Monthly Archives: October 2012

Escaping Poverty

Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”

I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:

Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:

  1. Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.

  2. If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.

  3. Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  4. Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.

  5. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.

  6. Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.

  7. Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).

    But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.

    Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.

  8. Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.

If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.

It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.

100 Posts

I started this blog on January 1 with two primary goals. As I mentioned in my initial post, I’d gone a whole year without writing anything for publication (under my real name, which is not Ed). I wanted to initiate more and respond less, and I wanted my writing here to spur me to write more under my real name. As a second goal, I hoped to reflect the full spectrum of my views on education and teaching—and nothing more. I wanted to write both about teaching and educational policy. I teach a great many subjects, and the joys of teaching composition, literature, American history, and text prep ideally needed some of my writing attention, while I expected to write primarily about the challenges of teaching math (yes, I am saying there are relatively few joys in teaching math, but that doesn’t mean I’d give it up.) When the subject turned to educational policy, I expected to focus on the degree to which Voldemortean avoidance prevents us from sane, realistic objectives, but I also intended to discuss the very real problems I saw with both eduform and progressive math philosophies.

Thus far, the blog has exceeded my goals. I had one very successful piece go out under my own name, and to the extent I haven’t written more it’s been because of time constraints. I have plenty of ideas, which was not the case a year ago, when I felt hamstrung. I also think my posts fairly reflect all my teaching interests.

What I didn’t expect, and has been deeply satisfying, is the degree of attention many of my posts have had. Here are the top six posts:

  1. Algebra, and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing

  2. The myth of “They weren’t ever taught…”
  3. Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II
  4. Why Chris Hayes Fails
  5. The Gap in the GRE
  6. Homework and Grades

I wrote all but one of these hoping they’d get a big audience—Homework and Grades is the exception; while it got a nice bump when it first came out with a link from Joanne Jacobs, most of the activity has been from consistent attention over time. People refer to it a great deal, for some reason. (Actually, half of my big pieces got link love from JJ, and a host of smaller ones as well, which means a lot because she’s the best pure education blogger out there. Other bloggers who contributed a lot of readers to the above pieces: Steve Sailer and Gene Expression.)

Three policy pieces that I was personally pleased with, audience or not: Why Chris Christie Picks on Teachers, On the CTU Strike, and The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform.

Three teaching pieces that are regularly linked to or used as references by teachers: Modeling Linear Equations, Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard, and Teaching Polynomials.

Total views at the time of this post: 38,000

I’d also like to shout out to my commenters and Twitter readers. Thanks for your great feedback.

So on to the next 100. I’d say I’ll try to keep them brief, but that’s a big lie.

Boaler’s Bias (or BS)

I began this piece a week ago intending to opine on the Boaler letter. However, I realized I have to confess a strong bias: I read Boaler in ed school and nearly vomited all over my reader. And that will take a whole post.

Experiencing School Mathematics: Traditional and Reform Approaches to Teaching and Their Impact on Student Learning

Boaler, a Brit who has held math education academic positions in England as well as at Stanford, performed a three-year study of two English schools, matched up in demographics and test scores. Phoenix Park believed in progressive, student-centered instruction, whereas Amber Hill taught a traditionalist method—more than traditionalist, they taught math by rote and drill, which is by no means required for teacher-centered instruction.

Boaler was ostensibly investigating the two instruction methods, but the fix was clearly in. Despite Boaler’s constant assurances that the Amber Hill teachers were dedicated and caring, the school presents as an Orwellian fantasy:

One of the first things I noticed when I began my research was the apparent respectability of the school. Walking into the reception area on my arrival, I was struck by the tranquility of the arena. The reception was separated from the rest of the school by a set of heavy double doors. The floors were carpeted in a somber gray; a number of easy chairs had been placed by the secretary’s window and a small tray of flowers sat above them. …Amber Hill was unusually orderly and controlled. Students generally did as they were told, their behavior governed by numerous enforced rules and a general school ethos that induced obedience and conformity. All students were required to wear a school uniform, which the vast majority of students wore exactly as the regulations required. The annual school report that teachers sent home to parents required the teachers to give the students a grade on their “co-operation” and their “wearing of school uniform.” The head clearly wanted to present the school as academic and respectable, and he was successful in this aim at least in terms of the general facade. Visitors walking around the corridors would see unusually quiet and calm classrooms, with students sitting in rows or small groups usually watching the board. When students were unhappy in lessons, they tended to withdraw instead of being disruptive. The corridors were mainly quiet, and at break times the students walked in an orderly fashion between lessons. The students’ lives at Amber Hill were, in many ways, structured, disciplined, and controlled

(page 13)

Phoenix Park, on the other hand:

…had an attractive campus feel. The atmosphere was unusually calm—described in a newspaper article on the school as peaceful. Students walked slowly around the school, and there was a noticeable absence of students running, screaming, or shouting. This was not because of school rules; it seemed to be a product of the school’s overall ambiance. I mentioned this to one of the mathematics teachers one day and she agreed, saying that she did not think she had ever heard anybody shout—teacher or student. She added that this was particularly evident at break times in the hall: “The students are all so orderly, but no-one ever tells them to be.”…. Students were taught all subjects in mixed-ability groups. Phoenix Park students did not wear school uniforms. Most students wore fashionable but inexpensive clothes such as jeans, with trainers or boots, and shirts or t-shirts worn loosely outside. A central part of the school’s approach involved the development of independence among students. The students were encouraged to act responsibly—not because of school rules, but because they could see a reason to act in this way.

