, watching a fifty-something Chinese immigrant pay a metric ton of money for the right to get up every morning, put in 4 hours a day at an unpaid practicum, and explain geometry to generally uninterested and unmotivated adolescents and you have to know what I’m thinking, right? I’ve actually said this, to others: “Arthur’s doing okay, making progress, but the really important thing is that the kids like him.” Now that I’m a teacher, watching someone learn the job, the empathy and connection needed for this job stand out starkly.

Most everything else, you’ll learn. Or quit, leaving little damage behind.


The SAT is Corrupt: Reuters Version

Dear Renee Dudley, Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Irene Jay Liu,

As someone who has studied and written extensively about the SAT corruption and the fraud delivery system known as Asian test prep , I congratulate you on the thorough job exposing the College Board’s open courting of corruption for profit in the overseas SAT market.

I’m not a reporter, just a teacher who does pretty good research, but for what it’s worth I think you did an outstanding job on many aspects of the story. I offer these suggestions (and one correction) with some disagreement, but little criticism (and lord knows, I can criticize).

The College Board Was Aware Long Before 2013
Your article strongly suggests time and again that the College Board learned that Asian test prep companies had obtained the tests by May 2013. In fact, the College Board knew that the test had been corrupted by January 2007, when it cancelled the scores of all 900 South Korean testers. It was common knowledge at the time that the College Board recycled old tests. The AP story doesn’t mention hagwons, and shows a touching faith in the CB’s assurance that kids couldn’t possibly benefit from seeing the test again. However, the College Confidential forums were very clear that the source of the test was a hagwon, not some “accidental exposure”. I worked for Kaplan and a major US hagwon at the time (only taught SAT at Kaplan) and my hagwon boss told me all about the methods Korean test prep companies used to get the “held back” tests.

So the College Board has known for at least nine years and probably longer that Asian international testers were cheating.

More Context on Cheaters

Your reporting begins with Xingyuan Ding, a Chinese national now attending ULA, who scored an 800 on the SAT Critical Reading section. Ding claims that “about half” of the answers on the reading section were in his “jijing”, or answer key.

That’s highly unlikely. While I understand the need for objectivity, some context would be useful. An 800 on the reading section is a 99th percentile score, meaning 99% of the testers receive a lower score. Even among Asians, it’s a 98th percentile score. So how likely is it that a Chinese national got that score?

Your reporting also mentions Linfeng Liu, another Chinese student who tested in Hong Kong, who says that she was “helped” by recognizing five—just five!—vocabulary questions, which enabled her, she said, to focus more on reading comprehension. Her overall score isn’t mentioned, but again, how likely is it that she cheated “just a little bit”?

Information that would have helped give context. Were these interviews conducted in Chinese or in English? How fluent was Ding, the 800 SAT critical reading guy, in English? How were these students doing in their classes?

Another related issue: In your FAQ, you mention repeatedly that just seeing the questions, not the answers, would still constitute a major advantage. That’s true. However, the story gives the impression that seeing the questions provides the primary, even sole, advantage to the students. This is almost certainly not true, and while that statement may be too strong, I think you tilt too far the other way. These are Chinese and Korean nationals with very weak English. A preview of the reading passages isn’t going to give them a big advantage. The answers do. Whether they’ve memorized long sequences or just have them handily tucked into a cell phone, the Chinese kids you interviewed almost certainly had the answers.

Cheating: It’s Not Just In China Anymore
Your reporting revealed that Asian test prep companies sent employees over here:

Sanli, the Chinese test-prep chain, says it sent 11 teachers to the United States to collect information on the redesigned exam. They debriefed 40 Sanli students studying at U.S. high schools who took the new SAT as they exited test centers, according to Wu, the general manager. Sanli presented its findings at a seminar at a Shanghai hotel.

(emphasis mine)

Heavens, that’s interesting. I did not know this. So are these Sanli students “Asian Americans”–born here, or immigrant children of long-time residents–or are they “Asian nationals” over here on F1 visas? As you probably know, Chinese students are flooding US public high schools whenever they can and US Christian private high schools when they can’t (due to the 1-year restriction), with our Beijing embassy eagerly courting more. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of F1 high school visas grew from 1,700 to 80,000, the vast majority of them Chinese or South Korean.

So when you report that Asian test prep companies are using “their” students to gain SAT knowledge to enable cheating, are they F-1 students on visas? Or are they Asian Americans who enroll with these test prep companies?

Of course, the College Board is not reusing national tests–at least, not often—which raises another question: what advantages do the Asian test prep companies offer Asians living in the US?

Your story hints at possibilities here:

Eight of the 10 existing Mathematics Level II subject tests were compromised – three in their entirety and five in part, including two exams that had never been given anywhere, the PowerPoint shows. Ten of the 13 Biology exams were also compromised in whole or in part, including one totally new test.

I’ve written on this before as well; Asian test prep companies have certainly used corrupt school administrators to gain early access to tests.

So the story probably goes beyond the international cheating–as if that’s not enough. It’s pretty clear that Asian test prep companies are getting early versions of tests. Given the College Board’s lax procedures, the leak may be from within the company.

What About the ACT?

You mention that the SAT dominates in the international market; my own research confirms that the ACT’s international presence is minimal. My understanding is that the SAT only recycles tests for the international sitting.

So what does the ACT do? Does the ACT recycle tests? What is the relative size of the two markets? If the SAT is the only test with a significant international presence, could it possibly be due to the fact that international testers have access to early copies? The overwhelming bulk of international testers are Asian or Middle Eastern, all countries with culture of cheating that Americans can barely comprehend.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. But getting the ACT’s procedure would be a useful comparison point. Your story acknowledges the fact that ACT is the national leader, but apparently SAT’s touchstone status causes reporters to forget that and ignore the market king’s methods. (OK, that was a tad snarky.)

David Coleman Stonewalls

You know how reporters say [so and so] refused repeated requests to comment? You apparently only asked David Coleman to comment once.

David Coleman is a celebrity in the world of education reform. He is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, for Common Core standards. He took over the helm at the College Board in 2012–that fact alone should be mentioned, should it not? Presumably he was present, along with other “senior College Board staff” at the meeting with the Power Point slides in June 2013.

It’s not really your fault. But it’s over a day since your story came out, and not a peep from the College Board, much less Coleman. Couldn’t you have at least said “repeated requests”? Or did you only ask once?

National Interests

But like all reported stories I’ve seen on Asian cheating of the SAT, there’s no connection to the larger interests involved.

