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Principal Responsibilities in the Pandemic

Layfolk have little clue what principals do all day. For example, principals spend very little time evaluating teachers and that’s how they like it. Most of them aren’t terribly interested in outward metrics of student learning, like test scores.  Most school administrators only worry about problematic teachers on an exception basis: they don’t hear, they don’t care.

School administration is an intense, brutal management position that has a limited relationship to teaching. Issues that are largely unconsidered in the public perception are of fundamental and compelling importance to a school and its districts, dwarfing such piddling concerns as teacher quality. Merely excellent teachers aren’t terribly valuable in a principal’s currency. Without too much vanity, I can say that my students and colleagues alike consider me one of our school’s top three or four pure-play teachers. (meaning pedagogy, curriculum, delivery, effectiveness).  From a technical standpoint, I know my principal admires and appreciates my skill. From a school ecological health standpoint, my quality matters not at all. For years, my value to administrators was my ability to fill a teaching gap in any one of three subjects. Taking on a new responsibility six years ago bumped my stock skyhigh–which barely moved me into the lowest tier of valuable teachers. The top tier is peopled with the coordinators of school-wide initiatives: student activities, ELL testing, Title I.

Day to day operations combined with a series of one-offs rule the administrator world. Student discipline. Answering a tiny slice of the thousand emails received since 8 am. Parent phone calls. Meetings. Facility emergencies. District visits. Attending every single sporting event. Routine yearly or regularly scheduled events that nonetheless require planning, which at the high school level might look like: the master schedule, state tests, graduation, accreditation. Most of the intense planning occurs during the summer month when teachers and students are gone.

But these interrupt-driven tasks are actually a luxury permitted because the district manages the really important school responsibilities, the hulking beasts known as federal and state education mandates. These obligations are so essential and failure so threatening that the tasks are automated and audited by clerical or administrative staff at an expense of millions per year.

For example: attendance reporting is critical to school funding, audited at the district, county and state level. Principals aren’t usually evaluated on test scores. They are evaluated on whether or not their teachers take role. As in, if 90% or more of teachers in a school aren’t identifying any missing students on the expensive online attendance system and clicking “Save”, the principal will get some negative attention and an evaluation metric on that point for the next year.

Another important requirement:  a credentialed human being has to be in each classroom nearly every minute of the school day. As in the case of attendance management, districts spend millions each year to take this off individual administrators, usually with a teacher absentee system that allows substitute teachers to sign up for logged teacher absences. This frees principals from a task that would otherwise dominate their day–and, in fact, has dominated their days since the return from the pandemic occasioned a catastrophic sub shortage.

Then there’s the food issue. School researchers and reporters academically and casually use the term FRPL–the usual criterion for Title I designation–but far less attention is spent to the logistics of lunch time or, god spare me, breakfast time, particularly in elementary schools. It’s not just the money for food, but the scheduling, the hygiene standards, the workers, their pay, their hours, their substitutes….it’s a whole thing. No point in blaming federal mandates for this, mind you:  school lunch had  been in place for over fifty years in 1946, when Truman signed the National School Lunch program. (To this day I wonder why we never decided just to give school kids coupons for meals at local diners. Maybe just add the food cost onto SNAP cards? Sure would have been cheaper and more efficient.)

But the most significant requirement lurking at the edge of every principal’s worry horizon is special education. A behemoth of legal responsibility created by the unexpected collision between 1975’s special education law and 1991’s ADA, the legal mandate of IDEA and the civil right statute known as 504 have effects that were exacerbated by collisions created by medical advances and the APA’s ever-expanding DSM. The original special education law was intended for mildly “retarded” students but for the past 30 years, ever since it was retagged IDEA, the monster has created a whole slew of rights for kids who are a) severely mentally disabled, b) physically disabled (from minor to severe) and c) kids who have learning disabilities that were after the fact categorized as disabled. These are rights that only accrue to those with the magic three letter document known as an IEP, or the less-impressive but still powerful 504. (I would repeal IDEA in its current form, so take my pith with some salt.)

504 is primarily about disabilities that require equal treatment. IDEA covers “learning disabilities” that require equal educational opportunities. IDEA gradation goes from mild learning disability (executive function, auditory processing, ADHD) to low IQ but otherwise functional, to needs two paras and diapers and constant monitoring, to all that plus a $300k wheelchair, by which point school is little more than free institutional daycare.

Special education tasks are usually one-offs, only raising their head when a parent complains, which is often.  Ask any principal about the high-maintenance sped parents and they’ll have a list. Any time the parents are unhappy, well, just add more entries onto the day-to-day list–attend the IEP meetings, write careful emails, and so on.

So that was life before the pandemic closed all the schools. The method of teaching underwent a tremendous change,  but the responsibilities did not. Administration, on the other hand, had a pretty dramatic shift in responsibilities because they had to assume some of the responsibility for delivering legally mandated services.

First, the good news: they lost one responsibility, gained another that was easy to handle, and a lot of the day to day tasks got a lot easier.

Technology was the only new factor.  Ensuring Internet access was one of the easier tasks schools took on. In reality, students age twelve or over probably had a phone and at the high school level far too many students used their phone anyway. Younger than twelve, I’d argue online school wasn’t much use. Still, it was a popular method of looking productive. Look, we’ve passed out 300 Chromebooks. Easy metric.

Substitutes became a non-issue, at least on a daily basis. Most student disciplinary issues ended, once they got the zoom-bombing under control. No suspensions, no expulsions, and no teachers calling to remove students from the classroom.

Attendance would have been a problem except the binding federal and state mandates were first lifted and then redefined by legislative act or Betsy DeVos, depending.

The bad news: closing schools also closed the cafeterias.

Feeding students took up a great deal of a principal’s pandemic day. In urban and suburban regions, lunch distribution was a centralized activity; parents lined up at the school. I once counted a hundred cars–a quarter of a mile of cars–waiting for food delivery from an elementary school. In rural areas, where transportation is more of an issue, teachers themselves had to step in to distribute lunches. In either case, schools had to assume responsibility for feeding the kids that would otherwise be getting free meals from the cafeteria.  So in the early days of the pandemic,  food distribution took hours each day in the spring of 2020, and still consumed a lot of effort throughout the 20-21 school year.

The worst news: the special education beast rose to greet the pandemic monster and it’s still hard to figure out who won. I would love to know if anyone in education policy gave a thought to special education during those crazy weeks in March 2020. The binding, restrictive and costly laws that schools face were utterly unworkable. Shutting down infuriated one group of special ed parents, while staying open outraged the other.

There was no right answer for special education during the school shutdown era. Remote education screwed one big chunk of their population whose parents desperately wanted them in school ever day, while in-person education would trigger lawsuits from another chunk of parents who were convinced that covid exposure would kill their children.

Severely disabled students basically needed daycare and stimulus so, by definition, remote education violates their right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE). In Seattle, one of the earliest areas hit by the virus, a school district suspended all remote education for fear they’d be sued by parents or the federal government for failing to provide special education students equitable access. The Department of Education responded:

ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction

Translated: Districts can’t refuse to offer remote education using special ed mandates as an excuse–but districts still need to comply with special ed mandates.

Later, Betsy DeVos, who never met a public school she didn’t despise, issued guidance exempting schools from IEP compliance in the event of school closure but required compliance if only the school building was closed–that is, remote education was no excuse for IEP non-compliance.  Schools had to provide remote education and live with the fact that the feds could punish them for failing to meet special ed mandates.

Meanwhile, kids with any immunity issues had an instant ADA lawsuit were they required to attend in-person instruction–at the time, that is. Before the vaccine, everyone looked to the day when the  vaccine would eliminate the risks. Now we know there will never be any perfect protection, so the entire rationale that so terribly threatened schools is mostly a moot point. However, even after schools opened, sped parents whose child had an immune issue were furious at being forced out of remote–and some of them won lawsuits to gain that remote access.

The above is another logic point in support of my case that school districts heeded parents, not unions, in keeping schools closed. Yet another unacknowledged hierarchy: districts fear special ed parents far more than they fear unions. But even with the obvious violation of special education law and the threat of penalty from the federal government, schools still stayed in remote when that was what a majority of parents wanted. And even with the obvious risks of lawsuits that arose when schools were opened and no remote option was available, schools ended mask mandates when a majority of the parents called for it.

Based on their behavior, districts prioritized in this order: 1) overall parental preference, 2) special ed and 504 disability demands  3) in-person institutional needs of severely disabled students.

Generally, schools made the right bet. The lawsuits from angry sped parents whose severely disabled students were non-responsive and miserable all day haven’t been nearly as bad as originally feared. (Moreover, judges haven’t been totally sympathetic to the parents.) Settlements, on the other hand, in which the government just agrees to fork over compensatory services, are still an open issue.

So why am I nattering on about administrators, special ed, and lunch?

I’m trying to give a very rough, incomplete overview of actual school administrator responsibilities to give people  to a better grasp of school life during the pandemic. Principals had serious shit to deal with. They told teachers to figure out zoom and do their best. Even over the summer of 2020, it was district staff who focused on finding some curriculum they could use as talking points when asked what they were doing to help teachers with remote instruction.

For decades, we’ve been piling on additional responsibilities to public education. Finally, it turns out that during an emergency, actual education has to take a managerial back seat to those other demands.

In the main, teachers did much better than they were given credit for. I taught online nearly continuously from March 2020 to August 2021. I’m a good teacher. I adjusted my curriculum. Made sure my kids couldn’t easily cheat, and as much as possible eliminated cheating. And I’m here to tell anyone who’ll listen that teachers could not realistically cover the same material while ensuring student learning–that is, no cheating. We also couldn’t reasonable ensure student attention, or even presence. I’d say 70% of my kids learned 60% of a normal year. Teachers with more motivated students might be able to do better, but the harsh truth is (and those teachers will agree with me) using normal methods and teaching at normal pace meant the kids were cheating.

More administrative attention on teachers would not have improved results. If nothing else, the pandemic should lead people to question the value of virtual instruction. (Instead, since many parents are still terrified of covid19, they are booming in popularity.)

Principals had to completely reorient their world during the pandemic for remote instruction.Then consider the exponentially more hellish their lives became in hybrid mode, when some students are on campus and some still in remote, and teachers likewise.  Food and technology must still be delivered, but substitutes and student discipline get thrown back into the to-do pile. Additional levels of (ultimately needless) sanitizing. The only schools that would undergo hybrid would be blue state districts forced to comply with CDC restrictions as well as a white parent populations demanding in-person instruction (Vermont, sections of Connecticut and Washington). Polls showed that hybrid didn’t satisfy parents enough for the work it took–and teachers hated it.

My last article argued that parents, not unions, were the primary driver of school and district choices for remote or in-person education. By examining the administrative requirements of schools during the pandemic, it becomes clear why districts only opened if enough parents demanded it. If demand for in-person was weak, then the second group in priority, special ed parents with immunity concerns, as well as the hassles of hybrid, would prevail.

This puts the hybrid mode offered by NYC and Chicago in a different light.  While angry Republican moms bewailed the union control, the importance of white (taxpaying) parents, even as a minority, was such that these large districts went through the hassle of aggravating their unions and the expense of hybrid instruction (all that was possible given state governance) to at least partially assuage these constituents.

But generally, districts had no incentive to push for inperson instruction without parent support, even though they clearly saw the problems with remote learning.  Absent significant majorities for in-person instruction, remote would be the preferred delivery.


The Real Reason for School Closures

Now that we’ve finally moved on from covid19, can we also look honestly at what was driving school closures?

Most importantly, school board bureaucrats weren’t controlling a furious parent population anxious to get their kids back to school.

I knew closing schools was a horrible idea back in March 2020, and opposed everything short of return to in-person instruction. But even though the reporting on school closures was very solid, the narrative was universally wrong.

So I thought I’d go through the data to paint a more accurate picture. Schools were fully remote when a majority of parents in the school or district wanted them that way. For reasons no one entirely understands, parent choice was strongly influenced by one particular demographic factor. There is some variation on this, but it’s by far the most reliable predictor.

