Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why Chris Christie picks on teachers

I don’t write about politics per se here, and I have no intention of turning this into a political blog, so bear with me on this first part.

I’m voting for Romney. It’s a done deal. I’m not sure who the Republicans could have put up that I wouldn’t have voted for. Mitch Daniels would have been best, but the wife he twice married refuses to deal with the river of media crap she’d face. Whatever. My reasons have nothing to do with Romney per se; I have voted Republican since 2008 when the Dems turned too far left for my liking. I am so not a fan of the current president; I’ve thought him a phony since he first showed up in 2004. (He shouldn’t take it personally. I’ve only ever voted for one candidate who won, and while my esteem for both Bushes and Reagan is higher than the absolute loathing I hold for Obama, Clinton remains the only president of my adult life I’ve ever liked. Which is different from agreed with; I rarely do that with any politician. There, have I alienated all sides sufficiently?)

And, as my various posts have made clear, I’m not protected by a union. I haven’t worked anywhere long enough to get tenure. I can get canned any time of the year, with no warning. I still pay my dues, which is annoying, but not as annoying as the paperwork to get the money back. If I didn’t have to belong to a union I wouldn’t, although I’ve never met a local union rep who wasn’t helpful, realistic, and honest, even if they are, surprise!, always recommending a straight Democratic ticket vote.

I am thus not particularly disposed to be annoyed at Republicans or protective of unions. So it should perhaps mean something that Chris Christie’s little rant on teachers thoroughly disgusted me.

A teacher, a firefighter, and a cop are sitting in a bar watching the Chris Christie speech. When Christie thunders “Real teacher tenure reform that demands accountability and ends the guarantee of a job for life regardless of performance!”, the cop and the firefighter turn to the teacher and ask, “Jesus, what’d you do to piss him off?”

Yeah, it’s been a while since anyone’s pointed out how hard it is to fire cops or firefighters. Haven’t heard anyone cry out that every citizen deserves “the best cop in America” on their doorstep when their house is robbed, or “the best firefighter in America” when Fluffy gets stuck in a tree. No one mentions that cops and firefighters have jobs for life regardless of performance, or that that “life” job is even more expensive because they usually retire earlier and are far more likely to take disability. Cops and firefighters don’t get promoted on merit, and they get raises every year on a step chart even if they just phone it in. Anyone want to talk about the number of cops who look the other way for bribes and sexual favors? Thought not. While everyone knows that parents are likely to hold a low opinion of public schools nationally while loving their local schools, when has that ever been true about cops or firefighters? And hell, firefighters don’t even actually fight fires any more.

Please do not interpret this as a broadside against either cops or firefighters. Cops in particular, please do not hunt me down and give me speeding tickets in your secondary primary role of revenue agents. (Kidding. Kind of.) And yes, being a cop can be dangerous, but it’s dangerous in the same places where being a teacher is primarily about checking for gang colors and guns, and it’s relatively safe in the same areas where being a teacher is actually about, you know, teaching. And of course, actually fighting a fire is dangerous but how often does that happen and anyway, cops and firefighters get a hefty premium precisely because of the increased danger of the job, perceived or genuine.

But the reality is that the three jobs are strikingly similar. They have a relatively low barrier to entry but nonetheless require a high degree of skill and creativity. They are jobs that can’t really be learned except by doing. They require intellect, but not the sort that elites have, or look upon with favor. They are therefore jobs that the elites tend to opine about with a slapworthy degree of condescension, and jobs in which senior members display a distressing sense of entitlement to benefits and guarantees long since lost to the private sector and soon to be lost to the more junior entrants to the profession.

So what’d teachers do to piss off the Republican party while it leaves cops and firefighters alone? Or, as Lenin via Steve Sailer puts it, “Who? Whom?”

Yeah, well, unions, obviously. That’s not the big reveal, that cop and firefighter unions are, traditionally, most likely to support Republicans while teachers, the single biggest occupation in America, pour their millions into the Democrat coffers. And it may or may not be significant that Republicans might be making nice, that firefighters and cops both have been endorsing Democrats lately in large part because the Republicans had been talking tough on cutting government, or that Scott Walker conspicuously left these occupations out of his legislation.

No, the one I wonder about is whether or not teachers were targeted first because cops and firefighters are almost entirely white males, and teachers are mostly white females.

Because it certainly is odd, isn’t it, that the Republicans have a “woman problem” and they are spending all this time attacking an occupation that’s 60% female? Just a little? Around the edges? But what made me wonder about gender as opposed to pure union money is the readiness of the Democrats to attack teachers unions, that pro-reform progressives are lately attacking tenure, bad teachers, the need to bring in “new blood”, and so on. Why would these progressives attack their own, unless they could see that there’s play in attacking government workers? So then, they need a target. Would they have picked teachers, one of their most powerful and loyal donor unions, if teachers weren’t white females?

