Category Archives: philosophy

Catching Cheaters

Ben Orlin wrote a while back about the reasons students cheat–or, rather, the many reasons people offer for why students cheat. I’m mostly uninterested in that. What’s important, I think, is that they know you know.

Back in late March, I returned the first “Why is it Black Lives Matter?” history test back to the students and gave them this talk.

“So I was grading the papers, and pleased that people were doing well generally. Some kids saw tremendous improvement. But I was perplexed on one point. Several students were doing okay throughout the test, but getting slaughtered on the “identify key individuals” question, getting almost all of them wrong. I couldn’t figure that out. If you thought John Calhoun was an abolitionist who used to be a slave and Julia Ward Howe was at Harper’s Ferry,  then I would figure the finer points of the 1856 election were well beyond your ken. But you all did well on the 1856 election question, while a decent chunk of the class was telling me that Calhoun escaped from his owner in Maryland. This was confusing.”

“Then I had a horrible thought. As you know, because I mentioned it several times during the test, I created two versions of the assessment. I swapped the order of questions, and I swapped the order of some answer choices throughout the test. That would cause occasional problems on the True/False questions, but would be catastrophic on the “identify the right people” question, since the answers were chosen from ten options.”

“So I pulled all the tests that had the identify bloodbath, and sure enough, all of their answers matched perfectly to the other test.”

(Here’s the two test versions, and one example of student work)

I could tell that many students were experience a klong, a massive rush of shit to the heart1, that feeling you get when you realize far too late that you’ve done something very embarrassing and there’s no way to undo the action.  Like, say, cheating in such a way you’ve lost any hope of plausible deniability.

“Well. I’m somewhat new to teaching history. It’s pretty easy to spot cheating in math. You have a kid who screws around all the time, never doing any work, and suddenly he’s become so good at math he can do the work in his head. The test has a bunch of right answers and no work. The kid has a cousin who’s really good at math in the same class. I connect dots. Or you see two or three tests with the identical mistake on their tests, so the only challenge is to determine who originated the error so you can correct the misconception before you yell at her for giving others the answer.”

“History’s different, though, because there’s no work shown, and it’s not impossible that you could do really poorly on in-class activities yet be able to recall facts. A really quiet kid who has failed three tests and has taken utterly incomprehensible notes on several different activities could, theoretically, study really hard and how could I prove that she’d copied? That’s why I create two tests, with subtle differences in them that aren’t easy to spot.”

“I usually deal with cheating on an individual basis, but this is widespread. Out of the thirty-eight kids in this room, I have eight of you dead to rights–every single answer is from the other test. Another 6 cheated on at least a few of the answers–I can tell you knew most of them, then lifted the rest. That’s close to half the class caught–and I only caught them because you were unlucky enough to have the other test. How many cheated using the right test?”

“Then there’s the problem of who gave you the answers? I created the test yesterday. I only teach one section. The answers were very nearly all correct.  The questions were ordered differently, numbered differently, on different pages on each test.  This wasn’t opportunistic looking. This was collusion on a grand scale, probably involving cell phones.”

“I can’t figure out who provided the answers. But that person is in this class, listening to me now. So to that person, let me say three things. First, while I agree the Republicans of that era were nationalist, the party was formed in specific opposition to slavery, so I’d intended that answer to be “A”. It’s arguable, though. Second, you are very, very lucky that you aren’t the only top student who made that particular mistake, or we’d be having an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Third, you were cheating. You might think otherwise, since you were giving answers instead of receiving. But I call it cheating. The administrators would call it cheating. When you get to college, they’ll call it cheating, too.  If I could turn you in so that administrators could check your phone and see who you sent answers to, I would.”

“But without that information, my knowledge is incomplete. Some of you cheated with the same test. There are three students in particular who suddenly did exceptionally well. I was pleased. Now I’m just suspicious.”

“There’s some bright spots to all this, though. For example, when I first started grading I was really annoyed at Eddie, because he left half the test blank. But now, I’m kind of happy because this means Eddie didn’t cheat!”

Big laugh. Eddie stands up, arms held up in victory.

“Yeah, Eddie, you moved off the bottom of my disapproval list! But if you turn in a half-empty test again, I’m going to make you eat it. Other bright spots: Maria, who did well, Kevin,who did less well than usual, and Nero, who is doing not great for reasons I can’t figure out, all had tests that bear no relation to the cheating. They made mistakes that no one else made, so I know they weren’t involved.”

“Most of the copied tests seemed to be restricted to that one question. Since that question was worth close to twenty percent of the test, I decided the bloodbath of wrongness would do sufficient damage to your grade. No one who copied got higher than a 65. I’ll also write ‘Copied’ on the top of the test, so you won’t have to wonder if I know.”

“But two of you clearly copied almost every answer on the test and got nearly all of it right save the bloodbath. I don’t know how. But you’re not getting a grade. Since you’re both already failing the class, I don’t have to think about the best way to penalize you.”

“Before I give these tests back, I want to make a couple things very clear. I realize many of you see this class as pointless, and that there’s no harm to cheating. But I don’t care in the slightest whether you value this class or not. It’s my job to assess your knowledge. Cheating stops me from doing that, so I have to stop you from cheating. I’ve got a few security measures in mind. I don’t want any arguing about it, either.”

“Those of you who have me for math know that I’m pretty matter-of-fact about cheating. Just last week, I had exactly the case I described above: a near perfect test from a kid who can rarely focus on work in class, with no work shown and nothing but right answers. I called him outside, told him I was absolutely certain he’d copied the answers from someone, and that I was giving him a D because I figured that was where his knowledge was at. If he wanted to argue, he could do two or three of the problems in front of me. He didn’t want to argue. He took the D.”

“I won’t say I never hesitate about calling out cheating. For example, I’m pretty sure the three people who normally get Cs and Ds but did well on this test cheated and just got lucky having the right test. But I’m going to hold back this close to the semester. I’ll be watching you closely.”

“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. No one is happier than I am when that happens. Over the years, I’ve had a couple students get really pissed off at the accusation, show me their work and what they know, and I’ve always been relieved. We go right on. No harm, no foul. Other students haven’t protested at all, just look chagrined. Same response either way.”

“It’s not personal. I might have my own moral judgments about cheating, but I’m not going to demand my students live by my morals. So if you get a test back that says “Copied”, don’t think I’ve put a black mark by your name, assume you may as well give up, and quit trying. Do exactly the opposite.”

“At the same time, I’m used to charging cheating with no evidence at all. Here I’ve got a rock solid case. I’m certain that some people cheated. So don’t fake outrage. If you want to talk to me, fine. Just don’t pretend and don’t waste my time.”

“But remember how I reassured you all when the class began that I wouldn’t fail anyone? Show up, do your best, and you’ll pass? Yeah. That’s off. This is your only warning. Cheat in my class again and you will sit on your butt in summer school. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Questions?”

There were none.
 

****************************************************
140 years ago, long before I had any interest in politics, I first learned the word “klong” from Full Disclosure, a William Safire novel about a president, blinded during an assassination attempt, fighting off a 25th Amendment attempt to remove him from office. Props to Noah Millman for being the only person other than me to remember the book whilst all around are calling for it, although his thoughts on Douthat’s madness were annoying. Safire properly credits Ben and Josh’s dad Frank Mankiewicz for the invention. Safire’s example of klong is enjoying a play then suddenly remembering you’d made dinner plans for the same evening on the other side of town, but that’s a tad civilized. A similar feeling is often experienced by murderers in Christie novels.


Not Really Teaching English

The last time I wrote about my ELL class, I had six students: two from Mexico (Marshall and Kit from the story), two from China (Julian and Sebastian), one from Africa (Charlotte), one from India (Amit).

For the first ten weeks of school, my little gang fell into a routine. Monday, they worked in their Newcomers book, a “consumable” (new word for disposable) book that really added some structure to learning vocabulary–the chapters have interesting pictures wrapped around a particular content idea (going to the doctors office, colors, office furniture, math, etc). Tuesday was the online reading program. Wednesday was conversation day–I’d pick a topic and we’d go back and forth. Thursday, I’d find some short reading passages with questions, so I could test their understanding. Friday, maybe more of the same or a movie.

The Newcomers books were in the ELL classroom I used. Someone told me to use the Edge series, but the kids just weren’t ready. The room had tons of material–books, dictionaries, workbooks–but much of it was just at the wrong level, or too arcane, or simply uninteresting.

Charlotte is fairly fluent, but has a special ed diagnosis that will pretty much doom her to full English immersion for as long as she stays in high school, despite her teachers’ protests. (We did manage to get her sped support, at least.)  Sebastian has made no progress.  Amit has decent verbal fluency but his reading level is very weak, his written skills even worse. Marshall and Kit were my bright spots; they’ve been acquiring vocabulary and fluency at an exponential rate.

A week or two later after my last post on the class, in early October, Julian left for another school in the district, one with a higher Asian population than ours. Juanita, from Mexico, showed up at about the same time. Juanita is utterly uninterested in learning English or coming to school.

