Not Really Teaching English

The last time I wrote about my ELL class, I had six students: two from Mexico (Marshall and Kit from the story), two from China (Julian and Sebastian), one from Africa (Charlotte), one from India (Amit).

For the first ten weeks of school, my little gang fell into a routine. Monday, they worked in their Newcomers book, a “consumable” (new word for disposable) book that really added some structure to learning vocabulary–the chapters have interesting pictures wrapped around a particular content idea (going to the doctors office, colors, office furniture, math, etc). Tuesday was the online reading program. Wednesday was conversation day–I’d pick a topic and we’d go back and forth. Thursday, I’d find some short reading passages with questions, so I could test their understanding. Friday, maybe more of the same or a movie.

The Newcomers books were in the ELL classroom I used. Someone told me to use the Edge series, but the kids just weren’t ready. The room had tons of material–books, dictionaries, workbooks–but much of it was just at the wrong level, or too arcane, or simply uninteresting.

Charlotte is fairly fluent, but has a special ed diagnosis that will pretty much doom her to full English immersion for as long as she stays in high school, despite her teachers’ protests. (We did manage to get her sped support, at least.)  Sebastian has made no progress.  Amit has decent verbal fluency but his reading level is very weak, his written skills even worse. Marshall and Kit were my bright spots; they’ve been acquiring vocabulary and fluency at an exponential rate.

A week or two later after my last post on the class, in early October, Julian left for another school in the district, one with a higher Asian population than ours. Juanita, from Mexico, showed up at about the same time. Juanita is utterly uninterested in learning English or coming to school.

So had you asked me how I liked teaching ELL in early November, I would have talked about Marshall and Kit’s progress and how cheering it was, or my concerns about Juanita. I would have vented about Charlotte’s limited options, given state law. I’d have talked about Sebastian and Amit’s failure to progress and why. Amit was alert for every opportunity to gain approval. Sebastian was determined to get the right answer. They did not, alas, connect approval or the right answer to the goal of learning English. (How does Sebastian get right answers without learning any English? I asked the senior ELL teacher the same question. “He’s Chinese. It’s in the genes,” she said. But that’s okay. She’s Chinese, too.) I’d have bragged about the group cohesion–they have a Facebook page, and talk via Messenger.

But then things got crazy.

Between early November and Christmas break, six new students showed up. Four from Afghanistan (three siblings and a single), one from Mexico, one from Salvador.

In January, seven more: four from China, one from the Philippines, one from India, one from Vietnam.

My class size tripled. But there are no more Newcomers books. “We don’t use that curriculum any more.”

The ability range has also expanded, on both ends.

So my class now has three distinct levels, except I don’t yet have the expertise to run three classes, the way I did once in my all algebra year.

The first class would be for those who have little to no English. This became my most immediate problem. I couldn’t isolate the four kids who knew very little English, restricting their access to others fluent in their native languages. Elian, who arrived in November with nothing but “please”, “thank you”, and “soccer”, hasn’t progressed anywhere near as quickly as Marshall and Kit did  because Juan, Marshall and Kit are there to translate. He’s working, though, which puts him ahead of Juanita, who missed one to two classes a week for several months, and at this writing hasn’t been in class at all for two weeks. Ali and Monira are able to get translations from their older brother.  They’d progress more quickly in a more focused environment without friendly crutches. Juanita might feel like the course was designed for her needs and show up more.

Just for good measure, I’d put Sebastian and Amit in this class, which would be an enormous blow to their pride and dignity. But I’d remind them regretfully of the many times they’d done the wrong assignment, utterly failing to understand my instructions and being too proud to ask for help.But that’s ok, I’d tell them. They could be the class leaders and maybe, if they work harder, they’ll get moved up.  (Can you tell how attractive I’d find all this?)

Then the middle class of Aarif (Ali and Monira’s brother),  Huma (their fellow Persian-speaker), Marshall, Kit, and Amita (also from India),  the ones who are respectably fluent in English, but still need varying levels of finishing time to read and write in mainstream classes.

The four  from China (Anj, Song, Mary and sister Sara), the Filipino (Nancy), the Salvadoran (Juan), and the Vietnamese (Tran) are a real puzzle. They aren’t just verbally proficient, but can write and read reasonably well, with respectable vocabularies, better than all but the top 20-30% of my history class.  I can’t even begin to conceive why or how they were placed in ELL, much less the lowest level ELL class.  ( No one screwed up. ELL rules are what they are.)

