Monthly Archives: March 2016

The SAT is Corrupt: Reuters Version

Dear Renee Dudley, Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Irene Jay Liu,

As someone who has studied and written extensively about the SAT corruption and the fraud delivery system known as Asian test prep , I congratulate you on the thorough job exposing the College Board’s open courting of corruption for profit in the overseas SAT market.

I’m not a reporter, just a teacher who does pretty good research, but for what it’s worth I think you did an outstanding job on many aspects of the story. I offer these suggestions (and one correction) with some disagreement, but little criticism (and lord knows, I can criticize).

The College Board Was Aware Long Before 2013
Your article strongly suggests time and again that the College Board learned that Asian test prep companies had obtained the tests by May 2013. In fact, the College Board knew that the test had been corrupted by January 2007, when it cancelled the scores of all 900 South Korean testers. It was common knowledge at the time that the College Board recycled old tests. The AP story doesn’t mention hagwons, and shows a touching faith in the CB’s assurance that kids couldn’t possibly benefit from seeing the test again. However, the College Confidential forums were very clear that the source of the test was a hagwon, not some “accidental exposure”. I worked for Kaplan and a major US hagwon at the time (only taught SAT at Kaplan) and my hagwon boss told me all about the methods Korean test prep companies used to get the “held back” tests.

So the College Board has known for at least nine years and probably longer that Asian international testers were cheating.

More Context on Cheaters

Your reporting begins with Xingyuan Ding, a Chinese national now attending ULA, who scored an 800 on the SAT Critical Reading section. Ding claims that “about half” of the answers on the reading section were in his “jijing”, or answer key.

That’s highly unlikely. While I understand the need for objectivity, some context would be useful. An 800 on the reading section is a 99th percentile score, meaning 99% of the testers receive a lower score. Even among Asians, it’s a 98th percentile score. So how likely is it that a Chinese national got that score?

Your reporting also mentions Linfeng Liu, another Chinese student who tested in Hong Kong, who says that she was “helped” by recognizing five—just five!—vocabulary questions, which enabled her, she said, to focus more on reading comprehension. Her overall score isn’t mentioned, but again, how likely is it that she cheated “just a little bit”?

Information that would have helped give context. Were these interviews conducted in Chinese or in English? How fluent was Ding, the 800 SAT critical reading guy, in English? How were these students doing in their classes?

Another related issue: In your FAQ, you mention repeatedly that just seeing the questions, not the answers, would still constitute a major advantage. That’s true. However, the story gives the impression that seeing the questions provides the primary, even sole, advantage to the students. This is almost certainly not true, and while that statement may be too strong, I think you tilt too far the other way. These are Chinese and Korean nationals with very weak English. A preview of the reading passages isn’t going to give them a big advantage. The answers do. Whether they’ve memorized long sequences or just have them handily tucked into a cell phone, the Chinese kids you interviewed almost certainly had the answers.

Cheating: It’s Not Just In China Anymore
Your reporting revealed that Asian test prep companies sent employees over here:

Sanli, the Chinese test-prep chain, says it sent 11 teachers to the United States to collect information on the redesigned exam. They debriefed 40 Sanli students studying at U.S. high schools who took the new SAT as they exited test centers, according to Wu, the general manager. Sanli presented its findings at a seminar at a Shanghai hotel.

(emphasis mine)

Heavens, that’s interesting. I did not know this. So are these Sanli students “Asian Americans”–born here, or immigrant children of long-time residents–or are they “Asian nationals” over here on F1 visas? As you probably know, Chinese students are flooding US public high schools whenever they can and US Christian private high schools when they can’t (due to the 1-year restriction), with our Beijing embassy eagerly courting more. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of F1 high school visas grew from 1,700 to 80,000, the vast majority of them Chinese or South Korean.

So when you report that Asian test prep companies are using “their” students to gain SAT knowledge to enable cheating, are they F-1 students on visas? Or are they Asian Americans who enroll with these test prep companies?

Of course, the College Board is not reusing national tests–at least, not often—which raises another question: what advantages do the Asian test prep companies offer Asians living in the US?

Your story hints at possibilities here:

Eight of the 10 existing Mathematics Level II subject tests were compromised – three in their entirety and five in part, including two exams that had never been given anywhere, the PowerPoint shows. Ten of the 13 Biology exams were also compromised in whole or in part, including one totally new test.

