Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Teacher Wars: A Review

Before I start: I mind Dana Goldstein (could it be she really called herself Daisy, or is this a different Dana Goldstein who graduated from Brown in 2006?) a whole lot less than I do Elizabeth Green or Amanda Ripley. I do have a complaint about book publishers handing book deals to dilettantes. Now Dana is dubbed a brilliant young scholar when in fact, she’s a reporter, a journalist, with a BA in international something or other. I mean, please.

So first off, the title’s a serious case of wishful thinking. This book can’t even be considered an inadequate history of teaching. Goldstein loses sight of her brief within a chapter or two. Anyone looking for a more systematic approach to the development and changes in the teaching profession should check out The Trouble With Ed Schools, by David Labaree, or dip into The One Best System: A History of Urban Education by David Tyack. Perhaps The Great School Wars, by Diane Ravitch, or even her The Troubled Crusade, which addresses mostly k-12 and college developments since World War II, but still gives a good accounting of developments in the teaching profession.

Yes, The Great School Wars is about the history of New York City schools, and Tyack’s work is limited to urban education. But Dana doesn’t stray much from New York all that often, and when she does, it’s usually urban education: Chicago and LA both make an appearance in that regard. But she rarely leaves the Eastern Seaboard. Goldstein leaves out much of America’s diversity: the word “Asian” makes two appearances, neither of which involve teachers working with students, Hispanics are only after the “and” (blacks and Hispanics), rural America not at all, save for the post-Civil War African Americans. This in a book that has the time to sigh wistfully over Catherine Beecher’s drowned fiancé and give a few pages to Horace Mann’s obsession with phrenology.

I found next to nothing in chapters seven and beyond on teachers themselves; it’s all on the changing discourse around teaching. I literally went back to the book title at one point; was I mistaken as to the book’s intent? No, there it was: A history of the profession.

Larry Cuban is a resource on the Cardozo Project, an earlier effort to recruit young, white elites into teaching (in this case, ex-Peace Corps volunteers), which gets the better part of a chapter. Cuban is the best progressive voice in education (and a properly skeptical one), but why does the Cardozo Project get so much time in a purported history of teaching that doesn’t once explain, lucidly, how teachers get credentials? Goldstein briefly describes the process for New York, in the mid-century, twice—usually with disapproval. She occasionally mentions the National Teacher Examination disapprovingly, without ever explaining what it was–and is.

Best mention of the NTE: “a controversial standardized test…known for producing higher scores among whites.” Yes, those state credentialing boards had to search long and hard to find a test where whites scored higher than blacks. It’s so uncommon that we all used to call the NTE “that biased test where whites score higher than blacks” unlike the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, every school test in the existence of the universe…

At least she mentions the NTE. The Praxis series doesn’t get one mention. Yes, in three chapters on the current “history” of teaching, one in which Goldstein regularly bewails the lack of black teachers, not a single mention of the increasing content knowledge standards, no acknowledgement of the considerable legal history on teacher examinations, all of which begins and ends with the disparate impact on teachers of color. This is, of course, one of my beats, so I’d be a tough critic anyway. But the idea that anyone could write about the history of teaching, and declare that “most have below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities” without mentioning the credential test—hell, just cut and paste NCTQ promotional materials in and call it a day.

Another puzzling gap is any mention of the development of student teaching. I haven’t begun my research in this area, but surely any history of teachers would mention the development of the practicum. Oh, hey, here Goldstein does use NCTQ as a reference:

California essentially prohibited the undergraduate education major in 1970. Prospective elementary school teachers there could choose any major and then spend a post-baccalaureate year student teaching while taking a few education classes. According to research from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a single year turned out not to be enough time to train teachers in the pedagogical skills needed for the broad range of subjects elementary teachers, especially, must tackle. Early-grades math instruction in particular was short-changed in California, and students paid the price.

Goldstein later says she tried to stick to analysis, not opinionating. She must have forgotten this passage. NCTQ is not a gold-standard source. The education major is not particularly well-respected; many reformers call for its demise. I’m also pretty sure every state allows a prospective teacher to “choose any major” and then do a year for a credential. This is, after all, how most secondary teachers get their credentials, and no small number of elementary schoolers. Yet here Goldstein is harshly criticizing the one state that did do away with the education major—without ever backing up the “students suffer” claim. (Sure, California has low test scores, but so do a whole bunch of states that offer education majors.)

