Monthly Archives: May 2013

Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

I’m going to start by observing that I’m not convinced that teachers’ use of sick leave is a problem. This Clotfelter et. al study observes that teachers’ absentee rate in and of itself is nothing to be fussed about:

Although absence rates in teaching tend to be higher than ostensibly comparable figures for other similar occupations and sectors, however, they are not wildly out of line. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the opportunity to take the occasional day off that makes a teaching career attractive to many people with children. Except for schools and districts with persistently high rates of absence, then, the rate of teacher absences itself should probably not be a cause for great concern.

On the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are going to get louder in the days to come.

My own use of sick time is next to non-existent. I have used 2.something days in 4 years. My first year, I had a recurring and dangerous infection that simply wouldn’t go away. Moreover, each recurrence required use of some really severe antibiotics that made me so sick that one morning I literally walked/ran out of class to throw up in the huge garbage can parked conveniently outside my door (not there, I hasten to add, for that purpose). I walked back in, a student gave me a fresh bottle of water (the school didn’t have drinking fountains), and I finished the day without incident. I took a partial day when the infection first showed up, and one full day when the infection returned overnight; in both cases I had to go to the doctor and then wait for the meds to take effect.

My second year, I took no sick days, but was forced to use a sub for six days of required professional development. Had I not been completely inept at using the automated absentee system, I would have been gone for eight days, but in two instances I screwed up and no sub was available at the last minute, so I skipped PD. (I should have made the same mistake 6 more times, but I was afraid they’d notice.)

Last year, I taught an entire day with a scratched cornea, wondering why the hell my head hurt so much. Two hours after school ended, I decided I may as well stop in at an urgent care to see why my allergies weren’t responding to medication, and was amazed when the doctor made the problem go away with some anesthetizing eyedrops—one of the only times a doctor has genuinely helped me with a medical issue. He then gave me some antibiotics to put in my eye overnight. They did the job, but an allergic reaction to the ointment made my eye look like something out of a horror film. I went into school, asked for a sub, taught first period with my sunglasses on to spare my students the trauma of my eye (most of them demanded a peek anyway), and left when the sub showed up. I then came back in after school for a department meeting. So, one day.

This year, I haven’t taken any days off. Several students have commented, unprompted, that I’m the only teacher they have who’s never used a sub.

In other words, my proposed remedy to any purported “sick leave” problem is that of someone with extraordinarily good health, a ridiculously high pain tolerance, and no kids at home. Before teaching, I spent only five and a half years in a full-time job, which is the only time I had paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance. I’ve spent the majority of remainder of those twenty years working contract or temp, as an admin worker, a tech consultant, or a test prep instructor/tutor. In those careers, I got no sick time. Ever.

I agree with every word of Paul Bruno’s comments here. The year of forced professional development was nightmarish; I knew the kids would waste the day, but I had to prepare for it anyway. Math and science teachers have it tougher than English and history teachers here, I’m sure. If I were ever to think of taking a day off, the amount of preparation work would quickly banish any appeal.

It’s clear that most teachers either don’t agree with us or have compelling reasons to be absent—or both. I remember one day at my last school seventeen teachers called in sick on one day, and at least one day this year so many teachers were absent we ran out of subs and covering teachers and the admins had to step in. However, I’ve never gotten the impression that the admins considered this more than a minor inconvenience; teacher absenteeism at both schools is a non-issue. I know my last school district simply wouldn’t pay a teacher who took the Monday or Friday off around a 3-day weekend unless it was a documented illness. That seems a simple enough remedy. I don’t think my current district does this. (One question that arises in these discussions: are the absentee rates distinguishing between professional development and teacher-initiated absences? The Clotfelter study does make that distinction; I’m not sure all do.)

I often read ignoramuses who vent about the supposed idiocy of including unused sick time in teacher pension payouts, or advocate “use it or lose it” restrictions. Here’s a fun one:

Imagine two teachers, identical in every way except unused sick time. They’ve each been teaching for 30 years, have final average salaries of $86,636 and retire at age 60. One has the average 1.84 years of unused sick time; the other has none. The difference in lifetime pension payouts is more than $115,000. When you consider that there are 91,000 retired teachers collecting a pension, that difference starts to add up.

Jesus, this is irritating.

Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $64,000

Teacher B takes no sick leave. She costs the school $63,000. But she makes less money per hours worked than Teacher A.

So spare me the crap arguing that paying teachers for unused sick leave is just another entitlement, okay? Wail about pension costs, fine. Give the teachers the money at the end of each year—perhaps with the option of putting it into a separate retirement account, also fine. Argue for reduced sick days for all teachers, go to town. But do not for a moment pretend that paying teachers who didn’t use their sick days is an injustice, because even leaving student achievement aside, these teachers are bargains.

If pension costs for teachers and other government workers are exacerbated by reimbursing them for unused sick leave at retirement, then by all means pay them their entire daily rate for the unused time at the end of each year.

But while this will solve the pension problem, it won’t necessarily solve the costs of teacher absenteeism—substitutes and, perhaps, weaker student achievement.

