What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

The Glenn Show, Glenn Loury’s semi-monthly discussion show on blogging heads, is always outstanding and I watch most of them if I don’t discuss it here. Happily, a good chunk of his recent discussion* with Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College involved vocational education and at-risk student populations.

I’m going to criticize some points below, but the conversation is excellent. Cherry speaks passionately about his topic, and  Loury comes through every so often to summarize with an elegant clarity that’s one of his great strengths. If you don’t have the time to listen, here’s a transcript of the vocational education section, which I created to be sure I didn’t misrepresent anything.

One small point regarding the section on at-risk youth: Cherry goes on at some length about how at risk kids coming from weak, dysfunctional families experience violence, hunger, lack of love. This disruption and chaos profoundly affects their ability to perform academically and increases the likelihood they’ll act out, even strike out. He thinks high schools should spend resources and time understanding and assisting the stressed, traumatized youth come from, give them support, help them work through their trauma instead of merely disciplining them.

On behalf of Title I schools everywhere:  Um, dude, what the hell do you think we’re about? High schools spend as much time as they can understanding and getting help for their kids. We have psychologists at our school. Kids who feel stressed can go see their counsellors.  Teachers often know what’s going on with their kids, and we email key info to colleagues with the same students. Administrators do a lot of listening, a lot of bringing families in to discuss issues, a lot of calling in secondary support services.  Could we use more resources?  Sure. Would more resources improve outcomes?  I don’t know. But Cherry seems utterly clueless as to the vast array of substantial support high schools give now, which calls into question his certainty that such services would help.

Cherry then argues that at-risk students who struggle in school should be given short-term career training to immediately prepare them for jobs and income that will alleviate their stress. In this section he makes three points:

  1. “High school jobs are a thing of the past.” Teenagers don’t work anymore: only one in seven black teens has a job, just 2 in 7 white teens do.
  2. The reason teens don’t work anymore is because of the view that everyone must go to college.
  3. Colleges are inundated with unqualified or remedial students, but they have thus far been more likely to lower standards than discourage people from going to college, thus further discouraging any other development paths.

The first is a fact. The third is also true,  as I wrote in my last piece. But the second point is way off, and in important ways.

Cherry doesn’t mention relevant research on teen unemployment, although he often supports his comments elsewhere in the discussion with studies or data. But the employment drop  has been discussed  at some length for a number of years, with debates on whether the primary cause is supply or demand. Supply: teens aren’t working because they are taking summer school enrichment classes, working at museum internships,  jaunting off to Europe or maybe just doing homework imposed by teachers trying to get them to college.  Demand: teens face competition from other workers. So Cherry’s only proffered reason is supply-related. He thinks teen employment is down because academic activities are becoming more important to high school students, thanks to societal demands and pressures to go to college.

I’m deeply skeptical. First, on a purely anecdotal basis, the teens I know are eager to work, whether it’s full-time over the summer or part-time during the year. But employment requires a work permit, and permits often require acceptable GPAs**. I have had more than one student beg me to boost their grade so they can keep a  job or get a permit for a job offer.

Of course, the same students ineligible to work during the school year are then stuck in  summer school, retaking courses they still don’t care about.  Summer employment is a particular challenge for the same students who can’t get work permits during the year, for the same reason.

As I wrote earlier, high school students are failing classes at epic rates, and graduate requirements have increased. In our district, I see a disproportionately black and Hispanic summer school population repeating geometry, algebra, US History, English–and every August, they have a summer school graduation ceremony for the seniors who couldn’t walk in June because they hadn’t passed all their required courses.(Remember Michael Brown of Ferguson had just graduated a day or two before he was shot in August? That’s why.)

Rich kids of all races might be going off to Haiti to build houses instead of working. Asian kids, particularly Chinese and Koreans, are almost certainly not working because their parents won’t allow it. The days of supporting mom and dad in the business are mostly over, at least where I live. Chinese and Korean parents, particularly those who just got here, go  into debt, borrow money from back home, and send their kids to hundreds of hours a year in private instruction. But it’s not schools pushing them into this activity. (Schools, if anything, try to discourage this obsessive devotion to academics.)

But rich kids and certain Asian demographics aside, the average teen, particularly those from disadvantaged families, cares considerably more about financial remuneration than academic enrichment.  If teen employment has decreased dramatically and academic activities are taking up any bit of that time, the first thought should not be “Oh, they’re just being encouraged to value academics so they can go to college” but “Oh, they aren’t being allowed to work because they’re failing required classes.”

Teen employment is not a “thing of the past” because teens have decided not to bother with it. They face significant, intentional policy barriers that preclude employment. Most students want jobs.  Cherry implied that teens considered employment passé. That’ s not my experience and the data doesn’t support that interpretation.

Surprisingly, Cherry doesn’t even mention the possibility of demand-related drops. If you could CTRL-F the conversation, as Steve Sailer says, “immigra” would return a “not found”.  Neither Loury or Cherry mention that constant increases in low-skilled immigration would present competition for teenage workers.***

Which is odd, because there’s all sorts of research on plummeting teen employment, and  immigration is often identified as the culprit.   Christopher Smith, on the Federal Reserve Board of Governers, has two papers precisely on point.

The first,  The Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Employment Market has this conclusion:

CSmithresearch1

The second, written a year later, examines the degree to which the decline might be to other factors–was it immigration, or the displacement of adults from better paying jobs, or is it the push for college? From Polarization, immigration, education:

teenempresearch
Notice it’s 3.5 or more for demand issues–immigration, increasing competition in low-skill market (which is just another way of saying increased  immigration)–and 3 at most for supply factors–things like summer school or other educational opportunities.

Remember, too, that if employers have a choice, they prefer adults devoted to working as many hours as possible with no parents or schools hovering in the background. So  teens  are competing against ever increasing supplies of low-skilled immigrants–and thus more adult low-skilled workers generally–and competing from the bottom of the desirability index, too.

Cherry talks about the “current push” to send everyone to college, suggesting the push is a recent development. As Kevin Carey pointed out a few years ago, people have been questioning the value of college since at least the seventies, when Richard Freeman wrote The Overeducated American. (If the Harvard Crimson isn’t pulling my chain, college journalists were complaining about wasted degrees back in 1883.)

But Freeman’s book didn’t have the impact of  A Nation at Risk. The 1983 education treatise didn’t list “Everyone must go to college” as a recommendation. It did suggest that if all high school kids didn’t take four years of English,  three years each of advanced math and science, and resolutely study a foreign language for two years, Japan would bomb us back into the Stone Age.

I’ve written before that Nation At Risk killed high school vocational education. In that same piece, I point out that  2001’s No Child Left Behind did much to redefine vocational ed as highly competitive career technical education (CTE). Both changes made non-college paths practically unreachable for the average schlub uninterested in college and belatedly trying to get some career options going.

Since the rise of education reform in the 1990s, low test scores have been the club used to beat up public schools in favor of charters using the  KIPP “no excuses” model.  Low test scores aren’t really important unless used as a club to argue that those scores keep students from college.

All of these things have increased the demands on high school. But it’s not new.  The first push to send everyone to college began back in the 70s, before escalating immigration and while teens were still working.  For many years, sending more students to college didn’t conflict with teenage employment. So I don’t see how it could suddenly be a big cause of the change now.

Cherry is dead on the money regarding public universities’ response to unqualified students. After decades of losing borderline or weaker students to the quagmire of remediation, colleges are simply ending the struggle by reducing already lowered standards even further.

Cherry: So CUNY is just dumbing down the assessment exam, the math assessment exam that has mostly arithmetic but some algebra. They’ve just decided they are taking out the algebra, make it just arithmetic. So at Brooklyn College we’re already seeing that, the provost has just sent out a notice that he’s worried, too many people are transfer students…that 500 people are going on probation, 200 are being expelled. He thinks it’s more tutoring, more support services, when we’re just taking in people who don’t have the skills….

Well, yeah.  That sounds familiar, as I just recently wrote that California’s largest university system, and the largest in the country  has gone even further, simply ending the remedial category altogether.