But the point is that this is the first mention of student teaching, in chapter 8. How and when did teachers start providing free labor as part of training? Did it start at this point? Shouldn’t that be mentioned somewhere? Look elsewhere. Hell, look here in a month or three.

So considered as a history of teaching, Teachers Wars doesn’t even begin to start to deliver.

The book succeeds somewhat as a series of occasionally entertaining essays intended as a cautionary tale to education reformers, reminding them they haven’t had a single new idea in the past 30 years. But Tinkering Towards Utopia and The Same Thing Over and Over Again have already covered that ground. Goldstein has little new to offer. She’s too busy hitting all the buttons: feminism, check, teaching ex-slaves, check, union formation and feminism, check, communist pledges, check, overly white profession avoiding diversity, check.

And even considered in this light, the book has deficiencies. Goldstein’s time allocation is lopsided; one hundred and fifty years (1830-1980, roughly) are covered in 140 pages, while 30 years get nearly 100 pages, or nearly triple the attention. This doesn’t count the introduction and epilogue, both focused primarily on the present. Three pages on a random teacher getting canned. Kati Haycock gets an ungodly amount of time. In addition to Larry Cuban’s Cardozo Project, Alex Caputo-Pearl gets a ream or so.

I might not object as much to the past 30 years gets proportionately more attention if Goldstein had any new insights, but apart from learning the name of Reagan’s first Secretary of Education (Ted Lewis Bell–ok, so I didn’t learn it), I found little on that front. Goldstein just regurgitates recent history rather than analyze its impact. The last half of the book is slow going indeed, because there’s little we haven’t seen a million times before. I guess everyone’s forgotten the PBS series that Goldstein appeared to borrow an outline from, and will be intrigued by hints that Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher were romantically involved.

A direct comparison is instructive. The Nation published Goldstein’s chapter on the famous fight for control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools, in which an African American community school board fires 19 teachers without cause and Al Shanker calls a city-wide strike that goes on for over a month. Goldstein declares that the real issue involved was teacher competency (“But what could be done about teachers who were just plain bad at their jobs?”), that the board was just trying to fire bad teachers. She singles out art teacher Richard Douglass, saying he was witnessed by hall monitor Cecil Bowen being completely incompetent. Using this anecdote, Goldstein implies without saying directly this led to the May 9th firings which caused a seven month show-down.

I’m unconvinced. I can find no mention of Douglass in any other account, and while I’m not doubting her source (apparently a contemporaneous magazine article), Goldstein’s claim of incompetent teachers isn’t supported by Ravitch’s history (more on that in a minute) nor a recent history of the account, The Strike that Changed New York, by Jerald Podair. Podair explicitly says that Rhody McCoy and the school board made a list of the educators…most hostile to district control. Podair also writes that that the new teachers hired by McCoy tried to teach differently, engage the kids. Engagement vs.rigor is, of course, a debate still to this day. But I could find no real mention of teacher incompetence as the cause, but rather teacher resistance to the board. Douglass makes no appearance in that book, nor is he mentioned in Why They Couldn’t Wait, or Charles Isaacs’ account from inside. The general consensus appears to be not that these were “bad teachers” but that they were trouble makers. It may also have been true that the teachers “didn’t relate” to the students, but Isaacs’ account makes clear that “relating” means an early entry of the hippy dippy 70s teaching style, truly the nadir of recent American education. And, as Goldstein makes clear , the test scores plummeted under Rhody McCoy and community control, so despite all the supposedly rigid teachers, kids actually learned less with the well-meaning newbies and teachers who “related”.

But apart from that one discrepancy, Goldstein’s account doesn’t break any new ground, and can thus be compared to the first history of this incident, which appeared in Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars.

And the comparison doesn’t serve Goldstein well. It’s easy to mock Ravitch these days, and her credibility in the elite circles of edu-wonks is apparently quite low (education reporters like Alexander Russo openly insult her on Twitter) but her early histories have chapters that just scorch your psyche. I originally included some quotes, but really, the overall comparison is girl to woman, boy to man, History Lite to Serious Shit. Ravitch was 34 when she wrote The Great School Wars, Goldstein is about 30. Ravitch didn’t have a book deal, she wasn’t a journalist from the right schools (much more important these days then back then), she was a housewife and mom with a rich husband with no one to please, and it shows. Agree or disagree with Ravitch’s overarching themes, her early work really is fearless and purely exhilarating to read.

