Category Archives: philosophy

Memorization or Learning?

I originally started to write a post on a memorization technique I’m using for the unit circle, and went looking for representative jeremiads both pro and con. Instead, I found Ben Orlin’s piece When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning (from five years back):

memoryorlin

…which is the opposite of a standard, boring piece and serves as a good counterpoint to explain some recent shifts in my pedagogy.

It’s a good piece. In many ways, the debate about memorization runs parallel to the zombie problem–students regurgitate facts without understanding. Ben’s against that. Me, too. Ben says that testing requirements create tensions between authentic learning and manageable tests; I have various means of ensuring my students understand the math rather than just hork it up like furballs of unknown origin, so am less concerned on that point.

But I don’t agree with this sentiment as much as I probably did a decade ago: Memorizing a list of prepositions isn’t half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language. 

Not in math, anyway.

 

A couple years ago, after I’d taught trigonometry two or three times, I suddenly noticed that at the end of the year, my students were very fuzzy on their unit circle knowledge. (It’s no coincidence that Ben’s article and my observations are both focused on trigonometry, a branch of math with a significant fact base.) When working trig equations, they’d factor something like the equation above, use the Zero Product Property, solve for sin(x)…and then stop.

“You’re not done,” I’d point out. You’ve only solved for sin(x). What is the value of x?”

Shrug. No recognition. My tests are cumulative. Many students showed significant recall of concepts. They were using ratios to solve complex applications; they were sketching angles on the coordinate plane–both concepts we hadn’t revisited in months. They could sketch the unit circle from memory and eventually figure out the answer. But they had no automatic memories of the unit circle working backwards and forwards, even though I had emphasized the importance of memorizing it.

Upsetting, particularly at the end of the year. The name of the class is Trigonometry, after all. Solving for sin(x) requires not one tiny bit of trig. It’s all algebra. Trigonometry enters the picture when you ask yourself what angle, in radians or degrees, has a y to r ratio of 1 to 2.

The sine of π/2 is not among [the important things to memorize]. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means.

Well, okay, but….if a student in a Trig class can’t work a basic equation without a cheat sheet, what exactly has he learned? He already knew the algebra. Does the same standard hold for SOHCAHTOA, or can I still assume the student has successfully learned something if he needs a memory aid to remember what triangle sides constitute the sine ratio? What else can be on the cheat sheet: the Pythagorean Theorem? The ratios of the special rights?

Ben describes memorization as learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort, either through raw rehearsal or mnemonics, both of which he believes are mere substitutions for authentic learning. He argues for building knowledge through repeated use.

Sure. But that road is a hard one. And as Ben knows much better than I, the more advanced math gets, the more complex and numerous the steps get. Most students won’t even bother. Those who care about their grades but not the learning will take the easier, if meaningless route of raw rehearsal.

So how do you stop students from either checking out or taking the wrong road to zombiedom?

I’ve never told my students that memorization was irrelevant, but rather that I had a pretty small list of essential facts. Like Ben, I think useful memorization comes with repeated use and understanding. But what if repeated use isn’t happening in part because of the pause that occurs when memory should kick in?

So I’ve started to focus in on essential facts and encouraged them to memorize with understanding. Not rote memorization. But some math topics do have a fact base, or even just a long procedural sequence, that represent a significant cognitive load, and what is memorization but a way of relieving that load?

The trick lies in making the memorization mean something. So, for example, when I teach the structure of a parabolas, I first give the kids a chance to understand the structure through brief discovery. Then we go through the steps to graph a parabola in standard form. Then I repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. So by the time of the first quiz, any student who blanks out, I say “Rate of Change?” and they reflexively look for the b parameter and divide by 2. Most of them have already written the sequence on their page. The memorization of the sequence allows them repeated practice.

But it’s not mindless memorization, either. Ask them what I mean by “Rate of Change”, they’d say “the slope between the y-intercept and the vertex”. They don’t know all the details of the proof, but they understand the basics.

I take the same approach in parent function transformations, after realizing that a third of any class had drawn parent functions for days without ever bothering to associate one graph’s shape with an equation. So I trained them to create “stick figures” of each graph:stickfigures

I drew this freehand in Powerpoint, but it’s about the same degree of sloppiness that I encourage for stick figures. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re just memory spurs. Since I began using them a year ago, all my students can produce the stick figures and remind themselves what graph to draw. They know that each of the functions is committed on a line (to various degrees). Most of them understand, (some only vaguely), why a reciprocal function has asymptotes and why square root functions go in only one direction.

So did they learn, or did they memorize?

