Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

In the last segment of their recent bloggingheads discussion, John McWhorter told Glenn Loury he was writing a piece suggesting that discussions of an IQ gap be deemed unacceptable for public discourse1:

I don’t understand what possible benefit there could be. I think it should stay in the journals.

Glenn agreed, and mentioned his famous response to the conservative welcome of The Bell Curve, in which he angrily rejected Murray’s assertions.

My first, instantaneous reaction was hey, great idea.  In fact, it will save us billions. Too bad no one proposed it twenty years ago, before we wasted so much time and energy on No Child Left Behind, forcing states to report by racial demographics. Think of all the schools struggling to meet adequate yearly progress and failing because they couldn’t teach students to perform in perfectly average racial unity. Let’s be sure to tell the College Board; they’ll be happy to stop breaking out test results by race; it’ll save them so much criticism.  This will put NAEP out of business of course, so….

What’s that? You don’t think McWhorter would link banning discourse on race and IQ to ending all scrutiny of race-based academic achievement?

Ya think?

Of course John McWhorter knows that race-based academic achievement is at least tangentially related to discourse on race and IQ.  I also think he understands that race and IQ discussions have been The View That Must Not Be Spoken for forty years. In fact, he even mentions that the only sites engaging in this discusssion are “right wing chat sites” and “some blogs”.

So sarcasm aside, I was a bit puzzled by the proposal, as well as Loury’s endorsement. These are two intellectually honest academics, who are generally fearless on racial topics. Here they are declaring certain topics Voldemortean–and doing so in the event that the link between race and IQ is proven out.

Without even going into the suggestion itself, consider that McWhorter posits one response to an acknowledge racial IQ gap:

…are we going to have an arrangement where we allow that black people have these lower IQs and therefore give extra help to black people, with the presupposition that all the average black people aren’t as bright? I think the black people would take it as an insult.

Fifty years and counting on affirmative action (which McWhorter famously opposes), and McWhorter thinks black people would take extra help as an insult? Seriously?

Even more surprisingly, Glenn Loury doesn’t point out this obvious hole.  Or maybe not so suprisingly, I’m a huge Loury fan, but as I’ve mentioned, he’s got some blind spots on education.

The most notable one I can recall is in this  excellent 2010 discussion Loury hosted with Amy Wax, author of Race, Wrongs, and Remedies:

Wax’s central point both in the discussion and in her book is that black academic underperformance is due to the wholesale collapse of the black culture and black family.

Loury pushed back hard (emphasis mine):

“Well, gee, when I look at education, I think, true, what happens at the home is really important….but I do think that the fundamental problem with urban education is its political economic organization. It’s the unions. It’s the work rules. It’s the efficacy of teachers in the classroom, and so on. It may also be to some degree the resources.

And that’s something that government, with great difficulty, with some consternation, can change….that’s something that ONLY government can change, either by making resources available to parents so they can have outside options and not be reliant on a school system that’s failing, and/or by reorganizing the functioning of those systems that are failing so that the kind of things that reformers want to do, that are known to work, are permitted to be put into place.

But in either case, those are political public large government undertakings that need to be done, and to blame the failure of urban education on the culture of African Americans is, well, maybe just a little offensive….Why wouldn’t we want to think of that as a public problem in public terms rather than [blame] the people who are really the victims of failed public policy?”

So Loury holds on to some of the conservative tenets from his youth.  Like all conservatives, he wants to blame schools: crappy, incompetent teachers, unions, and by golly maybe more money would help, too.

Wax responds that blaming schools makes no sense, because black kids in suburban schools are doing poorly. They do poorly in the same excellent schools that whites do well in, and she argues again that it’s culture.

Somewhat surprisingly, Loury agrees. Suburban black kids are doing terribly, too, but not for the same reason:

“I would not identify underperforming middle class African American performance in good suburban schools, which is a real thing, with the absolute wasteland in terms of the cognitive development of the students who have no alternative but to attend the failed inner city public school system. Both are problems, but the latter is just a huge problem and I say it’s mainly a problem of failed institutions not of inadequate culture.

So Loury has constructed  an absurd dichotomy: Middle class blacks and urban blacks have weak academic performance and he tacitly agrees with Wax that the problem is cultural. But urban black academic performance is about ignorant teachers and union work rules.

Wax comes back with an answer that any teacher would thank her for (which is why I’m quoting it in full)

“I would really argue, are the teachers really not trying to teach them basic stuff, or is it that the students, for whatever reason, are just so ill-equipped when they come in, so indifferent?….We know, from Roland Fryer…that these students are coming in significantly behind their counterparts, so they’re already behind the eight ball…then to turn around and say it’s the school’s fault that they can’t learn arithmetic, or they can’t learn to read. I really question that. I just am not sure that that is the locus of the problem or even the main problem.

Of course, then she ruins all that good sense by saying that the locus of the problem is  “the abject failure of the family….just collapse.”

Little evidence for either Wax or Loury’s position exists. Roland Fryer’s research on Harlem Children’s Zone ( the 2010 version) gets a mention by Loury as evidence that charters can do a better job. That’s odd, because Fryer’s research has widely been cited as evidence that HCZ does only an adequate job as a charter school, far less impressive academically than KIPP or the others–and of course, their “improvement” has a whole bunch of caveats. But Wax appropriately observes that the results, back in 2010 were new and fadeout often occurs.  As the medium term results from HCZ show,  lottery losers indeed  “caught up” in many ways.

Loury often swats his discussion partners for “asserting from faith”, but his demonization of  “failing schools”is exactly that.   Without any evidence, and considerable evidence against his position, Loury argued two separate culprits for black underachievement, depending on the SES category. Moreover, he uses a big ol’ group of conservative shibboleths to justify his position. That is not the Loury I know from other conversations.

For entirely understandable reasons, both Loury and McWhorter see any discussion of the IQ gap as a personal affront. They both interpret “racial IQ gap” as “blacks are inferior” and I’m sure that there are people who push the topic who see it that way. But one can angrily reject average group IQ as a sign of inferior or superior status while still acknowledging the hard facts of cognitive ability–Fredrik deBoer does it all the time. Whenever they discuss race and IQ, Glenn and John jokingly  mention how smart they are–which they are! But they don’t ever acknowledge that their tremendous intellects aren’t a rebuttal to the discussion at hand.