Instead, we have Dana Goldstein, who made it this far by getting into the right school, writing what’s expected of her, not offending anyone, so why start now?

The Available Pool

(This is by far the most Voldemortean topic I’ve taken on in a while. Brace up.)

Some readers might have noted a potential flaw in my observation that ed schools can’t commit affirmative action. If the average elementary school SAT score is 500 per section, and the average content SAT score is 580 in the relevant subject, then there shouldn’t be a shortage. Plenty of African Americans have those scores, right?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “plenty”.

Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Four words I’d never thought I’d say. I liked Gladwell’s article about ketchup. I also find him useful as a predictive sorter: when I meet someone who admires his work, I run like hell.

But recently I came across a page I’d either missed or forgotten about since the last time I flipped through his book.


Gladwell even cites Jensen.

Conceding what he sees as a minor aspect of IQ to make a larger point, Gladwell acknowledges that regions, or thresholds, of IQ exist. But beyond these broad ability differentiators, IQ differences are irrelevant compared to factors like luck, birth, language, rice paddy history. Given certain thresholds, IQ is relatively unimportant in outcomes.

And given certain thresholds, Gladwell’s not terribly wrong, as Jensen confirms.

There’s just one pesky little problem still left to plague modern society: the thresholds. The regions, as Jensen describes them, that differentiate between broad ability levels. The ones that even an IQ pishtosher like Gladwell accepts as given. They’re kind of an issue, if by “issue” you mean the fatal flaw lurking in most of our social and education policies.

Jensen’s regions correspond to the IQ standard deviation markers. The average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15. An IQ of 70 is 2 SD below the average of 50 (2nd percentile), 85 is 1 SD below average (16th percentile), 115–the marker for graduate level work, according to Gladwell and Jensen—is 1 SD above the mean.

Translating Gladwell and Jensen into standard deviations: in order for an American student to be ready for a college graduate program, he needs to have an IQ at the 84th percentile, with “average” (this is Gladwell’s word) as the 50th percentile. Give or take. IQ tests are finicky, no need to be purist. These are broad strokes.

Using those broad strokes, we know that average African American IQ is a little less than one standard deviation below that “average IQ” (again, Gladwell’s term), which means that the 84th percentile for all IQs is attained by just 2% of blacks. Test scores consistently prove out this harsh reality. While the mean African American IQ has risen five points since 1970, test performance has often remained stubbornly 1SD below that of whites. As Chistopher Jencks observes, “typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests”, and often as much as 85% (or 1SD). Much has been written about the 1 SD difference; you can see it in the SAT, the GMAT, and the LSAT. (The SAT is much easier these days; before the recentering, just 70 blacks got over 700 on the verbal, whereas today it’s 2100, or 2%. In 1995, 90% of African Americans scored below 430 on the verbal section whereas the unrecentered LSAT has a score distribution chart registering no black scores over 170.)

(You’re thinking oh, my god, this is Bell Curve stuff. No, no. This is Gladwell, remember? Secure position in the pantheon of liberal intellectual gods. It’s all good.)

We are oversupplied with whites with IQs over the 115 threshold, all of whom have the requisite tested ability to be lawyers and doctors and professors. Since these fields are highly desirable, the educational culling process weeds out or rejects all but the most cognitive elite candidates. Thus all the cognitively demanding fields have a sorting process for whites: medicine, law, academia, science, technologists, executives, politicians, venture capitalists, mathematicians, yada yada yada all the way down to high school teachers, the peasants of the cognitive elite.

The available pool of blacks with the requisite Gladwellian-approved IQs to test into graduate education is barely toe deep.

To build cohorts with blacks exceeding single digits, graduate schools in law, medicine, and business, to name just a few, commit deep discount affirmative action, regardless of legal bans. Ed schools can’t, for reasons I described in the last post. Given the wide range of choices blacks with anything approaching the requisite cognitive ability have, it’s hard to say if any sorting occurs at all.

Much has been written of the supposedly low standards for teacher licensure exams but what do we know about the standards for becoming a lawyer in Alabama or a doctor in Missisippi?

I often ask questions for which data is unobligingly unavailable. Sometimes I just haven’t found the data, or it’s too broad to be much good. Sometimes it’s like man, I have a day job and this will have to do.

Med school: Not much data. See Razib Khan’s efforts.

