Monthly Archives: July 2013

Who I Am as a Teacher

As I thought about writing specific disagreements I have with reformers, I realized that time and again I’d be having to break off and explain how my values and priorities differed. So I thought I’d do that first.

At my last school’s Christmas party (Year 1 at that school, Year 2 of teaching), the popular, widely respected “teacher at large” showed up an hour late. A PE teacher whose credential had been disallowed by NCLB-wrought changes, he was at that point responsible for coming up with plans to help “at-risk” kids.

“Yeah, I was having all sorts of fun reviewing the Lists.”

“The Lists?” asked another teacher.

“Top 25 Discipline Problems, Top 25 Kids On Probation for Felonies, Top 25 Absentee/Truancy Students, Lowest 25 GPAs, you name it. I look for the kids who aren’t on more than one or two lists and try to reach them before they qualify for more lists.”

“I think I have a few of those kids.” groused a teacher.

“A few? Pity Ed here.” He nodded at me. “Half the kids on each list are in one of your classes.”

I think he made up the felonies list. I hope.

Fall of year two was about as tough a time as I’ve ever had as a teacher.

Getting quiet for teaching was job one. I’d separate inveterate chatters, then I’d move the worst offenders to the front groups, and then, if one of them still didn’t shut up, I’d pull the desk forward all the way to a wall (with the kid in it). The rest of the class would snicker at the talker—at, not with.

“It’s not like I’m going to pay attention to you up here. I’ll just go to sleep,” one of them said, defiantly.

“You say that as if it were a bad thing.”

He or she often did go to sleep, which gave me some quiet from that corner, anyway. Otherwise, I wrote a referral. I also wrote referrals when they called me a f***ing [noun of your choice, profane or not], a sh**ty f**ing boring teacher (boring! I ask you), when they threw things, when they got up and wandered around the room refusing to sit, when they texted in open view and refused to give over the phone, when they left the room without permission, when they howled I HAVE TO PISS at the top of their voices (usually one at a time), and so on—all during the time that I was trying to teach the lesson “up front”. Once I released them for work it got easier, as I wasn’t trying to maintain order and some notion of what I’d been doing before the last interruption, but rather walking around the room helping students and telling others to shut up.

As bad as I make it sound, every senior teacher I worked with was astonished at how well I did, given the pressure; all the previous teachers stuck with all algebra all the time had routinely lost control of the classes and had supervisors posted. Administrators didn’t approve of my approach, alas; since my kids were mostly Hispanic, my referrals were, too. So I was caught between an administration who would really rather I’d have flailed ineffectually than kick kids out for order, and the bulk of my students, who opined frequently that I should boot students more often and earlier.

The beginning of the way back up that year began in second period when I’d thrown out the third kid of the day, and Kiley said “Could you toss out Elijah, while you’re at it?” and much of the class laughed. Elijah stood up and said “Yeah, send me, too! I don’t want to be here! Let me go!”

I tend to stay pretty focused on teaching; rarely do I give A Talk. Today, I have no idea why I made an exception.

“Why don’t you want to be here, again?”

“Because I hate math? F***ing duh.”

“What is it you think I want?”

“You want me to shut up.”

“Well, yeah. But why?”

“So you can teach!”


“Because it’s your job!”

Because I want everyone to pass this class.” And to this day, I thank all that’s holy that I caught the class’s sudden silence and realized that my remark had an impact.

“Maybe I need to make that clearer. I want every single person in here to pass algebra and move onto geometry. Remind me again, how many people have taken algebra more than once?” Almost everyone in the class raised a hand, including Elijah.

“Yeah. Don’t raise your hand, but I know at least ten students in here are taking it for the third time, including some people who get tossed out of class regularly. I don’t kick kids out for fun. I kick them out because I need to teach everyone. I have kids who want to excel in algebra. I have kids who would like to get better at algebra. I have kids who simply would like to survive algebra, although many days they think that’s a pipe dream. And I have kids who don’t want to be here at all. I figure, I kick kids out from the last group, I’m meeting everyone’s goals but mine.” I actually get a couple laughs; they’re listening.

“But make no mistake, that’s my goal. I want everyone in here to pass.” I looked at Elijah, who’d slipped back into his chair, his eyes fixed on me.

“You could tell me about your troubles, and I’ll give you an ear, but here’s a basic truth: there’s not a single situation in your life that gets worse if you pass algebra. And there’s a whole bunch of things that improve.”

“I could get a work permit, for one thing,” Eduardo muttered.

“Get back on the football team,” said DeWayne.

“And now I know some of you are thinking sure, there’s a catch. No. I didn’t say I want you to like algebra. I didn’t even say I want you to understand algebra, although I guarantee that trying will improve your understanding. I’m making a simple commitment: show up and try. You will get a passing grade. No catch.”

The rest of second period, the toughest class, went so well that I decided to repeat that little speech for every class, and in every class, I got utter quiet. I don’t say that all the problems were solved that day, but from that point on far more of the kids “had my back”. Psychologically, their support made it much easier for me to develop a strategy to teach algebra in the face of these challenges.

Here’s how I taught it, and here’s how they did. I only failed 10 kids out of the final 90, or 11%. (Elijah had left. Eduardo got his permit, and DeWayne made it back onto the football team.) That’s the highest failure rate I’ve ever had, but then it’s the last time I taught algebra I. It’s easier to work with kids in geometry and algebra II—they’ve got skin in the game, and graduation becomes a real objective as opposed to the remote possibility it presents to a sophomore taking algebra I for the third time.

The wise reader can infer much about my students and a great deal, although certainly not all, about my values and priorities as a teacher from that tale.