(emphasis mine) (page 18)

And yet, while the Amber Hill students were well-behaved little automatons, the Phoenix Park kids–the ones who simply behave well by choice and idealism, not some lower-class aspiration to respectability–ran amok:

In the 100 or so lessons I observed at Phoenix Park, I would typically see approximately one third of students wandering around the room chatting about non-work issues and generally not attending to the project they had been given. In some lessons, and for some parts of lessons, the numbers off task would be greater than this. Some students remained off task for long periods of time, sometimes all of the lessons; other students drifted on and off task at various points in the lessons. In a small quantitative assessment of time on task, I stood at the back of lessons and counted the number of students who appeared to be working 10 minutes into the lesson, halfway through the lesson, and 10 minutes before the end of the lesson. Over 11 lessons, with approximately 28 students in each , 69%, 64%, and 58% of students were on task, respectively [the corresponding numbers at Amber Hill were in the 90%s].
More important than either of these factors, however, is that the freedom the students experienced seemed to relate directly to the relaxed and non-disciplinarian nature of the three teachers and the school as a whole. Most of the time, the teachers did not seem to notice when students stopped working unless they became very disruptive. All three teachers seemed concerned to help and support students and, consequently, spent almost all of their time helping students who wanted help, leaving the others to their own devices.

(page 64, 65)

But far from criticizing the school for abysmal classroom management, Boaler blames the students.

However, this freedom was also the reason the third group of students hated the approach. Approximately one fifth of the cohort thought that mathematics was too open, and they did not want to be left to make their own decisions about their work. They complained that they were often left on their own not knowing what to do, and they wanted more help and structure from their teachers. The students felt that the school’s approach placed too great a demand on them—they did not want to use their own ideas or structure their own work, and they said that they would have preferred to work from books. What for some students meant freedom and opportunity, for others meant insecurity and hard work. There were approximately five students in each class who disliked and resisted the open nature of their work. These students were mainly boys and were often disruptive— not only in mathematics, but across the school. (page 68)

In every mathematics lesson I observed at Phoenix Park, between three and six students would do little work and spend much of their time disrupting others. I now try to describe the motivation of these 20 or so students, who represented a small but interesting group. The students who did little work in class were mainly boys, and they related their lack of motivation to the openness of the mathematical approach and, more specifically, the fact that they were often left to work out what they had to do on their own. …..Many of the Phoenix Park students talked about the difficulty they experienced when they firststarted at the school working on open projects that required them to think for themselves. But most of the students gradually adapted to this demand, whereas the disruptive students continued to resist it.

In Years 9 and 10, I interviewed six of the most disruptive and badly behaved students in the year group: five boys and one girl. They explained their misbehavior during lessons in terms of the lack of structure or direction they were given and, related to this, the need for more teacher help. These students had been given the same starting points as every-body else, but for some reason seemed unwilling to think of ways to work on the activities without the teacher telling them what to do. This was a necessary requirement with the Phoenix Park approach because it was impossible for all of the students to be supported by the teacher when they needed to make decisions. The students who did not work in lessons were no less able than other students; they did not come from the same middle school and they were socioeconomically diverse. In questionnaires, the students did not respond differently from other students, even on questions designed to assess learning style preferences. The only aspect that seemed to unite the students was their behavior and the fact that most of them were boys. The reasons that some students acted in this way and others did not were obviously complex and due to a number of interrelated factors. Martin Collins [one of the Phoenix Park teachers] believed that more of the boys experienced difficulty with the approach because they were less mature and less willing to take responsibility for their own learning than the girls. The idea that the boys were badly behaved because of immaturity was also partly validated by the improvement in the boys’ behavior as they got older .

(page 73) (emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, the Amber Hill girls were miserable:

All of the Amber Hill girls interviewed in Years 9 and 10 expressed a strong preference for their coursework lessons and the individualized booklet approach, which they followed in Years 6 and 7, as against their textbook work. The girls gave clear reasons why these two approaches were more appropriate ways of learning mathematics for them; all of these reasons were linked to their desire to understand mathematics. In conversations and interviews, students expressed a concern for their lack of understanding of the mathematics they encountered in class. This was particularly acute for the girls not because they understood less than the boys, but because they appeared to be less willing to relinquish their desire for understanding…..Just as frequently, I observed girls looking lost and confused, struggling to understand their work or giving up all together. On the whole, the boys were content if they attained correct answers. The girls would also attain correct answers, but they wanted more. The different responses of the girls and boys to group work related to the opportunity it gave them to think about topics in depth and increase their understanding through discussion. This was not perceived as a great advantage to the boys probably because their aim was not to understand, but to get through work quickly. These different responses were also evident in response to the students’ preferences for working at their own pace. In chapter 6, I showed that an overwhelming desire for both girls and boys at Amber Hill was to work at their own pace. This desire united the sexes, but the reasons boys and girls gave for their preferences were generally different. The boys said they enjoyed individualized work that could be completed at their own pace because it allowed them to tear ahead and complete as many books as possible….The girls again explained their preference for working at their own pace in terms of an increased access to understanding. The girls at Amber Hill consistently demonstrated that they believed in the importance of an open, reflective style of learning, and that they did not value a competitive approach or one in which there was one teacher-determined answer. Unfortunately for them ,the approach they thought would enhance their understanding was not attainable in their mathematics classrooms except for 3 weeks of each year .

(page 139)

(all emphasis mine)

So in each school, there were students who really hated the teaching method used. But Boaler blames the complex-instruction haters at Phoenix Park (of course, it’s just a coincidence they are mostly male), for their immaturity and disruption, because they didn’t like the open-ended discovery method she so vehemently approves of. Meanwhile, she not only sympathizes with the Amber Hill girls, poor dears, who didn’t like the procedure-oriented teaching method at their school, but continually slams the Amber Hill boys who do enjoy it because those competitive, goal-driven little twerps aren’t interested in learning math but just doing more problems than their pals.

It was at this point I threw my reader across the room.