Law school: For all the talk about mismatch or the concern over dismal bar exam passing rates for blacks, the reality is that low LSAT scores, law school, and persistence can still result in a licensed black lawyer. State bar exam difficulties aren’t uniform (which is also true for teaching). This bar exam predictor says that a law school graduate with an LSAT of 139, three points below the African American mean, attending an Alabama lawschool not in the top 150, graduating in the bottom tenth of his class, has a 26% chance of passing the bar. In Iowa, the same person has a 17% chance–in California, just 4%.

If that predictive application has any validity, the cognitive abilities needed to pass the average high school math or science licensure test in most states are higher than those demanded to pass a bar exam in states filling out the bottom half of the difficulty scale. Passing the math or science licensure exams with an SAT score below the African American mean would be next to impossible in most states. English and history probably compete pretty well on that front as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cognitive demands needed to pass elementary school licensure tests in tough states (California) are greater than those needed to pass the bar exam in easy states (Alabama). (sez me, who has passed the tests in three subjects, and sez all available information on average SAT scores for passing candidates).

Here we are back at the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in the last post. Received wisdom says teachers are stupid. Reality says teacher credential tests have significant cognitive barriers, barriers that appear to exceed those for law and may do so as well for medicine—and the other professional tests are presumably easier still.

Before I looked into this, I would have assumed that licensure tests for law and medicine weeded out a “smarter” class of blacks than those weeded out of teaching. Now I’m not as sure. It seems law schools and med schools keep out the “not-as-smart”whites and Asians while admitting blacks and Hispanics who would only be “not-as-smart” if they were white or Asian. The med and law school licensure exams, in knowledge of this weeding, are gauged to let in the “not-as-smart”, secure in the knowledge that these candidates will be mostly black and Hispanic. (A number of “not-as-smart” whites and Asians will make it through, assuming they paid a small fortune for a low-tier law school, but jobs will be much harder to find.) Understand that I’m using “smart” in the colloquial sense, which means “high test scores”. And most evidence says these are the same thing. I’ve said before now I’m not as certain of this, particularly with regards to African Americans.

This isn’t enough to prove anything, of course, and I wanted more. What else could I could use to—well, if not prove, at least not disprove, what seems to me an obvious reason for a dearth of black teachers?

Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and ethnicity

I made some predictions going in:

  1. Blacks would be a higher percentage of elementary/middle school teachers than of high school teachers. I couldn’t sort out academic teachers from special ed and PE teachers, and I wasn’t sure whether sped teachers would be included in the count. But given the easier licensure test, I was betting the percentage would be higher.
  2. There would be more black school administrators than black high school teachers.
  3. The ratio of black lawyers and doctors to black high school teachers would be higher than the ratio of white lawyers and doctors to white high school teachers (in absolute numbers).
  4. The ratio of black social workers to black teachers would be much higher than the same ratio for white teachers.

So this table shows the total employed in each category, the percentage black and white, the absolute number black and white:

This table calculates the ratio of each non-teaching occupation to K-8 and high school teachers by race. So the number of black high school teachers is 25% of the number of black K-8 teachers, and there are 154% more black administrators than there are black high school teachers, and so on.


I didn’t want to over-interpret the data, so this is just simple Excel, pulling the numbers right off the table (calculating white percentage by subtracting the other races). And I was right about a lot, except this very funny thing:

There are more white lawyers than white high school teachers!

Still, this data mostly bears out my predictions. I threw in some other categories: entertainment/media, and all health, just for compare/contrast.

Many blacks become social workers, far more than become high school teachers or even K-8 teachers. Now, I know teachers complain about low pay, but social work has really low pay, less attractive vacations, and a client base even less cooperative than the average high school student.

I was wrong about lawyers, obviously, but not about doctors. While black high school teachers and black physicians/dentists are in roughly equal supply, white doctors are just 87% of white high school teachers. Whites have to compete with Asians, who are 20% of doctors (and just 5% of lawyers), but if the professions were cognitively sorting on anything approaching an equal basis, there should be a lot more black high school teachers, shouldn’t there? And when expanding the field to all health care practitioners and technicians—therapists, optometrists, nurses, hygienists, pathologists—blacks outnumber black high school teachers by twice the ratio that white high school teachers are outnumbered.

So blacks are choosing skilled health care work over teaching at considerably higher rates than whites are making that same choice, and the number of black doctors have near parity with black high school teachers, while white doctors are a bit further behind.