The other teachers didn’t see anything odd about the wide range of abilities, but then the primary teacher, the ELL expert, has what I consider absurdly high standards. By her estimate, none of the kids were fluent. While I saw an enormous gulf between Elian and Tran, she saw two kids who couldn’t write an essay to her standards. I was relieved my responsibility to the class would be ending in late January, when the semester ended, and all this linguistic diversity would be Someone Else’s Problem and I wouldn’t need to try and argue about the various ability levels.

Then, just a week before the semester ended, I learned the replacement had turned down the job. The English department was about to be short yet another teacher, as a new one walked off the job with no notice four weeks into the second semester. Her classes have a long-term sub. The only plan B was me.  (Let me observe one more time how at odds the public conventional wisdom is with, you know, reality. Firing bad teachers is a trivial itch compared to the gaping maw of We Need More Teachers Now.)

Keeping my EL class required an enormous reconfiguration of the schedule, as my dance card for the second semester was already full (no prep).  My first block Trig course needed a teacher, and no other math teachers had a first block prep. Per my request, they reconfigured the schedule so that my closest colleague, who I’ve mentored since he arrived, got the class.

And so the linguistic diversity was now officially My Problem.

By early February, two of the Chinese students left–Song to the same school Julian absconded for, Sara to another city. I asked Mary why she wasn’t going with her sister?  Mary said Sara wasn’t her sister. Why would I think Sara was her sister? I reminded her they’d been introduced as sisters, had described themselves as sisters when they first arrived, and that I had referred to them as sisters several times to their acknowledgement. She looked vaguely panicked, tried to backtrack, and I told her to stop lying and drop it. Did I mention that Sebastian is supposed to be eighteen, but hasn’t hit puberty?  There’s a whole lot of birth certificate fraud going on in these Chinese visas. But I digress.

First problem: no more Newcomer books. I reached out to the language specialist: Any books like this? Hey, she remembered seeing  a bunch of books in a spare room. Would I be interested? Next day I had boxes and boxes of what  I considered two different publications–Read 180 and System 44–that are, apparently, the same program. I have no idea how this works, and that’s not because I didn’t take time and energy to look through them. Any connection must be found in the expensive training they want you to pay for. In any case, Read 180 was very writing-focused, with longer passages. Probably good for my middle group now; I may look at it again. But I was desperate for beginning texts and System 44 was a decent substitute for Newcomers.

So by late February, I had cobbled together an approach ensuring that my motivated beginners had the resources to improve their English. Fatima, in particular, made tremendous progress. Even Elian was at least showing more signs of comprehension, if he wasn’t speaking English at all.  Ali is moving much more slowly, but at least not backwards.

Marshall, Kit, and the rest of the middle group are continuing to benefit from the materials I have, plus our many class-wide discussions. I am constantly reassured by Kit and Marshall, my benchmark duo, showing constant improvement.

But the last group, I couldn’t figure out how to adequately challenge. Anything I came up with to do in the mixed class was too easy, but anything more difficult would require more support and attentiveness than I was giving.

One Monday in late March, I was driving to work bucking myself up about the coming week, thinking it was just a couple weeks until break, not to worry, don’t have such a bad attitude….and I stopped myself, because why the hell was I bucking myself up? I love my job. Really. I’m not a teacher who counts the days to spring break, normally.

So I went through all my classes: Trig, going great, really exciting work. For the first time, I was working with a like-minded colleague to build curriculum, common tests, a day by day approach. Wonderful stuff.  Mentoring an inductee, fun. Staff work, really promising. The upper math teachers were making real progress in settling our religious wars about coverage and depth by creating a federalist structure. My history class is a joy.  I was the adviser for a prominent after-school math-science program that succeeded beyond all expectations. Yes, I was busy, but I wasn’t particularly tired. I’d recognized the burnout signs last November and had successfully staved off an attack by taking it easy, resting more, traveling less. So why the motivation problem? My ELL class flashed into my mind and I felt an instant sense of….tension, dislike. Not quite revulsion, but definitely distasteful.

