Monthly Archives: January 2015

Wearing Anonymity

I wear my anonymity loosely. It’s mostly fine if you know who I am. It’s Google I want kept in the dark.

“Mostly” in that sure, there are people out there who would be very happy to see me lose my job, and I’d just as soon those people didn’t have the opportunity to put together a campaign to get me fired. While I have just recently obtained tenure (whooohoo!), I’m not at all sure that tenure would protect me in this circumstance. Despite all the whines, teachers with tenure are fired all the time. The administrator just has to want it. Just ask Natalie Munro, a tenured teacher who blogged about her “lousy” students and was gone within two years. I despise Munro’s behavior, but I believe her over the administration when she says she had no problems before her blog.

For the record, my school administrators think I’m terrific, and I admire their work. I have never knowingly said anything offensive or critical about my co-workers, bosses, or students. Even when I’ve disagreed with them, my disagreement has been couched as “choices are hard”. I love my current school and I’ve always loved all my students at every school.

But we teachers aren’t guaranteed first amendment protection, and the rules on blogging are very fuzzy. My administrators know about my blog; I hope they check in on it periodically, although that’s unlikely. None of that would save me if there was the wrong kind of fuss.

For this reason, I don’t tell people who I am without asking that they not disclose this information online. Gender, location, name, all left out of the discussion. Every person I’ve informed of my identity has complied with this request. The bulk of the people I’ve told were journalists. The rest were mostly professors or policy wonks. And this number is very, very small–no more than 15-20 people.

That means if someone out there in the wide world of the internet says “Ed Realist is Mark Murgatroyd from Chicago” or “Ed Realist is a San Francisco-based teacher who hates Asians” or “Ed Realist also posts as Lance Jackson” or “Ed is one of those rare women who speaks honestly about race and IQ”, that person did not get this information from me. In some cases, they believe they have guessed my identity but are speaking of it, wrongly, as a fact. In others, they read this information at another site from another person who did not get this information from me. In still other cases, they may have heard the information second-hand offline from someone who did get it from me, although I doubt that last one. I’m not important enough to discuss offline.

I’m not commenting about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the information. Nor do I want anyone to go out there and build a case for me being person X or person Y. I’m not saying “nyah, nyah, you can’t catch me, coppers!” My blog has gotten much, much bigger than I ever dreamed. I would have kept age, parental status, and a few other details back had I known. Anyone who wanted to build a logical case to strongly suggest that person X is me could probably manage it.

For this reason, I try very hard not to be coy, give hints, or deny. Someone claims I live in Location Y, I respond I’ve never mentioned my geographic area online. Someone claims I’m a man or a woman, I respond that I’ve never mentioned my gender online. Someone claims that I’m teacher X, I respond that I’ve never identified myself online. I like to think that’s why I’ve managed three years of anonymity, but then maybe no one has ever cared enough. I hope I’m still unimportant enough that this post won’t lead to speculation about my identity.

I would appreciate reader consideration when characterizing me and my work. I’m a teacher. I used to be a tutor and test prep instructor. Anything else I mentioned on my blog you are free to use, but try not to overstate.

If you’ve read someone comment about my gender, location, or identity, please remember they did not get this information from me. No reason to get into a pissing match, but a link to this statement would be appreciated.

If you think you know who I am: You might be right. So what? What is it you hope to achieve by posting about your guess? If you’re wrong, you could be hurting another teacher. If you’re right, then you could be putting me at risk of losing my beloved job. If that’s what you want, well, then I guess I can’t stop you.

But you didn’t get the information from me.

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What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao

I didn’t intend to write about the gaokao, or Brook Larmer ‘s profile of 18-year-old Yang and his family inside Chinese test prep factory. I just started out googling, as is my wont, to find out more information than the article provides. I certainly did that.

The novice might find Larmer’s article emotionally draining. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese academic culture will notice a huge, gaping hole.

I noticed the hole, which led me to an observation, which led me to a better understanding of how the gaokao works, which is almost exactly the opposite of its presentation in the American press.

The hole: In a story dedicated to students preparing for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (aka the gaokao) Larmer never once mentions cheating. This would be a problematic oversight in any event, but given the last anecdote, the omission strains credulity.

