The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Well Are Americans Educated?

Part four of my seemingly endless review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Parts onetwo, and three.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I get very, very irritated whenever Pew releases a new poll about “Americans” and their increasingly positive feelings about immigrants, because they aren’t surveying Americans, but adults who live in America.


Cite: Same source Caplan used

As Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew confirmed to me, back in 2016, “We asked our immigrations of all U. S. adults, including non-citizens.” They don’t disaggregate the responses by citizenship or immigrant status. In fact, they even ask all the adults if they are Republicans or Democrats when immigrants can’t be registered voters. This is just spectacularly dishonest and I get mad every time I write about it, but I mention it here for another reason:

“In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 randomly selected Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).”–Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

NAAL did not survey American adults, but rather adults living in America. 13% of those surveyed were raised in a language other than English and are very probably immigrants. Another six were raised in households where the parents were native speakers of another language, and we can probably assume most were children of immigrants.

Here’s how Caplan characterizes the overall results:

caplannaalpic

Only modest majorities are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. Under half are Intermediate or Proficient in the quantitative category.

Eighty-six percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 88% exceed “Below Basic for documents; 78% exceed “Below Basic” for quantitative. For each of these categories, 13% are actually “proficient”. Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

Please note the use of “Americans”. You can decide if he’s lying or careless while I continue.

What does the data look like if you isolate native English speakers and compare them to non-native speakers?

naaloverallvsnative

Eliminating non-native speakers reduces the “Below Basic” prose scores by 35%, while “Intermediate” readers increase by 11%. “Proficient” readers increases by 15%. The document scores see less dramatic changes, but 1 in 4 of every “Below Basic” scores disappear.

You can rewrite Caplan’s text above:

Over three fifths of Americans are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. [Note: quant scores weren’t made available for disaggregation.]

Ninety one percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 91% exceed “Below Basic for documents…

Not nearly as horrible, are they?

Of course, Caplan also wants to convince the reader that education has little to do with human capital but is primarily signaling. What better way to achieve this than by showing how little education improves the public’s reading scores?

caplannaalpic

“While today’s dropouts spend at least nine years in school, over half  remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Over half of high school graduates have less than the minimum skills [intermediate] one would naively expect them to.” The Case Against Education (page 43)

This graph doesn’t match up exactly to the report (he cites pages 36-37), because he averages the three reading test averages and then selects only the results for the categories High School Dropouts, High School Graduates, and College Grads. So the data above is only for 53% of the surveyed population and averages prose, document, and quantitative.

So Caplan is, deliberately or carelessly,  due to sloppiness or dishonesty, inviting the reader to assume that all those tested are reading their native language. He constantly uses the term “Americans” when over 1 in 10 was almost certain born elsewhere and probably schooled elsewhere. He also never once considers different populations or suggests that we should have anything other than identical expectations for every segment of American society (more on that in another article).

Happily, each NAAL survey generates a lot of research. Six years after the NAAL,  another report dug deep into the non-English speaking results: Overcoming the Language Barrier: The Literacy of Non-Native-English-Speaking Adults. To confuse things, the researchers use the words “High Prose Literacy” and “Low Prose Literacy”, combining the four categories two by two.  But this new report provided score averages on both language and education levels, while the one Caplan used only provided scores for language or education levels. (From here on in, all data is Prose only)

naaloveralllangedabs

These graphs (I assume I could have combined them into one Excel chart but couldn’t figure out how), combines the data from the overall NAAL report and the non-English speaking drill-down. The chart on the left is Low Literacy Prose results (Below Basic and Basic) broken down first by language and then by education. The chart on the right is High Literacy Prose results (Intermediate and Proficient) in the same way.

So right away, it’s obvious that  native English speakers are providing almost all the high literacy results, while non-native speakers are contributing an enormous chunk of the low literacy results. Roughly 20% of the tested population, the non-native English speakers,  is responsible for a third of the low literacy scores. Nearly 7% of all responders were non-native speaking dropouts, comprising the overwhelming portion of low-literacy non-native speakers. Most of the latter group probably didn’t ever attend American schools, although that’s not provided by the data.

Also of interest: 20% of the the high literacy (intermediate and proficient categories) native  English speakers had no more than a high school diploma, while 27% went on to some college and an equal amount went on to graduate and post graduate degrees.

The other half of native English speakers who stopped their education after high school–scored Basic or Below Basic, comprising 42% of all the low literacy scores for that group. I was interested to see that high school graduation numbers aren’t much affected by the switch to native English speakers, suggesting that immigrants are overwhelmingly high school dropouts, followed to a much lesser degree by college graduates.  While their percentage contribution to low and high literacy populations vary, the actual number of high school graduates in each group is about the same (more on that later). Caplan finds it appalling that high school graduates who didn’t go on to higher education are roughly split between four categories. I’m actually encouraged at how many high school graduates are in the top half of the literacy categories.

Ironically, this data slice also clearly shows the flaws in the American system much more clearly than the rather simplistic argument Caplan is making. As I mentioned in the last chapter on college graduate quality, colleges are increasingly accepting people who have not demonstrated college readiness. Almost certainly, some non-English speakers would have both college degrees and poor prose skills. But 7% of native speakers with low literacy rates are college graduates. In absolute terms, nearly 9% of the low literacy population attended at least some college.

Here’s one last take on the data that I used to check my compilation. The orange line is the percentage of each category in the overall Kutner report (that Caplan used). You can see that it’s off slightly, which I’d expect, but mostly in line.

Each column is green pattern, blue pattern, solid green, solid blue. The blues are native English speakers, the greens non-native English speakers. The patterns are low literacy, the solids are high literacy.

NAALoveralllanged

This graph shows how much of each category is dragged down by non-native English speakers with low literacy–anywhere from 6 to 39 percent. Also clear is that non-native English speakers with high proficiency have very little impact on the overall results.

In particularly, non-native English speakers with low literacy are simply overwhelming the high school dropout category, punching far above their weight. Also observe how clearly this graph that substantial numbers of high literacy readers are  stopping education in high school while other low literacy readers are moving onto college and even graduating. Clearly, we aren’t doing our best to identify and educate our strongest students. This might explain why the returns to education are less compelling than they might be, which is again linked to college quality control, not failures in the act of teaching.

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Non-native English speakers may have gone to American schools, and there are some Indian, English, and Australian speakers in the native English results.  But the second group would be overwhelmingly found in the college graduate categories. And if we are to concede that American schools don’t always educate non-native speakers as well as native speakers, we should also grant that no other country in the world expects its schools to educate millions of non-native speakers, much less be judged on the results. So I think it’s quite fair that if we are to consider prose reading skills a proxy for the quality of American education that we consider how the schools educate the people they were originally intended for.

I can’t for the life of me imagine how Caplan was able to get away with including immigrants in his NAAL results. It’s the same utterly dishonest bias that permeates the Pew data, but Caplan’s an academic, this book was published by Princeton Academic Press, has been reviewed by a zillion reputable people, and he is either dishonest or incompetent regarding a key element of his case against American schools.

But that’s not all, as anyone familiar with Caplan understands. Caplan is a libertarian and the leader of the open borders fringe. He argues that America and other countries’ welfare states are an incentive and rationale to restrict immigration, and sees K-12 education as an “indefensible universal program”.

So Caplan wants to end what he considers wasteful public education.He also wants millions of the world’s poor to immigrate to America, and believes this idea would be less controversial if we weren’t obligated to provide welfare and education to the immigrants and the subsequent generations. Hence he argues to end public education as a means to his ends of open borders.

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, that he just somehow doesn’t notice that he’s rigging his case against American education by including the scores caused by  very immigration policy he wants to expand?

naal99203compare

As Kutner report makes clear, pulling out non-native speakers demonstrates that native English speakers improved their scores over the last decade.  Those with mixed language backgrounds improved as well. Meanwhile, native Spanish speaker performance plummeted from its already low 1993 baseline, while the tiny Asian population improved either because the source countries changed or perhaps more Asian Americans grew up to improve the scores.

Incidentally, the other knowledge tests Caplan uses to demonstrate our useless education system are similarly biased. He uses the General Social Survey but doesn’t restrict the results to citizens. The American National Election Survey limits its sample to citizens, at least, but that would still include many people who hadn’t been educated in American schools.

I would like to believe the best of Caplan and that he was just careless or sloppy. But I keep bumping into the fact that Caplan couldn’t disaggregate without explaining why. Explaining that non-native English speakers skew the results would alert readers to the fact that immigrants were so numerous that they were skewing our educational results, making the country appear less capable. He can’t alert the reader to the cataclysmic results that our immigration policy is inflicting on our national education profile because he wants millions more immigrants to further obliterate our educational profile.