Until that minute, I hadn’t understood how much my ELL classs was pulling on my psyche, affecting more than just my feelings about that class. For the first time, I acknowledged that I was avoiding any sort of planning or development. Nothing felt enough, so I just avoided thinking about it outside class. I’d do whatever came into my head that morning. Head down, plowing through to the finish.

That very day, I walked into first block, and changed things up, created a wider range of activities, started coming up with more ideas, stopped just hoping it would be over when the year ended.

It worked.  I had more ideas for class-wide activities, more thoughts on how to differentiate. I could see the stronger kids were more engaged, learning idioms, thinking through grammar.  I’ll try to write more about these little activities in subsequent posts.

I’m not at all sure the kids notice any difference. I know the administrators and language specialist don’t–they already thought I was doing a good job.

I still don’t feel as if this is really teaching English. But I’m teaching better. I’m continuing to develop, rather than feeling stalled out. And that feels better.


Statistics of Slaves

I vowed to spend May documenting all the curriculum I’ve built that’s kept me from writing much. But writing up lesson always takes forever, so I don’t know how much I’ll get done.

I’ve revamped a lot of my history course since I first taught it in the fall of 2014,  but this lesson has remained largely unchanged. I was looking for data, originally for a lecture, on the growth of slavery after Eli Whitney went south for a visit.  I found this report with a most gruesome title. After spending an hour or four attempting to capture the information, the horror of it, in a lecture, I suddenly realized how much better it would work to let the kids capture and represent the data themselves.

So after a brief lecture on cotton ginning, before and after, the students get the second page of the report, with the slave census data from 1790 through 1860. I always assign states by group–the eleven eventual confederate, the four border, and New Jersey for contrast, so usually each group gets four states.I then go through a brief review of Percent Change (“change in value over ORIGINAL value”, please) .

The assignment: For each state, calculate the percentage change each decade. Create Create a column graph showing the real change each decade, with the percentage change shown at the top of the column.

Once all four states in the groups are graphed, compare the growth rates.

The work so far has been done on whiteboards. Some of the whiteboards are small, for personal use. In other cases, the students did the work directly on my whiteboard walls.

LASlavegrowth

Student work: Louisiana slavery growth, 1810-1860

GASlaveGrowth

Student work: Georgia slavery growth, 1790-1860

NCSlaveStats

Student work: North Carolina slavery growth, 1810-1860

ALSlaveStats

Student work: Alabama slavery growth, 1800-1860

Right about now, the students realize it’d be much easier to compare the growth rates if they’d used a common scale. Meanwhile, I’d found it difficult to group the states in such a way that each group got a representative sample of growth rates.

In prior years, I’d just lectured through some examples. But my class was much more manageable this year, and for some reason I realized Oh, hey. A teachable moment.

Their “statistics of slavery” handout was doublesided with graph paper. After everyone had finished their group of graphs, I took pictures of any small whiteboard graphs and displayed them on the smart board.

The assignment: quickly graph a line sketch representing the slavery trends in each states using CONSISTENT AXES.  x is year, with  1790 as x=0, or the y-intercept. y is the number of slaves, using 100K chunks through 500K.  No need to capture specific percentage growth, but the graph should reveal it. Something in between “graph every single point” and “just connect the beginning and end value.”

They did really well. A few of them forgot what I said about consistent axes–and mind you, I said this some EIGHTY TIMES but no, I’m not bitter.

SDAInconsistent SDAConsistent

Happily, most compilations got the full 5 of 5, just like the kid on the right (you can see where I corrected his first two).

So these graphs really allowed for informed discussion. (A couple students said “Wow, I actually get slope now.”)  The students were able to identify states that saw tremendous growth vs states with slow or static growth.

Why would states have different growth rates? I reminded them of the national ban on slave trade. Where would slaves come from? And so to the domestic slave trade, another cheerful topic. Unlike the Caribbean slave population, slaves in North America increased their population through natural increase. States that cultivated tobacco exhausted the soil and, as Thomas Jefferson put it  in a letter to Washington, “Manure does not enter into this [soil restoration], because we can buy  an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one.”  People just up and moved, or bought more land, when the productivity dropped, and so the state populations declined. Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and North Carolina, tobacco states all, sold their excess slaves to the cotton states.

Interesting note 1: Washington and Madison were both passionately interested in saving Virginia’s soil. Washington abandoned tobacco early, converting to wheat and other less damaging crops. He consulted with many English experts on best practices in soil management. Madison tried to spearhead agricultural reform, but ran up against the southern dislike of centralization.