When Larmer returned to the town for his second visit, the day before the gaokao, Yang’s scores, which had been dropping, had not improved. As a result, Yang had kicked out his mom and brought his grandfather to live with him in Maotanchang for the last few weeks of prep. While Larmer drove into town with Yang’s parents, the grandfather refused to let Larmer accompany the family to the test site. Grandpa was afraid the family might “get in trouble” for talking to a reporter, according to “someone”.

Yang does exceptionally well, given his fears—“his scores far surpassed his recent practice tests”. Sadly, his friend Cao tanks because he “had a panic attack”.

Yang’s scores were considerably beyond what his recent performance had predicted. Yet it apparently never once occurred to Larmer that perhaps Yang and Grandpa prudently got the New York Times reporter out of the way before they arranged a fix. Maybe Yang wanted more aid than could be provided with “‘brain-rejuvenating’ tea”, or Gramps didn’t want Larmer to see Yang wired up for sound, or that he’d really put in some money and paid for a double.

Yang’s performance might have been entirely unaided, of course. But any article about the gaokao should address cheating, even with Gramps banning access.

When I realized that Larmer hadn’t mentioned cheating, I read the piece again, thinking I must have missed it. Nope. But that second readthrough led to an observation.

I got curious—just curious, nothing skeptical at this point—about the school’s gender restriction on teachers. Was that just for cram schools? What was the gender distribution of Chinese teachers?

I couldn’t find anything. No confirmation that the teacher were all male, no comprehensive source on cram schools, no readily available data on Maotanchang. I couldn’t find anything at all about the school’s business practices online. So I went back to Larmer’s paper to look for a source for that fact—and nothing.

And so, the observation: In his description of the school’s interior and practices, Larmer doesn’t mention interviews with school representatives, other journalism, or a Big Book of Facts on Chinese Cram Schools.

The earliest detailed description of Maotanchang online appears to be this August 2013 article in China Youth Daily, a Beijing paper, which created quite a furor in China and largely ignored here because we can’t read Chinese. Rachel Lu, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, restated some key points for those folks who don’t read Chinese, which is nice of her, because what idiot would copy and paste the Chinese piece into Google Translate?

Yeah, well, I’m an idiot. I won’t bore people with the extended version, but a lot of the details that Larmer didn’t seem to personally witness show up in the Chinese story: same school official quoting management theory, teachers using bullhorns, Maotanchang’s 1939 origins, bus license plates ending in 8, burning incense at the town’s sacred tree, teacher dismissals for low scores.

The excitement over the China Youth Daily article generated more interest, like Exam Boot Camp, also written in August 2013, happily in English, which profiled a female student and her mother who provide data points like higher prices for lower scoring students ,lack of electrical outlets, and surveillance cameras in the classroom.

Am I accusing Larmer of lifting tidbits from these other stories? Well, I’d like to know where he got the information.

Leave that aside, though, because reading through these stories looking for sources led me to all sorts of “new things” to learn about the gaokao. These “new things” are readily available online; in fact, anyone can find most of the information in the Wikipedia entry. But you will rarely read these not-in-fact new things, but well-established facts, explicitly laid out by any major media outlet (although now that I know, I can see hints). I don’t know why. I can’t even begin to see how any reporter wouldn’t trumpet these facts to the world, narrative or no.

China’s supposedly meritocratic test is a fraud.

To begin with, Larmer, like just about any other reporter discussing the gaokao, describes it as a “grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities.”

Wrong. The test score is, technically, the sole criterion for admission. But in China, the test score and the test performance aren’t the same thing.

Testers get additional points literally added to their scores for a number of attributes. China’s 55 ethnic minorities (non-Han) get a boost of up to 30 points , although the specific number varies by province. Athletic and musical certifications appear to be in flux, but still giving some students more points, even though the list of certification sports culled from 70 to 17. Children whose parents died in the military and Chinese living overseas get extra points, and recently the government announced point boosts for morality.

Remember when the University of Michigan used to give students 20 points if they were black, and 12 points if they had a perfect SAT score? Well, imagine those points were just added into the SAT/ACT score. That’s what the Chinese do.

But even after the extra points are allotted, test scores aren’t relevant until the tester’s residence has been factored in. Larmer: “The university quota system also skews sharply against rural students, who are allocated far fewer admissions spots than their urban peers.”