All of the bad data shows up in Chapter 3, where Caplan uses it as a foundation for his argument that public education is a waste of time, that Americans’ utter failure to supports his argument that education credentials are all signaling. It’s just one chapter, but it’s the foundation of all the subsequent ones, as he offers it as a given that Americans are stupid useless gits who can’t remember everything they’re taught, which is why education is primarily signaling, and why we should gut our public support for all education.

Once you take out immigrants, American education looks pretty good, and our challenges are clear. We need to seek to improve our educational outcomes for high school, convince our high school dropouts to stay in school (purely for signaling) and we need better paying jobs and more affordable housing to convince them that there are good futures out there for hard work.

Immigration doesn’t help us achieve either of those goals. I understand Caplan disagrees, but he shouldn’t juke his stats. He especially shouldn’t hide the fact that the very immigration changes he argues for leads to an educational profile he finds so ridiculously awful that he considers it evidence we should stop bothering to educate Americans.

(Final note: I have spent a month trying to get this data right and be sure I didn’t make a mistake. I might have anyway. One thing I know, though: I spent more time trying to make sure the NAAL data reflected something closer to American achievement than Caplan did. And I wanted this sucker done. I’m so exhausted of thinking about it. If something’s not clear, please email me or mention it in the comments.)


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Pre-Employment Testing

In the continuing saga…wait. Before I dive in, I want to reiterate something. Sending fewer kids to college is an excellent goal. But we need a realistic case to argue, one that understands how we arrived at this point, what the pressures are to keep it this way, and what are realistic alternatives. Caplan’s 0 for 3. That’s irritating, particularly since Caplan is personally in favor of killing all public education funding, which I absolutely do not support. He makes all these wild statements while many reviewers go the chinstroker route, pretending to take him seriously but actually cherrypicking some of his arguments they agree  or disagree with–yes, this is all very interesting and we should think about it–without engaging with the consequences of his proposals.

The most common explanation for the deep emphasis on credentialing in America is  that employers use college degrees as a proxy for cognitive ability for fear that they’ll be sued. In most circles, this is referred to as the Griggs problem, for the Griggs v Duke Power decision. In the past, employers routinely gave cognitive ability tests for jobs not requiring college degrees, to ensure the applicant has a baseline ability level–or even just to hire the smartest candidate. However, the  Griggs decision severely constrained their ability to test employees if it resulted in a disparate impact by race or gender, so employers began using education credentials as a proxy for ability. Caplan calls it “IQ laundering”; take the IQ, stick it in college for a few years, and then hey, presto, that dirty cognitive ability has been converted into a shiny new, entirely legal, credential, since credentials are not held to the disparate impact ruling.

Caplan thinks IQ laundering proponents are wrong. He thinks it’s obvious that employers “fear” high IQ people who don’t go to college–it signals non-conformity and low conscientiousness. He argues that IQ laundering has to face an “awkward fact”:

10-30% of large employers admit they use cognitive ability tests. (page 89)

Then he continues:

“…the total number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court peaked at about 23,000 in 1998, then gradually declined to about 14,000 in 2007. The average cash award if you win a trial is large–about 1.1 million for 1990-2000. But only 2% of plaintiffs acutally go to trial and win, so annual awards sum to less than $600 million. Most plaintiffs–58%–manage to get an out of court settlement. Settlements are usually confidential, but the average settlement is about 5% as large as the average trail award. Annual settlements therefore sum to less than $800 million. If plaintiffs’ lawyers work for a 40% contingency fee, and defense outpsends them by a factor of three, employers’ legal costs still sum to less than 1.7 billion. Updating these mid-1990s figures for inflation, employers’ total legal burden sums to under $5 billion per year.

Compared to total labor costs, $5 billion is trivial…[But] Only 4% of federal discrimination cases brought between 1987 and 2003 alleged disparate impact. That amounts to under a thousand annual cases against any form of employment testing. If disparate impact cases cost the usual amount, employers’ total test tax is under $200 million a year. (page 89)

So to restate, Caplan thinks employers aren’t interested in finding high IQ people, but only people who have managed to go through college, which presumably signals a decent IQ. Employers don’t have any interest in cognitive ability testing. If they did, they would, because the pittance they’d pay in lawsuits would dwarf the savings they’d find in high IQ workers. They don’t do this. Ergo, they don’t want high IQ workers. They want conforming conscientious folks.

So first, on the 10-30% of corporations testing. I actually heard about this argument several months before, on Twitter,  and called bullshit. I’m amazed no one else noticed. The article, The Benefit of a Degree in I-O Psychology or Human Resources, lists 2 prior surveys and does one of their own:

  • Terpstra, Rozelle, 1993:  201 companies, 20% did cognitive ability testing
  • Drogan, Yancy, 2011: 122 credit unions, 27% did cognitive ability testing
  • Wang, Yancy, 2012: 94 credit unions, 11% did cognitive ability testing.

I do not see how Caplan can use these three papers to assert that 10-30% of all corporations do cognitive ability testing. The papers themselves make no such claims.

Next, Caplan thinks that, since corporations spend billions in labor costs, they should shrug off a few hundred millions in court settlements in exchange for more efficient hiring. But labor costs will be in the billions no matter what. Suppose hiring the perfect employee every time saves employers collectively $1 billion each year.  Tests are expensive. Developing a test that will pass muster in the event someone sues would be extremely expensive. The tradeoff isn’t billions against $200 million, but more like $1 billion against $200 million and the cost of developing a test that passes EEOC in the event of a lawsuit. Morever, $200 million might be the total test tax for all corporations, but it’s not spread out among them evenly. Just ask Target ($2.8 million) or Federal Express ($54.9).

But the gaping hole in Caplan’s case is government hiring. The Civil Service exam was one of the great achievements of the late 19th century governance, but it didn’t last 100 years before the federal government abandoned it under pressure of a consent decree rather than lose at trial because of the test’s disparate impact. Teacher credential tests are routinely challenged for disparate impact and although they’ve been winning for 30 years, every so often a test is rejected for disparate impact and content that can’t be directly linked to the needs of the position.  But teachers have it easy next to  firefighters and cops–in no small part because firefighters and cops get promotions that have to be defensible and racially balanced.

Caplan doesn’t mention the extensive case history on government employment testing and disparate impact, possibly because he is unaware of it, possibly because it interferes with his easy, brief dismissal or, most likely, because he has some glib reason that he’ll use to argue in favor of ignoring it. But I find it difficult to justify his failure to take into account the hundreds of government cases on testing and disparate impact. The cases weren’t cheap, certainly, and it’s quite possible many large employers are scared off testing because of the many times courts have thrown out even carefully calibrated tests for seemingly random reasons. Toss that in with the $200 million “test tax” and the huge expense of developing a test against the likelihood of a loss–which happens to governments all the time, reminding corporations of what they could be wasting–and it’s far more reasonable, contra Caplan, to think that perhaps corporations don’t want the risk of cognitive ability testing.

Caplan occasionally mentions the “defenders of the IQ laundering theory”–those misguided souls who think Griggs had any sort of impact. For those looking for an excellent argument otherwise, see  Griggs vs. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing (O’Keefe/Vedder).  As Vedder and O’Keefe point out, employment tests were ubiquitous in this country before the Griggs decision. Now they’re very rare, other than in the EEOC-approved college credential path. In contrast to this history, Caplan’s simplistic, skeletal treatment of Griggs‘ potential impact on the rise of college credentialism undercuts his already weak argument for the employment value of conformity and conscientiousness.

Furthermore,  Caplan erred in saying that Griggs was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It was codified in the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, a distinction that matters because the court cases immediately following this codification supported Griggs. But  (Note: The Equal Opportunity Act didn’t codify Griggs, it just expanded the scope. I was misled by wording in the Vedder/O’Keefe piece. Thanks to Robert Verbruggen for pointing this out.)

But those of us blaming Griggs are focusing on the wrong target. In 1989, the Supreme Court threw out key elements of Griggs in a case known as Wards Cove , restoring the original 1964 understanding of the requirement.

Congress was much better at getting things done back then, and President Bush was running for re-election. So Teddy Kennedy proposed an amendment that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, overruling the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstating disparate impact.

This strikes me as important for a several reasons. First, it shows again that Caplan’s not a reliable narrator. He read the O’Keefe/Vedder article; it’s in his (excellent) bibliography. But he presented the information in such a way that utterly evades the complexity and controversy behind the disparate impact requirement.  Naw, it’s just like the 55 mph speed limit–a formality. Everyone breaks it. And that’s just not true.

Next, the Supreme Court appears to be once again forcing the conversation back towards equity and away from reverse discrimination–and this time, Congress and the President aren’t inclined towards swift action. What happens if disparate impact is ruled discriminatory in some future case?

Because, finally, Congress’s reaction to the Ward’s Cove decision overruled the Supreme Court, which doesn’t happen very often. What made this case special? Similarly, employers flagrantly violate all sorts of laws, but most of them are very leery of taking on the cognitive ability test and disparate impact. It’s almost as if institutionally, there might be a powerful counterforce pushing political and business leaders away from cognitive ability testing.