But  Cherry’s prescriptive tone has vanished. He certainly put the “everyone must go to college” rhetoric at high schools’ feet, and (wrongly) implied that high schools are more eager to discipline than support at risk students.  But here, when talking about colleges’ continual failure to enforce their own standards he merely sounds sad. Loury doesn’t follow up on the point, either.  The two men seem remarkably passive about post-secondary failings. I hope to say more about that in a subsequent piece.

My complaints notwithstanding, check out the conversation. I’m glad that our best intellectuals are seriously engaging with the problems presented by low-skilled students. But they still seem more likely to blame culture than look further afield–the culture not only of black families, but what they imagine to be the culture of high school education communities.

Our education policies certainly help to discourage low-achieving teens, making them feel like failures, taking up their spare time in joyless academics far beyond their capabilities and interests. I am certain we can do more to make education more accessible to this population, and believe the path involves more time to learn less demanding content. But ultimately, I continue to believe the most important factors affecting teen employment are demand-related. I hope Glenn Loury and Robert Cherry come down harder on this point in later discussions.

***************************************************
*Okay, a month ago. Hey, I have a day job.

**Work permits vary by state, but in most states the school, not the state, issues the permit. Age/Certification by State
*** Loury has previously acknowledged the impact of immigration on low-skilled employment.


Corrupted College

I try  to take the long view on education policy.  In the long run, education reformers, education advocates, and policy wonks are wasting their time trying to change the underlying reality.  They’re paying their own bills and wasting taxpayer dollars. Nothing else.

But every so often, I worry.

Check out this Edsource story on the  California State University system’s announcement of its intent to abandon the “strategy” of remedial courses.

At last! I thought. CSU was finally telling low-skilled applicants to attend adult education or community college. Hahahaha.  Five years of education policy writing just isn’t enough time to become properly cynical.

CSU is not ending its practice of accepting students who aren’t capable of college work. CSU has ended its practice of remediating students who aren’t capable of college work. It makes such students feel “unwelcome.” Students who aren’t capable of doing college work are getting the impression that they don’t really belong at college.

And so, CSU is going to give students who can’t do college work college credit for the classes they take trying to become ready for college.

Understand that the CSU system has been accepting these students for over 30 years. CSU used to offer unlimited remediation until 1996. After taxpayers protested, CSU passed regulations reducing remediation efforts to one year and vowed to ultimately eliminate all remediation by 2001. But alas, when 2001 came along,  ending remediation would dramatically reduce black and Hispanic enrollment, so the deadline was extended to 2007. (Cite ) But 2007 came along and things were even worse. After that, well, California ended its high school exit examination  and retroactively awarded diplomas to all the students who hadn’t been able to pass it. Why bother? CSU was accepting students who didn’t have the diploma anyway.

So, CSU decided on a new “strategy”, defining “college readiness” as “student is earning us tuition dollars”. They’re even looking at ending any sort of reliance on California’s version of the Smarter Balanced test, the Early Assessment rating that California has used for years to guide high schools towards getting their students ready for college.

Loren J. Blanchard, CSU executive said  that remedial education represents a deficit model that must be reformed if we really hope to achieve our equity and completion goals.” James T. Minor, a “senior CSU strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence” says that purely remedial or developmental classes “is not a particularly  good model for retention and degree completion.” Jeff Gold “emphasizes” that all the new program does is offer “extra help and services”, that rest assured, academic quality shall continue undisturbed. The CSU just wants to make sure that students who can only do middle school work “belong here” at CSU. CSU trustee chairwoman Rebecca Eisen is “thrilled” to hear about this change, as more students will “feel this is something they can do” and stay in college for longer.

Reporter Larry Gordon accepts all this at face value. He doesn’t push Blanchard to explain why students who can’t do college level work aren’t, by definition, a deficit model. Or why students who couldn’t pass an 8th grade math test should be retained long enough to complete a degree.

Nor does Gordon  observe that CSU has been offering extra help and services for thirty years.  In the current model, the help and services were not counted towards graduation. In the new model, they will be. That’s the change. Giving college credit for colleges that an advanced eighth-grader could complete is a reduction in academic rigor.

And note that Rebecca Eisen, at least, knows that Jeff Gold is lying. The remedial students were leaving because they couldn’t do the work. The change will make the students stay. Because the classes will be made easier and the students will get credit for them in this reduced academic environment.

Edsource checks in at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which has already been converting its remedial courses to “co-requisite” courses in statistics and algebra and that remedial students taking the co-requisite courses are passing at roughly the same rate as those who aren’t remedial.

Left unmentioned is that Cal State Dominguez Hills’ converted SAT averages has a 75th percentile SAT score of 450.  Everyone at CSUDH is remedial by a “typical” college’s standards–and by CSUDH’s standards, eighty percent were remedial in both math and English, which gives a small hint as to why the college might want to end remediation.

While Gordon reports the news without any context on the student ability level, he hastens to assure readers that ignoring remedial status is a public university trend. “Several other states, such as Tennessee, reported success in putting students in so-called corequisite courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018 and also is starting to allow math requirements to be fulfilled by statistics or quantitative reasoning classes, not just by algebra.”

Meanwhile, this  decision “dovetails” (read: is driven by)  the CSU Graduation Initiative, which is a plan to increase the four-year completion rate from 19 to 40 percent.

So in 1996, California wanted to completely end remediation by 2001. Now, in 2017, California wants to give students college credit for remedial courses so that in eight more years two out of every five students will graduate in four years.

I once wrote an essay calling for a ban on college remediation.  But events are just getting way ahead of me. Anticipating that colleges would start giving degrees to people with middle school skills was something I foolishly rejected as implausible.

But as bad as this is, my dismay and disgust is deepened a thousand-fold by this fact: high schools aren’t allowed to teach remedial courses.

We can’t say hey, this kid can only read at the eighth grade level, so let’s give him more vocabulary and leveled reading. Heavens, no. In fact, you see education advocates arguing that giving kids reading above their ability level is going to improve their reading (something unestablished at the high school level). In practice, this means that all but the most severely deficient readers are expected to read and thrive on Shakespeare and Sophocles.

We can’t say hey, this kid can’t do pre-algebra, much less algebra, and at his current knowledge and interest levels, he can’t possibly succeed at the three or four years of math past algebra that high schools require for graduation. No, we have to  teach second year algebra concepts to kids who aren’t entirely sure what 6×8 is because we know they’ll graduate before they end up in pre-calc.  High schools with diverse student populations can’t offer courses for the entire range of abilities encountered. Schools with entirely low-ability students can just lie.

Thanks to the education reforms of both the right and left, high schools are under tremendous pressure to force all their students into advanced courses and not given any options for students who aren’t ready. There is no “ready” but college-ready.

It’s gotten so idiotic that many high schools have started “dual enrollment” programs for their at-risk students. The best students are taking demanding high school courses. But the at-risk kids are going to college to get the remediation their high schools aren’t allowed to give them.  They shade the truth, of course, mouthing nonsense about giving kids a taste of college. But read between the lines and you’ll see that the students are getting remedial courses. So high schools are paying tuition for low-level kids to take middle school courses at their local college.

But why? I’ve asked, time and again. Colleges are allowed to remediate. Why not let high schools provide the remediation, get kids closer to college ready? Any remediation we do will reduce the burden on colleges.

Ah, but that’s where the idiocy gets intense. The same public universities offering (or ending) remediation require that all students take advanced courses in high school.   CSU application requirements include algebra 2. If CSU remedial students were even approaching second year algebra ability, the university system wouldn’t be ending remediation.

But CSU, and all the other colleges with admissions requirements well above the ability of the bottom 30% of their student population, know this. So why?

I’ve thought and thought about this, and can only come to one conclusion. Colleges are desperate to give opportunities to black and Hispanic students in a public atmosphere with no tolerance for affirmative action. They’ve tried every way they can think of. Standards have already been lowered. Course demands have been almost entirely eliminated–top-tier public schools will issue bachelor degrees with no additional math courses (after the remedial course, that is).  This is just the next step.

The public discourse has become almost entirely bifurcated. At one end, we see education reformers hammering on high standards while suggesting, tentatively, that perhaps everyone isn’t really meant for college. We see learned professors opining that of the two proposed methods of improving low-income kids’ academic achievement, “no excuses” is better than integration because at least “no excuses” won’t hurt suburban schools.