So had you asked me how I liked teaching ELL in early November, I would have talked about Marshall and Kit’s progress and how cheering it was, or my concerns about Juanita. I would have vented about Charlotte’s limited options, given state law. I’d have talked about Sebastian and Amit’s failure to progress and why. Amit was alert for every opportunity to gain approval. Sebastian was determined to get the right answer. They did not, alas, connect approval or the right answer to the goal of learning English. (How does Sebastian get right answers without learning any English? I asked the senior ELL teacher the same question. “He’s Chinese. It’s in the genes,” she said. But that’s okay. She’s Chinese, too.) I’d have bragged about the group cohesion–they have a Facebook page, and talk via Messenger.

But then things got crazy.

Between early November and Christmas break, six new students showed up. Four from Afghanistan (three siblings and a single), one from Mexico, one from Salvador.

In January, seven more: four from China, one from the Philippines, one from India, one from Vietnam.

My class size tripled. But there are no more Newcomers books. “We don’t use that curriculum any more.”

The ability range has also expanded, on both ends.

So my class now has three distinct levels, except I don’t yet have the expertise to run three classes, the way I did once in my all algebra year.

The first class would be for those who have little to no English. This became my most immediate problem. I couldn’t isolate the four kids who knew very little English, restricting their access to others fluent in their native languages. Elian, who arrived in November with nothing but “please”, “thank you”, and “soccer”, hasn’t progressed anywhere near as quickly as Marshall and Kit did  because Juan, Marshall and Kit are there to translate. He’s working, though, which puts him ahead of Juanita, who missed one to two classes a week for several months, and at this writing hasn’t been in class at all for two weeks. Ali and Monira are able to get translations from their older brother.  They’d progress more quickly in a more focused environment without friendly crutches. Juanita might feel like the course was designed for her needs and show up more.

Just for good measure, I’d put Sebastian and Amit in this class, which would be an enormous blow to their pride and dignity. But I’d remind them regretfully of the many times they’d done the wrong assignment, utterly failing to understand my instructions and being too proud to ask for help.But that’s ok, I’d tell them. They could be the class leaders and maybe, if they work harder, they’ll get moved up.  (Can you tell how attractive I’d find all this?)

Then the middle class of Aarif (Ali and Monira’s brother),  Huma (their fellow Persian-speaker), Marshall, Kit, and Amita (also from India),  the ones who are respectably fluent in English, but still need varying levels of finishing time to read and write in mainstream classes.

The four  from China (Anj, Song, Mary and sister Sara), the Filipino (Nancy), the Salvadoran (Juan), and the Vietnamese (Tran) are a real puzzle. They aren’t just verbally proficient, but can write and read reasonably well, with respectable vocabularies, better than all but the top 20-30% of my history class.  I can’t even begin to conceive why or how they were placed in ELL, much less the lowest level ELL class.  ( No one screwed up. ELL rules are what they are.)

The other teachers didn’t see anything odd about the wide range of abilities, but then the primary teacher, the ELL expert, has what I consider absurdly high standards. By her estimate, none of the kids were fluent. While I saw an enormous gulf between Elian and Tran, she saw two kids who couldn’t write an essay to her standards. I was relieved my responsibility to the class would be ending in late January, when the semester ended, and all this linguistic diversity would be Someone Else’s Problem and I wouldn’t need to try and argue about the various ability levels.

Then, just a week before the semester ended, I learned the replacement had turned down the job. The English department was about to be short yet another teacher, as a new one walked off the job with no notice four weeks into the second semester. Her classes have a long-term sub. The only plan B was me.  (Let me observe one more time how at odds the public conventional wisdom is with, you know, reality. Firing bad teachers is a trivial itch compared to the gaping maw of We Need More Teachers Now.)

Keeping my EL class required an enormous reconfiguration of the schedule, as my dance card for the second semester was already full (no prep).  My first block Trig course needed a teacher, and no other math teachers had a first block prep. Per my request, they reconfigured the schedule so that my closest colleague, who I’ve mentored since he arrived, got the class.

And so the linguistic diversity was now officially My Problem.

By early February, two of the Chinese students left–Song to the same school Julian absconded for, Sara to another city. I asked Mary why she wasn’t going with her sister?  Mary said Sara wasn’t her sister. Why would I think Sara was her sister? I reminded her they’d been introduced as sisters, had described themselves as sisters when they first arrived, and that I had referred to them as sisters several times to their acknowledgement. She looked vaguely panicked, tried to backtrack, and I told her to stop lying and drop it. Did I mention that Sebastian is supposed to be eighteen, but hasn’t hit puberty?  There’s a whole lot of birth certificate fraud going on in these Chinese visas. But I digress.

First problem: no more Newcomer books. I reached out to the language specialist: Any books like this? Hey, she remembered seeing  a bunch of books in a spare room. Would I be interested? Next day I had boxes and boxes of what  I considered two different publications–Read 180 and System 44–that are, apparently, the same program. I have no idea how this works, and that’s not because I didn’t take time and energy to look through them. Any connection must be found in the expensive training they want you to pay for. In any case, Read 180 was very writing-focused, with longer passages. Probably good for my middle group now; I may look at it again. But I was desperate for beginning texts and System 44 was a decent substitute for Newcomers.

So by late February, I had cobbled together an approach ensuring that my motivated beginners had the resources to improve their English. Fatima, in particular, made tremendous progress. Even Elian was at least showing more signs of comprehension, if he wasn’t speaking English at all.  Ali is moving much more slowly, but at least not backwards.

Marshall, Kit, and the rest of the middle group are continuing to benefit from the materials I have, plus our many class-wide discussions. I am constantly reassured by Kit and Marshall, my benchmark duo, showing constant improvement.

But the last group, I couldn’t figure out how to adequately challenge. Anything I came up with to do in the mixed class was too easy, but anything more difficult would require more support and attentiveness than I was giving.

One Monday in late March, I was driving to work bucking myself up about the coming week, thinking it was just a couple weeks until break, not to worry, don’t have such a bad attitude….and I stopped myself, because why the hell was I bucking myself up? I love my job. Really. I’m not a teacher who counts the days to spring break, normally.

So I went through all my classes: Trig, going great, really exciting work. For the first time, I was working with a like-minded colleague to build curriculum, common tests, a day by day approach. Wonderful stuff.  Mentoring an inductee, fun. Staff work, really promising. The upper math teachers were making real progress in settling our religious wars about coverage and depth by creating a federalist structure. My history class is a joy.  I was the adviser for a prominent after-school math-science program that succeeded beyond all expectations. Yes, I was busy, but I wasn’t particularly tired. I’d recognized the burnout signs last November and had successfully staved off an attack by taking it easy, resting more, traveling less. So why the motivation problem? My ELL class flashed into my mind and I felt an instant sense of….tension, dislike. Not quite revulsion, but definitely distasteful.

Until that minute, I hadn’t understood how much my ELL classs was pulling on my psyche, affecting more than just my feelings about that class. For the first time, I acknowledged that I was avoiding any sort of planning or development. Nothing felt enough, so I just avoided thinking about it outside class. I’d do whatever came into my head that morning. Head down, plowing through to the finish.

That very day, I walked into first block, and changed things up, created a wider range of activities, started coming up with more ideas, stopped just hoping it would be over when the year ended.

It worked.  I had more ideas for class-wide activities, more thoughts on how to differentiate. I could see the stronger kids were more engaged, learning idioms, thinking through grammar.  I’ll try to write more about these little activities in subsequent posts.

I’m not at all sure the kids notice any difference. I know the administrators and language specialist don’t–they already thought I was doing a good job.

I still don’t feel as if this is really teaching English. But I’m teaching better. I’m continuing to develop, rather than feeling stalled out. And that feels better.


The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

When I was very young, my grandfather took my book away as we were sitting companionably on the davenport, reading together. “You can’t possibly be reading that fast.”

Confused, I said, “Why not?”

“No one reads that fast. I read 600 word per minute, and you’ve flipped the page three times while I’m still on the first page.”

“But it’s a little kid book. You’re reading a big people book.”

Grandpa  read back over the previous two or three pages of The Bobbsey Twins or The Hardy Boys or whatever I was reading, quizzed me and, as he told the story for the next quarter of a century, I passed with flying colors. From that point on, Gramps was the only one of my relatives who really “got” me, understanding that living overseas left me starved of reading material. Every Christmas and birthday, where others would send me one or two books I’d devour in an hour or so, he’d send me a huge box of books chosen largely at random from the bookstore, adult-level reading books for a pre-teen and early adolescent.  Many of Grandpa’s books  built my eclectic content knowledge over the years, as my reading outpaced my age, then doubled it and beyond.

In the late sixties, increasing reading speed was all the rage (you can read fast, like the hallowed JFK!). We got tested often, in two ways. First, we’d be given a passage to read in time conditions, followed by comprehension questions. On these, I consistently clocked 1000 words per minute, probably the maximum speed on the meter, generally with 100% comprehension. Then, we were tested on tachistoscopes , which flashed a line of words on the screen or in a visor at the speed mentioned.

I hated those exercise. Hated. “That’s not how I read!” I still tested at 800 wpm or thereabouts, but it was horrible.  For the same reason, I would laugh at those idiotic Evelyn Woods speed reading commercials, because who on earth reads one word at a time? It’s so…limiting.