I’ve written on this before as well; Asian test prep companies have certainly used corrupt school administrators to gain early access to tests.

So the story probably goes beyond the international cheating–as if that’s not enough. It’s pretty clear that Asian test prep companies are getting early versions of tests. Given the College Board’s lax procedures, the leak may be from within the company.

What About the ACT?

You mention that the SAT dominates in the international market; my own research confirms that the ACT’s international presence is minimal. My understanding is that the SAT only recycles tests for the international sitting.

So what does the ACT do? Does the ACT recycle tests? What is the relative size of the two markets? If the SAT is the only test with a significant international presence, could it possibly be due to the fact that international testers have access to early copies? The overwhelming bulk of international testers are Asian or Middle Eastern, all countries with culture of cheating that Americans can barely comprehend.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. But getting the ACT’s procedure would be a useful comparison point. Your story acknowledges the fact that ACT is the national leader, but apparently SAT’s touchstone status causes reporters to forget that and ignore the market king’s methods. (OK, that was a tad snarky.)

David Coleman Stonewalls

You know how reporters say [so and so] refused repeated requests to comment? You apparently only asked David Coleman to comment once.

David Coleman is a celebrity in the world of education reform. He is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, for Common Core standards. He took over the helm at the College Board in 2012–that fact alone should be mentioned, should it not? Presumably he was present, along with other “senior College Board staff” at the meeting with the Power Point slides in June 2013.

It’s not really your fault. But it’s over a day since your story came out, and not a peep from the College Board, much less Coleman. Couldn’t you have at least said “repeated requests”? Or did you only ask once?

National Interests

But like all reported stories I’ve seen on Asian cheating of the SAT, there’s no connection to the larger interests involved.

As your story mentions, many public and private universities are recruiting foreign students who are mostly from China and South Korea, even though the students are cheating on applications and tests, lying about their grades and resumes. Keep in mind that universities get tax breaks and other federal funding and public universities were chartered to serve the educational needs of their states.

Meanwhile, the SAT is moving outside its old beat as a college admissions test into a high school graduation test. Several states have committed use the SAT as a graduation requirement. Several states have switched from the ACT, which focuses on American students, to the SAT, which manifestly does not.

This isn’t just an issue for worried parents of college applicants. The College Board encourages and benefits from international criminal racketeering organizations that engage in immigration and mail fraud while enabling colleges to pretend they are accepting qualified applicants when in fact the colleges know full well their applicants lied. It collects money from multiple state contracts for a test product they can’t be bothered to spend money protecting from those organized criminal enterprises. State and private universities knowingly consume a fraudulent information product in order to fatten their coffers, all the while benefiting from tax-exempt status at both the federal and state interest.

Should the College Board be allowed to sell state contracts given its knowing participation in organized crime? Should our tax dollars be spent on universities if they are no longer acting in the public interest? Reasonable people can undoubtedly disagree on these questions. But surely they should at least be raised.

I want to emphasize again how pleased I am at your story and that while I had the above quibbles, overall it really was an excellent, thoroughly reported piece. I hope Reuters pushes it harder; you guys should be on TV, talking about this. Feel free to use my “national interest” take when you’re on the air.

All the best,

ER


Great Moments in Teaching: When Worlds Collide

I’m on vacation! I actually took a whole half day off to add to my spring break, spent a couple days with my grandkids (keep saying the phrase, it will get more real in a decade or three), then embarked on an epic road trip through the northwest. My goal to write more posts is much on my mind–despite my pledge, I’ve only written 10 posts this year. But I’ve gotten better at chunking–in years past, I would have written one “teaching oddness” post, rather than three.

So this new semester, new year, has already seen some teaching moments that are best thought of as crack cocaine, a hit of adrenaline that explodes in the psyche in that moment and every subsequent memory of it, the moments you know that all those feel-good movies about teaching aren’t a complete lie. Not all moments are big; this one would barely be noticed by an outsider.

I was explaining slope to one of my three huge algebra 2 classes, the most boisterous of them. Algebra 2 is tough when half your kids don’t remember or never learned Algebra 1, while the rest think they know all there is to know, which is y=mx+b and the quadratic formula (no understanding of what it means or how to factor). Meanwhile, my recent adventures in tutoring calculus (be sure to check out Ben Orlin’s comment) has increased my determination to improve conceptual understanding among my stronger students, even if my weaker ones get a tad bored.