As your story mentions, many public and private universities are recruiting foreign students who are mostly from China and South Korea, even though the students are cheating on applications and tests, lying about their grades and resumes. Keep in mind that universities get tax breaks and other federal funding and public universities were chartered to serve the educational needs of their states.

Meanwhile, the SAT is moving outside its old beat as a college admissions test into a high school graduation test. Several states have committed use the SAT as a graduation requirement. Several states have switched from the ACT, which focuses on American students, to the SAT, which manifestly does not.

This isn’t just an issue for worried parents of college applicants. The College Board encourages and benefits from international criminal racketeering organizations that engage in immigration and mail fraud while enabling colleges to pretend they are accepting qualified applicants when in fact the colleges know full well their applicants lied. It collects money from multiple state contracts for a test product they can’t be bothered to spend money protecting from those organized criminal enterprises. State and private universities knowingly consume a fraudulent information product in order to fatten their coffers, all the while benefiting from tax-exempt status at both the federal and state interest.

Should the College Board be allowed to sell state contracts given its knowing participation in organized crime? Should our tax dollars be spent on universities if they are no longer acting in the public interest? Reasonable people can undoubtedly disagree on these questions. But surely they should at least be raised.

I want to emphasize again how pleased I am at your story and that while I had the above quibbles, overall it really was an excellent, thoroughly reported piece. I hope Reuters pushes it harder; you guys should be on TV, talking about this. Feel free to use my “national interest” take when you’re on the air.

All the best,

ER


Great Moments in Teaching: When Worlds Collide

I’m on vacation! I actually took a whole half day off to add to my spring break, spent a couple days with my grandkids (keep saying the phrase, it will get more real in a decade or three), then embarked on an epic road trip through the northwest. My goal to write more posts is much on my mind–despite my pledge, I’ve only written 10 posts this year. But I’ve gotten better at chunking–in years past, I would have written one “teaching oddness” post, rather than three.

So this new semester, new year, has already seen some teaching moments that are best thought of as crack cocaine, a hit of adrenaline that explodes in the psyche in that moment and every subsequent memory of it, the moments you know that all those feel-good movies about teaching aren’t a complete lie. Not all moments are big; this one would barely be noticed by an outsider.

I was explaining slope to one of my three huge algebra 2 classes, the most boisterous of them. Algebra 2 is tough when half your kids don’t remember or never learned Algebra 1, while the rest think they know all there is to know, which is y=mx+b and the quadratic formula (no understanding of what it means or how to factor). Meanwhile, my recent adventures in tutoring calculus (be sure to check out Ben Orlin’s comment) has increased my determination to improve conceptual understanding among my stronger students, even if my weaker ones get a tad bored.

“I want you to stop just thinking of slope as a number, something you can only get by looking at two points, subtracting y1 from y2, then x1 from x2. The simplest way to start this process is to consider the slope triangle, which I know a lot of you use to find the slope, but don’t really think about.”

“But think of slope as represented by an actual right triangle. The legs represent the relative change rates of the horizontal and vertical (the x and the y). The hypotenuse is the slope. You can see the rate of change. It’s not just a number. Evaluate slopes by their triangles and you can see the ratio in action.”

I’m skipping over some discussion, some give and take. As I drew pictures, I “activated prior knowledge“, elicited responses as to what slope was, what the slope-intercept form represented, etc. But this was pretty close to pure lecture. I can read the audience–they’re not hanging on every word, but they get it, I’m not preaching to snoozers.

“How many of you remember right triangle trigonometry last year, in geometry?” A few hands, mostly my top kids.

“Come on, SOHCATOA?”

“Oh, yeah, that stuff” and most hands go up.

“So when I teach right triangle trig, I do my best to beat into your heads that the trig identities are ratios. Trigonometry is, in fact, the study of the relationship between the ratios of triangle legs and the triangle’s angles.”

“And that means you can think of the slope of a line in terms of its trigonometric ratio. Take a look at the triangle again, but now use your geometry lens instead of algebra.”

slopetriangletan

“The slope of a line is rise over run in algebra. But in geometry, it’s opposite over adjacent. The slope of a line is identical to the slope triangle’s tangent ratio.”

“Holy SHIT.” Every head turned around to the back of the room (where the top kids sit), where Manuel, a big, rumpled, exceptionally bright sophomore was staring at my board work.

I smiled. Walked all the way to the back of the room, to Manuel’s desk, tapped it lightly. “Thanks. That means a lot.” Walked back all the way to the front.

Remy smiled knowingly. “That was like some sort of smart-people’s joke, right?”

“Naw,” I said. “His worlds just collided.”

I could do a bit more, explain how I followed up, but no. You either get why it’s great, or you don’t.

<mic drop>


Arizona’s Experience and the Tale It Tells

As always, my response to the WSJ story on Arizona’s economy post-illegal-alien crackdown, as it plunged from fifth to ninth of the states with the largest illegal population is delayed. I’ve been sick, there’s this whole election thing, and I write slow. But the whole article is perfect blog bait, touching on most of my favorite issues.

In brief, the article lays out a surprisingly even-handed examination of the impact. Arizona’s economy took a hit due to the law, legal unskilled employment declined slightly, and businesses catering to immigrants took a big hit. On the other hand…and there were a lot of other hands. The article hit big when it came out, but then mostly disappeared.

While the article was good at broad outlines, I found it frustrating in parts, as the reporters accepted a number of conditions at face value.

Government data on cost of non-citizens is, er, discouraged.

pinning down exactly how much [illegal immigration] costs the state, and how much is collected from illegal immigrants through taxation, is surprisingly hard to do…. and…government spending on immigrants fell. State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.

So, for example, when Alabama tries to figure out how many illegal immigrants are attending public schools, a federal appeals court ruled the effort unconstitutional and the state was forced to abandon the effort in a settlement, because fear of registration “significantly deters undocumented children from enrolling in and attending school”. The citizenry can’t be allowed to know the impact of federal failure because the lawbreakers might be scared. (These same parents usually sign up for the migratory education act, of course, without fear.) About 1 in 20 K-12 students isn’t a native, but we only guess based on a census every ten years.

The government refuses to collect data on immigration costs, the better to fail to provide it. The government thinks it knows better than the people–not unlike certain political parties I could name. The courts give cover, pretending that immigrants might be afraid to demand services if we collect data on the services they demand.

I would like to see a reporter push on this point. Why can’t the citizenry get a clear number of certain expenses? How many children of illegal immigrants are receiving services? What level of proof is required to prove eligibility?