Meanwhile, the actual colleges are lowering standards dramatically to the point that we will now routinely see people–primarily but not all black and Hispanic–with bachelors degrees despite reading at the eighth grade level and minimal math abilities. What makes anyone think that actual achievement is going to matter?

I haven’t seen any education reformers discuss the constant push to end or limit remediation, which has been going on for five years or so. They aren’t terribly interested in college policies. Education reformers want to kill teacher unions and/or grab public funds for essentially private charter schools, and this doesn’t help.

So now our public universities will accept anyone with a transcript spelling out the right courses. They’ll just put them in middle school courses and call it college. Education reformers, college professionals, all the middlebrow pundits opining on our failed education system won’t care–they send their kids to more expensive schools, the ones whose diplomas won’t be devalued by this fraud.

I’d put this insanity into the bucket of “Why Trump Won”, but does Betsy DeVos even care? She’s too interested in using federal dollars to push choice to win disapproval  denying federal dollars to colleges who want to “improve access”. She’s the worst of both worlds: a committed voucher advocate who wouldn’t be bothered by the destruction of public universities. But then, a  Democrat EdSec wouldn’t give a damn–in fact, a Clinton or Obama presidency would probably pressure colleges to lower standards even more. No one seems to actively try to change these policies.

But public colleges like CSU and CUNY are what bright kids from less well-connected families, kids whose parents don’t have the social capital to get into the “right” schools, were once able to use to get ahead. These schools have already done themselves a lot of damage, making it harder and harder for anyone, no matter how qualified, to get through in less than six years because of the time, resources, and expense involved educating the near-illiterate–and, of course, paying for  vice-chancellors of gender sensitivity and diversity awareness by accepting loads of Chinese students who prepared for college by committing fraud on the SAT.

If this doesn’t stop, America will have a much more serious problem than failed college students with huge college debts and no diploma. We’ll have thousands of college grads who got their diplomas with no better than eighth grade reading and math skills.

I’m not a high-standards maven.  Nor am I patient with the pseudo-cynical idiots who think they’re in the know, smirking that college degrees have been worthless for years.

No, they haven’t. But they’re going to be.

Meanwhile, people should maybe read more David Labaree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Challenge of Black Students and Advanced Placement

When the bell rings at Wheaton North High School, a river of white students flows into Advanced Placement classrooms. A trickle of brown and black students joins them. —The Challenge of Creating Schools That Work for Everybody, Catherine Gewertz

Gewertz’s piece is one of a million or so outlining the earnest efforts of suburban schools to increase their  black and Hispanic student representation in AP classes. And indeed, these efforts are real and neverending. I have been in two separate schools that have been mandated in no uncertain terms to get numbers up.

But the data does not suggest overrepresentation. I’m going to focus on African American representation for a few reasons. Until recently, the College Board split up Hispanic scores into three categories, none of them useful, and it’s a real hassle to combine them. Moreover, the Hispanic category has an ace in the hole known as the Spanish Language test. Whenever you see someone boasting of great Hispanic AP scores, ask how well they did in non-language courses. (Foreign language study has largely disappeared as a competitive endeavor in the US. It’s just a way for Hispanic students to get one good test score, and Chinese students to add one to their arsenal.)

College Board data goes back twenty years, so I built a simple table:

blkaptable

I eliminated foreign language tests and those that didn’t exist back in 1997. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the mean scores for each test have declined in almost every case:

blkapmeanscorechg

Enter a caption

While the population for each test has increased, it’s been lopsided.

blkapgrowthbytest

It’s not hard to see the pattern behind the increases. The high-growth courses are one-offs with no prerequisites. It’s hard to convince kids to take these courses year after year–even harder to convince suburban teachers to lower their standards for that long. So put the kids in US History, Government–hey, it’s short, too!– and Statistics, which technically requires Algebra II, but not really.

The next three show data that isn’t often compiled for witnesses. I’m not good at presenting data, so there might be better means of presenting this. But the message is clear enough.

First,  here’s the breakdown behind the test growth. I took the growth in each score category (5 high, 1 low) and determined its percentage of the overall growth.

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

See all that blue? Most of the growth has been taken up by students getting the lowest possible score. Across the academic test spectrum, black student growth in 5s and 4s is anemic compared to the robust explosion of  failing 1s and 2s. Unsurprisingly, the tests that require a two to three year commitment have the best performace. Calc AB has real growth in high scores–but, alas, even bigger growth in low scores. Calc BC is the strongest performance. English Lang & Comp has something approaching a normal distribution of scores, even.

Here you can see the total scores by test and category. Calc BC and European History, two of the tests with the smallest growth, have the best distributions. Only four tests have the most scores in the 1 category; most have 2 as their modal score.

blkap1997

The same chart in 2016 is pretty brutally slanted. Eight tests now fail most students with a one, just four have a two. Worst is the dramatic drop in threes. In 1997, test percentages with 3 scores ranged from 10-38%. In 2016, they range from 10-20%. Meanwhile, the 4s and 5s are all well below 10%, with the cheery exception of Calculus BC.

blkap2016

Jay Mathews’ relentless and generally harmful push of Advanced Placement has been going strong since the 80s, even if the  Challenge Index only began in 1998. So 1997’s result include a decade of “AP push”. But the last 20 years have been even worse, as Jay, Newsweek, and the Washington Post all hawked the Index as a quality signifier: America’s Best High Schools! Suddenly, low-achieving, high-minority students had a way to bring some pride to their schools–just put their kids in AP classes.

As I wrote a couple years ago, this effort wasn’t evenly distributed. High achieving, diverse suburban high schools couldn’t just dump uninterested, low-achieving students (of any race) into a class filled with actually qualified students (of any race). Low achieving schools, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. Just dub a class “Advanced Placement” and put some kids in it. Most states cover AP costs, often using federal Title I dollars, so it’s a cheap way to get some air time.

African American AP test scores don’t represent a homogeneous population, and you can see that in the numbers.  Black students genuinely committed to academic achievement in a school with equally committed peers and qualified teachers are probably best reflected in the Calculus BC scores, as BC requires about four years of successful math. Black students dumped in APUSH and AP Government  are the recourse of diverse suburban schools not rich enough to ignore bureaucratic pressure to up their AP diversity.  They are taking promising students with low motivation and putting them in AP classes. This annoys the hell out of the parents and kids who genuinely want the rigorous course, and quite often angers the “promising” students, who are known to fail the class and refuse to take the test. The explosion of 1s across the board comes from the low-achieving urban schools who want to make the Challenge Index and don’t have any need to keep the standards high.

Remember each test costs $85 and test fees are waived by taxpayers for students who can’t afford them.  Consider all the students being forced, in many cases, to take classes they have no interest in.  Those smaller increases in passing scores are purchased with considerable wasted time and taxpayer expense.

But none of this should be news. Let’s talk about the real challenge of black students and AP scores and methods to fix the abuses.

First, schools and students should be actively restricted from using the AP grade “boost” for fraudulent purposes. The grades should be linked to the test scores without exception. Students who receive 4s and 5s get an A, even if the teacher wants to give a B1. Students who get a 3 receive a B, even if the teacher wants to give an A2 . Students who get a 2 receive a C. Students who get a 1 or who don’t take the test get a D–which, remember, will be bumped to a C for GPA purposes. This sort of grade link, first suggested by Saul Geiser (although I’ve extended it to the actual high school grade) would dramatically reduce abuse not only by predominantly minority schools, but also by all students  gaming the AP system to get inflated GPAs. That should reduce a lot of the blue in this picture:

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

Then we should ask a simple question: how can we bump those yellows to greys? That is, how can we get the students who demonstrated enough competence to score a 2 on the AP test to get enough motivation and learning to score a 3?

I’ve worked in test prep for years with underachieving blacks and Hispanics, and now teaching a lot of the kids not strong enough or not motivated enough to take AP classes. My school is under a great deal of pressure to get more low income, under-represented minorities in these classes as well (and my school administration is entirely non-white, as a data point). A couple years ago, I taught a US History course that resulted in four kids being “tagged” for an advanced placement class the next year–that is, they did so well in my class, having previously shown no talent or motivation, that they were put in AP Government the next year. I kept in touch with one, who  got an A in the class and passed the test.