“I want you to stop just thinking of slope as a number, something you can only get by looking at two points, subtracting y1 from y2, then x1 from x2. The simplest way to start this process is to consider the slope triangle, which I know a lot of you use to find the slope, but don’t really think about.”

“But think of slope as represented by an actual right triangle. The legs represent the relative change rates of the horizontal and vertical (the x and the y). The hypotenuse is the slope. You can see the rate of change. It’s not just a number. Evaluate slopes by their triangles and you can see the ratio in action.”

I’m skipping over some discussion, some give and take. As I drew pictures, I “activated prior knowledge“, elicited responses as to what slope was, what the slope-intercept form represented, etc. But this was pretty close to pure lecture. I can read the audience–they’re not hanging on every word, but they get it, I’m not preaching to snoozers.

“How many of you remember right triangle trigonometry last year, in geometry?” A few hands, mostly my top kids.

“Come on, SOHCATOA?”

“Oh, yeah, that stuff” and most hands go up.

“So when I teach right triangle trig, I do my best to beat into your heads that the trig identities are ratios. Trigonometry is, in fact, the study of the relationship between the ratios of triangle legs and the triangle’s angles.”

“And that means you can think of the slope of a line in terms of its trigonometric ratio. Take a look at the triangle again, but now use your geometry lens instead of algebra.”

slopetriangletan

“The slope of a line is rise over run in algebra. But in geometry, it’s opposite over adjacent. The slope of a line is identical to the slope triangle’s tangent ratio.”

“Holy SHIT.” Every head turned around to the back of the room (where the top kids sit), where Manuel, a big, rumpled, exceptionally bright sophomore was staring at my board work.

I smiled. Walked all the way to the back of the room, to Manuel’s desk, tapped it lightly. “Thanks. That means a lot.” Walked back all the way to the front.

Remy smiled knowingly. “That was like some sort of smart-people’s joke, right?”

“Naw,” I said. “His worlds just collided.”

I could do a bit more, explain how I followed up, but no. You either get why it’s great, or you don’t.

<mic drop>


Arizona’s Experience and the Tale It Tells

As always, my response to the WSJ story on Arizona’s economy post-illegal-alien crackdown, as it plunged from fifth to ninth of the states with the largest illegal population is delayed. I’ve been sick, there’s this whole election thing, and I write slow. But the whole article is perfect blog bait, touching on most of my favorite issues.

In brief, the article lays out a surprisingly even-handed examination of the impact. Arizona’s economy took a hit due to the law, legal unskilled employment declined slightly, and businesses catering to immigrants took a big hit. On the other hand…and there were a lot of other hands. The article hit big when it came out, but then mostly disappeared.

While the article was good at broad outlines, I found it frustrating in parts, as the reporters accepted a number of conditions at face value.

Government data on cost of non-citizens is, er, discouraged.

pinning down exactly how much [illegal immigration] costs the state, and how much is collected from illegal immigrants through taxation, is surprisingly hard to do…. and…government spending on immigrants fell. State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.

So, for example, when Alabama tries to figure out how many illegal immigrants are attending public schools, a federal appeals court ruled the effort unconstitutional and the state was forced to abandon the effort in a settlement, because fear of registration “significantly deters undocumented children from enrolling in and attending school”. The citizenry can’t be allowed to know the impact of federal failure because the lawbreakers might be scared. (These same parents usually sign up for the migratory education act, of course, without fear.) About 1 in 20 K-12 students isn’t a native, but we only guess based on a census every ten years.

The government refuses to collect data on immigration costs, the better to fail to provide it. The government thinks it knows better than the people–not unlike certain political parties I could name. The courts give cover, pretending that immigrants might be afraid to demand services if we collect data on the services they demand.

I would like to see a reporter push on this point. Why can’t the citizenry get a clear number of certain expenses? How many children of illegal immigrants are receiving services? What level of proof is required to prove eligibility?

Instead, the reporters tend to shrug and talk about how hard it is to get data.

The easy hiring days of yore

This comment is incredibly revealing:

[Before the Arizona law, an employer said,] “I could pull out phonebooks where I had 300 or 400 guys’ numbers” to create working crew….[Now] “you have to put out feelers, buy ads, go on Craigslist, tap job agencies, just to get a few men….Growth is based on the ability to hire.”