Instead, the reporters tend to shrug and talk about how hard it is to get data.

The easy hiring days of yore

This comment is incredibly revealing:

[Before the Arizona law, an employer said,] “I could pull out phonebooks where I had 300 or 400 guys’ numbers” to create working crew….[Now] “you have to put out feelers, buy ads, go on Craigslist, tap job agencies, just to get a few men….Growth is based on the ability to hire.”

The contractor is annoyed because he doesn’t have a ready labor supply. Yeah, dude, welcome to normal circumstances. ‘Twas ever thus. That’s why we have HR departments. That’s why in corporate America as well as the teaching world, bosses are often reluctant to fire. Finding workers is expensive and time-consuming. Employers that have to invest time and energy in finding employees tend to be reluctant to easily fire them.

But the flood of unskilled immigration has blinded the contractor to normal hiring conditions. He’s completely unmoored by the need to put even a slight effort into finding good employees.

The constant stream of cheap labor has atrophied some employers’ hustle and distorted their understanding of real world employment conditions. They’re so spoiled that they whine about having to use ads and Craigslist. Then they complain that they can’t get natives to do the same work, not even for slightly higher pay.

How is this bad news? Employers who can’t pay enough to make the jobs they offer worthwhile should have to work to find employees. They should not to get special visas for cheaper workers eager for life in easier America—much less hire illegal workers who politicians will then refuse to deport.

Employers don’t have a right to employees any more than employees have a right to jobs. Illegal immigration has utterly wrecked the mindset of entire industries: construction, agriculture, landscaping, hotels, restaurants. No one has the right to easy, cheap labor.

And yes, in many cases it may turn out that ending illegal immigration will end a lot of jobs , as Adam Ozimek once wrote. Many employers will automate, just as Rob Knorr the jalapeno farmer chose to do.

But the story does no comparison of these employer complaints to other industries, or ask if they’d invested in efforts to build up an employee pipeline. At no point do the reporters consider whether the employers’ expectations might be unreasonable.

Nor do the reporters follow up on the fact that illegal workers are still getting jobs.

“E-Verify is a problem for us,” Mr. Castillo [an illegal alien] said. “We can work for a week. It takes that long for the paperwork. Then we’re out.”

E-Verify needs to be more of a problem.

Bye bye immigration surplus

Economic activity produced by immigrants–what economists call the “immigration surplus”–shrank because there were fewer immigrants around to buy clothing and groceries, to work and to start businesses. ….In Latino neighborhoods, sales declined at grocery stores and other businesses catering to migrants.

Other stories document the hit taken by businesses catering to Hispanics. I wonder how much of the unskilled labor employment hit was connected to jobs lost due to the “immigration surplus”? If so, wouldn’t that be inevitable? Fewer immigrant grocery stores, fewer grocery store clerks. Population decreases mean fewer jobs.

I’m sorry, but ending illegal immigration will inevitably lead to a population decline, at least at first. “My business strategy is immigrant-dependent” is not a compelling reason to give up restriction. The nifty little Mexican market that makes awesome burritos will have to rely on gringo purchases. I’ll do my part, I promise. If Western Union has to close down 90% of its offices when remittances dry up, some people are going to lose their jobs, and the stock’s going to take a hit. I understand it’s hard on the stockholders and the job holders. But they can investigate business opportunities that don’t rely on criminal disregard for employment law.

I thought the article did a good job revealing this information, but shouldn’t the article have observed that any population drop will result in lost business?

An earlier study by Sarah Bohn et. al (the researchers quoted in the piece), Lessons from the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act, offers up another interesting impact caused by “immigration surplus”:
wsjppistudy1

Many people assume that the lower skill workers who are affected by immigration are all white, or maybe black. But of course, many of them are Hispanic with a “skill” that white and black low skill workers lack: the ability to speak Spanish.

If employers can easily communicate with workers without translators, then job opportunities for translators are “immigration surplus”. I’m good with that, and the fact that some workers are hurt because Spanish-speaking is no longer a bonus is great news. Low-skilled Hispanics, blacks, and whites can compete on an equal basis.

Hispanic legal workers are hit not only because their legal status and bilingual abilities, but because of the restrictions themselves, something the LAWA research confirmed:

wsjppistudy2

Translated, this seems to be saying that many Hispanics are here legally, but have trouble proving it, or decide to leave because they’d rather not prove it. This argument isn’t new, but it’s also not a reason to stop enforcing employment laws.

Real-estate agent Patti Gorski says her sales records show that prices of homes owned by Spanish-speaking customers fell by 63% between 2007 and 2010….At the Maryvale Market, in an immigrant community of ranch homes, Ashok Patel says his business is down by half since 2008.

Notice the name Ashok Patel? There’s also a Vietnamese owner quoted in the 2010 article, owner of a 99 cent story, too. Arizona’s Asian immigrant population is booming–and so Asian immigrants are complaining that Arizona’s enforcement is interfering with business.

If restricting illegal immigrants makes America less attractive to potential immigrants eager to come here and exploit lawbreakers, how is that a bad thing? I would have liked to see the story mention that legal immigration growth in Arizona has continued, and what industries or areas of business they dominate.

Fewer people, cheaper rent?

Wait, did someone mention occupancy rates?

wsjppistudy3

If rental vacancies increase, don’t rents decrease?

Well, hey now. And take a look here, too: Phoenix Arizona Residential Rent and Rental Statistics . Graphs and tables, even.

Rents declined significantly during this period, probably because of the rental vacancies caused by Arizona’s law. There’s a significant point the WSJ article didn’t exactly play up.

So while low-skilled natives might not have all improved their employement prospects, many of them were able to live cheaper until they did find a job. Affordable housing for natives. What a concept.

Education. Remember education? This is a blog about education

State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.[see what I mean about not reporting immigrant expenses?]…But the number of students enrolled in intensive English courses in Arizona public schools fell from 150,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2012 and has remained constant since. Schooling 80,000 fewer students would save the state roughly $350 million a year, by one measure. During that same period, annual emergency-room spending on noncitizens fell 37% to $106 million, from $167 million. And between 2010 and 2014, the annual cost to state prisons of incarcerating noncitizens convicted of felonies fell 11% to $180 million, from $202 million.

The economic factor is huge in terms of what it saves Arizona taxpayers,” primarily on reduced education costs, says Russell Pearce [the law’s sponsor].

(emphasis mine)

Look at that. Reducing immigration saves money on education. The Arizona experiment proves that reducing immigration cuts immediate education costs–and that’s without factoring in the reduced pension burden.