Eh. I know someone is going to see this as an identity politics bleat, and I don’t mean it that way. We can’t ever escape gender. We sure as hell can’t escape race. I also don’t think any gender bias is deliberate, like the Republicans got together and said hey, what’s the demographically safest union for us to bash? I do think it’s….interesting, and I think the Republicans might want to mull any potential advantages of maybe a little equal opportunity union bashing. The irony, of course, is that teaching is far more male than law-enforcement/firefighting is female. (And yet, while it’s common to call for improved teacher quality by bringing in more males…..yeah, you get the idea.)

But sure, it’s unions, mostly.

Back to my disgust with Chris Christie. It wasn’t the pandering to unions, or any kind of outrage at the use of gender politics, whether a product of my imagination or otherwise. If Mitt Romney were going to tell the truth as Christie so vehemently declared, then he’d talk about all public worker pensions, instead of picking the politically safest group to attack. But what else is new?

Of course, the Republicans aren’t actually interested in improving schools with choice, accountability, and standards. They need the reformer support and enthusiasm, they need white parents, and think they’ll get it with this rhetoric, which ties in neatly with their desire to weaken teachers unions (and do they realize that teacher unions are a whole bunch of white parents? Probably not). That is, yes, I think it’s a CYNICAL PLOY. Heaven forfend.

Democrats, of course, are entirely innocent of all this behavior. Let us all laugh. Ha ha!

No, it was the linkage of bad performance to goal of cutting government costs that just nauseated me. If every teacher, cop, and firefighter was doing a bangup job, pensions are still a huge problem. Salaries and the Baumiol Effect, still a huge problem. Even if teacher quality were a problem—and it’s not—transforming teacher quality wouldn’t do a thing to cut costs. Nor would higher standards, school choice, or accountability. The only way that attacking school quality brings about lower costs is if the results kill the unions and kill the protections, so that labor costs plummet. And again, I’m not against this, if that’s what’s needed, but it won’t help improve the schools.

The problem with our schools isn’t standards or choice or teacher quality. The problem with our schools isn’t money or poverty. The problem with our schools is our expectations, and the pointless demands we make of kids who don’t want to and/or can’t do the work.

So take all the usual political crap, throw in genuinely screwed up solution offerings that won’t fix a thing and ultimately make education even more expensive or, more likely, destroy public support for educating the hard to educate. Um, yeah. Also not new. So why, again, am I particularly bothered?

Back to Lenin and who, whom. I wasn’t a teacher for the other elections. I’m not upset or defensive at my ox being gored, but it’s a lot harder to hear this spew when I see the results of the near-criminal expectations that both political parties have put on schools, teachers, and the students, and the crap we have to go through even to pretend to follow the moronic mandates they legislate.

So nuts to you, Chris Christie. But hell, what do you care? Mitt’s got my vote anyway, because frankly—and oddly—I’m still banking on the unions and the public to stop politicians from doing permanent damage to our schools. Here’s hoping.

The school year begins

As is usually the case after a post of mine gets a lot of attention, I revert to form and start watching reruns. This time it was Quantum Leap, which just showed up on Netflix.

Meanwhile. I got a job. Yay. It was a stressful summer. I don’t know what I would have done had this job not come through, but I’d given some thought to taking a year off and just doing some writing, with some sort of part-time instruction job for insurance. That would have involved deferring my loans, rather than forgiving them, but maybe that would happen later. I make this sound very rational, don’t I? As any of my friends can attest, I was curled up in the fetal position for half of August. Those Target singing commercials for back to school, I’d mute them and hyperventilate.

I held to my standards: no charters, no continuations, no urban schools (I’m fine with suburban poor, but urban low income kids are a whole nother level of madness), nothing more than 20 miles away unless it was a straight freeway shot, and then 35 was my limit. And as I predicted, things started picking up in August. I really like the school that hired me; I admire the administrators and would have accepted a job offer from them last year had it not come after my current school’s year had started.

Starting a new school year is one of the most exhausting periods of the job. It’s a 6-7 hour performance, 5 days a week, with ruthlessly scheduled and inflexible bathroom breaks. It’s a breeze once I acclimate, but for the first few weeks of the year I often find myself crashing at 7 pm, and then waking up at 1 or 2, because I rarely sleep for more than 6 hours at a time. All jobs are a performance of some sort, but the connection between acting and teaching is overt. Teachers who want to find an “authentic” means of “reaching” their students are, to put it mildly, overemphasizing their roles in each student’s own personal movie of his life, in which we are no more than bit players. Plus, no barrier. Bad. I need a barrier behind which to operate, when a kid insults me, or challenges me, or simply acts like an ass. But the effort of finding the part I’m going to play that year and holding it for hours on end is tiring at first.

The year starts late at this school, so I’m enjoying a last few days of freedom. I’ll go check out my room today, and dump off some things. But I don’t waste my time anticipating rules or procedures or even planning curriculum until I know the kids I’m handed. Each year has been wildly different.

Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing

The whole algebra debate kicked off by Hacker’s algebra essay has…..well, if not depressed me, then at least enervated me.

A recap:


We shouldn’t make everyone take algebra. No one needs algebra anyway; we never really use it. Statistics would be much more useful. Algebra is the primary obstacle to high school success; millions of kids are failing because they can’t manage this course. If we just allowed students to have an easier time in high school, more of them would graduate successfully and go on to college.

Outraged Opposition:

Algebra is essential to college success and “real life” and one of many obstacles to high school success. No one is happy with the current state of affairs, but it’s clear that kids aren’t learning algebra because their teachers suck, particularly in elementary school. We need to teach math better in the lower grades, rather than lower our standards. Besides, the corollary to “not everyone should take algebra” is “some people should take algebra” and just how are you planning to divide up those teams? (Examples: Dan Willingham, Dropout Nation)

Judicious Analysis:

Sigh. Guys, this is really a debate about tracking, you know? And no one wants to go there. While it’s true that algebra really isn’t necessary for college, colleges use success in advanced math as a convenient sorting mechanism. Besides, once we say algebra isn’t necessary, where do we stop? Literature? Biology? Chemistry? But without doubt, Hacker is right in part. Did I say that no one wants to go there? Or just hint it really, really loudly?
Examples: Dana Goldstein, Justin Baeder Iand II.

Voldemort Support:

Well, of course not everyone should take algebra, trig, or calculus. Or advanced literature. Or science. Not everyone has the cognitive ability or the interest. We should have a richer and more flexible curriculum, allowing anyone with the interest to take whatever classes they like with the understanding that not all choices lead to college and that outcomes probably won’t have the racial distributions we’d all prefer to see. Oh, and while we’re at it, we should be reviewing our immigration policies because it’s pretty clear that our country doesn’t need cheap labor right now.

Hacker, Outraged Opposition and Judicious Analysis to Voldemort Support:


So really, what else is left to say? The Judicious Analysis essays I linked above were the strongest by far, particularly Justin Baeder II.

Instead, I’m going to revisit a chart I updated from the last time I posted it:

These are California’s math scores by grade and subject, the percentage scoring basic/proficient or higher on the CST. Algebra entry points differ, so the two higher (and slightly longer) of the four short lines are the percentages of “advanced” students with those scores—those who took algebra in 7th or 8th grade. The lower, shortest lines represent the scores of students who began algebra in 9th grade.

Notice that advanced students don’t match the performance of the entire elementary school population through 5th grade. Notice, too, that the percentage of advanced students scoring proficient or higher is just around half of the population. When I just considered algebra students who began in 8th grade (see link above), the percentage never tops 50. Notice that around 40% of the kids who started algebra in 9th grade achieved basic or higher.

NAEP scores show the same thing—4th grade math scores have risen, while 12th grade scores stay flat. In fact, Daniel Willingham, who declares above that we’re doing a bad job at teaching elementary math, was considerably more sanguine about teacher quality back in December, citing the improved elementary school math performance shown in the NAEP. So the strong elementary school performance, coupled with a huge dropoff in advanced math, is not unique to California.

These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades. Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.

What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.

Break it down by race and the percentages vary, but not the pattern. I skipped Asians, because California tracks Asians by subcategory, and life’s too short. I’m going to go right out on a limb and predict that Asians did a bit better than whites.

(Note: I know it’s weird that in all cases, 9th graders in general math have nearly the same percentages as 9th graders in algebra, but it’s easily confirmed: whites, blacks, Hispanics).

Whites in the standard math track perform as well as advanced math blacks and just a bit worse than advanced track Hispanics. Sixty to seventy percent of blacks and Hispanics on the standard track fail to achieve a “basic” score.

Some people are wondering how poverty affects these results, I’m sure. Let’s check.

Hey! Look at that! The achievement gap disappears!

Just kidding. This chart shows the results of blacks and Hispanics who are NOT economically disadvantaged and whites who ARE economically disadvantaged. You can see it on the legend.

So that’s how to make the achievement gap disappear: compare low income whites to middle class or higher blacks and Hispanics and hey, presto.

And that’s all the charts for today. I’m not detail-oriented, and massaged this all in Excel. You can do your own noodling here. Let me know if I made any major errors. The 2012 results should be out in a couple weeks.

Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.

SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else

Whenever I read about SAT tutors charging in the hundreds of dollars, I’m curious. I know they exist, but I also know that I’m pretty damn good, and I’m not charging three figures per hour (close, though!). So I always read them closely to see if, in fact, these test prep tutors are super fab in a way that I’m not.

At the heart of all test prep stories lies the reporter’s implicit rebuke: See what rich people are doing for their kids? See the disadvantage that the regular folks operate under? You can’t afford those rates! You’re stuck with Kaplan or cheaper, cut-rate tutors! And that’s if you’re white. Blacks and Hispanics can’t even get that much. Privilege. It sucks.