I haven’t changed my views on conceptual learning. I believe “why” is essential. I’m not power pointing my way through procedures. I am just realizing, with more experience, that many of my students won’t be able to use facts and procedures without being forced to memorize, and it is through that memorization that they become fluid enough to become capable of repeated use.

Like Ben, I think a zombie student with no idea that cosine is a ratio, but knows that cos(0) = 1, has failed to learn math. I just don’t think that student is any worse than one who looks at you blankly and has no answer at all. And addressing the needs of both these students may, in fact, be more memorization. Both types of students are avoiding authentic understanding. It’s our job to help them find it.

So I’ll give an example of that in my next post.


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Well Are Americans Educated?

Part four of my seemingly endless review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Parts onetwo, and three.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I get very, very irritated whenever Pew releases a new poll about “Americans” and their increasingly positive feelings about immigrants, because they aren’t surveying Americans, but adults who live in America.


Cite: Same source Caplan used

As Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew confirmed to me, back in 2016, “We asked our immigrations of all U. S. adults, including non-citizens.” They don’t disaggregate the responses by citizenship or immigrant status. In fact, they even ask all the adults if they are Republicans or Democrats when immigrants can’t be registered voters. This is just spectacularly dishonest and I get mad every time I write about it, but I mention it here for another reason:

“In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 randomly selected Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).”–Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

NAAL did not survey American adults, but rather adults living in America. 13% of those surveyed were raised in a language other than English and are very probably immigrants. Another six were raised in households where the parents were native speakers of another language, and we can probably assume most were children of immigrants.

Here’s how Caplan characterizes the overall results:

caplannaalpic

Only modest majorities are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. Under half are Intermediate or Proficient in the quantitative category.

Eighty-six percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 88% exceed “Below Basic for documents; 78% exceed “Below Basic” for quantitative. For each of these categories, 13% are actually “proficient”. Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

Please note the use of “Americans”. You can decide if he’s lying or careless while I continue.

What does the data look like if you isolate native English speakers and compare them to non-native speakers?

naaloverallvsnative

Eliminating non-native speakers reduces the “Below Basic” prose scores by 35%, while “Intermediate” readers increase by 11%. “Proficient” readers increases by 15%. The document scores see less dramatic changes, but 1 in 4 of every “Below Basic” scores disappear.

You can rewrite Caplan’s text above:

Over three fifths of Americans are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. [Note: quant scores weren’t made available for disaggregation.]

Ninety one percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 91% exceed “Below Basic for documents…

Not nearly as horrible, are they?

Of course, Caplan also wants to convince the reader that education has little to do with human capital but is primarily signaling. What better way to achieve this than by showing how little education improves the public’s reading scores?

caplannaalpic

“While today’s dropouts spend at least nine years in school, over half  remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Over half of high school graduates have less than the minimum skills [intermediate] one would naively expect them to.” The Case Against Education (page 43)

This graph doesn’t match up exactly to the report (he cites pages 36-37), because he averages the three reading test averages and then selects only the results for the categories High School Dropouts, High School Graduates, and College Grads. So the data above is only for 53% of the surveyed population and averages prose, document, and quantitative.

So Caplan is, deliberately or carelessly,  due to sloppiness or dishonesty, inviting the reader to assume that all those tested are reading their native language. He constantly uses the term “Americans” when over 1 in 10 was almost certain born elsewhere and probably schooled elsewhere. He also never once considers different populations or suggests that we should have anything other than identical expectations for every segment of American society (more on that in another article).

Happily, each NAAL survey generates a lot of research. Six years after the NAAL,  another report dug deep into the non-English speaking results: Overcoming the Language Barrier: The Literacy of Non-Native-English-Speaking Adults. To confuse things, the researchers use the words “High Prose Literacy” and “Low Prose Literacy”, combining the four categories two by two.  But this new report provided score averages on both language and education levels, while the one Caplan used only provided scores for language or education levels. (From here on in, all data is Prose only)

naaloveralllangedabs

These graphs (I assume I could have combined them into one Excel chart but couldn’t figure out how), combines the data from the overall NAAL report and the non-English speaking drill-down. The chart on the left is Low Literacy Prose results (Below Basic and Basic) broken down first by language and then by education. The chart on the right is High Literacy Prose results (Intermediate and Proficient) in the same way.

So right away, it’s obvious that  native English speakers are providing almost all the high literacy results, while non-native speakers are contributing an enormous chunk of the low literacy results. Roughly 20% of the tested population, the non-native English speakers,  is responsible for a third of the low literacy scores. Nearly 7% of all responders were non-native speaking dropouts, comprising the overwhelming portion of low-literacy non-native speakers. Most of the latter group probably didn’t ever attend American schools, although that’s not provided by the data.