First, I mostly teach kids from the lower third to the middle of the cognitive ability spectrum, with a few outliers on each end. That’s who takes algebra in high school. No more than 10% of my students in any year are capable of genuinely comprehending an actual formal math course in geometry or algebra (I or II). Another 30-50% of the rest are perfectly capable of understanding geometry, algebra and even more advanced topics in applied math, even if they couldn’t really master a formal math course, but they’d have to try a lot harder and want it much more. About a quarter of my students each year are barely capable of learning basic algebra and geometry well enough to apply it in simple, rote situations. A much smaller number can’t even manage that much.

For other teachers, the percentages are skewed heavily to the first and second categories; some of them don’t even know there’s a third and fourth category. A teacher covering precalc and honors algebra II/trig in high-income or Asian suburb, teaching mostly freshmen and sophomores, would have a much higher percentage of students who could master a formal course; their notion of “struggling kids” would be those who aren’t working hard enough. But that’s not my universe—and it’s not the universe I signed up for, although I wouldn’t mind visiting occasionally.

Until this year, my assignments weren’t deliberate. I was just an unimportant teacher who schools didn’t care about losing. In fact, the following year at that same school the administration assigned Algebra II/Trig classes to a teacher who was not qualified to teach the subject while I, who was qualified, was given the lower level Algebra II classes. The administration knew full well about the distinction, which necessitated a “your teacher is not highly qualified” letter to some 90 kids, but that teacher was more valuable than than I was, and so it goes. I’m not bitter, and I’m not marking time until I get “better” kids. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. But every teaching decision I make must be considered in light of my students’ cognitive abilities and, related to that ability, their motivation.

Second, I am a teacher who doesn’t overvalue any individual student at the expense of the class, which means I have no compunction about kicking kids out for the day. You run into these teachers philosophically opposed to removing kids from class; how can these students learn if they aren’t in class, they bleat. These teachers never seem to worry about how all the other kids learn with a disruptive hellion wreaking havoc because, they strongly hint (or outright assert), the right curriculum and caring teachers would eliminate the need to disrupt.

I ask these teachers, politely, do you have kids with tracking bracelets and/or probation officers? Do you have students who have fathered two kids while wearing that tracking bracelet, or gave birth to one? Do you have students who have been suspended or expelled for putting other students in the hospital, or for having a knife in their backpack? Do you have students who routinely tell you to f*** off and don’t bother me? Do you have all of these students plus twelve more who have just enough motivation that, given no distractions, would be able to learn some math but with a distraction will readily jump over to the side telling you to f*** off? And with all that, are you math teachers trying to help students with a four-year range in skills figure out second year algebra? Because otherwise, you can go sing your smug little songs of no student left behind to someone with kids who really shouldn’t be kicked out of the classroom. Okay, maybe not politely.

Come back the next day or even the same day, hat in hand, and no harm, no foul. I don’t only act like it didn’t happen, I have completely forgotten it happened. But get out of my class if you won’t shut up or can’t consider the day a success unless you’ve sucked in three other kids with your distractions.

The biggest pressure on teachers like me these days is the huge pushback they get from administration, district, and state/federal education agencies when they try to maintain an orderly classroom. And charter schools’ ability to a) have none of these kids to start with and b) kick moderately ill-behaved kids back to public school when they act out can’t be overstated as factor in their “success”.

That’s a shame. Because invariably, the bulk of my unmotivated rabble-rousers realize that I really mean it about that whole “passing” thing, if they would just shut up and give the class a shot. And so they do.

Next, I am a teacher who explains. I don’t mean lecture; my explanations always take the form of a semi-Socratic discussion, leading the kids through a process. But when I start to talk, the conversation has a direction and that directed conversation, to me, is the heart of teaching. One of my favorite memories of an ed school classmate came about as we were driving to our placement school.

“I’m really enjoying working on aspects of my teaching that I don’t like. For example, explanations. I hate doing that.”

“Um, what? You hate explanations?”

“Yeah. I’d rather never explain anything.”


“What is teaching, if it’s not explaining things?”

I thought it was a rhetorical question. I was wrong. He went on and on about other aspects of teaching: curriculum, motivation, role modeling, assessing students, and so on. Huh. Interesting. Eye-opening. It’s not that I disagreed, but how can you be a teacher if you don’t like to explain things?

And as I began to develop, I realized that teaching is not synonymous with explaining. Still. It’s my go-to skill, it’s what I do best, it’s a big part of my success with low ability students, and it’s why I prioritize getting my students to shut up while I’m teaching up front.

Next, the story reveals that I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. The kids were shocked into silence when they realize that my most heartfelt goal was to pass everyone in the class.

I learned a key lesson I still use every time I meet a new class, and make it clear I want to help them achieve their goals, which usually involve surviving the class. I do not understand why so many teachers set out objectives based on the assumption that they will successfully re-align their students’ value systems.

And in a related revelation, you can see how I frame my task. In his TED talk, Dan Meyer asks the audience to imagine:

“you really loved something…and you recommended it wholeheartedly to someone you really liked…and the person hated it. By way of introduction, that is the exact same state in which I spent every working day of the last six years. I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.”

All math teachers can relate to this statement; it’s clever, funny, and does a good job of introducing the fundamental dilemma of high school math teachers: most kids hate math and are required to take it. Many dedicated math teachers would not only relate, but agree with Dan’s framing of his task as a sales job, regardless of their teaching ideology. When I say I disagree, it’s not because Meyer is wrong but because we approach our jobs in fundamentally different ways. I don’t love math, and I’m not selling a product.

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Were it not for the unfortunate plot point about Joe Gideon’s motives for hiring Victoria for the show (he was a hounddog who had her in bed an hour after they first met), I suspect more math teachers would reveal that they can quote this scene from All That Jazz verbatim.