Hmm. What on earth could that counterforce be? But I’m at 1600 words already, so that’s the next article.

I can’t prove Caplan is wrong about employers and disparate impact. Caplan doesn’t take the long view, and it’s quite possible that today, given the ubiquitous nature of college attendance, employers do see failure to attend college as a sign of either low intellect or low conformity. But because Caplan elides or omits a great deal of importance from his argument, he makes the issue seem simple  when it clearly isn’t. Again, I don’t get the sense he’s making a serious case. Griggs wasn’t decided by stupid people. They had a reason for trying to stop employers from using cognitive ability as a hiring criterion.

I learned a great deal in fact-checking Caplan in this section. Most importantly, I learned that those of us who blame Griggs aren’t telling the whole story. Griggs was declared unconstitutional and then its elements were explicitly forced back into law by Congress and President Bush I. Disparate impact might not be similarly rescued in the future.


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

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

I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.


A Few Words on Janus

aboodquote

I’ve always thought the free speech aspect of the Janus case was purely nonsense. Eugene Volokh argued that Abood was wrongly decided in granting that free speech objection in the first place, observing that “compelled subsidy of others’ speech happens all the time”.   How many state-  or CDC-funded ads do we have to sit through, watching people smoke through their breathing tubes?  Or the various “join the military” ads?

I’m not a big fan of unions,although teachers unions come in for a lot of undeserved criticism. But my dislike of unions is professional–totally unrelated to the bizarro conservative hate-on which, I guess, has to do with the unions shoveling millions of easily collected dollars straight into Democrat coffers.

Still, I’m amazed, as always, at the utter cluelessness of the post-Janus gloating–which, typically, focuses almost exclusively on teacher employment, as if there’s no other public employee. I don’t think anyone’s focused on Janus’s impact on cops, for example–unsurprising, really, since the GOP likes cops and doesn’t want to fuss them.

But I’ll go with the flow and talk teachers, since that’s what I know.

First, left or right,  anyone who thinks education reform’s failure has anything to do with unions is kidding themselves. As I’ve written many times, education reform got everything it wanted for sixteen years–and as a result support for charters has plummeted,  support for unions and tenure has increased, and the ESSA deliberately and specifically targeted all the reform “advances” and ripped them into shreds.

So whatever changes Janus brings, I’d bet against Bill Bennett and Fordham Foundation.

We are in the middle of a teacher shortage, so good luck with cutting salaries, raising credential cut scores, or ending tenure. And has often been noted, the recent teacher walkouts have been in weak union states: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky. Colorado’s governor refused to sign a law that would fire striking teachers.

You know how conservatives and others say look, we don’t hate teachers, we just hate unions. Well, specific union objectives, unlike their political spending, are pretty much in line with what teachers want. In a scarce labor market, killing unions won’t make it any easier to push teachers around.

I’m likewise unconvinced that the billions of dollars the unions send to the Dems has anything to do with Democrat political success. Lordy, did you all learn nothing from Trump? Dave Brat? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

So sure, Janus will lead to less money for unions. But dream on if you think Dems are crippled or the public will suddenly sign on for teacher merit pay.

Moreover, the idea that “millions of public employees” are being forced–yea, forced!–into paying to receive union-negotiated salaries just strikes me as bogus. I don’t like my dollars going to progressive causes, and as an immigration restrictionist, I get really annoyed at union shills wailing about family separations or the travel ban. But when Republican-leaning public employees growl about unions, they are, like me, unhappy about the waste of dollars sent to left-leaning organizations. How many public workers are actively opposed to the fundamentals of public employment? I’m skeptical. If  millions of public employees were outraged by job protections and pensions, conservatives wouldn’t have had to wait so long for the odd ball public employee to hang their case on. It took them years to find Friedrichs and then Janus out on the fringes to make the case.

But why should unions be required to negotiate contracts and protect employees who don’t pay for their services? The Supreme Court waved off the “free rider” problem, but who’s to say there will be paying riders? What’s stopping all teachers from saving hundreds of dollars a year, if the unions will work the contracts no matter what?

Considering that the state laws requiring unions to represent non-members have just been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the unions have a logical next step.

Unions should refuse to work for free. They won’t  provide any service to non-members.

Some services can be easily split between members and non-members. Job protections and other benefits, for example, are easily managed. Non-members who oppose job protections can just live with a greater risk of termination, while members can still ask for union representation.

But contract and salary negotiations apply to all employees, members or not. So unions should refuse to engage in these activities for any salary schedule that has less than 100% membership. Neither members nor non-members will get new salary schedules until someone else steps up to that task–and that someone else will want to be paid.

I can envision many ways out of the chaos that ensues, but certain truths seem obvious. Salary negotiation for millions of teachers, firefighters, police officers, DMV workers, prison guards and the rest is a labor (heh) intensive task. Right now, public employees pay for that task through their union representation. If unions refuse to do this, then how will public employees get raises? Fond fantasies aside, at some point the government is going to have to figure out how to replace that service.

While conservatives dream of a world in which government employees negotiate their salaries individually, absorbing the cost at a unit level, their dreams probably don’t include the onslaught of lawsuits that would follow in a world where local government officials decided salaries on merit. That’s why most charter and private schools use salary schedules, despite their ostensible freedom from these one-size-fits-all charts.

If unions just flatly ended all contract negotiations, the pressure for a Janus-fix would be immediate, particularly for teachers and cops. But wait! unions say–at least, this is what I think they should say. We’re not here to be obstructionist.  We’ll offer membership “tiers”.

Tier 1: Contract and salary negotiations only. Price: a couple hundred at most.
Tier 2: Tier 1 plus performance issues representation. Price: five hundred at most.
Tier 3: Tier 2 plus the cool bennies, political spending, other perks. Price: one thousand at most.

All employees on a given salary schedule must be at least a Tier 1 union member. No 100% membership, no contract and salary negotiations.

Some districts might not be able to get 100% membership. They could then contract to bring the union in for salary negotiations. Still other district employees might decide to do without unions entirely. Maybe they’ll figure out another means of negotiating salaries. Or maybe they’ll realize that union salaries are higher than non-union salaries for a reason.

Unions should not put the cost of their contract negotiations solely on their members. They should demand compensation for the services they perform that benefit all employees. If the employees don’t pay, then no union negotiations.

At the same time, unions could stop charging so much money, accept that they can’t use all teachers’ dues as a piggy bank for their political spending, and be more focused on offering services that all members can benefit from.

Those states with laws requiring unions to represent non-members are welcome to take them to court. However, I like to think that the same conservative jurists who hate unions also think it reasonable that unions get paid if they provide a service.

I’d be shocked, although pleased, if unions took this approach–with adjustments, of course, because I have no idea how much unions costs in other parts of the country, much less all of their many activities.  If they don’t, though, I’m ending my membership entirely. I’ve always refused to do the paperwork for agency fees–too much work for too little money. But I’ve paid nine years of union dues that went to political goals I not only don’t share but actively opposed. That’s enough to cover my next six years to retirement.

 

 


On Depression and Not Suicide

“I’ve told mine, now go tell yours. “–Kirsten Powers

I had two close friends in high school and on into my twenties; I called them The Jays. Jay One was quiet, often withdrawn, fought depression constantly, and routinely considered suicide but always decided against it. Jay Two never mentioned depression, but at the age of nineteen made a serious attempt at suicide.

Both of the Jays would–and did–unhesitatingly agree that by any objective standard, I won the Whose Life Sucks the Most? contest. Both of them lived in middle class stability with functional families. In contrast, my family and social life had dysfunction, humiliation, misery galore. The Jays knew of enough of these events that they felt lucky.

After I learned of Jay Two’s suicide attempt, I spent a good bit of time wondering why the hell anyone would deliberately seek out death. My fear of death is–I think–healthy and normal? But being a good and proper depressive who masks anxiety with obsession, I worried about death, usually through one focus point. When I was four or five, up through eight or nine, I would lay awake at night convinced that I’d heard a “burglar” coming to rob the house, who would kill us all, and practiced holding my breath so that the bad guy who would look at me and go “Hmm. This one’s dead already.” and move on to my sibs. Then I’d feel bad, because I’d be the only one alive and they’d all be dead, so I told my brother that if the bad guys come, he was to hold his breath. My brother, two years younger, agreed this was a good strategy.

This fear carried me through to age eleven, when a real-life traumatic year or three in school forced me to put aside imaginary horrors.  When that episode finally ended, and I got back to worrying, I was old enough to realize that the “burglar” of my night fears was more properly described as  “serial killer”, who would just wait to see if I started breathing again, so I better make sure I had an exit strategy for my bedroom. For years I avoided plugging in any electric device–both my brother and sister would plug things in for me without even teasing. In my early twenties, it became air travel, a phobia which has stayed with me. Mind you, I flew. A lot. I was a consultant for much of that time.  I’d just convince myself, a la Warf, that today was a good day to die–which stopped working once my son was sitting in the seat next to me, so then I had to go back to worrying.