I first understood this to mean that colleges used the same cut scores for everyone, but just accepted fewer rural students, without grasping the implications: city kids have lower cut scores than rural kids.

Xu Peng, the only Maotanchong student to make the cut off score for Tsinghua, where the “minimum score for students from Anhui province taking the science exam was 641.”

Two years earlier, the cutoff score for Tsinghua for a Beijing student was somewhere under 584.

Rachel Lu again:” the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu. [rural provinces]. ”

A joke goes:
gaokaojoke

Of course, don’t make the mistake, as I did, of thinking the cut scores mean the same thing for each student.

Curious about the nature of the studying/memorization the students do (another vague area for Larmer’s piece), I tried to find more information on the gaokao content. The actual gaokao essay questions are usually published each year and they’re….well, insane.

When I finally did find an an actual math question:


beijingmathtrans

it seemed surprisingly easy and then, I realized that it was only for the Beijing test:

beijingmatheasy

Then I went back to the essay questions and it sunk in: the essay questions differed by city.

The gaokao isn’t the same test in every province. Many provinces develop their own custom test and just call it the gaokao.


diffgaokaos

At which point, I threw up my hands and mentally howled at Larmer, my current proxy for the mainstream American press: you didn’t think this worth mentioning? Or didn’t you know?

If all this is true, then the wealthier province universities use a lower cut score for their residents. But just to be sure, some provinces make an easier test for their residents, so that the rural kids are taking a harder test on which they have to get a higher score. Please, please, please tell me I’m misunderstanding this.

Consider Larmer’s story again in light of this new information. Larmer can’t say definitively who had the best performance without ascertaining whether Yang or Cao got extra points. Both Yang and Cao might both have outscored many students who were admitted to top-tier universities. Cao may or may not have “panicked”, and may not have even done poorly, in an absolute sense. None of this context is provided.

In my last story about Chinese academic fraud, I pointed out that so much money was involved that few people have any incentive to fix the corruption. All the people bellyaching about the American test prep industry should pause for a moment to think about the size of the gaokao enterprise. The original China Youth Daily story focused on Maotanchang’s economic transformation, something Larmer also mentions. Parents are paying small fortunes for tutoring, for cheating devices, for impersonators, for bribes for certificates. All of these services have their own inventory supply chains and personnel. Turn the gaokao into a meritocratic test and what happens to a small but non-trivial chunk of the Chinese economy?

But I’m just stunned at how much worse the Chinese fraud is than I’d ever imagined.

Sure, well-connected parents could probably bribe their kids into college. Sure, urban kids who had better schools that operated longer with educated teachers would likely learn more than those stuck with “substitutes”. Sure, the content was probably absurd and has little relationship to actual knowledge. Sure, the tests were little more than a memory capacity game, with students memorizing essays as well as facts that had no real meaning to them. Without question the testers were engaging in rampant cheating.

But not once had I considered that the test difficulty varied by province, that some kids got affirmative action or athletic points added directly to their score, and worst of all, that a kid from Outer Nowhere who scored a 650 would have no chance at a college that accepted a kid from Beijing with a 500.

Once again, I am distressed to realize that my cynical skepticism has been woefully inadequate to the occasion.

The gaokao isn’t a meritocracy. Millions of kids who live in the wrong province are getting screwed by a test whose great claim to fame is that it will reward applicants strictly by merit. And of course, the more kids who apply to college, the more cut scores and test difficulty will increase–but only for those students from those wrong provinces. Meanwhile, the kids from the “right” provinces have a (relatively) easy time.

In this context, the 2013 gaokao cheating riot takes on a whole new light. If you really want to feel sad, consider the possibility that Yang’s friend, Cao, now working as a migrant, might have scored higher on a harder test than a rich kid in Shanghai.

By the way, could someone alert Ron Unz?

*Note: in the comments, someone who understands this is (bizarrely, to me) fussed over my use of the “rural/urban” paradigm. I was using the same construct that Brooke Larmer and others have. The commenter seems to think it makes a difference. My point is simpler, and I don’t think obscured for non-Chinese readers. But I caution anyone that I’m utterly unfamiliar with Chinese geography.


2014: Half a million satisfied page views

Yes, I have half a million page views. Not bad for someone who only has 650 Twitter followers.

