Social Justice and Winning the Word

Robert Pondiscio got cranky with me on Twitter. I don’t translate well to 140 characters. I barely translate to 1400 words.

In Who’s the Real Progressive?, Pomdiscio got all “in your FACE!” with Steve Nelson, head of Calhoun School (tuition $40K), who snippily dismissed Pomdiscio’s school as “not progressive”. Pomdiscio was outraged. How dare he say that a school dedicated to helping black and Hispanic kids succeed isn’t progressive?

I told him he was needlessly fussed. “Social justice” and “progressive” are two terms firmly ensconced in liberal ideology with specific meanings about means, not outcomes. He should know that. I was told off in no uncertain terms. Pondiscio pointed out that he didn’t ask me for advice. True enough, and if he didn’t want unsolicited responses, he might try email next time.

But since I’ve escaped the bonds of Twitter….

Twenty years ago, I used to say I agreed with the goals of feminism and then qualified that statement: I can’t stand NOW, I think feminism has gone far afield, blah blah blah. Now I say I’m opposed to feminism, because I believe that women should have equal rights and responsibilities.

But Ed, a feminist will say, feminism is about women having equal rights and responsibilities.

And I laugh. “Hahahahaha! Good one!”

Of course, at the heart of this exchange lies a cold hard truth: feminists won the word.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers (usually English and history) talk about how they want their kids to “develop a positive value system” in the context of a recycling program or anti-bullying week. If they are trying to institute “social justice” values then it’s a panel on gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Dream Act.

Me, I don’t participate in the recycle program. When the kids ask me why, I tell them I want to hurt the environment. I was bullied into accepting a sticker during anti-bullying week, but I didn’t wear it, telling my students I’m anti-bullying, but also anti-anti-bullying. When students tell me they oppose gay marriage, gun rights, or the Dream Act, I simply warn them to watch their audience or have a lawyer on call. I would also mention whether I agreed or disagreed, just as I would with students with opposing views.

And if I’m asked whether I support social justice, I say no, because I support free speech and the right to individual opinion.

But Ed, says a liberal teacher, social justice is all about free speech and the right to individual opinion.

Hahahahaha! I say. Good one!

Again, a sad truth at the heart of it all: liberals won the words.

And that’s all I was trying to tell Robert Pondiscio. By all means, take on the absurd assumption that a progressive school must teach a curriculum drenched in liberal propaganda and enforce a rigid ideology about “social justice” that only acknowledges “white institutionalized racism” and “white male patriarchy” as wrongs imposed upon a minority populace bravely struggling against the jackboot on their necks. I’m all for it. While you’re at it, go take on ed schools not for their curriculum (it’s not that bad) but for their routine violations of academic freedom and the elite ed schools’ systematic exclusion of conservatives or Republicans from their student population, implying, but never daring to say directly, that the right’s political agenda is incompatible with worthwhile educational outcomes. I’m there.

But spewing outrage when a progressive tells you that your school isn’t progressive because you believe in good test scores for and enforce tough discipline against black and Hispanic kids? Of course it’s not progressive to insist on homogeneous cultural success and behavior markers. Progressives don’t care about ends, they care about means. Did the teachers spout liberal values and espouse progressive dogma? It’s progressive. Otherwise, not. They won the word. Cope.

Of course, the real irony is that reformers, whether choice, accountability, or curriculum, rarely question the liberal ideal of “social justice” and “progressive values” in at least one key respect. As I’ve written before, reformers of all stripes have completely embraced the progressive agenda for educational outcomes: affirmative action, the DREAM act, special education mainstreaming (for public schools, not for charters, of course), support for non-English speakers. They’re only arguing about means.

Note that the students in Robert Pondiscio’s essay with the happy stories about college acceptance to Brown and Vanderbilt, are all black and they almost certainly got in with lower test scores than if they’d had the same income but were white or Asian. A substantial number of Americans don’t see social justice in the notion of accepting far less qualified kids, often of higher income, simply because of their skin color. And yet Pondiscio offers his story as an unalloyed example of a progressive outcome, of social justice.

In fact, he wouldn’t even be writing happy stories about poor whites or Asians, just as you don’t see KIPP cutting admission deals for white and Asian students, because reformers aren’t starting charter schools to help poor whites or Asians.

Suburban upper-income whites, sure. Reformers are all about wealthy suburban whites for the same reason that Willie Sutton robs banks. Progressive charter schools for liberal whites trying to escape the overly brown and poor population of their local schools are on the rise. These schools aren’t reliant on philanthropists, but well-to-do parents willing to provide seed money to bootstrap the initial efforts. Poor or even middle class whites need not apply: they don’t bring the color the schools will need to prove the “diverse” population. They can apply for the lottery, eventually. (“Poor” Asians are a different story; it’s largely how the Chinese takeover of American Indian Public Charter went unnoticed. Chinese and Koreans bring all sorts of money from back home but have little money on paper, so often count as “low income”. Doesn’t stop them from buying up real estate, often, literally, with cash.)

You’ll go a long, long time looking for reformers’ advocacy of any issue that benefits poor whites, or even suburban whites not rich enough to write a check for seed money. In fact, I’d argue that increased choice is one aspect of reform that will hurt poor and middle-class whites, since no one’s interested in starting schools for them.

So Pondiscio’s brouhaha: Steve Nelson claims he’s progressive because he enforces liberal think on a bunch of rich white students and gives lip service to getting low income black and Hispanic kids get into college, probably with a couple–but not too many–Calhoun scholarships. Robert Pondiscio claims he’s more progressive because he works for a school that gets more black and Hispanic kids get into elite colleges, thanks to progressive universities’ belief in affirmative action and wealthy conservative organizations eager to fund selective charter schools instead of writing $40K scholarships, the better to prove that traditional schools and unionized teachers suck.