My advice to my own principal, which I would repeat to the principal in Gewertz’s piece, is to create a class full of the promising but unmotivated students, separate from the motivated students. Give them a teacher who will be rigorous but low key, who won’t give much homework, who will focus on skill improvement in class. (ahem. I’m raising my hand.) Focus on getting the kids to pass the test. If they pass, they will get a guaranteed B in the class, which will count as an A for GPA purposes. (Even if the College Board doesn’t change the rules, schools can guarantee this policy.)

This strategy would work for advanced placement classes in English, history, government, probably economics.  It could work for statistics. Getting unmotivated kids to pass AP Calculus may be more difficult, as it would involve using the strategy consistently for 3 years with no test to guarantee a grade.

The challenge of increasing the abilities and college-readiness of promising but not strongly motivated students (of any race) lies in understanding their motives. Teachers need to give their first loyalty to the students, not the content. Traditional AP teachers are reluctant to do this, and I don’t think they should be required to change. But traditional AP teachers are, perhaps, not the best teachers for this endeavor.

In order for this proposal to get any serious attention, however, reporters would have to stop pretending that talented black students aren’t taking AP courses. The data simply doesn’t support that charge. We are putting too many black students into AP courses. Too many of them are completely unfit, have remedial level skills that high schools aren’t allowed to address. Much of the growth of Advanced Placement has relied on this fraud–and again, not just for black students.

It’s what we do with the kids in the middle, the skeptics, the uncertain ones, the ones who dearly want to be proven wrong about their own skills, that will help us improve these dismal statistics.

1I can’t even begin to tell you how many teachers in suburban districts do this.
2The same teachers who give students with 4s and 5s Bs are also prone to giving As to kids who got 3s. But of course, this is also the habit of teachers in low achieving urban districts. Consider this 2006 story celebrating the first two kids ever to pass the AP English test, and wonder how many of the students got As notwithstanding.


What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

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

My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.


Oh, Woe! No “Teachers of Color”!

Buffalo and Rochester Try to Diversify Their Teaching Force

Time and again, year after year, month after month, reporters and opinion writers uncritically repeat these tales of woe: Oh no! We have no teachers of color!

The reasons are always uncertain or, as in this new story, not even offered. Mention of the unending, unceasing efforts to diversify will be made. But rarely do these stories ever even tiptoe towards truthful.

At best the story might barely hint that the lack might involve the challenging (to some) credential tests.

In every standardized test of knowledge known to humankind, blacks and Hispanics score, on average, lower than whites and Asians. But state after state boosts its teaching credential cut score, convinced that they must raise teacher quality.

And then, oh woe! We have no teachers of color!!

Yes, it’s a mystery. Say, for example, a catastrophic flood closes a city down, and the city takes the opportunity to fire 7,000 teachers (about 5,000 were black). Because hey, what an opportunity! Don’t let that disaster go to waste. While education reformers and politicians celebrate the new, better, and oh so very much whiter teachers in their new, improved, city, the matched test scores show no improvement (green line) and while the post-flood scores of a different, not nearly as poor, population are improved, the district is still extremely low scoring. And 5,000 teachers, give or take–about 1% of the black teaching population–are out of work.

But oh woe! We have no teachers of color!

The stories don’t even provide the happy news. Did you know that 14.3% of the 954,000 education administrators are black? Black principals and other various boss folks outnumber black high school teachers (8% of 1.08 million). There are roughly the same number of Hispanic administrators as high school academic teachers. (BLS Stats).

Clearly, many black and Hispanic teachers prefer more money and better pensions in the world of “education administrators of color”, which represent 25% of the whole. Just 75% of education administrators are white.

And still oh woe! We have no teachers of color.

Education reporters and analysts either don’t know or don’t want to talk about the link between the scarcity of non-white teachers and states’ persistent raising of the minimumm qualifying score for teacher credential tests. Difficult to say, in so many words, that higher required test scores lead unequivocally to lower black and Hispanic pass rates. So they’ll write puzzled stories about the decline, hint darkly at racism, and ignore or underreport test cheating rings run by black principals in order to get black teachers passing credential scores.

They either don’t know or don’t want to talk about the fact that black and Hispanic principals and administrators have better represenationi. See, ed schools can’t use affirmative action to enroll teaching candidates. Districts, on the other hand, can use affirmative action to hire and promote principals. But affirmative action is so….controversial. Who wants to acknowledge that schools are hiring administrators with a diversity quota?

Is it churlish to point out that the stories themselves are applying a diversity quota? And finding the results wanting? I guess so. Also misguided, I suppose, to observe that children of color see principals of color in management positions, usually having authority over a gaggle of white teachers. Doesn’t that send a positive message? (In case it’s not clear, I do not object to school districts using race as a factor in administrator selection.

Thus we see, literally, thousands of articles bewailing the “missing minority teacher”. And none of them really say why.

They will often say, accurately, that research shows black children, in particular, seem to benefit from black teachers.

Occasionally, they’ll mention the many charter schools that hire young, usually white, two year resume boosters as they take students taught by long-term, experienced, black and Hispanic teachers. Or, taking the opposite tack, will hint that the mostly white teaching population is somehow related to those nefarious unions.

They’ll talk about the fact that white teachers rate black students’ ability lower than black teachers, without mentioning that the research didn’t reveal which teachers were more accurate in their ratings.

They may hint, around the edges, about the credential test issue. Rarely, they’ll mention there’s little if any correlation, much less causation, between teacher ability and student outcomes. I don’t think it’s occurred to anyone but me that administrative hiring decreases the blacks and Hispanics in the teaching pool.

They’re probably right to avoid stating the reality bluntly. I try it occasionally, and the results aren’t pretty.

Everyone thinks “we need to lower the credential cut score so we can have more black and Hispanic teachers” means “blacks and Hispanics aren’t smart enough to pass a test”. Hand to god, I don’t think that. I don’t care why the scores are lower. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that consistent, reliable data on teacher inputs related to student outputs shows that states set their teacher credential cut scores set too high. They are leaving out teachers who could get good jobs and help kids.

We don’t just have a “teachers of color” shortage these days. We have an honest to god all teachers of every color shortage, in nearly every state. And every day, some education reformer or worse, a politician, will bleat idiocy about raising teacher quality, while every other day, some social justice warrior will wail about the missing black and Hispanic teachers who could be helping kids at risk. Suggest a solution and the reformers will scream at you for lowering standards while the progressives will shriek “Racist!”

And like bad pennies, the stories keep turning up. Today, missing teachers of color. Tomorrow, another state wants to raise cut scores for teacher credential tests and the horrific National Council on Teacher Quality nods its collective head.

Woe, oh woe.


Teaching Elections and the Electoral College

I couldn’t be more pleased with my US History class. First, the behavior issues are far less severe. I’m not sure why. Last time I taught, two years ago, each of my two classes had ridiculous behavior challenges of the sort I hadn’t dealt with since leaving Algebra 1 behind, thus triggering PTSD attacks and flashbacks. I had been prepared for that possibility, since US History, unlike AP, has a huge range of abilities, so I thought maybe the occasional unmanageable was just the price of admission.

But this year, I have no major challenges thus far, despite having a few unmotivated students. I don’t think I’ve dramatically improved my classroom management skills. At first, I just thought it was lucky chance, but a month in, it’s clear some students could produce the same challenge of years past. Yet they’re not nearly the hassle.

Tentatively, I’m thinking that my curriculum has helped. Rather than starting with early migration patterns, I kicked off with the 2016 election, and then went back to other elections. Competitions are naturally interesting.

I revamped the Question 1 unit from my original plans. Sectionalism will get moved to Question 2, mostly, with some in Question 3. Colonial history got moved to the immigration section, which I think is now Question 4. I only lightly touched on women getting the franchise–I’m going to put that in Question 3, paying the bills.

