Monthly Archives: June 2012

Short Takes on recent articles

  • Mike Petrilli on Duncan’s Iowa rejection

  • High School Exit Exam Support comes too late, says this Edweek story. In my experience, high school exit exam support works very well if done properly. Elimination strategies will get all students to the finish line. Most teachers persist in explaining how to work the problem, rather than how to eliminate answers. This is insane, since any student who could learn how to work the problem wouldn’t have failed the CAHSEE in the first place.
  • Teacher misconduct law defeated: I do not understand why everyone is so shocked by this. Clearly, any teacher who is actually charged and found guilty will lose his job. If the legal system can’t convict, then clearly, some ambiguity exists. I guess I’ve seen too many students ready and willing to get teachers in trouble to support wholeheartedly any effort to bypass protections when the legal system had its bite at the apple. I do like this Ken Feinberg proposal, though.
  • Kids eat better when teachers and parents participate: is there any more monumental waste of time than the endless and doomed effort at food propaganda? Keerist. Let the kids have their damn dingdongs and Doritos.
  • Dumbing down the GPA–this article is misnamed and confusing. A school district is doing away with GPA weight for honors and AP classes. I’m not going to give my take on this yet, it requires a longer post. But it’s not “dumbing down” GPAs, but narrowing the distribution. And the article says the school officials argue that “colleges don’t look at GPAs, just courses taken”, which is arrant nonsense.
  • Charter School Voted Down because of “Segregation Fears” (quotes mine): Let this be a lesson to you, boys and girls. Charter schools might theoretically be for everyone, but in reality, they exist to allow organizations to cream motivated African Americans and Hispanics in a calm environment so the achievement gap won’t look so grim.

Thanks to Alexander Russo and Stephen Sawchuk for the tweets.

What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

I couldn’t find anything terribly wrong with this Ed Week article. But it didn’t offer anything terribly useful, either,so I thought I’d offer up some facts that might do some good.

Historically, the ACT was the test for the Midwest and South, and the SAT was the test for the coasts, but after the 2005 SAT changes, the ACT’s test population caught up. Both tests are given to around 1.6 million students.

Test Content

The ACT tests the same fact base as the SAT. It’s about 20 minutes shorter than the SAT, although it has far more questions and four sections:”

  • English: 45 minutes, 5 passages of 15 questions.
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions.
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 4 passages of 10 questions.
  • Science: 35 minutes, 7 passages of 4-8 questions (40 total).

The ACT section times are brutal, which is why the ACT benchmarks purporting to report on college readiness should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. In my view, they dramatically underreport the reading, science, and (to a lesser extent) math ability of the lower to mid-range “college” students (keeping in mind that these kids shouldn’t be in college anyway, but that’s a different story).

Each section is scored on a scale of 1-36. The sections are then averaged for a Composite score, which is every bit as useless, really, as the SAT total. Colleges use the section scores far more than is generally known for placement in or out of remediation.

How do you convert ACT scores to SAT?

The University of California used to offer a direct conversion. One sign of the ACT’s growing popularity is that both tests are now converted to a “UC score”.
Roughly, a 21 on any section is the ability equivalent of a 500 on the SAT, a 26 is a 600, and a 31 a 700. However, a one to one combination isn’t possible, with 4 ACT sections and 3 SAT sections.

The UC conversion adds two-thirds of the math/reading/science total to the English/writing combined score. This weights the converted score towards English–rather unfairly, in my view, but not enough to do serious damage.

Which is more closely aligned to school curriculum

Both test knowledge and abilities that students should have mastered in school; the ACT doesn’t directly test science, but content knowledge will make the questions more familiar. The ACT also tests slightly more math: trigonometry, analytic geometry (circle and ellipse equations), and the occasional matrix question. Neither tests specific content knowledge in history, science, or English; for some reason, people say the ACT does. They are wrong.

Which test should students take?

Most students will score in roughly the same percentile on each test. However, some students have strong preferences for the ACT.

Low to mid-tier students are almost always better off with the ACT, something that I wish more do-gooder organizations understood. Much of the SAT’s difficulty is front-loaded–a big challenge in many questions is simply figuring out what the question is. The ACT actually tests more material but its questions are more straightforward. Any student who prefers the concrete to the abstract should consider the ACT, and most low to mid ability students will have a preference for the concrete. However, see the caveat below regarding reading abilities.

Students with SAT section scores in the high 600s/low 700s should always check out the ACT. The 2005 SAT changes reduced the number of questions in each section by 10%, and the cuts were primarily from the higher-difficulty questions. Many students in the mentioned range are every bit as bright as those getting 760+ scores, but are less detail-oriented, and usually make a few unforced errors. They used to make up the difference with their performance on the really difficult problems. Fewer difficult problems, slightly lower scores. (I am nearly certain that the reduced number of questions caused the decline noted when the SAT was changed in 2005.)