And those math teachers mostly would agree with me. Teaching math, for us, isn’t about creating mathematicians. It’s only occasionally about working with kids who want to be engineers, doctors, or architects. Mostly, it’s about giving kids enough math skills to pass a college placement test so they won’t end up spending a fortune on remedial math classes and never get any further—or at least enough skills so they’ll pass a remedial math class and move on. Or giving kids enough math so they look at a trade school placement test and think, “Hey, I can do this.” Or just giving kids the will to pass the class and keep them out of mindless credit recovery in alternative institutions, letting them feel part of the educational system, not a failure who couldn’t cut it at normal high school.

We don’t promise miracles. We do promise “better”.

Finally, though, the story indicates that I am acutely aware of all my students’ motivations, that not all my students just want to pass. I have bright kids in almost every class, I have highly motivated kids, I have kids with specific objectives, most of whom want to learn as much as they can. I never forget them, and if I can’t dedicate my entire teaching agenda to meeting their goals, it’s only because I owe allegiance to all my students. I never stop looking for better ways to give these kids what they need while still ensuring I meet my overall responsibility. Many other teachers say these kids should come first. I always worry they might be right. But as I said above, I do not overvalue any individual kid over the needs of the entire class.

This tale doesn’t tell much about how I teach, but that particular topic gets plenty of coverage in other essays.

Anyone who is familiar with reform math can probably infer not only my teaching values and priorities, but also a lot of reasons why I’m not crazy about reform math. But I’ll go into details in the next post.

Reform Math: An Isolationist’s View

For my sins, I periodically peruse the Method Math teacher blogs. I call them Method Math teachers because, much like those self-important thespians in the Actors Studio can’t just act, these guys can’t just teach. Not for them the order of a structured curriculum; no, they want “meaningful math”. They don’t want their kids to do well unless it’s the right kind of doing well. Do they love math? Do they have the proper respect and curiosity for math? What’s the student’s motivation?

They are correctly described as reform math teachers. In math, “reform” refers to the “progressive” side of the debate, in which math is not so much a field of study as it is an ideological value system. Discovery and complex instruction are the guiding lights of their lesson planning. However, since they are teachers, and most teachers don’t really care about education policy in any coherent sense, many teachers who embrace the tenets may not be aware of the ideological underpinnings of their chosen Method. They Like or Don’t Like, without much sense of anything beyond their classroom. (and in that, they are like most teachers).

Reform math is all about social justice, enabling blacks, Hispanics, and girls to “feel successful” about learning math. Actually being successful at learning math is a whole different thing; certainly these demographic categories are successful with their teachers, but when it comes to outside assessments, not so much—which is why reformers don’t much care for standardized tests. But in the classroom, constructivists and discovery-based lessons can accept multiple methods, which means no one method is wrong. And explaining! Explaining is vital. “Explaining your process” is the way that the “procedurally competent” kids (only in reform math is this a bad thing) can be flunked or at least marked down for not explaining their work, while other kids can find “other ways to be smart”. Convenient for grading, this value system allows teachers to dream up all sorts of ways for top kids to fail with the right answer, while tolerating all sorts of other ways for low ability kids to succeed with the wrong one.

(Ironically, these same people who focus on the importance of explaining the “why” are always insisting that teachers reduce the literacy demand of word problems, for kids who can’t read. That’s because the explaining aspect is meant to assist white girls weak on math but strong on literacy, whereas literacy reduction is all about making the problem set up easier for blacks and Hispanics to interpret.)

Reform math practitioners enthuse about this “open-ended discourse”, which avoids calculations and algorithms and, you know, answers. At least definitively right answers. Which teachers don’t give. Teacher explanations = failure. Hence Dan Meyer, the Lee Strasberg of the math blogosphere, famous for his Ted talk, has a blog that proudly bears the label “less helpful”.

Open-ended discourse requires curiosity and ability, which some might deem a feature, but the knowledgeable understand is a bug. Inquiry teaching deliberately eschews algorithms or process or anything resembling a structured approach (while allowing that “blind memorization” might occasionally be useful). Few reform teachers understand the underlying rationale for this method, which lies in the hope that open-ended problems will narrow the achievement gap—not by improving achievement of the lower half, but by narrowing all achievement into a much thinner band. Hence the importance of grading down the top students, and slowing (well, they call it deepening) instruction to be sure that no one is pulling too far ahead.

Ed schools ferociously pretend that all but a few racist fuddy-duddies teach using constructivist methods, but out in the real world, reform math is mostly fringe. The greatest penetration is at the suburban elementary school level, which has a teaching population disproportionately comprised of cheery young women who care more about their students’ interpersonal skills than intellectual development (a feature, not a bug). Complex instruction requires students to “share ideas and knowledge” and the strongest students are responsible for the weakest students’ learning, entrancing elementary school teachers with the delusion that math lessons can enhance social justice. Besides, elementary school teachers aren’t terribly strong at math to begin with, so a method that de-emphasizes algorithms reinforces their own preferences.

Since elementary school teachers rarely have the math chops to develop their own lessons, most reform curriculum development is found in middle school, where kids don’t stay long enough for the parents to complain and the teachers are knowledgeable—and teaching the subjects most attended to by reformers (pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry). So there’s a big support group and lots of material to build on.

Few high school math teachers embrace reform; those who are committed to the Method don’t have a long shelf-life. Most give it up after a few years, the rest show up at grad school where they can pretend that constructivism and complex instruction are valid, proven methods. They get a Phd and demand conformity from prospective teachers in ed school, successfully selling their dogma to a few eager apostles. These converts, alas, ultimately abandon the method or return to grad school where the cycle begins again. Thus Dan Meyer is no longer teaching math but getting his PhD at Stanford with Jo Boaler, Queen Mother of Reform Math. (Understand, however, that reformers do not practice what they preach in ed school. There aren’t multiple ways and many right answers when training new teachers. Heavens, no.)