And so the emphasis on the cost of the tutors, rather than any clear-eyed assessment of what, exactly, these tutors are doing that justifies an hourly rate usually reserved for low-end lawyers, never mind the fact that these stories are always about the SAT, when in fact the ACT is taken by as many kids as the SAT. The stories serve up propaganda more than they provide an accurate picture of test prep.

I’ve written before about the persistence of test prep delusions. Reality, summarized: blacks and Hispanics use test prep more than whites, Asians use it more than anyone. Rich parents are better off buying their kids’ way into college than obsessing about the last few points. Test prep doesn’t artificially inflate ability.

So what, in fact, is the difference between Lisa Rattray, test prep coach charging $300/hour; me, charging just short of 3 figures; and a class at Kaplan/Princeton/other SAT test prep schools?

Nothing much. Test prep coaches can work for a company or on their own. The only difference is their own preferences for customer acquisition. Tutors and instructors with a low risk tolerance just sign on with a company. Independent operators, comfortable with generating their own business, then pick their markets based on their own tolerance. My customers sit comfortably in the high income bracket, say $500K to $5 million yearly income, although I’ve worked with a couple Fortune 500 families. Lisa Rattray and Joshua Brown, the featured tutors, clearly work with families a couple notches up the income ladder from mine.

None of this has anything to do with quality of instruction. Test prep is a sales and marketing game. The research is clear: most kids improve at least a little, quite a few kids improve a lot, a very few kids stay put or, heaven forfend, get worse.

Obviously, instructor quality influences results a bit, but only rarely change a kid from one category (mild improvement) to another (major improvement). Remember, all test prep instructors have high test scores, and they’re all excellent at understanding how the test works. So they make career decisions based on their tolerance for sales and marketing, not the quality of their services. I know of some amazingly god-awful tutors who charge more than I do, having learned of them from their furious ex-clients who assumed a relationship between price and quality. These tutors have websites, business cards, offered their own prepared test materials, saw students in their rented space, and often accepted credit card deposits. I have none of these accoutrements, show up at my clients’ houses, usually but not always on time, and take checks. Every so often I get a client who whips out a wad of bills and pays me $500 in cash, which I find a tad unnerving.

I’m just as good now as I was at Kaplan (in fact, I privately tutored my own students while at Kaplan, tutoring theirs), but I only got paid $24/hour for Kaplan work, which charged about $125/hour for my services. Kaplan will (at least, when I worked there) boost a teacher’s hourly rate to $50/hour if they get 80% or more “perfect” customer ratings. Instructors who convinced their students that to respond to the online survey and give them excellent ratings got more money. This is independent of actual improvement. A customer who doesn’t improve at all but felt reassured and valued by her instructor could give straight 5s (or 1s, whatever the highest rating is). A customer who sees a 300 point improvement might not fill in the survey at all. Their research showed that customers who give their instructors perfect ratings gave awesome word of mouth and that was worth rewarding. Nothing else was. Asian cram schools pay instructors based on the students who sign up, with a premium for those who sign up specifically for that instructor. See? Sales and marketing.

Test prep companies, long castigated as the luxury option of the wealthy, have been the first choice of the middle class for a decade or more. For the reasons I’ve outlined, any parent can find excellent instructors in all the test prep companies: Kaplan, Princeton Review, Asian cram schools. They won’t brag about it, though, because these companies are about the brand. Kaplan doesn’t want word getting out that Joe Dokes is a great Kaplan instructor; it wants everyone to be happy with Kaplan. No one is “Princeton Review’s star tutor” for very long, because Princeton doesn’t like it and at that point, the most risk-averse instructor probably has enough word of mouth fame to go independent.

I’ve often advised my students to consider a class. The structure helps. Some of my kids don’t do any work unless I’m there, so what I end up doing is sitting there playing Spider on my android on my client’s dime while the kid works problems, rather than reviewing a bunch of work to move forward. I’m pretty sure Lisa and Joshua would celebrate this, going to the parent and pointing out how much they are helping. I have better things to do and other clients to see. So I tell the parents to fork out an extra thousand for a class, make sure the kid goes, and then we review the completed work. The student gets more hours, more focus and, usually, higher scores, regardless of the quality of the second instructor.

I’m not saying Lisa and Joshua are wrong, mercenary, or irresponsible. They just play to a different clientele, and a huge chunk of their ability to do so rests on their desire to sell an image. That’s fine. That’s just not me. Besides, Josh forks out $15K of his profit for a rental each summer. Lisa gets constant text messages from anxious parents. Also not me.

So you’re a white, middle class or higher parent with a teenager, worried about SAT scores. What do you do? Here are some guidelines. Recognize that GPA or parental income smacks down test scores without breaking a sweat. If Johnny doesn’t have a GPA of 3.8 or higher, elite universities are out of the question unless his parents are alumni or rich/connected enough to make it worth the school’s while.