So what was left in Question 1:

  1. What is the electoral college?
  2. Why does the electoral college exist? Move from Articles to Constitution, small states vs large states, slavery representation.
  3. Political systems: America is a two party country. To oversimplify, one party has historically represented economic and business concerns, the other representing the rights and interests of the individual. (So, class, which party would you think championed abolition, the end of slavery? WRONG! But thanks for playing. They’re very interested in seeing how that came about.) So periodically, we’ll cover the political systems in effect at the time. This go-round, I covered Federalist-Democrat Republican split purely in terms of its existence, and Democrat-Republican split on tariffs. I’ll bring up additional details each cycle.
  4. Expansion of the franchise in the 19th century–specifically, white men without property and black men, as well as the failure to expand it to women.
  5. Elections: The elections with a EV/PV split, while perfectly legit constitutionally, have all been unusual. Two probably involved fraud or intimidation. I also threw in two early elections and Tyler’s assumption of the presidency.

This isn’t a government class, but we looked at Amendments 12-15.
Elections covered in this order:

  • I used the 2016 election to illustrate, which was a romping success and set the tone for the class.
  • After covering the Constitutional Compromises, we looked at the 1796 and 1800 elections–the first to show the unexpected consequences of “first place, second place” in light of the development of parties, the second to show the results of the 3/5ths Compromise.
  • The Corrupt Bargain of 1824
  • Tyler and the Vice Presidency: I included this because it seemed the right place. It wasn’t obvious that the Vice President would assume the presidential role until he said well, yeah, it is.
  • The End of Reconstruction, Compromise of 1877.
  • Election of 2000–out of order, because I had to take a day off for algebra 2 planning. So they watched (and mostly didn’t understand) Recount and then I finished up with that one.
  • Election of 1888

Methods: varied. I did more lecturing than last time, but still a lot of variety. So for the 1800 election, they read about the 3/5ths compromise and used census data to calculate how many extra votes were handed to Thomas Jefferson and what would have happened otherwise (thanks, Garry Wills!). For the Corrupt Bargain, they evaluated Henry Clay’s predictions and compared them to the actual electoral votes–and then compared actual electoral votes to the House vote. They did a lot of reading, usually in class-led situations (otherwise, they won’t do it), including longer pieces on Reconstruction and the Whisky Rebellion. I covered the 2000 election with a CNN documentary and a NY Times retrospective. Then I jigsawed the election of 1888, giving eight groups a different aspect to cover.

One of my favorite activities was on the 15th amendment–I created a group of profiles–black sharecropper, white female abolitionist in Ohio, white former slave owner, Hispanic Texan, married female ex-slave in Mississippi, etc. Then they considered how each person might feel about expanding the franchise. Would a black woman in Kentucky want women to get the franchise, or would that just increase the number of whites voting against issues that mattered to her? Would a black man in New York have different opinions about giving white women the vote than one in South Carolina? Why might a white woman in Kentucky have different opinions about abolition than a white woman in Ohio? And so on. We focused on the franchise not as a right, but rather as a pragmatic consideration–who’s going to vote for the things I want? Then we revisited the issue in 2000 and 2016 with the different views on voter identification.

Onwards. If you’re interested in the test questions, here you go.

I love building history tests with multiple answers–which, as I’ve mentioned, become True/False.

They did pretty well. This was a tough test. Highest score: 91%. Student performance showed a clear pattern: they knew some topics better than others, but the topics varied. Which means it wasn’t my teaching or the curriculum that determined the variance.

I figured out a way to weight half the results at 2 points, the other half at one point, giving each student more credit for the questions they knew well. This boosted everyone’s grade 10-20% over what a straight percentage calculation would have done (except for the high scorer, who I calculated as a percentage).

I also corrected the tests without actually writing on them, just putting the total correct at the bottom of each page. Students will be able to research the actual answers, write up a brief analysis, and turn in the corrected test. I won’t boost their first grade, but count it as a second 10-point test, which will give another boost.

There were two tests, of course. So in one, Matthew Quay helped Benjamin Harrison (true), whereas in this one below, Quay helped Cleveland (false).

matest1800election

I thought they’d do well on this one. Love the cartoon. But performance on this really lagged.

mattylertariff

The Tyler question saw good performance overall, although some kids clearly had no clue and had blanked it out of memory. The tariff question was designed so that if a student didn’t remember Dem/Rep position, he was guaranteed to get hurt.

matcompof1877

Worst overall performance. Almost all the information for this came from a reading, and clearly a lot of them didn’t retain and didn’t study.

mat2016
mat2000recount

No student got fewer than 8 of these correct. Great performance.

matvotingrights

Generally good performance. This alerted me to students who simply weren’t paying any attention at all, since the questions covered topics throughout the unit.

matcorruptbargain

Here’s something I struggle with on grading: what do I do with students who mark D, E, and F as True? Some of them clearly weren’t random guessers. So were they not sure and hedging their bets? Or did they think each one was true, and in that case, what are they failing to put together? Also sad: the number of students who got everything right EXCEPT they thought Clay wrote this in 1888. I’m doing a lesson on how to order events mentally–I don’t think kids always think this through.
matfrances

In the “jigsaw” lesson, I needed an extra, simple topic for some weaker students and other than Hillary, no woman had been mentioned since the semester began. Frances Townsend was an interesting, off-beat topic to explore, plus she was relatively close to my students’ age when she became First Lady. But this quote was great, because it allowed me to test them on the election results as well.

Dig that Matthew Quay pickup! Hat tip and thanks to Richard Brookhiser, who put me onto the Tammany Hall connection. We covered different perspectives on what, exactly, Quay did. I really had no idea that the election of 1888 involved so much fraud. The AP US History test hasn’t covered it, at least in the years I prepped for it.

matfeddr

Really good performance on both, which surprised me because I taught this early in the semester–at the same time as the first question. I would have thought they’d remember people and results better than political parties and outcomes. Moreover, the Whiskey Rebellion was also a reading, something we only covered in a day. Weird.

It was a tough test, with relatively few clues and a great deal of reading. I also do brief essay questions, but we didn’t cover any issue in enough depth to warrant one. That will come later.


What It Looks Like In Practice

“Matt, are you getting anything done?”

“I’m Mark. And yes. I’m on problem 13.”

“You’re Mark? No. I thought I had this straight. You’re Matt.”

“Nope. Mark.”

“Well, crap. I was just going through the quizzes and saw a Mark and a Matt and thought ok, there’s Matt who I always want to call Mark. And I was wondering who the Mark was, trying to visualize which Mark I was missing.”

“No, I’m Mark.”

“Huh. Matt must be in block 2, but I don’t think I have a Matt in block 2. But then, I don’t think I have a Mark in block 2. I have a Mark in US History, but that Mark isn’t one of the students I have for both US History and Trig. This is all very confusing.”

Tonee snorts. “Dude’s just messin’ with you. That’s Matt.”

“Oh. Phew. Left to be discovered is who’s Mark. But don’t do that, Matt.” Matt grins, the class gets back, somewhat noisily, to work. I wander round the room one more time, then settle in to my desk to put the quiz grades in.

Casey meanders up to my desk. “I think I can clear up some of your confusion.”

I look at the petite, redhaired senior, delicate features marred (in my view) by two horrible lip piercings. “You can? What confusion?”

“The Mark/Matt thing.”

“Oh! Lord, that was, like 20 minutes ago. I’d forgotten all about it. You know the Mark I’ve somehow completely lost track of?”

“I am Mark.”

I stop typing. Look over at, it turns out, Mark, who I learned for the first time last year was merely biologically female when an ex-student Connie walked by and said “Hey, you have my foster brother Casey in your class. He says you’re great!” and only acknowledged after ten minutes of demands that Casey wasn’t “actually a guy, but you know, wants to be.”

“Sh**.”

“I’m sorry.”

SH*****t.”

“I used my last name! I thought that would be the clue.”

“Case…Mark, I can’t even remember Matt isn’t Mark, and you think I keep track of last names? Sh**.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m swearing because I made a public deal out of this and I’m feeling bad. It’s not you. Any other sane teacher would have wondered wait, who the hell is Mark on this quiz and resolved it right then, but I’m teaching so many different classes with so many repeating students and doubled up students I just figured I was forgetting someone. And I shouldn’t swear, of course, but you’re a senior. Anyway, I’m sorry for screwing this up.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have used my new name, but you were so cool about it last year…”

“I was so cool last year? I kept on screwing up your pronoun.”