Prior to Jay Two’s attempt, I understood that suicide existed. Hemingway had done it. Hitler and all his Nazi friends. But it had nothing to do with my life. By twenty, I had three events in my life that, had I committed suicide in today’s media-saturated environment, would have made me a  poster child for one cause or another. Yet I never even conceived of slitting my wrists as Jay Two had.

In no way could I have been considered  a happy-go-lucky, optimistic cheerful soul. An aunt once told me that I’d look back and consider high school the best time of my life.

I said, “Jesus. Shoot me now.”

Nor was I one of those  “shake the dust of this miserable town off my feet” sorts. While my psyche was in terrible shape, my life had many bright spots. My family was dysfunctional and damaging, but also loving and fun. I had no visions of conquering the world, no specific goals, and a self-esteem that was in the toilet.

My twenties saw the same pattern continue–I wasn’t setting the world afire, but was quietly, modestly successful given my upbringing, with a personal life filled with dysfunction that I spent years trying to fix or end. But my son was born, and that changed everything, including my willingness to tolerate insanity. At a certain point, I realized it didn’t matter if this was all my fault or not.

Life in my thirties did get better. I went to a therapist, which was very helpful in smoothing out my life and developing strategies to cope with craziness. My  original diagnosis was dysthymia. I didn’t feel depressed. My therapist had quite a time figuring me out; I used to joke that our conversations were a series of my “bumping into lists”–diagnostic lists, which would serve to determine if some casual comment had actually revealed a deeper issue.

One of the lists I bumped into  while talking about “daydreaming” led my therapist to determine that I’m “O without the C”, or obsessive without compulsion. From that point on, whenever I mentioned “worrying”, I’d hear “You don’t worry, you obsess,” a distinction that made utterly no sense to me for five years until suddenly one day it occurred to me that worrying didn’t mean spending every single waking moment outside of conversation thinking about….something. Whether I’d get another contract. How I would pay the bills if I didn’t get a contract. Whether I was a bad parent. Remembering a book or a movie. Reliving a prior conversation. My brain is in constant motion, and a lot of that time is spent reviewing and rethinking and future-tripping, but when I have a real concern, the one issue grabs every single minute of my conscious time. And the only way I knew to get out of that cycle was avoidance–literally not opening mail, not returning calls, not going to the bank, not doing bills, refusing to think about it, or I’d get into a cycle that never stopped.

Once I figured this out, I learned, over the next year, to time my obsessions.  When possessed with a fear,  I’d allow myself to “worry” for five minutes every thirty minutes. When I felt the thought grab me, I’d check the clock…no, wait ten more minutes.

Over time, my obsessions were less able to grab every waking moment, which paradoxically left me vulnerable to unmitigated depression. In my late 30s I experienced a major depressive episode, one in which my therapist had to contact my doctor, to my considerable annoyance, one in which I was constantly offered medication, which I rejected.  While there were a few triggering events, the overwhelming sense of cycle was what defeated me. This is my life. It will always be a struggle. I am Pigpen, attracting troubles and craziness like dust.  I won’t have calm certainty, serene upward progress, happiness. I’ll have craziness spiked with terrific highs and lots of disappointment and inexplicable defeats. There would be no end to this.

I am a high functioning depressive who talks a lot and most of my small group of friends knew my pain. One pal told me, “You always seem completely in control, never in need of help. I don’t know how to give you a hand.” I found this very perplexing, since one thing I don’t have, never had, is any sense of control.

I resented the fact that others who felt this way could consider and reject suicide–or consider and accept it. They had a choice. I had none. I don’t mean this in any noble sense, much less a religious sense, simply that the deepest grip of this dark time, I’d still agonize about air travel, still hear a  bump in the middle of the night and freeze, thinking great, I’m horribly depressed and will get butchered by a sick madman. Suicide meant death. I was absolutely incapable of even envisioning taking action to cause my death.

Except once.

I was driving along my favorite highway, trying to figure out how to escape this intense sense of exhaustion and despair at my nothing of a life and suddenly wondered if I could just drive into a wall. If I hit the accelerator, hard, faced a curve, or a wall, or a train, then no airbag could work well enough and I’d feel….nothing.

I felt it. I felt in that minute, the blotting out that death might bring.

But I didn’t have time to consider whether that feeling was attractive, because literally the second the sensation arose, I could feel my son’s devastation.

All throughout this huge depression cycle, people would tell me, look, you can’t give in to this. Think of your son. I would always shrug that off because they didn’t understand, I couldn’t commit suicide, so I didn’t have to consider my son. But for a split instant, I managed to think of a way  that I might fool myself into dying, and got an equally split second to consider my son’s reaction. No. I couldn’t do that to my son.

That realization didn’t lessen the depression, but now I was relieved instead of annoyed that suicide was not an option. And eventually, that major depressive episode ended. My life since then has been…fun. I still have dysthymia. I’m still  obsessive but, as my shrink said, on a scale of 1 being mild worry that you left the oven on, and 10 being visually tracing woodgrains for hours on end, I’m at a 7–which is much better. Over the years I’ve trained myself to stop avoidance, which has done much to stabilize my finances.

I’ve realized that the ideal lives I thought everyone else was leading were…not so ideal, that trade offs I thought were unconscious were, in fact, active. I’ve been more consciously making life choices than I give myself credit for.  Like joking that teaching was something I just stumbled into, when in fact I realized my skill at tutoring, sought out that occupation, then applied to ed school. And so the wonderful career I have is not just fortunate happenstance.

In no way am I suggesting any moral superiority or strength of character.  My experience in my thirties taught me that I’m fortunate to hate the idea of death, that my mental anguish didn’t force me to daily make a decision to live, to pick my son and my future over ending an existence that didn’t seem to have much to show for the struggle.

But my experience with the Jays taught me that suicide does not correlate with objective misery.  And  my experience with fear has taught me that others have far less tolerance for discomfort than I do.

Everyone assumes suicides are faced with unrelenting pain and depression. But in fact, 54% of suicides are not related to known mental illness. And certainly not everyone fears death to the same degree.  It’s not only possible but likely that millions of people face terrible anguish and horrible life  circumstances and never or rarely consider suicide, while other people kill themselves over minor setbacks. Still others combine a lack of fear with a lack of consideration that genuinely seems spiteful to those left behind. Yet the public reaction to suicide is to unquestioningly accept that the murdered person was tortured and desperate, that this pain led to the decision.

That’s simplistic. Leave aside a painful and immediately terminal illness, dementia, schizophrenia. Absent these conditions, choosing to die is a multi-factorial glitch in the system, a combination of personality, circumstances, and genetics. Those of us left behind don’t have to hold ourselves responsible for others’ choices, whether by blaming ourselves–or  our culture, as Kirsten Powers does.  Not that this makes dealing with their choice any easier.

But having children should put certain choices out of reach. All these celebrations of Bourdain and Spade overlook or barely mention their daughters.

Leaving a child behind with a conscious suicide is not, perhaps, unforgivable, given years of retrospective.  But it’s a choice violates the  fundamental parental creed.

And Spade’s note to her daughter is an obscenity.

 

 


Great Moments in Teaching: The Charge

Friday, two weeks from the end of school, and it’s rally schedule: chop off fifteen minutes from each block for a screaming session in the gym. It’s fourth block, my trig class, and although I try not to have favorites, this semester has been a bit low on students with energy and ability. But even the goof-offs in this class can remember the basics of trig, have put some effort into memorizing the unit circle, reciprocal values, the occasional Pythagorean identity,  know the difference between sine and cosine graphs.  And only two cheaters. The top kids are amazing, enthusiastic, and driven–and there are lots of them, many of whom I just taught Algebra 2.  So a fun class, and really the only one with a genuine personality this semester.

I had given them some extra time to finish up a test from the day before, and it’s now just 35 minutes to rally.

“OK, I want to cover a couple things to set up Monday. Let’s….”

“NOOOOOOO!!!!” the blast of complaints hit me. I turned around and glared.

“Come on! It’s Friday! You can’t make us learn something new!” Tre, who last had a math teacher that wasn’t me in freshman algebra, put on his most ingratiating grin.

“It’s so hot, and my brain hurts. Please, no more math!” Patti slumped dramatically.

“QUIET!” I turned back from drawing a cosine graph to bellow them into submission.

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“I just want to introduce a couple of interesting properties and get you thinking, once again, about…oh, for christ’s sake.”

“WHAT??? What happened?” the students crane their heads forward to see the object of my irritation. I was growling at a student whiteboard sitting on a desk.

“Oh, some student used a fricking sharpie to draw a self-portrait.” and I held up the board so the class could see the penis.