Moreover, reading between the lines of Boaler’s screed shows clearly that both schools are doing what I would consider an utterly crap job of teaching math. Boaler also mentions Phoenix Park is the low achiever in its affluent school district, and both schools have dismal test scores (which, let me be clear, could be true even if both schools were doing an outstanding job in math instruction).

Indeed, Boaler’s entire thesis—that the “reform” approach leads to better test scores—is poorly supported by her own data. Boaler received special permission to evaluate the students’ individual GCSE scores. She coded problems as either “procedural” or “conceptual”.

Amber Hill, of the dull, grey school and the dreary uniforms, actually outscored Phoenix Park, the progressive’s paradise, on procedural questions. While Phoenix Park outscores Amber Hill on conceptual problems, it wasn’t by all that much.

Like any dedicated ideologue, Boaler misses the monster lede apparent in these representations: Phoenix Park’s score range is nearly double that of Amber Hill’s, suggesting that discovery-based math helps high ability kids, while procedural math helps low ability students. Low ability students lost out at Phoenix Park, because they couldn’t cope with the open-ended, unstructured approach. Boaler didn’t give a damn about those kids, because they were boys. Meanwhile, high ability kids do better with an open-ended approach, gaining a better understanding of math concepts.

This finding has been well-documented in subsequent research—at least, the research done by academics who aren’t hacks bent on turning math education into a group project. I wrote about this earlier.

Here, too, is a takedown of some of the specifics in her research. You can read the whole thing, but here are the primary points in direct quotes:

  • “Also these scores are very similar. A notable difference is that rather a lot of students at Amber Hill fail, whereas more students at Phoenix Park get the very low grades E,F,G. Boaler sees this as a positive thing about Phoenix Park. A possible explanation (which Boaler does not give) has to do with the fact that the GCSE is actually not one exam, but three exams….. it is perfectly conceivable that at Amber Hill many students aimed higher than they could achieve and failed. Note that it is essential for further education to receive at least a C, so that participating in the basic exam is virtually useless. The figures show that nonetheless at Phoenix Park at least 43.5 percent of the students (the Fs and Gs) participated in this exam and by doing this gave up their chance at higher education without even trying.”
  • “This indicates that, compared to the nation, the students at Phoenix Park did worse on the GCSE than they did on the NFER. So Phoenix Park seems not to have done its students a lot of good. The same is of course true for Amber Hill, which performed very similarly to Phoenix Park. I also took a look on the internet at typical average scores of schools on the GCSE. It seems that Phoenix Park and Amber Hill are just about the schools with the worst GCSE scores in the UK. I cannot help but think that Amber Hill was specifically chosen for this fact.”
  • “Boaler doesn’t say anything about the GCSE scores of Amber Hill at the moment that she decided to include this school in her study, but there is not reason to believe that it was markedly different from the above mentioned scores for Amber Hill. If that is the case, then Boaler seems to have been stacking the deck in favor of Phoenix Park and its discovery learning approach to mathematics teaching.”
  • “Boaler also doesn’t mention that the grades for the GCSE at both schools are lower than one would expect given the NFER scores. She seems determined to interpret everything in favor of Phoenix Park. ”

If you’ve read anything about the Boaler/Milgram/Bishop debate, some of these Boaler critiques may sound a tad familiar. But don’t get them confused. This is a different study. Which means Boaler has pulled this nonsense twice.

It was reading horror shows like Boaler that made me loathe progressive educators. It took me a while to acknowledge that they weren’t all dishonest hacks bent on distorting reality. Not all progressives are determined to create an ideological force field that repels all sane discussion of the genuine advantages and disadvantages of different educational approaches, and an honest acknowledgement that student cognitive ability—which appears unevenly distributed by both race *and* gender, at least as we measure it—is a factor in determining the best approach for a given student population. And ultimately, I find myself slightly more sympathetic to progressives than reformers because at least progressives (and here I include Boaler) actually know about teaching, even if they often do it with blinders on.

So getting all this out of my system means I’m not writing—yet—about Boaler/Milgram/Bishop. But then, I imagine my opinion’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

Ironically, I know people who know Boaler, and assure me she’s quite nice. But then, she’s British. It’s probably the accent.

Richard Posner, Voldemortean Educational Realist

Terrible confession: I have not always been clear on the difference between Richard Posner and Kenneth Feinberg. It’s not so much that I think, “One’s a famous judge, one’s the guy who did the 9/11 settlement” as it is that I make the famous judge the guy who did the 9/11 settlement. Someone got dropped in the duplicate data key, and I think it’s Posner, because I would recognize Feinberg if I saw him on TV, but Posner doesn’t look familiar. (You’re thinking um, they’re both New Yorkers who work in the legal profession with names that seem more than a tad Jewish? But that can’t be it, because I’m very clear on who Alan Dershowitz is, to say nothing of Ruth Ginsburg.) So even though I’ve read and enjoyed articles by both, I have traditionally conflated them into one guy.

But no more. In Rating Teachers, Posner takes fewer than a three hundred words to clearly articulate the major idea of my little blog, when I can never get a single entry below a thousand words. I bow to greatness.

Finally, I am not clear what we should think the problem of American education (below the college level) is. Most children of middle-class (say upper quartile of households, income starting at $80,000) Americans are white or Asian and attend good public or private schools, usually predominantly white. The average white IQ is of course 100 and the Asian (like the Jewish) almost one standard deviation higher, that is, 115. The average black IQ is 85, a full standard deviation below the white average, and the average Hispanic IQ has been estimated recently at 89. Black children in particular often come from disordered households, which has a negative effect on ability to learn and perhaps indeed on IQ (which is only partly hereditary) as well. Increasingly, black and Hispanic students find themselves in schools with few white or Asian students. The challenge to American education is to provide a useful education to the large number of Americans who are unlikely to benefit from a college education or from high school courses aimed at preparing students for college. The need is for a different curriculum and for a greater investment in these children’s preschool environment. We should recognize that we have different populations with different schooling needs and that curricula and teaching methods should be revised accordingly. This recognition and response should precede tinkering with compensations systems.