Interesting note 2: Virginia was a southern agricultural powerhouse despite its reduced tobacco crop, but its primary product was wheat, produced primarily by non-slaveholders in Shenandoah Valley, not tobacco or cotton produced by slaveholders. (Remember, Jimmy Stewart’s Anderson clan wasn’t interested in fighting for the Confederacy.)

Studying slavery reminds me of how seemingly obvious goodness probably wasn’t. So, for example, the south had constraints on manumission. Slaveholders couldn’t even free their slaves if they wanted to! Slave states didn’t want them setting a bad example! Except the constraints existed in no small part because slaveholders dumped older slaves incapable of work, putting indigent elderly slaves  with no family and no means of supporting themselves out on the street. Most of the manumission laws specified age and remuneration requirements, and most didn’t ban the emancipation of young, healthy slaves. So manumission constraints were at least in part about protecting elderly ex-slaves. But would a slave  rather be free, even if impoverished, than living as property?

Or the debate about ending the slave trade, during the Constitutional Convention, when George Mason gave a fine speech, accurately laying out the arguments against slavery–it discourages free labor, gives poor people a distaste for work done by slaves, turns slaveowning men into petty tyrants.  And then General Pinckney says, yo, fine talk from a Virginian, whose huge slave population instantly gets more valuable if we stop bringing in new ones.

What was Pinckney saying? The kids were mystified.

“Why would Virginia’s slaves get more valuable?” asked Eddie.

“Well, remember, this is banning slave trade. Not slavery. The Constitution didn’t give the federal government the right to ban slavery. So if slavery still existed, but no new slaves were being imported, the only slaves being created would be here in America.”

“Yeah, but I don’t see what makes them more valuable?” Jia was confused.

I paused. “Think about supply and demand. What would banning slave trade do to supply?”

“It would go….down.” Jun.

“Right. But demand isn’t decreasing. South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, they need slaves.

“They won’t be able to get anymore, though, because there won’t be any more slave trade,” offered Lee.

I stopped moving, wait until eyes are on me. (Teaching’s all about the performance.)

“There will be more slaves. The slaves themselves are having children, right?” I had barely gotten the words out when Lee figured it out, and he literally gasped.

“Yeah. It’s horrible. When the federal government banned slave trade, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. And thanks to lousy farming practices, its land wasn’t much good for tobacco. But as slaves met, married, and had children, lo! the Virginians had a ready made product for sale.” More kids got it and groaned.

“That’s where the phrase ‘sold me down the river’ came from. The phrase means to betray someone. But originally, it referred to a slave whose Virginia or Kentucky owner sold them to the cotton plantations in the deep south, Mississippi or Alabama.”

“So banning slave trade was done to increase the value of slaves?”

“I’m…pretty sure that’s not true. Remember that before the cotton gin came about, many of the founding fathers really did seem to think slavery would fade out, although they were fuzzy on how that would happen. But certainly, South Carolinians would be the ones to identify the market opportunity for another state.”

Anyway.

Another little data analysis activity, done earlier than the slavery stats above: read a series of Wikipedia entries to determine when Northern states freed their slaves, then create a timeline with color-coded data. “I” was banning importation, B meant banning slavery, (“g” meant ban was gradual).    All students had to color code the dates for importing bans and slavery bans. This student came up with the idea of an identifier for those states that gave blacks the vote, and those that restricted the right to vote, particularly after the fact.

Anyway, I wanted the students to realize that organizing data can lead to insights. In this case, the bulk of the Northern states banned importation and slavery in the same 20 year cluster. New York and New Jersey stand out in sharp contrast. Another oddness: Rhode Island banned slavery earlier than it did imports, for the obvious reason that Rhode Island was the epicenter of the slave trade.

20170307_110109

I never liked all the stories about slaves quarters, and jumping the broom, and so on. Not that they aren’t interesting, but they don’t carry the weight of data, of seeing the huge numbers. Of realizing that manumission might be a way to dump non-productive workers, or that ending slave trade might be a business move to increase property value.