Despite the usual GOP rhetoric about greedy teacher unions, merit pay, and ending tenure (blissfully absent this election, did you notice?), the Republicans have signed on whole hog for all the educational extras. High standards for all, despite remedial level students. Legally mandated special education and English Language Learner services.

All services are guaranteed to all students, citizen and immigrant, legal and illegal, courtesy of the let’s-keep-it-tied-up Supreme Court and Congress. All services are costly, and have very little evidence demonstrating effectiveness. And most of all, all those services require teachers.

Few folks outside the teaching “business” really grasp that hiring teachers is the pain point, not firing them. While the teacher shortage talk may be overblown, it nonetheless exists.

Teachers require higher than average IQs (particularly for high school academics), college degrees, clean records, verbal facility and a tolerance for young folk. Teaching offers inflexible schedule, limited potential for career growth, and work that’s utterly resistant to productivity improvement. On the other hand, it offers generous (read expensive) benefits, and really great pensions. Not as good as cops, but still. It’s a huge occupation; the largest in America. Yet despite the regular pay increases and job security, feeding the great maw of K-12 education requires constant replenishment. Schools are constantly in search of teachers in most states.

States could spend a lot more on our neediest citizens if they weren’t footing the bill for remediation, English language, tutoring, free lunches, and all manner of special education services for non-citizens.

Wouldn’t it be nice if unskilled labors were a little harder to hire, and skilled teachers a little easier to find?

Here’s hoping more states undertake Arizona’s experiment.


Making Short Math Tests

A trig student told me he was hanging out with a group of friends, some who’d had me, some who hadn’t. One was bitching about his four page test.

My students snorted. “Ed’s tests are double sided single pages. Once we had a three page test, but only for the space.”

A debate ensued, and those with the widest range of math teacher experience agreed: My tests are shortest, and hardest.

I’m not sure what this means. I don’t try to make my tests difficult. But periodically I’ve perused other teachers’ tests off the copier, and…wow. They are four or five pages. The questions are straightforward. They are typically of what I would call rote difficulty–they could have peeled off a few pages of one of these tests. When math teachers snort about regurgitating algorithms, these are the tests they have in mind.

I used to have more traditional looking tests, but even back then I wasn’t an exact match for typical. Once I started down the multiple answer path, it became even easier to wander miles off the reservation. But without question, multiple answer tests make it easier to assess understanding on multiple topics—thus shorter tests.

This semester, I finally decided to start my class with a functions unit. Regular readers know that I’ve been beefing up my functions curriculum, after initially (as a new teacher) giving it a perfunctory treatment. But I still began the year with linear equations. This last semester start, though, I went back to the textbooks. Why do they always start with functions? I finally started to grasp the logic: beginning with functions allows the teacher to work with transformations, parent functions, mapping, as well as challenging algebra (solving for x in a square root or quadratic function, etc).

So I mapped out a basic plan:

  • Function definition: domain, range, criteria
  • Function notation
  • Transforming functions
  • Four parent functions (line, quadratic, square root, absolute value). I told them we’d be introducing lines to ignore them until the next unit.
  • Transforming parent functions.
  • Solving for input and output

I originally planned to introduce inverses, but the kids were maxed out. This was a much tougher first unit than linear equations, and a good chunk of the lower ability students were struggling with the abstractions. Generally, I was pleased.

Some new questions from my first functions unit test–which was a single page, double-sided.

ftgraphquest

Notice I slipped in a couple function notation questions? That’s how I save space.

Here’s a mapping question:

ftmapquest

Again with the function notation! Am I the only math teacher whose kids simply can’t compute the difference between “f(3) = ” and “If f(a) = 3, a=”???? I do my best to beat it into their heads.

Here’s another way I use space effectively, I think:

ftsqfunct

So a graph, some free-response algebra, and conceptual understanding. (Most of them DO NOT understand how to read graphs, and missed d.) Time and again, I had to show the students how to write the equation, but they are learning how to isolate. Relatively few order of operations errors.

I didn’t ask them to graph this next one, but again, practice at setting up an equation to find the input given the output. Another plus of doing functions early is an introduction to quadratics, which is a tremendously tough Algebra 2 unit.

ftquadquest

Hands down, this next question had the weakest response. The strongest students understood it, but many of the same students who were able to graph the square root were flummoxed by this one. Go figure. But again, notice that I assess several different knowledge areas with the same question.

ftabvalfunct

A New Quiz

I don’t usually discuss my quizzes, which are often relatively straightforward compared to my multiple answer assessments. But I created a quiz on Thursday that I’m really pleased with. It’s my second quiz for linear functions. The students have learned the three different linear forms. The first quiz covers slope intercept and standard form, which are the forms for modeling situations. This one focuses on point slope and creating equations from points, as well as parallel and perpendicular points. We actually did much more modeling of real-life situations than this quiz shows. Usually, my quizzes are a very reliable guide to what the students have done in the previous week, but this was an attempt to see how well they could transfer knowledge and work several concepts in combination.

The quiz itself, I think was cool. I stole the nuggets of two ideas from textbooks, but the presentation and questions are mine own.

lmcricketsquest

I’ve seen this crickets question in both Pearson and Holt Harcourt books. I built the graph on Desmos, and was dismayed that a number of kids counted the barely visible lines, rather than use the points. But most of them didn’t.

Notice that this is a relatively easy question. I didn’t want to focus on the algebra needed to find the y-intercept. I wanted them instead to look at the patterns (the 120 chirps is exactly halfway between 0 and 240), and think about what graphs say vs. what they mean. Most kids confused question c and d, explaining that the temperature was too cold for chirping, or that the crickets died. But after a few pushes, they go…”negative chirps?” which is fun.

Here, I’m just testing their fluency:

lmfluencyquest

Lots of room for self-correction. One student asked me why all her solutions were “Neither”, and I suggested that perhaps she should check her algebra, where she’d handled a negative value incorrectly. Other students plotted the points incorrectly and, because they were only able to find slopes from the graphs, couldn’t catch their mistake–thus giving me an opportunity to reiterate the importance of using different methods to validate and self-correct.

As part of the work leading up to this quiz, they’d derived the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm, given two points. I decided to give them the formula to see if they could recognize the errors in verbal description and work a solution using fractions.

lmcelsiusquest

And then my favorite:

lmhelicopterquest

I got the basic idea from my new favorite textbook series, Big Ideas Math, then played with the goals a bit. Big Ideas has wonderful scenarios.