Most studies I’ve read (admittedly, I haven’t researched extensively) don’t address the dual problems of teacher sick pay and absenteeism—that is, they are focused entirely on either pension costs or day to day costs, and so want to decrease overall sick time or accrued sick time. They ignore the fairness problem I’ve outlined above: teachers who don’t take sick leave are costing the district less than those who are. Not reimbursing them for the money they’ve saved the district is simply unfair. Besides, without reimbursing them, any “use it or lose it” policy for teachers is a foolish idea, since it will increase absenteeism among teachers who otherwise wouldn’t think of taking time off. Any teacher—yes, even me—is going to take sick days if they will otherwise lose them.

I like this Clotfelter study (he’s done more than one on absenteeism) because it focuses on an approach for reducing teacher absenteeism, proposing “A revenue-neutral policy change , incorporating $100 in savings associated with averted payments to substitute teachers, would thus increase teacher salaries by roughly $400 per year, in exchange for teachers accepting a $50 charge for each sick day taken”.*

Thus my proposal to both reduce pension costs and teacher absenteeism:

  • Give teachers a fixed number of sick/personal days to use during the year.
  • Charge teachers $50 for each sick day taken up to the contracted amount.
  • At the end of each school year, pay teachers their full daily rate for their unused sick time.
  • Districts that want to give teachers even more incentive for staying in the classroom can give more money upfront and charge more for absences. I really like the idea of a separate retirement account (teachers have something but lordy, I can’t remember what it’s called), possibly with a matching payment in appreciation of their dedication to maintaining consistent student learning environments.

So if, as Kate Walsh asserts, paying teachers for not costing their districts more money is the new blame game, reformers might want to get it right the first time, by rewarding teachers who don’t use their time, while asking those who do to offset some of the costs.

Most teachers will hate it, of course. But when has that stopped reformers?

****************************
*(Note: the study uses North Carolina data, in which the teachers are charged $50 for each day taken after their allocated sick leave, but the researchers propose moving that fee to the first day and beyond.)

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Boston Charter School Study: What “Improved Scores” Look Like

Slate article Do Charter Schools Work? is a good read; I recommend it. But what I wanted to do here is point out some interesting facts in the featured study: Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness, which is incredibly important in that it’s one of the few studies that focus on high school outcomes.

Relevant quotes:

While the students who were randomly offered a seat at these high schools graduate at about the same rate as those not offered a seat, lottery estimates show that charter enrollment produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT. Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increases the share of students who pass AP Calculus. Charter attendance does not increase the likelihood of taking the SAT, but it does boost scores, especially in math. Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship.


Estimates of the effect of charter attendance on AP scores by subject… show a large increase in the likelihood that charter applicants take tests in science, calculus, and history, three of the most commonly taken AP exams. Paralleling charter schools’ large impact on MCAS math scores, the clearest AP score gains are for calculus. Charter attendance boosts the probability of taking the AP calculus test by 21 percentage points, and appears to boost the likelihood of earning a score of at least 2 by nearly 9 points. The corresponding impact on the likelihood of earning a 3 on AP calculus is 7 percentage points, though the estimated increases in the likelihood of scoring 2 or 3 are only marginally statistically significant. Charter attendance increases test-taking in science and US history, with no corresponding impact on scores in these subjects. Charter schools have little effect on English test-taking or scores.


Although charter attendance has little effect on the rate at which applicants take the SAT, charter attendance raises the SAT scores that applicants earn on the test. In particular, coding scores as zero for non-takers, charter attendances pushes the SAT composite score (the sum of math, verbal, and writing scores) above the bottom quartile of the state composite score distribution by 11 percentage points. Gains in math contribute most to the shift in composite scores; effects on verbal and writing scores are smaller (the estimated low-end shift in verbal scores is marginally significant). Charter attendance also raises the probability that applicants earn an SAT reasoning score (the sum of math and verbal) above the state median by 13 percentage points, with math again the largest contributor to this gain.

Although charter attendance has smaller effects on verbal and writing scores, the composite SAT score gain is estimated to be a little over 100 points, a large and statistically significant result. The gain here amounts to almost one-third of a standard deviation in the US composite score distribution. The corresponding effect on the SAT reasoning score is 74 points, also a large gain.

I’m torn as to the vantage point from which to consider the SAT score increase. The “average” increase provided by test prep is between 5-10 points. But everyone knows, or should know, that if “average” were “expected”, then test prep wouldn’t have kept Washington Post Company solvent for most of the last 20 years. Most parents would be unhappy with the results (while understanding the law of averages) if their average students only improved 100 points composite, which is an average of 30 points per section. Another way of looking at this increase is to argue that 30 points per section is three times the average achieved by test prep companies. Whoohoo! Except, of course, charters had three years. Test prep companies have about 15 hours.

Of course, there’s this annoying repetition of the test prep canard:

Designed to be challenging for all students, low SAT scores are a special concern for poor and minority students. Gaps in SAT scores by race and socioeconomic status that might be attributable to family background and school quality are further accentuated by the willingness of higher income families to invest heavily in SAT preparation. (see, e.g., Bowen and Bok, 2002)

How hard is it to stop repeating utter pap? Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites, although East Asians trump everyone. And here’s a table to prove it (table courtesy of Inside Higher Ed, as mentioned in the linked essay):
satprepbyrace

And until someone can explain the socioeconomic reality of poor whites outscoring high income blacks on the SAT, best not go to that well, either.

Ahem. Back to the study.