If Sally qualifies on GPA, has a top-tier transcript (5 or more AP classes) and wants to go to a top 10 school, test scores should be 700 or higher per section. If they’re at that point, don’t waste your time or money or stress. At that point, the deciding factors aren’t scores but other intangibles, including the possibility that the admissions directors toss a pile of applications in the air and see which ones travel the farthest.

If Jesse is looking for a top 20 or 30 school, the GPA/transcript requirements are the same, but looking at the CDS of these schools, realistically a 650 or higher per section will do the trick. It might be worth boosting the test scores to low 700s, but if Jesse is a terrible tester, then don’t break the bank. One of the schools will probably come through.

If Sammy has a lower GPA (3.3 to 3.8) but excellent test scores (high 600s or higher per section) , then look to the schools in the middle–say, from 40 to 60. It’s actually worth spending money to maximize Sammy’s scores, because these mid-tier schools often get a lot of high effort hard workers with mediocre test scores. Not only will Sammy look good, but he might get some money. (By the way, if you’ve got a Sammy whose grades are much lower than his abilities, you should still push him into the hardest classes, even if he and the counsellors cavil. If your Sammy is like most of them, he’s going to get Bs and Cs regardless, so he may as well get them in AP classes and get some college credit from the AP tests. And the transcript will signal better, as well.)

The biggest bang for the test prep buck lies not in making kids competitive for admissions, but to help them test out of remediation at local universities. So if Austin has a 3.0 GPA, works hard but tests poorly, then find out the SAT cut score at his university. If he’s not above that point, then spend the money to get him there, and emphasize the importance of this effort to his college goals.

If your kid is already testing at 650 or higher, either send her to an Asian cram school (they will be the only white kid there, for the most part, but the instruction will be excellent) or invest in a tutor. The average white kid class at Kaplan or Princeton might have an instructor who can finetune for their issues, but probably won’t.

Otherwise, start with a class and supplement with a tutor if you can afford it. Ask around for good instructors, or ask the test prep company how long the instructor has been teaching. Turnover in test prep instructors is something like 75%; the 25% who stay long term do so because they’re good. As for the tutor, I hope I’ve convinced everyone that price isn’t an issue in determining quality. I would ask around for someone like me, because our ability to get a high rate without the sales and marketing suggests we must be, in fact, pretty good. And there’s always someone like me around. Otherwise, I’d go with the private tutoring options at a test prep company, with interviews.

As I said, these rules are for middle class or higher white kids. Only 6% of blacks and Hispanics get above 600 on any section of the SAT–in fact, the emphasis on GPA came about in large part to bypass the unpleasant reality of the score gap. There are only around 300 black students that get higher than 700 on two sections of the SAT. That’s barely enough blacks for one top ten school. Rules are very different. The main reason for blacks and Hispanics to take test prep is to get their scores above the remediation number. Middle class or higher Asians face much higher standards because universities know their (or their parents’) dedication to getting good grades and good test scores is more than a tad unnatural and probably overstates their value to the campus. Athletes and artists of note play by different rules. Poor whites and poor Asians have it really, really tough.

What this means, of course, is that the kids in the Hamptons are probably already scoring 700 or higher per section and are, consequently, wasting their time. But what the hell, they’re doing the economy some good. Or maybe some of them are Asian.

Note: I wrote this focusing on the SAT but it all applies to the ACT as well, and the ACT is a much better test. I wrote about the ACT here.

Learning Math

Jessica Lahey’s In Defense of Algebra, in which she describes her adult triumph over math, reminded me of my own experiences learning math and how they might be relevant. This is long, but if I make what I did sound too easy, people will get the wrong idea.

I struggled in math during high school, but was simply too clueless to quit. I got As and Bs algebra in 8th grade, got Cs and Ds in the subsequent courses until senior year, when I held onto a B the entire year in AP Calculus and, in what remains one of the great academic shockers of my life, passed the AP Calc test with a 3. Many years later, I took the GRE for my first master’s. I spent a month slogging through math, relearning enough of it to get by, and was very pleased with my 650 quant score, which was the 65th percentile on the GRE. Good, but not great, which is pretty much how I did on the SAT many years earlier. (Verbal, which I spent no time on, was 790).

My math turnaround began after I started grad school, when my son was failing geometry. After reading his book and working dozens of problems, I was able to help him (he went on to pass both the AP Stats and Calc AB tests, and is stronger in college math than I am). Needing a part time job for grad school, I auditioned for a job at Kaplan.

I originally hired on to teach GRE classes, but within a month I was working close to 40 hours a week teaching the high school tests. Two months later, I was teaching Math 1c and Math 2c, which was ridiculous. I had to learn the SAT math by rote at first, and the SAT Subject math tests required trig and second year algebra. I protested to no avail, and my manager’s decision was prescient—within a few months, parents were emailing me for private homework tutoring in high school math. It turns out I’m very good at explaining things; when I didn’t know how to do a problem in the early days, which was often, I’d go look it up or ask a student who did understand the problem. Ah, that’s the part I missed! Anyone else do that? I could see students nodding. I made the process very transparent, showed students where the glitches in my comprehension were, helped them find their own glitches and, it turns out, students would rather be tutored by someone who knows where the understanding glitches are.