It’s too much like Anne Frank, or the Anne Frank that her loving dad created. Whenever I hear kids say “Oh, I identified with Anne sooooooo much!” I want to smack something. She lived in an attic for two years. She was then sent to a concentration camp where she held onto life for six month and then died of typhus, her body crawling with lice, just a month or so before liberation. Identifying with that level of suffering is well-nigh impossible, so spare me your virtue signaling, you teen drama queen. Hrmph.


The Shibboleths of Tenure Haters

Checker Finn gives the “ending teacher tenure” argument the old college try:

Tenure arrived in K–12 education as a trickle-down from higher ed. Will the demise of tenure follow a similar sequence? Let us earnestly pray for it—for tenure’s negatives today outweigh its positives—but let us not count on it.

Yeah, let’s not.

I wish all these tenure-haters would at least acknowledge that teachers can be easily dismissed in some circumstances. Teachers are fired for crossing clear, bright lines is done every day. Having sex with students? Gone.  Proven violence against students? Buh-bye.

Even fuzzy lines lead to firing if the circumstances allow it. Have a past or a present that’s simply….distracting? Easy.  Have an unpopular opinion? Game over. 

Firing teachers simply because the boss just doesn’t think they’re very good? Book some time, start a file, document madly, hit every deadline, give them a lousy schedule and hope they get the hint and leave.

We teachers don’t really have free speech or a right to privacy in any meaningful way, if the students know about it. But we also don’t have any agreement on what makes a bad teacher, which turns out to be our secret weapon. It’s much easier to fire an exemplary teacher who strips (or, gulp, blogs) in private than it is to fire a mediocre one whose students are bored. A new principal who really wants to ‘clean house’ and bring in a bunch of bright shiny new cheap teachers to do her bidding is doomed to disappointment.

You’d think by now that any article pushing to “fire bad teachers” would start by making that distinction, but here I’m the one likely to be disappointed.

Checker’s a bright guy, capable of thoughtful discussion. But here he brings up a goofy red herring, arguing public school teachers don’t deserve the same protections that university professors do.

I’m not convinced by the analogy. K-12 tenure is “trickle down” from university tenure? Eh, maybe. While many journalists give Massachusetts credit for instituting teacher tenure in 1886,  the text of the law doesn’t suggest any such thing. More accurately, I think, New Jersey first passed teacher protection laws in 1910. By 1930, tenure had come to most states, and by the 1950s, some 80% of teachers had tenure.  The push for women’s suffrage, the ridiculous controls schools boards put on teachers’ private lives, nepotism, and a desire for good governance were all involved in granting K-12 tenure (Dana Goldstein agrees, a tad repetitively.)

Ultimately,  university tenure became much more about lifelong employment and academic freedom–similar to judicial appointments. Teacher tenure, on the other hand, began as and remains an offering of job security, more akin to my favorite parallel for the teaching profession: police. So the four or five paragraphs Checker devotes to arguing that K-12 teachers don’t really need academic freedom is pointless.

I agree, we don’t need academic freedom. Which is good, because we don’t have it and have never had it. That’s why I’m anonymous.

Checker asks:

How valuable is job security to the employee….Would you rather earn $50,000 a year in a job that you know will continue indefinitely and does not depend on performance, or $75,000 in a job that is assured only for a several-year term and where renewal of the position hinges on your performance in it?

But Checker’s own organization surveys teachers on this very issue every year. Did he forget? Why not cite his own data? Probably because it shoots his case down cold. Teachers are quite consistent: less than 1 in 5 wants merit pay.   3 in 5 teachers in EdNext’s survey think tenure’s a good idea.

Checker again:

It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.

This, too, is a curious argument to make. First,  given the fact that neither private nor charter schools have managed to post extraordinary gains over publics, Checker’s claim that tenure is better for students is a bit shaky. At best, all the selection bias and skimming has gotten Checker’s preferred options are a few fractions of a standard deviation, if that.

As for flexibility working better for school leaders–well, immediately before Checker’s article is this piece by Kirsten Schmitz: Why do Private School Teachers Have Such High Turnover Rates? Bad timing, that. Charter turnover is so high we have a term for it.

So Checker’s got some chutzpah in asserting that privates and charters get a big win out of flexibility.

(Notice whose standpoint isn’t mentioned, of course, when discussing hiring flexibility. Notice, too, that Checker argued for decreasing job security as a tradeoff for improving teacher pay but neglects to mention that private schools pay far less than public schools.)