I believe the correct term for my early reading is Hyperlexia I–unusually bright child who happened to be an early reader.  A whole ‘nother line of thinking holds that all early readers are either visually spatially or linguistically disordered–although I have often written, of course, of my spectacularly weak spatial abilities, the description doesn’t fit me. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s linked, though.

No explanation for the speed, though. All authentically fast readers I’ve ever read or talked to mention some form of gulping, just as I do here in this old discussion at WestHunt.  Reading speed is linked with vocabulary (word identification), where I’ve been blowing past the 99th percentile my entire life.

I am a bit puzzled by the assertion that everyone–even I–subvocalize when reading.

Try this sentence: The bold spoken words could not sway the jury’s decision.

When I first began test prep instruction in the old SAT writing test, I constantly missed these ISE (identifying sentence errors) on adjective/adverb confusion. The question is designed to identify people who can’t hear the difference. Since  I don’t “subvocalize”, I wasn’t hearing the difference. I learned that many grammar errors are much easier to catch aurally than visually, and up until now I’d only reviewed my own writing for errors.  My eyes were fine at catching punctuation and wording mistakes, but I was vulnerable to usage mistakes that were most normally “heard”. I did not train myself to subvocalize. It was easier, for me, to train myself to spot the mistakes visually.  So while I accept the experts’ assurances that I’m subvocalizing, I sure don’t know when it’s happening.

I wasn’t ever terribly enamored of reading aloud to my son, who wasn’t a huge fan of it either. Movies were our bonding activity, from the time he was eighteen months old and beyond. Movies and Star Trek–before he was 2, he was making phaser noises and firing a water wand. His friends to this day marvel at his encyclopedic film knowledge. But while I was reading at three, he showed no interest in reading until the video game “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego” came out right after his sixth birthday. I refused to stand over the computer and read to him, so he informed his kindergarten teacher he had to learn how to read. Mission accomplished in a couple weeks. Within a few months, he had reading scores may not have been as high as mine, but were in the same ballpark, and much later scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.  He never read for pleasure save Harry Potter (he was from the original age group).  I’d long since stopped giving him piles of books, having figured this out (I’m not a nagger) but on impulse  I gave him some of my favorites for his 17th Christmas (Sewer, Gas, & Electric, Mark of the Horse Lord, Ender’s Game, Moon is a Harsh Mistress).  The books weren’t touched until we went on a long road trip in the era before smartphones, and he grabbed a few. I’d chosen well, and he became an enthusiastic reader during college, ripping through my extensive library and building his own favorites. Today he tracks his reading on goodreads. He reads quickly for a mere mortal, but nothing approaching my numbers.

I should mention that my dad, mother, aunt, and grandmother enjoy (or enjoyed) reading, mostly bestsellers (romance and spy novels, mostly) with a lexile level of, say, 800L.

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

So a working class kid developed mad reading skillz at the age of three and a PhD level vocabulary by middle school, despite working class parents and pulp fiction content, has a son who develops wowza reading comprehension and vocabulary despite never reading much and rarely being read to–and having parents who divorced when he was two.

Tales like mine often lead others to gasp and share their origin stories. “Oh, I loved to be read to. Here are my favorite stories. What were your favorite stories?” They will build lists of books that oh, if only other parents would share with their children, if only teachers would understand the beauty, the transformative power of these books, then the world would be so much different. How can parents be so cruel? And uneducated parents, if only they understood how they are crippling their children, they’d take them to the library.

“Oh, but my mom was a Serbian immigrant who never went past sixth grade and every week she took us to the library! That’s how I was able to do so well. All these parents could do the same thing. The library is free!”

“But no, these parents are working two jobs. That’s why teachers are so important. That’s why curriculum is so important, to help these children catch up and know what their peers know.”

Education reformers sneer at “cultural deficit thinking“. Those failing teachers in failing schools argue that kids in poverty don’t have the same experiences as the middle class norms are simply lowing expectations to make their jobs easier–doing what’s best for them instead of what’s best for their students. Rare is the reformer who accepts that they, too, engage in deficit thinking. They consider children with low reading abilities to have deficits. These students are….not normal. The difference lies in their demands that the deficit be addressed, that with this deficit are otherwise doomed.

But tales like mine should, ideally, lead people to realize how little all  their  shibboleths matter to academic outcomes in face of the brutal thumb on the scale provided by intellect and personality.  Tales like mine should remind all those people with college educated parents and reading enriched childhoods that my abilities likely skunk theirs threefold, and that my kid’s might, too. Tales like mine should make people wonder if all their reading nostrums are a few steps up from homeopathic medicine. Reading chiropractic.

Tales like mine should, ideally, remind all those eager participants of those who aren’t in the conversation.

We do not hear from the millions who don’t fondly recall their favorite childhood books. From the people who didn’t read Playboy for the articles –who didn’t read Playboy at all. From the people who enjoy Readers Digest and TV Guide as a significant portion of their reading activity. From the people who are not tweeting lists of their favorite books, are not rhapsodizing in the comments section about the joys of reading aloud. From the people who are not asked to join in the discussion, because the people who are in the discussion can’t imagine they exist. Not really. Not past a punchline or a parent to be escaped from.

People who tell their reading origin tales could, that is, realize their perception is strangled by an almost unimaginable restriction of range.

No one really thinks of the others because these exercises are, at heart, narcissistic feel-good nonsense,  but if the non-readers of the world were to be considered, their opinions would be rejected as not only uninteresting but actively dangerous. They represent what our education policy seeks to avoid.

And so,  dear readers, spare me your origin tales. Accept, for the moment, that our education policy is not informed by the adults who don’t care to read, who can’t read well, or both.

Ask yourself  who might (just might, and I do mean that) have benefited from realistic, functional, purpose-driven reading instruction. The sort of instruction that the people who tell their reading origin tales never need.  What education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?

Can we craft an education policy that increases content knowledge to the level a student can absorb it, recognizing this limit differs? Can we continue to build student content knowledge gradually throughout school, again at the level they can absorb it? Or are we going to continue to have foolish expectations of assigning “challenging texts” to kids who can’t read at that level, and don’t want to, and make them hate reading even more?

In short, how do we stop from making reading a moral matter?

So if you read this tale, spare me the happy talk of your origin story. Answer those questions instead.

 

 


Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

Hey, Bets.

Before I start: My parents loved Amway products and I still think SA8, LOC, Pursue, and Trizyme are the awesome. Please give my best to your father-in-law. Now, to business.

Congrats on being a relatively uncontroversial Trump cabinet pick. You have been subjected to all sorts of advice, I know. But I have some qualifications that are not often found in combination.  I am the only college graduate in my family. I teach three subjects at a Title I high school.  I voted for Trump. You’re 0 for 3 thus far.

Plus, while I have no money, fame, or influence, I’m an original thinker.  You…aren’t. I’ve reviewed a number of interviews you’ve given before your nomination. I’ve read your quotes on education. Every comment you’ve made was said by others first. You’re not unintelligent. It’s just that up to now, your primary task hasn’t involved thinking, but rather signing. The education policy field is comprised of the occasional thinker, ideologically-driven funders, and far too many hacks grovelling for  whatever notion gets them the check. You’re the one in the middle.

So your contribution to education has been, literally, contributions, the checks you’ve written to further your conservative values through education reform, and therein lies a potential problem. Education reform was born out of the conservative movement, and education reform, traditional conservatives and the neo-liberals, went all in on Never Trump.  I mean, y’all didn’t even try to be nice. But then Trump won, and wow, talk about a lucky break: education is one of the areas that Trump doesn’t care about, so is happy to give out jobs to conservatives like kibble to puppies.

But precisely because Trump doesn’t care much about education, because he picked someone without giving much thought to policy, you could get into trouble. Remember that feeling all you traditional conservatives had during the primaries? The horrible, stomach-turning realization that most of the GOP didn’t give a damn about all your dearest principles? The realization that GOP voters had shrugged and voted for your candidates because they didn’t have any other choice? Except now they did?

Bets, you need to remember that feeling and hold onto it for dear life. You live in that traditional conservative bubble, the one that sees black kids getting shot by white cops and blames bad (white female) teachers.  Technically, education reform focuses on improving education, but the reason they get funding is conservative belief that decimating union clout in traditionally blue states, thus disrupting a faithful, powerful Democrat lobby, will make the world a better place.

What, you think I’m cynical? In the metric ton of writing Rick Hess does every year the words “West Virginia” rarely, if ever, appear. (I thought I’d found an example but  it turned out to be a guest blogger.) Michael Petrilli is equally uncaring about the Mountain State, and mentions Detroit often, Michigan rarely or never. Go through the list of education reform organizations and see how often they worry about those isolated Wyoming schools, or whether or not the children of those Syrian refugees Hamdi  Ulukaya brings into Idaho because apparently no native workers want employment in his Chobani yogurt factories.

Reformers might be conservative, but they target blue states and blue voters. Take a look at the school district with the greatest charter penetration  as of 2015:

charterschoolenrollment

Hey, that map looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it looks like this county by county election map for 2016:

Except it’s a weird mismatch, isn’t it? Conservative reformers have had their greatest strengths in  Democrat strongholds. Even the ones found in Trump territory are in majority-blue areas.