As always, if you spot any errors or ambiguities, let me know.


Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

A couple weeks ago, I left halfway through the day after having felt awful for 3 days. I thought perhaps I needed another inhaler. The doctor yelled at me for ignoring a strep infection. I protested, went home, watched TV. Still contagious, I woke up super early, snuck into school, got the quiz ready, left notes for my student teacher, and then tried to request a sub before leaving but it was past the deadline. I didn’t follow the correct procedure, having never once called in sick before at this school. I did know to call the principal’s secretary, She Who Runs Everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and grovel for screwing up her day, since she’d have to hunt down the sub. She yelled at me, too. I went home again, watched TV. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to Not Teach when you hurt. Apologies, by the way, to any one who caught strep from me. I wasn’t being noble; most of the time I go to the doctor they tell me I’m not sick.

I have now taken 1.5 sick days in four years; 4 days total in 7 years. I have something like 60 accrued days. As I’ve said, handling the teacher perks took some adjustment.

And so, we come to Teaching Oddness #3.

In order to understand teaching and absences, consider the many ways in which teaching absences are profoundly different from any other profession’s:

  1. The teacher can’t make up the time.
  2. The teacher can’t swap an absence with a colleague.
  3. A school can’t “work short”. Each class has to have a legally authorized adult present. Therefore every teacher absence incurs a direct expense to cover that absence.
  4. The substitute is in almost every case not as good as the teacher.

Remember, teacher days are already extremely restricted.In most traditional schedule schools, teachers get no more than an hour off during the day, and even in block schedules the max time off is 90 minutes. We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement.

Does any other profession operate with these constraints? I don’t think so. Yes, employee absence often creates expense, but not in such a brutally one-for-one fashion.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a while back, but have always wanted to revisit.

So let’s take the Teacher A and Teacher B case and make it a bit clearer. Note: I’m adding in PD for days worked, and just using $100 for costs when it’s probably higher, but this is just for illustration. And knowing me, I screwed this up, so put any corrections in the comments.

  Teacher A Teacher B
Salary 63,000 63,000
Sick Days 10 0
Days Worked 172 182
Actual Daily Pay 366 346
Daily Sub/Admin Cost 100 0
Yearly Replacement Cost 1000 0
District Total Cost 64,000 63,000
Per Day 352 346

So on a yearly basis, Teacher A is paid more per day worked, and costs the district more per day worked. Teacher B gets to accrue the sick leave, meaning that he or she will ultimately get paid more for the unused time, and take it as either a cash buyout or a pension increase, depending on the state. I am ridiculously fuzzy on these details for my own state, and I should get on this, because for all I know I’m losing days by hitting an accrual limit.

Some facts generally agreed to: female teachers are absent more than male, high-poverty schools see more absences than low-poverty schools. Elementary school teachers are absent more than high school teachers. The Clotfelter analysis is still the best resource, I think.

Every so often, reformers argue that accrued sick leave is a calamitous pension expense; other times reformers complain about teacher absences. Chris Christie, in his various tangles with government workers, says sick leave should have no cash value”.

I mean, that’s just idiotic. Corporate America has largely ended paid sick leave precisely because employees know better. Of course sick leave has cash value. Look at Teacher A and Teacher B. Teacher B is working more days for the same money, despite costing the district less—and that’s without taking into account the learning loss accrued by the students of absent teachers. Why should Teacher B tolerate this inequity?

I understand the pension problem. I just don’t see how anyone can seriously propose a solution that values teachers who take their sick leave more than teachers who don’t, given the constraints. (Let’s stipulate that teachers with strep should take their sick leave.)

My personal solution, as a teacher who doesn’t get sick, is pay us a good bit more and then actually dock us slightly for absences–say, the cost of a sub and an administrative fee. And I mean, pay us a good deal more because Chris Christie, despite his Trump endorsement, is a moron if he thinks sick leave has no value for any employee, much less employees in a job requiring a legally authorized adult presence in every classroom.

That’ll go over big. I know.

But absent teachers cost more and negatively affect student learning. I’m not blaming sick teachers. It’s a benefit, so use it. And I haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that districts will use school days for professional development, instead of putting it after school or on weekends and pay teachers a bit more.

I get it. But any restriction of pension or sick leave accrual is hurting the teachers who cost less and maximize student learning. Restricting the payment for additional time on the job predictably would lead to all teachers using all their sick leave every year. We could shorten the school year, given the number of teachers who’d just take off for the last two weeks.

Either way, take away the accrual or some form of compensation, and much as I hate it, I’ll just get better at sub plans.

So next time you read a proposal or jeremiad on teacher absenteeism, please remember the constraints above. Ask yourself what you’d do if someone was getting paid for fewer days on the job than you, without penalty—and all you had to do in order to get the same deal was take more days off.


Curriculum Development: Not Work for Hire

I chopped off part of my last piece to expand more on teacher intellectual property, a topic near and dear1.

The conventional wisdom (which Stephen Sawchuk nicely outlines in the last part of this piece) holds that teachers are district employees, so any curriculum, lessons, or tests are considered work for hire . The teacher is paid specifically to develop the curriculum by the district, so the district owns the copyright and any subsequent profits from all of their teachers’ work—tests, worksheets, lesson plans, sequencing, whatever. .

In theory, my district could force me to pull down my posted curriculum from this blog—since I don’t own the copyright, I don’t have the right to give it away for free. Sites like Teachers Paying Teachers are illegal in this view, since teachers are making profits off their district’s property.

Originally, a teacher’s work was exempted from the work to hire rule, but in 1978 Congress didn’t include the exemption. Teachers’ unions have been trying to get the exemption reinstated.

Not for the first time, I’d argue the unions are going about this in exactly the wrong way. The exemption is unnecessary. Teachers aren’t hired to write curriculum. We are hired to teach. I’ve now outlined three well-established, time-honored practices that support this interpretation.

  1. Teacher contracts spell out their time commitments, which are the time in the classroom, staff and department meetings, supervisories, and mandatory professional development. No contracts hold teachers responsible for developing their own curriculum. A teacher is welcome to teach day by day from a provided textbook, or eschew a textbook altogether. They are not evaluated on the strength of their curriculum development in any way, nor can they be required to improve performance on this point. (More about this here.)

  2. While districts have begun to claim copyright, districts have never paid each other for teacher-developed curriculum. I have been in three districts. Like all teachers, I have a directory of my own curriculum, and I’ve carried it from school to school without any district ever informing me I couldn’t–much less demanding payment from my new district for use of their copyrighted curriculum.