I told parents I didn’t have a clue what a log was if it wasn’t in an Ingalls story, but even after raising my rates as an attempt to scare them off, I was getting lots of work. Still, for my own peace of mind, I decided I needed to learn more math instead of literally learning it while teaching others.

I started with test math, my strength. The REA and Kaplan test prep books served as my educational foundation. Between the two books, I learned how to recognize the subject and how to solve a number of common problems. When I was tutoring students, I would recognize the type of problem it was. Then, using their textbook, I’d help them work problems by example and explain. In explaining the math, I learned a great deal. My students learned and got improved grades, more confidence, and better test scores. Me, I kept getting more clients.

After four years of this, I had an excellent understanding of high school math through pre-calc, and routinely scored 800 when taking practice Math 2c tests (which I did for the first few years to keep me alert to weak spots). I not only knew the material cold, for the most part, but was by this point extremely familiar with the curriculum and sequencing for pre-algebra through algebra II/trig, and somewhat familiar with the same for math analysis (pre-calc) and calculus.

Seven years after my first GRE and untold decades after high school, I aced two of the three teacher math credential tests, and passed the third, in calc, with what can be called a gentleman’s C—the conceptual questions, the trig and the math history questions pulled me through. I scheduled my ed school GRE with two days’ lead, and got an 800 on the quant—by that time I was getting 800s on the practice test without a pencil, sitting around the Kaplan office with 15 minutes to kill. (Verbal: 780, but I was distracted and finished in 12 minutes.)

As I was studying for the calc credential test (which I took twice), I suddenly had an epiphany about why I was now able to learn math, when I’d done so poorly in high school, and for this, boys and girls, I must go back even further, back to the dark old ages of the mainframe and the earliest days of my previous career:

I was unfocused after college, having done well in English lit classes and nothing else. I started as a data entry clerk, but got a contract at IBM using a mainframe product that everyone in its customer base hated, but had to use. While entering the data, I noticed a few short cuts, asked for a manual, and began customizing the product in ways very few people knew was possible. The boss was impressed and made me responsible for product demonstrations, showing my work and explaining how the product could be customized. I got a job from one of the companies that came to the demo, a major brokerage firm. It was my first real job after five years of temping in admin jobs, during and after college. (Irony alert: I’d taken, and nearly flunked, one computer programming course in college and was convinced it wasn’t the career for me. I was three years into my new job before I felt comfortable saying I was an applications programmer, much less a computer programmer.)

And the first day I got to my new job, my boss said to me, “So I need to put you on a different project first. Our systems management application needs to be installed on the NYC machine.We have this automated process that moves the source code out of Panvalet, automatically builds the compile JCL based on the program—you know, if it’s CICS or batch, IDMS or DB2, and so on, and compiles it, linkrefs it, and installs it in the right library. It’s already working here; you just need to transfer all the code, change the libraries, and so on. You know CICS, right?”


“Oh, it’s a transaction server environment. We mostly use COBOL here, but we’ve got some assembler routines. You know COBOL or assembler? No problem, I’ll sign you up for a class. The code itself is mostly ISPF calls with EXEC, although I’d like to upgrade to REXX.”

It’s not just that I didn’t know COBOL, and had no idea what CICS was. It’s that I didn’t know what compile meant, or source code, or batch, or JCL, much less IDMS or DB2. And I didn’t have the foggiest clue what REXX or EXEC was, and ISPF to me was an application, not something I programmed with.

Baby, I brought that motherf***er in on time. Two and a half months. I got a bonus, too, because by the time it went live, my director had figured out a small fraction of how much I didn’t know, and was extremely impressed. She never grasped the sum total of my ignorance, thank god. Nor did she ever realize that I still didn’t know what the difference between CICS and batch was and didn’t realize that (at the time) a program couldn’t be both, only vaguely understood that “compile” meant translating code I could read into weird symbols I couldn’t read but presumably the computer could, never did learn COBOL, and only vaguely understood what JCL was or what it did. All that was in my future. The only thing I was pretty confident about after those two and a half months was that I was pretty darn good at EXEC and ISPF dialogs, and that these things weren’t what the brokerage products ran on.

So my epiphany was this: Working with computers had taught me how I learned. How I learned. Which was not like most people. When books don’t work as a learning tool, then I have to learn by a particular type of doing. Explanations won’t help. Learning in a vacuum won’t help. I need to learn by trial and error. And then, I learn like Wile E. Coyote traverses the desert; I just keep on going until something blows up in my face. Go this way? Boom! Okay, that way doesn’t work. File it away. Go that way? Two steps, yes, then BOOM! Okay, the two steps, file away, then don’t go that way because BOOM! how about this way? Tiptoe, tiptoe, try this, ha! It worked! Done. On to the next. Make sense of the chaos, bit by bit, understanding the rules by the reaction.