“HAHAHAHAHA!” TJ was cracking up and I whirled at him furiously.

“You know, we use these white boards every day, and if I can’t get the sharpie off, it’s ruined. You think it’s FUNNY that students destroy my stuff?”

TJ was genuinely puzzled. “No. You just called him a dick. Like, without saying so. That was cool.”

“Fine. Ruin the fun of yelling at you. Take one more ounce of joy from my day.” I grinned at him and sprayed cleaner on the board.

“Ain’t no cleaner taking off sharpie,” Ahmed sympathized.

“Dude, this is Kaboom,” Tre said. “Kaboom’s the bomb.”

“Best cleaner in the known universe.” I spray the board and let it sit. All my kids know I love Kaboom. I tell new teachers about Kaboom, an essential teaching tool. When the kids write F*** in Sharpie, it’s so incredibly satisfying to wipe the obnoxiousness out of existence with one spray. Lesser challenges–gang graffiti, pencil sketches, soda spills, even small patches of gum–all disappeared.

“I hate students, dammit.” I turned back to the board. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love you all. But I just hate students. Ruin my stuff, treat it like crap….” I stop, because students breaking my stuff can put me in a foul mood in a hurry.

“It wasn’t us!” Matteo protested.

“Dude, it was you.”

“Screw you, Furio, how do you know?”

“Cuz you’re a dick! That’s your picture!”

I laughed, feeling much better. “Look, back to work. So you know how there’s a line, and then we can square a line, or multiply it by another line, to get a…”

“Parabola,” a reasonable amount of the class chorused, but I could hear talking.

“Shush, whoever’s talking. What happens when we square the cosine function? Take a look at the function and let’s just square what we….BE QUIET BRIAN..see. Cosine starts at…QUIET.” I turn around, wait for quiet. “Cosine starts at what, Furio?”

“1.”

“So 1 squared is..?”

“1”.

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I mark (0,1) in a different color, and move to the next hashmark. “Cosine is zero at pi over 2, zero squared is…QUIET.”

Most kids were paying attention, but there was this low level nattering that rose up every time I turned to the board.  But we got through the first one quickly.

“So here’s the square of the cosine function. What do you notice?”

“It’s a cosine graph!” Vicky.

“Sure looks like it. Period? Amplitude?” and we identified all the parameters for a cosine function graph.

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So the square of the cosine function can also be expressed as a regular cosine graph. Amplitude and vertical shift, one half, period one half the usual.”

Ahmed said with faux judiciousness, stroking his chin, “Ah, but how do we know this? It might just look like a cosine graph!”

“Good question. We can see the key points work, but maybe that’s just a coincidence. So pick a value and let’s plug it in. QUIET!”

“How about pi over six?”

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Carla was impressed. “Wow, when you double the value, it becomes something entirely different.”

“Yes….QUIET!!! I’m always surprised at how the alignments happen. So now let’s go on to the sine function. What do you all think will happ….QUIET!”

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“Jesus Christ, Eduardo and Brian, will the two of you shut.up.? NO! Stop the innocent ‘who me?’ crap. Three times in the past three minutes. I tell you to be quiet, turn to the promethean, turn around and there you are yapping again. Do I need to move you?”

Eduardo (Manuel‘s younger brother) and Benny look abashed, hearing the edge in my voice. I was mad at myself more than anything these two had done. Note to new teachers: don’t push through without attention. Constantly shushing is a sign you don’t own the room..  Don’t push through, stop when you need to. And it wasn’t an accident I’d picked two of the top kids in the class to shut down; it showed everyone else I was serious, if the unusual edge in my voice wasn’t enough.

By now I was furious with myself, and boy, do I get global in a hurry. My rotten students ruin my whiteboards and never shut up. I’m an idiot who decided to teach something complex 30 minutes before the weekend. And there are times when I’ve decided it’s not worth it and call it quits–call a pop quiz, put a problem on the board as an exit ticket, something. But deep breath, act like nothing happened, and push on, vowing to give it one more shot before I bail on an exit ticket activity.

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“Wait.” Joanie, probably my top math student this year, sat up and scowled at the graph dots. “How can that be a cosine, too? That’s weird.”

“What kind of cosine function? What’s different?”

“It’s reflected. So cosine squared is cosine, and sine squared is negative cosine?”

“Looks like it.”

tcgraph6

“But what’s the point of this?” Vicky asked. “Since squaring a sine or cosine function just takes you back to cosine, why do it?”

“Well, math applications will quite often require you to square functions, so it’s good to know how they behave. However, I really just want you to think about exploring functions. Up to now, you’ve been working primarily with transformations or known formats with parameters you can just plug in. But now we’re investigating functions that aren’t familiar with. Notice, too, that we did this all graphically with a minimum of evaluation.”

“So just for fun, what if we add the two functions we just created?”

tcgraph7

“Here they are together. So let’s add the five primary points.”

tcgraph8

TJ puzzled. “They’re all one? Really? That’s weird.”

“Yeah, but you can see it in the graphs,” Juan observed. “They’re equal at one-half, at opposite ends at one.”

I join all the points.

tcgraph9

“So the graph y= cosine squared plus sine squared is always….”

“One!” the class chorused.

And then I threw out casually, oh so casually, “And cosine squared plus sine squared is…”

“One!…”

The pause was the best part. I looked down, and waited as the recognition grew, until by god, the entire room was shouting in approval, clapping and stomping.

It’s one of those things that maybe you had to be there. But in half an hour, at the end of a day, in hot weather, right before a rally and a weekend, I’d not only gotten those kids to apply their knowledge of trig graphs in a new approach, but draw a connection from graphic to algebraic. They hadn’t recognized the familiar equation because their minds were in “graph” mode, and only when I asked about a Pythagorean identity, using almost exactly the same words, did they realize that they already knew what the graph would show. But not until then.

And they thought it was really cool that I’d pulled them around to this recognition.

Literally, a minute of stomping until I waved it down. “All right! Thank you. Remember during the first week, when I told you I’m a stickler for understanding the connection between algebraic and visual representations? Here you go.”

And then, “But what about tangent? What happens when you square that?”

Ten minutes left and I’ve got them asking questions. I realized I haven’t had to shush them once.

And just as the bell rings, we established that tan2(x) + 1 = sec2(x).

The kids rushed out to the rally. Rallies are my one Bad Teacher thing: I don’t go. I checked the whiteboard, Kaboom had wiped out most of the damage. Then I walked to Starbucks just completely charged, reliving the math and the applause. All the yelling, all the grouchiness, wiped away. I’d killed.

I keep telling you: Teaching is a performance art.

 


Why Not Move to Where the Jobs Are?

 

“Americans aren’t getting up and going where the jobs are, anymore.”–Charles Murray, Conversations with Bill Kristol

“If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.”–Kevin Williamson

To explain why Americans aren’t moving to where the jobs are, look no further than The Newcomers, an excellent book about a year in the life of South High School’s ELL program, peopled by refugees and illegal immigrants from every pocket of the world.

Let me tell you how good Thorpe’s book is: she believes that we should bring in millions, or at least hundreds of thousands,  of refugees every year. She inserts herself constantly into the story, bleating platitudes about the magical qualities of people who simply happen to come from another country.   A truly admirable African family of ten move themselves off subsidies in a matter of months, while their two high school kids RFEP-ed  in less than a year. An almost certainly mentally ill Iraqi woman turns down or loses most of the jobs she’s offered, buys two cars when she still can’t make the rent, and barely parents her two daughters who skip school every week, until she nearly kills one of them in an at-fault wreck in one of the cars she couldn’t afford–but hey, that’s ok, because, you know, Medicaid will spend millions on the daughter’s recovery.

But to Thorpe, these families are equally adequate for the real purpose of the refugee program:

[Mark and I] did agree on one central thing: that to live in comfort in the developed world and ignore the suffering of strangers who had survived catastrophes on other parts of the globe was to turn away from one’s own humanity. In spending time with refugees, Mark found a kind of salvation, and I experienced something similar while mingling with the kids.They affected all of us this way….The students and their families saved each of us from becoming jaded or calloused or closed-hearted. They opened us up emotionally to the joy of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

At some point while writing this piece, I saw a comment characterizing the romantic, narcissistic mindset driving the left on immigration.  (edit: thanks to my own commenters who pointed me to the source)

Immigrants are sacred not because they save us, but because their presence gives us the chance to show how we can save them.

We are the agents; they are helpless and can do nothing without our grace.

That captures Thorpe’s mindset beautifully.

So I’m recommending Thorpe’s book despite vehement disagreement with her savior-complex political and philosophical values, despite the relentless shilling of a refugee and immigration policy I find extremely harmful.