The ACT has far more questions than the SAT–215 to 171–and has no “guessing penalty”, which gives high ability students who make the occasional unforced error a significant advantage. To give an example: my son took the old SAT as an early junior and got 690 M, 660 V. I expected him to get high 600s, low 700s on the new one, which he took in March 2005. He received 630s across the board. After working on his accuracy, he took it again and received a 690,690, 670, or 2050.

His ACT scores were English 34, Math 34, Reading 36 (a perfect score), Science 29, which in SAT terms is high 700s across the board, or a 2250 using the UC conversion. At his performance level, that’s a huge boost. I have other anecdotal evidence, but they aren’t my kids so I can’t discuss specifics. Without question, all high ability kids should take both to see if they have a preference.

If taking both, which prep class should I take?

High ability students: take the SAT prep course. First, there are exponentially more SAT classes than ACT, even now. Asians, the primary consumers of test prep courses, don’t seem to take the ACT much (at least around here). Another major consumer, schools offering classes for their own students, also seem ignorant of the ACT.

Moreover, moving from the SAT to the ACT is far more organic than the other way round; the SAT has far more tricks and tidbits that a good test prep teacher can help with. Practicing for the ACT is little more than learning how to work fifty times faster on everything or, if that’s not possible, devising a strategy for getting as much done as possible. Did I mention the brutal timing requirements of the ACT? Oh, well, it bears repeating.

Low to mid-ability students: anyone planning a class aimed to low income, low ability students should select the ACT. Students with weaker abilities will receive more useful instruction, as it has fewer test-specific tricks and the test prep instructor will spend more time on content.

Who Shouldn’t Take the ACT?

The ACT is reading intensive–three of the four tests involve reading comprehension and two of those sections have (here it is for the third time) brutal time requirements. Students whose reading skills are significantly out of alignment with their other abilities (e.g., dyslexia, reading LDs), may want to stick with the SAT.

Why Chris Hayes Fails

Chris Hayes has a book to sell and guilt to expunge. The poor lad feels guilty that he benefited from the Evil Mostly White Meritocracy:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Here, Hayes is relying on the cheapest and most meretricious of the education myths: the rich have the ability to improve their test scores, SAT or otherwise, through expensive test prep, while the low income blacks and Hispanics do not. The higher scores are not genuine, and thus the acceptance is not truly meritocratic.

There’s just one tiny glitch in this mythology:

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites. Cite, cite, and oh look, this cite has a table:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

The idea that blacks and Hispanics don’t have access to test prep is some sort of delusion that all the reality in the universe can’t shake out of progressives.

Within a ten mile radius of my home, at least 10 organizations are dedicated to providing free test prep, college admissions advice, and academic support to low income, first generation college blacks and Hispanics. Double the radius and the count will be in the dozens, if not hundreds–as it probably is anywhere in America. Any low-income black or Hispanic who wants SAT/ACT test prep and thinks he or she can’t afford it is the victim of criminally ignorant high school advisors–and the facts suggest that this isn’t a big problem.

Low income whites are a different story; few charitable organizations are dedicated to improving their test scores. Of course, given that low income whites trounce high income blacks on the SAT (Cite, cite, and
cite), I guess maybe organizations figure there’s no point making the gap worse? But of course, the very fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks pretty much kills whatever remained of Hayes’ theory about the test score advantage of the rich and powerful.

Furthermore, as Steve Sailer and commenters to Hayes’ article point out, Hayes complete ignores another reality: the huge shift in Hunter College High School demographics isn’t so much from low income to high income, but from whites to Asians.

If you read of a school that’s suddenly moved to elite status or seen a dramatic rise in test scores (e.g., AIPCS), or heard that a test prep process has gotten out of control, it’s a sure thing that it’s become “an Asian school”, as we call them in my area. Once a school “goes Asian”, hitting a tipping point of about 40%, it’s a short step to 60-80%. Check out the top-scoring comprehensive high schools by SAT average, and the highest ones will be “asian schools”. They end up Asian because of white flight. It’s not that whites don’t like Asians, but their kids will lose access to AP/honors courses and get lower GPAs—not because they have lower abilities, but because the white parents haven’t managed to convince their kids that the world will end of they don’t get straight As. Donations, as a rule, decline with this demographic change, which is why wealthy school districts get more than a little annoyed when their schools are at risk of “going Asian”, and come up with all sorts of odd rules to discourage it (giving up class ranking or limiting AP grade bumps).