The cataclysmic nature of their disagreement on progressive values involves the degree to which culturally homogenous discipline should be enforced while pursuing the unquestioned good of allocating resources for a select group of black and Hispanic students. And, I guess, whether $40K tuition scholarships for low income black and Hispanic students are morally inferior to them winning a lottery to a nominally public school funded by billionaires directly, rather than through scholarships.

Okay. Well. Glad we got thatstraightened out.

Meanwhile, we’re a long way from a world in which we give all low income kids an equal shot, regardless of race. We’re not even at the point where each demographic has its own group of interested billionaires to fund selective schools for a lucky few.

Bah, Humbug.

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About educationrealist


51 responses to “Social Justice and Winning the Word

  • Tina

    They are trying to impoverish whites by not letting then into the professions this way.

    White aren’t allowed into government jobs now either. And they’re telling the whites to race mix.

    I mean, you can’t miss the race mixing on TV, can you?

    It is white genocide they are attempting.

    They at the top, don’t want intelligent, feisty, PATRIOTIC whites getting anywhere. We might keep it a Constitutional Republic, and we can’t have
    THAT, now can we?

  • Gordo

    Absolutely correct Tina, an educational war is being waged against whites all over the Anglosphere by a small sef-perpetuating elite. It’s part of a larger war to displace us.

    We can no longer live as we did and must now take the red pill and act as a race purely for self defemce. Only once we have our own country will we be able to have all round altruism again, up to the border.

    Sad but true

  • Tort

    I don’t see Ed as a white supremacist, but in reading this post and the links, my sense of “alarm” was heightened by the thought that, yes, liberalism has waged an all-out attack on a) white, b) patriarchal, c) men. That agenda is partially executed through control of the school system. But, in actuality, I don’t see the agenda on a day to day basis as a teacher, nor do I have any hesitation about helping African-American, Hispanic, and female students getting ahead via the best education I can provide for them. As a white male, I was most likely the beneficiary of pre-affirmative action policies. It usually takes me multiple readings of your posts, Ed, before I get the full gist. I just watched this video my brother-in-law sent me. I think it is how you might think.

    I subscribe to it. There is a true “oneness” to it, and the more educated people in the black community “get it.” You see them on Fox News, not as shills for Fox, but as people who understand the virtues of conservatism and the heresy of liberalism

    Thanks, Ed.

  • BenZ

    This is off topic. Can someone link me Ed’s thoughts on the length of the school year? I was not able to find it with a search. If it has not been discussed, apologies for the interruption.

    • educationrealist

      No problem. I haven’t blogged on it. I’m not convinced it makes much difference. Did you have a particular question?

      • BenZ

        Washington State recently added 80 hours to the school year. Much discussion has ensued with my friends and I (we all have kids). I understood that there is a knowledge loss that occurs over the summer and that the american school year is one of the shortest for developed nations. I was wondering if you think the knowledge drain over summer is significant and whether you think that the length of our school year puts us at a disadvantage with other developed countries. Thanks.

      • educationrealist

        No, I don’t think the length of our school year puts us at a disadvantage. The main reason schools want to increase the year is for black and Hispanic kids, and there’s not much evidence that this will really close the achievement gap. I’d be annoyed at another two weeks added to the year.

      • Roger Sweeny

        There is a knowledge drain over the summer but there is a knowledge drain over any ten week period, whether or not school is in session.

        Once past elementary school, most courses are remarkably compartmentalized. What is covered in one unit gets doesn’t get seen again until perhaps a midterm or final. So much of students’ experience of school consists of “do a unit, memorize for the test, take the test, forget the material.” A longer school year isn’t going to change this much.

      • BenZ

        Thank you for the reply Roger. That seems like a critique of teaching in general rather than an argument that the length of our school year is optimal.

        Have there been studies on the long term effects of american students that attend summer school? It wouldn’t be a random sample, they would be self selected for one reason or another, but, if teaching is beneficial, then should not more teaching be more beneficial? Or are there diminishing returns?

        Counter arguments I have heard for the summer break include: more time with family, oppurtunity to pursue other beneficial interests and oppurtunity to recharge for the next year. Personally, I didn’t do much during my summer breaks: worked more, relaxed more

      • Roger Sweeny

        It’s meant to be a critique of schooling in general. Kids are, to a large extent, knowledge sponges. And elementary school is, to a large extent, basic skills and cool things about the world. But kids change as they approach puberty. Things that used to be cool are no longer cool. Interest soars about peers, potential romantic/sexual partners, music, movies, sports. Underneath it all are unspoken questions, “How do I fit in the world?” “How will I make a life that I consider successful socially and economically?”

        At the same time school becomes more academic. By high school, young people are mostly taking half and whole year “courses” that are junior versions of college courses. High school chemistry is based on chemistry 101. Algebra 1 is Math 111. In middle school, students will ask you, “When will I ever use this?” The honest answers are usually, “You won’t” and “You will need it in a course you will be required to take in the next few years.”

        So teachers constantly struggle with motivation. “How can I get them interested?” People tell us: “Don’t lecture a lot.” “Do ‘active learning.'” “Relate the material to students’ lives.” These, and similar things, help in certain situations. But they have limited effectiveness. Probably our major motivator is, “Pay attention and tell me what I want to hear on your assessments and I will pass you for the course. Then you can stay with your peers and eventually get a diploma. If you don’t get a diploma, you will have a hard time making a life that you consider successful economically.”

        As students go through school, they discover that a successful strategy for passing a course is “memorize and forget.” Not only is it successful but it takes less effort than trying to understand and remember. Since most students don’t have an inherent interest in the course material, it becomes most students’ default.