I do not call for greater investment in preschool , because most people who hold this view believe that better preschool would close the achievement gap. It almost certainly would not. However, I do wonder if preschool that removes poor kids from their often incompetent parents and physically dangerous environments would simply better prepare them to learn to their best ability and give them more resilience, more faith in the larger world and willingness to try to play a part in it. On that basis and with that goal, I would support more preschool funding.

Other than that, I could have written this if I weren’t distressingly verbose, nowhere near as disciplined and, though it pains me to say so, not quite as smart.

And just to prove it, I’m going to recall the times I’ve said so, because otherwise my word count will fall below 1000:

The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform:

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

Algebra and the pointlessness of the whole damn thing:

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.

The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics:

I am comfortable asserting that hours and hours of additional education time does nothing to change underlying ability. I’m not a racist, nor am I a nihilist who believes outcomes are set from birth. I do, however, hold the view that academic outcomes are determined in large part by cognitive ability. The reason scores are low in high poverty, high minority schools is primarily due to the fact that the students’ abilities are low to begin with, not because they enter school with a fixable deficit that just needs time to fill, and not because they fall behind thanks to poor teachers or misbehaving peers.

And if that’s not enough, Posner further makes my day by pointing out that not all good people are competitive, and that teaching isn’t the only job that pays everyone the same salary.

Richard Posner, I’ll never think you’re Kenneth Feinberg again.

And HT to the uber-voldemortean Steve Sailer for pointing his readers to the Posner post.

Mapping Real Life with Coordinate Geometry

Yesterday, I wanted to close off the coordinate geometry section (distance, midpoint) before I moved into logic. Rather than put a few random problems on the board, I came up with a map description.

Han is a driver for Harley’s Restaurant Supplies, making his Monday morning route.

  1. He went due north for three miles, dropping off supplies for diNardo’s.
  2. He then cut northeast along Steep Street to Patel’s Naan and Curry shop. He could have gone due east for 8 miles along Grimley, and then two miles due north along Freeman, but he wanted the shortest route.
  3. He then drove southwest along Morespark, back past Harley’s, all the way down to Bob’s Burgers. Harley’s is exactly halfway between Patel’s and Bob’s.
  4. Next stop, 17 miles due east along AutoBahn Boulevard to Andy’s Noodle Shop.
  5. Then it was northwest along Bracken Drive to Tomas’s Taqueria, which was just 6 miles due north of Harley’s.
  6. Back to Harley’s for his lunch of his noodles, naan, tacos, and burgers before he started out for the afternoon.

A. Create a map of Han’s route, including street, restaurant names, and coordinates. Suggest using (0,0) for Harley’s.
B. How far did Han travel?

All the students had their own whiteboards, so they could sketch and erase as needed. Step A, the sketch, went really well. As I expected, step 2 gave students the most difficulty, but a third of the class understood it without assistance, and the rest had drawn the two descriptions as two different locations.

First student finished with the sketch on whiteboard:

(Yeah, no street names. He put them in after I took the picture).

As students began moving from the sketch to calculating the distance, I brought it back up front. What was the difference between finding the distance from Bob’s to Andy’s (due east) and Andy’s to Tomas’s (northwest)?

This is the final product—I forgot to take a picture mid-lesson. But see how some trips are starred, and some have a plus. The class identified the stars, which required further calculation to get the difference. I stress the “slope triangle” in all aspects of coordinate geometry (slope, midpoint, distance), and you can see my light colored sketches of the three relevant triangles.

Later, the class identified the missing distances, and then we added it all up. Final instructions: transfer all of this to a quality sketch in your notes. Use color to identify the triangles.

When I teach the Big Three of Coordinate Geometry (slope, midpoint, distance), I emphasize the triangle because for so many students, the formulas are just one more reason to get negatives and subtraction all hosed up. Sketch in the triangles, and you’ve got a backup. Does this answer make sense? Yes, it’s fine if they use the formulas. I will forgive them. Provided they don’t muck up the math. And remember, knowing the formulas is essential. I want them to recognize the format of each formula, even if they never use them.

This took about 45 minutes? Wrap up and transition, maybe 55 minutes.

A few days ago, an a**l obsessive overly rigid teacher called me lazy for not having weeks of lesson plans written in advance. I am usually pretty nice to commenters (which is, like, so not me) but while I don’t object to teachers who plan, I vehemently object to teachers who confuse planning with teaching, and this guy is a prime example of the moralizing putz who never got over his potty training and wants everyone else to suffer his pain.

But here’s the thing: I built this lesson in the fifteen minutes before the day started. I do not think my ability to do so is an essential aspect of good teaching. But it’s a part of teaching I really enjoy, the combination of a) my understanding of my kids’ immediate need and b) my strength at creating interesting lessons on the fly. Forcing me to put together a schedule weeks in advance would either make a liar of me or take away that essential piece of my teaching. I’d become a liar, of course. But why go through the farce?

Teaching Math vs. Doing Math

Justin Reich of EdWeek (not to be confused with Justin Baeder of EdWeek) wrote enthusiastically of a new study, asking What If Your Word Problems Knew What You Liked?:

Last week, Education Week ran an article about a recent study from Southern Methodist University showing that students performed better on algebra word problems when the problems tapped into their interests. …The researchers surveyed a group of students, identified some general categories of students’ interests (sports, music, art, video games, etc.), and then modified the word problems to align with those categories. So a problem about costs of of new home construction ($46.50/square foot) could be modified to be about a football game ($46.50/ticket) or the arts ($46.50/new yearbook). Researchers then randomly divided students into two groups, and they gave one group the regular problems while the other group of students received problems aligned to their interests.