The contractor is annoyed because he doesn’t have a ready labor supply. Yeah, dude, welcome to normal circumstances. ‘Twas ever thus. That’s why we have HR departments. That’s why in corporate America as well as the teaching world, bosses are often reluctant to fire. Finding workers is expensive and time-consuming. Employers that have to invest time and energy in finding employees tend to be reluctant to easily fire them.

But the flood of unskilled immigration has blinded the contractor to normal hiring conditions. He’s completely unmoored by the need to put even a slight effort into finding good employees.

The constant stream of cheap labor has atrophied some employers’ hustle and distorted their understanding of real world employment conditions. They’re so spoiled that they whine about having to use ads and Craigslist. Then they complain that they can’t get natives to do the same work, not even for slightly higher pay.

How is this bad news? Employers who can’t pay enough to make the jobs they offer worthwhile should have to work to find employees. They should not to get special visas for cheaper workers eager for life in easier America—much less hire illegal workers who politicians will then refuse to deport.

Employers don’t have a right to employees any more than employees have a right to jobs. Illegal immigration has utterly wrecked the mindset of entire industries: construction, agriculture, landscaping, hotels, restaurants. No one has the right to easy, cheap labor.

And yes, in many cases it may turn out that ending illegal immigration will end a lot of jobs , as Adam Ozimek once wrote. Many employers will automate, just as Rob Knorr the jalapeno farmer chose to do.

But the story does no comparison of these employer complaints to other industries, or ask if they’d invested in efforts to build up an employee pipeline. At no point do the reporters consider whether the employers’ expectations might be unreasonable.

Nor do the reporters follow up on the fact that illegal workers are still getting jobs.

“E-Verify is a problem for us,” Mr. Castillo [an illegal alien] said. “We can work for a week. It takes that long for the paperwork. Then we’re out.”

E-Verify needs to be more of a problem.

Bye bye immigration surplus

Economic activity produced by immigrants–what economists call the “immigration surplus”–shrank because there were fewer immigrants around to buy clothing and groceries, to work and to start businesses. ….In Latino neighborhoods, sales declined at grocery stores and other businesses catering to migrants.

Other stories document the hit taken by businesses catering to Hispanics. I wonder how much of the unskilled labor employment hit was connected to jobs lost due to the “immigration surplus”? If so, wouldn’t that be inevitable? Fewer immigrant grocery stores, fewer grocery store clerks. Population decreases mean fewer jobs.

I’m sorry, but ending illegal immigration will inevitably lead to a population decline, at least at first. “My business strategy is immigrant-dependent” is not a compelling reason to give up restriction. The nifty little Mexican market that makes awesome burritos will have to rely on gringo purchases. I’ll do my part, I promise. If Western Union has to close down 90% of its offices when remittances dry up, some people are going to lose their jobs, and the stock’s going to take a hit. I understand it’s hard on the stockholders and the job holders. But they can investigate business opportunities that don’t rely on criminal disregard for employment law.

I thought the article did a good job revealing this information, but shouldn’t the article have observed that any population drop will result in lost business?

An earlier study by Sarah Bohn et. al (the researchers quoted in the piece), Lessons from the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act, offers up another interesting impact caused by “immigration surplus”:
wsjppistudy1

Many people assume that the lower skill workers who are affected by immigration are all white, or maybe black. But of course, many of them are Hispanic with a “skill” that white and black low skill workers lack: the ability to speak Spanish.

If employers can easily communicate with workers without translators, then job opportunities for translators are “immigration surplus”. I’m good with that, and the fact that some workers are hurt because Spanish-speaking is no longer a bonus is great news. Low-skilled Hispanics, blacks, and whites can compete on an equal basis.

Hispanic legal workers are hit not only because their legal status and bilingual abilities, but because of the restrictions themselves, something the LAWA research confirmed:

wsjppistudy2

Translated, this seems to be saying that many Hispanics are here legally, but have trouble proving it, or decide to leave because they’d rather not prove it. This argument isn’t new, but it’s also not a reason to stop enforcing employment laws.

Real-estate agent Patti Gorski says her sales records show that prices of homes owned by Spanish-speaking customers fell by 63% between 2007 and 2010….At the Maryvale Market, in an immigrant community of ranch homes, Ashok Patel says his business is down by half since 2008.