Demographics of Boston Public Schools vs. charter students:
bostondemographics

So if I’m reading this right, the charter population is way more female, way more black, way less Hispanic and a third as Asian as the lottery losers. The drop in Asians puts the math score increase in perspective, although the study makes clear that the charter group applicants had higher scores than average. (The study ignores any detailed discussion of race.)

And what did they do, these charter schools, to teach their kids? bostonchartermethods
Taught them for more hours a day, more days in the week, with younger (which in reformspeak means much, much better) teachers and smaller classes (the lower cost per pupil probably reflects fewer special ed and ELL students, but we’ll leave that to the side for now.) Your basic No Excuses model, all the happy tunes that eduformers love to sing.

Ah, here’s the graph I was looking for:

bostonsatscores

So before I break into my rant, let me say that I was so dumbfounded by these results that I hope I read them incorrectly. I will not be embarrassed if someone points out my error, but relieved. And now, the rant.

That huge increase of 100 points composite in average SAT score translates to an average section score under 500. The Boston Charter students, on average, couldn’t place out of remedial college classes, and wouldn’t even begin to qualify for a competitive university if they weren’t black or Hispanic.

While I often complain about assumptions and conclusions in studies, I have no knowledge of methodology, so I’m going to assume that their study is perfect, and just accept the results.

Ask yourself what those kids got for all those hours of extra time, all those lost Saturdays, all those “Advanced Placement” courses that clearly were nothing more than an exercise in fraud for many students. Improvement on AP outcomes and graduation rates: almost nil. They got a few points bump on the SAT that won’t get them out of remediation, much less exempt them from the “out” of affirmative action. In abilities, they are virtually indistinguishable from the population that tried to get into the charters and failed. What they have, however, are impressive looking transcripts, because charter schools, like majority minority urban schools, are heavily invested in creating the impression of rigor.

That’s how stark, how huge, the achievement gap is, the one that reformers say they can close with school choice. Except, as this study shows, they can’t.

It’s not that the charters did poorly. It’s that the public schools, with far less seat time, no control over their population, and a far smaller percentage of kids who actually want to be educated, did pretty damn well with motivated kids in comparison to the charter schools. They don’t have terribly impressive test scores for the same reason that the charters, with all their extra advantages, don’t have impressive test scores: because black and Hispanic students have low test scores for reasons that have little to do with curriculum, expectations, or teachers.

All you reformers out there, eagerly pumping your fists at the win: The majority of these kids couldn’t break 500 on any section of the SAT. This is what you were fighting for? Or are you going to hold to some measure of consistency in your approach and castigate these charter schools for wasting taxpayer dollars, pretending to hold kids to high standards while failing miserably, fraudulently shoveling kids into AP classes they haven’t a chance of passing, and worst of all, wasting students’ time while not making any meaningful progress in eradicating the achievement gap?

Or maybe, are you going to realize that “failing schools” just have a lot of kids with low test scores because of factors outside everyone’s control?


In the Interim, Your Thoughts?

Sometimes the pauses between my essays isn’t confidence freeze, but actual busy-ness. Other times, I am just researching or mulling. This pause has been a combination of the above, plus I’ve been doing a lot of reading today, preparing for what I hope will be the next essay.

In the meantime, I thought I’d throw out the things I’m thinking about and see if anyone has any thoughts or links that might be interesting. Because even though I don’t always respond to my commenters, I read them and mull.

  • Why Private Schools are Dying Out—this is, in fact, what I’m working on a response to. If you routinely follow my blog, you can probably predict my response, but anyone just showing up, you may want to check out The Parental Diversity Dilemma, Why Charters Skim, and Why They Should Stop, Charter Hypocrisy, Diversity Dilemma in Action. If anyone has any links or interesting article about education reform in the early-mid 90s, I’d love to hear about them.
  • Teacher Intellectual Property–and here I don’t mean the Teachers Paying Teachers aspect, but the larger point—specifically, what is a teacher’s job?
  • Geometry topic sequencing and maybe something about this article. Yeah, I know that my non-teacher population is thrilled with this one. But I have been sequencing my geometry in what appears to be a unique way, and I want to talk about it. So if you have opinions on the fact that special right triangles and right triangle trig are actually forms of similar triangles and can all be taught in that sequence, let me know so I can at least say I’m not unique.
  • The current irritating eduformer meme arguing that school districts are “creaming by geography”, as a way of striking back at the charter school creaming charge.
  • My Philip K. Dick article, which is the first serious challenger to Algebra and the Pointlessness of the Whole Damn Thing as my most-read post, mentioned that I would leave my ideas for high school for later. I would like to get back to that, and figure if I put that desire down on blog, it might up the odds.

Not sure all of these will make it to a post, but those are my current mullings. If you have thoughts or any other questions/comments, put them in comments or if you want to email—is there not a link on the blog somewhere? I should check—my email is the blog name at gmail.

One other thing, sparked by Steve Sailer’s recent donations drive and my discovery that my US web audience is predominantly high income males without kids: would anyone be interested in a Donate button? I can promise only that I will spend the money on sushi, cheap student white board markers, and more expensive beer. Well, maybe pool some of it into a savings fund that will make me feel braver about taking the summer off, instead of working as I’m currently planning. Feel free to shout “HELL, NO!” in the comments; my feelings won’t be hurt. I’m more interested in the possibility that people are thinking gosh, if Ed would just post a link, I’d send cash.