When I’m learning something, I neither know nor care about why. Understanding will usually come. So just as I ultimately understood CICS only several months after I started making changes to a mission critical CICS transaction, I didn’t bother with understanding what, exactly, trigonometry was. Two years after I first learned how to work trig problems, I read that trigonometry was the study of the ratio of right triangle sides, and I was like Holy Crap, that’s exactly what trig is. What a trip. One day soon I’ll internalize the fundamental theorem of algebra, but give me time. If not, I’ll wave the dead chicken over the problem because that’s what worked the last time. And it usually works again. (Note: Ironically, as a math teacher, I am big on explaining why, but that’s because I’ve realized that most people aren’t like me.)

Of course, theory, whether it be math or computers, is usually beyond me. And yet, in both math and computers, I am capable of occasional insights that please actual mathematicians and computer scientists, even though most of the time I don’t care, as they are working on things that I find utterly incomprehensible.

Why did I struggle with math in high school? The usual reasons don’t apply. I was an A student, and remained one in English and history. Unlike Jessica, I never felt labelled, nor did I give up. I had excellent math teachers, all of whom knew that my intellect was considerable and took the time to reach out—each one sat me down at some point and asked why I wasn’t doing better, given my obvious brains.

I just know that some people are going to read my post, as they read Jessica Lahey’s, and conclude that, by golly, we prove that anyone can learn math, and that labelling kids based on early progress is cruel and wrong and demoralizing. Lahey herself clearly holds this position.

Well, no. Lahey and I are both extremely bright and I know I say this a lot, but that’s because people persist in ignoring the relationship between “smart” and “academic achievement”. Lahey clearly has excellent verbal skills, strong at writing and foreign language (she’s a Latin teacher at an elite middle school), whereas I’m a hybrid who, in addition to excellent verbal skills, tested high on every computer aptitude test that came out back when I was in college. On the other hand, I can’t speak any foreign languages, and I suspect Lahey isn’t as strong on logic and pattern recognition, which is why she needed an algebra teacher to get through first year algebra, whereas I self-taught myself the entire high school curriculum.

What Lahey and I both demonstrate is that it’s possible to be well above average in smarts, yet still struggle in math when later experience proves that we were entirely capable of grasping it.

Why, then, does an otherwise smart person struggle with math?

I have a theory, involving my layman’s understanding of IQ, which I’ll go into briefly.

Two visual aids to categorizing or measuring intelligence: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale subscores and subtests and Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory. In both, you can see what most people know on a casual level: intelligence has a verbal component and a visual/spatial component (known as performance in Wechsler). Logic seems to cut across the categories. It’s not terribly controversial to point out that advanced math, even that found in high school, requires more visual spatial and logic ability. I don’t know, specifically, how my intelligence maps to these categories. But I’ve always known that my verbal abilities were very high, my pattern recognition and decision processing equally so, and my visual-spatial relatively weak.

Imagine smart kids who has really strong verbal skills but unknown weaknesses in either logic or visual spatial abilities. These kids would coast easily through elementary school, where the skills needed are almost exclusively verbal—reading and arithmetic. By the end of of 8th grade, they’re bored out of their minds. Most of elementary school is time spent teaching them things they already know and developing social skills.

So for 8 years, this type of smart kid hadn’t ever had to struggle to learn something—in fact, learning itself is pretty alien to smart kids. (This, parents of smart kids, is why you should make sure your kids have to struggle with something—cooking, art, horseback riding, making nice with other people, whatever.)

And then, math. Algebra and beyond can come as a big shock. When school has come easily all your life, it’s hard to even know what “learning” is, much less how it applies to you. I’ve talked to countless people who qualify as Really, Really Smart, and every one of them has agreed that at some point in their lives, they realized that they had no idea how to learn. Some figured it out in high school or college. Some, like me, didn’t figure it out until they got a job that required them to learn something. Others, like Lahey, had access to a math teacher and went back and learned it because they wanted to fill in a gap that they felt was necessary for parenting.

So the otherwise smart kids who struggled with math did so in part because their particular intelligence was strong on verbal, and lighter on the spatial and (probably) visualization skills that are helpful in math. Plus, math was, to quote the Great Barbie, tough. And these kids had never once faced “tough” in a school subject. Many folded.

This was particularly true in the era before we began demanding higher math of all students (say about a decade or fifteen years ago). Before the 90s, math teachers weren’t held responsible for their students’ failures, and we accepted that not everyone was “good at math”. Kids with strong verbal abilities just took less math—in those days, it didn’t end your hopes of college, even of elite college. It was quite normal to get into an excellent school with a strong performance in history or English with little more than second year algebra on a transcript.