Men are, on average, taller than women. Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich. Both statements are true. Why more people can’t apply this to IQ is a mystery.

I don’t know all the corners of IQ science history, but I’ll stipulate that many unpleasant people discuss IQ gaps with a disgusting glee. I find it incredibly troubling how many people use “genetically inferior” as an equivalent term for “blacks have lower IQs on average”.  But I spend too much time with students of all abilities, and all races, to consider race as the logical grouping for IQ.  I’m more interested in IQ, or more generally the cognitive ability discussion, as a starting point to correctly frame what is now cast as a public education failure.

Our schools “fail” to educate many students. We tend to focus only on the black and Hispanic students–and not as individuals, just as data points that would push the average up nearer to that of whites.  We use white average academic achievement as the standard for success.  We began comparing racial groups back when it was primarily blacks and whites, in that optimistic era after Jim Crow ended, confident that the data would show blacks catching up to whites. If blacks had just caught up, if we just had the same amount of students “failing” to be educated, we’d have moved on.

But blacks never caught up. Since at the national level, we’d begun with the presumption that the gap was caused by racist oppression, we continued with that assumption as long as possible. Over time, other culprits arose. It’s the parents. It’s the culture. It’s the schools. People who offered cognitive explanations were ostracized or at least subject to a barrage of criticism. It’s always odd to hear Loury talk about the Bell Curve era as a traumatic time, when his peers were coolly discussing racial inferiority, while almost everyone else recalls it as a time when Murray was nearly banished from the public square.

As time went on, despite our failure to close “the gap” or, more accurately, despite our failure to provide a needed education for all students, demands went up. High school transcripts got more impressive, more loaded with “college prep” courses and, in many high schools, more akin to fraudulent documents, all designed to push all kids into college in equal proportions. Colleges have obligingly obliterated requirements. Schools have increasingly come in for blame from the political and policy folk, but all attempts to penalize schools for their failure have, well, failed. The public likes their schools and the public, frankly, is more willing to consider cognitive ability relevant than the political and policy folk are.

I’m always reminding myself that most  people see it in, literally, black and white terms for very good reason. But I only discuss IQ in terms of race because society insists on grouping academic achievement by race. Ultimately, I see IQ discussion as an effort to correctly categorize the “failure” of some students, regardless of race. I see it as a way of evaluating student achievement, to see how to best educate them to the extent of their ability and interest. I am well aware that these questions are fraught with reasonable tension.

But I worry, very much, that we won’t take needed steps both in education and immigration policy (as well as a host of other areas, no doubt) if we don’t stop insistently viewing cognitive issues through the prism of race. That is, as I first wrote  here, we need to consider the possibility that the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution. 

I would be pleased to learn this is not the case, as I wrote then. But if in fact IQ distribution explains the variations in academic achievement we see, then we need to face up to that. This facing up does not mean “well, your people are good in sports and music”. The facing up means asking ourselves regardless of race, how do we create meaningful jobs and educational opportunities for everyone?


I hope they change their minds. Because we are putting millions of kids in schools each year, making them feel like failures. Yes, some are black. Others are white, Hispanic, Asian. And we’ve spent no time–none–trying to figure out the best ways to educate them.  We’ve only looked for causes, for the right groups to blame.

Of course,  maybe we could trade: no more talk of the achievement gap in exchange for no more talk of race and IQ. That’s not the best approach, though, because in today’s employment environment, we need to educate everyone, not write off “failures”.

But I guess Glenn and John–along with a lot of other people–are still trying to wish reality away.

Note: The piece  Philip Dick, Preschool, and Schrodinger’s Cat is still canonical Ed on IQ.

 1: since I wrote this, McWhorter published the piece in the National Review. I made some additional responses directly on Twitter.

Teacher Federalism

A year or so ago, our school’s upper level math teachers met to define curriculum requirements for algebra two.

I’d been dreading this day for several weeks, since we agreed on the date.  I teach far fewer Algebra 2 topics than the other teachers. Prioritizing depth over breadth has not made me terribly popular with the upper math teachers–who of course would dispute my characterization of their teaching. There were three of them, plus two math department leaders who’d take their side. I’d be all alone playing opposition.

Only two possible outcomes for this meeting. I could, well, lie. Sign off on an agreed curriculum without any intention of adhering to my commitment. Or I could refuse to lie and just and fight the very idea of standardization The good news, I thought, was that the outcome would be my choice.

Then the choice was taken away from me.

Steve came into my room beforehand. Steve is the member of the upper math group I’m most friendly with, which means we are, well, warily amicable. Very different characters, are we. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, Steve is all J and I’m as P as P can be.  But  over the years we realized that while our approaches and philosophies are polar opposites, we are both idiosyncratic and original in our curriculum, more alike than we’d imagined. He was interested by my approach to quadratics and his approach to transformations is on my list of innovations to try.

So Steve tiptoed into my room ahead of time and told me he wanted the meeting to be productive. I went from 0 to 95 in a nanosecond, ready to snap his head off, refusing to be held responsible for our departmental tensions, but he called for peace. He said it again. He wanted this meeting to be productive.

I looked, as they say, askance. He asked me if I would be willing to settle for good, not perfect. I said absolutely. He asked me to trust him. I shrugged, and promised to follow his lead.

For reasons I won’t go into, no one expected Steve to run the meeting. But in the first five minutes, Steve spoke up. He said he wanted the meeting to be productive. He didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

We all wanted what was best for our students, he said. We all thought we knew what was best for our students. But we had very different methods of working. If we tried to agree on a curriculum, we’d fail. Eventually, someone in power, probably at the district, would notice, and then that someone might make the decision for us.

So rather than try to force us all to commit to teaching the same thing, why not agree on the topics we all agreed were essential, “need to know”?  Could we put together a list of these topics that we’d all commit to teach? If it’s not on the list, it’s not a required element of the curriculum. If it was on the list, all teachers would cover the topic. We’d build some simple, easily generated common assessments for these essential topics. As we covered these topics–and timing was under our control–we’d give the students the assessment and collect the data. We could review the data, discuss results, do all the professional collaboration the suits wanted.

If we agreed to this list, we would all know what’s expected. All of us had to agree before a topic went on the “need to know” list. No teacher could complain if an optional topic wasn’t covered.

I remember clearly putting on my glasses (which I normally don’t wear) so that I could see Steve’s face. Was he serious? He saw my face, and nodded.