The math was exactly the same, but the results weren’t. Students with personalized problems solved them faster and more accurately (emphasis mine), with the biggest gains going to the students with the most difficulty with the mathematics. The gains from the treatment group of students (those who got the personalized problems) persisted even after the personalization treatment ended, suggesting that students didn’t just do better solving the personalized problems, but they actually learned the math better.

Reich has it wrong. From the study:

Students in the experimental group who received personalization for Unit 6 had significantly higher performance within Unit 6, particularly on the most difficult concept in the unit, writing algebraic expressions (10% performance difference, p<.001). The effect of the treatment on expression-writing was significantly larger (p<.05) for students identified as struggling within the tutoring environment1 (22% performance difference). Performance differences favoring the experimental group for solving result and start unknowns did not reach significance (p=.089). In terms of overall efficiency, students in the experimental group obtained 1.88 correct answers per minute in Unit 6, while students in the control group obtained 1.56 correct answers per minute. Students in the experimental group also spent significantly less time (p<.01) writing algebraic expressions (8.6 second reduction). However, just because personalization made problems in Unit 6 easier for students to solve, does not necessary mean that students learned more from solving the personalized problems.

(bold emphasis mine)

and in the Significance section:

As a perceptual scaffold (Goldstone & Son, 2005), personalization allowed students to grasp the deeper, structural characteristics of story situations and then represent them symbolically, and retain this understanding with the support removed. This was evidenced by the transfer, performance, and efficiency effects being strongest for, or even limited to, algebraic expression-writing (even though other concepts, like solving start unknowns, were not near ceiling).

So the students who got personalized instruction did not demonstrate improved accuracy, at least to the same standard as they demonstrated improved ability to model.

I tweeted this as an observation and got into a mild debate with Michael Pershan, who runs a neat blog on math mistakes. Here’s the result:

I’m like oooh, I got snarked at! My own private definition of math!

But I hate having conversations on Twitter, and I probably should have just written a blog entry anyway.

Here’s my point:

Yes, personalizing the context enabled a greater degree of translation. But when did “translating word problems” become, as Michael Pershan puts it, “math”? Probably about 30 years old, back when we began trying to figure out why some kids weren’t doing as well in math as others were. We started noticing that word problems gave kids more difficulty than straight equations, so we start focusing a lot of time and energy on helping students translate word problems into equations—and once the problems are in equation form, the kids can solve them, no sweat!

Except, in this study, that didn’t happen. The kids did better at translating, but no better at solving. That strikes me as interesting, and clearly, the paper’s author also found it relevant.

Pershan chastised me, a tad snootily, for saying the kids “didn’t do better at math”. Translating math IS math. He cited the Common Core standards showing the importance of data modeling. Well, yeah. Go find a grandma and teach her eggsucking. I teach modeling as a fundamental in my algebra classes. It makes sense that Pershan would do this; he’s very much about the why and the how of math, and not as much about the what. Nothing wrong with this in a math teacher, and lord knows I do it as well.

But we shouldn’t confuse the distinction between teaching math and doing it. So I asked the following hypothetical: Suppose you have two groups of kids given a test on word problems. Group 1 translates each problem impeccably into an equation that is then solved incorrectly. Group 2 doesn’t bother with the equations but gives the correct answer to each problem.

Which group would you say was “better at math”?

I mean, really. Think like a real person, instead of a math teacher.

Many math teachers have forgotten that for most people, the point of math is to get the answer. Getting the answer used to be enough for math teachers, too, until kids stopped getting the answer with any reliability. Then we started pretending that the process was more important than the product. Progressives do this all the time: if you can’t explain how you did it, kid, you didn’t really do it. I know a number of math teachers who will give a higher grade to a student who shows his work and “thinking”, even if the answer is completely inaccurate, and give zero credit to a correct answer by a student who did the work in his head.

Not that any of this matters, really. Reich got it wrong. No big deal. The author of the study did not. She understood the difference between translating a word problem into an equation and getting the correct answer.

But Pershan’s objection—and, for that matter, the Common Core standards themselves—shows how far we’ve gone down the path of explaining failure over the past 30-40 years. We’ve moved from not caring how they defined the problem to grading them on how they defined the problem to creating standards so that now they are evaluated solely on how they define the problem. It’s crazy.

End rant.

Remember, though, we’re talking about the lowest ability kids here. Do they need models, or do they need to know how to find the right answer?

Teaching Students with Utilitarian Spectacles

In my last post, commenter AllaninPortland said, of my Math Support students, “Their brains are wired a little too literally for modern life.”

James Flynn, of the Flynn Effect:

A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.

Yesterday I gave my math support kids a handout on single step equations similar to the one in the link.

“Oh, I know how to do this,” said Dewayne. “Just subtract six from both sides.”

“You could do that,” I said. “But here’s what I want people to try. I want everyone to read the first equation as a sentence. What is it saying?”

“Some number added to six gets fourteen,” came from Andy.


“You mean, you don’t want us to subtract, add, do things to get x by itself?” asked Jose.

“That’s called ‘isolation’. You are ‘isolating’ x, getting it all by itself as you put it. Who knows how to do that?” Over half the class raised their hands. “Great. You can do that if you want to, but I’d like you to try seeing each equation just as Andy described it. Put the equation you see into words. This will help make it real, and will often give you the answer right away. For example, what number do I add to six to get 14?”

“Eight.” chorused most of the room.

“There you go. Now, remember, what did I say a fraction was?”


“So instead of saying ‘x over 5’, you’re going to say….”

“X divided by 5″ came back a number of students.

“Off you go.”