Jason Richwine and Goring the Media’s Ox

I first ran into Jason Richwine’s name while writing part one and part two of Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, and I know this because I had to keep referring to the study to get the names right. Was it Weinrich and Biggs? Bigwine and Rich? Bigrich and Wein? Very confusing.

My two-parter was dedicated to the argument that Richwine’s study was complete crap. Richwine and Biggs ignored the well-documented difference between secondary content teachers and elementary school teachers. Then they confused “teachers” with “ed school majors”, when fewer than half of undergraduate education majors become teachers. Finally, the study largely ignored credential data, which would have allowed them to focus on actual teachers—a group with a much higher SAT scores than education majors. And all those objections leave aside the fact that teaching success is, believe it or not, at best marginally linked to teacher intelligence.

So I was familiar with Richwine, and once you’ve memorized the name, it’s hard to miss. I distinctly remember reading his Room for Debate piece, arguing that teachers are getting paid more than their cognitive skills warrant. He wrote much the same thing in the Washington Post, where he got a whole live chat segment (“Many organizations use IQ tests, most notably the U.S. military, to make employment decisions.”) He and his co-authors chastised Arne Duncan in The Huffington Post (and also Education Week) for not understanding that “the wage penalty disappears when teachers and non-teachers are compared using objective measures of cognitive ability”. Then he was arguing in The Atlantic against a teacher bar exam and extensive teacher training because “Smart students on the fence about whether they want to become teachers will likely choose the math and science courses (which have broad labor market value) rather than wasting time on education courses (which have value only if they pursue teaching).”–but then concedes that IQ doesn’t seem to be all that linked to teaching.

And in all this time, no journalist ever wondered “Gee, I wonder if one of the authors of this study focusing on teacher cognitive ability, which we’re giving an avalanche of unquestioning coverage to, has any ideas on IQ we might find really offensive.”

But of course, Richwine’s dissertation was a complete secret. Oh, wait. No, it wasn’t. He wrote an article summarizing his dissertation, “Dealing with Diversity the Smart Way”:

I intend to focus on one such important characteristic—how smart the immigrants are…. IQ, a construct that psychologists use to estimate general intelligence, has been separately linked to elements of social capital…It is time to bring the IQ-social capital link out of the academic journals and into the policy debate. Doing so could help us deal realistically with the problems Putnam has identified.

He wrote this article for AEI, where it was completely ignored. Oh, wait. No, it wasn’t. The NY Times wrote approvingly of the article in its “Idea of the Day” blog:

Now, exploring Putnam’s work in The American, Jason Richwine, who encountered the professor while a student at Harvard, has a suggestion for managing the immigration driving so much diversity: screen to admit smarter immigrants, since evidence suggests higher-I.Q. people are more inclined to “sophisticated ethical thinking, altruism, planning for the future, political awareness, adherence to informal community standards of behavior, and cooperation for the greater good.”

Of course, the Heritage Foundation had no idea that Jason Richwine was interested in IQ. Well, hang on. Richwine wrote a piece for its magazine opposing the diversity lottery visa, clearly referencing his earlier work. It even gets a footnote.

Maybe this was just the first time Richwine came out against Hispanic immigrant success in the mainstream media. Nope, here he is in the Dallas Morning News, “Latino immigrants are not on path to economic parity”:

Though we want to believe Hispanics are on the old European path to economic assimilation, the evidence does not support our desires. This fact becomes more undeniable with each new data set collected and each new analysis performed, but prominent commentators are still seduced by wishful thinking.

Finally, Richwine wrote a much-discussed takedown of Richard Nisbett’s book Intelligence and How to Get It (which I used in my preschool and Philip Dick essay.)

So Jason Richwine’s interest in Hispanics, immigration, and cognitive ability has all been well-documented in major publications since his dissertation, although only Dave Weigel (see below) and Garance Franke-Ruta have pointed this out. Nonetheless, Richwine’s dissertation appears to come as a complete shock to most journalists and policy wonks. (Apparently, the Internet’s memory is a black box they don’t know how to crack.)

But even more strangely, his dissertation seems to have shocked and dumbfounded his dissertation panel. George Borjas has been telling everyone who asks and some who didn’t that he’s got no truck with this IQ nonsense:

“I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc….So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”

Richard Zeckhauser, also on the dissertation committee, told Dave Weigel in the same article:

“In my estimation, our School gives too much emphasis on moving from findings to policy implications in scholarly work…In many cases, merely presenting the facts would be a preferable way to go. That makes it much harder for one’s opponents to dismiss what you say, or to accuse you of manipulating facts to reach policy conclusions…. If one complements one’s empirical assessments with values issues, those assessments get questioned, particularly if one addresses a controversial realm of policy, as Richwine surely did in his dissertation.”

Christopher Jencks, the third man, asked if he had any comment on his approval: The Nation: “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

Okay, I’ve never been to Harvard, nor have I ever gotten a PhD. But surely the dissertation committee actually reads the dissertation?

Weigel doesn’t ask either Borjas or Zeckhauser the obvious followup questions. In fact, he obediently quotes Zeckhauser’s disdain about Richwine’s subsequent work without asking Zeckhauser what problems he had, if any, with the dissertation he signed off on. Nor does he ask Borjas why, if he had no interest in nor understanding of IQ, he was on Richwine’s dissertation committee. But then, Weigel’s weird article has all sorts of oddities for a supposedly reported piece. Richwine’s “friends and advisers saw this coming”, but the advisers make no mention of their prescience in the article and Weigel doesn’t mention a single friend, on or off the record. ?