Also of interest: 20% of the the high literacy (intermediate and proficient categories) native  English speakers had no more than a high school diploma, while 27% went on to some college and an equal amount went on to graduate and post graduate degrees.

The other half of native English speakers who stopped their education after high school–scored Basic or Below Basic, comprising 42% of all the low literacy scores for that group. I was interested to see that high school graduation numbers aren’t much affected by the switch to native English speakers, suggesting that immigrants are overwhelmingly high school dropouts, followed to a much lesser degree by college graduates.  While their percentage contribution to low and high literacy populations vary, the actual number of high school graduates in each group is about the same (more on that later). Caplan finds it appalling that high school graduates who didn’t go on to higher education are roughly split between four categories. I’m actually encouraged at how many high school graduates are in the top half of the literacy categories.

Ironically, this data slice also clearly shows the flaws in the American system much more clearly than the rather simplistic argument Caplan is making. As I mentioned in the last chapter on college graduate quality, colleges are increasingly accepting people who have not demonstrated college readiness. Almost certainly, some non-English speakers would have both college degrees and poor prose skills. But 7% of native speakers with low literacy rates are college graduates. In absolute terms, nearly 9% of the low literacy population attended at least some college.

Here’s one last take on the data that I used to check my compilation. The orange line is the percentage of each category in the overall Kutner report (that Caplan used). You can see that it’s off slightly, which I’d expect, but mostly in line.

Each column is green pattern, blue pattern, solid green, solid blue. The blues are native English speakers, the greens non-native English speakers. The patterns are low literacy, the solids are high literacy.

NAALoveralllanged

This graph shows how much of each category is dragged down by non-native English speakers with low literacy–anywhere from 6 to 39 percent. Also clear is that non-native English speakers with high proficiency have very little impact on the overall results.

In particularly, non-native English speakers with low literacy are simply overwhelming the high school dropout category, punching far above their weight. Also observe how clearly this graph that substantial numbers of high literacy readers are  stopping education in high school while other low literacy readers are moving onto college and even graduating. Clearly, we aren’t doing our best to identify and educate our strongest students. This might explain why the returns to education are less compelling than they might be, which is again linked to college quality control, not failures in the act of teaching.

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

Non-native English speakers may have gone to American schools, and there are some Indian, English, and Australian speakers in the native English results.  But the second group would be overwhelmingly found in the college graduate categories. And if we are to concede that American schools don’t always educate non-native speakers as well as native speakers, we should also grant that no other country in the world expects its schools to educate millions of non-native speakers, much less be judged on the results. So I think it’s quite fair that if we are to consider prose reading skills a proxy for the quality of American education that we consider how the schools educate the people they were originally intended for.

I can’t for the life of me imagine how Caplan was able to get away with including immigrants in his NAAL results. It’s the same utterly dishonest bias that permeates the Pew data, but Caplan’s an academic, this book was published by Princeton Academic Press, has been reviewed by a zillion reputable people, and he is either dishonest or incompetent regarding a key element of his case against American schools.

But that’s not all, as anyone familiar with Caplan understands. Caplan is a libertarian and the leader of the open borders fringe. He argues that America and other countries’ welfare states are an incentive and rationale to restrict immigration, and sees K-12 education as an “indefensible universal program”.

So Caplan wants to end what he considers wasteful public education.He also wants millions of the world’s poor to immigrate to America, and believes this idea would be less controversial if we weren’t obligated to provide welfare and education to the immigrants and the subsequent generations. Hence he argues to end public education as a means to his ends of open borders.

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, that he just somehow doesn’t notice that he’s rigging his case against American education by including the scores caused by  very immigration policy he wants to expand?

naal99203compare

As Kutner report makes clear, pulling out non-native speakers demonstrates that native English speakers improved their scores over the last decade.  Those with mixed language backgrounds improved as well. Meanwhile, native Spanish speaker performance plummeted from its already low 1993 baseline, while the tiny Asian population improved either because the source countries changed or perhaps more Asian Americans grew up to improve the scores.

Incidentally, the other knowledge tests Caplan uses to demonstrate our useless education system are similarly biased. He uses the General Social Survey but doesn’t restrict the results to citizens. The American National Election Survey limits its sample to citizens, at least, but that would still include many people who hadn’t been educated in American schools.

I would like to believe the best of Caplan and that he was just careless or sloppy. But I keep bumping into the fact that Caplan couldn’t disaggregate without explaining why. Explaining that non-native English speakers skew the results would alert readers to the fact that immigrants were so numerous that they were skewing our educational results, making the country appear less capable. He can’t alert the reader to the cataclysmic results that our immigration policy is inflicting on our national education profile because he wants millions more immigrants to further obliterate our educational profile.