To the extent reform math survives for any length of time, it does so in white, suburban elementary schools, although not without a struggle. Elementary teachers’ support is counterbalanced by well-educated parents who generally despise it. Parental protests have killed reform math programs at all levels for decades throughout the country. Districts have to balance happy teachers with howlingly angry parents. The high school battles ended over a decade ago, but elementary school parents have to deal with teachers who actually like the program.

But reform math wars are mostly a tale of suburban woes, as parents push back on well-meaning districts hoping to close the achievement gap of their bottom 10-20% by depressing their top performers. It stresses the parents out, but the kids will catch up. For all that reform math propagandists want to change the world for black and Hispanic kids, the techniques are abandoned quickly in high poverty, low ability schools, particularly at the high school level. The story goes like this: a complex instruction curriculum is introduced with great fanfare, math teachers complain, the complainers that can’t be fired are transferred, cue the fawning news coverage with much noise about “equity” and “access”, a few beaming parents who barely speak English talking about their children’s newfound love of math, clips of young black teens and Hispanic girls talking about how they like this math sooooo much better than “just being told what to do”…..and then the dismal state test scores come rolling in and all the canny zealots who once exhorted the grunts to be guides standing to the side are now publicly championing sage on the stage. Back comes explicit direct instruction and the cycle begins again.

The Jo Boaler brouhaha contains one such example, as James Milgram points out:

Indeed, a high official in the district where Railside is located called and updated me on the situation there in May, 2010. One of that person’s remarks is especially relevant. It was stated that as bad as [our work] indicated the situation was at Railside, the school district’s internal data actually showed it was even worse. Consequently, they had to step in and change the math curriculum at Railside to a more traditional approach. Changing the curriculum seems to have had some effect. This year (2012) there was a very large (27 point) increase in Railside’s API score and an even larger (28 point) increase for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, where the target had been 7 points in each case.

Railside High is San Lorenzo High School, in California. As Milgram says, its 2010 scores are dismal, while 2012 scores are improved. Not substantially—ain’t no getting around basic cognitive ability coupled with absurdly unrealistic expectations. But improved.

So I began this post to explain the tiny twitter tempest I began last week, and I’m not there yet. And to get there would take the post into specifics when thus far it’s been general. Sigh. For some reason, I’m writing very slowly this summer. But I didn’t have any clear description of reform math that I could link to in order to explain reform math as I see it, which is not quite as most critics see it.

If the Method teachers out there in the blogosphere do read this, they may confuse me for a traditionalist and, uh, no. My ed school is committed to complex instruction and inquiry-based learning, and I am very fond of my ed school. It’s not fond of me, of course, but then who is?

At that ed school, my all-discovery, all-inquiry, all-complex-instruction master teacher provided me with the best learning experience of my life, adopting effortlessly to my strengths and skepticisms to give me fantastic advice that I hark back to this day. I am, to put it mildly, Not Easy to Teach. That I got six months of valuable education counts for a lot. Thanks to that teacher’s willingness to focus on goals, not methods, I learned to do the same. I can find a lot of good in reform objectives, and steal interesting concepts in their lessons. I might think reform methods are awful but, like progressive educators in general, reformers are thinking about how to teach math, which as it happens is a subject much on my mind.

I am not and never will be a member of the Method group. I am Switzerland, or the US between world wars. Ignore the fact that my first year out I put my students in rows for three weeks until I couldn’t stand it anymore and put them in groups. Second year out I lasted 10 days. Third year out and beyond, I gave into the inevitable and just put the kids in groups from the start. I use manipulatives, introduce units not with facts but with activities that illustrate facts, minimize my use of algorithms, and always remind students that I’ll take a good estimate in lieu of a calculation (and give most of the credit). Anyone evaluating my teaching practice would conclude I have much more in common with the Method crew than I have with traditionalists.

Still, they are profoundly wrong, and their nonsense grates on me much more than the many ways in which the traditionalists err. That’s what led to my tweet, which yes, I still haven’t explained. But I’m ready to start explaining now, so that’s a step up.

Edited later to add:

A couple points. First, I welcome comments on this much because it will help me determine whether I’m getting the right ideas across. I know I can be tough on commenters who misinterpret me, much as I try not to, but I will really try not to if you want to complain about something you’ve misinterpreted on this particular post.

Second, I paint in broad brushes. Keep that in mind!

I’m going to try hard to get the second part of this up faster than normal, for me. I’m hoping for a couple days, but if I fail, know that I tried.

Two Math Teachers Talk

Hand to god, I will finish my post about the reform math fuss I twittered in mid-week, but I am blocked and trying to chop back what I discuss and I want to talk about something fun.

So I will discuss Dale, a fellow math teacher who was a colleague at my last job. Dale is half my age and three days younger than my son. Yes. I have coworkers my son’s age. Shoot me now.

He and I are very different, in that he is an incredibly hot commodity as a math teacher, whose principal would offer him hookers if he’d agree to stay, and gets the AP classes because he’s a real mathematician who majored in math and everything. He turns down the hookers because he’s highly committed to his girlfriend, who is an actual working engineer who uses math every day. I am not a hot commodity, not offered hookers, and not a real mathematician. I also don’t have a girlfriend who is an actual working engineer using math every day, but there’s a lot of qualifiers in that last independent clause so don’t jump to too many conclusions.