Speaking of odd, Dylan Matthews, the Wonkblogger credited with the kill, never apparently googled Richwine, because he mentions none of the information above. Presumably someone just sent him the dissertation, although it’s even funnier to think of Matthews “working” his sources at Harvard to dig up information a simple search would have provided, including an article that would have discredited Heritage’s hasty disavowal.

But the more interesting question is why Matthews only now noticed Richwine’s heresy. After all, Matthews has blogged quite a bit about teacher quality, so you’d think he’d have run across Richwine before, and been eager to discredit a racist who obsessed about IQs. But then, Matthews has been notoriously unsympathetic to teacher unions, declaring during the CTU strikes that teacher strikes hurt student achievement, celebrating TFA’s apparently superior performance over traditionally educated teachers, and writing in favor of teacher merit pay. He’s also a big fan of Raj Chetty’s work, which I’ve discussed (and dismissed) here (the Chetty paper seems to create a clear divide between the Wows and the So What’s—here’s Kevin Drum, also on the So What? side).

Meanwhile, Dylan Matthews has been in favor of immigration and amnesty a long time (he was apparently a pre-pubescent blogger), and despite being against open borders as a teenager, he’s all for it, now. He wrote this article boosting Hispanic assimilation, without apparently ever coming across Richwine’s arguments to the contrary.

Hey, if Dave Weigel can make unsupported assertions, I can, too, although I will qualify: it seems that Dylan Matthews went out looking for opposition ammunition to bring down Jason Richwine because his own favorite ox was being gored. Given the gift of the dissertation, he did no further research to find Richwine’s well-documented articles in this area, which is why he allowed Heritage to skate by with a denial that’s close to an outright lie. Matthews paid no attention to Jason Richwine’s open discussion of IQ when it involved teacher quality and merit pay, causes Matthews openly advocates for.

And once he brings up the dissertation, all the other journalists and immigration advocates (these are not, sadly, distinct groups) jump on the news and repeat it avidly, pointing and sputtering, as Steve Sailer says, without doing the tiniest bit of reporting (with the aforementioned exceptions), obediently repeating the canard that Richwine “asserts” that Hispanics have, on average, a lower IQ than whites when it’s a well-established fact, not something he dreamed up as part of his research. Nor has anyone in the media seriously pursued the cognitive dissonance found in the story of “Richwine the racist” writing his “Harvard PHd dissertation on Hispanic inferiority”. I think only a Daily Kos blogger has pursued the obvious point for anyone genuinely outraged about Richwine’s IQ research: If this research is so obviously beyond the pale, if Richwine is “asserting” (rather than repeating established science) that Hispanic IQs are lower on average than white IQs, why on earth is Harvard and its trio of distinguished advisers giving this dissertation writer its approval and a PhD?

So if I were to interpret this pattern of behavior, I’d say that the mainstream media has no interest in pursuing that point. Presumably, the media isn’t interested in bringing down Harvard–hell, these days, most opinion-makers are alumni. They aren’t interested in stopping IQ research. They just want the issue to bring down opposition to immigration reform. Then they’ll go back to “hands off” on IQ, ignoring it completely until they need to bring it up to bring someone down. In this way the Word is maintained, and all those who challenge it can be brought down when the time is ripe.

So Richwine can talk about IQ and mostly white teachers and it’s fine, because many prominent journalists these days are elitists who secretly think our schools would be better off with a more intellectual teaching pool. He can be forgiven for assuming that the media had gotten a lot cooler with cognitive ability, when in fact he wasn’t in any real danger until he took the wrong side of a cause it cared about.

And that lesson resonates tremendously. I just wrote with some pride that more than a few reporters follow my writing. I do not for a moment imagine they agree with me on everything, or even anything, but I’m not important enough to follow for the news value, so surely they must see something worthwhile in my writing? I think? So Jason Richwine’s saga makes me very, very nervous. I maintain at best a loose anonymity; anyone who wants to find out who I am can do so. I am not good at worrying; no matter how many times I say I worry about being outed and fired, I really don’t act like it. But after this, I can all too easily envision being noticed, through some fluke of attention, by the national media, and having someone with too much time and a big, ungainly ox whining over a wound deciding to out me. And then follow headlines like “Ed Real has been writing about race and IQ for a year or more”, probably written, with wholly dispassionate disapproval, by the same reporters who follow me. Worse, maybe, by reporters who don’t follow me but who are tipped off by those who do (“Hey, I can’t use this but here’s some good stuff!”).

If I am cynical, it’s adequate to the occasion. Not enough to stop me writing, though, because I’ve had a genuinely fantastic year as both a writer and a teacher, and that’s too much fun to give up. So take all my professions of concern with some salt.

But there’s one other point worth mentioning, and it’s this: we simply don’t talk enough about the impact of immigration on our schools. Hundreds of schools throughout the nation are 70% or more Hispanic; the majority of the students children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, a substantial number of which are illegal. Dozens of schools throughout the nation are 80% or more Asian, hundreds more top 40%, even though the Asian population nationwide is just 4.8%.