“You were so really nice about it. I appreciated your support.”

“You’re nuts. Anyway, what the hell? I thought Casey was your new name.”

“Yeah, I decided on Mark.”

“OK. Thanks.”

“I’m really so…”

“Shut up. I’m a disorganized teacher. This happens. Get back to work.”

Later on, giving the tests back, I say “Matt, come get your quiz.”

“I’m Mark.”

“No. You’re Matt.” Matt starts to wilt under my glare, but notices who comes up to get Mark’s quiz and doesn’t claim to be Mark again.

Related news: A special ed teacher told me I was selected by two of her senior students as the one they most enjoyed having and asked me to put together a little paragraph as part of a plaque she’s giving to each. One of them, Victor, wears makeup, nail polish, and curly hair in a casual bun. I’ve heard Victor doesn’t like to be called gay.
**************************************************************

I hope Casey and Victor forgive me, should they ever learn that I thought the Obama directive on k-12 schools and transgender bathrooms to be idiotic and enraging. I’m quite worried that the current Supreme Court will decide it makes perfect sense to force to accomodate transgender teens in their quest for bathroom freedom. Given the conservative Justices’ contempt for public school teachers, my original fear was they’d give Gavin bathroom rights to strike one more nail in our coffin. But I wronged them mightily; the four conservatives voted to overturn the Fourth Court, with Justice Breyer the only hope as a swing vote, voting with the conservatives as a “courtesy” to maintain the status quo, the horrible repressive status quo we live in now, the one that allows us to ignore Obama’s directive and require bathrooms match biology.

I believe those who adamantly insist on having gender reaassigment surgery are mentally ill. Kids who want to be the opposite gender are probably going through a phase. Some simply love the attention; others are depressed or troubled. Still others just like being different. I have no problem with respecting phases. I’m appalled by the current trend of honoring these phases to the extent of hormones and gender surgery, and pleased that the Trump administration appears to be undoing the Obama idiocy.

I’m blissfully untroubled by the knowledge of what bathroom Mark who was once Casey uses. Every so often one of our more adamant social justice teachers gets up and demands that our grading and attendance software “reflect our students’ desired gender” and I roll my eyes so hard I get a seizure but beyond that we haven’t had any staff discussions on the subject. Please, god, keep it that way.

I wonder if many people opining on transgender schools understand how schools handle them. Do they know what it looks like in practice? Do they think schools are busy insisting on biological reality? Quite the contrary, and political views aren’t really involved.

I treat transgender kids the same way I’d treat other kids who face difficult social situations. I call them whatever the hell they want. I try to avoid pronouns (as I have in this piece) because they’re much tougher than names. I would ruthlessly step on any teasing or harassment, assuming kids in our world-wise school would ever be so mean. I will leave decisions on their gender treatment to their parents or guardians. My job is to educate them to the best of my and their ability, and to the extent possible, make them feel safe and comfortable as they navigate the crazy teen years.

If Gavin Grimm loses the case, I doubt schools will do anything differently. Most teachers will go much further than I do in supporting students who identify as transgender.

If Gavin wins the case, I expect that charter schools will soon have one more advantage that they’ll never mention directly, but will nonetheless be seen as a clear advantage by otherwise progressive parents. And there will be one more item to add to the meme “Why Trump Won”.


Understanding the 2016 Election, High School Edition

So my new “year” has started with the onset of the new semester. I am, oddly, teaching only 50% math. My school couldn’t find a new English teacher (note, again, the pain point for principals is hiring, not firing). Since I was already teaching a full schedule with no prep, the entire math department schedule had to be revamped to get someone to cover one of my trig classes.  So ELL, Trig, US History, Trig. Busy.

Anyway, I have kicked off my planned US History curriculum and on one day’s experience, it’s going gangbusters. I decided the students would best grasp the significance of the electoral college if we began with the recent election–give them a frame of reference as we then look back.

First, I gave them a copy of Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment, explaining that the elections we’d be reviewing would use both the original and amended text. But the big takeaway I wanted them to get for the first go-round was:  Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

This was new information–well, more accurately, it was relevant information, something they’d clearly been wondering about. When we got to the text about the electors meeting to elect the president, I played that Martin Sheen et al video.

“These actors were trying to change the electors’ minds. As we just read, if no candidate receives more than half the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. So you can see they didn’t have to change everyone’s minds, just enough to push the vote below the halfway mark.”

“And they’re Democrats?”

“No. The House is controlled by Republicans. I have to say I never quite understood the logic of this effort.”

“Why do they keep repeating everything?” Elian asked.

“They must think we’re stupid.” Bart observed.

“I think they did it for artistic effect. But let’s move on. That’s how the president is actually elected. So now lets see how many electors each state gets. Who knows how many Senators we have?”

The guesses were all over the place until I asked for the names of our senators. Then they all figured out it was two.

“Right. Two for each state. Each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators. And since we have 50 states, we have a total of…..” (I always wait. Are they paying attention? I get 100 back pretty quickly.) “House of Representatives works differently. The House, for reasons we’ll discuss later, assigns representatives based on population. But about a century ago, Congress froze the number of seats at 435.”

“Why?”

“Good question. We’ll explore that later. For now, I just want you guys to get an understanding of the rules on the ground.”

“So every state gets two electors, no matter what, right?” asks Pippa. “Because they have two Senators.”

“Yes, good. They actually get three, no matter what. They elected two senators and one representative, so three electoral votes.”

“That sucks,” Eddie observed. “They only get three people to represent the state.”

“Actually, that three is a good deal. Let’s just take two states: Montana, with a population of about a million, and New York, with a population of 20 million. So New York is twenty times bigger than Montana. Montana gets 3 electoral votes. Any guesses as to how many New York gets?”

“Well, if it’s twenty times bigger, they should get sixty.” Anita.

“That can’t be right, though,” observed Priya.  “New York isn’t the biggest state, and if it has 60, then how many does Texas or California have?”

“Very good.” and I passed out the worksheet I’d cobbled up. One side was an image of the country with electoral votes by state,  the other was a table looking something like this.

“Wait. New York only has 29 electoral votes? Holy crap.”

“Yeah. Now you’re starting to see. New York only gets nine times as many electoral votes, despite having twenty times as many people.”

“That’s not fair to the big states!”

“It might feel that way. However, there was a lot of reasoning that went into that decision. We’ll be talking about it later, and you can judge. For now, here’s a simple task. I want you to mark the map with the winners, as many as you remember or want to guess. Then, on the back, put your guess and then the electoral vote total in each column. I don’t expect everyone to know all of them. I just think it will be a good discussion, get you seeing how much you know or remember. Then I’ll help you fill it in.”

I was pleased to see kids filled in a good bit of the map based on their own knowledge. Many knew the South was mostly Republican. They all, without exception, called Florida for Trump. A cheering number was aware that the Rust Belt states had flipped. After ten minutes or so, I brought up the same map on my Promethean and marked it up with their results, correcting for reality as needed. During the conversation, I added in some tidbits–what the polls in each state had showed, what states Hillary never saw coming, demographic voting patterns, DC’s three electoral votes, and so on.

When we finished marking the map up, Kevin mused, “Jesus. Trump won a lot of states.”

“He did indeed.”

On instinct, I went to a browser and brought up the 2016 electoral results map.

It was a good instinct. The class literally gasped.

“Holy sh**! He won all those states?” Eduardo was aghast.

“Huh.” Eddie, as dedicated a Trump hater as ever existed, had bitterly snarked about borders in an inequalities lesson immediately after the election. I’m hoping he’ll  feel less hardly done by in the future.

Here is something I learned: the kids had been told many times that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They understood what that meant. But not until this moment had they ever genuinely grasped the visuals of Trump’s win. What Trump’s win looked like. The map was a huge reveal. Minds weren’t changed, but perspectives were.

“Our Constitution gives voice to all citizens, but through the states. It’s a balance. It’s not always perfect. But it exists for a reason. Maybe this map gives you a sense of why.”