He and I are similar in that we both were instantly comfortable with teaching and the broad requirements of working with tough low income kids who don’t want to be in school, and extremely realistic about cognitive ability. We also don’t judge our students for not liking math, or get all moral about kids these days. (Of course, he is a kid).

We are also similar in that we like beer and burgers (he has a lamentable fondness for hops, but no one’s perfect), and still meet once or twice a month at an appropriate locale to talk math. I tell him my new curricular ideas, which he is kind enough to admire although his approach is far more traditional, and ask him math questions, particularly when I was teaching precalc; he tells me that most of the department wants him to be head, despite his youth and relative inexperience. We also talk policy in general. It’s fun.

“I have some news for you,” I told him, “but you will laugh, so you should put down your beer.”

He obligingly takes a pull on his schooner of Lagunitas IPA and sets it down.

“A new study came out,” I said, “and apparently, many high school algebra and geometry courses have titles that don’t actually match the course delivered.”

Dale, who clearly thought I was going in a different direction, did a double take. “Wait. What?”

“The word used was ‘rigor’. Like, some Algebra I courses don’t actually cover algebra I. Same with geometry.”

He looks at me. Takes another pull. “Like, not all algebra teachers actually cover the work formula?”

“Like, not all algebra teachers cover integer operations and fractions for two months. Like not all algebra teachers spend two weeks explaining that 2-5 is not the same as 5-2.”

“Uh huh. Um. They did a study on this?”

“They did.”

“They could have just asked me.”

“They can’t do that. They think math teachers are morons. But there’s more.”

“Of course there is.”

“Apparently, the more blacks and Hispanics and/or low income students are in a class, the less likely the course’s rigor will match the course description.”

He sighs. “I need more beer. Ulysses!” (that’s actually the bartender’s name.) “I’m assuming that nowhere in this study did they even mention the possibility that the students didn’t know the material, that the course content depended on incoming student ability?”

“Well, not in that study. But you know what happens when we point that out.”

“Oh, yeah. ‘It’s all that crap they teach in elementary schools!’ Like that teacher in that meeting you all had the year before I got here. ‘Integer operations and fractions! Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?‘”

“Yes. Actually, the researchers blamed the textbooks, which was a pleasant change from the platitude–and-money-rich reformers who argue our standards are too low.”

“Did anyone ever tell them if it were that simple, whether textbook or teacher, then we could cover the missing material in a few weeks and it’d all be over? Wait, don’t tell me. Of course they told them. That’s the whole premise behind….”

Algebra Support!” we chorused.

“But then there’s that hapless AP calculus teacher stuck teaching algebra support. He spent, what, a month on subtraction?”

“And the happy news was that at the end of the semester, the freshmen went from getting 40% right on a sixth grade math test to 55%.”

“The bad news being at the end of the year, they forgot it all. Net improvement, what–2 points?”

“Hell, I spend the entire Algebra II course teaching mostly Algebra I, and while they learn a lot, at the end of the course they’re still shaky on graphing lines and binomial multiplication. And I don’t even bother trying to teach negative numbers, although I do try to show them why the inequality sign flips in inequalities.”

“But it’s our fault, right?”

“Of course. But that’s not the best part.”

“There’s a best part?”

“If you like black comedy.”

“The Bill Cosby sort, or the Richard Pryor catching himself on fire sort?”

“Someone doesn’t know his literary genres.”

“Hey, we can’t all be English majors. What’s the best part?”

“The best part is that Common Core is supposed to fix all this.”

“Common Core? How?”

“By telling us teachers what we’re supposed to teach.”

I’d forgotten to warn Dale, who was mid-gulp. “WHAT???”

I handed him a napkin. “You’ve got beer coming out your nose. Yes. Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli always use this example of the shifty, devious schools that, when faced with a 3-year math requirement, just spread two years of instruction over three!”

“Wow. That’s painful.”

“Well, they don’t much care for unions, either, so I guess they think that when faced with a mandate that’s essentially a jobs program for math teachers, we teachers use it as an opportunity to kick back. But that’s when they are feeling uncharitable. Sometimes, when they’re trying to puff teachers up, they worry that teachers will need professional development in order to know the new material.”

“How to teach it?”

“No. The new material.”

“They think we don’t know the new material?

“Remember, they think math teachers are morons. On the plus side, they think we’re the smartest of teachers. (Which we are, but that’s another subject.) There’s still other folks who complain because ed schools don’t teach teachers the material they’re supposed to be teaching.”

“But we know that material. That’s what credential tests are for. You can’t even get into a program without passing the credential test.”

“Do not get me started.”

“So when the test scores tank, they’ll say it’s because teachers don’t know the material?”

“Well, they’ve got the backup teachers don’t have the proper material to teach the standards, in case someone points out the logical flaws in the ‘teacher don’t know the material’ argument.”

“Sure. If it ain’t in the textbook, we don’t know it’s supposed to be taught!”

“Don’t depress me. Yes, either we don’t know what’s supposed to be taught or we don’t know how to teach it without textbooks telling us to.”

Dale starts to laugh in serious. “I’m sorry, Governor. I would have taught vectors in geometry, but since it wasn’t on the standards, I taught another week of the midpoint formula.”

“I’m sorry, parents, I would have dropped linear equations entirely from my algebra two class, but I didn’t know they were supposed to learn it in algebra one!”

“Damn. A whole three weeks spent teaching fraction operations in algebra when it’s fifth grade math. I could have spent that time showing them how to find a quadratic equation from points!”

“I didn’t know proofs were a geometry standard. Why didn’t someone tell me? Here I had so much free time I taught my kids multi-step equations because my only other option was showing an Adam Sandler movie!”

“Stop, you’re killing me.”