Today, of course, any white or Asian kid who wants to go to an elite college has to have advanced math, so the smart verbal kids who don’t have the requisite math skills have a much stronger incentive to either compensate or fake it, with or without a tutor. Moreover, math teachers these days are far more likely to reward effort over ability, so it’s easier for a student to get As in math by religiously doing homework and extra credit, even if they do poorly on tests. And of course, math teachers are also less likely to dismiss the effort involved in teaching math to those who aren’t necessarily strong in the subject. Thus, for many reasons, smart kids today with primarily verbal skills are less likely to have given up on math and are at least willing to fake it. Many learn to compensate, as I did much later in life, by using their other cognitive abilities to make up for their relative weakness.

(Compensation: Picture a circle inscribed in a square. Can you estimate the ratio of the circle’s area to the square’s? Or would you, like me, be completely incapable of a reliable guess and so calculate the difference by creating a radius of length r and work it as an algebra problem? I contend that people who can make an accurate estimate and do the algebra have an easier time in math than the people who can only do it with the algebra.)

Back in the day, the kids whose intelligence was strong in the math aspects but weak in verbal got a similar shock when they were expected to write an analytical essay on Hamlet and offer some original insights. Unfortunately, as has been noted before, our history and English curriculum has never recovered from the dumbing down it suffered through in the interests of multi-culti, giving kids who are strong at math little reason to ever struggle to access their verbal abilities.

This has obvious implications for the big algebra controversy kicked off by Hacker. But it involves recognizing that underlying cognitive ability is a huge determinant when deciding who should, or perhaps shouldn’t, take algebra.

The Aussie story and the plague of the middlebrow edupundits

This article is getting a lot of cheap responses.

Headline: “Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett says teachers do not have to be smart”

Which leads, of course, to everyone mocking him for saying it’s okay for teachers to be stupid. But here’s what the article says:

[Garrett] said he didn’t think the teaching profession needed to be more selective.

“It is not necessarily a fact that someone who is academically smart makes a better teacher than someone who isn’t,” Mr Garrett told reporters in Canberra.

“I don’t think education should necessarily be the province of the particularly smart or gifted.”

Mr Garrett said he knew teachers who weren’t the most academically gifted but nevertheless went on to be great because they had passion and enthusiasm for the kids they taught.

I’ve written at length about this for America, at least. There is no evidence that smarter teachers make better teachers and our teachers are smart enough. And yes, many people with less than exceptional content knowledge make very good teachers, and plenty of brilliant people make terrible teachers.

So really, there’s nothing even slightly objectionable about Garrett’s points. Not that this stopped anyone from mocking.

I started this blog in some small part because I got irritated at all the idiots that I finally could capture in a name: the middlebrow* education “expert”. You find these preferences often in otherwise political pundits: Matt Yglesias, Megan McArdle, Noah Millman, Walter Russell Mead. In fact, almost any time a political pundit expresses even the briefest of thoughts on education, it’s straight from that part of the opinion spectrum. Most of the billionaire reformers are middlebrow. And of course, middlebrow education experts are legion in blog comment sections.

The middlebrows are educated, generally intelligent people who succeeded in the private sector—or married people who succeeded in the private sector. They hold a number of conventional opinions about education, even though they aren’t directly involved in teaching or educational policy.

One middlebrow profile is the quasi-reformer view: teachers aren’t very bright, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, everyone can succeed, we just have to catch the kids early enough.

The other middlebrow profile is the quasi-traditional view: teachers aren’t very bright, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough,kids aren’t being taught the basics, bring back tracking, unmotivated students should be kicked out, weak-willed school administrators aren’t willing to let kids bear the responsibility of their actions, .

The overlap is intentional; all the middlebrows are consistent about blaming teachers. But these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

Anyway, the middlebrows had fun with this story, even though the Aussie was, for the most part, right.

*I knew the term before now; I just finally figured out that it applied to this issue.

No Jeans for Teachers? Seriously?

Teacher dress code means banning jeans.

Are you one of those people who thinks that these dress codes will “restore professionalism” and “instill respect” into teaching? I can’t remember the last time I saw a doctor who wasn’t in jeans or dockers. My dentist is an overdresser, it’s true, but her receptionist never moves beyond jeans. Casual Friday died the death in corporate America a decade or more ago; we dressed down every day of the week. Hell, lawyers don’t even wear suit and ties routinely unless they’re at court.

So spare me the pieties about teachers’ clothes. Many of us want to wear jeans, or shorts, or sweat pants. Unless there’s research proving that kids achieve better when their male teachers wear ties and the female ones wear dresses, then take a big cup of shut up. Curb the excesses, fine. No holes, no spaghetti straps, no tattoos, sure. But jeans? Please. The era of suit and ties is over—not just for teaching, but for the country. You want to bring it back, start with an occupation that pays in the six figures first.