Then there’s my amazing perspicacity in predicting the overrepresentation of black education administrators. Pretty obvious, really. Districts can only practice affirmative action in teacher hiring to the extent they have black candidates. But administrative positions are wide open for affirmative action. While I’m sure there’s a test, it’s got to be a piece of cake compared to the high school subject credential test. I can’t really take all the credit, though.
CJ Cregg first alerted me to affirmative action in principal selection. But before you shed all sorts of tears for Tal Cregg, remember that the Brown decision resulted in thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs, all in the name of racial equity and equal access.

I only had one surprise. When I started this effort, I figured that I’d include a snarky remark like “Want more black teachers? Raise the cut scores for the bar exam.” But no, lawyers, it turns out, are whiter even than high school teachers. That might explain why the cut scores are set so low on the bar exam, and it suggests that the predictive application knows its stuff. The legal profession in many states is doing its best to bring in more black and Hispanic lawyers by lowering the cut score—in others, not so much.

Steve Sailer noticed something I’d missed in my original post on teacher SAT scores—namely, teachers had strong verbal scores regardless of the subject taught. Law, too, is a field heavy on the reading and talking. So maybe whites are drawn to fields that reward this aptitude. It’s arguable, in fact, that America’s entire educational policy through the century was informed, unknowingly, by its unusually large population of unambitious smart white people who like to talk. We might want to consider that possibility before we start demanding diversity.


Step one in investigating the lack of black teachers should start with the oversupply of black social workers and see why, given their strong interest in community work, they aren’t going into teaching. The uninformed yutzes who presume to opine on education policy think ed schools are either prejudiced against or just uninterested in recruiting black teachers. Those actually interested in creating black teachers think it’s the licensure tests. I’m with them.

So go find out. If I’m right, we can start talking about lowering the cut scores for k-3 licensure tests. Once we realize that the Common Core goals are a chimera, we might create high school teaching tiers, with easier tests for basic math and English classes. (In exchange, maybe, for loosening up the affirmative action grip on administrative positions, if such a grip exists.)

Given the tremendous overrepresentation of blacks in our prisons, I’d argue we need to spend our time and policy creating more black lawyers, not black teachers. Better pay, better status and who knows, maybe better justice.

The available pool of black cognitive talent is small. Tradeoffs must be made. If we want more black teachers, we’ll have to lower the cognitive ability standards required for teaching or reduce the number of black professionals in better-paying, higher-status jobs. To a certain extent, the first of those options make sense. The second one’s just stupid.

I got into this because of that damn TFA announcement saying that 1 in 5 of their teaching corps was black, and the congratulatory nonsense that spewed forth in the announcement’s wake. And you still should be wondering how TFA is getting so many blacks that can pass the licensure tests. Next up, I promise.

Teaching: The Movie

Another entry in “teacher as entertainer”:

Dave of Math Equality writes that Taylor Mali captures his zeal for teaching. Eh. I get vaguely embarrassed when they play Taylor Mali at PD sessions; he’s like teacher martyr porn or something. I naturally have all sorts of teaching miracle stories. But I don’t tell them to inspire you, dear readers, to convince you that here’s another wonderful, self-sacrificing teacher slaving away unappreciated and exploited, yet nobly giving every drop of sweat and blood to to help navigate self and soul to adulthood or sanity, whichever is needed more.

I’m saying “Look, another day at work turns out to be a F***ING MOVIE!” I made more money in tech, sure, but I didn’t ever experience moments where I thought jesus, people would pay money to watch this on screen and not feel ripped off.

Make no mistake: I am the STAR of this movie. I have a contract giving me a guaranteed audience of thirty for 90 minutes, three times a day. They are to be attentive, listen, watch, and if they learn too, well, cool.

Anyway, I had a moment today that many other teachers have had, and for me it was like, I’d have kicked back $20 to the district for the sheer joy of the experience.

It was fourth block, my prep, and I was just about to leave for Starbucks, as is my routine, when Steve, from third block, knocked on the door.

“Hey, why aren’t you in class?”

Steve, white, tall, skinny, glasses, shook his head. “Can’t handle it. It’s insane in there.” He pointed to the class next door.

The class next door is taught by a long-term sub, because we haven’t been able to find a math teacher. But of course, the big pain point for principals is firing bad teachers. (The AVP offered the job to first one, then the other of my interviews, both took other jobs.) This sub is a qualified physics teacher, new to teaching, just got work permit, teaching a brutal schedule (two Discovery Geometry classes. Shoot. me. now.) I’ve talked to her a couple times, given her some advice.