“No, there’s too many more. Who the hell went and added conics to the standards and why wasn’t I informed? Here I spent all this time teaching my algebra II kids that a system of equations is solved by finding the points of intersection? Apparently, my kids didn’t bother to tell me that they’d mastered that material in algebra I.”

“I can’t believe it! Four weeks killed teaching kids the difference between a positive and a negative slope! Little bastards could have told me they knew it but no, they just let me explain it again. No wonder they acted out–they were bored!”

My turn to snarf my beer.

“Jesus, Ed, I’ve wondered why we’re pulling this Common Core crap, but not in my deepest, most cynical moments did I think it because they thought we teachers just might not know what to teach the kids.”

“That’s not the most depressing, cynical thought. Really cynical is that everyone knows it won’t work but the feds need to push the can—the acknowledgement that achievement gaps are largely cognitive—down the road a few more years, and everyone else sees this as a way to scam government dollars.”

“New texbooks! New PD. A pretense that technology can help!”

“Exactly. I’d think maybe it was another effort to blame unions, but no.”

“Yeah, Republicans mostly oppose the standards.”

“Well, except the ‘far-seeing Republicans’ who just want what’s best for the country. Who also are in favor of ‘immigration reform’.”

“Jeb Bush.”

“Bingo. You’ll be happy to know that libertarians hate Common Core.”

“Rock on, my people!”

“Yeah, but they want also want open borders and privatized education.”

“Eh, nobody’s perfect.”

“But all that depressing cynicism is no fun, so let me just say that I would have taught sigma notation except I thought that letter was epsilon!”

“Hey, wait. You do get sigma and epsilon confused!”

“No, I don’t, or I wouldn’t call the pointy E stuff sigma notation, dammit. I just see either E shape out of context and think epsilon. Why the hell did Greeks have two Es, and why couldn’t they give them names that start with E? Besides, the only two greek letters I have to deal with are pi and theta, and really, in right triangle trig there’s no difference between theta and x.”

“Well, you’re going to have to stop making that mistake because thanks to Common Core, you’ll know that you’re supposed to teach sequences and series.”

“Damn. So I won’t be able to teach them binomial multiplication and factoring and let them kick back and mock me with their knowledge, which they have because they learned it all in algebra I.”

“Here’s to Common Core and math research. Without them, America wouldn’t be able to kid itself.”

We clinked glasses just as Maya, Dale’s girlfriend walked in, a woman who actually uses centroids, orthocenters, and piece-wise equations in her daily employment. The rest of the evening was spent discussing my search for more real-life models of quadratics that don’t involve knowing the quadratic formula first. She offered road construction and fruit ripening, which are very promising, but I still need something organic (haha), if possible, to derive the base equation. So far area and perimeter problems are my best bet, which gives me a good chance to review formulas, because until Common Core comes out I won’t know that they learned this in geometry. I wondered if velocity problems could be used to derive it. Dale warned me that it involved derivations. Maya was confused by my describing velocity problems as “-16 problems”, since gravity is either gravity is either 32 ft/sec/sec or 9.8 m/s/s. Dale interpreted. I’m like Jeez, there are people who know what gravity is off the top of their heads? This is why I don’t teach science. (edit: I KNEW I should have checked the numbers. I don’t do physics or real math, dammit. Fixed. )

But all that’s for another, happier, post.

What Can We Blame Teacher Unions For?

My dad, a blue-collar Dem, is a die-hard union man and I grew up in a pro-union household. But I was a temp worker most of my working life until becoming a teacher, and prefer to set my own rate and negotiate my own terms, even though I’m probably not very good at it. Consequently, I was not ever a big fan of unions, and until three or four years ago, agreed with the classic reform positions on teacher unions: they were responsible for keeping smart people out of teaching, they were responsible for ballooning education costs, they stood in the way of good teachers getting the job done with ridiculous rules and regulations, they protected bad teachers.

My views have changed, and the change began even before I became a teacher.

Do Unions Keep Smart People Out of the Profession?

If I could beat one new reality into the nation’s head, I would choose teacher cognitive ability, and that beating would take four parts. First, that high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. Second, that testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB. (see table). Third, that this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t. (Cite: This is the dog that didn’t bark. All research since 2001 still shows that new teachers aren’t as effective as experienced teachers until they’ve taught for a couple years. Ergo, harder tests to find smarter teachers didn’t make a huge difference.)


2007 ETS Teacher Quality report, page 23

Fourth, that the research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes, and if we’re just being reasonable instead of squinting hard, shows no real relationship at all between teacher cognitive ability and outcomes. Both progressive and reformer discussion of teacher quality begins with the premise that mouth-breathing morons predominate. Yet the data clearly shows we are not.

Besides, unions have next to nothing to do with teacher credentialing, which is where content knowledge requirements are set. That’s a state function. The states have, as I mentioned, dramatically raised content knowledge for elementary school teachers at least once (twice if you count the original institution of Praxis I and variations). I assume unions protested, although I’m not sure why. But the states have a much bigger problem than unions—namely, disparate impact. Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers, something I’ve documented at length here, here, and here, and that Stephen Sawchuk has been covering vis a vis the CAEP push to raise standards.

So unions aren’t responsible for stupid teachers, both because there really aren’t that many, and because that’s the state’s job.

But that’s not all, reformers say. Unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality. They pay old teachers more than young teachers and protect the first at the expense of the second. They oppose merit or performance pay. The best teachers, the really smart ones, the ones who could be hedge fund managers or financial analysts, the ones we’d like to have instead of these dreary wage slaves we’ve got now—well, those sorts of people want competitive salary structures and the knowledge that they’ll be rewarded for their excellence. Otherwise, they’ll sneer at teaching and take jobs that pay them millions to obliterate the country’s financial stability.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work. I’ll pretty much agree with that. But in blaming teacher’s unions, I thought—perhaps wrongly—that the gravamen of the charge was that unions weren’t in and of themselves the problem, they just needed to improve. However, this charge can only genuinely be resolved by killing teachers unions entirely. Good luck with that.