This worked for most of the students, but one student, Gerry, sat at the back of the room drawing, as he often does. After watching him do no work for 10 minutes, I called him up front. (Normally, I am wandering the room, but every so often I call them up for conversations instead.)

“So you aren’t working.”

“Yeah. I can’t do this.”

“Remember yesterday, when we were doing those PEMDAS problems? You were on fire!”

“Yeah, but it didn’t have the letters in it. I can do math when it doesn’t have letters. And yesterday, when you showed us how to just draw pictures for the word problems? That was cool. I think I can do those now.”

“You need to look at these problems from a different part of your brain.”

“A different what?”

“This is a really, really easy problem. Way easier than the math problems you solved in your head yesterday. But you don’t see this as the same kind of problem, so we have to fool your brain.”

“How do we do that?”

“Read the first problem aloud.”

“X + 6 = 14. This is when you have to do stuff to both sides, right? I can’t do that.”

“Read it again. But instead of saying x, say ‘what’.”

“Say ‘what’?”


“You crazy.”

“Definitely. Try it.”

“What plus 6 = 14? 8.”

“There you go.”

He was sitting in one of my wheeled chairs, pushing it back and forth with his feet. This stopped him cold.

“Eight’s the answer? Holy sh**.”

“Try another. Without the language.”

“What minus 3 = 7. That’s nine…no, 10. Ten? Really? No f**k….no way.”

“And this one?”

“Oh, that’s a fraction. I can’t do those.”

“What did I tell you fractions were?”

“Division. Oh. What divided by 5 is 9? Forty five? No way?”

“So. I want to see you do this whole handout, 1-26, and every time you see an x, call it ‘what’. Remember to sketch out subtraction questions on a numberline and think about direction.”

“Okay. Man, I can’t believe this.”

Fifteen minutes later, Gerry was done with the entire set. Only three minor errors, all involving negative numbers.

“I feel like a math genius,” he said with a wry grin.

I sat down next to him. “It’s like I said. We have to ask your brain a different question. So instead of tuning me out, next time I come up with some goofy idea using pictures or tiles or different words, give it a shot. And tell me if it works to give your brain the right question. Some of my ideas will work, some won’t. And some things, we won’t be able to fool your brain to answer a different way. But you know a lot more math than you think you do. You just have to figure out how to ask the question in a way your brain understands.”

Back to Flynn:

A greater pool of those capable of understanding abstractions, more contact with people who enjoy playing with ideas, the enhancement of leisure—all of these developments have benefited society. And they have come about without upgrading the human brain genetically or physiologically. Our mental abilities have grown, simply enough, through a wider acquaintance with the world’s possibilities.

But not everyone is capable of understanding abstractions to the same degree. Some people do better learning the names of capitals and Presidents and the planets in the solar system. They’d learn confidence and competence through interesting, concrete math word problems and situations, and enjoy reading and writing about specific historic events, news, or scientific inventions that helped society. Instead, we shovel them into algebra, chemistry, and literature analysis and make them feel stupid.

Students’ names have been changed. They are all awesome kids. Do not say mean things about them in the comments, which I can control, or other blogs, which I cannot.

Math fluency

My Math Support class, for students who haven’t yet passed the state graduation test, is the most challenging of my preps. In many ways, though, the class offers the dream scenario for any math teacher who longs to focus on fundamentals.

I owe no allegiance to a curriculum. I’m not teaching arithmetic in and around an algebra course; arithmetic and a tiptoe into algebra is all the test requires. I only have 18 students (16 boys) in a 90 minute class, so I have tons of time to work one on one. While the kids probably wouldn’t strike the average observer as motivated, they are juniors and seniors who want to pass the test, so by their internal standards, motivation is high. Many (but not all) of the kids are acknowledged classroom challenges at the school. However, this school’s notion of a serious classroom challenge is something around the 30% mark of the students I taught for the last two years, so my basement has moved way, way up the stairs.

So I have a small class, a meaningful curriculum, motivated kids with low abilities, and, for that population, no significant management challenges. I was, and am, enthusiastic about the opportunity. However, please take renewed notice of the blog name. I am not under the impression that these students have merely been waiting for The Messiah, after years of suffering through false prophets (aka bad teachers). I was eager to see which of my assumptions played out, and which didn’t, and I wanted to test, anecdotally at least, some commonly held wisdoms that hadn’t, in my limited experience, borne out.

For example, I have long suspected that the received wisdom about math fluency has holes in it:

Educators and cognitive scientists agree that the ability to recall basic math facts fluently is necessary for students to attain higher-order math skills. Grover Whitehurst, the Director of the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES), noted this research during the launch of the federal Math Summit in 2003: “Cognitive psychologists have discovered that humans have fixed limits on the attention and memory that can be used to solve problems. One way around these limits is to have certain components of a task become so routine and over-learned that they become automatic.”

The implication for mathematics is that some of the sub-processes, particularly basic facts, need to be developed to the point that they are done automatically. If this fluent retrieval does not develop then the development of higher-order mathematics skills — such as multiple-digit addition and subtraction, long division, and fractions — may be severely impaired. Indeed, studies have found that lack of math fact retrieval can impede participation in math class discussions, successful mathematics problem-solving, and even the development of everyday life skills. And rapid math-fact retrieval has been shown to be a strong predictor of performance on mathematics achievement tests.

I used to accept this as a given until seven years ago, when I ran into my first kid who knew his math facts cold but couldn’t solve 2x + 7 = 11, unless I asked him what number I could multiply by two and add seven in order to get 11 and got the correct response almost before I finished the sentence. By that time, I’d already met a few 600+ SAT students who growled in frustration and reached for the calculator when it came to knowing 6 x 9. I’ve also tutored a dozen or more ISEE/SSAT (private school test) fifth and sixth grade students who went to precious little snowflake schools and knew none of their math facts with any fluency yet easily mastered fractions, ratios, and solving for unknowns and scored in the top 90% of a highly skilled population.