I got up. “Come on.”

Steve shook his head, “No, they’ll know I brought you over. Can I stay here?” I gave him a withering look–sissy!–and as I walked next door I have to admit I envisioned myself pushing open the saloon doors as the sheriff, come to beat this brawl down.

The sub opened the door and gasped, “Thank you for coming!” The room was….not quite a barroom brawl, but kids were talking and chatting and eating, purses and backpacks on their desk covering the handout. They were manifestly not doing math. One big guy with cornrows (and no, not black) in the back of the room was leaning back in his chair, texting. I took his phone and gave it to the sub.

“What are they supposed to be doing?” I asked, softly.

“They are taking a test.”

“A TEST?” Cue Ennio Morricone.

Heads swiveled. I walked to the front of the room, slowly, looking at students. At least ten of them are in my third block class (not math), and they quieted down immediately. Some of the others were still talking. Discovery Geometry is a tough crowd.


“Who are you?”

I just look at him, a big guy, Asperger’s, not malicious. He picked up on a facial cue (hey!) and didn’t demand an answer. The room got quiet in a hurry. Another, smaller guy (this one is black) is perched at the door, half open.

“Are you in this class?”

“Yeah, I have to go the bathroom. Waiting to see what you said.”

“Good plan. You can go. Be back in under two minutes.” To the class, which had briefly started to rustle: “I said QUIET.” Quiet.

“Purses and backpacks on the floor. Now.”

Instant obedience.

“You three are way too close together. You, in red, move to that desk. Then you two spread out. Girls, you in pink sit at the end of the table, other two spread out.” Again, obedience.

“You work the test in silence. I don’t want to hear about any problems. Next time I come here, it’s with an administrator. Is that clear?”


“Get to work.” They all instantly bend over their tests, except Texting Kid, who raised his hand.


“Could I have a pencil?” (Keep in mind, he’s had the test for 20 minutes.) He got a pencil, and got to work.

I left as Bathroom Guy comes back, well under two minutes.

Steve hustled back to the test, gratefully, after taking my cell and room phone number so he could text or the sub could call me in the event of future disaster.

I never did get to Starbucks, so did some copying. On the way back to my room, who should I run into but Bathroom Boy.

“Hey. What are you doing out?”

“Had to go to the bathroom.”

“You already did that.”

“Had to go again.”

“Yeah, no.” Walked him back to the room. He didn’t even protest. I told the sub no one, but no one without health issues, goes to the bathroom twice in one day. They’d finished the test, and with fifteen minutes left in class, they were talking loudly with nothing to do. I told her no to that, too, in the future. But they’d worked harder and more quietly than ever before, she told me.

I remember an actor saying that in a performance if you have to cry, you can either dredge up a horrible memory or just use an onion. This was all onion. And yet it was also a good fifteen minute’s work. Kids learned someone was watching; they know it’s not free beatdown on sub week. But the whole time I was thinking “Oh, my god, this is SO COOL. I’m CLINT. Or at least the badass principal in The Wire.” Self-absorbed puppy that I am, there is my takeaway.

I am teaching two brand new classes, and an Algebra 2/Trig class I’m struggling to keep somewhat true to its name. It’s not an easy year, I’m not brimming with confidence—although I’m having a great time. So getting to be Clint or the badass principal was just a great moment, a reminder I still have teacher mojo.

Right about now, I realize son of a bitch, I’m a lot more like Taylor Mali than I’d like to think. Yes, I’m more Movie Star than Teacher Martyr, more audience participation than individual redemptions. But ultimately, I’m one of those teachers who can walk into a room of adolescents and command them—-to learn, to think, and sometimes just to obey. And just like Taylor Mali and the people clapping him on, I like what that says about me.

And hell, if you think it’s easy, you try it.

Ed Schools and Affirmative Action

Education policy rarely—hell, let’s say never—results in anticipated consequences. But usually, this acknowledgment turns our thoughts to bleak, dark places.

So let’s think of the one time when an education policy’s unanticipated consequences actually had a reasonably positive outcome—and opportunity for a chuckle. I speak, of course, of the 1998 Higher Education Act, specifically Title II, section 206: “Increasing success in the pass rate for initial State teacher certification or licensure, or increasing the numbers of highly qualified individuals being certified or licensed as teachers through alternative programs.”

The plan: force education schools to report their students’ licensure pass rates.