Where’s the rage?

NYTimes writer Jessica Grose described her surprise at recent polling showing that parents are generally happy with their public schools, even after the pandemic.

This isn’t new. Polls consistently showed all through the pandemic that 70-80% of parents  were satisfied with their schools’ response. Dozens of polls tell the same story.

Morning Consult has been polling on education throughout the pandemic.

In October 2020, they found that most parents polled wanted remote education and, of those parents who had a choice, most chose virtual learning.

In April 2021 they found that most parents (82%) were very or somewhat satisfied with how their school responded and both the general public and parents were surprisingly satisified with local and national teachers unions (well under 30% strongly or somewhat disapproved, while 48% (public) and nearly 60% (parents) strongly or somewhat approved of local and national teachers unions.

In November 2021, Democrats won the education question so thoroughly among pollsters that Morning Consult advised Republicans to focus on the economy instead.

Morning Consult also runs a tracking poll on parental preference for instruction method, comfort with inperson instruction, and beliefs on school reopening. While they only poll 400-500 adults, the results do not in any way support the preferred narrative. Even today, 21% of parents thought schools were opened too quickly and no more than 50% at any tme believed they were opened at the right speed–and at no point in time did more than 50% of parents think in-person instruction was the best solution.

All polls reject the narrative of Goliath school districts beating down the little David parents who finally banded together to fight.  Polls mostly show a very contented parent pool, consistently at 70% or over satisfaction, with relatively little unmet demand for in-person instruction. At a time when increased media attention was occupied by furious parents with megaphones, most parents were quietly satisfied with their schools’ response to a difficult situation.

Political Approval

Polls also seem to contradict the assertion that aggressively lenient covid19 policies were the road to political success. Covid19 hawk politicians seemed to have more voter approval than covid doves.

Gavin Newsom of California, who enforced remote instruction by mandate longer than any other state,  won a recall with just 49% approval on covid19–but a lot of that disapproval was from covid19 hawks pissed he hadn’t been more restrictive.  Recently he’s been polling at 60% on his covid19 handling. New Mexico’s Michelle Grisham, another governor who kept schools closed for a long time, doesn’t have great polling on crime and economy, but her covid policy approval is at 60%. Meanwhile, Florida’s DeSantis, much lauded by school opening proponents, saw his polls go up and down; while Florida is gaining a lot of transplants who like his policies, the natives are split. Texas’s Greg Abbott has tracking polls specifically on covid, and his approves were almost always lower than his disapproves.

If the policies that Abbott and DeSantis insisted on were as popular and obvious as their media fans would have it, shouldn’t they be getting raves for their policies?

Newsweek evaluated governor polls a year ago and found that “Democrats and Republican governors in blue states appear to have benefited the most from their approach to the crisis, while Republicans in deep-red states have largely suffered if they did not take strong action against the virus.”

So there’s a clear cognitive dissonance between the opinion rhetoric from all areas of the political and media arena (where even the covid19 hawks are defensive) and the public opinion polls, which seem to be largely satisfied with whatever policy their state has to offer, but not noticeably preferring aggressive re-openers.

The First Variable

Everything gets a bit clearer by tossing race into the narrative.

Race? Good lord, why think about race?

Well, for starters, pretty much everything about public schools involves race. It’s the first variable. It’s the one researchers and the media control for when they want to blame public education for its failure, and the one they ignore when it brings up questions no one wants to answer.

For another, like most issues involving education, viewing the issue through a racial prism is instructive–even if, as in this case, it’s hard to figure out why the racial aspect exists. Any poll on parent preference that controlled for race–which was most of them–showed the same results: white parents were consistently distinct from non-whites. They were the first to demand school openings, in-person instruction, and the first to reject mask mandates and vaccine mandates.

For once the journalist side of the media did its job in reporting the parental preference. There are dozens of articles like Angry White Parents vs. the Public School System:

Belying the issue of urban school districts’ hesitance to reopen for in-person learning amid outcries from mostly white and upper-middle class parents is a complex racial dynamic that underscores how the coronavirus pandemic was experienced by and has affected groups of people differently.

Or More non-white than white parents prefer remote learning for their children

 White parents are least happy with online learning. Only 34% of white families prefer fully remote school, compared with 58% of Hispanic, 59% of black, and 66% of Asian families.

Every state in the country  has produced articles or research discussing the racial imbalance of parent preference, that non-white parents were reluctant to return to inperson instruction and whites were eager and angry at any delays.  National surveys told the same story. By November 2020, 45% of “low-minority” districts throughout the country were offering full-time in-person instruction, while only 28% of “high minority” districts were–and “low minority” and “high minority” cover a huge range.

Combining this clear racial distinction in education model preferences, and then adding in the fact that most school districts don’t reflect America’s demography on a percentage basis, and much becomes clear. From the earliest days of the pandemic to today, white parents are disproportionately the covid-19 doves. This pattern is found throughout the country and holds up regardless of state covid19 policy, political affiliation, or relative union strength.

The race factor is often obscured to those who don’t go looking for it. Regional and school demographics don’t always run in tandem.  Many majority white counties have majority non-white school districts.  For example, Arlington County is 60% white, but the school district is 46% white. Fairfax County  is 50% white but its school district is 39% white.  San Francisco’s school district is 34% Asian, 31% Hispanic, 14% white, and 8% black, while the city itself is 39% white, 34% Asian, 16% Hispanic, and 5% black. These differences matter when the racial pattern of support for strict covid19 policies is so clearly predictive.

Sometimes seemingly inexplicable decisions make more sense when district demographics are taken into consideration. For example, Michael Brendan Daugherty was furious earlier in the year when two neighboring districts in Westchester County ended mask mandates while his district was still mandating them. But the two neighboring districts are 75% white and if MBD still lives in Mt. Kisco, his school district is just over 50% white.

Similarly, urban charters closed for as long as their public counterparts. In California, charter students were more likely to be in remote instruction than publics (63 to 55) and less likely to be in hybrid or full-time, a finding that Martin West’s excellent survey confirmed nationwide as well.

That charters were more likely to be remote than publics is very consistent with the racial preference in covid policy argument, as the charter student population is majority non-white, and thus more likely to favor remote instruction.

School Choice

Polls were the very first sign of different racial attitudes towards opening schools. But revealed preferences show the same story. Whenever parents were given a choice for in-person instruction–at least where we can track the data–white parents were far more likely to take that choice. Non-white parents were far more likely to stay in remote mode, even when state leadership was aggressively in favor of in-person instruction.

Florida and Texas were hailed by the conservative media and chastised by the mainstream media for their bold approach to opening schools. Meanwhile, New York City and Chicago were targeted by the conservative media and, eventually, the mainstream media for their delayed reopenings.

At various points in the year, Chicago, New York City, Houston, and a wide swath of central Florida either a) surveyed its entire parent population for enrollment intent or b) tracked each student by actual enrollment choice. All four areas provided datasets revealing parental preferences for in-person or remote instruction and included a wide variety of family demographics.

In September 2020, Houston polled all the parents in its districts on whether they were coming to school in person or remote. A central Florida newspaper collected school data attendance, remote vs in-person, for several districts in November 2020.  In March 2021, Chicago queryed its parents in k-8 schools on intent to enroll. New York City collected enrollment choices throughout the pandemic year.

Only one of these data sources coded parental choice by race. But all district and school demographic data is publicly available information and while it’s boring to look up every district and school for that information, it’s not difficult. That makes it possible to compare percentage of white students to percentage of students opting for in-person instruction.

A.  Chartdinpersonwhite

B. Chartainprsonwhite

C. Chartbinpersonwhite

D.chartcinpersonwhite

Logic will aid in matching  graph to region. Politics will not. In all cases,  white students are positively correlated with in-person instruction. Governance or unions or even time in pandemic cycle doesn’t affect the strong white preference for in-person instruction. (It’s theoretically possible that more white students in a school led more non-white kids to opt in and the white students to opt out, but I’m hoping it’s obvious that’s not the most likely explanation.)

Graph A: 5 central Florida counties (November 2020, actual enrollment, source).  While the data patterns have the widest range, I looked up several of the outliers and found a few inconsistencies. For example, Hegerty High School has a 66% white population with  only 3% in-person enrollment, according to the data record. But several stories  written just a couple months after the data record makes it clear that a much larger percentage is in school.  So some outliers are probably genuine, others might be errors.

While I’m on the topic of Florida, nowhere was the narrative more egregiously skewed than on the fabled state where “the schools are open”. As the data shows, many non-white schools were in remote mode. The two largest counties had similar patterns. Broward County (65% nonwhite) and Miami Dade County (90% nonwhite) refused to open their schools  at all until October and November.  By the end of the 2021 school year, half of Miami’s public school students and 55% of Broward County’s were still in remote. Both counties were described by Edweek as “open for wide-scale, inperson learning”. Nat Malkus of AEI introduced an instructional status tracker that scraped school district websites and determined how many districts in each state were offering in-person instruction. His tracker showed Florida’s districts as 100% in-person from its inception.

Both Edweek and Malkus may have been technically accurate, but when half of the two largest Florida districts were remote for the entire year and large chunks of central Florida were likewise choosing remote, perhaps these statements were a tad misleading.

30% of all Florida students were still in remote instruction in February 2021. Given the pattern above, it’s very likely most of those students were non-white.

Graph B: Houston (September 2020, enrollment intent, source). Texas governor Greg Abbott was very aggressive about opening schools, believing long before it became common knowledge that remote education was bad for students. In fact, the open nature of Texas schools was a compare-contrast case to New Mexico in Pro Publica’s heartrending story of a high school football star’s suicide in New Mexico. But even though “the schools were open in Texas”, Texas students of color returned to person in below average rates: ” 56% percent of Texas students on average returned to on-campus instruction during the school year, including 75% of white students, about 53% of Black students, 49% of Hispanic students and 31% of Asian students.”

Graph C: New York City (Jan 2021, actual enrollment, source). NYC has the least impressive trendline in my graphs given the fact that almost no school had a majority white population. But the NYC data source has something that none of the others have: a breakdown of all students’ in-person or hybrid selection by race, which makes another easy graph possible (I only do easy graphs):

Chartcstacked

One of every two white NYC students chose inperson, as opposed to 1 in 3 Hispanics, 3 in 10 blacks, and 1 in 5 Asians.

Graph D: Chicago (March 2021, enrollment intent, source). As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in  the New Yorker back in February,  the first time the Chicago teachers refused to return to class, roughly a third of Asians, Hispanics, and blacks signaled an intent to return to in-person instruction and of those numbers less than half of blacks and Hispanics and only 60% of Asians actually showed up. Meanwhile, two-thirds of whites opted in and 75% of that group actually showed.

Four regions. Two different covid19 policies. Same pattern. These are  parents making choices based on identical policies offered, often in the same schools.

Was Race a Proxy for Politics?

Nate Silver has speculated that the racial skew in education preferences is just reflecting political preferences.

Indisputably, Democrat governors were far more covid-hawkish than GOP governors, and GOP-run states were more likely to allow full-time in-person instruction. State political control was the second biggest factor in school opening decisions and in my telling, Democrat governors bear a huge amount of the blame for the angry white parents (a topic for a second piece I’m working on, assuming I ever finish this one).

But why were Democrats more cautious and controlling? Why were Democrats stressing safety long after the media had determined that covid19 didn’t pose much of a risk to young people? Perhaps because there weren’t millions of angry parents.

To disentangle this, begin with the fact that the progressive left went totally nuts on covid. I don’t know if it began as a reaction to Donald Trump’s desire to play down the pandemic or a genuine fear of a virus that wasn’t all that dangerous for most of us, but even today thousands, possibly millions of people are still covid hysterics freaked out that mask mandates are ending, and they all are the sort who post their pronouns.

The moderate left did not go totally nuts, or at least got less scared much faster. That’s why Democrat politicians are so terrified that a midterm meltdown awaits them, right?