A while back, Paul Bruno argued that teacher tenure is a perk, since the reality is that our chances of being fired are quite low. Bruno’s logic here has never, to my knowledge, been engaged and it’s inescapable:

One of the central tensions for reformers when it comes to improving teacher quality is that on the one hand they believe teachers are fighting desperately for excessive job security but also, on the other hand, that you can substantially reduce that job security without making teaching significantly less attractive.

In theory this is not impossible. Making it work, however, requires admitting that job security is a benefit for teachers and that taking it away will – all else equal – make being a teacher less appealing.

Bruno believes (or believed, he hasn’t been writing for a while) that teacher valuation of tenure is overrated, since we’re not really at risk of being fired, anyway.  I agree we’re not at risk of being fired, and tenure vs untenured doesn’t seem related. Compare terminations per district (per teachers per district) in tenured or non-tenured states. My rough take is that terminations has as much to do with size of the district as it does tenure policy (the smaller the average district size, the more firings, particularly in rural areas or charter districts).

But  freedom from random firing because a new boss has a new agenda is of considerable value–Paul cites 10% of salary, I’d guess more. Moreover, bosses get extremely tempted to cut payroll by canning older employees. Freedom from that fear is worth a few ducats, too.

Meanwhile, as Checker advocates for easier teacher dismissals, Idaho and South Dakotas legislatures’ attempt to end tenure was  rejected by voters.  In CaliforniaMinnesota, and North Carolina , the courts did the rejecting. Kansas, which did successfully end tenure, is now working to enact legislation to bring it back. Wisconsin’s rollback of tenure and union protections may have led to the state’s teacher shortage, but it’s definitely increased district hopping as teachers negotiate better salaries–not, perhaps, the ideal outcome for anyone but those teachers. Yet Checker acts as if schools are groaning under the weight of unwelcome pension-pathers.

Supply’s the problem, Checker. Firing teachers, ending tenure, pay for performance–those are the choices available in a teacher glut. No one has really pinned down the nature of the current teacher shortage–I wasn’t terribly impressed with this recent study, although I quite like Goldhaber usually–but  state behavior of late is pretty consistently taking actions to increase supply. New York’s much derided decision to end the literacy credential test, Illinois similar decision to reduce the testing requirements for  teacher credentials, large California districts aggressively recruiting senior teachers from smaller districts with moving bonuses and removing the work years cap for salary calculation(a big disincentive for switching districts)–that’s just a small sample. Most states are making decisions that suggest they’re worried about getting and keeping teachers.

Checker knows better. But his audience–and his funders–don’t. So he keeps spinning the same old line.

Random but not unrelated: My administrator just emailed me my review, with an  “outstanding” rating,  I am convinced administrators meet up and decide which handful of teachers are going to get singled out for top marks while the rest (usually including me) get lumped into “satisfactory”.  Administrators, like bosses everywhere, are restricted on how many top marks they can give out. Most teachers I know realize the box checked isn’t as important as the review text–is it anemic, or strong? Complimentary or critical? The box, eh.  But if you think I shrugged off this rating, ask yourself why I mentioned it.

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What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CSmithresearch1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Corrupted College

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

But every so often, I worry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, people should maybe read more David Labaree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Challenge of Black Students and Advanced Placement

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

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

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

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

blkaptable

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

blkapmeanscorechg

Enter a caption

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

blkapgrowthbytest

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

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

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

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

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

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

blkap1997

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

blkap2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What the Public Means by “Public Education”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can they be full?”

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

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

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

“I don’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

Public schools don’t get to say no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oh, Woe! No “Teachers of Color”!

Buffalo and Rochester Try to Diversify Their Teaching Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

But oh woe! We have no teachers of color!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woe, oh woe.


Teaching Elections and the Electoral College

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

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

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

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

So what was left in Question 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

matest1800election

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

mattylertariff

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

matcompof1877

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

mat2016
mat2000recount

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

matvotingrights

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

matcorruptbargain

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

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

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

matfeddr

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

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


What It Looks Like In Practice

“Matt, are you getting anything done?”

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

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

“Nope. Mark.”

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

“No, I’m Mark.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Mark/Matt thing.”

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

“I am Mark.”

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

“Sh**.”

“I’m sorry.”

SH*****t.”

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I decided on Mark.”

“OK. Thanks.”

“I’m really so…”

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

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

“I’m Mark.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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