Hayes engages in yet another fiction (and that’s just in this excerpt!): that through test prep, the rich are distorting their abilities. The poor and the rich have similar abilities in a purely meritocratic world but thanks to test prep, the rich are making themselves look smarter, even though it’s a mirage.

Clearly, that can’t be true, or rich blacks would have higher test scores.

But here I will bring in personal experience in test prep. For the past nine years, I’ve been preparing students for the SAT, the ACT, the Subject tests (Math, Histories, English Lit), the high school admissions tests (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT), and all grad school tests except the MCAT (although this last not as much as I used to). I do this both through private instruction institutions (Kaplan in the past, an SAT academy now) and private tutoring (with rates in line with those in tony Manhattan, apparently). I work with Asians of all income levels, wealthy and upper income whites (as well as middle income whites in my Kaplan days), low income Hispanics, and low income African Americans.

In other words, unlike many people who yammer on about test prep, I actually have some experience preparing people of all races and all demographics for all sorts of tests, and will draw upon that experience to assert this as fact: test prep primarily helps people use their existing abilities more effectively. With some people, the bump is huge, with others it’s minimal, with still others, non-existent. In only a very few cases are students actually distorting their abilities by improving their test scores, but rather showing their abilities in the best possible light.

Is it possible to game the test, to prep so much that the score is a blatant misrepresentation? Yes, but it’s rare. The people who are most likely to do this are not the rich of any color, who can buy their way into whatever school they want. And it’s not low income blacks or Hispanics, who I’ve coached and seen huge increases that still only bring the majority of the kids to just below national averages. It’s certainly not middle-class or low income whites, who are clearly the least likely to even use test prep.

No, the students who might be actually distorting their abilities through test prep would most likely be Asian. (Please note that this statement is only assuming such distortion is possible.) I work at an Asian SAT “cram school”, teaching book clubs and math enrichment. Their parents call it “SAT school”, even though the kids are rising freshmen and sophomores for book club, and rising seventh and eighth graders for geometry, because as far as the parents are concerned, the kids are doing this as part of a five year program to improve their SAT scores. Junior summer, they are in SAT boot camp: 20 hours a week (plus a test) for 10 weeks in the summer, and then Saturday school until the test.

The kids I’m working with, dozens of hours per year, aren’t distorting their abilities, but going through all that work for the last 10 or 20 points possible of their score range. That’s leaving aside the Korean cram schools, which somehow enable kids with limited English skills to score an 800 on the SAT reading section. Now that, I would argue, is distortion.

Unfortunately for Hayes, though, these Asians aren’t rich. Wrong again.

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.

Hey, I’m on Twitter

For an ex-techie with a distressing number of website domains, I’m not a faithful blogger and I avoid most social media. But I wanted to try to respond more quickly–that is not necessarily with a blog post–to articles that interest me. We’ll see how it goes. I will probably get bored with it.

Following a factoid

Last week, Diane Ravitch called for a cite on a frequently used factoid from the Big Book of Eduformers: research shows that students with effective teachers make three times the progress of students with ineffective teachers.

More than a few commenters found the cite: Eric Hanushek, “The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality,” Journal of Political Economy 100 no. 1 (1992): 84-117 (at p. 107).
The research conclusions are based on the data from the Gary Income Maintenance Experiment, which took place between 1971 and 1975, and which involved 1920 exclusively low-income black children.

Just to show how rarely anyone has read the original article, check out these quotes: “There is… no evidence that changing the immediate circumstances of the family will have any effect on student performance. The work behavior of the mother has no influence on the educational performance of the children. Neither does the absence of a father.” (page 113) and “Of the determinants of teacher expenditures per pupil (ie, teacher experience and degree level and class size), only years of experience are significantly related to student performance. (page 109) (emphasis mine, in both cases).

I suspect the emergence of the actual article will result in Ravitch and others calling bullshit on this cite in the weeks and months to come, and the eduformers will be backing off, for reasons that eduformer Stuart Buck make clear:

“So it’s not the most recent or externally valid finding one could wish for, that’s certainly true.”

Then comes the amusing part of Buck’s post, and the reason for mine:

“But is it so implausible that some teachers could produce 1.5 years of learning while others produce half a year? The real questions would be how many teachers are in each category and how we can identify them accurately, without crediting or blaming them for outside-school factors.”


Melinda Gates: Well, we know from good research that the fundamental thing that makes a difference in the classroom is an effective teacher. An effective teacher in front of a student, that student will make three times the gains in a school year that another student will make.

Suppose Gates had said “Well, I believe that effective teachers are fundamental. Is it so implausible that some teachers can produce three times the gains”? Doesn’t have nearly the ring of authority, does it?