But who is the moderate left?   Non-whites aren’t particularly progressive.  It’s well-established of late that progressive, “woke” Democrats are much more likely to be white, that non-white Democrats are more centrist and moderate.

Building out from that fact: if politics controlled choices, then centrist non-whites should behave more like moderate white Democrats,  favoring in-person instruction and less restrictive policies.  But the evidence shows exactly the opposite. So either nonwhites are more progressive than is currently thought, or non-white centrist Democrats are behaving differently from white centrist Democrats and politics is a less effective predictor than race.

To separate politics from race, I looked at three cases.

Case 1: how did Republican politicians respond to the demands of majority non-white districts? If these districts wanted in-person instruction, the politicians themselves would owe no allegiance to the teachers unions and would readily open the schools.

But data above from Florida and Texas show nonwhites actively opted for remote instruction. Couple that evidence with that from Mississippi, a state with weak unions and a governor who aggressively opened schools (and oh, by the way, had pretty terrible polls as a result). The six poorest school districts in Mississippi, all entirely African American students, were online for the entire 20-21 school year. Then consider Tennessee, where just 1 in 4 students started the 2021 year in remote. Yet in two largest schools districts, the remote rates were  46% (Nashville, 75% non-white) and 67% (Shelby County Schools, 88% nonwhite–and by the way, when allowed to go mask optional, just 2% took the deal in the early days).

GOP governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Democrat state, had to beg schools to open by March, and Baltimore City schools were still primarily remote for most of the year. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, also a Republican running a blue state, first started pushing in November 2020 to convince districts to open, but 23% of students were still in full-time remote instruction in February.  Boston, the largest district, (15% white) didn’t start opening schools to the general population until March while Springfield, the second largest district (10% white),  delayed opening even elementary schools until April.

One of the more interesting and instructive examples of politicians responding to race-related covid hawkishness better than politics just took place in Virginia. Glenn Youngkin ran on ending the mask mandate. Virginia’s counties are school districts, for the most part, so it’s very easy to map county demographics, governor support, and–thanks to the Washington Post–whether or not the district went mask optional after Youngkin’s declaration but before the lawsuit was decided. The first graph shows the county’s decision to go mask optional or mask mandate based on the percentage of white students in the district. The second breaks down the decisions further by the district governor support. (Forgive the weird colors.)

VAwhitepopmask

vapoliticalpopmask

As the Washington Post story noted, many districts were simply holding onto the mandate until the court case was decided, for all sorts of legal reasons I’ll try to discuss in my next piece on this. This probably explains the outliers.  Still, many Republican voting districts with majority non-white student populations held onto the mandate.

Case 2: What did schools do in  majority white Democrat states? If politics drove school policy, then Vermont (90% white) and Washington (63% white) should have had the same school closure patterns as more diverse Democrat states.

In Vermont,  just 14% of students were in remote and 30% of students were in school full time by February 2021. At no point in the entire 20-21 year were Vermont students more than 18% remote. High school students were rarely allowed to return full-time, but were overwhelmingly in hybrid mode.

In Washington,  statewide data shows that much of the state had open schools (light and dark blue).

Washingtoninperson

The map on the left outlines the Trump voting counties. The northwest and a southeast corner of dark blue did not vote for Trump, but have plenty of dark blue. The map on the right is all the majority white districts which account for the dark and medium blue areas that the Trump voting regions miss.

WashingtonTrumpCovidWashingtonWhiteCovid

Only with the white majority district map do you see how many districts had lukewarm Trump support and decent to high in-person instruction.

Thus, in at least two majority white states dominated by Democrats, school options were far more similar to Republican states and very unlike diverse Democrat states.

The final case, and the most difficult to hunt down, is the inverse of majority white Democrat regions. What did majority non-white counties that voted Republican do?  I found two, one that went each way.  Dodge City School District, a Republican area with a school districts that’s 80% Hispanic, saw 95% of kids choose in-person instruction despite very high covid19 rates. Another, Zapata County, despite governor Greg Abbott’s stated priority for open schools and inperson instruction, was one of the school districts that begged for more time in remote instruction and pushed the time to even offer in-person instruction, much less open the schools to everyone, to December. No helpful conclusions there.

Recently,  Report Card podcast’s Nat Malkus discussed his Return to Learn tracker that’s been updated to reflect mask mandates, and he goes on for half an hour about political views and never once mentions race.  It’s depressing how often people attempted to correlate political positions with covid19 policies. Many public schools are filled with students whose immigrant parents can’t vote. Moreover, school districts only occasionally overlap with counties. But school districts faithfully report their racial demographics. It’s much easier to correlate racial demographics than political ones. So easy a teacher could do it! For some reason few researchers wanted to go there.

It Wasn’t Unions

(I originally had a lot more rebuttal to the “unions closed the schools” narrative, but that was probably my obsession talking.)

The most common culprit offered up for continued remote education are teachers unions–although most union leaders think of their responsibility as credit, not blame. In fact, unions were at best tertiary.

Randi Weingarten has no power to influence the teachers in her union–and by the way, her union is an also-ran of the Big Two. (Quick, name the president of the really powerful union, the NEA. No googling.) Weingarten’s primary job is as fundraiser and showboat, not teacher representative. What Weingarten advises the CDC has absolutely no impact on school closures. Governors weren’t bound to follow the CDC, and many didn’t.

Several studies purported to find union strength as predictive of remote education, most notably Corey De Angelis’s study of September 2020.  DeAngelis used four metrics of union strength: right to work status, Fordham Institute ranking, percentage of union members in labor force and increase in union menbers at county level. If I’m reading this correctly, only the Fordham Institute ranking was directly related to teacher union strength. All but four of the right-to-work states are over 60% white. Two of the states with right to work laws, Texas and Florida, have clear patterns of large percentages of non-white students opting out of in-person instruction.

The Fordham Institute rankings are good, and when DeAngelis used this ranking, he found that a10% increase in “union power” made a school 1.3% more likely to close, which doesn’t seem to be all that much.

In any event, exceptions to the union story abound.

For all the complaints,  New York City, considered to have strong unions, opened schools relatively early in December, February, and  March for elementary, middle, and high school. Similarly union-strong Chicago opened schools by March. California didn’t open most of its schools until April and only after Gavin Newsom essentially bribed the school boards , not the unions, to open. Even then, at least three large districts stayed in remote education all year.

New York, California, and Illinois are ranked in the top ten for most powerful teacher unions states but had wildly different reopening schedules. One possibility: New York City and Chicago need their white parents for their tax base, and assuaging them to the extent possible would have to be a high priority. Meanwhile, California has different power bases depending on the location. In the northeastern part of the state, just a third of all students were in remote mode.  (Quick, guess what blue stands for in this California county map.)

Meanwhile, Montana, third on the list for most powerful teachers unions and with a Democrat governor, opened schools in May 2020 and by September 2020, most schools–not school districts, but schools–were open for full-time instruction. Ohio has strong unions but its schools were mostly opened in September, as were the aforementioned Vermont and Washington, both with strong unions.

DC, with unions so weak they can’t even get rid of performance pay, opened schools in February.

Texas and New Mexico, whose school policies were compared in the Pro Publica football piece, both have very weak unions yet had entirely different re-opening policies at the state level. (These two states are an interesting contrast, more on this some other time.)

North Carolina has very weak unions, and is over 60% white. School boards were given the choice at the beginning of the 2020 school year to go full remote, hybrid, or full-time in person. Last amateur graph, I promise:

ncremote

Another study finding that union strength correlated with closures found that districts with Catholic schools were more likely to open for in-person learning. As it happens, North Carolina isn’t terribly Catholic, but its recent Hispanic influx has increased the numbers over the past 20 years. There are 46 Catholic private schools in the state. Forty of them are in districts that chose remote; six were in districts that opted for in-person. Of those six schools, 5 were in counties that were 50-80% white. One was an outlier, just 34% white.

Why?

I don’t know why white parent preferences varied so distinctly from the others. Nor do I “blame” non-white parents for taking the remote option, even though that preference clearly appeared to have damaged educational outcomes for low income black and Hispanic children.

As Andy Smarick wrote a year ago, making many similar observations to the ones here: “the story hasn’t been politics, unions, laziness, risk-aversion, or ignorance. It’s been parents, pluralism, and self-government.”

A year ago. His article was largely ignored, as were the many polls and stories reflecting the fact that schools were in fact responding to local parent demand.

How would things have changed if the debate had honestly acknowledged the reason for school closures? Both sides were actively distorting reality. For every “open the schools” advocate, there was a matching “covid19 is dangerous” proponent. But in fact, the correct answer to “open the schools” was “the majority of parents in your district disagree with you”–a response the covid19 hawks didn’t want to give because they wanted to present school closures as “science”.

Perhaps an honest discussion would have gone into when and how it was easier and less expensive to default to closed schools, and when the odds went the other way. Perhaps acknowledging the schools never should have been closed would have been helpful and, having made this mistake, that parents should never have been given a choice to keep their kids home once schools were open again.

The irony, of course, is that most of the loudest voices advocating for opening schools are often in favor of giving parents a choice.

I’m not interested in blame. I’m interested in making sure people understand what happened because lord knows I don’t want this to happen again.

But that’s for the next article. (At least, I hope so. I’m a slow writer.)

(Note: I edited this after I posted it, focusing all the union content in one area, and I added a review of the Corey DeAngelis study. No other changes were made. I just realized I was getting a tad obsessive about the “union closed the schools” narrative).


Same Thing All Over Again–But Events Happen

Many, many irritating things happened during the omicron phase, things that sent me into a mild depressive episode. One happy note, however, was that the union obsessive pretense that covid19 is dangerous meant we could have staff and department meetings on Zoom.

Our staff meetings occur before school, so we start the actual school day late. But the meeting start time is half an hour earlier than the normal school day beginning. So I have to get to school half an hour earlier on a day when school starts half an hour late. This induces a cognitive dissonance that eleven years at the same school has never entirely resolved, and every week, I’m at best five minutes late. Zoom meetings allows me to actually leave later in the day and listen to the meeting in my car. On time. Given that two years of school insanity has never once played in my favor, this feels like win.

Anyway.

Our department chair, Benny, was explaining….wait. Before I begin this story, I want to be clear that I’m not really criticizing anyone involved, including Benny. I should also mention, as I have before, that our school is blissfully indifferent to test scores. Admins really don’t care. This exercise I’m about to describe is about as far as we get to caring. Also relevant: since Common Core, juniors take a test that has multiple levels but from a practical standpoint is binary. Students are either “college ready” or they aren’t.

So Benny was asking for volunteers to run brief 30-minute math tutorials designed to help students review topics. We have an intervention time after lunch that can be used for this purpose. Nothing new; we’d done this for the two years pre-pandemic. Except.

“So we’ve identified the kids who failed algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2 and give them the opportunity to come to tutoring.”

Wait, what? Kids who failed what?

In years past, we had all agreed that kids who failed algebra I and geometry had not a single chance in hell of testing as college ready.  I had argued, unsuccessfully, that we should still tutor those kids and bump their failing grade if they got….better. To use SAT terms: “college ready” is around 600 Math (top 30%). Any junior who was still working on algebra 1 or geometry would be rocking that test at 450.

I know kids in our school who made it to precalc and got a 500 on the SAT math section and did not pass the college readiness standard.

So Benny was suggesting that kids who’d had multiple shots at algebra 1 and geometry would somehow be able to pick up all they’d failed to understand the first time as well as all the topics they needed in algebra 2 in ten 30 minute sessions.

He’s also suggesting we give this tutoring to the kids who failed algebra 2. But in a good year, pre-pandemic, 60-70% of the kids taking and succeeding at algebra 2 don’t test as college-ready. Kids who failed algebra 2 were not good candidates for passing the college readiness marker. And tell them that if they succeed at an impossible task, we’ll change their grade but only if. Not just for trying.

I said nothing. All hail Zoom.

“If they go to all the tutoring sessions and make college-ready on the test, we’ll change their F to Pass.”