        It is remarkable how little students take away from high school in the matter of academic knowledge. No one knows exactly how little because there is almost no research on long term learning. Such research is difficult and expensive, and who really wants to know the answer? After all, K-12 does a fairly good job of identifying young people who possess Bryan Caplan’s trinity of “intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.” College then separates them further. Outside of certain occupations, even successful people make little use of the knowledge they were supposed to acquire in academia.

  • Tort

    I’ve taught h.s. for three decades and every year I see kids getting burned out shortly after the beginning of the second semester, right around early March. From there until mid-June, it is like pulling a car with the emergency brake on. Yes, let’s do school year around, but lets do sprints instead of marathons, perhaps the quarter system. But, I think the kids need ample time in between “quarters” to get re-charged and rested. A ten week quarter followed by 3 weeks off. Go 9 weeks with 4 off, maybe. Also, in high school give the kids and teachers a break by rescheduling each 9 or 10 weeks. This would require that all teachers in a course-alike stay on the same pace. Just an idea.

    Public education is averse to innovation, and I usually get shot down when I propose things. Oh, we can start late on Monday’s for a staff meeting, but we can’t end early at the end of the day to hold a staff meeting. Why? The transportation department would yell because then they would have to pick up kids earlier at the schools. Also, more time in the afternoon for kids to get into trouble. Ideas get shot down for less-than academic reasons.

    Part of me believes that perhaps the ‘constructivist’ model might ease some of the burn-out on both students and teachers. Even though most of my colleagues complain that kids don’t work hard enough, they still burn out. I feel this might be due to the teaching model, in part, that attempts to pour knowledge in the kids’ heads instead of having them grow their own brains through highly interesting, exploratory lessons. It seems to me that when people learn this way instead of struggling memorize and retain, that parked car I’m trying to drag might just follow me instead of me trying to pull it along.

    I was talking to a colleague about some of the exploratory material I used with my classes only to have the kids tell me in about 10 minutes, “I don’t get it.” Do it for me, in other words. His comment was that that just drained the teacher of even more energy. I put a paper copy of a chess board in their hands with the directions: find the total number of squares on the board. Included in my directions was a vague hint that not all the squares were 1 X 1, but also 2 X 2, etc. I also hinted that they find a pattern after a few attempts to count the squares (there are 204 in total). They didn’t want to engage with it, but if they did it would have provided a rich discussion about sequence and series, binomials, etc.

    Who are the ones who need to recharge their batteries for 10 or 12 weeks over the summer? Teachers do.

    Getting off the subject of Ed’s post even more, today I read this article in the Wall Street Journal Online about the problematic nature of student learning at the college level. This is how most of us see American education.

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303531204579204201833906182

    • educationrealist

      Remember, Tort, start any open-ended work by making it four times easier than you think it should be.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Tort, I was just rereading your December 28th, 2013 at 1:14 am comment and was struck by, “Even though most of my colleagues complain that kids don’t work hard enough, they still burn out. I feel this might be due to the teaching model, in part, that attempts to pour knowledge in the kids’ heads instead of having them grow their own brains through highly interesting, exploratory lessons.”

      There is a humongous assumption there: that it is possible to create lessons that are highly interesting TO THE STUDENT.

      My mother-in-law would tell anyone who would listen that she didn’t care about sports. Imagine that she was forced to take a course on football. The instructor created exploratory lessons that he thought were highly interesting. I am 99.44% sure that my mother-in-law would be bored and annoyed by them. If she was required to pass a test at the end, she would do her best to find out what was on the test and then do what she had to do to pass. If she was taking five courses like this over a school year, I suspect she would seem burned out partway through.

      Of course, someone who was interested in football might be in heaven. Might be willing to work hard. And might not get burned out.

      We teachers hope that we can create football fans (after all, we see how wonderful the game is). Sometimes we can. Mostly we can’t.

      The question that almost nobody asks is, “What can we reasonably do, that is actually worth doing?”

      • Tort

        Roger, I don’t disagree with your comment, but I’m an ex-football coach and athletic director; and like my Sicilian mother (RIP), I refuse to give up and will look for ideas that I hope might work. When I coached, I would go to coaching clinics to find one good idea to implement.

        In graduate school and at teacher trainings, we are told that all kids can learn and all kids need to be engaged so that they will learn. Of course, I am very realistic about these claims, but I find myself always trying, like you, to find the right formula.

        Our district has asked us to use DII, Direct Interactive Instruction. It is direct instruction with moments of student interactivity along with constant checks for understanding. Still, this wasn’t a panacea and I observed that so much of how I teach is “fill their heads with information” by “showing and explaining” the concepts. Of course, no memorization is required by the student if she “understands” the flow of the lesson I am “showing” or what used to be known as “teaching.” When one “gets it,” one doesn’t need to memorize. But that “getting it” varies by our age and ability, and it is not always realistic that adolescents will “get” what we adults find to be so easy. I need to remind myself of how this played out in my younger days. Kids often DO try, but we are really stretching their brains with stuff that is difficult for the average person.

        Back to what I realized…

        When I began to observe that the kids could only sponge so much, it began to dawn on me that we need to teach less curriculum in more depth. Isn’t this what some other countries do? If we could slow down and get kids to work in teams on lessons that “attempt” to engage the kids, that is a good start. If kids are engaged in a good lesson or task–asking questions and trying to “figure stuff out,” that would supplant me trying to fill their heads and would allow for deeper understanding and retention. So goes the theory. It’s ironic that the students’ passivity in learning does two things: it makes the teacher work harder, burning out the teacher who is DRAGGING the kids along; and it makes learning more dreadful for the kids, which adds to this vicious circle. So, I can only imagine the solution is to get them to voluntarily follow with me as we TOGHETHER explore what this math stuff is all about. This is outside of my traditional comfort zone, but I think I need to adapt to my environment lest I become extinct. I have tried getting folks to make the kids adapt to my environment, but nobody will listen.