Here’s what the reformers never tell you while asking for funds: Charter support requires unhappy parents. But most parents are quite pleased with their schools, and most parents understand, despite years of attempts to convince them otherwise, that native ability and peers matter more than teachers and curriculum. Changing innate ability levels is tough, so selling charters means finding parents who are unhappy with their childrens’ peer groups. Put another way, all parents want their kids away from Those Kids. Charters are attractive to parents who can’t use geography to achieve that aim.

Practically, this means selling charters primarily to two groups of parents: 1) highly motivated but poor black and Hispanic parents in schools overwhelmed with low ability, low motivated kids (the KIPP sell) 2) white suburban professional parents in schools that are either too brown or too competitive for their students, but who aren’t rich enough for private school or a house in a less diverse district (the Summit sell, or the progressive suburban charter). These are very blue groups.

Understanding the charter constituency explains the discrepancies between the charter and election map, and why the discrepancies go mostly in one direction–that is, why are there blue spots on the map that don’t have significant charter penetration?

In overwhelmingly white districts, parents aren’t buying. Vermont, an all-white state, doesn’t even have a charter law, last I checked, despite being so progressive that networks called the state the minute the polls closed. The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters. The Bay Area and other wealthy suburbs with lots of Hispanics do get some limited support for progressive charters like Summit, in part because Hispanics aren’t easily districted out in the suburbs without inviting lawsuits and in part because suburban comprehensive high schools can be very competitive and some parents would prefer a softer environment for their snowflakes.

In dominant red states,  charters aren’t selling. Not a lot of charters in rural Mississippi and Alabama, despite the pockets of black voters, because teachers unions are historically weak in the South. Nothing of interest to conservatives. (See? Told you it wasn’t about making education better.)

Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants tend to build ethnic cocoons which create Asian majorities in public schools. Increased Asian presence in schools drive out whites, who find their approach to education….unattractive, giving a whole new meaning to the term white flight.  Asian immigrants are much better than whites at crafting race-segregated environments, and they aren’t terribly tolerant of blacks or Hispanics. Hence, not much need for charters. We’ll see how this all plays out when we get to third or fourth generation Asian American in significant numbers. When they don’t have enough numbers to create an enclave, Asian charter selection most closely mirrors whites–they like progressive charters or better yet, competitive ones.

None of this should be news. Michael Petrilli has been desperately trying to convince the suburbs that charters matter to them because their schools suck. Such a compelling message.

So charters, the only real success of the reform effort, have seen  their efforts pay off with quasi-private schools for people who aren’t going to be voting Republican any time soon.   GOP voters, those faithless bastards who voted in Trump, aren’t terribly interested in reform. Education Next surveys the public on those values traditional conservatives hold dear. You can see all the 10-year trends at this link, but I thought I’d pick out GOP and general public trends on a few select–and somewhat damning–questions:

First up: support for charters, unions and merit pay. GOP responses first, general public second. You can click to see the enlarged version, but  you can clearly see that two of them have flatlined and one of them is increasing slightly.

 

gop10yrtrendschartersunions

gp10yrtrendscharterunions

The increasing trendline? Union support. Yes, Bets, GOP belief that teacher unions are a net positive for schools is on  the rise. Charters and merit pay? Decreasing slightly, but look at them over time. No movement. Needle’s stopped. Public opinion, same.

I grant you, of course, that GOP voters still like unions less than Democrat ones. But I think you can agree these trendlines are all resistant to happy talk.

Next up: support for vouchers, both low income and universal.

Whoa, serious tanking there. Isn’t that your primary issue, Betsy? I’m assuming Trump hasn’t seen these numbers, or he’d wonder why he’s hiring a fool who’s gotten nothing for her money all these years. How the hell can education reformers demand merit pay when they’ve failed so miserably at their own assignments?

Reformers haven’t changed public opinion about the overall suckiness of teachers and unions or the fabulosity of vouchers.  Yeah, you’ve got more charters but not dramatically more public support for them–and the people who want and get charters aren’t grateful GOP voters. At least charters provide dramatically better academic outcomes. Oh, wait.

Where was I?

Oh. Yeah. Look. You didn’t get Trump here. The epic wave that gave Trump the win didn’t start or end with education reform. You gotta dance with the people who did get him the job. Your policies aren’t popular. Try to remember that. Try to act like that. Try to care about actually making education better, not enacting reforms that have already failed and don’t have popular support.

That doesn’t mean ignoring black and Hispanic kids.

It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money.  You won’t have to write a single check!

And remember: education reform has not traditionally been a friendly place for women in charge. Voters and parents have found them wanting. And the bosses haven’t shown much sympathy. Just ask Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson. You don’t want Trump to suddenly start caring about education for the wrong reasons, y’know?

Happy New Year.


A Clarifying Moment

This semester has had several  unmitigated professional plusses: (1) my schedule is now ELL, trig, algebra 2, and pre-calc. (Cue Sesame Street.)  Last year, I briefly (and oh so irrationally) considered resigning because I only had two preps. Four is better. (2) I’m actually helping the school out in a pinch by taking this ELL class. Feels noble and self-sacrificing….(3) well, no, scratch the self-sacrifice, given the  33% pay bump for the fourth semester in a row, with next semester the fifth. You would be shocked to learn how much I make extra a month. Score. (5) I’m getting a new professional experience with no risk.

On the other hand, I’ve set a new benchmark for exhaustion. Work rarely tires me out. But for the first time in memory I’m mentally zonked by my schedule. Enjoying it, yes. But not only am I finding myself thinking longingly of Saturday and sleep,  but I’m often teaching my fourth block from a chair. I’ve been puzzling over the cause, because nothing about four preps should in and of itself be so draining (for me). As I wrote this,  I suddenly realized that club adviser should be added to the list. Then I’m an induction  mentor. And oh, yeah, an administrator voluntold me to co-lead a science/engineering after-school program, which is getting kind of ridiculous. I don’t do science.

The after-school program gave me some insight into my state of mind. I’d been MIA for the first few meetings, for good reasons. I’d done the several hours of weekend training, met with my co-lead (also my mentee), but had just not gotten dialed into the weekly sessions.  I’d been mentally shying away from even thinking about that two afternoon commitment, on top of everything else. But once my first meeting started, I was hooked and charged, working with the kids.

I suddenly realized that this is how I’m facing every single class, every obligation (save the induction meetings, which take place at a local liquor store with a great beer bar): mentally shying away from each instance until I’m in the moment, when it’s an electric shock of fun and joy. Which, for me, is a sign of incipient burnout. I have cancelled one road trip entirely over Thanksgiving, and am rethinking the best way to achieve two others. I may even fork out plane fare, which is a big concession. Semester two will be better, just two preps.

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

Related:

Yesterday, Friday afternoon, just minutes from beer and sushi, I was waiting for some pre-calc students to finish a test when in walked

“Hui! My lord, I haven’t seen you since…” and I stopped there, just jumping up to shake hands, because the last time I’d seen Hui, nearly three years ago, he’d been choking back tears as he told me his SAT scores.

Hui had been a junior in my first pre-calc class, where he struggled. (Based on my results with him and other similar stories, I slowed down instruction dramatically in subsequent precalc courses.)  He wasn’t a student I was particularly close to, but the next year, he stopped by and asked if I could give him advice about the SAT.  I wasn’t sanguine. He tested terribly in math, and he spoke, read, and wrote English at perhaps a fifth grade level. A top state university was his goal. Asians with impeccable scores and transcripts face routine discrimination by college admissions staff; the notion of an underprivileged Chinese lad whose abilities weren’t best captured by standardized tests simply does not compute in that world. I tried as gently as possible to prepare him for this likelihood, but didn’t push the issue, and twice a week, he came to my classroom after school for half an hour or more,  steadfastly working through test sections and trying to make sense of the questions.

After his test date, Hui asked me if I’d look at his personal statement. I gave him several tutorials in self-promotion.  Hui’s weak English suddenly became a remarkable achievement  when considered in the context of five years in America and two parents with limited education and less English. He was reclassified quickly (probably too quickly), which allowed him to take a normal schedule and qualify for admission to a state campus. Play up that achievement, I told him, and put your scores in context.  Hui had started a new draft when he came to my room one day, devastated: he’d received his SAT scores and they were as low as I’d feared.

His despair has remained a memory I flinch from–although at least in this case the recoil wasn’t for my poor handling of things. I didn’t try to console him, didn’t point out the local community college was very good (it is).  Hui accepted my heartfelt sympathy as best he could, nodding tightly, eyes filled with tears. He left my room, and I don’t remember another conversation, although I’m sure we ran into each other in the hallways.

“So how’s college?”

“Good. I want to get a degree in economics. I’m planning a transfer, getting everything in order, and…” Hui paused.

“Oh, hey. You didn’t just come by to say hi!”

Grin and a ducked head. “I’m want to apply to the same school as….. as last time. Could you look at my personal statements? They are short answer questions, so it won’t be one big essay.”