“What about the students that are marginal but passed algebra 2, trig, or pre-calc? We should give them the same tutoring. And kids who flunked pre-calc or calculus, they’d be eager for that deal.” suggested Pete.

In a good year, pre-pandemic, these were the kids we tutored. We spent time identifying the students who had it together enough to pass three or four years of math with a C+, a B, or even a shaky A, and gave them support. That’s what you always do, if you’re looking to get maximize kids across a finish line. These were the kids who had a shot at passing the test.

“No,” responded Benny. “The test only goes through algebra 2 material. Kids who’ve passed algebra 2 should be able to pass this test without tutoring or an incentive.” 

I said nothing. I didn’t volunteer, either. All hail Zoom.

*********************************************************

In the early days of my blog I would have immediately documented this craziness to provide some insight into how things work. Benny is, like all my colleagues, a progressive Democrat. But in math teacher typology, I’m the woke-conversant social justice warrior. Benny’s the traditionalist (check out our pass rates in this algebra 2 article). I know for a fact Benny doesn’t think his target group is up to the task he’s set. I know this because four years ago, we all agreed that the tutoring pool should be comprised of strong, motivated juniors taking algebra 2 or trig, along with any pre-calc students with Cs. This was the group whose pass rate we might be able to move from 0-10% to 30-50%.

Even more notably, in years past, I would have spoken up to make this very observation. I wouldn’t have been alone, either. Yet no one spoke up.

I’m not sure which is more worthy of comment: I’ve stopped bothering to write about the crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life, or I’ve stopped pushing back on crazy unreasonable plans that show up in my teacher life.

The first is easier to explain: events, dear boy, events. Both progressives and education reformers upped the nuttiness. The SAT changed to be a much harder test, then became irrelevant. Common Core spent billions on nothing. Two of education reform’s three legs got chopped off.  There was a pandemic and most of the craziness in that era I couldn’t bitch about because it was more central to my location than I usually allow online. Moreover, I try to say it once or maybe twice and then move on, linking to the original article to say “still this.”

The second question is more interesting because it’s not the usual answer. I’m not burnt out. I’ve not given up. I still care. I gritted my teeth and actually picked up my phone to put an observation in the chat yes, while driving, but Benny had set “Chat to Host Only” and so I didn’t end up driving into a ditch while typing a carefully worded but cynical comment.

If I have one Big Idea on high school math instruction*, it’s this: teach less and learn more. Find your comfort limit and develop your skills. Move on if you’re interested.

Kids who struggle with math could productively learn to apply arithmetic, geometry, and a little bit of algebra. The next group, the bulk of high school students, could do a huge amount of math with all that plus second year algebra, basic trig, and some stats. Top tier really should stop at analytic geometry, functions, and more trig. We could teach so much math that calculus could wait until college.

We will never be able to do this, because everything in education is about race. Astonishing, really, why more people can’t grasp that basic reality. Pick any education proposal you like, apply race, and you’ll realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

But individual schools like mine can still focus on helping kids at every point of the spectrum, even if we have to work through the state mandated structures for class sequencing. In terms of test prep, state tests might only focus on how many students were “college ready”, but we could focus on our average score. Maximize everyone’s score and celebrate that our lowest achievers worked hard to get every question right. This is, in fact, what we did the year before the pandemic. Absent that, we could focus solely on the students who are near the line and increase their pass rates, as I mentioned above.

My first five years at this school, I spent hours advocating for my vision. Chuck, the math coach, and I did our best to find a math path in our existing curriculum to route weaker students through. We differed on end goals–Chuck felt students should fall out by failing, I thought any plan that had students getting Fs by design was absurd–but we both shared the goal of homogenizing our classes so we could teach more content to those who were able and willing. In 2019, we took the top half of algebra 2 juniors, along with the non-honors precalc students and gave them prep sessions. This *dramatically* increased our college ready numbers to nearly half, when in prior years, before and after Common Core, we were happy with low 30%.

In early 2020 we had just started our tutoring groups for the state tests. Juniors still in A1, geo, and bottom half of A2 got skill review on the basics, to raise their confidence and willingness to try on the test. We also prepped the A2/Precalc students as described above.

Then the pandemic shut everything down. No tests in 2020, no prep in 2021 because of a different schedule. We get back in 2022, and the policy is now back to “let’s only give tutoring to kids who have no prayer of passing the test and promise them something they really need but only if they pass the test.”

And only as I wrote this did I realize that Chuck retired at the end of 2019.

Chuck, who endlessly advocated and presented at the district and administrative level. Chuck, whose emails reminding me to be sure to fail more kids annoyed me, but who was at least on the same page. Chuck, who was far more successful than I understood until he left.

Personnel matters.

That’s not the reason I originally began writing this, but once again, writing things down helps me find insight. Need to keep that in mind.

A couple other points.

When I mention events in the title, I wasn’t thinking of Chuck’s retirement but two other major ground shifts. For four years or more, major state university systems and their community colleges have completely abandoned remediation (See “Corrupted College” for details). In all the coverage, left and right, approving and disapproving, of the wholesale abandonment of SAT/ACT requirements in college admissions, no one mentions an obvious fact: grades are worthless. If grades are worthless, then schools up and down the selectivity food chain are going to acquire thousands of students whose transcripts say 4.0 but whose abilities are at the ninth grade or lower level. It seems to me that this will necessarily lower standards dramatically for college diplomas.

While improving math achievement for all students is a worthwhile goal and one I sign on to, my original advocacy for tutoring on state standardized tests was sourced in my desire to help students avoid expensive college remediation and for those of those who needed it, give them a better leg up to pass those remediation classes.

That’s pretty clearly  no longer going to be an issue. Thus, while I still think this approach is crazy and cruel, my concerns about their future in a degraded college system is less acute.

The second shift comes in answer to a question some might be wondering about: Why not Ed for Chuck?  Why don’t I volunteer for Chuck’s work?

My first response is hahahahahaha. Chuck’s job not only needed diplomacy and adminspeak, but also organization and focus. I’m 0 for 4. Moreover, Chuck had spent years teaching at an elite local (public) high school and had transferred here specifically to take on this task. He cared about teaching, but wanted to run a program, and taught less as a result. I care about teaching, and don’t like teaching less.

But the second response came a bit more slowly. Over the past five years, I’ve also undergone a shift in teaching topics, one that utterly gobsmacked me. If you’d asked me a decade ago how I would branch out, I’d have said my druthers were to still teach math, but up my quota of history and English. Ideally, say, in an AP Lang/Lit/US History class designed for bright kids who can read well but hate homework. I also predicted I’d be doing more mentoring.

None of that came true. Instead, I’m teaching with no prep (yay! more money, more variety, less boredom!) and running a program that I don’t talk about because it’s too specific**. But I am making a difference at the individual student level (from remedial to excellent) and the school-wide level with tons of money (which I need***) and  visibility (which I don’t).

Now, we can all agree that I’m an ornery cuss who seeks out the hard way every time. But surely, if I’m not looking for something that falls into my lap, I should take it and run with it rather than beat my head against a wall on an issue that is contrary to stated policy, requires endless handling and maintenance, and gives me no visibility except as a troublemaker?

Don’t worry, though. After I began this piece our district ended staff and department zoom meetings. Back to in-person, where I will inevitably mouth off.

*********************
*Actually, all subject instruction.
**Please don’t speculate, particularly to others. Remember how I wear anonymity.
***Not me personally. For the program.


Murray/Sailer on Powerline Podcast

This is more of a comment than a fully-developed article, but I though I’d try to be timely. It refers to part one of Steve Hayward’s conversation with Charles Murray and Steve Sailer for the Power Line podcast.

It was as great (as expected), but Charles Murray had one response that I don’t think Steve Hayward followed up on enough, and it’s important. At one point, Murray says, accurately, that conservatives don’t like to talk about race and cognitive ability. It makes them uncomfortable. He then added that the cognitive ability aspects of education totally mess with the permanent libertarian zeitgeist that says hard work is everything.

As it happens, I’ve written about this a lot. My favorite piece about a conservative who is made uncomfortable by a frank reference to race and education was written in response to a podcast as well: Making Rob Long Uncomfortable in which Heather MacDonald goes off on a rant about black underperformance. Rob’s response is a textbook case of discomfort. He was fine talking about bad schools and lazy teachers, but when MacDonald goes there you can, as I said, practically hear Rob’s toes shrieking across the bathroom tiles. It’s hilarious. I then do some verb conjugation on the hypocrisy of the right on this point. (“They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.”) Not, I hasten to add, that the left isn’t in hideous shape on this point.

I also mention the fact that few conservatives, in their review of the craziest of the libertarian batshits, Bryan Caplan, mentioned the obvious racial implications in his book The Case Against Education. Hard to tell whether I was more infuriated by Caplan, who combines “let’s kill public education” with “let’s open the borders”, or the dozens of conservative media reviews that never mentioned the obvious racial implications of his policies. I wrote a whole series on Caplan’s book, as I found it exceptionally dishonest when it wasn’t just being facile: How Did We Get Here?,  Pre-Employment Testing, Toe Fungus Prevention,How Well Are Americans Educated? and the one in which I go through the ramifications of Caplan’s policies on black Americans,  Average Was Always Over.

What Murray didn’t mention, and I was surprised Steve Sailer didn’t, is that there’s a perfectly good political reason why conservatives don’t acknowledge the racial dimensions of cognitive ability. Conservatives and libertarians all want to destroy public schools. And by “conservatives”, I generally mean it’s an openly expressed Republican policy, one that actually isn’t shared by the conservative think tanks that focus in on education in any responsible way. Rick Hess, Robert Pondiscio, and Nat Malkus aren’t thrilled with public schools and they support charters and vouchers (at least I believe they do), but they don’t call for the wholesale elimination of public schools. More importantly, Republican voters don’t share this disdain (check out the EdNext poll–barely 50% of Republicans support charters, for example, and that’s one of the higher numbers.) But among Republican and conservative politicians and media it is entirely normal to hold that public schools are sewers of inadequacy and incompetence. Current buzzwords: “let the funding follow the student not the building”, and all that.

Or there’s this recent example by Governor Ducey of Arizona announcing summer school for low-performing kids:

That’s why the plan is to hire teachers who work in schools currently graded A, B or C, though there may be some outreach to teachers in lower-rated schools who have a proven record of performance.

“We’re going to find a way to take people that are skilled in the profession, allow them to make additional funds, and bring our kids up to grade level,” the governor said.

I could write a whole article on the gefukt thinking behind this comment. Teachers in A, B, or C schools aren’t generally any better; they just have smarter students.  They will be far less able to deal with low-performing students. And oh, by the way, summer school won’t bring kids up to grade level. Behind it all is the assumption that low-performing kids are the result of low-performing teachers.

Needless I totally disagree with this position, and think most of the people espousing an all choice system in which parents spend government dollars on private schools haven’t….quite thought through all the ramifications. Or cost. But leave that aside.

You can’t call schools failing and useless and horrible and all that and then talk about different racial group cognitive abilities.  You can’t rail at teachers for failing to close the achievement gap and then say   yeah, well, some of that gap might be cognitive. Kills the moment.

So politically, in order to keep at playing Charlie Brown to the teachers’ union’s Lucy, the whole conservative political and elite class have to ignore any possibility that schools are, actually, doing a pretty good job once you control for IQ.

Second point: towards the end of the podcast, Steve Hayward asks about the possibility of Asian and Hispanics shifting more towards the GOP, “now that Trump is gone”–which is weird, because Trump did better with Hispanics and blacks than any GOP president since Bush at least, so one would think they’d say “build on Trump’s success”, but ok. The particulars of the Asian vote change revolved around the open discrimination they face in elite school admissions.

I keep meaning to write more about this, but I think Steve Sailer will understand what I mean: Republicans should think carefully about openly courting Asian voters, at least using the rhetoric I keep hearing. As Steve used to say, Republicans could go for increasing the Hispanic vote or increasing their white vote. SImilarly, chasing the Asian vote by pushing for admissions-based testing without fixing the many problems with it might just hurt the GOP percentage of the white vote around the edges.