The pass rates were widely expected to be dismal. According to Sandra Stotsky, the 60% failure rate seen in Massachussetts, which had instituted a similar requirement a few years earlier, had provoked the federal law. The Democrats behind the bipartisan bill expected to see a tiered system result, with ed schools ranked by their licensure test pass rates. Those schools with pass rates below 80% would improve or be shot and put out of their misery. It’d be like law school.

The Republican politicians and reformers of all denominations saw this as a means of destabilizing the evil cartel. They were certain that all the ed schools would have low pass rates. It was not a coincidence that the 1998 law required states to provide alternative certification paths to a credential. Alternative certification was actually the secret sauce of the 1998 law which would, its advocates fantasized, enable an organic move from ed schools to alternative certification programs. Parents would learn that ed schools turned out students with abysmally low pass rates on simple tests, so they’d demand that their children’s schools hire from only those schools with high pass rates. Faced with the realization that traditional ed schools turned out simpletons, parents would join reformers in a push for alternative certification.

So you can imagine the anticipation back in November, 2001, when the first Title II report was released online. It got 7000 hits—no doubt all of them from ed school critics, eager to curate a list of dismal passing rates, looking for a high-profile target.

and…what’s this? They all passed?

Well. I laughed, anyway.

Ed schools had been accepting and graduating students who they knew wouldn’t pass the licensure test, in the name of affirmative action. Faced with a threat, they sacrificed their ideology and commitment to collect money from underprivileged students wanting a college degree, and made a new rule: No pass, no diploma.

And so, the much-anticipated Title II reports showed that most ed schools had 100% passing rates. All but a very few easily bested the 80% barrier. Far from showing a picture of unprepared, low quality candidates, the Title II reports gave a glowing picture of competence.

The “tiered” results dreamed of by the law’s supporters? Useless. As an example, just one of Kentucky’s 25 ed schools that first year had a low passing rate of 55%, while the others were all above the minimum. So schools with 93% passing rates were in the third tier. Definitely not planned. Several states reported 100% passing rates—California, for example, which doesn’t credential teachers with an undergraduate education degree, simply required all candidates to pass the tests to gain admission.

A simple policy change rendered the law irrelevant. And expensive, alas–states spend lots of money turning out largely useless reports.

(Here’s a more measured account of the law’s intent and why it went off the rails.)

Much gnashing of teeth ensued, much castigation, many claims that the tests were incredibly easy, testing just basic skills, so of course the passing rate was so high. They accused ed schools of gaming the requirement, states of lowering the pass rate. They castigated ed schools for having such low standards, for cheating, for wasting the government’s time. For a taste of the frustration and near rage of the enjoy this 2002 Edtrust diatribe or the NCTQ wishlist.

Critics regrouped. Subsequent retoolings of the law attempted to thwart the ed schools—for example, ed schools now have to report their student score average against the state average– and lord knows NCTQ knows how to push for meaningless requirements, but it’s been pretty much game over ever since. While alternative teacher certification programs have grown, ed schools aren’t worried about their market share. It still takes a lot of work and education to become a teacher. (Before you wave TFA at me–they all still go to ed school, Relay or otherwise.)

But the attempt to destabilize or “improve” ed schools was lost, and the proponents knew it. How extremely annoying. No differentiation, no high profile targets, no rationale to get the public pushing for alternative certification programs.

Ed schools were angry right back, of course, but you have to figure they had a whole bunch of smug in there. I mean, seriously, who could get mad at ed schools for requiring their candidates to pass the licensure tests? Wasn’t the point to raise teacher quality? In your face, Snidely. Foiled you again.

That’s the end of the funny part.

The strategy wasn’t free. Ed schools couldn’t commit affirmative action, at least not as most colleges do.

Ironic, really, that the profession notorious for its supposedly lax standards, is the only profession that denies itself the opportunity to give underrepresented minorities a chance at a good government job. This reality is utterly obscured liars or fools like Arne Duncan (your choice) complaining that a 95% pass rate shows the lack of rigor.

Reality: most of the tests are appropriately rigorous, and the pass rate is considerably less than 95%.


When people refer to the “high passing rate” of licensure exams, they’re either deliberately deceitful or extremely ill-informed. The exams leave carnage in their wake when all testers are considered, not just ed school graduates, and a substantial portion of that carnage is black and Hispanic.