Thorpe is irritating, but thorough. Her rhapsodies on the mystical value of shared culture is as easily parodied as Wordsworth is on spades, but deeply reported narratives here and abroad, the vivid classroom descriptions, and (most importantly), the in-depth look at the expensive and relentless support the refugees received are worth the near-epileptic eye-rolls her misty-eyed romances induce.’

Moreover, Thorpe does a better than average job at classroom action. She nails the details of an ELL class. Like the teacher in her story, I had a class suddenly explode in size (from six to eighteen in less than six weeks). My students ranged from highly motivated to utterly disengaged. Some barely showing up? Check. Others making almost unimaginable progress in a year? Check. Not really teaching English, just giving them enrichment while they absorb the language from their environment? Check. Students who are tagged as English learners when in fact they have sub-90 IQs and have acquired as much English as they’re going to? Check. ELL classroom actually the entire community, as the students are insulated from the rest of the school? Check. She really captures the essential nature of ELL classrooms.

But classroom narratives are incidental to Thorpe’s primary mission of selling her readers on the Great Good Work the refugee program accomplishes.  She doesn’t shrink from revealing just how much time, money, resources, and boatloads of free stuff are lavished on uneducated refugees with huge families of varying motivation who just show up here and qualify for incredible bounty.

Before the bell rang for their next class, Mr. Williams beckoned to his seven teens and asked them to follow him into a large walk-in closet on the far side of the room. Inside, neatly arranged on wire shelving, the students beheld pasta, rice, lentils, beans, cans of vegetables, boxes of cereal, and individually wrapped protein bars. …Although their own daughter had graduated the previous spring, Jaclyn Yelich and Greg Theilen had nonetheless spent the past several days stocking these shelves….

“This is the food bank,’ Mr. Williams announced. “You can come here on Friday afternoon and take home bags of food.”….As he prepared to go home himself, Mr. Williams saw his students line up and wait their turn…They walked out of his room carrying recycled plastic bags bulging with beans, lentils, rice, all the staples.

A few chapters later, Jaclyn “proudly reported” that they were now giving grocery bags to sixty students, and by the next calendar year they were serving eighty families per week, and had moved from just beans and lentils to fresh produce and toiletries, including feminine products.

Thorpe also reveals, perhaps less consciously, how many liberal jobs are dependent on an abundant flow of refugees–while giving detailed accounts of the refugee swag bag:

 Troy was a caseworker with the African Community Center, a local nonprofit that was part of a national refugee resettlement agency known as the Ethiopian Community Development Council–one of the nine agencies that partners with the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States…Troy had found this particular assignment more perplexing than most because the family was large and were processed as three separate cases…. [The two oldest children] Gideon and Timote had “aged out” of the original application….

Right away, Troy handed [all four adults] each a $20 bill. This was pocket money, to use as they liked…..The following day, Troy would visit the family to check on them….and then he would hand every adult another $100 in cash. …Refugees were given a one-time cash grant from the federal government upon arrival of slightly more than $1000 per person, administered by the resettlement agency. They could also qualify for any assistance program open to a legal resident of the United States, depending on their income level. But they were expected to become self-sufficient within a short time. …By the time a refugee family walked into their new home, a case worker had to have secured appropriate housing, arranged for bedding [which must be new] and furniture, provided basic cooking utensils, cleaning supplies, and groceries, and prepared a warm meal of food that the family would find familiar.

Then Troy explained to the new family that they’d qualify for TANF, foodstamps, and Medicaid. Some would receive funds from another refugee cash assistance program. Troy had already expedited the benefits, so they’d get the money in seven days. He then spent hours with the parents explaining how rent worked, how food stamps worked, how TANF payments would come onto the same card as food stamps and how to go get a money order using the card.

Thorpe clearly implies that Trump’s victory will start economic hard times for the non-profits:

Over at the African Community Center, frustrated staff members, including Troy Cox, confronted something they had almost never seen: an empty bulletin board–no more Arrivals Notifications. Trump had suspended the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 and capped the number of refugees…

The only Republican other than Trump making an appearance is an evangelical Christian named Mark:

It struck me as notable that my liberal friends who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton and thought they were pro-refugee were not logging many volunteer hours with [refugee] families–but Mark was, every single week.

Liberals like Troy get paid by government grants to help refugees. Conservative Christians  like Mark volunteer for free.

Oh, that’s not fair. There were plenty of free services offered by liberals: in-class therapy, Goodwill teacher aides, and the aforementioned foodbanks. All tax-deductible, of course, and often covered by federal grants.

Eager to see the dismal lives her beloved pet refugees led before salvation, Thorpe visits a Ugandan refugee primary school with 1,606 children in eleven rooms. The school’s one redeeming virtue is it’s free, unlike the rare Ugandan secondary schools, which cost a great deal of money most can’t afford.

Thorpe goes through the numbers: The camp has 2 doctors who see 2,183 patients a month. Women get raped at the rate of about one a day. Where refugees live in homes with “no electricity, no appliances, no running water, no heating, no light switches, no glass windowpanes, and no doorknobs.” Where houses are made of dark mud.  She does not call the refugee camp a “hellhole”, but she thinks it very loudly.

She eagerly seeks out relatives of the African refugee family of Methusella (the star achiever in her tale). After finding a family uncle, she finally goes to a crowded refugee high school with an indifferent administrator who, with prompting, produces Stivin, Methusella’s cousin and close friend. But her stint at interconnectedness doesn’t go as planned.

I took out my iPhone to show him the same pictures…His face clouded as I described how well his relatives were doing in the United States….The American classrooms in my photographs had wall-to-wall carpeting,glass windows, colorful chairs, shelves of books, and carts filled with laptop computers. The classrooms at his school had concrete floors, no lights, and no windows. There were no books and no computers. I was showing Stivin a glimpse of a paradise to which he had not been invited.

I told him that his cousin Methusella said hello.

…”Tell him to work hard and send me money for a school uniform!” Stivin replied, in a slightly bitter tone.

Silly Stivin. Didn’t he realize his responsibility in this conversation? He was to be awed and grateful to the generous American who came all this way to show him how much her country was doing for Methusella. He was supposed to thank Thorpe for caring enough to seek him out, show him the wonderful life that people like Helen have insisted that America provide for a lucky few of the millions wanting a different life. Poor Helen. All the way to Uganda and no warm fuzzies for her effort.

Thorpe calls her behavior careless. I call her behavior devastating, unthinking, and cruel.

Mark Krikorian and others suggest that it’s cheaper and much more equitable to help refugees where they are. I’m all for that, even given the likelihood that much of the money will end up as bribes and graft. But when refugee programs combine with the “family unification” program, we end up “resettling” hundreds of thousands more.  Perhaps we should simply stop giving refugees the idea that leaving their own country and sitting in camps for years on end might possibly lead to the equivalent of a lottery win, and force them to stop hoping for a rescue to unimaginable luxury. Maybe they’ll stop trying to escape and start the horrible, painful process of fixing their own countries.

Besides, we have our own people to help.

So before I finish connecting the book review to the title of this piece, let me forestall an inevitable rejoinder from immigration romantics. I grew up outside the US.  My education, employment (both in technology and teaching), and community has been in  wildly diverse environments.  I have only lived one year of my life in a town that was over 50% white, and have spent many of the past 30 years in towns that more than 50% Asian.   In my life as a tech consultant, easily 50% of my co-workers over the years were immigrants.  With the exception of my ed school, which was about 70% white, I have attended and taught at schools that were 30% white or less, one that was 70% Hispanic. I’ve liked it fine. I’m so unused to being in a room full of whites that I double take and get nervous.

Thorpe, who was First Lady of Colorado for several years, grew up in a white suburb of New Jersey. When she married her now ex-husband John Hickenlooper, they eschewed the governor’s mansion, sticking to their Park Hill home,  in an area not particularly affluent and particularly African American–the kind of place that prides itself for being diverse but really isn’t. Her innocent awe suggests she isn’t experienced enough to categorize immigrants by ethnicity.  She’s an accurate reporter, but just a visitor. If I’m cynical about romantic vapors about immigrants and refugees in particular, I’ve earned the right. And not for nothing, but I’ve personally helped one hell of a lot more immigrants, refugees and otherwise, than Thorpe ever has visiting immigrants when she gets book deals for doing so.

As a group, would be immigrants have only one universal shortcoming: they aren’t American.  We owe our fellow Americans the resources, staffing, and opportunities we lavish on immigrants, refugee or otherwise.

While Thorpe goes into considerable detail about the cost of relocating and settling refugees, she never mentions the fortune we spend educating  all these first and second generation immigrants–some of whom become exceptional, most of whom need welfare just like mom and dad do.

Scratch the surface of every happy story report of a region that welcomed immigrants, refugees or otherwise, to “revitalize” its economic doldrums, and you’ll see a mention of the tremendous cost of educating new refugees. Immigrants cost much more to educate than native English speakers. They have smaller classes. They have lots of teacher’s aides, often hired from the immigrant community–another jobs program.  Sometimes, immigrant parents become unhappy with the local schools so they use public dollars to set up an immigrants only charters, or perhaps they’ll attend one of the many public schools using tax dollars to run ESL-only schools.