Notice the name Ashok Patel? There’s also a Vietnamese owner quoted in the 2010 article, owner of a 99 cent story, too. Arizona’s Asian immigrant population is booming–and so Asian immigrants are complaining that Arizona’s enforcement is interfering with business.

If restricting illegal immigrants makes America less attractive to potential immigrants eager to come here and exploit lawbreakers, how is that a bad thing? I would have liked to see the story mention that legal immigration growth in Arizona has continued, and what industries or areas of business they dominate.

Fewer people, cheaper rent?

Wait, did someone mention occupancy rates?

wsjppistudy3

If rental vacancies increase, don’t rents decrease?

Well, hey now. And take a look here, too: Phoenix Arizona Residential Rent and Rental Statistics . Graphs and tables, even.

Rents declined significantly during this period, probably because of the rental vacancies caused by Arizona’s law. There’s a significant point the WSJ article didn’t exactly play up.

So while low-skilled natives might not have all improved their employement prospects, many of them were able to live cheaper until they did find a job. Affordable housing for natives. What a concept.

Education. Remember education? This is a blog about education

State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.[see what I mean about not reporting immigrant expenses?]…But the number of students enrolled in intensive English courses in Arizona public schools fell from 150,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2012 and has remained constant since. Schooling 80,000 fewer students would save the state roughly $350 million a year, by one measure. During that same period, annual emergency-room spending on noncitizens fell 37% to $106 million, from $167 million. And between 2010 and 2014, the annual cost to state prisons of incarcerating noncitizens convicted of felonies fell 11% to $180 million, from $202 million.

The economic factor is huge in terms of what it saves Arizona taxpayers,” primarily on reduced education costs, says Russell Pearce [the law’s sponsor].

(emphasis mine)

Look at that. Reducing immigration saves money on education. The Arizona experiment proves that reducing immigration cuts immediate education costs–and that’s without factoring in the reduced pension burden.

Despite the usual GOP rhetoric about greedy teacher unions, merit pay, and ending tenure (blissfully absent this election, did you notice?), the Republicans have signed on whole hog for all the educational extras. High standards for all, despite remedial level students. Legally mandated special education and English Language Learner services.

All services are guaranteed to all students, citizen and immigrant, legal and illegal, courtesy of the let’s-keep-it-tied-up Supreme Court and Congress. All services are costly, and have very little evidence demonstrating effectiveness. And most of all, all those services require teachers.

Few folks outside the teaching “business” really grasp that hiring teachers is the pain point, not firing them. While the teacher shortage talk may be overblown, it nonetheless exists.

Teachers require higher than average IQs (particularly for high school academics), college degrees, clean records, verbal facility and a tolerance for young folk. Teaching offers inflexible schedule, limited potential for career growth, and work that’s utterly resistant to productivity improvement. On the other hand, it offers generous (read expensive) benefits, and really great pensions. Not as good as cops, but still. It’s a huge occupation; the largest in America. Yet despite the regular pay increases and job security, feeding the great maw of K-12 education requires constant replenishment. Schools are constantly in search of teachers in most states.

States could spend a lot more on our neediest citizens if they weren’t footing the bill for remediation, English language, tutoring, free lunches, and all manner of special education services for non-citizens.

Wouldn’t it be nice if unskilled labors were a little harder to hire, and skilled teachers a little easier to find?

Here’s hoping more states undertake Arizona’s experiment.


Making Short Math Tests

A trig student told me he was hanging out with a group of friends, some who’d had me, some who hadn’t. One was bitching about his four page test.

My students snorted. “Ed’s tests are double sided single pages. Once we had a three page test, but only for the space.”

A debate ensued, and those with the widest range of math teacher experience agreed: My tests are shortest, and hardest.

I’m not sure what this means. I don’t try to make my tests difficult. But periodically I’ve perused other teachers’ tests off the copier, and…wow. They are four or five pages. The questions are straightforward. They are typically of what I would call rote difficulty–they could have peeled off a few pages of one of these tests. When math teachers snort about regurgitating algorithms, these are the tests they have in mind.

I used to have more traditional looking tests, but even back then I wasn’t an exact match for typical. Once I started down the multiple answer path, it became even easier to wander miles off the reservation. But without question, multiple answer tests make it easier to assess understanding on multiple topics—thus shorter tests.