A while back I almost wrote a piece called Everybody’s Second Favorite, that was going to include this passage:

But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience. (emphasis mine this time round.)

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

“White flight” from Asians has been around for 20 years or more, long enough for the Wall Street Journal to notice it back in 2005. I wrote recently about the decline in white applications to the eight NYC specialized high schools. Whites and Asians are both about 15% of the NYC public school population, have roughly the same admission rate to the specialized high schools, but Asians apply at twice the rate that whites do. Whites just don’t want to go. Bloomberg’s choice programs allowed people who found the Asian culture at these schools unpleasant to set up their own “soft” choice programs. I found a second dataset for another test-based admissions high school, and will be publishing pretty soon, I hope. (I have a day job, so take “soon” with some salt.) Asian test prep that goes on for years and years, not a few weeks, sets up what I believe are false positives but we can argue that point later.

By all means, Republicans should actively pursue growing their Asian vote, but I don’t advise doing it by giving Asian immigrants what they want in public schools, because what they want generally turns off all American parents, particularly white ones. And one rule of public education that also works with politics is don’t piss off the white folks. There are plenty of ways to improve public education and university admissions without discriminating against Asians or rewarding several years of test prep. Talk about those.

Oh, and by the way, don’t talk to Asians or Hispanics about how stupid the Democrats were to cave to teachers unions to close the schools, since all categories of non-whites were (and probably are) far more supportive of remote education than whites, but that’s another article I’m working on.

Finally, Steve Hayward said they would be talking about college next week. Really? I hope not.

Again, great discussion. Looking forward to next week even if it’s about college.

Hey, got this done in under 24 hours. I should rewrite this but I’m tired, so it will have to do.


Ten Most Read, Ten You Should Read

Eight years ago, on the second anniversary of my blog, I asked, “Am I a hedgehog or a fox?”  Hilarious, that I could ever be so deluded. I understand why my brain thinks itself a hedgehog, but it will just have to cope with reality.

I am a fox. Even at my lowly level of the word, this is a list only a fox could produce.

Ten Most Read Articles:

  1. More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder— June 28, 2019
    The only item past its sell date. Most of my work maintains its relevance. But this article, outdated though it is, has a good number of my strengths on display. First, unlike the entire media class, I know how to search for and use relevant history. No one listening should have thought anything other than “that’s bullshit” when she claimed to have been on the frontlines of segregation in Berkeley, CA. But no journalist bothered to do the research. Next, I understood as no one else seemed to that she was essentially coming out in favor of busing.  At a time when most of the media (and all of Twitter) was wowed, I  pointed out she’d almost certainly have to walk that comment back. The other strength: sometimes I really hate people while many other folks are like, man, why is Ed hating on her and then later they go oh, I get it.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  2. Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud–October 8, 2013
    I’ve kind of cornered the market in Asian immigrant criticism–not of the people, but of the culture, which I think is very damaging to American education. I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it if everyone else weren’t determined not to notice. This was the first time I wrote about it.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  3. Functions vs. Equations: f(x) is y and more — May 24, 2015
    A math curriculum piece in third place? Blew me away. But as I mentioned, curriculum searches are specific and get through Google’s recency bias, so they’re the one article category that still gets fed via search engines. I keep meaning to revisit this article because it had a very bimodal reaction. Mathy readers who didn’t teach were aggravated and confused by the article and told me I didn’t understand the math. On the other hand, a number of professors on Twitter understood my point  instantly and were very appreciative (and some later commented as well). I think the mathy folks thought I was confusing a system with a function, whereas the professors understood I was using an example of multiple equations that wasn’t a system to show students a difference they hadn’t seen before.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  4. Homework and grades–February 6, 2012
    I have relatively few strong views about what teachers should do. Homework is the exception. Homework is insane. Grades are fraud.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  5. Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing— August 19, 2012
    My first really huge piece, and one I’m still quite fond of. It’s getting harder to find data easily; more states are hiding racial and economic distinctions. But if you look at current data, you’ll see the same pattern: poor whites do about as well as non-poor blacks and Hispanics. Been like that for decades.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  6. Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat — April 5, 2013
    Canonical Ed on IQ.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  7. Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle— September 14, 2012
    Another curriculum piece. I took a long time to make sure the figures and explanations were thorough. I hope other teachers get good use from it. Still the best way to teach factoring, even if your kids don’t use it.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  8. The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….”— July 1, 2012
    This is one of my favorite pieces. It’s all true, still. Every word. And new teachers have to come to grips with it every year.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  9. The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know.–December 31, 2014
    I am adamantly opposed to grades-based college admissions. But the College Board is corrupt. The international SAT is corrupt. And they’ve changed it in ways to make it far less useful, all in the hopes of ending the score gap, which was never going to happen.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  10. The Gap in the GRE–January 28, 2012
    Another of my favorite pieces that asks a very good question: why are genuine high achievers in verbal tests so less frequent than in math tests? Note that in the intervening years, the College Board and the ETS have eliminated all the verbal difficulty in the SAT and the GRE.

So there’s my ten most popular.

Then I just looked over all my articles and looked for favorites that also captured my zeitgeist (can people have zeitgeist?). I was particularly looking for self-contained articles–a lot of time I go down one rabbit hole and then get to the main point. (Yes, I’m thinking of those for my rewrite plans.) I also wanted a good sample.

  1. Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II–January 15, 2012
    This is a top 20 all-time post and was a steady performer for years. I almost didn’t include it; today it seems kind of old hat. But in fairness, that’s like saying 1933’s 42nd Street is cliché because it uses all the old tropes about movie musicals. It didn’t use them. It invented them. When I wrote this article, it was common wisdom that teachers were low-skilled, low-quality, and not very bright. Only the terminally uninformed, the amateurs and the hacks,  have made that claim in four or five years.  I like to think Pseudofacts has had something to do with that change,  because of the very easily found data I brought to light.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  2. The false god of elementary school test scores–July 30, 2012
    Another one I almost didn’t include because it definitely has the rabbit hole problem about Rocket Ship at the beginning. However, like Pseudofacts, it’s an early example of my actually looking at readily available information and pointing out the obvious. Plus, great title.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  3. The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform–September 7, 2012
    I wrote a history of modern education reform throughout much of 2020-21. This was a history of earlier policy. But the definition of fallacy I include here holds for the entire era.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  4. The Day of Three Miracles— April 28, 2015
    I don’t often talk about colleagues, mainly because for years my relationship with them was….fraught. Not bad, just…there. But this is not only a colleague story, it captures a conundrum that few people in education policy seem to understand. Access or rigor. Not both.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  5. Citizens, Not Americans— June 16, 2016
    I love this piece. By the way, Dwayne is married, has a kid, and is in the military. Abdul went to a top tier school and majored in pharmacy, and when he told me I want “Gack!” and he said “yeah, I know. Stupid move.” and now he’s getting an MA in nurse practitioner, or whatever it’s called. Haven’t heard from Chuy. Wing and Benny still teach. One of them is now department chair, and I had a lot to do with it.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  6. “Get Out” a scathing satire? Get Out.–January 22, 2018
    I love movies, and I know as much about American diversity as anyone in the country, and I think this is a terrific review that isn’t at all what you’ll expect.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  7. Algebra 2, the Gateway Course–January 28, 2018
    Another story about colleagues, students, and really stupid education policy.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  8. Making Rob Long Uncomfortable–December 24, 2018
    Silly title, but you can listen to the podcast and see what I mean. It’s well-written, and captures a certain mindset among the centrist conservative punditocracy. As I wrote: “You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  9. The Students of My Christmas Present— December 25, 2018
    I don’t often get sentimental. And I’ve put up Christmas trees most years since.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  10. Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages–May 31, 2019
    Here I raise an issue that seems quite obvious, but isn’t. We have thousands, if not millions, of unemployed PhDs who will never get a tenured job and work as poorly paid adjuncts. Why don’t they become teachers? After all, everyone says we need smarter teachers, right? There’s a cognitive dissonance revealed in the fact that everyone understands that a poorly paid PhD is acting rationally in refusing to take a better-paid, more secure job with great benefits.
    ignore me, lazy way to space
    I thought I was done, but 2017 spoke up, really pissed off. Why nothing? I tried reassurance. It was nothing personal. I wrote some good shit that year. Besides, 2020 and 2021 aren’t represented either. But it would not be assuaged and as my mother isn’t doing well, and this is a not only an ode to American schools but also a lovely story about my mom, an extra…
    ignore me, lazy way to space
  11. What the Public Means by “Public Education”–March 19, 2017
    When education reformers wonder why everything went wrong, they should think about the thoughts expressed here.

Thanks for reading.


Celebrating the Decennium

December 31, 2011. I set a goal. The first ten years of the new century were a bit stressful and unfocused. The dot-com bust hit me hard. I found work but had a lot of down time. New Years’ goals helped force me to use the downtime in search of some other goal. in forcing me to me structure the year. In 2001 I vowed to follow through on grad school, a goal I achieved, but left me with more down time. The ironic outcome of meeting that goal was a radical and permanent career change in an direction utterly unrelated to my field of study–no surprise, really, given that my first degree was in English and I went into tech. On December 31, 2007, having spent five years comfortably living as a test prep instructor and tutor, I decided to get a teaching credential. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach full time,  but it’d be a good thing to have in the back pocket. I got my applications done in a week, entered a program in June of the same year. Six months later the 2008 crash revealed that “tutor” is a luxury item that the rich cut when their stocks tank, so I decided I may as well use the credential I was studying for. Six months after that I got my third college diploma and second master’s that, for the first time, was actually related to my future career plans.

In 2010 I left off professional goals and decided to lose weight, and did, and kept it off  until I started sharing a house with my brother five years later. He was like an invasive species on my eating habits and it took me another five years to recover.

My track record with New Year’s resolutions having been pretty successful in the oughts, I decided to see if I could set a goal for my writing. By this time, I was deeply cynical (although certainly adequate to the occasion) about the prospects of regular publication. Most teachers who get published do so by singing the song someone else wants to hear: union advocacy, education reform, school choice, merit pay, anti-union. Find a think tank who needs a shill. That way wasn’t going to work for me. Some teachers get published because they write deeply and well about their topic (Ben Orlin, Michael Pershan), but I don’t drill down on any one thing. I had been published, and that pathway was clear:  write an 750-word op-ed with an uncomplicated narrative and easily grasped data and hope it captured some editor’s eye. I did this successfully twice, and three other times came close. But “750 words in an uncomplicated and easily grasped op-ed” doesn’t describe me very well.

By that December evening, I hadn’t even tried to write anything for publication for a year. I missed writing. But I also acknowledged another truth: getting published in the traditional sense would require endless attempts and eternal rejection.

Consider one of the more popular teacher writers, Roxanna Elden. She became a teacher in 2003,  came up with her book idea in 2005, spent four long years workshopping her book in writing conferences while looking for an agent. She started a standup routine to increase her name recognition. Her book got published in 2009 by a publisher that abandoned her category shortly afterwards, picked up again in 2013. Then she quit teaching.

I wouldn’t call Elden a teacher. She’s a writer who spent every waking hour outside of her teaching job working on getting published. Hey, more power to her, but I actually want to teach, not spend ten hours a day building a writing career.

Besides, it’s not just that I don’t want to take Elden’s route, but I actively find it….repellent. I love my job, and that means I don’t want to spend 80% of my time outside of work shilling and planning for a career in which I pretend to be an expert at a job that’s just the venue to what I really want.

By 2011, I’d long since accepted that a constant in all my careers was my disinterest in selling my wares. Fifteen years as a consultant and eight (by then) as a tutor had revealed a life path that didn’t requir active promotion. As a consultant, I got work through interviews for open positions, great references and an awesome niche resume. As a tutor, I got work because parents thought I was fantastic and told others. I never had a website, never did outreach. (The teacher hiring process came as a huge shock to me, and I still count myself lucky I found work, considering all my disadvantages and the lousy hiring environment in 2009.)