        What kind of “hook” can we use to make your mother interested in football? Does she like history? If so, then a brief history of the game and how Theodore Roosevelt had to introduce legislation to make the game safer due to the rise in football-related deaths at the turn of the century. Believe it or not, salespeople use ‘hooks’, and sadly, I was never meant to be a salesman, but I do believe that the experts who I sometimes loathe, are telling me I had better become a salesman and hook the kids. I like to win, so I don’t have a problem with doing whatever it takes to win…

        …except when the job becomes so time-consuming after hours that my family suffers due to the demands of my profession. I just watched a special program about my youthful hero, Vince Lombardi, a consummate teacher whose name is on the Super Bowl Trophy–the symbol of worldly success–but his family suffered by his commitment to personal excellence.

        I’m not good enough to reinvent the wheel, so I have lists of Internet resources that I peruse looking for good teaching ideas. But even before I went down that road, I would occasionally create a good lesson and kids would tell me at the end of class, “That was a good lesson today.”

        Lastly, and sadly, administrators at my school will not be happy if they walk into my classroom and see the kids nodding off as I drone on, even if I’m asking questions while I am droning on, because they just want to see kids deeply engaged in a well planned lesson.

        How am I going to pull that off for most of the 180 days? One day at a time, I guess. I don’t have any answers, just questions and a lot of anxiety.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Wow, that sounds familiar. I, too, came to teaching later in life, and my wife says that “during your first year, I kind of lost you.”

        “So, I can only imagine the solution is to get them to voluntarily follow with me as we TOGHETHER explore what this math stuff is all about.”

        That is, indeed, the Holy Grail, but like the Holy Grail, it may be something that can never be possessed.

        “the experts who I sometimes loathe, are telling me I had better become a salesman and hook the kids” School people assume that, with the right techniques, a good enough salesman can “hook” all kids on the subjects that the school is required to teach. I am going to be deliberately vulgar here and say that is a big steaming pile of bullshit. Wrong. Wrong. Dangerously wrong.

        (Ed school is a fascinating mixture of cheerleading and abuse. The cheerleading: All kids can learn what you have to teach. With the right techniques, you can make each class one where kids learn, and are glad to do it. The abuse: Your classroom isn’t like that? There must be something wrong with you. You need to reflect, and probably take more courses and attend more workshops and professional developments.)

        I think it was my fifth year of teaching high school science when I had the following thought, “Every year for the first week of so, I’m supposed to do ‘scientific method,’ which generally means controlled experiments. As far as I can tell, none of the things I’m being told I should do to be a ‘good teacher’ have been put through controlled experiments. None of them have been shown to ‘work’ scientifically. Some of them may work sometimes with some people but no one really knows. The people who are telling me what to do are nicer people than Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss but they may be as ignorant.”

        I’m sorry if this sounds so defeatist. I’ve had lots of good periods. But trying to do the impossible beats down both the teachers and the students.

      • Tort

        Roger, While I made a long response today about the things I try to do as a teacher for the benefit of my students, I just now read an article by Tom Loveless at Brookings Institute, “The Banality of Deeper Learning,” May 29, 2013.

        What do we do? I can’t imagine why Mr. Loveless’ sound conservatism being published at liberal Brookings, but I have to wholeheartedly agree with him about “teaching knowledge,” or, fundamental stuff to the kids.

        This gives greater credence to my main thesis that we teachers are being pressured to drink the Kool Aid just to keep our administrators happy. Loveless seems to wholeheartedly endorse the kind of teaching that most teachers are comfortable with. But, if the kids say, “No, we won’t learn,” then progressives say “We gotta’ change how we teach.” In spite of my heartfelt response earlier, I will tell you that my colleagues and I constantly argue that forcing the teachers to change, just to make public school students motivated to do that which is basically their job and responsibility, is pure ****. I mean, we’re basically allowing kids to hold education hostage instead of saying to them, “This is what you must do. Now do it.”

        Still, I will contend that a narrower curriculum with time for deeper understanding, in conjunction with teaching basic skills, or as Loveless puts it, “knowledge,” is a good plan. Of course, I would make students memorize multiplication tables and learn the many algorithms in spite of the fact that they say it is “boring.”

        I gotta’ commend Tom Loveless. Too bad the comments section there is closed. I hope my responses have helped. Sorry, Ed, that I’ve gone off track here.

      • Roger Sweeny

        ” I mean, we’re basically allowing kids to hold education hostage instead of saying to them, “This is what you must do. Now do it.””

        Well, yes. But I think it’s more complicated than that. We’re saying, “You have to come to school. You have to take these courses that we think are good for you. You have to pass these courses. If you don’t, we are happy with the idea that employers will refuse to hire you for good, well-paying jobs. But we will do our best to work with you and make these classes as interesting as we can, so you can pass.” It is an iron fist in a velvet glove.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “There is a humongous assumption there: that it is possible to create lessons that are highly interesting TO THE STUDENT.”

        A lesson I started learning in High School, and really learned in university (with some unintended reinforcement from family), is that my dreams and what I cared about didn’t matter. What mattered was other peoples ideas of what I should learn for the sake of a shared societal knowledge – that this amorphous “society” was more important than what I wanted to bring to society (weird how it was both the left and right bringing this message).

        This is the message I see echoed against in the writings of John Taylor Gatto, et al.

        It’s a real issue too, because anarchy really wouldn’t work either. Neither would complete parental control. Balances must be struck, but I think the correct balance may actually be found on a student-by-student basis.