For all the reform and progressive bleats about our failing schools, Asians, Africans, and even Latin Americans see the American education system as a big draw. So they come here in huge numbers, and the communities that absorb them are forced to spend far more on education than they otherwise would. Immigrants often utterly transform a school district; cultural values and language problems are just two of the onslaught of issues that schools are forced to deal with, certain of little support and lots of blame. And while the administrators and teachers let loose to talk about the issues are usually full of happy talk, the original community as a whole is rarely pleased—and if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll always find teachers who are dismayed by the changes.

I don’t have to link these stories in; everyone knows what I’m talking about. The concern and unhappiness is always presented as racist, the immigrants as adorable, hardworking, and confused by societal requirements imposed by a country they mostly came to for money, and the folks who have a job building up services (at taxpayer expense, of course) are the admirable heros, working against the evil prejudices of community to help the newcomers. All the feel-good stories courtesy of the same media that ignored Richwine’s IQ research while it trumpeted his research attacking teacher intelligence, yet turned on him to tear him apart when he argued for limiting Hispanic immigration.

So here we are again, discussing amnesty and still more immigration, and no one’s asking what it will do to our schools. No one is wondering if perhaps we should charge non-citizens, legal or illegal, for a service they so clearly consider valuable, what with the Hispanic obsession about the Dream Act, the Chinese birth tourists and the Korean wild geese. No one is concerned that abysmal teen employment numbers, even more atrocious in areas with high levels of low-skilled immigrants. But everyone will be blaming the schools for failing to educate all students to the same standard, whether it’s possible or not, and for any problems that fall out of the cultural clashes that the policy wonks don’t think of when they talk about the economic benefits of generous immigration policies. (For all Jason Richwine’s concern about low IQ immigrants, he doesn’t seem interested in their impact on American education, and still seems ready to blame teachers for the outcomes. Since I’m on the topic of cognitive dissonance.)

I want to stress this to any of my students, past, present, or future, many of whom are recent immigrants, who might stumble across this blog (along with WHY ARE YOU READING THIS WHEN YOU NEVER DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!!) that I don’t see any of them individually as harmful, that I wish the country had resources enough to welcome everyone who wants to come. I don’t blame any immigrants for responding to America’s open door policy. But it’s time to close the door. It’s certainly not time to open the door any wider. And Americans can’t rely on the media to represent their interests, because the media’s already picked the other side.


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

I had a huge month in April, over 25% larger than my last winner, November. My blog has a total of 121,000 page views (since January 1, 2012) and have 178 followers on Twitter. The last probably doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but I literally started with 0 followers. I told no friends or family of my blog, although three or four found me over the months. I had just 7000 pageviews in June 2012, when I created a Twitter account. (First follower: the hyperliteral Paul Bruno, of This Week in Education, who I argue with via twitter but quite enjoy as a writer.)

I have absolutely no idea what this means in relative audience size. What matters to me is that, in a loyal band of regular readers, interspersed between teachers, parents, and Dark Enlightenment folk, I count more than a few policy wonks and reporters—and even a publisher, apparently. I might not have a large crowd following my every tweet, but well over half of my followers do. I started this blog to inform and persuade. So far, so good.

I often check my top posts, reading the growing numbers in awe and wonder, because they, too, confirm that my blogging goals have been and continue to be met. The most popular posts cover pedagogy, policy, some unique data analysis or exposure, and my somewhat scathing opinions about the reform crowd. (I don’t much care for progressives, either, but plenty of people are around to debunk them.)

Since my audience has grown again, I thought I’d remind everyone of my most popular posts, in case someone wanted to check them out. Most of my essays represent at least five or six hours work (I worked on the Philip Dick essay for over a month, the algebra pointlessness one for two weeks), and I think any of the 1000+ view entries are worth a look for a general audience.

Title Views Written
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 4,733 Aug 12
Escaping Poverty 3,664 Nov 12
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 3,417 Jan 12
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 2,992 July 12
Homework and grades. 2,576 Feb 12
The Gap in the GRE 2,280 Jan 12
Why Chris Hayes Fails 2,240 June 12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 2,102 April 13
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 1,907 Nov 2012
An Alternative College Admissions System 1,553 Dec 2012
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 1,525 Mar 13
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 1,137 April 13

I left off my “About” page, but both it and “Who am I” right below were nowhere on the horizon last December, so more people are checking out my bio. Neat, if unnerving.

So then we have the 800-900 views, also worth a read for the general audience unless you really have no interest in math pedagogy or curriculum, in which case skip the obvious suspects. But I’m incredibly proud of those curriculum posts; googling modeling linear equations brings up my post in the top two or three as of this writing; likewise a search for binomial multiplication area model brings my post up right near the top.

Title Views Written
Who am I? 966 Jan 12
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 918 Mar 13
Teaching Polynomials 917 Mar 12
Modeling Linear Equations 907 Jan 12
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 871 Aug 12
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 820 Jan 12
More on Mumford 817 Nov 12
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 790 Sept 12

And now the less viewed posts that represent my favorites of the rest. I really wish people would read more of these, particularly the Chris Christie post and the Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. So pick a few to check out. You can also check my year in review for posts I’m fond of.