So we’ve seen the research. It’s old, it’s demographically limited and the support is pretty weak to boot.

But hey, it’s pretty plausible, right?

Factoids are so much fun. Until, you know, someone actually thinks about them and the romance goes poof.

What I Learned: Year 2

Year 2 was all algebra, all the time. Few things are as draining—or as revealing of the utter emptiness of our educational policy—as teaching algebra I in high school.

The epiphany moment: Realizing that kids could distribute and combine terms but lack the skills to work the steps in combination. I noted this in first year, and just the hint of its return in the fall led to the development of the Multi-Step Equation Drill Down and the mantra “Distribute-Combine-Isolate”.

Technically, this process is called a “reteach”, but another thing I learned that year is that done well, a reteach is much more than reviewing the same material. Once I realized, less than a month after covering equations, that most of the kids could solve 3(x+5)=18 but not 3x+2(x-7) + 6 = 6x – 2, I didn’t drop everything. I finished up with linear equations and considered the best way to move on this. The problem wasn’t the individual steps, but the confusion that resulted when using the processes in combination. So why reteach? Instead, I just explained to the kids where their confusion started, by using a problem set similar to the one above.

When done properly, the kids are totally on board. The minute I put the two problems up and demonstrated common mistakes, I had their attention because they were bothered by it, too. Which is a bit weird, because trust me, I can list a million things that kids don’t get about algebra. And yet, the kids know the difference between something they completely don’t understand and something they vaguely feel they should understand, but don’t. The confusion they felt during a complicated multistep equation fell firmly into the latter area.

I learned that even unmotivated students have this, dare I say, inchoate yearning to having confusing areas clarified. Spotting these areas and drilling down gives the students faith in their teacher. They can see the teacher is paying attention to mistakes, distinguishing between utter confusion and “man, I almost got this but sojmething’s wrong”.

And the performance pop from these clarifications is huge. The majority of mid-level ability kids never lost the DCI clarity. I attribute this to the time spent in the darkness, followed by the blazing light of knowledge. Or maybe I just pick my moments well.

Never fear, most of them still struggled with “is this slope negative or positive?” Alas, that confusion has nothing to do with procedural confusion.

Other things I learned:

  • Data Collection and Analysis: as a long-time analyst, I knew how to evaluate the data, but this was the first year I had the opportunity to gather and compare the data.
  • I always differentiate instruction, but in Year 2, I ran 4 different lesson plans at all times. This led me to realize that teachers can pick their discomfort. For me, watching kids be either lost or bored leads to far greater stress than the work involved in running four classes simultaneously.
  • Low ability students: In algebra I, you often get kids who literally do no work, or who scribble frantically but clearly have no clue. At the end of the first semester, I put them on a contract. I would pass them if they demonstrated competency in five high-leverage areas: linear equations, quadratics, multistep equations, and simple systems.

    I didn’t need to use it in Year 3, but I strongly recommend this approach. Motivation among my low ability kids increased dramatically. Even the kids who ultimately failed due to attendance issues saw a big bump in their ability to solve multi-step equations and factor quadratics.

Some earlier posts that expand on these issues: Teaching Algebra I and Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard

What I learned: Year 1

I thought I’d capture my big teaching discoveries year by year. In some cases, the learning will be expanded in a later post; I’ll link to any expansions later.

My first school was extremely progressive. We had weekly staff meetings; signature petitions for various Democratic causes were commonly passed around. We had a moment of silence when Edward Kennedy died. The principal met with me and mentioned that I didn’t seem, er, enthusiastic about matters that were important to the school which was unfair because I worked very hard to keep my opinions off my face and my mouth shut. That meeting was one of the few times any administrator acknowledged my existence. Weird, uncomfortable year; without question, I was let go because I wasn’t deemed sufficiently left of center.

Teaching history

I teach an AP US History Survey course every year and have excellent content knowledge in US and European history. But I’d never had to think through units on countries or eras, and my ed school work was all in math. All the discoveries I discuss were my own, although for all I know they’re basic equipment and I was just never told.