Well. OK, then.

Steve’s terms gave me veto power over the “need to know” list.

Wing and Benny were dubious. What if they wanted to teach more?

As requested, I backed Steve’s play.  “We could make it a sort of teacher federalism. The “Need to know” list is like the central government.  But outside these agreed-upon tenets, each individual teacher state gets complete autonomy. We can teach topics that aren’t on the list.”

“Exactly,” Steve added. “The only thing is, we can’t expect other teachers to cover things that aren’t on the list.”

In other words, Steve was clearly signaling, no more bitching about what Ed doesn’t cover.

We agreed to try building the list, see if the results were acceptable. In under an hour, we all realized that this approach would work. We had 60-80% undisputed agreement. At the same time, Wing and Benny had realized the implications of the unanimous agreement requirement. A dozen or more items (under topics) the other three teachers initially labeled eessential) were dropped from the “need to know” list at my steadfast refusal to include them.  Steve backed me, as promised.

While all three raised their eyebrows at some of the topics downgraded to the “nice to have” list, they all listened carefully to my arguments. It wasn’t just “Ed no like.” As the day went on, I was able to articulate my standard–first to myself, then to them:

  1. we all agreed that students had to come out of Algebra 2 with an indisputably strong understanding of lines.
  2. We routinely have pre-calc students who need to review linear equations. In fact, I told them, this realization was what led me to dial back algebra 2 coverage.
  3. Non-honors students were at least a year away from taking precalc, which was where they would next need the debated skills. If some of our students weren’t remembering lines after three years of intense study, how would they easily remember the finer points of rational expressions or circle equations, introduced in a couple weeks?
  4. This called for limiting new topics to a handful. One or two in depth, a few more introduced.
  5. Our ability to introduce new topics in Algebra 2 was gated by the weak linear knowledge our students began with. If we could convince geometry teachers to dramatically boost linear equations coverage, then we could reduce the time spent on linear equations in algebra 2.

Once I was able to define this criteria, the others realized they agreed with every point. Geometry priorities were a essential discusison point, but outside the scope of this meeting and a much longer term goal. That left all debate about point 4–how much new stuff? How much depth?

This reasoning convinced them I wasn’t a lightweight, and they all knew that my low failure rate was extremely popular with the administrators. So they bought in to my criteria, and were able to debate point 4 issues amicably, without loaded sarcasm.

I knew I needed to give on topics. At the same time I was shooting down topics, I was frantically running through the curriculum mentally, coming up with topics that made sense to add to my own curriculum, making  concessions accordingly.

The other teachers looked at the bright side: I’d be the only one changing my curriculum. Every addition I agreed to had to be carefully incorporated into my already crowded Algebra 2 schedule. I did have some suggested additions (a more thorough job on functions, say), but none of mine made the cut. The other teachers’ courses were entirely unaffected by our “need to know” list.

At the end of the day, we were all somewhat astonished. We had a list. We all agreed that the list was tight, that nothing on the “like to know” or “nice to have” list was unreasonably downgraded. I want to keep this reasonably non-specific, because the issues apply to any subject, but for the curious: rational expressions were the most debated topic, and the area where I made the most concessions.  They covered addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, graphing. We settled on introduction, graphing of parent reciprocal function and transformations, multiplication and division. Factoring was another area of dispute: binomial, of course, but I pushed back on factoring by groups and sum/difference of cubes. We agreed that exponential functions, logarithms and inverses must be covered in some depth, enough so the strongest kids will have a memory.

“What about grades?” Benny asked. “I don’t want to grade kids just on the need to know list.”

“But that’s not fair,” I objected. “Would you flunk kids who learned everything on the need to know list?”

“Absolutely,” Wing nodded.

I was about to argue, when Steve said “Look, we will never agree on grading.”

“Crap. You’re right.” I dropped the subject.

In a justly ordered world, songs would be sung about “That Day”, as we usually call it. Simply agreeing to a federalist approach represented an achievement of moon walk proportions. Then we actually built a list and lived by it, continually referring to it without the desire to revisit the epic treaty. Stupendous.

I  didn’t write about the agreement then because I worried the agreement would be ignored, or that other senior math folk would demand we revisit. Instead, our construction of the  “Need to Know” list shifted the power base in the math department in interesting ways.   Our point man on these discussions did indeed express displeasure with the Need to Know list. It’s too limited. He wants more material on it. He expected us to comply.

Wing, Benny, and Steve could have easily blamed me for the limits. “Oh, that’s Ed’s doing. We all want more on the list.” Instead, upper math folk presented an instantly united front and pushed back on incursion.  No. This works for us. We don’t want to break the agreement. We like the new productivity of our meetings. Team cohesion is better. Wing and Ben still think I’m a weak tea excuse for a math teacher, but they understand what we’ve achieved. With this unity, we are less vulnerable.

In short, we’ve formed our own power base.  As I’m sure you can guess, Steve is the defacto leader of our group, but he gained that status not by fiat, but by figuring out an approach to handle me that the others could live with. No small achievement, that.

Will it last? Who knows? Does anything? It’s nice to watch it work for the moment. I’ll take that as a win.

We’ve used that agreement to build out other “need to know” lists for pre-calc and trigonometry. They aren’t as certain yet, but Algebra 2 was the big one.  Worth the work it took to update my curriculum.

Our teacher version of federalism has allowed us to forge ahead on professional practices, lapping the lower level crew several times. In fact, on several department initiatives, the upper math department has made more progress than any other subject group, something that was duly noted when hot shot visitors dropped in on our department meeting. The other groups are trying to reach One Perfect Curriculum.

I’m not good at describing group dynamics unless it’s in conversational narrative. But I wanted to describe the agreement for a couple reasons.

First, some subject departments  operate in happy lockstep. But many, even most, high school math departments across the country would recognize the tensions I describe here. .  I recommend teacher federalism as an approach. Yes, our agreement may be as short-lived as some “universal curriculum” agreements. But the agreement and the topics list are much easier to agree to, and considerably more flexible. I’ve seen and heard of countless initiatives to create a uniform curriculum that foundered after months of work that was utterly wasted. Our group has had a year of unity. Even if it falls apart next year, that year of unity was purchased with a day’s work. That’s a great trade.