My page views increased from last year, but not by a whole lot. I had 42% more views in the first half of the year, but was down 22% for the second half. As I mentioned, I had an insanely busy first semester, teaching two brand new classes (one not math) and mentoring two teachers. I only had 3 posts in November, and one lonely post in October. I’d hoped to write 72 posts (6/month); in fact I averaged just fewer than 4 posts a month, at 45. That accounts for most of the drop off.

But I also didn’t have the huge posts that I had last year. At the bottom of this post is a list of my top posts overall (1500 views or more).
Here are the top posts I wrote this year (over 1000 views):

Just a Job 2831
The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty 2527
Strategizing Horror 2027
Encylopedia of Ed, Part I: Things Voldemortean 1802
Ed Schools and Affirmative Action 1776
The Available Pool 1721
Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines 1588
College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT 1575
SAT’s Competitive Advantage 1392
Reading in the Gulag of Common Core 1236
Finding the Bad Old Days 1224
A Talk with an Asian Dad 1156
Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me 1128
Multiple Answer Math Tests 1086
Parents and Schools 1067
Math Instruction Philosophies: Instructivist and Constructivist 1022
Why I Blog 1016
Advanced Placement Test Preferences: Asians and Whites 1008

In all, 41 posts out of the 244 got over one thousand views in 2014 alone (not counting views from prior years).

Compared to last year, I had far fewer big posts. Compared to posts written in prior years, this year’s posts did far less business. Also, the disappearance of both Who Am I and About from my top posts means I had far fewer new readers.

I’m not bothered by this. First, I chose a bunch of esoteric topics. Fox, dammit, not hedgehog. Second, as I said, I had an incredibly busy second half of the year.

Third, when I did have time to write, I spent all the time researching. These pieces consumed well over hundreds of hours of googling and reading:

Only three of them made my top posts. Meanwhile, I knocked out The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty in 2 hours one very late evening and it hits second place. Again, I’m not complaining. If Steve Sailer or Charles Murray isn’t interested in a post, it’s unlikely to get big numbers on the first viewing.

I also didn’t spend much time on pedagogy this year, and that’s something I vow to change in the upcoming year. I have all sorts of topics that I don’t think of as much because I’m teaching advanced math. The following pedagogy posts got at least 1000 views, got more readers this year than last, despite being over 2 years old, and three of them made my top posts for the year:

Multiple Answer Math Tests, written this year, also got over 1000 views, and a lot of my older curriculum work gets close to 1000 views.

This reinforces a pattern I’ve seen for over two years: Google likes my blog, and teachers like my curriculum. Teachers are not a big part of my regular reader base, but they seem to find my work and if they didn’t like it, google would know somehow. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that teachers might be finding my pedagogy useful.

I am also reminded that the teacher tales, which I consider some of my best work, are not google friendly. Teachers really like my stories, but since they aren’t part of my regular base, they don’t often stumble across my work. I’m not sure how to address this—I mean, how often does someone think “Hmm, I want to google some fun teacher stories!”?

In the meantime, I thought my Teacher Tales from this year were very good. Hey. Maybe I could do a page. Huh.

I will update my Encyclopedia of Ed pages pretty soon–it’s clear they are getting some use, which is nice.

Finally, the second half of this year did see some disillusionment on my part. Not with teaching, or with writing, but with the realization of just how many people in education reform are poseurs, and yet are treated as experts simply because they’ve got an employer claiming they are. I thought I was cynical to begin with, but at this point I’ve become exhausted realizing just how many people are just flat out regurgitating opinions that their employer pays them to have.

On to year 4.

*****************************
Posts getting over 1500 views this year:

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 8577 2013
Homework and grades. 3590 2012
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 3058 2013
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 2524 2012
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 2490 2012
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 2419 2012
Core Meltdown Coming 2317 2013
The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty 2527 2014
The Gap in the GRE 2213 2012
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 2151 2013
Strategizing Horror 2027 2014
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 1818 2013
Encylopedia of Ed, Part I: Things Voldemortean 1802 2014
Ed Schools and Affirmative Action 1776 2014
The Available Pool 1721 2014
Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 1640 2012
Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines 1588 2014
Kicking Off Triangles: What Method is This? 1554 2012
College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT 1575 2014