People who want excellence or experience and don’t care about niceties find me via word of mouth.  You don’t build that sort of reputation by spending all your outside time focusing on an entirely different objective. Besides, if endless marketing and pitching repels me, rejection outright horrifies me. So if my goal was to continue writing, I had to accept that my past two years of failure to publish would probably continue. I wouldn’t be capable of making the changes in my writing, focus, or behavior that might–just might–get me more recognition.

That night, I thought hey, why not a blog? I could write what I want, develop ideas, find an audience–and more importantly, find an audience my way, find people who liked my ideas without having to sell a middleman.

And so I began.

The first three years of this blog were successful beyond anything I’d ever imagined. I joined Twitter in June 2012, which did a great deal to build my immediate audience, but the vast majority of my referrals came from search engines. In 2016, something changed. Despite the fact that I was writing as much, my traffic dropped dramatically.  In the years 2013-2016, I got between 50 and 60 thousand search engine referrals–the vast majority of it for older articles.  Starting in 2017, search engines dropped to 30K and then kept going down. My writing output didn’t decrease dramatically until 2020, so that’s not the reason. My Twitter referrals have actually increased over that time, with a slight dropoff in referrals in the last two years, but nothing drastic.

I’m pretty sure my blog got hit by  Google’s recency bias, which really hurts writers like me who aren’t super well known but have high data value posts.

(For an example of recency bias that anyone can understand, try a one word search, without specifics. Like recently, I googled “Aladdin” and got hit with a billion entries for the 2019 Will Smith version. The Disney 1992 animated version is just out of the top 100 movie box office hits adjusted for inflation, and was the 8th biggest moneymaker in the country two years in a row. The Will Smith version had crap reviews but did hit #8 in the box office in 2019, disappearing from sight the next year. And as long as we’re being thorough, there’s a pretty famous book in which Aladdin made his first appearance? Nowhere to be found. Brave’s results (shoutout to Brenden Eich) are better–still top heavy for Will Smith but does include a lot of results for 1992 film and even a Time article on the character Aladdin.

That’s recency bias. No sense of context. If you don’t create really specific searches, then Google is going to reward whatever was in the news last.)

I am not blaming Google for my reduced output, nor am I terribly upset about the decline in traffic. The first three years of my blog exceeded my wildest dreams, but I’ve been happy with my audience and from a prestige standpoint, my Twitter audience is appropriately think-tanky, academic, and media-ish. But the impact of Google’s recency bias does bother me. In 2015, Amy Wax quoted my blog in a response to a letter. That was cool. I don’t think Amy Wax reads me (and if she does, someone should let me know!). She probably found the article in google, and that’s the kind of find that Google is making harder.

Coupled with my non-existent marketing and promotion department, it becomes quite possible that more and more of my work is just disappearing into the bowels of the internet, undiscovered by all but the most dedicated googler. That 2013-2015 had so many hits is proof of how many  people found my articles through searches. A lot of my one-off audience isn’t finding me anymore.

By far the biggest challenge I face in keeping this blog going is not “google algorithms are biased against me” but rather “I quit writing.” Beginning in 2018, my work was more sustained and took a lot of research. I enjoy doing that, but it was definitely reducing my output. The real crash began in late 2019, when I took on the Bush/Obama era history of education. I don’t regret the focus, but the timing was terrible. The work on that, added to the rise of covid19, the closing of schools, a complete reworking of the daily tasks of my job, my rage at the whole idiotic response and not incidentally, the disappearance of coffee shops to write in for most of a year, all contributed to a profound drop in output.  I couldn’t even write about classroom action, although I gave some thought to coming up with a Zoom chat session of my students and me. But the editing would have been brutal (removing names) and my god, in remote ed there was always grading to do or curriculum to change or Desmos activities to build.

Then, as I wrote recently, I’ve been having some trouble organizing my thoughts to set the groundwork for future writing. So nothing was easy.

I’m coming out of it. No promises, but I am back to thinking about writing and working on writing rather than having an idea float through my head but get overwhelmed by all the meta involved in crafting the argument and thinking ah, fuck it, I’ll tweet.

The last ten years have been a wonderful and productive era. I began my blog during my third year of teaching, just before  starting with my current district. I have used all my credentials; my boss knows my value. If my teaching career has veered in directions I didn’t expect, it still has brought me tremendous satisfaction. My blog recounts many of the experiences during that time, but also thoughts and analysis of and on a wide range of educational issues, and I’m very proud of it. Consulting and tutoring are short-term gig jobs; I have largely floated through life; outside of family, the list of people I’ve held as friends for more than a decade is a short one. Not just people, either. Behaviors, habits, hell, even restaurants before 2010–I drifted away after a phase or three.

Since I began teaching, I’m a bit more settled, for obvious reasons. While my closest work friend, Bart,  has left teaching (I still mourn him weekly, at least), I am now the fifth most senior teacher in my department (whoo!), and because of my multiple credentials I have contacts with colleagues throughout the school. I am known at the district, and for the right reasons.  The tech guy, principal’s secretary, and attendance clerks all take good care of me, and I still give them presents.  I even have more stable relationships with restaurants, particularly many local Starbucks and my favorite sushi bar.

I want to leave the area, but not teaching, in the next few years. That’s been a consistent objective,  and I’m taking steps to make it happen. However, finding a teaching job as a sixty-something isn’t easy, and I’ve got backup plans in mind.

But for the blog, I’ve got one ask and some plans.

The ask: While I can’t make Google change its recency bias, I would like to make sure my articles are getting read and found. I’m one of those writers who is read but not mentioned by a lot of people with large followings. To those people, I’d ask: hey, mention my work more often. I love the notes and letters. But from an audience perspective, even a critical review of some of my thoughts would probably do me better. Retweet my stuff. Mention it in your own columns. I realize the problem–professional writers are bound by clicks, and my stuff is rarely timely. But if you could do it occasionally, I’d be grateful. It’s about the only productive step that might get Google to recognize me more.

Plans:

  1. Write more about curriculum. A review of my most popular articles shows that the curriculum articles are doing very well. Teachers looking for curriculum are specific in their searches, and they’re finding me. I’ll give them more to find. Let’s say, three articles on math curriculum.
  2. Remind people of what I’ve already written. I’ve got about 350 articles on this blog. Hell, I don’t even remember all of them. So I will pick three topics and write the Ed equivalent of a position paper. My three identified topics: impact of Asian culture in US education, update on teacher credentials, and boy, wasn’t I right about how college admissions corruptions and fraudulent grades were combining in evil and awful ways.
  3. I want to produce a book on my articles–not really because I think it will sell, but because it’d be fun. I’ve started this. So my goal is to complete “Great Moments In Teaching” before next year, with at least two new articles.

Regardless, I will write more.  I get too focused on one article that will take a long time, and resist putting it aside. The reasons for that are obvious (I have almost as many unfinished as finished articles on this blog) but it’s clear that unfinished articles are a price I pay for a reasonable amount of output. I hope to keep remembering that.

Thanks for reading.

Happy New Year.


Wokesters, Grift, and Bureaucratic Sludge

Late one Tuesday night in 2018,  I checked my email, thank god, and learned that next morning’s staff meeting devoted to professional development (PD) was “Understanding Trans Students”. I’ve endured a wide range of asinine PD, including one hilarious afternoon years ago with a black activist consultant who lectured the staff of my last school, which was 75% low income, ELL, Hispanic, on how students were hurt by teachers who didn’t understand what it was like to be black and poor.  

But as early as 2018 the transgender issue was really…fraught. So I gave the meeting a pass and got some grading done. 

Almost immediately after the meeting, our principal sent out an email apologizing for the presentation. Turns out a good chunk of the staff had openly and angrily objected to the presentation as simplistic and insulting, treating the teachers as unenlightened dead-namers.  The principal cut the whole activity short. 

A few months later, we did a session on trans kids’ legal rights, where we were informed that we couldn’t use a student’s chosen name and gender with a parent if the parent was unaware of the student’s sexuality. But how were we to know whether a parent was aware of this or not, a skeptical teacher (raises hand) asked. Reply: we couldn’t know and shouldn’t ask the student.

Juan beat me to the punch. “So we can be sued if we use the student’s birthname to parents who know their kid’s trans, but we can also be sued if we use the student’s chosen name to parents who don’t know their kid’s trans, and it all depends on information we don’t have and can’t ask for?” 

Note: the feds have now likewise stated that we teachers can’t tell the parents that their kid is transgender, even if we don’t know they don’t know.

***********************************************************************

The conservative media is, as always, convinced the entire public education system is a leftist indoctrination mill, intent on spreading wild wokism and CRT throughout the country and hopeful that this time, finally, American parents will rise up and kill public schools for all time. Charlie Brown, meet the football. 

The proper response to all these stories should fall more towards “Jesus, people, don’t panic” with a healthy dose of “nip any shit you see in the bud” when appropriate. But in consuming all the media around these events, I noticed time and again the reported stories don’t make an important distinction. 

Teacher Proselytizing: Bad

A small percentage of the stories actually involve a teacher trying to promote a political world view as a specific objective.  These are the more serious offense, where indeed one should inject a dose of “nip that shit in the bud”. Parents and the community should act instantly and vigorously if teachers engage in any form of values imposition: be it abortion rights (one way or the other), race-shaming, transgender inquisitions or, god save us all, gas chambers and Hitler’s suicide (although that last in real life was a school librarian, a fact I was pretty much the first to point out, while everyone else was screaming about America’s lousy public education.)

But these stories shouldn’t be seen as the tip of an iceberg. They’re too easy to spot.  The kids will talk. The teachers will get caught and canned. Cf: Matthew Hawn in Tennessee, James Whitfield in Texas. 

Public schools are far more responsive to community than either charters or private schools. This, at least, should be obvious given the host of school board bootings in November.  Conservative communities can be assured that tain’t no CRT and white blaming in their schools. (On the other hand, urban schools with majority black populations have been teaching critical race theory for decades, most particularly in the “no excuse” charter schools conservatives love so much, and the few parents complaining about “Fuck Police” posters in Compton are going to get a polite brushoff.)

Some communities will see a more strategic, organized effort to indoctrinate. These  are generally cities that have undergone significant demographic change that has, not coincidentally, altered the politics of many previously white suburban communities. Like, say, in Fairfax and Loudon counties, which have seen their white population drop by respectively 9% and 30% in 20 years. But here again, notice how quickly the communities responded, and how unnerved the schools are by the response. That’s as it should be.

So schools or teachers engaged in an indoctrination attempt are going to get caught. People will be called to account and possibly fired–even in ultra-liberal, ultra-white Mill Valley, CA.  If the district or school board supports these efforts,  they’re voted out. I oppose mayor-controlled school districts plugged by Matt Yglesias and others for exactly this reason. School boards must fear voters in order to respond to community values. (And if you say “but no one votes in these elections”, well, that’s kind of evidence that the community’s not unhappy, isn’t it?)

Professional Development: Yawn

Christopher Rufo is building a reputation  by reporting on progressive indoctrination in all corners of America, focusing heavily on schools. But just three of his eleven “CRT in schools” articles involve classroom exposure to race-blaming. In all cases, the students were majority non-white. Two of them were in majority black schools in Buffalo and Philadelphia–and if you note, Rufo didn’t hear about the lesson from outraged parents, but rather the teachers themselves. (see above note about community standards.) The third example is the hilarious case of white teachers telling Chinese immigrant kids in Cupertino that they’re white supremacists and that’s a mistake because, see, Chinese parents don’t play the guilt game. 

The remaining eight of Rufo’s breathless articles don’t have anything to do with classroom instruction, but professional development: the “heartland” of Missouri, Seattle, Wake County NC, Santa Clara CA, Portland, OR and of course the NEA has all sorts of professional development and curriculum it’d just love to sell to districts.  

As Rufo goes, so too go the rest of the “public school indoctrination” stories: case after case of professional development slides, every so often a horror story about classroom instruction where the teacher was immediately fired.