Thorpe describes the refugees’ work: dishwashers, factory jobs, meatpacking plants. She sees it as a selling point: look, the refugees are working, providing for themselves. Without refugees filling these jobs, perhaps the employers would be forced to pay more.  I’m certain rents would be much lower. Perhaps natives–black, white, Asian, Hispanic–would be able to take the jobs as dishwashers and meatpackers and make a living with additional government aid. If every immigrant job was automated away with no net improvement in citizen employment, we’d still be saving a fortune in education and Medicaid from the refugees that don’t become self-sufficient and their descendants.

In another piece on these undeserving American poor, Kevin Williamson suggests that housing policy would encourage the worthy to relocate. While it’s certainly true that Americans are reluctant to relocate to expensive cities, Williamson neglects to mention that immigrants resettling to cities to provide cheap labor are driving up housing costs. And the immigrants’ housing is cushioned by support organizations hunting down the apartments, furnishing them, and handing out ready cash.

To say nothing of the fact that  employers in high-immigration areas use network hiring,  create immigrant “job ghettos”, and are actively biased in favor of immigrants over citizens.. Then, of course, refugees come over with their entire families, all of whom are unemployed with no work history. American citizen families are more complex. Fathers might not want to leave their children after a divorce, or a girlfriend might have a good job that a move would put at risk.

But these circumstances and their increased risk could be mitigated by organizations reaching out to depressed areas of the US, finding jobs, helping entire family systems to move. Who not use all these funds to encourage Americans to relocate?1 Start some government programs to find apartments and give some cash to help out workers relocating from Kentucky or Compton or Detroit. Even if Americans had the same failure rate, same welfare use, they’d be cheaper to educate than immigrants.

Alas, Thorpe could only find salvation in getting a hefty advance for writing a book about low-born immigrants who grovel at her proxied generosity. Troy can only find joy helping people he sees as helpless and entirely ignorant of American ways, so they can thrive under his tutelage. The progressives volunteering in foodbanks are well-meaning only so long as they feel like Great White Saviors.

The entire script of sacred immigration is based on uplift. The only way to save America’s soul is to pay to transport thousands of uneducated immigrants, those “huddled masses”, send them to American schools at taxpayer expense, find them living quarters that increases the demand for housing and drives up costs, spend thousands of hours helping them find and, best case, keep low-paying American jobs. That last bit, of course, is why business has become so relentlessly progressive, or as Ross Douthat puts it, signed on for the Peace of Palo Alto.

When Charles Murray, Kevin Williamson, and others wonder why the hell American workers don’t move, why not instead ask why the hell we spend so much time and resources importing unskilled workers with scores of children who cost a fortune to educate, when we could be spending that money supporting American workers to relocate?

Helen Thorpe’s book answers Murray and Williamson’s questions posed at the beginning of this piece. Americans don’t move to where the jobs are because immigrants, refugees or otherwise, get there first. Immigrants aren’t better than Americans. They’re just more sympathetic to elites with a savior fetish and more affordable to employers who want cheap labor. And so they benefit from  entire public and private infrastructure that uses taxpayer dollars to help those immigrants provide cheap labor and burden our educational system while locking out Americans who need a second, fourth, or eighth chance.

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1I looked for such programs and couldn’t find any. Maybe some exist. If so, we need more.


What Teachers are Worth

I enjoy reading both Jason Richwine, who I’ve defended before, and Andrew Biggs, who I follow on Twitter. But they don’t strike me as persuasive when discussing teacher salaries, which they do often, most recently No, Teachers Aren’t Underpaid , and also the first time they came to my attention, having written Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid (do you sense a trend?).

I made an extensive comment one time on Richwine’s blog that I’m still quite fond of, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Before I begin, let me point out for the umpteenth time that I like my salary just fine.

I differ with Richwine/Biggs as follows:

  • They keep going on about teacher GPAs and SAT scores as indicators without mentioning credential tests. They’ve been doing this for six (nay, seven!) years. Credential tests are kind of a thing of mine, as you may have noticed, so I’ll just refer you to my previous work. But it’s simply untrue that teacher standards are low, particularly in high school. Grades and SAT scores are irrelevant. Passing scores aren’t amenable to affirmative action.
  • They sugggest (sigh) differential pay for math teachers, special ed teachers, and “language teachers”. (Surely there’s no shortage of Spanish speakers nationwide?) Left unmentioned:  the thus far anemic evidence for other pay reforms, which are significant only occasionally, and only statistically.
  • They point out–actually, this is a Richwine thing–that teachers who leave the field usually end up with lower pay. But they never seem to mull what that means.
  • They point out that teachers get lucrative pensions and benefits. That’s the Biggs thing. They accuse the public and teachers of failing to understand the severity of the pension crisis. Naturally, if the public understood how bad things were, the public would instantly put itself on an austerity program, just as it’s done with the federal deficit. Oh. Wait.

At least they didn’t bring up the old chestnut, merit pay.

Like I said, I’m generally fans of both scholars. But the past two years have seen a complete earthquake in the education reform movement, so why is everyone still pushing the same old ideas that were roundly rejected?

Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study.

The first, sure. The second? If Christina Comerford left the chef’s life to be a secretary, a reasonable job for a woman with a few years of college and no degree, she’d take a big paycut. So is the  Executive Chef overpaid at a hundred grand a year?

But Ed, she’s a chef! An artist!

Sure. An artist who acquired skills outside any academic field of study.

Wages are not purely determined by field of study. Librarians require much more education than teachers for far less pay. College teaching adjuncts work like dogs for peanuts after graduating from a selective PhD program. And raise your hand if you think archaeologists would get higher pay if they had a union and a pay scale.

To quote myself twice:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience.

Segue to

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. …Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. On the other hand, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Don’t think of this as a plea for respect. I’m untroubled by their contempt. I just thought I’d explain why their arguments keep failing.

Besides, they mention wages are determined by supply and demand without mentioning that teachers supply’s kind of a problem at the moment, as most school districts are neverendingly short of teachers.

Despite what reformers constantly bewail as teaching’s low standards and excessive pay, all sorts of college graduates who, on paper, have “fields of study” that would allow them to teach, don’t teach. They’d rather work as, well, bus drivers. Or horribly paid college adjuncts. From 2009-2013, 45% of college graduates worked in non-college jobs, at the same time ed school enrollment plummeted.  Notice that those who pishtosh the shortage aren’t the folks trying to fill the jobs.

No blaming unions, either. West Virginia’s unions are basically social clubs. The teachers aren’t even allowed to strike.  (With teacher’s unions suing Trump over DACA and wasting my fees in various pointless efforts, I’ll cry less about Janus.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin got whomped and was forced to apologize for insulting teachers in yet another state with weak unions. Is it likely that Colorado’s school districts will fire striking teachers when  ed schools face declining enrollment and thousands of jobs  go unfilled each year?

I’m not gloating. I don’t know where this ends. I understand pensions are a problem. But federal policy and court decisions, to say nothing of political realities, have put tremendous pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps Biggs and Richwine should consider attacking teacher pay from the demand side for a while. Richwine, at least, should find that appealing.

Under 1000!


My Week, Part Two

Thursday, cont’d.

Part One ended on a knife chord. Thursday was already a busy day. Cullen, the professor in charge of the demonstration,  would be arriving at lunch to test the technology in a school network, which often blocks unexpectedly. The actual demonstration itself was after school, if anyone came. I was praying for non-zero.

Now Friday was shaping up as a catastrophe, one in which the price paid and the pain suffered was all on the students. No shows at the demonstration  became a second-tier worry.

My  ELL class, still much improved, read quietly  as I spent second block messaging with Regina, the director, miraculously keeping my temper and sarcasm in check, finding a line somewhere between furious outrage and craven grovelling.  Regina was apologetic but unmoving. Finally,  Bart and I surrendered to the inevitable, deciding to attend the competition and try to appeal the decision afterwards.  But how to tell the students?

“Wow. You have huge classes!”  My third block pre-calc class was finishing up the Wednesday test, leaving me little time to feel miserable. Then, suddenly, it was lunch time and Cullen was here with a box of eight Arduinos, stunned at a class of 36.

My Chromebooks wouldn’t recognize the microcontrollers, so  I emailed the tech guy, who  was there in under two minutes, earning himself more green beans when the Sunday seeds I sowed get around to producing.

Bart came by, looking like a bruised puppy, with even more bad news: because we’d not registered on time, we had to get to the competition on our own dime. No van voucher. I spent lunch switching from discussing work arounds to our school network obstructions to looking for vans on Expedia to running through the least horrible method of delivering crushing news to our three competitor teams.