  • Audrey

    “I’ve taught h.s. for three decades and every year I see kids getting burned out shortly after the beginning of the second semester, right around early March. From there until mid-June, it is like pulling a car with the emergency brake on.”

    Don’t you think the curriculums are too demanding? Let the kids learn at a reasonable pace that doesn’t burn them out. Let them enjoy school and develop a love for learning

    • Tort

      My policy is to give at most 30 minutes of algebra 1 or geometry homework per night. In the last few years I have gone far away from “Do 1 through 51 odd tonight” to picking a few drill problems and some more difficult applications.

      The problem with what we “should” do as teachers is captured in your succinct observation about down time and internalizing new material. Common Core State Standards have two objectives: preparation for college and/or the workplace. That is reasonable from my perspective as a math teacher. The standards are much fewer than current standards, and will theoretically allow teachers something we’ve been asking for: more time to delve deeper. I don’t know if I would support the CCSS as an English or social science teacher, but as a math teacher, I can only hope that it will force me from teaching by showing and telling to becoming more Socratic and challenging the kids with interesting and real life problems. If this produces less drudgery, then I think kids and teachers will be less burned out.

  • Audrey

    “Even though most of my colleagues complain that kids don’t work hard enough, they still burn out.”

    Do you think they’re getting too much homework? My poor son is in 2nd grade and goes to fairly demanding school. On top of his in-class work, it he gets quite a bit of homework. *I* have a hard time keeping track of everything he has to do out of class. I don’t think it’s all necessary. I think it’s sometimes best to give kids a little more downtime to digest what they’re learning and really internalize it.

  • retired

    They win the words, then we abandon them. No one wants to be called a socialist or a liberal, now it’s “progressive.” That moniker will be abandoned as will “social justice.” I grab my wallet when I hear it as it is usually paired with “(in)equality” and a demand for money I have earned or a constitutional right granted me.

  • Jim

    Tort – Common Core may be OK for a college preparatory curriculum but do you think it is appropriate for the great majority of kids? I don’t.

    • Tort

      Do I think CC is appropriate for the great majority of kids?

      The jury is still out. I don’t agree with the testing component any more than I agree with the test taking regime begun by NCLB. But if CCSS allows me more time to teach conceptually through real world modeling, then CCSS might allow me to help kids who are not going to college, or to help people who will need to problem solve mathematically (e.g., a nurse). Most people in their jobs do different degrees of math, but the math that they do may not be like a high school algebra class. People in the real world need to be problem solvers, and rarely do they say “Ah, yes, we solve this problem by recalling chapter 8, section 5 in Algebra 1.” This is not to say that I want to throw out the traditional model–I am a traditional teacher and I believe in drill and memorization. I just want more time to teach kids how to think, to grow their brains. Since NCLB, we could not do this. Everything was breakneck speed, a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Even my 13 years in Catholic schools was based on a 12 chapter text book with very little time for modeling–just teach those 12 chapters (and realize that those kids could do anything I tossed their way).

      Do I want to go in this direction? We will see soon enough; but as a teacher I need to adapt and find a way to help more students like and learn a course that most of them really despise. I like this blogger’s ideas on teaching because he presents the math so that kids will understand its purpose. This is why I am willing to give CCSS a chance–primarily for pedagogical reasons.

      I accept the fact that CCSS is very controversial. The only other option, as I see it, is algebra for kids who want to go to college and who demonstrate the ability, but even for these students, I like making it more ‘exploratory’ at times; those who are not planning on going to college or who cannot make the cut in Algebra 1 can take alternative forms of math that would enable them to function as adults. Most educators think this is much more realistic than trying to get ALL kids to learn algebra.

  • Jim

    With an n x n checkerboard the number of squares is

    (1/6) n (n+1) (2n + 1)

  • Tort

    Yep, yours checks out. Also, if n = 8, we can do it this way:

    n^2 + (n -1)^2 + (n-2)^2 + . . .(n-7)^2

  • Tort

    Reply to Roger’s comment:

    “Probably our major motivator is, ‘Pay attention and tell me what I want to hear on your assessments and I will pass you for the course. Then you can stay with your peers and eventually get a diploma. If you don’t get a diploma, you will have a hard time making a life that you consider successful economically.’:

    The above has not motivated most of the students I have known the past 18 years. This is because learning the material is not as important to students and administrators as moving through the system and matriculating high school. Social promotion policies at the K-8 levels and high school counselors who “save” students by putting failing students in ‘credit recovery’ courses and in watered down summer school classes, has a counter-effect on what the teacher is trying to accomplish. I tell my students that they do not ‘possess a sense of urgency’ when it comes to learning, and this is because they have been conditioned by the school system’s huge safety net. This all becomes more compounded by the greater heresy that “All students CAN learn;” but when they don’t learn, it most likely is due to a not-so-great teacher. Districts don’t hold back students who haven’t mastered elementary or middle school math, so the kids get to high school, hap-hap-happy as clams, more excited about birthdays and school events than knowledge. “Hey, I did my work. Why do I have a D? Hey, I hear that this is all about privileged people going to college, and I have a right to go to college because I am not privileged, so the heck with learning algebra.” And here is the best one I’ve heard by different teens in different places, all within a few months: “Hey, I’ll start working hard in school when I have to pay for it.”

    This is systemic! The teacher has been woefully undermined by bureaucrats who choose the path of least resistance and have thereby compromised the students’ and parents’ responsibility in learning. Many high schools use smoke and mirrors–amped up Activities Directors–to make kids want to come to school. For most students it’s all about fun, and our job is to make it fun. Worse, administrators have deified non-teachers and have allowed them to encroach upon the academic life of the school.