Overt propaganda in the classroom is a cause for action. But professional development training, both district and union-provided, is not even a cause for worry.

Do you have any idea how much crap we sit through as officially district- or school-sanctioned professional development? I’m  not surrounded by Republicans. My colleagues are solid blue Democrats, of varying levels of progressivism, in the bluest of blue regions, teachers in a Title I, extremely diverse school, and they nonetheless roll their eyes in resigned disgust at the ideology flung their way. If they’re listening at all. Teachers aren’t spending professional development time building critical race theory curriculum or strategizing ways to keep transgender kids’ intention from their parents. Most of the time they’re checking email, grading papers, or planning their next ten-week summer vacation, neener neener. 

Professional development isn’t a mandate. It’s a time waster. It’s extremely rare and often illegal for an principal,  district, or state or federal mandate, to order teachers what to teach. 

But while absurd professional development doesn’t do much harm, it’s a lot harder to eliminate.

Professional development is encoded deep into the DNA of modern American education via the mother of all education reform bills, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which from its earliest version on allowed districts to spend money on instructional services. Title I funding accounts for the vast majority of federal education spending.

Title II is devoted entirely to various forms of professional development, from teacher training to induction and beyond. Districts hire drones to apply for grants, further drones at the state level review them, and then drones on all sides make sure the grant boxes are checked off. Many states outline all the hours of PD teachers must spend (eg New Jersey, Colorado,Florida). Every state has a Title II report, produced by more drones at great expense and audited regularly, again at government expense.

 Federal Title I funding criteria explicitly include mandates like “include strategies for identifying and eliminating gender and racial bias in instructional materials, methods, and practices.” Then there are all the state requirements of which I’ll just give a sample: California, Pennsylvania, ColoradoFlorida, Alabama.  Thanks to Gorsuch and Bostock, transgender equity got added to the already really long list of issues that districts are mandated to include in the PD list.

Red states or blue, diversity and equity are officially sanctioned reasons for the achievement gap, creating a huge market for any folks with a sales approach they can call a learning strategy.

Envision, if you will, the sort of people who want to train teachers on equity and diversity. Now picture their politics. Now remember that states are required to find professional development on equity and diversity. And there you have it: activist grifters using taxpayer dollars to recite dogma to teachers who aren’t listening unless they already believe.

Professional development is simply a massive case of bureaucratic sludge, run by default and drones for half a century. 

Stopping the Sludge

You can’t fire bad PD.  

From a public spending perspective, the outrage is backwards. A progressive ideologue teaching dogma doesn’t cost much money and can be easily caught and canned. Meanwhile, several million teachers spend several days a year in school libraries ignoring the expensive propaganda show put on by activists funded by taxpayer expense, curated by a district or government drone intent on checking off a box on a state or federal form, all processed and paid for, again, by taxpayers. 

But investigating the cause and choice of professional development providers is hard. Easier, and more satisfying to write columns about teacher mind control, show videos of board meetings filled with angry parents, and howl for your allotted 60 seconds on Tucker or Laura or Sean and occasionally get a teacher fired. Considerably more difficult and less newsworthy to hunt down the HR drone who put that consultant company on the “approved” list, or demand to know why our federal and state dollars are paying for this garbage.

There is hope, however. Oklahoma’s CRT law HB1775  specifically bans mandated diversity training for teachers. The law’s text doesn’t make this quite clear, but the state board of education passed emergency rules to clarify, so that the word “course” in this section:

“No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts” 

is translated as 

any forum where instruction or activities tied to the instruction are provided, including courses, training, seminars, professional development, lectures, sessions, coaching, tutoring, or any other class.

Best of all, check out the specific bans on professional development spending at the state and district level. 

That’s the kind of language that might actually cut the grifter employment a bit, and make enough of an impression on HR drones to force the bureaucratic sludge ever so slowly in a different direction–or even cut off certain pathways entirely. Pray the Oklahoma law survives the lawsuits.

Naturally, many folks both oppose CRT instruction and any laws to ban it in public schools. Some are liberals who think woke has gone too far (looking at you, Bari Weiss). On the conservative side, chief among the “CRT is bad but don’t ban it” flagwavers is David French…and I’m not a lawyer, but does it strike you as odd that French, a lawyer, is always in favor of solutions that require lawsuits? He doesn’t want bright lines, he wants causes of action under Title whatever of the Civil Rights act or the Constitution and oh, hey, I’m not the only person who noticed. Point is, I don’t want lawyers always telling me the best solution is full employment for their kind.

Terry McAuliffe was right about one thing: parents can’t–and shouldn’t–be able to micromanage curriculum. And anyone who thinks that great day is coming can dream on. But schools are run with state and federal money, and it’s entirely appropriate for governments, through its voters, to put some broad outlines on how they spend that  money educating our kids. 

I grant a certain amount of self-interest here. Less of my time spent in pointless PD, less of my tax dollars spent funding grifters, ideologues, or HR drones. Win win.

*****************************************************************

Note: I’ve made a distinction here between banning CRT PD and banning CRT teacher speech. This article is long enough without going into detail, but I’m firmly in favor of the first, largely indifferent to the second. 


Wise Blue States Take Away Choice

I’ve found this subject entirely too annoying for an article, but anyone who follows me on Twitter knows my counterprogramming.

  1. Schools should never have been closed, and anyone who ever called for their closing loses their right to bitch when they didn’t reopen.
  2. Schools remained closed where a plurality of parents preferred remote education (with a secondary factor being Dem governor restrictions making hybrid the only inperson option)
  3. Teachers went back to work everywhere when schools were opened.
  4. Union rhetoric was offensive but irrelevant to school instruction decisions.

These all seem quite obvious, but apart from Andrew Smarick, fivethirtyeight, Martin West, and anyone else who actually looked at survey data and revealed preferences, most media folks act as if American parents are furious at teachers for keeping schools closed.

But folks who see Randi Weingarten as the all-powerful anti-Christ should wonder why, if politicians and policy folks bend so easily to union will, so many states quickly banned or limited remote education for fall 2021.

California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island –all blue states, all closed for much of last year, and all placing significant restrictions on remote learning for the new school year.  So far as I can ascertain, union opposition was either muted or non-existent.  Parent (not union) outcry forced most states to back off of “in-person only” and offer some form of virtual instruction. But the virtual offerings were rarely what the parents expected.  Students had to leave their local schools for online academies. No magnet programs, no pull outs for special ed or language help, and most notably, no sports. This restriction alone cooled a lot of the ardor for remote instruction, particularly among high school students with friends and athletic abilities. More importantly, local schools did not have to respond to parent demand for remote instruction. They could return to “normal”, or at least as normal as masks and quarantines allowed.

It’s beyond my scope to do a full comparison, but I first started looking into this when I noticed that a number of states had schools in remote mode already, and none of these states had established strict policies requiring in-person instruction. New Hampshire tried to ban remote learning much later, in September, but met resistance and failed and now many schools are in remote. Colorado deliberately left decisions on remote instruction up to schools, which gave a number of Denver schools the option to switch to remote due to staffing shortages. North Carolina explicitly allowed districts to switch from in-person to remote and a number of schools began fall 2021 in remote.  New Mexico left it up to districts and many are in remote.   (In contrast, a Massachusetts school tried to go to remote for November and was explicitly ordered back to school by the MA BOE.)

These are all blue states, most of whom have Democrat governors, all of whom were routinely blasted by conservative media as in thrall to their lazy teachers unions. But a number of these states took advantage of the hopeful period in the early days of the vaccine to take a strict line on remote education and they did so in a manner that makes it clear they considered parent demands, not union demands, the problematic element.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the blue state push to end remote education is far more consistent with my analysis of school closures. During the 20-21 school year, many blue state governors made the serious mistake of banning in-person instruction or making restrictions for opening schools so onerous that remote instruction was preferable to the hybrid bastardization needed for inperson schooling. When they finally opened schools, they were still bound by their stated deference to parental choice, despite–or perhaps because–surveys showed consistently that 75%  or more of white parents but just half or fewer of non-white parents wanted schools open for instruction. Blue state schools with longer than average closures were almost entirely in majority non-white districts. White parents, who pay most of the taxes in those non-white districts, were apoplectic. 

It’s not terribly good optics to point out, but the simple truth is that remote instruction was bad for the very students whose parents were most likely to support remote instruction. Black and Hispanic parents (as well as a large number of Asian parents) are even now more likely to demand remote instruction. 

The only solution to saving these kids was preventing the parents from making a bad choice by taking away remote education–or at least making it wildly less attractive. Wise were the states that took away parent choice in this matter.

Note again that union opposition to these actions was apparently non-existent, or at least not reported on. The NEA called, unsuccessfully, for student vaccine mandates, but didn’t resist the return to in-person instruction.

In addition to the “Ed was Right About the Pandemic” brownie points factor, I feel that not enough attention has been given to the importance of these legislative mandates. Legislatures so rarely seem to do anything productive, but whether you agree about the parental choice factor or blame the Mean Weingarten for school closure, the legislatures took advantage of a narrow window of opportunity to act.  In that brief period of time when everyone, left and right, thought that the vaccine would end covid19, the state legislatures or departments of education most hamstrung by closed schools made sure that remote education couldn’t easily be re-instated.

I loathe teaching in masks all day. The insane NPI theater we are forced to undergo has caused me possibly permanent hoarseness. But given the resurgence of the Delta virus and the left’s insane obsession with safety theater, those of us who were infuriated by remote education–regardless of who we hold responsible–should be profoundly grateful if we live in those states. I am certain we’d all be back in permanent remote education without their surprisingly decisive action.


The Same Thing Over and Over: Yglesias Edition

(with apologies to Rick Hess, who means exactly the opposite of me when he says it.)

Matt Yglesias is a liberal I’ve followed for years. He’s become more temperate since his signing the Harper’s letter, now that he’s realized how insane the progressive left has become.  But if you want a representative sample of why Democrats turned away from neoliberalism,  Yglesias is your guy. In his recent two part article that’s ostensibly about critical race theory, he rehashes the nostrums he’s been pushing his entire pundit life. Naturally, Twitter moderates were ecstatic. 

If I wrote an angry takedown every time an ed reformer preached nonsense–well, I’d write more, so maybe I should. But Yglesias, despite making a few concessions I was happy to see, shocked me with his implicit….lies? misrepresentations?…ignorance? not sure which.

mattysin1

I really, really wish that people with megaphones could be reasonable about unions. It’s fine to hate them. It’s stupid to think they have much in the way of influence. It’s worse to pretend that education reform proposals failed because teacher unions prevent them. Most egregious of all is to pretend that charter school expansion and merit pay for teachers hasn’t been tried and rejected.

But this is just normal, ordinary middlebrow pabulum. This passage is shocking in its naivete, ignorance, or dishonest–take your pick.

mattysin9

I mean, my god. We have not yet been able to persuasively demonstrate through test scores that particulates, healthy meals,  or even air conditioning in the summer has any impact on student achievement, particularly not at a granular level. We’ve spent billions on free lunch programs and air conditioning and a host of other environmental adjustments. The achievement gap endures. Thestudents  tossed the healthy food in the trash.

As for standardized tests, surely the past thirty years of debate should have informed him that no, everyone does NOT agree that we can assess competence with a test.  Why else are colleges so insistent on committing affirmative action? Why did so many of them seize the opportunity of the George Floyd moment of righteousness to use  GPAs instead of SAT/ACT scores? Why are so many black activists angry about the “achievement gap”? A significant chunk of the institutional left believes those scores are lies–or at least unpleasant ephemera that can safely be ignored.

Most egregious: Measuring teacher impact via student achievement “would be uncontroversial”?  Doesn’t this sound like he thinks VAM would be this terrific, obvious improvement if only policy makers could stand up to unions and put this sucker in place?

The Obama administration wasn’t just “open” to value add–it mandated some form of student performance metrics to any state trying to qualify for Race to the Top funding. Forty three states complied with a strict form of value add by 2014. Twenty three states mandated student performance metrics for teacher tenure decisions. Teachers unions sued endlessly to stop these mandates, and lost, time and again. (Once more, with feeling: unions have no influence on their  own. They win when a major player agrees with them: districts, parents, or politicians.)  