But in a broader reform sense,   consider that none of the four teachers in this story use books to teach algebra 2. Not only don’t they agree on curriculum, but they don’t use the same book. Some, like me, build from scratch. Others use several books as needed.  Our epic agreement doesn’t fundamentally change anyone’s teaching or grading. We simply agreed to operate as a team with a given set of baselines.  Noitce the words “Common Core” as the federal government (or state, your pick) defines it never made an appearance. It was simply not a factor in our consideration.

Does this give some small hint how utterly out of touch education policy is? How absurd it is to talk about “researching teacher practice”, much less changing it? I hope so.

The Invisible Trump Voters

According to Google, only  Steve Sailer and  Alexander Navaryan have pointed out that Bret Stephens’ call for  mass deportation of Americans was actually a diatribe against blacks and Hispanics.

But just imagine trying to point that out in a public venue:

“You’re denying you were calling for blacks and Hispanics to be deported? Why would anyone believe you were referring to white people? They don’t have the highest illegitimacy rates, the highest incarceration rates, the worst test scores….”

As Steve pointed out a few years ago, noticing things is a problem. In this particular case, noticing Bret Stephens’ callous provincialism would cause far too many problems. Anyone who dared point out the obvious, if unintended, target of the slur would be risking media outrage–all the more so because the media wouldn’t want anyone wondering why they hadn’t noticed the attack on African American and Latino honor. That’s probably why Navaryan hastened to add that most of the outrage seemed to be from media outlets popular with “right-leaning whites”.

Damon Knight intro to a 1967 Robert Heinlein collection that’s often proved illustrative:

People are still people: they read Time magazine, smoke Luckies, fight with their wives.

Knight, one of the great science fiction editors, wrote this essay  two years before his wife Kate Wilhelm became one of the first female Nebula winners. Knight and Wilhelm led widely acclaimed writer’s workshops for years. (The great Kate is still writing and running workshops. Bow down.)

In short, Knight wasn’t particularly sexist. But   when he wrote “people”, he meant “men”.

Bret Stephens and most of the mainstream media aren’t particularly racist. But when Bret wrote about deporting “Americans” and  “people”, everyone read “whites”.

So this whole episode reminded me of the invisible Trump voter. Not the ones people usually mean, like the ones discussed in this  article on journalism’s efforts to find Trump voters.  Everyone talks about the downscale white voters, but they aren’t invisible anymore. Those white voters, many of them recently Democrats, finally turned on the party and put Trump over the top. I’m talking about the Trump voters still unseen.

Consider the Republican primary results by county:


That’s a lot of counties Trump won. New York and New Jersey went for Trump, as did Virginia and Massachussetts. He won California with 75% of the vote, after Kasich and Cruz had withdrawn but were still on the ballot.  (Trump also had a commanding lead in the polls, for what they’re worth, when the race was still in play.)

Trump did very well in high immigration states during the primaries. At a time when Never Trumpers were attempting a convention coup, Californians could have given them ammunition by supporting Kasich or Cruz with a protest vote.  Arnold Schwarzenegger put it about he was voting for Kasich. No dice. Trump won every county.

All these states that ultimately went commandingly blue, of course. But Trump voters are white voters. Hillary Clinton won thirteen of the states that had exit polls, but only won the white vote in four of them:

Clinton state, Trump won white voters Clinton state, Clinton won white voters
Virginia (59%)   Washington (51%)
Nevada (56%)  California (50%)
New Jersey (54%)  Oregon (49%)
Minnesota (53%)
 Maine (47%)
Illinois (52%)
New York (51%)
New Hampshire (48%)
Colorado (47%)
New Mexico (47%)

These are the Clinton states that didn’t have exit polls, with her percentage of the votes and the state’s percentage of white non-Hispanics (not the percentage of white votes, which isn’t available):

State % NHW
Hawaii 63% 26%
Maryland 60% 44%
Massachusetts 60% 74%
Vermont 57% practically everybody
Rhode Island 54% 76%
Connecticut 54% 71%
Delaware 53% 65%

Hard to see how Trump lost the white vote in Maryland, Connecticut, or Delaware. But if you give her all seven, she still only won the white vote in eleven states total. A more realistic guess is eight or nine. And for a liberal bastion, California’s white vote was surprisingly close. California has fewer working class whites than New York and New Jersey, but  California’s white voters supported Romney in 2012 and Bush in 2004. Perhaps a lot of Republican voters stayed home rather than vote for Trump.

Why so much support? Well,  in September 2016, a California poll showed whites were almost split on immigration–only 52% saying immigrants were a boon, 41% saying they were a drain on public services. I looked for similar polls for other blue states and couldn’t find any. But that’d certainly be an avenue to explore.

These are big states, and 30% of big states is a big ol’ number of voters. The LA Times observed that only Florida and Texas gave Trump more votes than California. Nearly a million people voted for Trump in Chicago and the “collar counties”, as many as the entire state of Okalama,  The San Francisco Bay Area counties and Los Angeles County contributed roughly 600,000 each, slightly less than Kansas gave Trump or the combined Trump votes of Montana and Idaho. New York City counties kicked in close to half a million, slightly more than the combined vote of the Dakotas.

Consider, too, that these voters knew full well that their vote wouldn’t matter and they went out and voted for Trump anyway. If every Trump voter in California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois had simply stayed home, he’d still be President, most of the local races would have unchanged results, and Hillary’s popular vote margin would be four or five million more.

These voters pay too much rent to be hillbillies.  They live in some of the most expensive real estate in America, so they’re not likely to be poor or unsuccessful. Vox’s condescending tripe about the home-town losers voting for Trump because they’re racist, sexist losers afraid of change doesn’t  explain the millions of voters in high immigration areas who voted for Trump. Emily Ekins typology of Trump voters doesn’t seem to cover these voters, either. Why would Staunch Conservatives who could afford the high rents of blue states continue to live in places so at odds with their values? Free Marketers wouldn’t have voted so enthusiastically for Trump in the first place.  I suspect Ekins has defined American Preservationists too narrowly.