I had an extra fifteen minutes, so again on impulse, I brought up the classic youtube compilation of famous and influential people saying, with confidence, that Donald Trump could never win. I pointed out the lesser known ones, but they got the drift and loved it. I will note they were shocked (and not in a good way) at Seth Meyers’ disrespect. Loud applause at the end. I hit pause and got their attention.

“Here’s what I want you to know: not a single person in that compilation lost their jobs. Well. Except Obama, but his term was up. Every person on TV, acting as an expert. Every comedian. Every politician. You just saw pretty much every famous person in America laughing hysterically at the very idea that Trump might win. And none of them were held accountable. None of the media people who confidently predicted Trump had no chance of winning got fired. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you could easily have assumed you could stay home. Why bother voting? Trump couldn’t win. And when Trump won, these same media folk were all aghast. Then they ran all these stories about  devastated people, heartbroken by Trump’s victory. Rarely did you see stories on people who voted for Trump, who were thrilled at his win.”

Silence.

“I want you to go home tonight, turn on cable news–well, except Fox–and you’ll see all those people you just saw and more, talking about the demonstrations against Trump’s new immigration policy. Trump’s naming a new justice, maybe there’ll be more demonstrations. All the people on TV, many of them who are newspaper reporters talking about their own print stories, will talk about how big the demonstrations are, how meaningful they are, how important they are, how the people are speaking.”

“And when they sound certain. When they sound like experts. When they talk to experts who sound certain. I want you to remember that video. Because then it might not come as much of a shock to learn that 49% of Americans polled support Trump’s immigration EO.”

“Yeah. I get it.” Omar nodded. “It’s like the media only shows people who agree with them.”

“It’s like they don’t even realize people don’t agree with them.” said Amy.

” So if all the cool people hating on Trump, maybe no one will want to, you know, be a d*** who likes Trump.”

“But I do hate Trump!” said Eddie.

“Well, I’d like you to think about using a different word than ‘hate’. But sure. LOTS of people disagreed with Trump. More people voted who wanted Clinton, remember? That’s where we started. ”

“It’s like, don’t be fooled. Don’t think that just because all the famous people think the way you do, that everyone does.” Omar again.

” If you surround yourself with people who think just like you do and never associate with people who don’t, you might lose track of what’s normal. It’s called ‘living in a bubble’.”

“You know,” observed Pippa, “I’ve always thought it was kind of cool that Trump won.”

“WHAT???” Eddie, outraged.

“No, I hate him. I mean, I disagree with him. But now that I see that video, I think it’s even cooler. All these famous people were laughing at him.”

“Yeah, mocking him. Nasty stuff.” agreed Lennie.

“And he went out there and ignored them and took his ideas to the people. And won!”

“I swear to you, Pippa, that’s exactly what I love about this election. I said that verbatim to my advisory. I truly believe that only in America, only with our rules, could someone go out and speak to the country and get the votes needed to win the presidency.”

The bell rang.

Good first day.


The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

When I was very young, my grandfather took my book away as we were sitting companionably on the davenport, reading together. “You can’t possibly be reading that fast.”

Confused, I said, “Why not?”

“No one reads that fast. I read 600 word per minute, and you’ve flipped the page three times while I’m still on the first page.”

“But it’s a little kid book. You’re reading a big people book.”

Grandpa  read back over the previous two or three pages of The Bobbsey Twins or The Hardy Boys or whatever I was reading, quizzed me and, as he told the story for the next quarter of a century, I passed with flying colors. From that point on, Gramps was the only one of my relatives who really “got” me, understanding that living overseas left me starved of reading material. Every Christmas and birthday, where others would send me one or two books I’d devour in an hour or so, he’d send me a huge box of books chosen largely at random from the bookstore, adult-level reading books for a pre-teen and early adolescent.  Many of Grandpa’s books  built my eclectic content knowledge over the years, as my reading outpaced my age, then doubled it and beyond.

In the late sixties, increasing reading speed was all the rage (you can read fast, like the hallowed JFK!). We got tested often, in two ways. First, we’d be given a passage to read in time conditions, followed by comprehension questions. On these, I consistently clocked 1000 words per minute, probably the maximum speed on the meter, generally with 100% comprehension. Then, we were tested on tachistoscopes , which flashed a line of words on the screen or in a visor at the speed mentioned.

I hated those exercise. Hated. “That’s not how I read!” I still tested at 800 wpm or thereabouts, but it was horrible.  For the same reason, I would laugh at those idiotic Evelyn Woods speed reading commercials, because who on earth reads one word at a time? It’s so…limiting.

I believe the correct term for my early reading is Hyperlexia I–unusually bright child who happened to be an early reader.  A whole ‘nother line of thinking holds that all early readers are either visually spatially or linguistically disordered–although I have often written, of course, of my spectacularly weak spatial abilities, the description doesn’t fit me. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s linked, though.

No explanation for the speed, though. All authentically fast readers I’ve ever read or talked to mention some form of gulping, just as I do here in this old discussion at WestHunt.  Reading speed is linked with vocabulary (word identification), where I’ve been blowing past the 99th percentile my entire life.

I am a bit puzzled by the assertion that everyone–even I–subvocalize when reading.

Try this sentence: The bold spoken words could not sway the jury’s decision.

When I first began test prep instruction in the old SAT writing test, I constantly missed these ISE (identifying sentence errors) on adjective/adverb confusion. The question is designed to identify people who can’t hear the difference. Since  I don’t “subvocalize”, I wasn’t hearing the difference. I learned that many grammar errors are much easier to catch aurally than visually, and up until now I’d only reviewed my own writing for errors.  My eyes were fine at catching punctuation and wording mistakes, but I was vulnerable to usage mistakes that were most normally “heard”. I did not train myself to subvocalize. It was easier, for me, to train myself to spot the mistakes visually.  So while I accept the experts’ assurances that I’m subvocalizing, I sure don’t know when it’s happening.

I wasn’t ever terribly enamored of reading aloud to my son, who wasn’t a huge fan of it either. Movies were our bonding activity, from the time he was eighteen months old and beyond. Movies and Star Trek–before he was 2, he was making phaser noises and firing a water wand. His friends to this day marvel at his encyclopedic film knowledge. But while I was reading at three, he showed no interest in reading until the video game “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego” came out right after his sixth birthday. I refused to stand over the computer and read to him, so he informed his kindergarten teacher he had to learn how to read. Mission accomplished in a couple weeks. Within a few months, he had reading scores may not have been as high as mine, but were in the same ballpark, and much later scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.  He never read for pleasure save Harry Potter (he was from the original age group).  I’d long since stopped giving him piles of books, having figured this out (I’m not a nagger) but on impulse  I gave him some of my favorites for his 17th Christmas (Sewer, Gas, & Electric, Mark of the Horse Lord, Ender’s Game, Moon is a Harsh Mistress).  The books weren’t touched until we went on a long road trip in the era before smartphones, and he grabbed a few. I’d chosen well, and he became an enthusiastic reader during college, ripping through my extensive library and building his own favorites. Today he tracks his reading on goodreads. He reads quickly for a mere mortal, but nothing approaching my numbers.

I should mention that my dad, mother, aunt, and grandmother enjoy (or enjoyed) reading, mostly bestsellers (romance and spy novels, mostly) with a lexile level of, say, 800L.

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

So a working class kid developed mad reading skillz at the age of three and a PhD level vocabulary by middle school, despite working class parents and pulp fiction content, has a son who develops wowza reading comprehension and vocabulary despite never reading much and rarely being read to–and having parents who divorced when he was two.

Tales like mine often lead others to gasp and share their origin stories. “Oh, I loved to be read to. Here are my favorite stories. What were your favorite stories?” They will build lists of books that oh, if only other parents would share with their children, if only teachers would understand the beauty, the transformative power of these books, then the world would be so much different. How can parents be so cruel? And uneducated parents, if only they understood how they are crippling their children, they’d take them to the library.

“Oh, but my mom was a Serbian immigrant who never went past sixth grade and every week she took us to the library! That’s how I was able to do so well. All these parents could do the same thing. The library is free!”