    This practice, which has gone on for generations, clearly demonstrates that districts don’t consider themselves owners of the teacher curriculum. So if they want to ban a teacher from selling it, they need to start seizing the curriculum from teachers who developed it. Good luck with that.

  3. As I recently wrote, teachers given the extra duty of a class are paid purely based on the class instruction time, not the additional time (or not) needed to develop curriculum for that class. I’ve written before that teacher preps, or number of subjects actually taught, impact teacher workload. Teaching three different classes would be considerably more work, for most teachers, than teaching the same class four (or six) times. Teaching large classes also impacts workload. The teacher with multiple preps but a free period could have a student load of 150, while the teacher who works the prep could have 120 students (6 classes of 20). Unlikely, but theoretically possible. Doesn’t matter. More preps, more students, more outside work: irrelevant. What earns teachers a significant premium is the number of scheduled classes they are responsible for.

No one ever listens to me, but I’d advise unions to look for a good test case to challenge the work-for-hire idea, rather than argue for a change to copyright law, on the grounds that existing practice has acknowledged teacher intellectual property for decades. Certainly, the district should never be required to pay for the teacher’s work product in later years, should receive automatic use of anything developed during the teacher’s term of employment. But any rights in the curriculum we develop is our own.

I’ve often seen reformers–and other teachers—bemoan the notion of teachers who go home right after school everyday, clearly implying that the extra work developing lesson plans and curriculum is an element of our salary. But this simply isn’t true.

Besides, we don’t have any real idea of what makes a good teacher. Some of us work hours after school, some leave right after. No teachers who spend hours crafting curriculum, be it handouts, lesson plans, or tests, have any guarantee that they are getting better results. What they do know is that they are creating, creating without pay, and what they create should be theirs.

Here, again, acting works well as an analogy. Two actors are cast in a play, given supporting roles with an equivalent number of lines. They are both paid “scale” (whatever that is). The first actor spends six hours a day outside of rehearsal, practicing and perfecting the role, trying out different readings. The second actor barely makes it to rehearsal because he’s busy auditioning for a movie, doesn’t put any time into preparation.

They both would be paid scale for rehearsal and performance hours. The first actor wouldn’t be paid for the additional hours. The second actor might, in an unfair world, receive more acclaim and audience approval despite his lackluster approach.

But neither of them would be precluded from re-using aspects of their performance in later roles. The studied wince. The knowing sneer. The warm beaming smile, the turn and rapid delivery. Their performances were the result of work-for-hire. The script, like the textbook, belongs to someone else. The manner and method they use to deliver the performance are entirely theirs.

I ran into our union rep, an excellent English teacher, in the copy room. We began by chatting about class size (I’m teaching three massive A2 classes, which has given me some sympathy for the limits) and for various reasons (no doubt because this was on my mind), we got around to curriculum development.

“I wonder why the union doesn’t realize that we aren’t paid to develop curriculum? They don’t really need to change the copyright act to give teachers ownership of their work.”

“Or to give everyone ownership,” she said instantly. “There’s good reason to believe that no one’s work is truly original, that everything is derivative.”

Oh, lord. A CopyLeft fan. If our conversation had been Twitter based, I would have been properly contemptuous, but she’s a colleague and really very smart (she knew about the 1978 Copyright Act!) and besides, on this issue, I am actually seeking to persuade so I bite back my first response.

“Yeah, I ‘ve never agreed on that. But can we agree, at least, that whether teachers own their work or everyone owns their work, that the district doesn’t own our work?”

“Oh, absolutely. In order to give it away, we need the rights to it.”

So to the many loopy committed Creative Commons, Open Source, everything is derivative folks, can I just ask that we put aside our differences long enough to get the union to argue our case?

********************************************
1I’ve been writing about teacher IP and curriculum development for four years, as long as this blog’s been around–that’s in addition to many, many posts on my actual curriculum development. Here’s the primary pieces:

Teaching and Intellectual Property
Grant Wiggins
Developing Curriculum
Handling Teacher Preps
Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.


Teaching Oddness #2: Teach More, Get Paid More

Today, the topic is a teaching oddness I have taken regular advantage of. Like many teaching oddnesses, it exists primarily at the high school level.

High schools determine staffing requirements based on the number of sections the district gives them. The administrators divide the sections by the contractual class load—very often five, for six-period days. In our school, it’s three. (Yes, we teach three 90 minute classes and one 90 minute prep, and then we start all over again mid-year.)

So suppose our school has 192 sections and divides it by 3, meaning they need 64 full-time staffers, but they only have 62 teachers, so six sections are unassigned. Three of the extra sections are math, two English, one history.

Rather than hire extra teachers, the administrators just hand out the extra sections and we get paid for the extra work Some teachers don’t get paid very much more (this article actually shocked me). Others get paid on a schedule like this, stolen at random from an Irving, TX district:

assignedperiodpolicy

But every school I’ve worked at, the extra teaching duty pay schedule denominator is reduced by one. Teaching an extra class in a 6-period schedule results in a 1/5 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 7-period schedule results in a 1/6 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 4-block schedule results in a 1/3 pay boost. That’s what my principal told me, anyway, the first time I accepted the duty. I’ve never actually reviewed my paycheck on that point.

So I’ve been getting 33% over my usual pay for the past year, and for the upcoming semester. I’m in a high-paying district, and I have seven years experience, and a metric ton of education, putting me all the way over to the right column on step and column scale—and then there’s the Master’s bump. In addition, from what I understand, this does wonders for pension calculations. I’m doing my best to save most of it.

I’ve mentioned before that teachers can’t do overtime. In this we are like typical “professionals”, as in “non-hourly workers”. Our decisions on how and what to teach were our own, as were the hours we put into these tasks. We can do as much or as little as we like to deliver the class. As I wrote in Teaching and Intellectual Property (a topic that shall return), we get paid to deliver the class, not to create curriculum.

However, the delivery itself is beautifully quantifiable. We teach n classes a day for d dollars a day. So teachers have an excellent case: If we teach n+1 classes a day, the additional class will be paid d⁄n dollars. Left at issue is the actual dollar value of d , and the method of counting n.

In my district, n = classes in a standard schedule, while d = yearly salary. This is sublimely generous, and reflective of the fact that teachers in my area are hard to find and pretty expensive.