How can anyone argue that Trump’s support in Deep Blue land is racist? Huge chunks of white Trump voters in blue states work, live, send their kids to school with a range of diversity in culture, race, and economics that elites like Bret Stephens can’t even begin to comprehend. They often live cheek and jowl with people who speak no English at allwho speak no English at all, and have to handle endless cultural issues that arise from having Russian, Chinese, Syrian, or/and Congolese neighbors, usually uninterested in assimilating and often with no visible means of support.  They see schools struggling with policies designed for a much simpler bi- or tri-racial country, policies designed with the expectation that most students would be Americans. They see immigrants qualifying for tremendous educational expenditures, guaranteed by law, supported by a court that shrugged off the cost   of guaranteeing all immigrants access to public schools. They see the maternity tourism that will allow yet anothe generation of Chinese  natives gaining access to public universities while not speaking any English.

They see immigrants voting by race, supporting Democrats despite a generally tepid lack interest in most progressive causes,  simply to assure themselves the ability to bring in relatives (or sell access through marriage or birth certificate fraud). They’re used to white progressives imposing near total rule on the government using the immigrant citizens voting strength to enact policies that the immigrants themselves will ignore or be unaffected by, but the white citizens, in particular, will pay for.  These Trump voters watch immigrant enclaves form and slowly gather enough voters to vote in politicians by race and religion.  They might worry that white progressive rule will give way to a future of a parliamentary style political system in which various immigrant political forces who don’t consider themselves American, but only citizens, combine to vote not for progressive or conservative values, but some form of values genuinely alien to Americans.

They think it’s hilarious, but not in a good way, when reporters earnestly reassure their readers that immigrants don’t qualify for benefits, or that non-citizens aren’t voting. They see tremendous fraud and illegal behavior go unpunished. They know of huge cash only malls run by immigrants, and know the authorities will never investigate. Fortunately, the authorities do find and prosecute all sorts of immigrant fraud rings, but that only makes them wonder why we bring in so many immigrants to begin with.

I suspect that between thirty and fifty percent of white people living in high immigration regions voted for Trump. But if they see the worst of intensive immigration, they also haven’t chosen to leave it. They don’t say “people” and mean “whites”, like Bret Stephens.

Ironically, Bret Stephens is furious at the downscale “losers” who voted for Trump–the voters who don’t usually vote Republican, or even vote at all. He’s too ignorant, too blind to realize he’d also have to deport millions of invisible Trump voters, the voters he might grudgingly concede are successful, who pay more in taxes than they cost the government, who start successful businesses, who have children they can support. The voters who have been voting Republican a long time without any real enthusiasm, who have always been less than enthused about the values he arrogantly assumes are universally held by Republicans. The white voters whose existence he doesn’t understand enough to write about.

These invisible Trump voters have a lot to risk by going public. But reporters should seek them out. How many of the Trump voters in Deep Blue Land, the ones making it in the high-rent, high-immigration, highly educated regions, how many made him their first choice? And why?

So c’mon into Blue Land, Salena, Chris. Talk to some of the invisible Trump voters that haven’t really been considered yet. Let them add to the story.



The Trump Effect: Reboot or Yesterdays Enterprise?

The first Star Trek “reboot”  took the bold act of altering the past in a famous fictional timeline. The new movies have the freedom to reinvent, while we watch the movies, fully aware what “really” happened. This got taken to extremes for “Into the Darkness”, when the last half hour echoed word for word the greatest Star Trek movie ever made with a character swap, but it’s still pretty clever.

Ever since Trump won in November, I’ve felt like we’re all living through an alternate timeline. Like Tom Hanks’ “Doug” said in that sublime Black Jeopardy skit, “Come on, they already decided who wins even before it happens”. Everyone of any importance knew Hillary would win.  Jobs were accepted. Plans were made.

But while I see it as a reboot, an opportunity to rewrite the future, all the people with any voice or influence think of the election as Yesterday’s Enterprise. Just as the Enterprise C slipped through the temporal rift and forestalled the truce between the Klingons and the Federation, so too did a whole bunch of voters escape the notice of the Deep State. Which is a good thing, because otherwise the Deep State have taken action before the election . Trump would have been doped up and stuck in bed with a dead transgender Muslim and a live boy peeing on him. Not that this would have cost him the election, but at least they’d have grounds for an arrest.

Instead, most of the elite institutions were stunned by the actual voters making a choice that defied all their warnings, their  manifest horror at Trump’s candidacy, never mind his primary triumph. They haven’t stopped trying to convince us of our mistake.

A couple weeks ago, I was really upset at the many corners of the media openly and excitedly debating whether it’d be better to use impeachment or the 25th Amendment to rid themselves of this meddlesome Trump–where even the opponents to the idea concurred that Trump was a witless boob, inept and obviously unfit, that impeachment was reasonable or that the fish rots from the head.

When I realized that the feeling was….familiar. Flashback to a year earlier, back in March and April, when anti-Trump elite GOPs were debating the best way to rig the convention,  gleefully mocking Trump and his voters as Cruz stole his delegates,  happily contemplating a Kasich-Cruz alliance.  Deep in the stunning beauty of central Idaho, I was struggling to enjoy spring break because I knew, beyond any doubt, that the media and institutional powers of the conservative movement would do anything within their power to deny the voters’ choice.

At some point, I realized the idiocy of letting this nonsense get to me and went hiking. Well, walking around a mountain and going up a few hundred feet. It felt like hiking.

But  Trump triumphed.  We got to mock Nate Silver’s open dismissal of Paul Manafort’s prediction of locking up the nomination as “delusional” when in fact the job got done earlier than expected. We had the fun of watching the delegates boo Ted Cruz. We all enjoy reminding Jonah Goldberg that he followed Bill Mitchell on Election Day “for kicks”,confidently expecting to retweet Bill’s pained realization of Trump’s obliteration.

Despite all those earlier outrageous, determined efforts,  here we are on what, the fifth catastrophe that the media predicted will wipe out Trump’s presidency? Shrug. They’ll find something else. Why get angry? It didn’t work last time. So I let go of the anger, and enjoyed the drama queen Comey telling his tale.

I don’t understand those who are disappointed in Trump’s achievements. Bush 43 had near total control of Congress and got No Child Left Behind. After 2002 he had full control of Congress and passed Medicare Part D. From 2005-2007, he did everything possible, including race-shaming, to pass “comprehensive” immigration reform. A few days after 9/11, he arranged a photo op with Muslims to make sure no one had Bad Thoughts.

Meanwhile, Trump is appointing judges, deporting illegal aliens, and building the wall.He’s letting the military take it to ISIS and Syria.  He’s rolling back environmental policies and stepped out of the Paris Accords. He’s ringing employment to the industrial regions that supported him–maybe not as much as they need, but more than they had. I don’t like Betsy much, but at least she’s doing some interesting evasions on IDEA and special ed.