We all know that many college students, indeed, many college graduates, lack basic skills. We all know that these individuals are, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. Colleges let them in and then graduate them anyway, both out of ideological zeal and a reasonable fear of lawsuits.

But alone among all the professions, the majority of prospective undergraduate teachers are now required to demonstrate that they have a given skill set (set by each state, much to the feds’ chagrin) at some point before they graduate. At the graduate level, they have to pass the test just to get in. Ed schools can’t use a different standard to accept black and Hispanic candidates. They are limited to those blacks and Hispanics that can both pass the tests and want to be teachers. And most ed schools aren’t selective, so those candidates are in, anyway.

I’m oversimplifying. Some ed schools are dedicated to underrepresented minorities: HCBU ed schools , and some smaller colleges who swallow the low pass rate on their Title II report for the tuition. Alternative credential programs, once envisioned as the elite corps of folks too good for traditional ed schools, are more commonly a means to produce black and Hispanic teachers, as they are immune from the Title II reports, and passing the tests is their primary curricular objective.

But traditional ed schools, both public and elite, the ones producing the bulk of all teachers, can’t realistically provide that extensive training for a small number of students, so they “counsel out” those who don’t pass the Praxis by a certain date–or require passage for admission.

But, you say, the tests have cut scores, set far below the average. Well duh. That’s because the states don’t want to shut out blacks and Hispanics. That’s where the affirmative action sneaks in—not by ed schools, but by the states, in setting the cut scores.

I don’t know the specifics of the math involved in setting the cut score. But it seems obvious that the bulk of whites (and Asians determined to infuriate their parents) are easily clearing the cut score—or the mean would be lower. It seems equally obvious that very few blacks and Hispanics are easily clearing the cut score—or the cut score would be higher. I suspect the cut scores for elementary school are letting through more than optimal, but I can’t find any data on this. The cut score is lower than the average, but not that many people are scoring far below that average—and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic, just as the states want.

Not only did most ed schools begin to require a passing score prior to graduation, but states raised the cut scores (still below the average, though) in response to No Child Left Behind. The mean scores jumped dramatically, both as a group and by race:

ETSsatpraxisverbal ETSsatpraxismath

The average scores by race, coupled with the average SAT scores for each type of teacher, suggest that the bulk of Hispanic and black passing the test are elementary school teachers.

Before the 1998 Act, many blacks and Hispanics ed school graduates who didn’t pass the test got an emergency license, which doesn’t require a test, and hired by schools on that basis, using the fiction that they were working towards their credential. No Child Left Behind cracked down on emergency credentials and closed this loophole. The ETS report points out that a disproportionately high number of Praxis testers from 2002-2005 were employed teachers who either had an emergency or otherwise unqualified credential, and these testers were disproportionately black. The Clarence Mumford ring’s clients were often black teachers with emergency credentials, as well as clients who couldn’t pass the original test.

This may be why there wasn’t a huge fuss about the failure of many black candidates to pass the Praxis in the 90s–they were able to get teaching jobs. Or maybe there was a fuss and google just doesn’t like me.

So most public and elite ed schools can’t commit affirmative action, can’t accept wholly unqualified candidates in the name of the diversity, take their money, push them through classes they don’t really understand, pressure professors into giving passing grades, graduate them, and let them figure out after it’s all over that they can’t pass the licensure test.

In other words, ed schools can’t be law schools.

This all came about because reformers and politicians had this bizarre delusion that the quality of the ed school had something to do with the licensure test pass rates, when in fact the licensure pass rates have everything to do with the quality of the student body.

So the 1998 law and the follow-on restrictions of NCLB, restrictions based on a profound underestimation of an average teacher’s intellect, didn’t even come close to having their desired impact. Meanwhile, the laws inadvertently took away the dream of teaching for many black and Hispanic teachers. The media steadfastly ignores this and wonders gravely where all the black and Hispanic teachers went.

I can’t see the change as a bad thing; while some of the black and Hispanic ed school grads who couldn’t pass the test found jobs with emergency credentials, I doubt they all did.

This way, eventually, the feds and the states will be forced to realize they need to lower cut scores, at least for elementary school teachers, if they want to have more black and Hispanic teachers. This, too, I see as a good thing.

But as I started with a chuckle, so I shall finish: the idea that Teach for America’s “diversity” is in some way comparable and thus superior to ed schools. That’s really, really funny.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re wondering how the hell TFA recruited so many blacks capable of passing the license tests. Yeah, me, too. I have some ideas. Another post.