“Sure! You’ve got a good shot at transferring. I’m glad you’re trying again. You want to mail the responses?”

“They’re on my Google Drive. Do you have time?”

I sighed. “I do, but only until these last three are done with their tests, because then I have beer awaiting.”

I flipped through the short passages. “Hey, your writing has improved tremendously.” That wasn’t empty praise; his writing was still obvious an product of an English Language Learner, but the deficiencies now were….well, not infrequent, but not constant, either. Far fewer grammar errors, allowing me to focus on style issues.

Passage one needed a complete rewrite; Hui focused entirely on describing courses in his desired major. I told him to branch out. Passages two and three were nicely done, with only a few grammar and style edits. Passage four….

Passage four, in response to “what significant obstacle have you faced and how has it affected your academic progress” or something like that, was a lovely little explanation of the struggle he faced as a child who came to America at the age of ten, with two parents who still, to this day, speak no English.  Not just vague assertions, either, but entertaining, brief comparisons of verb tenses and articles that presented tremendous challenges to Chinese speakers, and finishing up with his constant efforts to remedy his gaps with books and films.

I looked over at Hui, who was watching me closely, and don’t tell anyone, but I was choked up. “You kept my notes from last time.”

“I didn’t need to. I remembered them. They really helped to think of my English as…something I’d achieved, rather than just something I do really bad at.”

“You should finish with a sentence to that effect.”

“OK.”

He left after wangling my phone number out of me, but promised to try email first. A student finishing up his test said “So can I come back to you for college admissions help after I graduate?”

“You better.”

I tell this story for two reasons. First: I write quite a bit about Asian immigrants , the corruption that China is introducing into US college admissions, the continual obsession with grades   and resumes with little interest in underlying knowledge, the pressure the parents put on the kids, and the  my concerns that they’re not here to become Americans, but to take advantage of a system not set up to defend against them. Inevitably, someone takes offense and argues that “they aren’t all like that”. Yes.  Even the ones who are like that….aren’t. I know that better than most.

But I tell this story in large part because I didn’t instantly think to write it up. I was just sitting around last night thinking of the three posts I have in the hopper, and trying to get the energy to finish one of them, when the events of the day popped into my mind and I thought it might make a good story. Then I realized it made a great story. Then–in the moment of this essay’s title–I realized the reason it didn’t instantly present itself as a great story is because this happens to me all the time.

A month ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks when I noticed the kid sitting next to me was a trig student from last year, now attending a graphics arts program. We were chatting when his pals showed up, all past students, and they sat down for half an hour and told me about their lives, exchanging funny stories about my classes. Two ex-students came back just this month asking for some help in their college math course. Every year, a few students make coffee dates, just to chat. Still others just stop by my classroom and say hi.

What a tremendous, amazing job I have. Teaching feeds my love of drama, my ability to think on the fly, and my love of intellectual challenges–and gives me tremendous independence. Then, it turns out, I live in my students’ memories.  I am Chips, not Browning.

In Clan Teacher, pay is substituted in part with ego gratification–and don’t think it’s not a fair trade. I’m a cranky introvert–you don’t think it matters to me that I send kids out into the world with Memories of Me? Good memories, of course–and yes, like all teachers, I worry about the damage, the memories I might cause through a careless word or ill-considered retort. But  I don’t demand perfection from my own performance. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

So I’m not telling this story because it revived my flagging spirits, reversed my burnout. I’m telling you about Hui because it’s a glorious part of business as usual.

Which means I have to rest up, take this mild burnout seriously. Maybe take next summer off. (Yes. Laugh.) Get home earlier, particularly when I feel too tired to get up from my desk.

Because I never want to lose the sense of joy I get when remembering they actually pay me for this gig.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Graduating My Geometry Class

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. First block, first day, I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Three freshmen left the school mid-term. All but one of the rest passed. Eleven Asians (1 east, 3 south,4 south east, 3 mideast), nine whites, seven Hispanic , one black. Five Muslim. No long-term ELLs, one suffered from near-blindness. Ten athletes who played their entire high school careers,  including two who eventually got scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or AP Stats, although at least three talented students were derailed by an F from Mr. Singh , which I found frustrating. All of them are going to college. They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

One student I never saw again: the feckless, charming girl who failed all her classes by treating school as social hour continued to frustrate her father, who brought her away from the Philippines and her mother, hoping he could prevent a pregnancy before a high school diploma. Another student I just didn’t run into much.

Four others were likewise never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining twenty saw me in at least one subsequent math class. Five saw me twice more. None seemed to mind.

In all our frequent chats, literally up through their June graduation, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man  who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said,”Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many–at least fifty–more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names because they know my sunglasses aren’t prescription.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. Their procession took them by the stadium’s fence along the security road; I stood about 15 feet away by a barrier and put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face. Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to the Starbucks where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way. And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I looked at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving. Smiled, running through the names of the only other geometry class I taught and coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my god. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up!  How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future. I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt, watching her walk away.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls? Could I be reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I remember telling that ed school professor that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. Next year is my first without my touchstone group. I’ll miss you.

I want you to go forth and live happy, productive lives. Please know that for the past four years, your presence has been a big part of mine.

Thanks.

 


What I Learned: Years 4-7

I was going to continue my year by  year  (by year) retrospective, but I decided that the last four years can be considered as a block. Which is good, because if I did a post per year I’d never catch up.

tl;dr Years 4-7 were all about happiness.

I began at this school in late August of Year 4, just a week or so before school began.  Utterly desperate for work, I would have accepted any offer, anywhere in a 35 mile radius and really, by late August, 50 mile drives weren’t out of the question.  That I got my first choice, a school that had actually offered for me the year before, seemed almost a miracle.

And really, I’ve been happy ever since. Teaching has always been a joy. The previous schools, with all the challenges, never dented my belief in my own abilities or the faith that kids were benefiting from my teaching. But at the other schools, the administrators didn’t agree. It’s not that they thought I was a bad teacher. I just wasn’t what they wanted–someone younger, ideally.  Here, for the first time since student teaching, my bosses also thought I was a darn good teacher. May this bliss last at least eight years more.

So in those four years, what changes and accomplishments can I point to?

Teaching Persona

As mentioned in Year 3 retrospective,  I’d begun to establish the same ambiance in my school classrooms that existed in my test prep and enrichment instruction classes. At this school, the process was complete and I never looked back. From day one, I was unpredictable, flexible, friendly, ruthlessly sarcastic, and damn funny, which is where I live the rest of the time. The second year there, I introduced a meme: I am the star of my classroom.  I get a guaranteed audience three or four times a day. It is in my contract. Students are the audience. Their job is to attend. If they’re lucky, they might get some lines. A walk on part. But mostly students are to watch. To listen. Eh…learning would be nice, but that’s up to them.

Someone somewhere is going to take this as a serious statement of priorities, rather than a mindset. Remember that I spend very little upfront time teaching. It’s more of an attitude. It allows me to be big, overblown, demanding attention, dammit, whether you learn or not. Students enjoy the spin on the usual pay attention because education is good for you. Hell with that, kids, your attention is good for me.

I count it as a good sign that I’m regularly in the Teacher Awards section of the yearbook, and for fun things: Storyteller, Unpredictable, Mostly Likely to Lose Whiteboard Eraser. May that, too, extend through the next eight years. I’m a geek; popularity is a nice change.

Building Curriculum–Never Be Satisfied

I vividly remember in the spring of year 4, my first year at this school, when I was looking ahead to linear inequalities. I was just about done with my new method of modeling linear equations which had now gone well twice in a row (remember, this school does a year in a semester and then repeats).

But at the time, I did little more than go through the procedures on linear inequalities, and felt a twinge of shame the first semester, as we moved from a unified modeling approach to…here’s how you test a value.  And suddenly, out of the blue, I remember my ed school professor saying “You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

At the time, I rolled my eyes. She was saying this in the context of our first year of teaching, to never feel satisfied. I think this is absurd. “Good enough” is fine a lot of the time. But at this moment, I realized it could apply to an entire career (and in fairness to the professor, that’s probably what she meant.)

So I challenged myself in that moment to come up with something different. How could I introduce  linear inequalities in such a way that would build on the linear equations, while showing their differences? I still use the methods I built that day, although I’ve developed them somewhat.

But from that point on, I always take that moment, that wince away from a piece of curriculum I don’t like. What can I rebuild? How can I make it better? I’m not a perfectionist, not a driving careerist, definitely not hard-charging in approach. (my affect and opinions, whole different deal.) Just one of many ways in which my pricey ed school degree has transformed me well after the fact.

I’ve written about many other curriculum improvements over time. All of these were done with that same spirit of yeah, the old way wasn’t working, let’s try this:

I’ve completely reworked quadratics and exponents as well, but haven’t written them up. It’s been fun.

I don’t have one approach to curriculum, but if I have a go-to process, it’s the “illustrating activity” or problem, which can be seen here in the Projectile Motion writeup, or this lesson on proving the pythagorean theorem and geometric mean activity. I began to write it up as part of this entry, but decided no, do a separate post. (I do apologize for my scarce blogging lately.)