In other districts, n = periods in a standard day, while d = yearly salary. Still very generous, the only difference being that the “prep” period is counted as work time, I think. So instead of a 20% boost on a 6 period day, you get a 16+% boost.

In the horrifying district linked in at first, I’m assuming teachers are easily found and cheap. The fixed price suggests the district uses a different d, perhaps calculating the average cost of class delivery for all teachers. So these teachers get paid the same amount for the extra work, or perhaps the contractual per-diem hourly rate. Ick. (sez Ed, snootily.)

But in all cases, the teacher gets paid directly for the additional work. Cue the cries of “This isn’t how professionals operate.”

So I was a professional out in the world once, even working for corporations. And when professionals are handed additional work, it used to come with several implicit assurances:

  1. This will result in more money and an improved title somewhere down the line.
  2. This will result in an improved resume that leads to more money and an improved title at another company if option 1 doesn’t come true.
  3. This won’t result in anything other than more work. Be grateful for the job.

Back in my day, 1 and 2 held court; I’ve heard things have been different in my world since the dot com bubble crashed, in 2002 (I was still partially in, and rates definitely took a huge hit). Anecdotally, I don’t see many people, even in tech, comfortably in the driver’s seat these days. They’re happy to have a good job. That’s for college educated tech workers; in today’s world Amazon makes temp factory workers sign non-compete agreements for 6 months simply because they can. (it’s the immigration, stupid). That is, these days quite a bit of extra work is handed out without additional payment but merely the assurance that doing the work will save one’s job, for the time being.

Typically, Republicans point to the perks of government employment–such as the awful practice of getting paid for doing more work—as unions extracting unearned value for their workers.

But look at the list again, and realize that none of these in-lieu-of-pay offerings hold for teachers. We don’t want a promotion. We can pretty much teach whatever classes we have credentials for, so the resume add-ons don’t help much, and we can’t be fired for refusing to work extra hours for free because our employer is the government, baby, and it can’t deprive us of our property right in a job without a good cause, and working for free isn’t that cause. (Private employers can, apparently.)

Remember, too, that schools have to provide a properly credentialed teacher in every class and it becomes clear that in tight job markets, teachers have the upper hand when negotiating for “extra duty”. The district has a need, and teachers are in an outstanding position to make them pay full price for that need. In slack job markets, of course, not so much.

So when we are handed a certain form of more work, we are immediately paid more money in proportion to the demands made on our time. Cool beans. And definitely odd, I think, in the private sector.

Two observations arise out of this oddness.

First, reformers like Bill Gates or Fordham Foundation like to push the idea of giving teachers bigger classes–like, say, 4 or 5 more students per class, for more money.

These conversations never seemed reality-based, since they always begin with the premise that teachers have 20-22 students per class. I have three classes of 35 right now, and one class I literally call “tiny” at 20. But in any event, it’s become very popular to advocate changing base pay to a form of “merit” pay by giving teachers bigger classes.

Is it clear, once again, that reformers demonstrate bizarre ignorance of the actual logistics of staffing a school?

They’re calling for increased class size—in an age when parents unequivocally support smaller class sizes, data be damned—and a contractual change giving some teachers more money for taking more kids. Unions will oppose them tooth and nail for anything approaching merit pay, they’ll never get it anyway, and all to get “good” high school and middle school teachers about 20 more students a day, in a standard 6-period day. Elementary school teachers, just the 4 or 5.

Meanwhile, right now, on the books in most districts, exists a means of giving each “excellent” middle or high school teacher 25 to 35 more students, as well as a lot more money, without upsetting parents and increasing class sizes. No negotiations needed, no formalization of procedure–it’s there already. I am reasonably certain that principals already use “extra duty” as a way of rewarding high quality teachers interested in the money.

So are they ignorant? Probably. Would reformers start promoting “extra duty for excellence” if they had some small inkling of how staffing actually works? Probably not, since their goal, really, isn’t rewarding teachers but breaking contracts. But in any event, the next time a reformer pushes the idea, have this essay at the ready.

(Note: In the comments, Brett Gillan points out another problem with paying teacher by classload so obvious I could kick myself for not thinking of it. Namely, student load is not constant. I often end up with much smaller classes; students transfer to alternative school, go to a different district school, move, and so on. The higher the poverty level of the school, the more the variance.)

Second observation—well, on second thought (thanks to Roger Sweeney), I’m going to make this second thought a second post.


Teaching Oddness #1: Teacher’s Aides, HS Version

Do outsiders know what TAs are? I went looking for research on this point, and could find none. These descriptions aren’t accurate, and most of the rest refer to employed teacher aides.

Teacher’s Aide is a student elective “class” in which the student provides the teacher with free labor as needed.

I get a bit stalled here, because the same practice can be used for neutral or ill. Arguably, there’s no “good”.

Neutral: Why would any student sign up to be a gofer? It’s not for the resume value, I assure you. But high school students are required to take a full slate of classes, and electives are in limited supply. So at a certain point, a mid-tier student with a good GPA but every intention of going to a junior college is left with no appealing electives. Every semester, students with schedule holes have to find somebody to work for, or they’ll get stuck in an actual class with responsibilities and grades, a class they have no interest in taking.

Some of them are assigned to run errands for the front office, taking notes out to the teacher rooms and back for counsellor call-outs, direct mail delivery to students, getting a teacher’s signature on a document, whatever. But schools only need three or four office TAs.

The rest of the students beg teachers to take them on as either doorstops or free labor, in exchange for an A. Because TA jobs get graded, and any grade less than an A raises eyebrows. (Colleges exclude TA from GPA calculation.)

Admins spend some serious cycles on TA assignment. First, the notes come out telling us that no teacher can have two TAs per class. (Yeah, what? OK.) Then out comes the notes begging teachers to take some TAs that still don’t have assignments. Then, occasionally, a TA shows up at the door with an administrator and a question, “Can you use a TA?” and while the answer would otherwise be “No”, the administrator keeps asking until the teacher says “Yes”. Then hours are spent entering these into the schedule for attendance and assignment and transcripts.

I’ve concluded tentatively that the student TA system is both a significant source of free labor to teachers and schools, and a non-trivial burden for teachers and administrators when willing users of that free labor can’t be found.

Many teachers, those teachers who come in each day with their task list set a week, or a month, a year, or three years ago—these people with a plan, they love TAs. Good, yes, I have a million little tasks to be done. Grade this quiz I created three five years ago, then enter the test scores. Create my bulletin board decorations, using this design. These are the ones who have to be told they can’t have more than two TAs per class.