  • When studying a country, start with the physical and give the kids a map activity. Coloring in the Khyber Pass does much to help cement India’s vulnerability to invasion, and the Philippines’ placement in Southeast Asia does much to explain the term “strategically located” which, in turn, does much to explain the history of the Philippines. Be generous with the colored pencils and clever with the location activities.
  • Give them the nuts and bolts
    Logistics and economics can be unexpectedly fascinating, and I don’t understand why so many teachers ignore them. I don’t mean formal economics, but the simple nuts and bolts of money, need, and incentives, as well as the interesting unconsidered cause and effects. Male students in particular find this approach interesting. So, for example, when archaeologists found the Globe Theatre, I pointed out what a complete drag it was for the business that owned the location, which had to go through all sorts of negotiations just to get the use of their space back. Or the importance of dung in the Agricultural Revolution, and how the nitrogen-rich plants just happened to be the perfect food for livestock, which thus became more affordable, and so dumped its droppings into the land, providing still more fertilizer. A month later, we were reading a book on post-colonial India later on, in which a character picks up cattle dung to burn for fuel. Bam! Connection. The kids understood why manufacturing alone wasn’t sufficient to grow a new economy, that food production had to become much more efficient, and that using dung for fuel was robbing the land of nutrients. But they also realized that the character had no choice, which led to a greater awareness that England’s success wasn’t necessarily replicable.

  • Give them the gore.
    Trotsky got axed. Magellan got ripped to shreds. The Russian royal family got shot. Bad things happen, baby. (I had them draw pictures of Magellan’s demise. They were a hoot.)

  • Memorization isn’t automatic
    The first quiz revealed that the history facts had simply gone in one ear and out the other for several of my kids. I sat them down and gave them a talk about the importance of memorization and studying. This was news.
    “You mean, we just keep reading them over and over?”

    “Well, you can also work with a friend. Ask questions until you remember them. Come up with memory tricks to help. But here’s what will also help–understand that all that stuff we talk about, in class? It’s supposed to stay in your brain. That’s why you should take notes. But just writing it down isn’t enough–you have to remember what you write down, what you hear.

    Again, this was clearly new information (presumably because they didn’t listen the other 30 times they’d been told). But my non-performers made a quantum leap in performance that year, simply because I told them explicitly to remember what they learned. So, you know, don’t forget to tell them. And give them time to study; early success will reinforce the behavior.


As I described here, I designed a content-rich SSR/SSW program that did not involve the kids staring at a book they didn’t care about.


I taught Geometry and Algebra I, using the CPM curriculum.
Most of my “aha” moments were more useful for the following year.

  • What kids learn, they forget.
    I love teaching test prep, but its short-term nature meant I hadn’t yet learned the merciless lack of retention skills that most kids had. And it’s much harder to remember processes (math) then facts (history).

  • Multi-step equations
    It’s May, and I suddenly notice that my kids can’t do multistep equations if I mix and match distribution and combination. This realization was essential to the ephiphany I had early the next year; without it, I might have gone another year without realizing why my kids could handle 3(x+7) = 24 but not 2x +3(x-2) + 3 = 6x + 2.

  • Binomial multiplication and factoring
    While I’m not a huge fan of CPM, I really like the generic rectangle model for this process. I still use the techniques and the documents I developed this year.

The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring

Back at ed school, my first supervisor asked me if I thought I would find it easy to be hired.

I said, presciently, “If it isn’t, I’m screwed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been a test prep and tutor for five years. I don’t even have a website. I just get work. It’s never been a problem. I would never have gone to this expensive ed school if I’d thought I’d have trouble getting hired.”

I remember that conversation very well, with some pride. It’s not everyone who is aware of their critical path dependencies. My flaw, of course, lay in assuming that getting hired as a teacher would be the same as getting hired as a tutor.

Just how thoroughly screwed I was became obvious a couple weeks later, when our school set up mock interviews.

I’m used to the tech world. Google has pretty much ruined the interestwing interview, with its precious but weird questions that would be mocked mercilessly if it weren’t Google. But back in the day, techies did use the interview process to get and give info about the interviewee as a person, because personal attributes are very useful in determining one’s personality as a code. I’d get questions about what kind of take out I liked, my preference for cubicles over offices or vice versa, my favorite movies, and so on.

But one goal was always paramount when it came to the work questions: I was the solution to their problem. That didn’t mean I knew how to fix everything or always had the right answer. But I made clear to him (it was usually a him) that I knew what to do. I knew how to put a team together, how to identify politically sensitive problems, how to identify the problem that just wasn’t making itself clear and when to call in the marines. In all cases, I knew to make it clear that I knew what I could handle, what I couldn’t handle, what the difference was, and how to find the answer. And everyone knows to do this in the tech field—at least they did back in the day. New to the field, a rising star, an established expert, it didn’t matter: Interviewees were confident, competent, and ready to go.

Of course, I couldn’t just pretend to have these qualities, because the interviewer would always be listening to my solutions intently, offering suggestions or asking more questions. Had I thought of these workarounds? How long was the system down? What could I have done differently? It was as much interview as learning process for both parties, and there was never any shame in admitting that no, I hadn’t tried that because the thought hadn’t occurred to me until 10 minutes after the crisis had passed and it was just wrong of me, really, to hope for Round Two simply so I could handle it well. But I could also expect praise, from judicious to enthusiastic, if I had come up with a creative solution. Back in those days, we said “thinking outside the box” without irony.