“But no, these parents are working two jobs. That’s why teachers are so important. That’s why curriculum is so important, to help these children catch up and know what their peers know.”

Education reformers sneer at “cultural deficit thinking“. Those failing teachers in failing schools argue that kids in poverty don’t have the same experiences as the middle class norms are simply lowing expectations to make their jobs easier–doing what’s best for them instead of what’s best for their students. Rare is the reformer who accepts that they, too, engage in deficit thinking. They consider children with low reading abilities to have deficits. These students are….not normal. The difference lies in their demands that the deficit be addressed, that with this deficit are otherwise doomed.

But tales like mine should, ideally, lead people to realize how little all  their  shibboleths matter to academic outcomes in face of the brutal thumb on the scale provided by intellect and personality.  Tales like mine should remind all those people with college educated parents and reading enriched childhoods that my abilities likely skunk theirs threefold, and that my kid’s might, too. Tales like mine should make people wonder if all their reading nostrums are a few steps up from homeopathic medicine. Reading chiropractic.

Tales like mine should, ideally, remind all those eager participants of those who aren’t in the conversation.

We do not hear from the millions who don’t fondly recall their favorite childhood books. From the people who didn’t read Playboy for the articles –who didn’t read Playboy at all. From the people who enjoy Readers Digest and TV Guide as a significant portion of their reading activity. From the people who are not tweeting lists of their favorite books, are not rhapsodizing in the comments section about the joys of reading aloud. From the people who are not asked to join in the discussion, because the people who are in the discussion can’t imagine they exist. Not really. Not past a punchline or a parent to be escaped from.

People who tell their reading origin tales could, that is, realize their perception is strangled by an almost unimaginable restriction of range.

No one really thinks of the others because these exercises are, at heart, narcissistic feel-good nonsense,  but if the non-readers of the world were to be considered, their opinions would be rejected as not only uninteresting but actively dangerous. They represent what our education policy seeks to avoid.

And so,  dear readers, spare me your origin tales. Accept, for the moment, that our education policy is not informed by the adults who don’t care to read, who can’t read well, or both.

Ask yourself  who might (just might, and I do mean that) have benefited from realistic, functional, purpose-driven reading instruction. The sort of instruction that the people who tell their reading origin tales never need.  What education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?

Can we craft an education policy that increases content knowledge to the level a student can absorb it, recognizing this limit differs? Can we continue to build student content knowledge gradually throughout school, again at the level they can absorb it? Or are we going to continue to have foolish expectations of assigning “challenging texts” to kids who can’t read at that level, and don’t want to, and make them hate reading even more?

In short, how do we stop from making reading a moral matter?

So if you read this tale, spare me the happy talk of your origin story. Answer those questions instead.

 

 


Letter to Betsy (#2): Drop Out.

Hey, Bets.

Well, I did say in my last note that you hadn’t shown  much capacity for original thought, that your primary contribution to ed reform were your contributions. I didn’t expect you to prove it so completely in your first at-bat.

Let’s avert our eyes from the tonedeaf response on guns at schools. I’m agnostic on the issue, but you should know that grizzlies aren’t a reason this is a tier-1 conflict. That bespeaks an ignorance I find…unsettling. I accept that you don’t care much about preschool, but what sort of conservative Republican would you be if  you thought universal pre-K was effective? Accountability, on the other hand, is a word you’ve heard before, so your constant evasions were seen–correctly–as attempts to avoid answering that you don’t think charters should be accountable to the same degree that public schools are. (No. Charters aren’t public schools.)

All of these could be explained away, or at least considered tertiary issues. You could say you hadn’t been properly briefed. And in fairness, you did have a nice moment with Bernie Sanders on college tuition: “free college” is indeed a misnomer.

But on two points, you displayed ignorance so profound that Republicans should vote against you.

First, you had no idea that IDEA and other federal legislation requires that states pay for absurd and often useless interventions for a wide range of disabilities, including many mild learning disabilities for which no meaningful interventions exist.

Less than a week before you went to Congress, the Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether or not a school district should provide an autistic kid with private school if the educational benefit the school could provide was “only trivial”.

Left unmentioned was the fact that on any given day, mainstream kids aren’t given this right.   I don’t often get infuriated at education reporters, many of whom do a pretty good job, but  not a single one has pointed out the absurd unfairness of a law that gives a select group of kids the right to sue for the private education of their choice on the grounds that they aren’t benefiting from the education their school provides.

I know many people will snicker–yeah, if all kids could sue their schools, teachers would hate it! Unlikely. I’d expect a lot of kids suing over disruptive classrooms, which would give schools cover to expel troublemakers. I’d expect others to demand the right to be taught what they don’t yet know.  Right now, my Algebra 2 junior who counts on her fingers can’t demand to be taught at a school that will instruct her in ratios and basic math, just as a sophomore with fifth grade reading skills can’t sue his district demanding the right to attend a school that won’t insist on pretending he can understand Antigone or Romeo & Juliet. Of course, no such school exists because they aren’t allowed to. Few teachers  would oppose safer schools or appropriate curriculum.

Once people figure out that giving all kids the right to sue wouldn’t work out as expected, they’ll look at removing the privilege from that select group. I wrote an entire article promoting the repeal of IDEA. I’m very much in favor of special ed being returned to the states and giving voters a say in what priorities special education receives compared to the wide range of needs that schools and their students have.

Betsy, I would have loved to see you  boldly call for an end to federal intervention in special education, to leave these decisions to the states. But you didn’t even know that the responsibility had to be returned! Of course, if you had known what the law was, you’d have burped  up (ladylike, I’m sure) a bromide, followed by a platitude and everyone would have patted themselves on the back for caring about disabled kids.

That leads to the second of your gross errors, about which I have less passion but is far more revealing.  Growth versus proficiency is something that teachers themselves have been talking about for decades, but education reformers have only really stumbled onto in the past few years, as the need arose when  charters didn’t attain the proficiency numbers they expected.  But you should know that. This is right in the ballpark of the field you fund so generously. And you were clueless. Franken was right to interrupt and dismiss your answer. (He was wrong to meander off into gay rights, a matter of trivial interest in public education. Put that in the “Why Trump Won” category.)

If  fifteen or more years actively supporting charters hasn’t brought you up to speed on the fundamental issues determining their success,  then how can we assume you have the capacity to learn about anything less central to your interests?

Bernie Sanders asked the right question. And you proved the correct answer was “No.”  A better woman would have said “I was almost certainly selected because I’m a billionaire who has given money to causes. But I also have a real interest in making life better for poor children.  That’s why I’m here.” That, at least, would be honest.

Better you should go back to writing checks.

Unlike most of the people opposing you, I accept that the incoming SecEd will be someone I disagree with, someone who openly snorts derisively at my profession, while protesting he does no such thing. I’m fine with that. I’d just like someone…smarter. Someone who really does know the research. Someone who, ideally, has been around the block with education reform. Someone who knows it’s more than the platitudes that typical conservatives spill, that “fixing schools” as they envision it hasn’t yet worked out.

My pick, and I’ve thought about this for a while, is Checker Finn. He’s old enough not to worry about his next job (which is why I eliminated Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess from consideration). He’s cranky and willing to offend. He’s wrong, of course, but then all education reformers are.  But when he’s not shilling the reform spiel, he’s knowledgeable on many different aspects of education. And he’s canny. Apart from yours truly, he’s the only person to observe that Trump voters aren’t exactly the target audience for talk of vouchers and charters. He has also recently observed that the era of education reform is over, and wondered whether Trump should even bother with a SecEd, given the restrictions that ESSA has put on the feds. (yay!). This suggests an appropriate level of humility for a long-term reformer, one who understands that 25 years of getting what he wanted in reform hasn’t fixed the achievement gap, that  reformers’ grand scheme of killing ed schools with the 1998 Higher Education Act failed miserably.  Checker Finn understands full well that Common Core was rejected; he argued in favor of them because he hoped they would result in less federal oversight.

Checker was Never Trump and, as mentioned, pro-Common Core, which is two strikes against him in Trumpland. But Betsy, if you decide to take my advice, I hope you put a word in for Checker with your not-to-be boss.

But since you’ll probably ignore me, see you next letter.