This semester, I finally decided to start my class with a functions unit. Regular readers know that I’ve been beefing up my functions curriculum, after initially (as a new teacher) giving it a perfunctory treatment. But I still began the year with linear equations. This last semester start, though, I went back to the textbooks. Why do they always start with functions? I finally started to grasp the logic: beginning with functions allows the teacher to work with transformations, parent functions, mapping, as well as challenging algebra (solving for x in a square root or quadratic function, etc).

So I mapped out a basic plan:

  • Function definition: domain, range, criteria
  • Function notation
  • Transforming functions
  • Four parent functions (line, quadratic, square root, absolute value). I told them we’d be introducing lines to ignore them until the next unit.
  • Transforming parent functions.
  • Solving for input and output

I originally planned to introduce inverses, but the kids were maxed out. This was a much tougher first unit than linear equations, and a good chunk of the lower ability students were struggling with the abstractions. Generally, I was pleased.

Some new questions from my first functions unit test–which was a single page, double-sided.

ftgraphquest

Notice I slipped in a couple function notation questions? That’s how I save space.

Here’s a mapping question:

ftmapquest

Again with the function notation! Am I the only math teacher whose kids simply can’t compute the difference between “f(3) = ” and “If f(a) = 3, a=”???? I do my best to beat it into their heads.

Here’s another way I use space effectively, I think:

ftsqfunct

So a graph, some free-response algebra, and conceptual understanding. (Most of them DO NOT understand how to read graphs, and missed d.) Time and again, I had to show the students how to write the equation, but they are learning how to isolate. Relatively few order of operations errors.

I didn’t ask them to graph this next one, but again, practice at setting up an equation to find the input given the output. Another plus of doing functions early is an introduction to quadratics, which is a tremendously tough Algebra 2 unit.

ftquadquest

Hands down, this next question had the weakest response. The strongest students understood it, but many of the same students who were able to graph the square root were flummoxed by this one. Go figure. But again, notice that I assess several different knowledge areas with the same question.

ftabvalfunct

A New Quiz

I don’t usually discuss my quizzes, which are often relatively straightforward compared to my multiple answer assessments. But I created a quiz on Thursday that I’m really pleased with. It’s my second quiz for linear functions. The students have learned the three different linear forms. The first quiz covers slope intercept and standard form, which are the forms for modeling situations. This one focuses on point slope and creating equations from points, as well as parallel and perpendicular points. We actually did much more modeling of real-life situations than this quiz shows. Usually, my quizzes are a very reliable guide to what the students have done in the previous week, but this was an attempt to see how well they could transfer knowledge and work several concepts in combination.

The quiz itself, I think was cool. I stole the nuggets of two ideas from textbooks, but the presentation and questions are mine own.

lmcricketsquest

I’ve seen this crickets question in both Pearson and Holt Harcourt books. I built the graph on Desmos, and was dismayed that a number of kids counted the barely visible lines, rather than use the points. But most of them didn’t.

Notice that this is a relatively easy question. I didn’t want to focus on the algebra needed to find the y-intercept. I wanted them instead to look at the patterns (the 120 chirps is exactly halfway between 0 and 240), and think about what graphs say vs. what they mean. Most kids confused question c and d, explaining that the temperature was too cold for chirping, or that the crickets died. But after a few pushes, they go…”negative chirps?” which is fun.

Here, I’m just testing their fluency:

lmfluencyquest

Lots of room for self-correction. One student asked me why all her solutions were “Neither”, and I suggested that perhaps she should check her algebra, where she’d handled a negative value incorrectly. Other students plotted the points incorrectly and, because they were only able to find slopes from the graphs, couldn’t catch their mistake–thus giving me an opportunity to reiterate the importance of using different methods to validate and self-correct.

As part of the work leading up to this quiz, they’d derived the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm, given two points. I decided to give them the formula to see if they could recognize the errors in verbal description and work a solution using fractions.

lmcelsiusquest

And then my favorite:

lmhelicopterquest

I got the basic idea from my new favorite textbook series, Big Ideas Math, then played with the goals a bit. Big Ideas has wonderful scenarios.

As always, if you spot any errors or ambiguities, let me know.


Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

A couple weeks ago, I left halfway through the day after having felt awful for 3 days. I thought perhaps I needed another inhaler. The doctor yelled at me for ignoring a strep infection. I protested, went home, watched TV. Still contagious, I woke up super early, snuck into school, got the quiz ready, left notes for my student teacher, and then tried to request a sub before leaving but it was past the deadline. I didn’t follow the correct procedure, having never once called in sick before at this school. I did know to call the principal’s secretary, She Who Runs Everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and grovel for screwing up her day, since she’d have to hunt down the sub. She yelled at me, too. I went home again, watched TV. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to Not Teach when you hurt. Apologies, by the way, to any one who caught strep from me. I wasn’t being noble; most of the time I go to the doctor they tell me I’m not sick.