Classroom Ambiance

allclassworking

This is the first time I had my students “work in the round”, which is how you’ll find my class at least 12-15 days a month since then. My current classroom has whiteboards all the way around. The walls have a 5 x wall-length strip of white board paint (which is really cool). I have small white boards with coordinate planes etched in. I also have a wonderful donor who sends me $100 worth of whiteboard pens every year, so the kids can always be working on a big surface, with plenty of room for mistakes.

There must be whiteboards.  Working constantly in class, moving around, reduces the risk of math zombies. Earphones are allowed to shut out the noise, provided I don’t see the student enjoying the music more than the work.

I sit my kids in groups, which has been true since my first year. I don’t do homework, which has been true for two years, but I never counted failure to do homework.

There must also be movies. Twice a semester in the fall, because Christmas means “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Always at the end of the semester.

Assessments

The December of Year 5, I got a look at the new Common Core tests and laughed, again, at the ludicrous notion that the new mean achievement would be centered around these ridiculously difficult standards. Except…..

I noticed that many questions required more than one answer. They weren’t simple multiple choice questions. “Identify all the solutions.” “Select all the equivalent expressions.”

Hey, now. That’s interesting. And my first multiple assessment test was born a week later.

Thanks, Common Core! sez I. My kids, not so much.The tests are really helpful for lower ability kids to show what they know, but the strongest kids have to be on their game to do well.

Here’s my first post on the topic, but I’ve revisited it often. They allow flexibility way beyond the usual multiple choice–I can mix and match between freeform and formatted response, or include both in the same question. I can create one question with varied procedural tasks, or one question that dives deep into one situation. They also allow me to greater access to student thinking.

I’ve also had fun redoing my quizzes in the past year. Typically, my quizzes have been straightforward affairs that contain no surprises. But I’ve started to mix it up. helicopterquest

These are nice stylistic changes, even if the underlying question is still straightforward.

Meta Teaching
While I mentioned that my third year saw fundamental .changes in my approach to teaching, I completely forgot to mention that the year also gave  birth to this blog.  While I began blogging at my last school, all but eight months of it have been here. The blog itself is a constant insight into my teaching practice–among other things. I’ve kept it primarily on education, whether it be policy, practice, law, or the reality, which often violates all the others. And occasionally Trump, of course. But then, a good chunk of my Trump support is also related to teaching.

I was not terribly popular with the head of my ed school, but on at least two occasions, she mentioned my gift for writing about classroom experiences. My second year out, I was telling one of my ed school professors about my administration woes, and he told me that he wanted me to keep teaching so I could write about it.

“You’re a very good new teacher. But writing about teaching will be your unique contribution to the field.” I was immensely complimented, and said so–wondering how I could possibly get someone to ever be interested in publishing my thoughts, and how I could get my thoughts down to 750 word chunks.

Turned out I could do first part myself, making the second (ahem) unnecessary.

I try to avoid doing too much with clubs or other school activities that involve stipends.Mentoring credentialed and student teachers1on the other hand, fits in well with my temperament. I’ve spent most of my life being paid for opinions. Consulting new teachers carries on that piece of my past. I’ll be doing induction this year, and hope to find another student teacher soon.

And so, I move onto years 8 and beyond. Looking forward to it.

 

*******************************
1My student teacher got at least two job offers from the district; I’m assuming he took one of them but haven’t talked to


Curriculum Development: Not Work for Hire

I chopped off part of my last piece to expand more on teacher intellectual property, a topic near and dear1.

The conventional wisdom (which Stephen Sawchuk nicely outlines in the last part of this piece) holds that teachers are district employees, so any curriculum, lessons, or tests are considered work for hire . The teacher is paid specifically to develop the curriculum by the district, so the district owns the copyright and any subsequent profits from all of their teachers’ work—tests, worksheets, lesson plans, sequencing, whatever. .

In theory, my district could force me to pull down my posted curriculum from this blog—since I don’t own the copyright, I don’t have the right to give it away for free. Sites like Teachers Paying Teachers are illegal in this view, since teachers are making profits off their district’s property.

Originally, a teacher’s work was exempted from the work to hire rule, but in 1978 Congress didn’t include the exemption. Teachers’ unions have been trying to get the exemption reinstated.

Not for the first time, I’d argue the unions are going about this in exactly the wrong way. The exemption is unnecessary. Teachers aren’t hired to write curriculum. We are hired to teach. I’ve now outlined three well-established, time-honored practices that support this interpretation.

  1. Teacher contracts spell out their time commitments, which are the time in the classroom, staff and department meetings, supervisories, and mandatory professional development. No contracts hold teachers responsible for developing their own curriculum. A teacher is welcome to teach day by day from a provided textbook, or eschew a textbook altogether. They are not evaluated on the strength of their curriculum development in any way, nor can they be required to improve performance on this point. (More about this here.)
  2. While districts have begun to claim copyright, districts have never paid each other for teacher-developed curriculum. I have been in three districts. Like all teachers, I have a directory of my own curriculum, and I’ve carried it from school to school without any district ever informing me I couldn’t–much less demanding payment from my new district for use of their copyrighted curriculum.

    This practice, which has gone on for generations, clearly demonstrates that districts don’t consider themselves owners of the teacher curriculum. So if they want to ban a teacher from selling it, they need to start seizing the curriculum from teachers who developed it. Good luck with that.

  3. As I recently wrote, teachers given the extra duty of a class are paid purely based on the class instruction time, not the additional time (or not) needed to develop curriculum for that class. I’ve written before that teacher preps, or number of subjects actually taught, impact teacher workload. Teaching three different classes would be considerably more work, for most teachers, than teaching the same class four (or six) times. Teaching large classes also impacts workload. The teacher with multiple preps but a free period could have a student load of 150, while the teacher who works the prep could have 120 students (6 classes of 20). Unlikely, but theoretically possible. Doesn’t matter. More preps, more students, more outside work: irrelevant. What earns teachers a significant premium is the number of scheduled classes they are responsible for.

No one ever listens to me, but I’d advise unions to look for a good test case to challenge the work-for-hire idea, rather than argue for a change to copyright law, on the grounds that existing practice has acknowledged teacher intellectual property for decades. Certainly, the district should never be required to pay for the teacher’s work product in later years, should receive automatic use of anything developed during the teacher’s term of employment. But any rights in the curriculum we develop is our own.

I’ve often seen reformers–and other teachers—bemoan the notion of teachers who go home right after school everyday, clearly implying that the extra work developing lesson plans and curriculum is an element of our salary. But this simply isn’t true.

Besides, we don’t have any real idea of what makes a good teacher. Some of us work hours after school, some leave right after. No teachers who spend hours crafting curriculum, be it handouts, lesson plans, or tests, have any guarantee that they are getting better results. What they do know is that they are creating, creating without pay, and what they create should be theirs.

Here, again, acting works well as an analogy. Two actors are cast in a play, given supporting roles with an equivalent number of lines. They are both paid “scale” (whatever that is). The first actor spends six hours a day outside of rehearsal, practicing and perfecting the role, trying out different readings. The second actor barely makes it to rehearsal because he’s busy auditioning for a movie, doesn’t put any time into preparation.

They both would be paid scale for rehearsal and performance hours. The first actor wouldn’t be paid for the additional hours. The second actor might, in an unfair world, receive more acclaim and audience approval despite his lackluster approach.

But neither of them would be precluded from re-using aspects of their performance in later roles. The studied wince. The knowing sneer. The warm beaming smile, the turn and rapid delivery. Their performances were the result of work-for-hire. The script, like the textbook, belongs to someone else. The manner and method they use to deliver the performance are entirely theirs.

I ran into our union rep, an excellent English teacher, in the copy room. We began by chatting about class size (I’m teaching three massive A2 classes, which has given me some sympathy for the limits) and for various reasons (no doubt because this was on my mind), we got around to curriculum development.

“I wonder why the union doesn’t realize that we aren’t paid to develop curriculum? They don’t really need to change the copyright act to give teachers ownership of their work.”

“Or to give everyone ownership,” she said instantly. “There’s good reason to believe that no one’s work is truly original, that everything is derivative.”

Oh, lord. A CopyLeft fan. If our conversation had been Twitter based, I would have been properly contemptuous, but she’s a colleague and really very smart (she knew about the 1978 Copyright Act!) and besides, on this issue, I am actually seeking to persuade so I bite back my first response.

“Yeah, I ‘ve never agreed on that. But can we agree, at least, that whether teachers own their work or everyone owns their work, that the district doesn’t own our work?”

“Oh, absolutely. In order to give it away, we need the rights to it.”

So to the many loopy committed Creative Commons, Open Source, everything is derivative folks, can I just ask that we put aside our differences long enough to get the union to argue our case?

********************************************
1I’ve been writing about teacher IP and curriculum development for four years, as long as this blog’s been around–that’s in addition to many, many posts on my actual curriculum development. Here’s the primary pieces:

Teaching and Intellectual Property
Grant Wiggins
Developing Curriculum
Handling Teacher Preps
Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.


Assessing Math Understanding: Max, Homer, and Wesley

This is only tangentially a “math zombies” post, but I did come up with the idea because of the conversation.