All of the bad data shows up in Chapter 3, where Caplan uses it as a foundation for his argument that public education is a waste of time, that Americans’ utter failure to supports his argument that education credentials are all signaling. It’s just one chapter, but it’s the foundation of all the subsequent ones, as he offers it as a given that Americans are stupid useless gits who can’t remember everything they’re taught, which is why education is primarily signaling, and why we should gut our public support for all education.

Once you take out immigrants, American education looks pretty good, and our challenges are clear. We need to seek to improve our educational outcomes for high school, convince our high school dropouts to stay in school (purely for signaling) and we need better paying jobs and more affordable housing to convince them that there are good futures out there for hard work.

Immigration doesn’t help us achieve either of those goals. I understand Caplan disagrees, but he shouldn’t juke his stats. He especially shouldn’t hide the fact that the very immigration changes he argues for leads to an educational profile he finds so ridiculously awful that he considers it evidence we should stop bothering to educate Americans.

(Final note: I have spent a month trying to get this data right and be sure I didn’t make a mistake. I might have anyway. One thing I know, though: I spent more time trying to make sure the NAAL data reflected something closer to American achievement than Caplan did. And I wanted this sucker done. I’m so exhausted of thinking about it. If something’s not clear, please email me or mention it in the comments.)


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Pre-Employment Testing

In the continuing saga…wait. Before I dive in, I want to reiterate something. Sending fewer kids to college is an excellent goal. But we need a realistic case to argue, one that understands how we arrived at this point, what the pressures are to keep it this way, and what are realistic alternatives. Caplan’s 0 for 3. That’s irritating, particularly since Caplan is personally in favor of killing all public education funding, which I absolutely do not support. He makes all these wild statements while many reviewers go the chinstroker route, pretending to take him seriously but actually cherrypicking some of his arguments they agree  or disagree with–yes, this is all very interesting and we should think about it–without engaging with the consequences of his proposals.

The most common explanation for the deep emphasis on credentialing in America is  that employers use college degrees as a proxy for cognitive ability for fear that they’ll be sued. In most circles, this is referred to as the Griggs problem, for the Griggs v Duke Power decision. In the past, employers routinely gave cognitive ability tests for jobs not requiring college degrees, to ensure the applicant has a baseline ability level–or even just to hire the smartest candidate. However, the  Griggs decision severely constrained their ability to test employees if it resulted in a disparate impact by race or gender, so employers began using education credentials as a proxy for ability. Caplan calls it “IQ laundering”; take the IQ, stick it in college for a few years, and then hey, presto, that dirty cognitive ability has been converted into a shiny new, entirely legal, credential, since credentials are not held to the disparate impact ruling.

Caplan thinks IQ laundering proponents are wrong. He thinks it’s obvious that employers “fear” high IQ people who don’t go to college–it signals non-conformity and low conscientiousness. He argues that IQ laundering has to face an “awkward fact”:

10-30% of large employers admit they use cognitive ability tests. (page 89)

Then he continues:

“…the total number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court peaked at about 23,000 in 1998, then gradually declined to about 14,000 in 2007. The average cash award if you win a trial is large–about 1.1 million for 1990-2000. But only 2% of plaintiffs acutally go to trial and win, so annual awards sum to less than $600 million. Most plaintiffs–58%–manage to get an out of court settlement. Settlements are usually confidential, but the average settlement is about 5% as large as the average trail award. Annual settlements therefore sum to less than $800 million. If plaintiffs’ lawyers work for a 40% contingency fee, and defense outpsends them by a factor of three, employers’ legal costs still sum to less than 1.7 billion. Updating these mid-1990s figures for inflation, employers’ total legal burden sums to under $5 billion per year.

Compared to total labor costs, $5 billion is trivial…[But] Only 4% of federal discrimination cases brought between 1987 and 2003 alleged disparate impact. That amounts to under a thousand annual cases against any form of employment testing. If disparate impact cases cost the usual amount, employers’ total test tax is under $200 million a year. (page 89)

So to restate, Caplan thinks employers aren’t interested in finding high IQ people, but only people who have managed to go through college, which presumably signals a decent IQ. Employers don’t have any interest in cognitive ability testing. If they did, they would, because the pittance they’d pay in lawsuits would dwarf the savings they’d find in high IQ workers. They don’t do this. Ergo, they don’t want high IQ workers. They want conforming conscientious folks.