I’ve long since abandoned the notion that fluency might be necessary, but not sufficient, given the last group. Kids who can abstract can cope without fluency. What’s troubling is that fluency might be irrelevant.

None of this means we shouldn’t emphasize fluency. But plenty of solid math students don’t have fluency and—here is the important part—many exceptionally weak math students have strong fact fluency.

Every week, I get an extra 20 minutes with each of my classes. In Math Support, I use this time for drill competitions. The kids pair up and get a selection of MDAS flash cards. I set the timer and holler “GO!” First kid holds up cards for the second kid and go through the cards as fast as they can—correct answers in one pile, missed in the other. I stress that the “miss” is determined in 2-3 seconds for most kids (more on that in a minute). If the kid hesitates, it’s a miss.

I originally set the timer for 2 minutes, but all but two of the kids get through a whole pile of 30 cards in one minute, so I dropped it down to a minute.

The kids’ fluency falls into one of these zones:

  • High: I mean, 7×12, 6×9, 7×8 high. 121/11, 96/12 high. 7+9 and 15-8 high. No hesitation, no pauses. The five students in this group all struggle with abstractions, although two of them have solid arithmetic competency and excellent estimation skills. The rest struggle in every area of math. All of them test poorly, all are seniors.
  • Solid: Fluent except the usual suspects: higher 12s, the cross sections of 7, 8, and 9 and a few hard to remember addition/subtraction facts. Many of these kids have told me that this activity is improving their recall of their problem facts. All of my overall strongest students are in this category, the rest are average. Seven in total.
  • Weak: Say about 50% mastery. Four students, not noticeably different otherwise from the “average” students in the solid category. I haven’t yet noticed any improvement, but they’d likely take longer.
  • Non-existent: I have two kids who can’t quickly recall their 2 multiplication facts, struggle with basic addition. Clearly some sort of memorization issues. These two are given 6 seconds per card before it’s counted as a miss.

One of the two students in the non-existent zone is, hands down, the strongest procedural algebra student in the class. She can solve multi-step equations and identify linear equations from a graph. I have explained fractions and ratios to her on several occasions, and it all escapes her instantly. So no fluency, no proportional thinking, but algebra procedures and linear equations. If she can operate by rote, she’s fine. I haven’t checked yet, but I’d bet she can master the quadratic formula (with a calculator) more easily than factoring binomials. My strongest overall students, while not as solid on algebra procedures, are much stronger at proportional thinking, more capable of thinking abstractly, and are all in either geometry or algebra II. (Why yes, you can get to algebra II without passing the state math graduation test. Happens constantly.)

All of my students easily manage multiple digit addition and subtraction. A few of them are completely unfamiliar with long division. Fractions are a struggle for most of them. All but a few understand and use distribution. Combination of like terms, not so much. They all do quite well simplifying exponential expressions and have a solid grasp of scientific notation.

What does this mean? Beats me.

Assertion: Students who are categorically failing in math are almost certainly not doing so because of math fluency. They may or may not be fluent, but fluency is not the condition holding them back.

Tentative hypothesis: The rationale for math fluency (quoted above) does hold for many students who are moving through the math curriculum without ever achieving genuine proficiency, who would certainly be able to learn and hold onto more information if they weren’t spending so much of their time trying to remember what 6 x 3 is, particularly in algebra.

So go ahead and drill. Just remember that the kids it will help the most aren’t the ones you’re worried about, and many of the ones you’re worried about won’t need the drill.

What paperwork?

You ever notice that a lot of teachers complain about paperwork? What, exactly, are they complaining about?

I’m not questioning their truthfulness. I just wonder why I’ve now worked in four different districts (including student teaching), and never see any paperwork. I’ve had a weekly attendance audit, that I sign and date. Periodically I get an IEP form from a special ed teacher (now there’s a teacher with paperwork, but they don’t have much in the way of classes), and I email comments.

If I include online activities as part of paperwork, then I have attendance and updating the online grading system. Setting up the online system is only onerous if I get behind, and that’s usually on me.

Teachers aren’t complaining about grading, are they? I don’t grade homework or classwork; I give kids points for working or completing homework. So the only math I grade is tests and quizzes, which maybe takes up 6 hours a month. But grading isn’t paperwork, is it? It’s assessment. Paperwork means formfilling and mundane information collection demanded by outside forces, right?

I read about districts that require teachers to have daily or weekly lesson plans. I would never work in such a district by choice. I don’t write lesson plans. I find it astonishing that anyone does unless they’re being evaluated, which is like making sure you don’t roll too aggressively through a stop sign during a DMV test. Even then, if I worked at such a school, I would quickly figure out a way to fake it, because seriously, such a requirement is deeply lunatic.

So are all the teachers complaining about paperwork being forced to submit daily or weekly lesson plans? If so, I can at least see the problem. Most teachers are the sort of people who do homework, so they probably take the requirement seriously, instead of phoning it in.

If not, then what are they doing that I’m not? Because I really don’t see the paperwork burden of the job.

added 11/26: CPS Teachers can gripe about paperwork.

Best Movie About Teaching. Ever.

Cheery news: Won’t Back Down had a hideous opening. Here’s a hint, folks: teachers are a big piece of the audience for simplistic, feel-good teacher movies, so it’s a terrible idea to make a simplistic feel-good teacher movie suggesting that most of them suck.

I, however, am not a fan of simplistic, feel-good teacher movies: Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, or Freedom Writers, are tripe. (But the best of that group by far is Holland.)