I agree with Garelick and Beals that asking kids to “explain math” is most often a waste of time. Templates and diagrams and “flow maps” aren’t going to cut it, either. Assessing understanding is a complicated process that requires several different solutions methods and an interpretive dance. Plus a poster or three. No, not really.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t usually ask kids to “explain their answer” because too many kids confuse “I wrote some words” with “I explained”. I grade their responses in the spirit given, a few points for effort. “Explain your answer” test questions are sometimes handy to see if top students are just going through the motions, or how much of my efforts have sunk through to the students. But I don’t rely on them much and apart from top students, don’t care much if the kids can’t articulate their thinking.

It’s still important to determine whether kids actually understand the math, and not just because some kids know the algorithm only. Other kids struggle with the algorithm but understand the concepts, Still others don’t understand the algorithm because they don’t grok the concepts. Finally, many kids get overwhelmed or can’t be bothered to work out the problem but will indicate their understanding if they can just read and answer true/false points.

If you are thinking “Good lord, you fail the kids who can’t be bothered or get overwhelmed by the algorithms!” then you do not understand the vast range of abilities many high school teachers face, and you don’t normally read this blog. These are easily remediable shortcomings. I’m not going to cover that ground again.

So how to ascertain understanding without the deadening “explain your answer” or the often insufficient “show your work”?

My task became much easier once I turned to multiple answer assessments. I can design questions that test algorithm knowledge, including interim steps, while also ascertaining conceptual knowledge.

I captured some student test results to illustrate, choosing two students for direct comparison, and one student for additional range. None of these students are my strongest. One of the comparison students, Max, would be doing much better if he were taught by Mr. Singh, a pure lecture & set teacher; the other, Homer, would be struggling to pass. The third, Wesley, would have quit attending class long ago with most other teachers.

To start: a pure factoring problem. The first is Max, the second Homer.

zombiecomp1

Both students got full credit for the factoring and for identifying all the correct responses. Max at first appears to be the superior math student; his work is neat, precise, efficient. He doesn’t need any factoring aids, doing it all in his head. Homer’s work is sloppier; he makes full use of my trinomial factoring technique. He factored out the 3 much lower on the page (out of sight), and only after I pointed out he’d have an easier time doing that first.

Now two questions that test conceptual knowledge:

zombiecomp2

Max guessed on the “product of two lines” question entirely, and has no idea how to convert a quadratic in vertex form to standard or factored. Yet he could expand the square in his head, which is why he knew that c=-8. He was unable to relate the questions to the needed algorithms.

Homer aced it. In that same big, slightly childish handwriting, he used the (h,k) parameters to determine the vertex. Then he carefully expanded the vertex form to standard form, which he factored. This after he correctly identified the fact that two lines always multiply to form a quadratic, no matter the orientation.

Here’s more of Homer’s work, although I can’t find (or didn’t take a picture of) Max’s test.

zombiecomp5

This question tests students’ understanding of the parameters of three forms of the quadratic: standard, vertex, factored. I graded this generously. Students got full credit if they correctly identified just one quadratic by parameter, even if they missed or misidentified another. Kids don’t intuitively think of shapes by their parameter attributes, so I wanted to reward any right answers. Full credit for this question was 18 points. A few kids scored 22 points; another ten scored between 15 and 18. A third got ten or fewer points.

Homer did pretty well. He was clearly guessing at times, but he was logical and consistent in his approach. Max got six points. He got a wrong, got b, c, & d correct, then left the rest blank. It wasn’t time; I pointed out the empty responses during the test, pointing out some common elements as a hint. He still left it blank.

On the same test, I returned to an earlier topic, linear inequalities. I give them a graph with several “true” points. Their task: identify the inequalities that would include all of these solutions.

zombiecomp4

(Ack: I just realized I flipped the order when building this image. Homer’s is the first.)

Note the typo that you can see both kids have corrected (My test typos are fewer each year, but they still happen.) I just told them to fix it; the kids had to figure out if the “fix” made the boundary true or false. (This question was designed to test their understanding of linear concepts–that is, I didn’t want them plugging in points but rather visualizing or drawing the boundary lines.)

Both Max and Homer aced the question, applying previous knowledge to an unfamiliar question. Max converted the standard form equation to linear form, while Homer just graphed the lines he wasn’t sure of. Homer also went through the effort of testing regions as “true”, as I teach them, while Max just visualized them (and probably would have been made a mistake had I been more aggressive on testing regions).

Here I threw something they should have learned in a previous year, but hadn’t covered in class:
zombiecomp3

Most students were confused or uncertain; I told them that when in doubt, given a point….and they all chorused “PLUG IT IN.”

This was all Max needed to work the problem correctly. Homer, who had been trying to solve for y, then started plugging it in, but not as fluently as Max. He has a health problem forcing him to leave slightly early for lunch, so didn’t finish. For the next four days, I reminded students in class that they could come in after school or during lunch to finish their tests, if they needed time. Homer didn’t bother.

So despite the fact that Homer had much stronger conceptual understanding of quadratics than Max, and roughly equal fluency in both lines and quadratics, he only got a C+ to Max’s C because Homer doesn’t really care about his grade so long as he’s passing.

Arrgghhh.

I called in both boys for a brief chat.

For Max, I reiterated my concern that he’s not doing as well as he could be. He constantly stares off into space, not paying attention to class discussions. Then he finishes work, often very early, often not using the method discussed in class. It’s fine; he’s not required to use my method, but the fact that he has another method means he has an outside tutor, that he’s tuning me out because “he knows this already”. He rips through practice sheets if he’s familiar with the method, otherwise he zones out, trying to fake it when I stop by. I told him he’s absolutely got the ability to get an A in class, but at this point, he’s at a B and dropping.

Max asked for extra credit. He knew the answer, because he asks me almost weekly. I told him that if he wanted to spend more time improving his grade, he should pay attention in class and ask questions, particularly on tests.

We’ve had this conversation before. He hasn’t changed his behavior. I suspect he’s just going to take his B and hope he gets a different teacher next year who’ll make the tutor worth the trouble. At least he’s not trying to force a failing grade to get to summer school for an easy A.

Homer got yelled at. I expressed (snarled) my disappointment that he wouldn’t make the effort to be excellent, when he was so clearly capable of more. What was he doing that was so important he couldn’t take 20 minutes or so away to finish a test, given the gift of extra time? Homer stood looking a bit abashed. Next test, he came in during lunch to complete his work. And got an A.

Max got a B- on the same test, with no change in behavior.

I haven’t included any of the top students’ work because it’s rather boring; revelations only come with error patterns. But here, in a later test, is an actual “weak student”, who I shall dub Wesley.

Wesley had been forced into Algebra 2, against his wishes, since it took him five attempts to pass algebra I and geometry. He was furious and determined to fail. I told him all he had to do was work and I’d pass him. Didn’t help. I insisted he work. He’d often demand to get a referral instead. Finally, his mother emailed about his grade and I passed on our conversations. I don’t know how, but she convinced him to at least pick up a pencil. And, to Wesley’s astonishment, he actually did start to understand the material. Not all of it, not always.

weakstudentwork

This systems of equations question (on which many students did poorly) was also previous material. But look at Wesley! He creates a table! Just like I told him to do! It’s almost as if he listened to me!

He originally got the first equation as 20x + 2y = 210 (using table values); when I stopped by and saw his table, I reminded him to use it to find the slope–or, he could remember the tacos and burritos problem, which spurred his memory. You can’t really see the rest of the questions, but he did not get all the selections correct. He circled two correctly, but missed two, including one asking about the slope, which he could have found using his table. He also graphed a parabola almost correctly, above (you can see he’s marked the vertex point but then ignored it for the y-intercept).

He got a 69, a stupendous grade and effort, and actually grinned with amazement when I handed it back.

Clearly, I’m much better at motivating underachieving boys than I am “math zombies”. Unsurprising, since motivating the former is my peculiar expertise going back to my earliest days in test prep, and I’ve only recently had to contend with the latter. However, I’ve successfully reached out and intervened with similar students using this approach, so it’s not a complete failure. I will continue to work on my approach.

None of the boys have anything approaching a coherent, unified understanding of the math involved. In order to give them all credit for what they know and can do, while still challenging my strongest students, I have to test the subject from every angle. Assessing all students, scoring the range of abilities accurately, is difficult work.

As you can see, the challenges I face have little to do with Asperger’s kids who can’t explain what they think or frustrated parents dealing with number lines or boxes of 10. Nor is it anything solved by lectures or complex instruction. My task is complicated. But hell, it’s fun.


Understanding Math, and the Zombie Problem

I have been mulling this piece on the evils of explanations for a while. There’s many ways to approach this issue, and I highly recommend the extended discussion at Dan Meyer’s blog, as it captures experience-based teachers (mostly reform biased) with the traditionalists, who are primarily not teachers.

What struck me suddenly, as I was engaged in commenting, was the Atlantic’s clever juxtaposition.