    I posted an article, found above, from the Wall Street Journal, that talks about how colleges are now playing the learning game with students. Of course, these same students are going to carry apathy to colleges, so the college professors go along and play the game, giving a stamp of approval to mediocre work.

    K-12 teachers have been hijacked, undermined by people who should just get out of the education business. This blog is the best around because it tells the truth. All the factions that tell other stories are liars, and yes, even criminals because they’ve contributed to the demise of a once great public school system. I’ve become a bit like Orrin Hatch during Clinton’s impeachment hearings: “I just want to blow my stack” every time I hear the crap being promulgated by non-teachers who duck the real issues.

    Sorry, Ed, for using your forum to make this rant. My simplistic mind refuses to see this as anything less than American laziness propped up by ignorant factions with a financial stake in the multi-billion dollar public education trough.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Just about everyone who works in K-12 believes that, ” If you don’t get a diploma, you will have a hard time making a life that you consider successful economically.” Just about everyone who works in K-12 is also a nice person, which means we give young people many, many opportunities to get that diploma, even if they haven’t learned a lot and don’t have a lot in the way of skills. “He’s a decent kid, and if I don’t pass him, he’s screwed.”

      Do you have a non-gated link for the WSJ article?

      • Tort

        I guess I can’t make any headway with my thesis about systematically-conditioned-to-be-weak-minded-learners. Our being “nice guys” as teachers is, therefore, part of the problem. I’ve known teachers who’ve tried to hold the line, but they received lots of pressure from admin or the district when more than 20% of their students fail.

        Once a product has been devalued, it’s hard to bring it back. Still, I haven’t met a single think tanker anywhere who has said, “We’ve got to expect more from students.” Seems like free education + democracy = no value.

        I don’t know what a non-gated link is. Google “We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn,” by Geoffrey L. Collier, WSJ, 12/26/13.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I agree that many students are “conditioned-to-be-weak-minded-learners.” However, I don’t think there was ever an educational golden age. Most students at most times have followed the (largely) unconscious strategy of memorize and forget. Lots of the students who are passed along now didn’t learn much 30 or 50 or 80 years ago. They dropped out. Now the system can’t bear that, so it does lots of things to delude itself that they know enough to stay at grade level and eventually get a diploma. (obligatory insertion of Richard Feynman quote: “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”)

        Lots of students do learn things, and are not weak-minded-learners–IF the knowledge is important to them, and if they continue to use it. The problem is, that is not true of most of the young people in school. And if school continues to be mostly academic subjects, that problem will continue to exist and will continue to be unsolvable.

        FWIW: I recently met with some of my former physics students who are off at college. They are learning and working hard. Of course, the ones who would want to come back and meet with me are likely to be that way 🙂

    • Roger Sweeny

      There is a tremendous irony here. For years teachers unions and ed schools have told the world how important teachers are and how they deserve high pay. The implication has been that, as long as a student isn’t brain damaged, a “good” “well-trained” teacher can teach just about anyone anything. This is absolutely ridiculous, but it made the affected parties feel good and led to a lot of jobs that were relatively well-paid and were “indoors, no heavy lifting.”

      Young people could drop out without learning much, and people could just pass through without learning much. But it wasn’t a big issue. Things are different today. Politicians and school leaders now expect everyone to graduate and to be “proficient” in various skills. But they aren’t! So whose fault must it be? Those oh-so-important teachers.

  • panjoomby

    i’ve always interpreted “social justice” as a secret code that means “forget it jake, it’s gibberish-town.” it’s helped me through many a conversation.

  • educationrealist

    I wasn’t sure where to put this, since there are several threads, but I’ve enjoyed following Roger and Tort’s conversation. I generally agree with Roger’s take. I completely disagree that we need to expect more from students unless we are willing to give them a Plan B, C, and D, as well as deal with the consequences and make sure they have jobs.

    I have been successful convincing my students to align their goals with mine by making the class rigorous but still achievable. I do this by lowering expectations. No one likes the takeaway from that, though, except maybe Roger.

    • Tort

      My classes are rigorous, too, and I have very low failure rates. I can control the failure rate, but I cannot completely control how well they will do on a statewide or district benchmark exam. Still, I’ve never been threatened by anyone about low test scores.

      So, I’m still not sure what differences we are talking about. Is it that I have a higher expectation? Expectation to work harder, or achieve more?

      Please explain and I will cease commenting further. Thank you.

  • Tort

    Roger, there is no “Reply” link attached to your last post, but you said, “Well, yes. But I think it’s more complicated than that. We’re saying, “You have to come to school. You have to take these courses that we think are good for you. You have to pass these courses. If you don’t, we are happy with the idea that employers will refuse to hire you for good, well-paying jobs. But we will do our best to work with you and make these classes as interesting as we can, so you can pass.” It is an iron fist in a velvet glove.”

    What is your point? That we should not try. If that is your point, I would say this: When an administrator and I talk about systemic problems that make my job impossible and she says, “Let’s not go there; let’s talk about what we can control,” I want to BLOW MY STACK. If one is an administrator they are paid to do something, and it isn’t teaching. But, how about paving the way for teachers so we can teach? But, they laugh at that because they are not proactive people and they see the power pendulum is swinging away from the teachers’ union.

    But, should I not try something? Do I not SERVE kids? While I don’t like their apathy and their ‘pickiness’ when it comes to my method of teaching, I can try to adjust. If I am coaching a team that can’t run the ball down the other team’s throat, I basically need to adjust my tactics. But, I don’t want people to tell me that they’re going to expect me to make chicken salad out of chicken sh**. They should be saying, “what can I do to make all stakeholders responsible?” Yeah, allow me to be vulgar: they’re full of feces because they are enrolled in the MPPP–the maximum paycheck protection plan, which really translates to’ “I jumped ship on teaching, so now I’ve got to subscribe to a set of fallacies that place all blame on the teachers…after all, making kids learn is THEIR job, not mine. I just hold ’em accountable.”