How much virtual ink has been spilled on the deportations, on Paris, on the environmental policies? How many politicians before Trump wouldn’t risk media disapproval? He’s shown what can be done. That’s an invaluable service.

Much of the rest is noise.  Turns out  many important people aren’t really concerned about what a president does, so long as he only has one scoop of ice cream at dinner while he carefully discusses his hopes for Michael Flynn’s future. Whatever charge the media flings, there’s a countercharge about a prior presidency.  If I am too cynical about Washington, if there is a measurable difference between Trump and his predecessors in terms of the venal opportunism found in his government officials,  you’ll forgive me if I’m unconvinced by the assurance of those “experts” who called for impeaching Bill Clinton, invading Iraq or Afghanistan, and/or electing the incompetent naif Barack Obama on the country.

Is Trump suited to be President? Beats me. Should he be hiring more people? Maybe. Is he upsetting European leaders? I certainly hope so. I don’t see him as a bully or a dictator. I’ve never been convinced by those who do.

Do I want more? Sure.  Like most of his immigration restrictionist supporters, I’m unhappy that he’s still approving DACA waivers and extensions.  I hope his daughter and son-in-law go back to New York. Would I like less tweeting, more thoughtfulness? Yes.  Do I wish his cabinet didn’t look like the Goldman Sachs retirement weekend? Absolutely. Less emphasis on tax breaks and other GOP wishlist items? Indeed.  But as far as hard asks go, just one: cease and desist any talk of firing Jeff Sessions.

Still,  if Trump were note-perfect, he’d still be facing a huge, hostile force. Of  all the institutional wisdom that Trump showed up as canard, the media’s power took the biggest hit. Trump showed conclusively that the media is only speaking to half the country (usually the left). No other conclusion is possible. The media has no influence over the people; it’s just preaching to its believers. Worse, the people now know that the media didn’t change a single mind.  Profits are up, because their half of the country is enraged and active. But they’ll never again be able to pretend their reporting speaks to the entire country, or that they influence public opinion. They keep trying–the sob stories about the deportees, the stenography of various government leakers, the outright fake news (tells us again how Trump was under investigation, guys!). But the whole of the public remains curiously unmoved, despite the hype.

The media wants to change the world back to way it was.  What’s happening now is all wrong, they’re not supposed to be here, they have to  fix it.  If they can just keep the pressure on and play for time, someone who “wasn’t supposed to be here” will drag the wounded Enterprise C back a hundred years to be destroyed.  The timeline can be restored.

So it’s  ungrateful and even a bit stupid to demand Trump alter every personality trait that got him this far.  Trump has the perfect characteristics for moving America in spite of  media outrage.  He’s sublimely unconcerned about how things are done, comfortable with violating norms. Crass. Obnoxious. Unflinching. Self-absorbed. They might not be comfortable qualities in a roommate, but they’ll do nicely to protect him during the onslaught.

Because it’s going to get time to get everyone accepting the reboot. Note that political pundits still fixate on approval numbers. You know, the kind that comes from polls. Like the polls that predicted Hillary would win.  Paul Ryan and other respectable Republicans are still trying to figure out how they can win media approval, win support from moderates, and improve their polling numbers.

They should take a page from Mitch McConnell’s book. Back when Ryan was playing Hamlet, McConnell quietly told his senators to do whatever they needed to do, and held on like grim death to that empty Supreme Court seat. These days, McConnell refuses to be gobsmacked by the intemperate Trump. Sure, he’d like less drama. But in the meantime, he’s getting it done.

I wish everyone in GOPVille would do the same.  What I want, of course, are more people  following Trump’s example. The first one to violate expectations had to be a billionaire who didn’t need donors with a willful desire to offend people. But with time, others will be able to build on his first steps. Others might be equally willing to brave disapproval but, dare I say, more temperamentally suited to government. Many of Trump’s policies have already become  accepted–if not respectable, at least not reviled.  Over time, more will.  That’s my hope–that others build on his success, the knowledge that his policies have tremendous support.  Embrace the alternate timeline.

That’s the best way of ensuring the changes will hold, that calls to end Trump’s presidency fade.  Sure, the pendulum will swing back. I’m just hoping for more changes that permanently alter the landscape. Don’t let the media win and enforce the pretense that the alternate timeline didn’t ever happen. Let this be a genuine reboot where Christopher Pike gets a better death, rather than a temporary odd happenstance that had no effect once Enterprise C went back.

Of course, this advice could be coming from a Klingon who’d rather achieve  total victory over the Federation than a treaty in which both sides move forward in peace.   You takes your chances.


In case you’re new and missed my other political pieces (I usually do education):

Note from a Trump Supporter: It’s the Immigration, Stupid!

Citizens, Not Americans

This Great Election

Celebrating Trump in a Deep Blue Land

(destiny quote from R. Stevens,


The Product of Two Lines

I can’t remember when I realized that quadratics with real zeros were the product of two lines. It may have been
this introductory assessment that started me thinking hey, that’s cool, the line goes through the zero. And hey, even cooler, the other one will, too.

And for the first time, I began to understand that “factor” is possible to explain visually as well as algebraically.

Take, for example, f(x)=(x+3) and g(x)=(x-5). Graph the lines and mark the x-and y-intercepts:


Can’t you see the outlines of the parabola? This is a great visual cue for many students.

By this time, I’ve introduced function addition. From there, I just point out that if we can add the outputs of linear functions, we can multiply them.

We can just multiply the y-intercepts together first. One’s positive and one’s negative, so the y-intercept will be [wait for the response. This activity is designed specifically to get low ability kids thinking about what they can see, right in front of their eyes. So make the strugglers see it. Wait until they see it.]

Then onto the x-intercepts, where the output of one of the lines is zero. And zero multiplied by anything is zero.

Again, I always stop around here and make them see it. All lines have an x-intercept. If you’re multiplying two lines together, each line has an x-intercept. So the product of two different lines will have two different x-intercepts–unless one line is a multiple of the other (eg. x+3 and 2x+6). Each of those x-intercepts will multiply with the other output and result in a zero.

So take a minute before we go on, I always say, and think about what that means. Two different lines will have two different x-intercepts, which mean that their product will always have two points at which the product is zero.