I’m the teacher who was forced, year one, to take a TA. The AVP showed up at my door, just as described above. I was 4 days into my first job, and already knew I had no use for a TA, especially when they told me I couldn’t use him for the single most essential task eligible for delegation: copying.

That’s the insane part: WE CAN’T USE THEM TO MAKE COPIES. Moreover, no one seems to think that, so long as we have all this student labor going begging, a COPY CENTER MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA. Nothing causes teachers more unforced stress than needing the copy machine when it’s broken or unavailable, thanks to a 20-teacher queue in the morning or lunch. A colleague and friend once took up lunch running 50 sets of 30 page documents. When a week later she announced her transfer, I told her she wouldn’t be missed. I wasn’t entirely joking.

What was my point? Oh, yes. So I had a TA year one who sat at my desk and surfed the web. He wasn’t a bad kid, although I can’t remember his name. His only responsibility was to sit in a nearby room during tests with my top kids, as my room wasn’t big enough to hold thirty kids and cheating was rampant. Pulling out the top kids ended that little game.

I don’t remember TAs being available at my next school, but I just texted a former colleague and will update this space.

My current school happily doesn’t pressure teachers to take TA, but who needs administrative pressure when students apply guilt? My first year at this school, one girl begged me to let her TA. She showed up late and texted each day. I vowed never to be suckered again. Except I did the next year, when a stoner begged me to let him TA my pre-calc class. He was worse than useless, but a better conversationalist than the girl, so there’s that.

But then, it all changed. Last year, Rufus, an exchange student and a top performer in my trig class, convinced me to let him TA, and then another favorite football player, Ronnie, begged me for a chance. I figured I may as well spend time with students whose company I actually did enjoy.

Rufus worked with my students, paying a little too much attention to cute girls, but with that exception, he was very good. Ronnie wasn’t as good in math and definitely liked distracting cute girls, but one day he volunteered to clean up my office space. Kid worked like a fiend, and no one recognized my room.

As I mentioned, Year 6 was busy and here, I have to break off a bit to explain something.

Full-metal, 4×4 block has killed my love of grading. We cover a year’s worth of instruction by the end of January. My assessments are difficult, and I’d rather give them less often, but I pretty much have to give a test or quiz every five or seven days to have grades for progress reports. Since I’m designing a new test system, I was spending much more time building and grading assessments already.

And that was before year 6, when I had two new subjects (trig and history) and three preps (subjects taught), four classes (no free prep period) and 110 students in the second semester.

My returned test lag time was now over a week, which really nagged at me. My work life was becoming something like create a test, created a key, grade a test, enter the grades, turn the test back, lather rinse repeat. Amd that’s without all the curriculum for the new classes. Mind you, this is a typical teacher complaint, but this is all work I typically enjoy. I was just running out of cycles.

Rufus was taking my history class as well as operating as my TA, and knew how slammed I was. He offered to grade. By this time, he’d proven himself reasonably trustworthy, so I decided to risk it. I’d create the key and the point system, have him grade a few samples, and then let him go.

Wow. Huge difference. I still reviewed the grading, adding or knocking off points, but time spent was cut from six to one hour. Rufus bragged to Ronnie (does this sound like Highlights?), who demanded he be trusted with grading as well.

Ronnie and Rufus provided the first really positive TA experience I ever had. I took them out for Starbucks at year-end, and am still in touch with both.

Last semester, Jacob, also from a previous trig class, asked if he could TA and I asked him if he minded grading. I worked Jake so hard I gave him cookies and Starbucks cards for Christmas, and told him I’d violate regulations to give him some service hours if he needed them. Jacob saved me dozens of hours. I couldn’t get over how I could use student labor to make my life easier.

This semester I have three, count ’em THREE, TAs: all previously successful students, all aware when they signed on that they’d be expected to grade or, occasionally, help students. I put one in each algebra 2 class.

I’m less conflicted about having three TAs cover the work than I was giving it all to Jake. While he didn’t seem to mind, I was bothered by the idea that one person was contributing so significantly to my workload reduction. Somehow three kids making life easier for me doesn’t seem as bad. When it was just Jake (heh) it took about 4 days to grade 50 tests, even with my working as well.

To illustrate how much they’ve decreased my workload, we’ve just done the cutover at mid-term, which is always tough. We have to both finish final grades while starting brand new classes with brand new kids. I’m teaching all four classes again, no prep, and 109 algebra 2 students, with another 20 in my geometry class.

I gave the first quiz on Tuesday. Each of the three TAs graded a class set, aand I had the grades in the book on Friday. Unreal. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have had that first quiz done for another week. Instead, I was able to review the tests, see who scored well on my pretest but tanked the function quiz, and vice versa. I’ve got time to redo seating, catch low scores early, call kids in to fix misconceptions. It’s great. My TAs also chide me on the state of my desk, and pressure me to collect all the papers and dump most of them, after review. I’m always worried I’ll toss something important.

I also enjoy talking to my TAs, who I chose because I liked and knew that I might be able to help in some way. I have at least once good talk with them a week, and advise them on college choices, course choices for the upcoming year, whatever.

But I can’t get over the fact that I’ve been freed from so much work without it costing me anything. I’m not alone, I know; many teachers brag about how much they turn over to TAs. I also remind myself that many teachers use scantrons and multiple choice tests. I spend substantial hours developing good tests, and I still review and evaluate all the tests before they are returned. I’m new to this; give me a few years and I’ll probably be one of those teachers griping I can only have two TAs a class.

So there’s the neutral use.

But the TA position can often be used to cover up scheduling shortfalls. As mentioned, schools are legally required to give students a full schedule of classes. In many struggling schools, the administration can’t keep enough teachers to offer all the classes needed, and so they use the TA slot as a stopgap. I very much doubt schools use this as a source of cheap labor for teachers, but many kids just can’t get the credits they need to graduate. I’ve mentioned before that the district controls the catalog; the catalog controls what can be assigned, so if a district offers “teacher’s aide” or “independent study” then they can use it to cover up a multitude of sins.

As I said, I can’t really make a “good” argument for TAing–at its best, it’s a way for kids to get out of taking a class and make some extra money by selling advance copies of tests. At its worst, schools use them to keep their doors open, rather than flatly refusing to fake it. We need more high schools refusing to take students, putting pressure on districts and states to address the problem.

Why is there so little data readily available about school’s “hidden work force”? Many tasks could undoubtedly be automated, particularly the office TAs. But then, strawberry farmers, schools will only automate when they lose cheap, free labor.


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