I have now taken 1.5 sick days in four years; 4 days total in 7 years. I have something like 60 accrued days. As I’ve said, handling the teacher perks took some adjustment.

And so, we come to Teaching Oddness #3.

In order to understand teaching and absences, consider the many ways in which teaching absences are profoundly different from any other profession’s:

  1. The teacher can’t make up the time.
  2. The teacher can’t swap an absence with a colleague.
  3. A school can’t “work short”. Each class has to have a legally authorized adult present. Therefore every teacher absence incurs a direct expense to cover that absence.
  4. The substitute is in almost every case not as good as the teacher.

Remember, teacher days are already extremely restricted.In most traditional schedule schools, teachers get no more than an hour off during the day, and even in block schedules the max time off is 90 minutes. We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement.

Does any other profession operate with these constraints? I don’t think so. Yes, employee absence often creates expense, but not in such a brutally one-for-one fashion.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a while back, but have always wanted to revisit.

So let’s take the Teacher A and Teacher B case and make it a bit clearer. Note: I’m adding in PD for days worked, and just using $100 for costs when it’s probably higher, but this is just for illustration. And knowing me, I screwed this up, so put any corrections in the comments.

  Teacher A Teacher B
Salary 63,000 63,000
Sick Days 10 0
Days Worked 172 182
Actual Daily Pay 366 346
Daily Sub/Admin Cost 100 0
Yearly Replacement Cost 1000 0
District Total Cost 64,000 63,000
Per Day 352 346

So on a yearly basis, Teacher A is paid more per day worked, and costs the district more per day worked. Teacher B gets to accrue the sick leave, meaning that he or she will ultimately get paid more for the unused time, and take it as either a cash buyout or a pension increase, depending on the state. I am ridiculously fuzzy on these details for my own state, and I should get on this, because for all I know I’m losing days by hitting an accrual limit.

Some facts generally agreed to: female teachers are absent more than male, high-poverty schools see more absences than low-poverty schools. Elementary school teachers are absent more than high school teachers. The Clotfelter analysis is still the best resource, I think.

Every so often, reformers argue that accrued sick leave is a calamitous pension expense; other times reformers complain about teacher absences. Chris Christie, in his various tangles with government workers, says sick leave should have no cash value”.

I mean, that’s just idiotic. Corporate America has largely ended paid sick leave precisely because employees know better. Of course sick leave has cash value. Look at Teacher A and Teacher B. Teacher B is working more days for the same money, despite costing the district less—and that’s without taking into account the learning loss accrued by the students of absent teachers. Why should Teacher B tolerate this inequity?

I understand the pension problem. I just don’t see how anyone can seriously propose a solution that values teachers who take their sick leave more than teachers who don’t, given the constraints. (Let’s stipulate that teachers with strep should take their sick leave.)

My personal solution, as a teacher who doesn’t get sick, is pay us a good bit more and then actually dock us slightly for absences–say, the cost of a sub and an administrative fee. And I mean, pay us a good deal more because Chris Christie, despite his Trump endorsement, is a moron if he thinks sick leave has no value for any employee, much less employees in a job requiring a legally authorized adult presence in every classroom.

That’ll go over big. I know.

But absent teachers cost more and negatively affect student learning. I’m not blaming sick teachers. It’s a benefit, so use it. And I haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that districts will use school days for professional development, instead of putting it after school or on weekends and pay teachers a bit more.

I get it. But any restriction of pension or sick leave accrual is hurting the teachers who cost less and maximize student learning. Restricting the payment for additional time on the job predictably would lead to all teachers using all their sick leave every year. We could shorten the school year, given the number of teachers who’d just take off for the last two weeks.

Either way, take away the accrual or some form of compensation, and much as I hate it, I’ll just get better at sub plans.

So next time you read a proposal or jeremiad on teacher absenteeism, please remember the constraints above. Ask yourself what you’d do if someone was getting paid for fewer days on the job than you, without penalty—and all you had to do in order to get the same deal was take more days off.