This doesn’t mean that all parabolas have two zeros, I usually say at this point, because some if not all the kids see where this lesson is going. But the product of two different lines will always have two different zeros.

Then we look at the two lines and think about general areas and multiplication properties. On the left, both the lines are in negative territory, and a negative times a negative is a positive. Then, the line x+3 “hits” the x-axis and zero at -3, and from that zer on, the output values are positive. So from x=-3 to the zero for x-5, one of the lines has a positive output and one has a negative. I usually move an image from Desmos to my smartboard to mark all this up:


The purpose, again, is to get kids to understand that a quadratic shape isn’t just some random thing. Thinking of it as  a product of two lines allows them to realize the action is predictable, following rules of math they already know.

Then we go back to Desmos and plot points that are products of the two lines.


Bam! There’s the turnaround point, I say. What’s that called, in a parabola? and wait for “vertex”.

When I first introduced this idea, we’d do one or two product examples on the board and then they’d complete this worksheet:


The kids  plot the lines, mark the zeros and y-intercept based on the linear values, then find the outputs of the two individual lines and plot points, looking for the “turnaround”.

After a day or so of that, I’d talk about a parabola, which is sometimes, but not always, the product of two lines. Introduce the key points, etc. I think this would be perfect for algebra one. You could then move on to the parabolas that are the product of one line (a square) or the parabolas that don’t cross the x-intercept at all. Hey, how’s that work ?What kinds of lines are those? and so on.

That’s the basic approach as I developed it two or three years ago. Today, I would use it as just as describe above, but in algebra one, not algebra two. As written,I can’t use it anymore for my algebra two class, and therein lies a tale that validates what I first wrote three years ago, that by “dumbing things down”, I can slowly increase the breadth and depth of the curriculum while still keeping it accessible for all students.

These days, my class starts with a functions unit, covering function definition, notation, transformations, and basic parent functions (line, parabola, radical, reciprocal, absolute value).

So now, the “product of two lines” is no longer a new shape, but a familiar one. At this point, all the kids are at least somewhat familiar with f(x)=a(x-h)2+k, so even if they’ve forgotten the factored form of the quadratic, they recognize the parabola. And even better, they know how to describe it!

So when the shape emerges, the students can describe the parabola in vertex form. Up to now, a parabola has been the parent function f(x)=xtransformed by vertical and horizontal shifts and stretches. They know, then, that the product of f(x)=x+3 and g(x)=x-5 can also be described as h(x)=(x-1)2-16.

Since they already know that a parabola’s points are mirrored around a line of symmetry, most of them quickly connect this knowledge and realize that the line of symmetry will always be smack dab in between the two lines, and that they just need to find the line visually, plug it into the two lines, and that’s the vertex. (something like this).

For most of the kids, therefore, the explanatory worksheet above isn’t necessary. They’re ready to start graphing parabolas in factored form. Some students struggle with the connection, though, and I have this as a backup.

This opens up the whole topic into a series of questions so natural that even the most determined don’t give a damn student will be willing to temporarily engage in mulling them over.

For example, it’s an easy thing to transform a parabola to have no x-intercepts. But clearly, such a parabola can’t be the product of two lines. Hmm. Hold that thought.

Or I return to the idea of a factor or factoring, the process of converting from a sum to a product. If two lines are multiplied together, then each line is a factor of the quadratic. Does that mean that a quadratic with no zeros has no factors? Or is there some other way of looking at it? This will all be useful memories and connections when we move onto factoring, quadratic formula, and complex numbers.

Later, I can ask interested students to sketch (not graph) y=x(x-7)(x+4) and now they see it as a case of multiplying three lines together, where it’s going to be negative, positive, what the y-intercept will be, and so on.


At some point, I mention that we’re working exclusively with lines that have a slope of positive one, and that changing the slope will complicate (but not alter) the math. Although I’m not a big fan of horizontal stretch outside trigonometry, so I always tell the kids to factor out x’s coefficient.

But recently, I’ve realized that the applications go far beyond polynomials, which is why I’m modifying my functions unit yet again. Consider these equations:


and realize that they can all be conceived as as “committing a function on a line”. In each case, graphing the line and then performing the function on each output value will result in the correct graph–and, more importantly, provide a link to key values of the resulting graph simply by considering the line.

Then there’s the real reason I developed this concept: it really helps kids get the zeros right. Any math teacher has been driven bonkers by the flipping zeros problem.

That is, a kid looks at y=(x+3)(x-5) and says the zeros are at 3 and -5. I understand this perfectly. In one sense, it’s entirely logical. But logical or not, it’s wrong. I have gone through approximately the EIGHT HUNDRED BILLION ways of explaining factors vs. zeros, and a depressing chunk of kids still screw it up.

But understanding the factors as lines gives the students a visual check. They will, naturally, forget to use it. But when I come across them getting it backwards, I can say “graph the lines” instead of “OH FOR GOD’S SAKE HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU!” which makes me feel better but understandably fills them with apprehension.

Catching Cheaters

Ben Orlin wrote a while back about the reasons students cheat–or, rather, the many reasons people offer for why students cheat. I’m mostly uninterested in that. What’s important, I think, is that they know you know.

Back in late March, I returned the first “Why is it Black Lives Matter?” history test back to the students and gave them this talk.

“So I was grading the papers, and pleased that people were doing well generally. Some kids saw tremendous improvement. But I was perplexed on one point. Several students were doing okay throughout the test, but getting slaughtered on the “identify key individuals” question, getting almost all of them wrong. I couldn’t figure that out. If you thought John Calhoun was an abolitionist who used to be a slave and Julia Ward Howe was at Harper’s Ferry,  then I would figure the finer points of the 1856 election were well beyond your ken. But you all did well on the 1856 election question, while a decent chunk of the class was telling me that Calhoun escaped from his owner in Maryland. This was confusing.”

“Then I had a horrible thought. As you know, because I mentioned it several times during the test, I created two versions of the assessment. I swapped the order of questions, and I swapped the order of some answer choices throughout the test. That would cause occasional problems on the True/False questions, but would be catastrophic on the “identify the right people” question, since the answers were chosen from ten options.”

“So I pulled all the tests that had the identify bloodbath, and sure enough, all of their answers matched perfectly to the other test.”