I occasionally enjoy movies about flamboyant teachers for whom students function primarily as an audience (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dead Poets Society)—and in my enrichment classes, I fear I am that sort of teacher—but they send the wrong signal and thus, I deny them official status as teacher films. They are “idiosyncratic adult who happens to be a teacher opens the eyes of his appreciative audience” movies.

Stand and Deliver is overrated, but Lou Diamond Phillip’s performance covers up a lot of sins. The story’s a big lie alas, and the students did cheat.

Up the Down Staircase, written by Bel Kaufman—still enjoying life at 101, Holla!—is far superior to To Sir with Love, which had the bigger star and English accents, so the first film has been mostly forgotten. It’s worth a look for its honesty and refusal to portray simplistic success. Staircase, like Kindergarten Cop, a guilty pleasure, and the delightful Goodbye Mr. Chips, does a nice job of focusing on classroom management, so essential to teaching inner city kids, wild suburban kindergartners, or British boarding school brats.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a beautiful film about parenting and teaching; both Vinnie and Mr. Pandolfini are exemplars of their individual approaches. School of Rock is sublimely silly, but at its heart is a similar film; specialist teachers (the arts, chess, what have you) have all the fun, sometimes.

There has been much in the news lately about the importance of teaching writing, which reminded me of an odd, lesser, film for both Doris Day (another Holla!) and Clark Gable, Teacher’s Pet. Day is quite gorgeous as a journalism professor who thinks rough, tough (and far too old) newspaper editor Clark is actually a journalism student with great talent. Gig Young has a great role as the intellectual boyfriend (no holla for Gig, alas). It’s no great shakes, but has two or three excellent scenes about the “how” of writing, particularly towards the end, when Clark tells a young Nick Adams how much time he had to spend learning to write.

Best Movie about Teaching Ever: The Browning Version

But the most perfect movie ever made about teaching focuses, paradoxically, on a failed teacher. Written by Terrence Rattigan, The Browning Version explores the last days of classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, who is leaving a mid-tier “public school” post from which he has been prematurely retired. It’s the kind of play with a few parts, the type about which one says “the TV version has Ian Holm as the Crock, Judy Dench as the wife, and Michael Kitchen as the lover” and anyone familiar with the play goes oh, great cast! Albert Finney played the Crock in the 1992 remake, but Michael Redgrave offers the definitive version in Anthony Asquith’s 1951 film.

To describe the plot is to unnecessarily depress the unprepared. One must witness four or five scenes of brutal psychological cruelty and then blink away tears at moments of extraordinary kindness. Rattigan was gay when homosexual activity was a crime, and that may be why that in the pantheon of Brit Lit, Crocker-Harris’ wife is ranked second only to Lady Macbeth as the Ultimate Evil Female, from whose clutches Crocker-Harris must be rescued by a sympathetic male friend if only to view the wreckage of his failed life from a safe distance.

The Browning Version examines that failed life through the prism of the Crock’s status as a failed teacher. His failure lies not in his ability or knowledge, but in his failure to teach with joy and passion and, most importantly, in his failure to show his students that he cared for them (although it’s clear that privately, he did). Faced with students who didn’t care about his subject, he gave up. Eduformers talk about such teachers with cheap abandon and no understanding; Redgrave, a theater legend in the best of his few film roles, does nothing on the cheap, and his pain, which rarely cracks his stiff British reserve, is ever present. If you’re up for it, watch the Himmler scene, and see what eduformers miss about these failing teachers.

But if we must bear witness to the Crock’s failure, we also are given the relief of his redemption in the film’s great insight: students bear a responsibility to their teachers, too. Thanks to the glorious accident of a young man who normally loves science but thinks the classics a bit of a bore, Crocker-Lewis learns that he is, still, a teacher who can find and inspire passion for his subject, given a willing student. Of course, if one teaches Greek and Latin—or algebra II and math support— willing, engaged students are about as thick on the ground as dodos. In the early scenes, we see Crocker’s class paralleled with the science teacher’s (who is also Crocker’s wife’s lover). The science teacher, who has an easy, informal rapport with his students, also has a way cooler subject and offers up a whiz bang experiment. Crock has nothing but old plays and conjugations. How much of a teacher’s ability to hold on to enthusiasm is dependent on the subject he teaches? How much easier is it to hold onto your own motivation when most of your students are actually interested in your subject?

I’ve been at three schools now, all of them with a high percentage of low ability students, and the math teachers are always on the outside looking in. They aren’t the ones the principals thank profusely at the end of the year for inspiring the students. When math classes have a 40-60% failure rate, math teachers don’t make “favorite” or “best” lists. They are the ones who are on the hook for test scores, the ones who are simultaneously expected to keep standards high but not fail too many students, the ones most likely to see students two years in a row in the same class. I became a teacher knowing full well this was in my future, knowing that most of my students, at best, would think of me as someone who makes a horrible hour and hated subject marginally bearable. Yet even with that hardnosed realism, I still often end the day feeling a tad beat down. I cope with the knowledge by continuing my work in private instruction and tutoring, where my kids think I’m the bomb. Many teachers don’t have this out, and leave for schools with higher ability kids–or leave teaching altogether—unable to stand the dreary hatred reflected back at them class after class.

The Browning Version assigns all blame to the teacher for his failure, but at the same time shows how little it takes to put the Crock back on his game. All the man needed was one student who cared; he responded tentatively and then more openly, as the teaching relationship gelled. We are left with the impression that Crocker-Lewis, reminded of what teaching feels like when students care, will go to his new post with a determination to at least show his kids he cares, and search for the very few who might be engaged. That is, we trust and believe he’ll do his job.

The Browning Version is neither easy nor feel-good. It will thus add nothing to the current educational policy debate. But every teacher should watch it, if only to remind themselves that giving up damages souls, their own even more than those of their students.