I loved tech interviews. Of course, I usually got those jobs.

When I moved into tutoring and private instruction, I took this interview approach with me, and it worked fine. For tutoring, I had to spend more time thinking about my clients’ dogs than I ever did in tech, but most wealthy parents want a creative and innovative thinker, coupled with a skill in making kids comfortable. Check. In private instruction institutions (Kaplan or whoever), the bosses have the same approach as techies: they have a problem, they want to know if you can solve it for them. Can you teach, do you know the subject matter, do you deal well with kids whose parents are paying, and will you be on time. Mostly check, except the last one, and I’m good enough that running in at the last moment is forgiven.

The culture shock of the teacher interview took me months just to recover, much less start to map out an effective approach.

First, the format: teaching is a government position, so to avoid lawsuits or charges of favoritism, the interview team usually provides a list of the questions when an interviewee enters the room. The team takes turns reading off the list.

Second, the questions: there will be the differentiation question, the IEP compliance question, the discipline question, the subject matter expertise question. If it’s a Title I school, the ELP question and the grading question (they want to know how many students will fail). If it’s an Asian school, the parent question (Asian parents send teachers some 100 emails daily; many teachers move schools and take a pay cut just to get away from the parents). The questions will all have different intros and be written differently, but the themes are all boilerplate.

Third, they interview a bunch of candidates in a row and each interview is usually 20 minutes. There are no callbacks. The teacher is hired on the basis of that 20 minute interview.

Fourth, and this is important: they don’t really care about the answers. Ideally, the interviewee would read answers directly off the appropriate page of the Big Book of Progressive Teaching Platitudes. The only real risk is too much creativity or innovation.

I have been on something like 35 interviews over four summers; all but four of them were in this format. Those four interviews were free-form and over an hour. I got offers in all four cases (one of which I accepted, and stayed for one year). I’ve only gotten one offer in the other format–the job I just left, after two years.

My first interview year, I didn’t figure it out, but I got lucky (the free-form interview). The second year out, I knew I had to improve and so I started interviewing early in the year, even knowing I wouldn’t get those jobs. By the end of that summer, I was doing much better. I interviewed last year, just to keep fresh. This year, I didn’t even start looking for jobs until last week, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive. I can’t stand the interview process, but I’m not contemptuous. However, I am always amused when someone like Whitney Tilson, eduformer and hedge fund gazillionaire, desribes the principals as tough, accomplished CEOs who should be able to hire and fire at will. I mean no disrespect to principals, but that’s not who they are.

The public really doesn’t understand how teacher hiring works. The interview questions are a formality; the answers even more so, except for quick eliminations. The administrator and any interview team is looking for a teacher who is NOT a star, who is NOT confident, who is NOT out to solve their problems. The bias runs against teachers who stand out. Once they’ve eliminated the people they don’t want, they hire based on who they’d like to see around–and that is usually the youngest person (one thing, at least, that teacher hiring has in common with tech hiring) who seems both smart and mentorable, if such a word exists. Because most teachers and all administrators love the idea of mentoring young teachers.

As I’ve developed as a teacher, I’ve come to see the sense in some of this. No sane teacher says he has The Answer. She only has her approach, and is always considering other methods to see if there’s a better way. If I were interviewing, I’d dump the person who appeared overconfident, too.

But some of it is pretty horrifying. They are hiring with taxpayer dollars. Discrimination in favor of youth, educational ideology and, when possible, race is rampant. And that’s without even mentioning charter schools, where the lockstep demand for agreement is considerably worse. In many interviews, I am quite aware that I’m just a filler, that they’ve already made up their mind and just wasting their time, and mine.

I try to remember that teachers are indeed that interchangeable and any teacher will do pretty well at any job. But it’s a tough road if you aren’t the sort who instantly fills administrators with warm fuzzies—and I’m definitely not that sort.

However, whenever I start feeling too down, I remind myself that in all likelihood, it’s not my answers, or even my lack of warm fuzziness, but my age that’s ruling me out. I remind myself, too, that come late July or August, a position will open up that an administrator desperately needs to fill. At 2 o’clock am, the drunk takes what he can get and in that context, I look damn good. Hard on the ego, though.

The disconnect between the public romance with second-career teachers and the reality of administrators who avoid them like the plague is something that really should be discussed more. If nothing else, I strongly advise second-career teachers to avoid pricy ed schools, no matter how much fun. Loan forgiveness only comes into play if you can get hired.