    My point is that I don’t know what else to do? I taught 13 years in Catholic school and never had problems with students learning from me. I’ve been a public school teacher for 18 years and at the 9th year I was quoting Einstein’s Definition of Insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insane.” So, I thought I would try running the option on offense instead of the power ground attack, so to speak.

    So, while I believe you and I are in agreement (well, I’m still not sure of that), we are being asked to do something next to impossible (I can’t draft my own players and I don’t have any support from the coaches who trained ’em before me–the kids have no discipline or fundamental football skills, to use another metaphor.) I add to it the fact that students in the public school system have been conditioned to be spoiled and lazy. I am not commenting here about kids who try but who don’t have the right tools or upbringing, and who don’t stand a chance. Where I think I might differ from you, and what I tried to explain earlier, is that I am not content to “do the same thing over and over again,” even though I know that the system is the problem. My basic constitution is to try, and to believe that I can find a way to make my students successful in spite of the damage the system has inflicted on them.

    After the above rant, would you care to clarify the above? Thank you.

    • Roger Sweeny

      To borrow your analogy, I think you are being asked to coach a team of 8th graders who will go up against a team of 12th graders. Some of them will do well, and things you do can keep down the injuries and maybe keep the score from being too lopsided. But your team will lose. You are being asked to do the impossible.

      It is unfair to you and to your students and it flows from well-meaning but factually incorrect beliefs that everyone can be successful in something similar to a college prep program. After all, as that well-known leftie George W. Bush told us, to think otherwise is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Since no one wants to hear the truth, no politician is willing to tell it, and we are stuck trying to do the impossible.

      As far as I can tell, Ed copes by being creative and discovering through trial and error what he can do that is both rigorous and possible. I like to think I do, too. Unfortunately, I’ve never made it to the end of what the text would like me to cover. But I feel like what I have done, most of the students have a better than average grasp of.

  • Tort

    Well, yes, I understand exactly what you and Ed are thinking now, so thank you for your clarifying this. I have made the same analogy as you have, except I put 9th grade greenhorns on the varsity, suited them up, and ran them on to the field to be slaughtered by 17 and 18 year olds. We have related the problem in the same way.

    But, I don’t know if I have written anything here contradicting our shared ‘realism.’ If I have a flaw, it is that I refuse to give up trying to find a way to be not good at my job, but great. I am in the wrong profession, perhaps, or in the wrong place within the profession.

    I suppose this is my way of ‘coping.’

    We are all a lot like Sisyphus? The reformists don’t know the difference between the ones who’ve given up because they saw the futility, and those who continually wind up at the bottom of the hill. How naïve I must be. As a registered Republican, on the issue of education I doubt that I have any allies; on the same issue, I know I don’t have any Democrat allies either.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Roger Sweeny

      Hang in there. We can’t do as much as the educational establishment (both traditional and reform) expects us to do but we can make a difference.

      At this moment I am thinking of the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer 🙂

      (I think both Ed and I share a hope, tiny at the moment, that some day students will spend their days doing things that are “rigorous but achievable”–and useful to them. It’s not on the political radar now but at least some people are talking about it, and sharing thoughts on blogs.)

      • Tort

        Thank you for the encouragement. I would like to continue coming back to this blog site because it seems to be anchored in truth. If there is anything I would like to learn, it is who the “they” are that have brought about the policies and practices that have been so counterproductive to educating children. Right now, I don’t see the full face of “them.”

        Also, I really like this quote you made and will share it with my colleagues in our next PLC:

        “Ed school is a fascinating mixture of cheerleading and abuse. The cheerleading: All kids can learn what you have to teach. With the right techniques, you can make each class one where kids learn, and are glad to do it. The abuse: Your classroom isn’t like that? There must be something wrong with you. You need to reflect, and probably take more courses and attend more workshops and professional developments.

        I look forward to continuing the dialogue with Ed and you. Best wishes in the new year.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I’m beaming with pride. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Tort

    Certainly, Roger, you are welcome.

    I get frustrated when people don’t understand what I am trying to say, and it just dawned on me that people who read what I write might have a different student constituency. While I teach Algebra 1, Geometry, and also sub-sub-par 9th graders Intervention Algebra, the difference might be our SES climate. Overall, the school I work at is situated in a nice area, the kids are great and in many ways kind to adults who genuinely like and care about them. I think that sometimes I have higher expectations because of the environment; and certainly due to being conditioned by my first 13 years as a successful private school math teacher. Perhaps those who read my posts work in a different, less enjoyable environment; but we are still talking about similar students.

    The students I teach, will patiently listen to me as I “lecture” them about doing certain things that might help them improve, just a little; you know, like: “quit talking (socially) while I’m giving directions or teaching, or show me that you are willing to try, at least.”

    I am acutely aware of the fact that I have no choice but to adopt new ways of teaching, but as I read somewhere, James Milgram’s observation to Jo Boaler was “Many teachers, in the end, won’t be able to make the adjustment and teach your way.” That is a paraphrase of the comment Milgram made, but he is correct in the statement he made. Then you have people like Dan Meyer, who Ed has confronted here. Myer thinks that old guys like me might not be able to make the change. Based on the lessons Ed posts, I’d say he’s made the change, and has out performed the damn reformers. So, what’s a guy like me going to do? They want to take away what I do well, and make me a first year teacher all over again. This is really pretty spooky since I’ve been changing incrementally since ’82. In attempting to liberalize my methodology this past Fall, my classroom management slipped, and that’s the worst thing, in my mind, that can happen.

