Monthly Archives: August 2017

Great Moments in Teaching: Or, Browbeating Psychoanalysis

One of my strengths as a test prep instructor was spotting weird mental glitches that was interfering with a student’s success. I miss this part of the job, but every so often I get the chance in classroom teaching.  In this case, summer school trigonometry. I taught first semester in block 1, second semester in block 2, but I taught the same material in both classes.

I had about eighteen kids in the two classes, but eight of them took both classes, meaning they’d failed both semesters. All eight students repeating both semesters were stronger than the three weakest students repeating the second semester, and the weakest student just repeating first semester. Remember what I said about GPAs? Shining example, right here.

So this is a conversation I had with Warren on the next-to-the last day of class. Before you decide I’m a rotten bully, understand that I had raised this issue several times with Warren, but the message had, like everything else, rolled right off his back like whatever water does with a duck.

He was taking the final test, and had asked me to check it over before he turned it in. (This is a normal part of my class routine).

“OK, you’ve got quite a few cases where I’m asking for onions and you’re giving me a Jeep.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t. Like question 5. You’re using the Pythagorean theorem on a question asking you to understand and evaluate a trigonometric model.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I get it.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes. I see now.”

“NO YOU DON’T!” The class was now snorfling quietly, not out of mockery of Warren, but amusement at me. I was playing my aggravation very big.



“I know.”

” Then why are you done with the test? This one is not just mildly wrong. It’s Jupiter and we’re Earth.”

“I know.”


“I kno…OK.”

“What’s OK?”

“I understand what you’re saying.”

“No, you don’t.”


“No, it’s not OK!”

“OK..I mean, I know…Oh, sh**.” Warren is no longer a duck, but a deer, frozen.

“Listen to me.”


“No, see, already you’re not listening. Don’t try to make me happy. Don’t try to give me what I want. You’re trying to figure it how to make me happy and that one task is consuming all your brain cycles. JUST LISTEN.”

“I know…no. OK. I get it.”

Half the class was howling by this point, and I shushed them.

“This problem is incorrect. Not mildly incorrect. Way off. DON’T SAY A WORD. Continue to listen. Cover your mouth if you must. Say nothing until I ask you a direct question.”

Warren stood. Affect way off, smiling nervously.

“You came up here, telling me you were done, asked me to just look through for minor errors. But as I look through the test, I see that you have no idea how to do at least three of the eight problems. SAY NOTHING!” Warren closed his mouth. “In two cases, you came up here earlier and asked me for help. I gave  you guidance, you said ‘I know’, I told you no, you didn’t, tried again, got nowhere. And now you’re up here saying you’re done. We have an hour left of class. You are MANIFESTLY not done. When I point out an error, you say ‘I know’ but you clearly don’t mean it because you are up here saying that you are finished! No–I haven’t asked a question. Stay put.”

Warren stood. But I could see the panic fade a bit. He was starting to actually listen.

“This is a trig modeling question. It’s about temperature in a room. Max and min temp. 24 hours in a day. Yet you are using the Pythagorean theorem. Why, Warren, are you using the Pythagorean theorem? That is a question. You can answer.”

But Warren stood mute. I waited. The class snickered and I ferociously signaled them to stop.

“I….I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“EXACTLY! That’s it. Exactly. Perfect. Now, continue to listen. The reason you are confused, Warren, is because you are uninterested in math at this particular second, and entirely interested in making me happy because you think it will help your grade. But I want you to learn. And that involves asking questions. It involves thinking. It involves furrowing your brow and asking for clarification. Normally, you ask your friends for help, or copy what they’ve done and think you understand the math. Sometimes you do. Mostly, you don’t.You just know how to go through the motions.”

“But I asked for help.”

“No, you didn’t. You asked me to ‘look through’ the test. Earlier, you asked for help and ignored my response. You aren’t asking for feedback. You are going through a self-imposed ritual in the hopes that I will be impressed with your  effort. Then after each conversation,  you return to your work to try another random approach to a problem you don’t understand, as completely clueless as you were before you came up. You only know the math that triggers a routine in your brain. And when I try to fix that, you nod or say ‘I know’ but you have absolutely no conception of the possibility that I might be able to help you! In your learning world, friends are for help. Teachers exist to be placated and grade your work so you can get an A.”