All the buzz, all the sturm und drang about Common Core and overprocessed math has involved elementary school. The cute show your thinking pictures are from 8 year olds and first graders. Louis CK breaks our hearts with his third grader’s pain. The image in the Atlantic article has cute little pudgy second grade arms—with just the suggestion of race, maybe black, maybe Hispanic, probably male—writing a whole paragraph on math. The evocative image evokes protective feelings, outrage over the iniquities of modern math instruction, as a probably male student desperately struggles to obey meaningless demands from a probably female teacher who probably doesn’t understand math beyond an elementary level anyway. Hence another underprivileged child’s potential crushed, early and permanently, by the white matriarchal power structure unwilling to acknowledge its limitations.

And who could disagree? Arithmetic has, as John Derbyshire notes, “the peculiar characteristic that it easy to state problems in it that are ferociously difficult to solve.” Why force children to explain place value or the division algorithm? Let them get fluency first. Garelick and Beals (henceforth referred to as G&B) cite various studies finding that elementary school students gain competence by focusing on procedure first, conceptual understanding at some later point.

There’s just one problem. While the Atlantic’s framing targets elementary school, and the essay’s evidence base is entirely from elementary school, G&B’s focus is on middle school.

Percentages. Proportions. Historically, the bane of middle school math. Exhibit C on high school math teachers list of “things our students should know but don’t” (after negatives and fractions), and an oft-tested topic, both conceptually and procedurally, in college placement.

G&B make no bones about their focus. They aren’t the ones who chose the image. They start off with a middle school example, and speak of middle school students who “just want to do the math”.

But again, there’s that authoritatively cited research (linked in blue here):

gbquoteresearch

Again, all cites to research on elementary school math. The researched students are at most fifth graders; the topics never move above arithmetic facts. G&B even make it clear that the claim of “procedure without understanding is rare” is limited to elementary school math, and in the comments, Garelick discusses the limitations of a child’s brain, acknowledging that explanations become more important in adolescence—aka, middle school, algebra, and beyond.

G&B aren’t arguing for 8 year olds to multiply integers in happy, ignorant fluency, but for 14 year olds to calculate percentages and simply “show their work”. And in the event, which they deem unlikely, that students are just going through the motions, that’s okay because “doing a procedure devoid of any understanding of what is being done is actually hard to accomplish with elementary math.” Oh. Wait.

Once you get past the Atlantic bait and switch and discuss the issue at the appropriate age level, everything about the article seems odd.

First, Beals and Garelick would–or should, at least–be delighted with math instruction in 8th grade and beyond. Reform math doesn’t get very far in high school. Not only do most high school teachers reject reform math, most research shows that the bulk of advanced math teachers have proven impervious to all efforts to move beyond “lecture and assign a problem set”. Most math teachers at the high school level accept a worked problem as evidence of understanding, even when it’s not. I’m not as familiar with middle school algebra and geometry teachers, but since NCLB required middle school teachers to be subject-certified, it’s more likely they profile like high school teachers.

G&B don’t even begin to make the case that “explaining math” dominates at the middle school level. They gave an anecdote suggesting that 10% of the week’s math instruction was spent on 2-3 problems, “explaining thinking”.

This is the basis for an interesting discussion. Is it worth spending 10% of the time that would, presumably, otherwise be spent on procedural fluency on making kids jump through hoops to add meaningless detail to correctly worked problems? And then some people would say well, hang on, how about meaningful detail? Or how about other methods of assessing for understanding? For example, how about asking students why they can’t just increase $160 by 20% to get the original coat price? And if 10% is too much time, how about 5%? How about just a few test questions?

But G&B present the case as utterly beyond question, because research and besides, Aspergers. And you know, ELL. We shouldn’t make sure they understand what’s going on, provided they they know the procedures! Isn’t that enough?

Except, as noted, the research they use is for younger kids. None of their research supports their assertion that procedural fluency leads to conceptual understanding for algebra and beyond. We don’t really know.

However, to the extent we do know, most of the research available in algebra suggests exactly the opposite–that students benefit from “sense-making”, conceptual approaches (which is not the same as discovery) as opposed to entirely procedural based instruction. But researching algebra instruction is far more difficult than evaluating the pedagogy of arithmetic operations—and forget about any research done beyond the algebra level. So G&B didn’t provide adequate basis for making their claims about the relative value of procedural vs conceptual fluency, and it’s doubtful the basis exists.

I’ll get to the rest in a minute, but let’s take a pause there. Imagine how different the article would be if G&B had acknowledged that, while elementary school research supports fact fluency over sense-making (and fact fluency seems to be helpful in advanced math), the research and practice at algebra and beyond is less well established. What if they’d argued for their preferences, as opposed to research-based practices, and made an effort to build a case for procedural fluency over comprehension in advanced math? It would have led to a much richer conversation, with everyone acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of different strategies and choices.

Someday, I’d like to see that conversation take place. Not with G&B, though, since I’m not even sure they understand the big hole in their case. They aren’t experienced enough.

Then there’s the zombie quote, where Garelick and Beals most tellingly display their inexperience:

Yes, Virginia, there are “math zombies”.

In high school, math zombies are very common, particularly in schools with a diverse range of students and thus abilities. Experienced teachers commenting at Dan Meyer’s blog or the Atlantic article all confirm their existence. This piece is long enough without going into anecdotal proof of zombies. One can infer zombie existence by the ever-growing complaints of college math professors about students with strong math transcripts but limited math knowledge.

I’ve seen zombies in tutoring through calculus, in my own teaching through pre-calc. In lower level classes, I’ve stopped some zombies dead in their tracks, often devastating them and angering their parents. The zombies, obviously, are the younger students in my classes, since I don’t teach honors courses. Most of the zombies in my school don’t go through my courses.

Whether math zombies are a problem rather depends on one’s point of view.

There are many math teachers who agree with G&B, who rip through the material, explaining it both procedurally and conceptually but focus on procedural competence. They assign difficult math problems in class with lots of homework. Their tests are difficult but predictable. They value students who wrote the didactic contract with Dolores Umbridge’s nasty pen, etching it into their skin. They diligently memorize the cues and procedures, and obediently regurgitate the procedures, aping understanding without having a clue. There is no dawning moment of conceptual understanding. The students don’t care in the slightest. They are there for the A and, to varying degrees, play Clever Hans for math teachers interested only in correctly worked procedures and right answers. Left as an open issue is the degree to which zombies are also cheating (and if they cheat are they zombies? is also a question left for another day). For now, assume I’m referring to kids who simply go through the motions, stuffing procedures into episodic memory with nothing making it to semantic, all to be forgotten as soon as the test is over.

Math zombies enable our absurd national math expectations. Twenty or thirty years ago, top tier kids had less incentive to fake it through advanced math. But as AP Calculus or die drove our national policy (thanks, Jay Mathews!) and students were driven to start advanced math earlier each year, zombies were rewarded for rather frightening behavior.

G&B and those who operate from the presumption that math can easily be mastered by memorizing procedures, who believe that teachers who slow down or limit coverage are enablers, don’t see math zombies as a problem. They’re the solution. You can see this in G&B’s devotion and constant appeal to the test scores of China, Singapore, and Korea, the ur-Zombies and still the sublime practitioners of the art, if it is to be called that.

For those of us who disagree, zombies create two related problems. First, their behavior encourages math teachers and policy makers to raise expectations, increase covered material, accelerate instruction pace. They allow schools to pretend that half their students or more are capable of advanced, college level math in high school while simultaneously getting As in many other difficult topics. They lead to BC Calculus pass rates of 50% or more (because yes, the AP Calc tests reward zombie math). Arguably, they have created a distortion in our sense of what “college math” should be, by pretending that “college math” is easily doable by most high school students willing to put in some time.

But the related problem is even more of an issue, because the more math teachers and policies reward zombies, the more smart, intellectually curious non-zombies bow out of the game, decide they’ll go to a state school or community college. Which means zombie kids just aren’t numbered among the “smart” kids, they become the smart kids. They define what smart kids “are capable of”, because no one comes along later to measure what they’ve…well, not forgotten, but never really learned to start with. So people think it really is possible to take 10-12 AP courses and understand the material (as opposed to get a 5 on the AP), and that defines what they expect from all top rank students. Meanwhile, those kids–and I know many–are neither intellectually curious nor even “intelligent” as we’d define it.

The Garelick/Beals piece is just a symptom of this mindset, not a cause. They don’t even know enough to realize that most high school math is taught just the way they like it. They’d understand this better if they were teachers, but neither of them has spent any significant time in the classroom, despite their bio claims. Both have significant academic knowledge in related areas–Garelick in elementary math pedagogy, which he studied as a hobby, Beals as a language expert for Asperger’s—which someone at the Atlantic confused with relevant experience.

Such is the nature of discourse in education policy that some people will think I’m rebutting G&B. No. I don’t even disagree with them on everything. The push for elementary school explanation is misguided and wasteful. Many math teachers reward words, not valid explanations; that’s why I use multiple answer math tests to assess conceptual knowledge. I also would love–yea, love–to see my kids willing to work to acquire greater procedural fluency.

But G&B go far beyond their actual expertise and ultimately, their piece is just a sad reminder of how easy it is to be treated as an “expert” by major publications simply by having the right contacts and backers. Nice work if you can get it.

And the “zombie” allusion, further developed by Brett Gilland, is a keeper.