(Here’s the two test versions, and one example of student work)

I could tell that many students were experience a klong, a massive rush of shit to the heart1, that feeling you get when you realize far too late that you’ve done something very embarrassing and there’s no way to undo the action.  Like, say, cheating in such a way you’ve lost any hope of plausible deniability.

“Well. I’m somewhat new to teaching history. It’s pretty easy to spot cheating in math. You have a kid who screws around all the time, never doing any work, and suddenly he’s become so good at math he can do the work in his head. The test has a bunch of right answers and no work. The kid has a cousin who’s really good at math in the same class. I connect dots. Or you see two or three tests with the identical mistake on their tests, so the only challenge is to determine who originated the error so you can correct the misconception before you yell at her for giving others the answer.”

“History’s different, though, because there’s no work shown, and it’s not impossible that you could do really poorly on in-class activities yet be able to recall facts. A really quiet kid who has failed three tests and has taken utterly incomprehensible notes on several different activities could, theoretically, study really hard and how could I prove that she’d copied? That’s why I create two tests, with subtle differences in them that aren’t easy to spot.”

“I usually deal with cheating on an individual basis, but this is widespread. Out of the thirty-eight kids in this room, I have eight of you dead to rights–every single answer is from the other test. Another 6 cheated on at least a few of the answers–I can tell you knew most of them, then lifted the rest. That’s close to half the class caught–and I only caught them because you were unlucky enough to have the other test. How many cheated using the right test?”

“Then there’s the problem of who gave you the answers? I created the test yesterday. I only teach one section. The answers were very nearly all correct.  The questions were ordered differently, numbered differently, on different pages on each test.  This wasn’t opportunistic looking. This was collusion on a grand scale, probably involving cell phones.”

“I can’t figure out who provided the answers. But that person is in this class, listening to me now. So to that person, let me say three things. First, while I agree the Republicans of that era were nationalist, the party was formed in specific opposition to slavery, so I’d intended that answer to be “A”. It’s arguable, though. Second, you are very, very lucky that you aren’t the only top student who made that particular mistake, or we’d be having an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Third, you were cheating. You might think otherwise, since you were giving answers instead of receiving. But I call it cheating. The administrators would call it cheating. When you get to college, they’ll call it cheating, too.  If I could turn you in so that administrators could check your phone and see who you sent answers to, I would.”

“But without that information, my knowledge is incomplete. Some of you cheated with the same test. There are three students in particular who suddenly did exceptionally well. I was pleased. Now I’m just suspicious.”

“There’s some bright spots to all this, though. For example, when I first started grading I was really annoyed at Eddie, because he left half the test blank. But now, I’m kind of happy because this means Eddie didn’t cheat!”

Big laugh. Eddie stands up, arms held up in victory.

“Yeah, Eddie, you moved off the bottom of my disapproval list! But if you turn in a half-empty test again, I’m going to make you eat it. Other bright spots: Maria, who did well, Kevin,who did less well than usual, and Nero, who is doing not great for reasons I can’t figure out, all had tests that bear no relation to the cheating. They made mistakes that no one else made, so I know they weren’t involved.”

“Most of the copied tests seemed to be restricted to that one question. Since that question was worth close to twenty percent of the test, I decided the bloodbath of wrongness would do sufficient damage to your grade. No one who copied got higher than a 65. I’ll also write ‘Copied’ on the top of the test, so you won’t have to wonder if I know.”

“But two of you clearly copied almost every answer on the test and got nearly all of it right save the bloodbath. I don’t know how. But you’re not getting a grade. Since you’re both already failing the class, I don’t have to think about the best way to penalize you.”

“Before I give these tests back, I want to make a couple things very clear. I realize many of you see this class as pointless, and that there’s no harm to cheating. But I don’t care in the slightest whether you value this class or not. It’s my job to assess your knowledge. Cheating stops me from doing that, so I have to stop you from cheating. I’ve got a few security measures in mind. I don’t want any arguing about it, either.”

“Those of you who have me for math know that I’m pretty matter-of-fact about cheating. Just last week, I had exactly the case I described above: a near perfect test from a kid who can rarely focus on work in class, with no work shown and nothing but right answers. I called him outside, told him I was absolutely certain he’d copied the answers from someone, and that I was giving him a D because I figured that was where his knowledge was at. If he wanted to argue, he could do two or three of the problems in front of me. He didn’t want to argue. He took the D.”

“I won’t say I never hesitate about calling out cheating. For example, I’m pretty sure the three people who normally get Cs and Ds but did well on this test cheated and just got lucky having the right test. But I’m going to hold back this close to the semester. I’ll be watching you closely.”

“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. No one is happier than I am when that happens. Over the years, I’ve had a couple students get really pissed off at the accusation, show me their work and what they know, and I’ve always been relieved. We go right on. No harm, no foul. Other students haven’t protested at all, just look chagrined. Same response either way.”

“It’s not personal. I might have my own moral judgments about cheating, but I’m not going to demand my students live by my morals. So if you get a test back that says “Copied”, don’t think I’ve put a black mark by your name, assume you may as well give up, and quit trying. Do exactly the opposite.”

“At the same time, I’m used to charging cheating with no evidence at all. Here I’ve got a rock solid case. I’m certain that some people cheated. So don’t fake outrage. If you want to talk to me, fine. Just don’t pretend and don’t waste my time.”

“But remember how I reassured you all when the class began that I wouldn’t fail anyone? Show up, do your best, and you’ll pass? Yeah. That’s off. This is your only warning. Cheat in my class again and you will sit on your butt in summer school. I’ll make sure of it.”


There were none.

140 years ago, long before I had any interest in politics, I first learned the word “klong” from Full Disclosure, a William Safire novel about a president, blinded during an assassination attempt, fighting off a 25th Amendment attempt to remove him from office. Props to Noah Millman for being the only person other than me to remember the book whilst all around are calling for it, although his thoughts on Douthat’s madness were annoying. Safire properly credits Ben and Josh’s dad Frank Mankiewicz for the invention. Safire’s example of klong is enjoying a play then suddenly remembering you’d made dinner plans for the same evening on the other side of town, but that’s a tad civilized. A similar feeling is often experienced by murderers in Christie novels.

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.


Student work: Louisiana slavery growth, 1810-1860


Student work: Georgia slavery growth, 1790-1860


Student work: North Carolina slavery growth, 1810-1860


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.”


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.


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:


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:

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.