Warren’s eyes widened. Apparently, he thought we teachers weren’t onto his scheme.

“But Warren, talking to me–talking to any teacher–is a conversation. A process. It is your job to communicate your confusion. It’s my job to try and give you clarity and undertanding. Our conversations are not mere rituals mandated by the Chinese American education canon. So let me ask the question a different way: When you were modeling trigonometric equations all this week, what pieces of information were relevant?”

Warren answered readily, “Amplitude. Period.”

“If I gave you the maximum and minimum points, how would you find amplitude and period?”

“I would sketch them and look for the middle.”

“Which is also the…..”

“Vertical shift.”

“OK. Now. Look at this problem. Do you see how this problem fits into that format? It describes the temperature in a corporate office. So what I want you to do now is go back and think about this problem. Think about how you could describe temperature in terms of max and min. Think about relating it to the time of day, hours past midnight. And then see if you can figure out how to work the problem.”

Warren obediently took the test and started to return to his seat, but stopped. “OK, but here’s what I don’t get. You’re asking us to solve an equation. But modeling is just building the equation. How come you’re asking us to solve the equation?”

I looked at the class. “Whoa. Did you hear what I heard?”

“A QUESTION!!!” and we all clapped loudly and genuinely for Warren, who smiled nervously again.

“Warren, I mentioned this over the past couple days: Trig equations don’t just occur in a vacuum. We build the equations to model the world. Then we look to the model to predict outcomes, which we do by solving for outputs given inputs, or vice versa. The problem covers both. It asks you to evaluate and explain the given model,  then it asks you to use the model as a trigonometric equation. In this case, I actually used function notation because I want to see if you understand it, but at other points, I’m using verbal descriptions.”



“Um. No. I don’t know how to start.”

I waited. The class waited.

“Could..could you give me a suggestion on how to start?”

“Is there something you could do to the given equation that might give you some insight?”


“I could…graph it, maybe?”

“There’s a thought. Then look at it, look at the multiple answers, and see how it goes.”

As Warren walked back to his desk, I mimed collapsing in fatigue. “And now, everyone, entertainment’s over. Get back to work.”

Warren worked on the test for another hour. He forgot and said “I know” and “OK” reflexively a few times, but stopped himself before I could, to both of our smiles. He came up each time with a specific question. He listened to my response.  He went back and worked on the problem based on my response and his new understanding.

On the last day of class, after the final bell rang, Warren came up to chat with me.

“Thanks for yelling at me.”

“You know, I was working towards a good cause.”

“You were right. I was coming up to ask you questions because that’s what other kids did, so I figured that’s what you wanted. I never really thought about getting help from you. I just kind of…work through something using whatever I remember, until I’m done.”

“Don’t be a zombie.”

“Okay–wait. What’s a zombie?”

“Don’t just work problems without any sense of what’s going on. That’s why you flunked Trig the first time, I’ll bet.”

“Yeah. I didn’t always understand Algebra 2, but I could follow the procedures. But Trig, I just couldn’t do that.”

“Yeah. Zombie thinking. Don’t do that. I mean–zombie thinking is what you’re doing in math. You get the answers from friends, you don’t care about understanding the math. You just go through the motions. The driving me crazy saying ‘I know’ stuff, that’s different. Plenty of zombies do a better job of asking for help!”

“I understand math a lot more the way you teach it, but I also….I couldn’t always figure out your tests.”

“That’s why you ask for help. And not from your friends. Look–school is about more than getting an A. It’s about more than giving teachers what they want so you’ll get an A. It’s about learning how to learn. You have to start communicating with teachers–good, bad, indifferent–and learn how to figure out what they’re telling you. That starts with asking for what you need. If you can’t communicate with a teacher right away, don’t just ask a friend. Half the time, they’re just doing what you do! Find teachers you can work with. You’re a really bright guy. Don’t let school ruin you.”

And then we talked about his college plans where–no joke–he asked me for advice.

Ten minutes later, as he walked out, he said: “Thanks again. I mean it.”

He knew a lot of math, and worked his way out of being a zombie. I gave him an A-.


GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.