Policy:

Title Views Written
Why Chris Christie picks on teachers 699 Aug 12
Radio silence on Clarence Mumford 660 July 12
Learning Math 605 Aug 12
American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People? 602 Apr 13
557
Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help 555 Jan 13
Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.) 548 Jan 13
Boaler’s Bias (or BS) 521 Oct 12
Picking Your Fights—Or Not 501 Apr 13
Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. 493 Dec 12
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? 483 June 12
The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform 454 Sept 12
The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring 219 June 12

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Probably not too interesting unless you’re a teacher. But I have to say that Modeling Probability is pretty kick ass.

I realize these probably come off as vanity posts, but for me, they’re a great way to take stock. I have had a genuinely terrific year, between blogging and teaching, and it’s fun to write it all down.


Modeling Exponential Growth/Decay Interspersed with a Reform Rant

Quadratics have become my new nadir, which is cheerier news than it sounds since it means I’ve kicked linear equations into obedient submission. For the first two and a half years of my teaching career, I felt good about quadratics because if nothing else, most kids remembered how to factor, and remembered that factors had something to do with zeros on the graph. Which was a big step up compared to what they retained of linear equations. But then, last year, I cracked linear equations in a big way, which is great except now I just feel bad about quadratics, because as I develop as a teacher I realize the suckers are absurdly complicated and don’t model very easily. The kids learn a lot, but at their level of ability I’d need to do two months to have them internalize quadratics the way most of them internalize linear equations. And I don’t have two months. I just tell myself they still learn a lot. Consequently, I am relieved to see quadratics in the rear view as I move them onto the third of the models that define second year algebra (at least, as I teach it).

Exponential functions are awesome. First, they’re absurdly simple compared to both lines and quadratics. Second, they model actual, honest to god, real life situations. I’m not a big teacher for “Hey, this is something you’ll use again” but automobile depreciation or interest payments are, in fact, something they’ll use again. Third, they provide a memorable and again, useful, reason to review (or learn for the first time) percentage increase and decrease. Finally, they present a situation in which any kid who has even somewhat grasped the course essentials can see hey: Given y, I can’t solve for x. This leads beautifully and meaningfully into logarithms.

So like linear equations, I can kick off the unit with a modeling activity and get the kids moving easily into the math.

I begin with a brief lecture reminding them of the two previous models.

ExpBoardwork1

No. Quadratics aren’t repeated multiplication. Exponential functions involve repeated multiplication, as they’ll see in the lesson.

Then I review percentage increase and decrease. I am of two minds about this review. On the plus side, it’s immediately relevant, easy to apply, and gives them a good reason to remember it long term. The downside: the kids never remember what I taught them when they get to the percentage problems. So I explain it up front, knowing that 90% of the kids will forget everything I said just 20 minutes later, when they get to the first percentage exponential increase. Increase%age

So I explain it, go round the room asking “So, if I want to increase a number by 8%, what do I multiply it by, Jose?” “1 point…..8?” “Watch that leading zero!” “Oh, 1.08.” “Right.” Do that with five or six times, think everyone gets it, and set them to working on models. This is one side of the worksheet, crunched for space so I could “snip” it.

ExpGrowthWS

And sure enough, the kids work through the models, making great progress, and stop cold at the third one.

“I can’t do this. How do you increase by a percentage?”

“Excuse me while I beat myself on the head with this whiteboard.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Do you remember me just talking about percentages?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you see it on the board there? All the stuff about turning it from two steps into one step, and why you need to do that?”

“Yeah.”

“DO YOU SEE ANY POSSIBLE CONNECTION BETWEEN THAT CONVERSATION AND THIS PROBLEM?”

“Man, I don’t see why you’re so mean.”

“Read what it says on the board. Right there. In red.”

“Increase x by a%.”

“Yes. Can you read problem 3 and tell me what you think might possibly qualify as x?”

“The population?”

“Yes. And do you see the value that might possibly qualify as a%?”

“Um.” Long pause as the student stares at the problem, and finds the ONLY OTHER VALUE MENTIONED. “Twenty percent?”

“Indeed.”

“Okay.”

I repeat that four or five times to four or five groups and then, miracle of miracles, find a student with a full table of five values for the population problem. There is a god.

“Great.”

“But I don’t know how to find the equation for this one like I did the first two. This one isn’t repeated multiplication. I had to take 20% of 250 and then add it….why are you hitting yourself on the head?”

“We need a function. We need an operation in which we can plug in x—do you have any thoughts on what x might be?”

“How many months?”

“How is it you know that, you smart child, and yet make me go through this torture? Yes. We need an operation that we can plug in the number of months (x) and get the population (y).”

“Right. But this is like three steps.”

“And we need only one.”

“Right.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to increase a number by a given percentage in just one step?”

“How do you do that?”

“LOOK AT THE BOARD!”

“Oh, is that what you were talking about? I was already doing the worksheet.”

And still, the lesson is largely a success. Kids are absolutely freaked out at the cell growth caused just by doubling and yes, I bring up the million dollar mission example, but at the end of the lesson, not as part of it. Most of the kids correctly graph the models, although a few end up with lines that I correct. The flip side of the handout is a blank graph, which they use to take notes on the basic exponential growth model.

Total Amount = Initial Amount * Ratetime

Initial Amount > 0
Rate > 1

One thing I mull over—the book, and the state test, go through the exponential equation (basically, Initial Amount = 1), along with the transformation model (f(x) = ax-c +- k. I haven’t focused on this in previous classes, because in my experience the kids don’t even get tranformations of lines and quadratics. But I’m going to give it a try on Monday.