Sure, there are efforts to come up with merit pay or other pay for performance plans. Most of the research shows they don’t work. I have written up my results for algebra I growth in my students, both in algebra I and in algebra II and geometry. I subtitled one of these “Why Merit Pay Won’t Work”, even though I didn’t mention the subject directly.

I realize I am offering anecdata, but I assert here and now that my anecdata is supported nationwide, that the bulk of high school students who enter a math class will leave it scoring at roughly the same percentile of ability. Performance pay of any sort will not alter this fundamental reality. And once everyone else realizes this, no one’s going to pay big bucks to move kids taking algebra I for the third time from Far Below Basic to Below Basic. I suspect that reading ability suffers from the same constraints.

So I’ll agree that the union compensation structure keeps competitive, high-performance people from even thinking about teaching. However, were such people to enter teaching, the realization that the nation’s stated goals for educational outcomes are utterly disconnected from reality would drive them right out again. No point in performance pay if the objectives are delusions.

Do Unions Increase Costs of Education?

Are unions responsible for the ballooning costs of education? Not on a day to day basis. The bulk of increased costs is due to special ed, and we can blame politicians for that one. I agree that unions and politicians are responsible for pension costs, although teacher unions aren’t any worse than any other government union on that count. In fact, given that teachers can’t work overtime per se and retire at an average age of 59 (cops work 20 years and out, and while I can’t find average national data, California cops and firefighters have an average age of 54), teachers are probably among the least offenders. Less likely to get disability, too.

Districts are far more interested in figuring out how to keep teachers than fire them. Teacher turnover is a huge issue and major expense, and one that can’t really be laid at the union’s door.

So I would argue that unions own responsibility for the huge pensions, but day to day costs, I’d want to see more evidence. And where’s the evidence that teacher unions are worse than other government unions?

Do Union Rules and Regulations Prohibit Productivity?

Yeah, this is nuts. What are you all talking about? I assumed, before becoming a teacher, that there’d be union reps all over the place telling me what I can and can’t do, that teachers were busy bitching out other teachers who worked harder and made them look bad. Where is this happening, and is Nick Nolte on the staff?

Just one example: class assignment often results in English and history teachers getting classes bigger than the contract stipulates (usually 34 or 35). I know teachers who have had 40 kids in a class. They complain. Let me be clear: the teachers complain. The teacher union rep (who also has overlimit classes), in response to the complaints, fills out forms and encourages everyone else to do the paperwork. Some do, some don’t. In this last year, the issue was never resolved. The union didn’t attack the school. They get the difficulty of assigning classes. But at the same time, they continue to work the problem—and will probably escalate it. The union is not enforcing rules and regulations that the teachers are fine with, insisting on arcane objectives that no one gives a crap about any more, but rather responding to teacher complaints about onerous work conditions. How is that not its job?

As a math teacher, I’ve been over the limit a couple times, and I didn’t much care—it’s a whole different issue in math than English and history, with grading time being the chief determinant. However, I didn’t have enough desks. So after a union meeting, I went to the rep and mentioned that I had 35 students but only 32 desks.

“You are overlimit! You should grieve it,” she said, instantly.

“Yeah, it’s just not a big deal. But I need more desks.”

Did she insist that I grieve? Look at me with disapproval? She did not. She just gave me the bad news: other teachers had an even higher ratio of missing desks to students, and short of going out and buying my own desks, I was screwed. She didn’t deliver the news with snark, but with understanding sympathy, since her missing desk to student ratio was 6:1. We commiserated, agreed that attrition would probably fix most of the problem, but wasn’t it annoying that we had to wait? For desks, even!!

It was a nice conversation.

Again, I don’t get this complaint at all. I try to think what else it could be, what case it is that unions, as opposed to teachers, insist on silly rules that stop “progress”—which is, of course, whatever the complainer thinks would be a rilly cool idea. Examples?

Do Unions Protect Bad Teachers?

Ah, the big Kahuna of teacher union beefs. It’s hard to fire bad teachers, because unions make administrators lives living hell in order to discourage them from even trying.

There’s an easy out on this one, though. If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions. Moreover, even the states that have eliminated tenure, like Oregon, seem to hold onto most of their teachers. Oregon dropped tenure for 2-year teaching contracts; a story just two years later reported that nothing had changed. This CAP report report on teacher tenure shows that Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates for that year (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas).

In fact, as this second CAP report on state tenure laws spells out, the bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law. So how is that the unions’ fault?

Naturally, there’s state laws, and then there’s enforcing state laws. Once, I noticed that one of my employers (a large national corporation) wasn’t paying me overtime. I thought that odd. I emailed someone in HR, and was ignored. I emailed again, no response. I emailed a third time, was told that I misunderstood the law. This annoyed me. It wasn’t the money. In fact, I knew that the employer would simply stop me from working overtime, if they took the law seriously. But they didn’t. So I reported them to the state, who eventually subjected the company to a regional audit, and months later I got a nice check. The company had to revamp its time sheets, at considerable expense, and educate managers on overtime laws by state. (To the company’s credit, I wasn’t fired. A senior HR person called me, I told him I don’t like it when companies ignore the law, he observed that I’d probably saved them a class action suit years down the line.)

This took upwards of a year to resolve, and this was on an issue that I had the corporation dead to rights–around 9 separate incidents of submitted timesheets showing overtime, and paychecks showing no overtime. And yet the corporation ignored me, figuring what the hell, it could break the law. Had my case not been so easy to prove and I been less adept at documentation, I’m sure the corporation’s strategy would have proved out.