The problem with fraudulent grades

A while back I wrote a rant about homework and grades and the impact that the former has on the latter. In that case, I was primarily referring to the many students who fail or get low grades despite reasonable demonstrated ability.

But the flip side of that, particularly in urban schools and majority-minority charters, are the students who get As for little more than working hard. Some of them find out in college, like Darryl Robinson, who got a full ride to Georgetown despite weak academic skills. Some of them find out when they sign up for SAT test prep, like Angela Lopez.

For the past 8 years, I’ve taught a spring ACT prep class to underprivileged kids. Certain clear patterns emerge. Assume that the students in these next paragraphs are Hispanic.

On average, the best-prepared pool of students in my class, year after year, come from the comprehensive high schools, whose demographics are usually 65-35 Hispanic to white. These students are usually in Calculus or Pre-Calc, and in AP or IB programs. Their skills are in line with their transcripts. The weaker comprehensive high school students in my class have transcripts with GPAs below 2.0, and are in Geometry or even Algebra. Their skills are usually stronger than their transcripts.

The students from two charter schools fill out the middle and bottom tiers of my classes—with the occasional rock star as an exception. One charter is a well-regarded chain. The kids’ transcripts aren’t outright lies; most of them are in Geometry or Algebra II as juniors. They’re on the low end of the achievement spectrum, and have abilities equivalent with the low-end students from the comprehensive schools, but with better GPAs.

The other charter, sponsored by the local Super Prestigious University, routinely provides the least-prepared, weakest students in the class, with a shocking disconnect between abilities, transcripts and grades. As a rule, the strongest kids from this school are barely average in my class, while the weakest kids are clearly outclassed by the low-performing comprehensive school students, even though on paper, the charter school students are 2-3 years ahead in math and science.

Yet the kids from the university charter school are just as likely to be accepted to the top universities as the top kids from the comprehensive schools, despite huge gaps in demonstrated ability. Needless to say, they are far more likely to gain access to good schools than the kids from the corporate charter or the lower-ability kids from the comprehensive schools, even though the latter have equivalent or better abilities.

Lying gets the job done. Majority minority schools, either charter or comprehensive, frequently deliver watered-down courses and grade more on effort and “social justice” than ability*. Their students, armed with fraudulent transcripts, get into decent or excellent schools and then are shocked to learn how little they know. That’s what happened to both Darryl and Angela; Angela’s adviser, Pablo, might have made his students feel better, but that reassurance isn’t helping her reading scores.

Some of the students I run into from these schools are like Angela—at worst, mildly discombobulated by the realization that, far from being top students, they’re distressingly close to the bottom. A few minutes with a cheerleader like Pablo is enough to banish all fears. They don’t improve much, but are convinced it won’t matter. They embrace the lie. I worry they are mostly doomed at college.

A few students have known they’ve been lied to, but are willing to accept the lie to improve their prospects. Aware that their transcripts and grades are a scam, they’re secretly terrified at what they will learn when taking the ACT or the SAT, since those tests won’t lie about their abilities. And yet they step up to reality, grit their teeth at the early practice scores and work through their fear to get the best score they can. These kids, I would slit a vein for. Happily, they almost always improve modestly, and their delight at these relatively small bumps is one of the great rewards of the job. While not one of them has ever been a super-star, they were all accepted into state schools with realistic goals and a realistic shot of making it through remedial classes.

But every so often I get a student who didn’t know it was a lie and can’t accept the rationalizations that worked for Angela. These are the ones that give me nightmares. I’d rather Angela’s smug acceptance of her inferior abilities than the despair of a kid who suddenly has to face the fact that his entire self-image as a star student has been a lie. The three students I’ve seen in this category all gave up on trying to improve their scores. All of them went on to college, one of them probably graduated. But emotionally, the discovery of their true abilities just wrecked them and it was painful to watch.

Some people read this story and think that, with a proper education, these kids could have really been ready for college. I disagree. The Super Prestigious University charter has, on one notable occasion, turned out a genuinely high-achiever—an illegal immigrant who had been in this country only 4 years when I met him, who got a 1900 on the SAT and a 27 composite on the ACT. Now, he came to the school with strong record of real achievement, but the school taught him advanced math and improved his reading and writing skills. Why? Because he was a bright kid who could take advantage of the education.

When you read of the Darryls and Angelas, it’s best to assume that their weak skills are a product of cognitive abilities that just aren’t up to more. The problem isn’t that they were capable of more, but that their teachers and schools lied to them. That may not always be the case—If Darryl isn’t exaggerating, then he’s managing calculus and biology at the college level. I’d want to know his SAT scores to be sure. But most of the kids in these cases are of below average intellect, hard workers who were fed a fraud.