Anyway. Day 2 is exponential decay, but I start by going over percentage decrease. I am nothing if not optimistic.
Decrease%age

“So if I take away a third of something, how much is left?”

Pause. Pause some more. Pause still more. I grab three whiteboard pens.

“Rhea, decrease these pens by a third.” Rhea obediently takes one pen.

“Class, how much is left after she decreased the pens by 33%, or a third?”

“TWO!!!”

“Two……?” I wait. No. I sigh, and grab three more pens, getting the one back from Rhea as well.

“Paul, take away a third of these six pens.” Paul takes two pens.

“Class, he’s taken away 33% of the pens. How much is left?”

“FOUR!”

“AUUGGGGHHH!”

It all works out. Seriously. By the end of the exercise, most of the class is shouting back the correct answers as I ask “I take away 30%, how much is left?” 35%? 23%?” and the only mistakes they make are place errors—that is, 100-23 does not, in fact, equal 87.

The second day is always better, because it has slowly permeated their skulls that I’m serious about this percentage nonsense, that it has some relationship to the worksheet. So when they ask questions, it’s more of the “could you run this whole percentage decrease by me again? If they take away a third, I have two thirds left? But what’s two thirds as a decimal?” and trust me, this is a big step up for my blood pressure. Well, a step down. And they do the decay modeling and notes with no small degree of interest:
ExpDecayWS
They have the model graph on the back, too, for exponential decay:

Total Amount = Initial Amount * Ratetime

Yes, it’s the same equation, so what’s different?

Initial Amount > 0
0 < Rate < 1

By day’s end, they have registered the import of the realization that Estefania has 95 cents left after ten days, and they’ve figured out that Jose is right, that his car is worth more than Stan’s after five years, which they managed by using an equation they built themselves, by golly, rather than decrease 25,000 by 5% 5 times.

You notice, of course, that I’ve spent most of this post talking about the percentage issue, something the kids learned were first taught back in middle school, than the exponential growth/decay functions, the actual new material. This should not come as a shock to regular readers.

Back in March, there was much fuss about a study revealing that algebra and geometry classes aren’t rigorous enough.

Of course the classes aren’t rigorous enough. They can’t be. I refer you again to the false god of elementary school test scores and the Wise Words of Barbie.

This twitter debate between reformers Mike Petrilli and Rishawn Biddle is typical of reform debates about “rigor”. Petrilli wants end of course exams to stop us teachers from pretending to teach a subject. Biddle wants more of the same, just shout louder and MANDATE instruction, particularly to those disenfranchised black and Hispanic youth who are being let down by lousy teachers with low expectations.

Both of them assume that the problem is ineffective teaching, that all us math teachers could actually teach percentages and fractions to all seventh graders if we were just smarter and better. Or maybe they just think we take the easy way out, that it’d be really really hard to teach the kids properly, and what the hell, we get paid no matter what and behind close doors it’s easier to just go through the motions. Well, sure.

Petrilli’s proposal, end-of-course exams, would trigger a bloodbath. People really don’t seem to understand how I’d be all in favor of that, if the result were a rethinking of expectations. But of course, what would actually happen is that we’d end the end-of-course exams. That’s what always happens whenever a state or district tries to enforce higher standards (cf Oklahoma and now Texas). And of course, that’s what’s going to happen with Common Core standards, assuming that anyone actually takes them seriously after the testing bloodbath this year. But I’d be all for end-of-course testing if reformers would accept responsibility for the 80% decrease in graduation rates among blacks and Hispanics who would never get past algebra I and understand, finally, that they believe in a myth.

But I digress. And I’m still going to like exponential functions, at least until I crack quadratics. Because you know what? The kids do make progress in understanding percentages, and they learn for the first time not only about exponential functions, but about asymptotes, as I explain Zeno’s Paradox. I don’t use Achilles and the tortoise as an example, but instead talk about how I could throw a stapler right at BTS’s head and know that the stapler would never draw blood because it wouldn’t reach his noggin, so I couldn’t get fired. Or that I could walk to the door and never get there. I do get to the door, of course, and alas, the stapler would eventually crack BTS’s skull. But even though we know that this is true, the tools for proving the paradox false, as opposed to demonstrating it, don’t come around until calculus. They get a kick out of that.

If all that’s not fun enough, I see genuine, honest-to-god intellectual curiosity among most students as they realize that they don’t have the tools to isolate x in the equation 8 = 3x. That for all these years they’ve been getting along fine with addition/subtraction, multiplication/division, nth power/nth root, but none of those will work here. Which sets us up beautifully for both logs and a proper discussion of inverses, leading into inverse functions. Yes, their skills are still basic, but I can see the glimmering of understanding of the underlying concepts. If the damn state tests would just ask questions about those underlying concepts instead of demanding underlying concepts and advanced operations, I might even be able to get the kids to show that understanding.

And in writing up this essay, I am struck by the obvious solution to the percentage problem on day one: I need a worksheet. They fill it out, and not until they are done with that do I give them the worksheets on growth and decay. Naturally, this solution is again a lowering of expectations, a realization that a clear explanation on a blackboard that they can refer to isn’t enough, that I need to give fifteen to seventeen year olds an activity so the information will sink in and they use the method right away without asking me to explain it all again group by group. But to hell with expectations. It will be much better for my bloodpressure.