    Refomer’s don’t care. They say, “You must give up control”, i.e., get thyself off center stage. Ok, I did that. What productivity was occurring in my classroom?

    You guessed it: Zero.

    But, then they can say, “You are doing it wrong.”

    And now, Johnny Carson steps in and says, “No kidding, buffalo breath.”

    So, what does a nitwit like me say?

    Stop making the teacher be the chameleon. Back in the day, Mohammed went to the mountain; today, the mountain goes to Mohammed. Of course, this is what happens when children have become empowered. Do children know what is best for themselves? That’s why I hide ropes in my classroom.

    So, if I can stick around 5 to 7 years before I retire (and that will be a huge challenge for me), I will only be learning one day at a time as I start over. And, I will be implementing reform pedagogy in incremental chunks. In the end, will I have helped more students succeed?

    Let this post be fodder for those who wish to chime in. Grant me Serenity, or sell everything I own and follow thee back to a private school.

    • Roger Sweeny

      If there were an FDA for pedagogy, what you describe as the “new way” would never be allowed on the market because it was never “scientifically” proven to work better than existing ways. But of course there is no FDA for pedagogy.

      Here’s my take on what is happening. Everyone knows that the “old ways” are not going to bring anything close to 100% of students up to college prep academic proficiency, or even up to pass-a-one-time-test proficiency. But every policy-maker has that as a goal.

      We know from personal experience and because “research says” that students learn better when they are actively engaged, that they don’t learn well if they just sit there.

      So the obvious answer is to have students do “active learning.” So that is the modern panacea. It is logical that students will learn if they are doing active learning.

      But there is a problem. Students won’t actively engage with the learning unless they are interested. And most teenagers aren’t inherently interested in academic subjects.

      How to square that circle? The teacher has to somehow bring the students to interest. There is a faith among education higher-ups that this can be done. By giving up your sage-on-the-stageness and creating interesting, student-centered lessons, you can bring out the interest that is potential in all young people.

      This is twaddle. Silly, silly twaddle. But it has to be believed. The alternative to to say, “Lots of young people will never be proficient in what we want them to be proficient in.”

      One sentence version: Impossible goal (“all students will achieve proficiency”) plus important truth (“students learn best when they are engaged”) yields impossible plan (“all students will engage in active learning”).

  • Tort

    I have no truck with your arguments, Roger. In fact, I believe we both understand what’s going on is this, and it might be fallacious: all kids can learn…the single most important factor in student learning (outcomes) is the teacher…etc.

    Any truly wise person would agree to a point, but the wise person sees as problematic the assumption that students and parents are stakeholders without accountability. Gone are prerequisites (in my district) for being proficient in any math subject at any grade level before being promoted to the next sequential subject. I know where this comes from because I heard a education professor in graduate school say that math should be taught differently for each and every student in a classroom, and differently throughout the day for all course-alikes that I teach! Suddenly, I need to tailor my teaching, planning and testing to account for approximately 190 different beings–but within a model that calls for mass production.

    I have been perusing Ed Realists lessons–more so today–and can’t help but notice how well thought out they are, and how they take into account HIS, and not the textbook, way of getting through to his students. Ironically, his lessons closely resemble what some of these people have been calling for–it’s good pedagogy. The lessons he has written don’t present too much that I haven’t conceptualized myself, but he actually goes further, away from a strict adherence to the textbook or anyone’s telling him how to teach, and he is in sync with his learners. My question is: is this a “new way” or an “old way”? Yes, what he is doing is similar to what I’ve read on the pages of NCTM, in books, and in books on brain based learning. He’s like a gentleman I knew, once upon a time, who learned how to coach freshman football, highly effectively, without any real playing experience but a keen ability to watch video and think through fundamental propositions. If Ed is reading this, do not take it the wrong way: I gather you have the IQ and mathematics training, but Ed makes the teaching of math “his own.” This is what we all can do. In some sense, as I study Ed’s lessons, I wonder if I might not be contradicting what I’ve stated as fallacies. Perhaps, I have. But, I think we all know that we are in the midst of a huge paradigm shift, and what we are being asked to do takes a great deal of time. Who wants to commit so much time to being the sole stakeholder with singular accountability? I’ve been doing it for 18 years and lost my marriage and, to a degree, my children. I don’t think the state cares about the damage my singular obsession has caused me and my kids. Unfortunately, I am not as smart as Einstein, which is why I must work so hard just to be labeled “effective.” Yes, the AP finally came around and complimented me this year, but the sword will always remain above my head, and nobody else. After all, in the business world, my job would be to produce. Nobody says the buyer has to buy; my job is to make him buy. You get what I am saying?

    I don’t think this is a good model for education. At one time, we were able to teach kids about effort, responsibility, hard work, etc. These are just some off the cuff thoughts. I suppose I will be challenged for them, if I have articulated them accurately.

    Now, back to studying Ed’s lessons. BTW, thanks for all your hard work in helping guys like me.

  • Tort

    Also, Roger, you are correct about the “all students can be proficient” mentality, and the testing to go with it. I knew a real smart history teacher who went nuts and left the profession shortly after NCLB became law of the land. He knew that not all students would attempt the test with the least bit of concern about how it might make his teacher look. And, lo, we hear reports of kids bubbling their scan sheets in the formation of Christmas trees.

    Or, when the directions say “Find x,” the kid draws an arrow to the problem and answers, “Here it is.”

  • tang3zang

    Let the freaks collapse on themselves. Left wing behavior is easily explainable when you see things through their eyes. These people feel first, think second. If there is any thought, it is done to rationalize their emotions. Hence the constant obsession with ‘prejudice’, being offended, etc.

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