But of course, it’s much easier to blame the teachers.

One more thing to chew on: The Angelas and Darryls will often be pulled through school by virtue of a huge, expensive support system, similar to the one that is helping Dasmine Cathay, a mediocre, illiterate football player who will quite possibly graduate from his Tennessee state college. This support system just perpetuates the fraud through college, further devaluing the high school degree.

But if you think the support system that hauls low-level kids to a college degree is the right idea, remember this: the kids from comprehensive high schools that I described above, the ones with stronger skills and better test scores but a terrible GPA, (thanks to teachers who, like the charters, grade on homework but have far less compliance) will probably end up in community college if they’re lucky. They will see little in the way of a support system and few people will call them to make sure they get to class.

I am not convinced that we should be doling out support so unevenly, and I am certain that students should not benefit from greater support simply because their schools were willing and able to lie about their abilities.

*While I’m picking on majority-minority schools here, a similar problem is found in suburban progressive charters, which mouth platitudes about diversity and social justice but are primarily interested in boosting white middle-achiever college prospects by inflated transcripts and grades. The parents of these students are a big part of their donation base.

End of Year Grading

Out of my student population of 155, I failed three Algebra II students. I gave another nine students Ds, three of them in geometry and the rest in Algebra 2.

For a school like the one I just left, these are utterly bizarro stats. Math teachers in Title I comprehensive high schools have generally brutal failure rates. Last year, I taught Algebra I, and my D/F rate for Hispanics was 31%, the third lowest of all math teachers and the second lowest in Algebra I. My overall DF rate was about 25%, giving me the second lowest white/Hispanic D/F gap as well. The highest Hispanic math fail rates were 80%. This year, the school didn’t publish the stats, but I would have been the lowest.

My lower fail rate had nothing to do with a change in policy. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that they need to do one of two things to pass: work hard, or demonstrate ability. Work hard, I won’t guarantee anything more than a D, but that’s still a passing grade. Show me you know how to do the work, and I don’t care if you have spent the entire semester throwing rulers and gum, I’ll pass you based on the demonstrated ability.

But as I’ve written before, low ability algebra I students have no skin in the game. The classes have sophomores that are just waiting out the clock to alternative school, and freshmen who don’t see how much crap they are adding to their lives by flunking it the first time—after all, they have the failed sophomores in their classes as a shining example. Which is why I think sophomores who fail algebra should be put into an entirely different class, all by themselves, in order to reduce “pollution”.

But geometry and algebra 2 students can see that light out there, distant, signaling the tunnel’s end. When I say “work hard and you’ll pass”, that has real meaning to a number of low ability kids who have made it this far. When I talk about college placement tests and the impact it will have on their first year, I have a very interested audience.

And so, my 8% D-F rate.

Every time I say this, it kills me to admit it: I am a holistic grader. I set my grading scale to reflect 80% test score, add classwork scores daily to indicate effort to any interested parents, and periodically adjust the grades, dropping low scores or looking suspiciously at high scores that seem out of whack with my perception of ability and effort. I will randomly give a kid a D on progress reports if he hasn’t been working, just to alert the parents of the bad news that’s coming.

No slave to numbers, I.

The cool thing is at the end of the year, when everyone else is grading and calibrating, I’m mostly done. I always have about 8-10 kids that I have to mull over on the borderline–and in almost every case, I tilt up, not down. And every so often there’s a kid who makes an effective last minute appeal. This year, a student who I was certain was getting a B+ told me about an unfair English grade that was just going to kill her GPA, and begged me to “mull it over” (even used those words, the clever kid, having noticed my fondness for the word). I did, and realized that 88.5 to 90 wasn’t an unmanageable jump. This pulled in another student with an identical score. I really should have been paying closer attention to them anyway, to see if I could get them over the hump.

So end of year grading is not the big hassle for me that it is for everyone else.

Grades are a fraud anyway. Somewhere in a high-income suburb, a kid who actually understands second year Algebra, matrices, vectors, logs, and all, is getting a C for not doing his homework. Still other kids are getting As for doing homework, in AP Calculus no less, despite having weaker abilities than some of my students.

Do I pass too many students? For me, it’s a simple equation. The kids have no choice as to their math class. Around 80% of my Algebra II students had scored below basic or lower on their Algebra I state test. How is it fair to hold them to any real standard of actual second year algebra? What is left to grade for at the bottom, other than effort? The kids who got C or higher in my classes worked and learned a lot of math. The D kids goofed around but straightened out when they realized they were at risk of failing. That’s good enough for me.