A 12-person van cost $300 a day. Big expense for a competition our kids were doomed to lose. Only one company, one location.

Awesome tech guy decided to simply life by loading eight laptops with Arduino programming environment.  Cullen got set up and left to pick up some lunch.

My trig class was starting the linear and angular velocity unit, which is a favorite lesson, so I put all the looming catastrophes out of my mind and had some fun.

Cullen and his colleagues came back just before the bell rang, with the awesome tech quy and eight laptops in their wake. After profusely thanking the tech guy, damned if I didn’t see Will, chatting with the professor and Devlin, one of our competitors in the Arduino event. Two!

The colleagues asked me for a signin sheet and by the time I found a notepad,  suddenly, magically, seven students have materialized: five seniors, two juniors.

And of these seven kids, five were expecting to compete the next day: Devlin and two of his team members, Malcolm and Raj. Lorelei, who like Devlin had done all of the coding, was there with her teammate, Amira. I cravenly waited to break the bad news after the demo.

Despite my panic, the presentation on a compelling environmental issue in our immediate area snagged my interest. We live in an essential floodplain, or something (look, science isn’t my bag), and well, I lost some of the details, but the kids clearly didn’t.

Malcolm was so fascinated by the presentation he decided to skip a volleyball game in favor of learning the technology, and towed me over to his coach as evidence of his academic intent. On our way back, I got a text from Regina asking me to call.

“Hi, I talked to the other school and they’ve agreed we’ll just say the emailed project reports got stuck in my spam filter. But I can’t do anything about the van at this late date.”

I lean against the wall, weak-kneed with relief. “Not a problem. Thank you, Regina. Thank you. Thank you.”

“The rubric is online. Score them, send the reports and the scores to me.”

“Done.”

I texted Bart, sprinted for an administrator. Before I forked out $300 of my own cash for that van, I wanted to confirm the district wouldn’t come through. My boss gave it his best shot, but our district won’t give out buses without a week’s notice and they’re very expensive. I booked the van. From school to rental company to home is 50 miles. Street parking, so I could leave my car there.

I returned to the demo,  90 minutes in and going strong. Devlin and Lorelei were coding the sensor to respond, while the other kids are getting to “blink”, Arduino for “hello world”. I signaled the first two, told them to email me project reports immediately, then texted the club president to tell the freshmen team the same. Within an hour I had all three reports and the rubric printed out.

The technology lesson wrapped up at 5:30, with kids enthusiastically ready to proceed with afternoon meetings. The consultants were absolutely thrilled, and I take a moment to feel some pride. Yes, I’m ridiculously disorganized with a talent for missing due dates, but by golly I seized an opportunity that got seven motivated students to come learn a new technology and some environmental science on a late Thursday afternoon.

I called Devlin, Lorelei, and the others outside to delivery the now not terrible news.

“I have spent all day beating myself up. However, right there on the project spec you’ve used as a bible it says no reason will be accepted for a late submission.  Note for future–if someone else is responsible for delivery of your essential project,  nag endlessly. Get proof in writing.” These are bright kids, they realized I wasn’t blaming them, just handing on a life lesson. “And I will have to score these ruthlessly. Remember that whatever points you get are far more than what you were on track to get a few hours ago.”

Cullen’s gang and I briefly discussed the next steps; they left at 6. After scoring the three reports–Lorelei’s was disturbingly low, missing one key area the rubric valued twice as high as anything else.  Devlin and the freshmen team did much better–I sent all that in to Regina, left school at 7:30, had a quick dinner, picked up the huge van.

Home at 11 pm.

Friday

The morning went by in a blur.  My ELL kids got a movie. I designed a trig concepts worksheet for thhe fourth block class I’d be missing. Bart took care of getting our subs.

The drive itself was nearly 2 hours. My back was still pretty bad, so by the time we arrived, it took me a good half a minute to dismount from that huge van, and I could barely stand up straight.

“I’m done,” I told Bart. Emotionally, physically, stressed past my limits. “I need to find a place to sit and just chill for a while.”

We’d arrived a bit early, so sat quietly in the library. The students broke off into their teams and practiced in low voices. Never laid too low to opinionate, I’d offer the occasional comment–“Money. Mention money. Your solution is cheaper than others because it’s open source.” or “Don’t adjust your presentation on the fly just because a partner said your line. Just add, ‘As Areeka mentioned,’ and emphasize the same point.” Bart, now filled with energy, was dashing around helping set up.

Regina asked if we could be judges. I demurred, using my back as an excuse.

The competition was held in classrooms far away from the library with limited indoor seating. I just sat outdoors at a lunch table with a few slices of cold pizza and enjoyed the view. Periodically I came back to earth, wandered around finding students to ask how their presentations went–they had two each–and tell Lorelei my concerns about her project report. Lorelei produced her engineering notebook, which had all the design elements that were missing from her report. Arggh. I ran into Bart, who was judging the technology interview portion.

“Devlin’s team was weak,” Bart said. “Lorelei and the team from the other school killed it. Our freshmen were really the best of the five.”

“Dev’s team was weak? He integrated a microcontroller with Excel!”

“Something he never got around to saying.”

He went off with the other judge to debate scores. Regina came out to see me.

“Why was Lorelei’s report scored so low? She’s doing a great job!”

I asked if Lorelei could submit her project notebook as part of her report and take a scoring hit on length. Regina agreed, so Lorelei produced the notebook and I rescored.

The second round of presentations, the pitches, had ended, forty-five minutes after the events had ended, moving in on 6:00, and no decision, I peeked back into the judge’s room.

“Oh, hi, Ed. Come on in! We’re almost done!” The director and two teachers from the other school were in the room, no Bart and the other yet. Wait, what? How could they be almost done?

The results are on the board. Dev’s team is in third place, Lorelei’s in fifth. All of the presentation scores are in the high 80s and 90s. Dev and Lorelei have a 90+ score. My kids’ project report scores were from 30-60 points lower than the others. Lorelei’s new project score wasn’t taken into account.

This piece is long enough without my rendering a lengthy, detailed, conversation, so I’ll try to explain me instead. Most people who watch Twelve Angry Men find it a powerful reminder of the importance of assuming innocence, of sticking up for those with no voice, of  tolerance triumphing over racism. But some, the folks who use the movie in management classes, see it as a master class in argument and persuasion.

I’m Juror #8, but only in the second view. Not “I’m the righteous advocate for social justice” but rather “I’m the unmovable, persuasive master of argument who relies on neither social status nor authority to prevail, standing squarely between you and your objective.”   In both teacher and corporate world, I’ve been pulled into meetings by those who want my skills to either achieve their goal or stop another. It’s one of the most inescapable attributes of my personality. I often flatly avoid speaking out in large work groups because self-knowledge has (finally) taught me I won’t be able to back down, and in instances where those in authority have their minds made up, I become quite unpopular.

Sometimes this sucks. Many friends have pointed out that this exchange describes me, and they’re not wrong. But the skill is a blessing far more than it’s a curse, and in many cases  I’ve simply spoken up and without effort achieved amazing turnabouts in group opinion. By the end of a 30 minute conversation, my observations about the many scoring irregularities I saw had won everyone over. Regina was texting some engineering professors at the sponsoring universities who agreed to review the project reports and other written deliverables, take the feedback on prototypes and “score” them again using the rubric. And no one was mad at me; everyone felt good about the outcome.

The event was supposed to end at 5:30; we left the meeting at nearly 7. I told the kids that no news was pretty much the optimal outcome, with a few details. I tried to be neutral, but Malcolm said “I know you probably convinced them to rescore, so thanks” and the rest nodded.

Got the kids back to school, then did the 50 mile trip to get the van back on time. Home at 10. Cheese and crackers for dinner.

Saturday

I slept in til noon. Only as I was walking to Starbucks did I realize that Regina wanted me to judge precisely because these events are like Olympic figure skating before they turned it into a numbers game. Favoritism is expected. Balance is needed. I can’t believe I was so obtuse, and making one last attempt to advocate, texted Regina, asking if we shouldn’t just declare a tie, since five projects from both schools were all declared excellent. But no, ties weren’t allowed. (I refrained from observing that rubrics were required and rescores were banned. Because so were late submissions.)

Checked the garden, which I’d ignored all week thanks to some well-timed rain. Three huge artichokes. Beans hadn’t sprouted yet, but weeds were. A glutton for punishment, I tried to figure out why shoveling had laid me low, and dug up some dandelions while determining that I’d been using my left foot to push and my right hip to balance, putting too much strain on my right hip. So I spent some time reversing the legs. Maybe that would balance out the pain, or something.

Later that day I went to a bar and wrote up the first half of the week. During dinner (yes, still at the bar, but I drink slow), I checked email. Regina had sent the results.

Devlin’s team was first. Lorelei and Amira were second. The freshmen were 2 points out of third.

I went to bed early, headed for work on Sunday. Grading had stacked up.