It will not shock anyone to learn that private corporations routinely ignore state employment law.

So unions merely force their employers to follow state law. Down to the letter. They do it so effectively that districts are loathe to incur the costs of dismissal.

The CAP report I linked in makes a good case for changing state laws. I suspect that unions will fight any attempt to change, but so what? The “onerous” process required for firing government employees involves state law and federal case law. That unionized government employees simply have the means of forcing their employers to follow the law whereas employees of private corporations are screwed unless the violations reach the level of class action suit says more about the state of employment in America than it does about unions. We shouldn’t need unions to ensure the law is followed. Clearly, we do.

Of course, your average eduformer doesn’t want a state law change. Reformers want to abolish all protection for state employees, barring the usual ones, and give principals a free hand. They are okay with competent teachers being fired simply because the principal wants a younger teacher, a different style, or simply a different teacher (which of course means a cheaper teacher). Checker Finn: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Whitney Tilson: ” Ending LIFO is a critical first step to getting to what’s really necessary: that every principal has the full power to hire and fire every adult (not just teachers) in the school and he/she sees fit..”. Rick Hess, whose new book Cagebusting might be subtitled “How to Fire Teachers Quickly and a Few Other Administrative Tips I Threw In So No One Can Say This is Just a Book about Firing Teachers”, encourages administrators to use private philanthropy to get the equivalent legal power on their side, but at least he’s working within the system instead of ignoring its realities.

So should unions eat the blame for denying reformers their holy grail of hire and fire power? I think not. Go change the state laws and get back to me.


So in the end, what are teacher unions to blame for? Big pensions—and even then, they were just doing their job with politicians who didn’t want to do theirs. A compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers. Many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview. But there’s another point to consider.

It can’t have escaped notice that most of the beefs against teacher unions are, in fact, true for all unions. So I repeat a question I’ve written about before: why the big push against teacher unions? Cops and firefighters are just as hard to fire. DMV employees harder still, no doubt. As Richard Posner points out, judges also get paid whether they are any good or not, and without a union, even (I have other good things to say about that Posner essay). So do politicians, who get paid with taxpayer dollars if they’re elected, even if they’re horrible, also without a union.

Education is big business and education reformers are often, but not always, Republicans, a group who—totally coincidentally, I’m sure—favors an outcome that weakens or obliterates a big pile of Democrat money. Neither of those facts, however, explain why it’s apparently okay to single out teachers, castigating them for “privileges” that are de rigueur for all government employees. I just cited two separate Center for American Progress reports calling for a weakening of teacher tenure, and unless I’m mistaken CAP is one of the few pro-union organizations left. I’ll leave that question unanswered save for my previous wonderings, but it is something that nags at me.

I am no more in favor of unions for myself than I ever was. I was just reading Andrew Old’s diatribe about scabs—in fact, I think that essay was the cause of this one, because I realized again that I just couldn’t see myself going out on strike. My view of unions have undergone a profound change, but I don’t think of myself as a union member. I get paid, I go to work. I would probably strike if I voted to strike, but there’s the rub, since I can’t see voting to strike. This is visceral. I’m not sure if I can even explain it. (Note: Andrew Old’s views have changed, but I think he’d still call me a scab for not striking.)

But the past decade has made me much more sympathetic to unions in general. I was just rereading this piece by Kevin Drum on the death of unions, realizing that I would have scoffed at it back in the 90s. I still believe that America is largely antithetical to true union thinking, that union acceptance in the post-war period was a fluke due to our economic dominance in the global market. But the disappearance of work will undoubtedly travel up the pay scale, and I’m much more open to the idea that we need to constrain businesses from putting profit before everything, that stockholders don’t really matter more than workers, and that Amazon’s work practices are obscene.

Is my sympathy caused by my job change? Perhaps, but remember that I am not protected by tenure and may never attain it. Speedy termination until I’m too old to hire is a high-probability outcome for me, which is depressing, but at least suggests my opinions aren’t of the “I got mine, Jack” category.

I will grant anyone that unions make education more expensive, both by scaring politicians and, importantly, by holding onto some of the compensation value the private sector has lost because it doesn’t have the same protections that government employees have —unionized or not.

But are unions responsible in any way for our failure to achieve our educational goals, those lofty objectives that declare all high school graduates will be ready for college or career training?

No. Put another way: Pretty much everything Terry Moe says is wrong.

Those who think that teachers, or unions, or poverty causes our educational outcomes are kidding themselves. Our expectations are absurd. Criminal. The cruelest thing our education system does to our kids is not give them terrible teachers protected by thuggish unions, but ignore the role that cognitive ability plays in their ability to learn the material. Our system punishes bright kids, makes life too easy for middling ability kids, and as for the lowest ability kids, disproportionately poor, we give them all sorts of attention coupled with all sorts of absurd expectations, and leave them feeling hopeless and disconnected.

No one is comfortable admitting that. Reformers tried blaming parents, but they just got tagged as racists. Teachers are the only people left to blame. Unions are just a convenient proxy, a way for reformers to try to avoid alienating the largest profession in the country while still gutting its wages and protections—let’s assume, generously, in the genuine belief that teachers are genuinely responsible for student outcomes in an educational world with absurd and cruel expectations.

In fact, I believe teachers could make more of a difference in educational outcomes if we educated by cognitive ability and set goals accordingly. I believe we should spend more time teaching content to low-mid ability kids, and critical thinking and analysis to mid-high ability kids. But all of this starts by accepting the role that cognitive ability plays in outcomes, and coming to terms with the fact that unions have nothing to do with them.