The entire rationale for VAM was first popularized in “The Widget Effect“, an article that argued for more differentiation in teacher evaluations, since 99% of teachers got a good review. But data revealed that three years of VAM resulted in….99% of teachers getting a good review. When states didn’t water down the test component, principals simply juked the stats. 

Research isn’t the conclusive slam dunk that  Yglesias’s “uncontroversial” implies, either: 

  • RAND: VAM are not absolute indicators of teacher effectiveness and are imprecise.
    American Statistical Association: VAM measures correlation not causation, can change substantially based on model used, and show that teachers affect from 1-14% of variability in student test scores.
  • For a complete review, pro and con, of the research, Scott Alexander does his typical deep dive into VAM and finds it wanting, as does the great (and MIA) Spotted Toad.

By 2016 ESSA, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, had removed all the evaluation mandates. Twenty three states no longer required VAM in evaluations, another fifteen did but left it up to districts to determine implementation.  Public opinion, always split, declined: surveyvamtrend

New Mexico, the one state that genuinely gave bad reviews and fired teachers for insufficient value-add, unwound the entire program with a new administration that explicitly promised to undo the policies wrought by the previous governor Susanna Martinez and her reform darling ed chief, Hanna Skandera.

Yglesias’s representation of VAM as an uncontroversial implementation blocked by only by those unreasonable unions, is absurd. States, desperate for federal funding, implemented a wide range of value-added metrics that infuriated teachers. Public approval dropped, principals show by behavior they didn’t agree with the results, and research is at best equivocal. 

 Yglesias’s casual offhand shilling for charters is at least anodyne, if not original. But a close read reveals an interesting bias. While conservative education reformers emphasize parent choice, read closely and it’s clear Matt would cheerfully override parents and voters if they don’t agree with him. 

Shot #1:

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Chaser #1:

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So school closures were horrible, “real anger” was unleashed–but only by white parents. Meanwhile, black (and Hispanic and Asian) parents were, er, “less annoyed” (translated: while as many as 3 in 4 white parents wanted schools open, 1 in 2 or fewer non-whites preferred remote education, findings that have been consistent throughout the pandemic). Yglesias is saying, explicitly, that we should not give parents a choice. (That said, he at least acknowledged the racial difference in preferences, which almost no one else mentions, so props for that.)

Shot and Chaser #2:

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Democrats have responded to their voters’ preferences by moving away from charters. Voters have rejected charters (he doesn’t mention that California, another previously strong charter state, has flipped a law that banned districts from considering the financial impact of charters–and this is after charter growth in California and the nation had stalled. These are all deep blue states, previously supportive of charters. Yglesias doesn’t have much interest in voter opinion–unless, of course, it agrees with his.

This is all chaser

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Everyone who pushes for mayoral control of schools is arguing against voter control. All those school board recalls? Yglesias thinks they’re a bad idea–or at least, they’re a bad idea where non-white and poor parents might make decisions he doesn’t liike. Fine for the angry white parents in Loudon to recall their school board, but where it really matters, where achievement is low, let’s put school control in the hands of an executive. Once again, all this choice is fine unless Yglesias thinks he knows better.

The money quote that everyone’s been retweeting about nearly made my head explode.

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Oh, hey, integration, choice, curriculum, merit pay, healthy food and higher teacher standards!! Damn. Here we could have knocked out decades of achievement gaps if we’d just known about these obvious policy changes and put them into action.

Oh,wait, we did. We tried. They failed. Achievement gap has been stable for years. NAEP scores stalled and then dropped after 20 years of the reformers running the table.  And the kids dumped the healthy food in the trash. What now? 

More money won’t help. School choice won’t help. Firing teachers won’t help.

Maybe education policy should start by realizing schools are doing a pretty good job, given the idiotic constraints imposed on them by people who don’t understand the limits of education. Maybe we should change some laws, drop others, and ensure we spend money on our neediest citizens (ask yourself how much Title I funding is going to Afghani refugees and border asylum claimants?). None of these failures mean that teachers don’t matter or that we can’t improve schools. But we have to understand what “improvement’ means. Most of the people screaming for better schools won’t approve.

I try not to be depressed by the regular evidence that the vast majority of people with megaphones don’t understand education. But it really was horrifying how many people approved of Yglesias’s recipe for improving schools, how few of them seem to understand what has already been tried and failed or tried and rejected dozens of times in the past fifty years. And hell, I needed something to write about. I’m stalled on three other pieces.

But in the interest of comity:

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This, finally, is correct. 

Note: I’ve written two articles on Value Add, one of which goes through the obvious logical failings,  the other outlining the voter political rejection mentioned here.

Also, I don’t spend enough time praising Freddie deBoer, who is writing fantastic reality about education from the left. He might be a socialist or a Marxist or whatever, but he’s much more of a realist than anyone with a similar audience and mainstream politics. I particularly liked his article on college admissions (which led to one of the pieces I’m stuck on) and on resisting blank slate thinking

Just a reminder that when I’m trying to write something, I do the second draft instead of the tenth to get anything out at all.

 


False Positives

I quit writing about tests. And test prep.  Five, six, years ago? I still taught test prep until this year, always giving in to my old employer’s pleas to teach his Saturday classes. But I largely quit the SAT after the last changes, focusing on the ACT. I still love tests, still enjoy coaching kids for the big day.

Explaining why has been a task I’ve avoided for several years, as the doubt is hard to put into words. 

It was an APUSH review course, the last one I taught, I think. Class hadn’t started for the day, but one of my five students was sitting there highlighting notes. She was a tiny little thing, perky and eager but not intellectually remarkable and it was March of what would have been her junior year.

“This is my last test prep course. I’ve taken the SAT for the fourth time, took AP Calculus BC last year, and I’m all done.”

“Yay! How’d you do on the SAT?”

“2400,” she said, casually. “I got 2000 the first time, but I spent the whole summer in two prep courses, plus over Christmas.”

Boom.

Like I said, she was….ordinary. Bright, sure. But her APUSH essays were predictable, regurgitating the key points she’d read in the prep material–pedestrian grammar, too many commas. Her lexile level was unimpressive. Nothing terrible. I gave her some tips. 

This girl had placed in the 99th percentile for the SAT but couldn’t write a grammatically complex sentence, much less an interesting one. Couldn’t come up with interesting ways to use data (graphs, statistics). Couldn’t accurately use the words she’d memorized and didn’t understand their nuance in reading text

She was a false positive.

I’ve known a lot of high scoring students of every ethnicity over the years–and by high scoring, I mean 1400-1600 on the 1600 SAT, and 2200-2400 on the 10 years with the three tests. 5s on all AP tests, 700+ on all Subject tests. Until that conversation, I would have said kids had high test scores were without exception tremendously impressive kids: usually creative, solid to great writing, opinionated, spotted patterns, knew history, knew the underlying theory of anything that interested them. I could see the difference, I’d say, between these kids and those slightly lower on the score scale–the 1200s, the kids who were well rounded with solid skills who were sometimes as impressive, sometimes not, sometimes a swot, sometimes a bright kid who didn’t see much point in striving.

Every time saying it, though, I’d push back memories of a few kids who’d casually mentioned a 5 score, or a 1600 or 2400, that took me aback. That particular kid who didn’t seem all that remarkable for such a high score. But in all these cases, I was only relying on gut instinct and besides, disappointingly high IQ folks exist.   For every Steven Hawking there’s a Ron Hoeflin. Or a Marilyn vos Savant, telling us whether or not larks are happy.  Surely the test would sometimes capture intellect that just wasn’t there in the creative original ways I looked for. Or hey, maybe some of those kids were stretching the truth.

But here, I had my own experience of her work and her scores were easily confirmable, as my employer kept track (her name was on the “2400 list”, the length of which was another shock to my prior understanding). She got a perfect score despite being a banal teen who couldn’t write or think in ways worthy of that score.

Since that first real awareness, I’ve met other kids with top 1% test scores who are similarly…unimpressive.  98+ percentile SAT scores, eight 5 AP scores, and a 4.5 GPA with no intellectual depth, no ability to make connections, or even to use their knowledge to do anything but pick the correct letter on the multiple choice test or regurgitate the correct answer for a teacher. Some I could confirm their high scores, others I just trusted my gut, now that I’d validated instinct. These are kids with certainly decent brains, but not unusually so.  No shame in that.  But no originality, not even the kind I’d expect from their actual abilities. No interest in anything but achieving high scores, without any interest in what that meant.

It probably won’t come as a shock to learn that all the kids with scores much higher than demonstrated ability were born somewhere in east Asia, that they all spent months and months learning how to take the test, taking practice tests, endlessly prepping.

The inverse doesn’t hold. I know dozens, possibly hundreds, of exceptional Asian immigrants with extraordinary brains and the requisite intellectual depth and heft I would expect from their profile of perfect SAT scores and AP Honors status. But when I am shocked at a test score that is much higher than demonstrated ability, the owner of that score is Chinese or Korean of recent vintage. 

I don’t know whether American kids (of any race) could achieve similar scores if they swotted away endlessly. Maybe some of them are. But my sample size of all races is pretty high, and I’ve not seen it.  On the other hand, I’m certain that very few American kids would find this a worthwhile goal. 

Brief aside: when I taught ELL, I had a kid who was supposedly 18. That’s what his birth certificate said, although there’s a lot of visa fraud in Chinese immigrants, so who knows. He didn’t look a day older than fourteen. And he had very little interest in speaking or learning English. Maybe he was just shy, like Taio, although I’d test him every so often by offering him chocolate or asking him about his beloved bike and he showed no sign of comprehension. But then he’d ace multiple choice reading passages. Without reading the passage. He had no idea what the words meant, but he’d pick the right A, B, or C, every time. I mentioned this to the senior ELL teacher, a Chinese American, and she snorted, “It’s in our genes.”

I don’t think she was kidding but the thing is, I don’t much care how it happens. If American kids are doing this, then it changes not a whit about my unhappiness. It’s not a skill I want to see transferred to the general teenage American population. (That said, the college admissions scandal makes it pretty clear that, as I’ve said many times, rich parents are buying or bribing their way in, not prepping. And unsurprisingly, it appears that Chinese parents were the biggest part of his business.)

Now, before everyone cites data that I probably know better than they do, let me dispatch with the obvious. Many people think test prep doesn’t work at all. That was never my opinion  When people asked me if test prep “worked”, I’d always say the same thing: depends on the kid. “Average score improvement” is a useless metric; some kids don’t improve, some improve a bit, some improve a huge amount. Why not pay to see if your kid improves a lot? But I also felt strongly that test prep couldn’t distort measured ability to beyond actual ability, and I no longer believe that.

But I didn’t believe what critics at the time said, that test prep worked…..too well. I didn’t believe that false positives were a real problem. And the terrible thing is–at least to me–is that I still believe normal test prep is a good thing. Distortion of ability, however, is not.

As the push to de-emphasize tests came, as test-entry high schools came under attack, as colleges turn to grades only–a change I find horrifying–I could no longer join the opposition because the opposition focused their fire almost exclusively on their dismay at the end of meritocracy and the concomitant discrimination against Asian immigrants. I oppose the discrimination, but I no longer really believe the tests we have reliably reveal merit to a granular degree. The changes I want to see in the admissions process would almost certainly reduce Asian headcount not by design, but by acknowledging that specific test scores aren’t as important.

I have other topics I’ve been holding off discussing:

  • why I support an end to test-based high schools in its current form
  • why we still need tests
  • how the SAT changes made all this worse
  • how the emphasis on grades for the past 20 years has exacerbated this insanity
  • why we need to stop using hard work as a proxy for merit

But I needed to try, at least,  to express how my feelings have changed. This is a start. It’s probably badly written, but as you all know, I’ve been trying to write more even if the thoughts aren’t fully baked, so bear with me.