So first, on the 10-30% of corporations testing. I actually heard about this argument several months before, on Twitter,  and called bullshit. I’m amazed no one else noticed. The article, The Benefit of a Degree in I-O Psychology or Human Resources, lists 2 prior surveys and does one of their own:

  • Terpstra, Rozelle, 1993:  201 companies, 20% did cognitive ability testing
  • Drogan, Yancy, 2011: 122 credit unions, 27% did cognitive ability testing
  • Wang, Yancy, 2012: 94 credit unions, 11% did cognitive ability testing.

I do not see how Caplan can use these three papers to assert that 10-30% of all corporations do cognitive ability testing. The papers themselves make no such claims.

Next, Caplan thinks that, since corporations spend billions in labor costs, they should shrug off a few hundred millions in court settlements in exchange for more efficient hiring. But labor costs will be in the billions no matter what. Suppose hiring the perfect employee every time saves employers collectively $1 billion each year.  Tests are expensive. Developing a test that will pass muster in the event someone sues would be extremely expensive. The tradeoff isn’t billions against $200 million, but more like $1 billion against $200 million and the cost of developing a test that passes EEOC in the event of a lawsuit. Morever, $200 million might be the total test tax for all corporations, but it’s not spread out among them evenly. Just ask Target ($2.8 million) or Federal Express ($54.9).

But the gaping hole in Caplan’s case is government hiring. The Civil Service exam was one of the great achievements of the late 19th century governance, but it didn’t last 100 years before the federal government abandoned it under pressure of a consent decree rather than lose at trial because of the test’s disparate impact. Teacher credential tests are routinely challenged for disparate impact and although they’ve been winning for 30 years, every so often a test is rejected for disparate impact and content that can’t be directly linked to the needs of the position.  But teachers have it easy next to  firefighters and cops–in no small part because firefighters and cops get promotions that have to be defensible and racially balanced.

Caplan doesn’t mention the extensive case history on government employment testing and disparate impact, possibly because he is unaware of it, possibly because it interferes with his easy, brief dismissal or, most likely, because he has some glib reason that he’ll use to argue in favor of ignoring it. But I find it difficult to justify his failure to take into account the hundreds of government cases on testing and disparate impact. The cases weren’t cheap, certainly, and it’s quite possible many large employers are scared off testing because of the many times courts have thrown out even carefully calibrated tests for seemingly random reasons. Toss that in with the $200 million “test tax” and the huge expense of developing a test against the likelihood of a loss–which happens to governments all the time, reminding corporations of what they could be wasting–and it’s far more reasonable, contra Caplan, to think that perhaps corporations don’t want the risk of cognitive ability testing.

Caplan occasionally mentions the “defenders of the IQ laundering theory”–those misguided souls who think Griggs had any sort of impact. For those looking for an excellent argument otherwise, see  Griggs vs. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing (O’Keefe/Vedder).  As Vedder and O’Keefe point out, employment tests were ubiquitous in this country before the Griggs decision. Now they’re very rare, other than in the EEOC-approved college credential path. In contrast to this history, Caplan’s simplistic, skeletal treatment of Griggs‘ potential impact on the rise of college credentialism undercuts his already weak argument for the employment value of conformity and conscientiousness.

Furthermore,  Caplan erred in saying that Griggs was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It was codified in the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, a distinction that matters because the court cases immediately following this codification supported Griggs. But  (Note: The Equal Opportunity Act didn’t codify Griggs, it just expanded the scope. I was misled by wording in the Vedder/O’Keefe piece. Thanks to Robert Verbruggen for pointing this out.)

But those of us blaming Griggs are focusing on the wrong target. In 1989, the Supreme Court threw out key elements of Griggs in a case known as Wards Cove , restoring the original 1964 understanding of the requirement.

Congress was much better at getting things done back then, and President Bush was running for re-election. So Teddy Kennedy proposed an amendment that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, overruling the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstating disparate impact.

This strikes me as important for a several reasons. First, it shows again that Caplan’s not a reliable narrator. He read the O’Keefe/Vedder article; it’s in his (excellent) bibliography. But he presented the information in such a way that utterly evades the complexity and controversy behind the disparate impact requirement.  Naw, it’s just like the 55 mph speed limit–a formality. Everyone breaks it. And that’s just not true.

Next, the Supreme Court appears to be once again forcing the conversation back towards equity and away from reverse discrimination–and this time, Congress and the President aren’t inclined towards swift action. What happens if disparate impact is ruled discriminatory in some future case?

Because, finally, Congress’s reaction to the Ward’s Cove decision overruled the Supreme Court, which doesn’t happen very often. What made this case special? Similarly, employers flagrantly violate all sorts of laws, but most of them are very leery of taking on the cognitive ability test and disparate impact. It’s almost as if institutionally, there might be a powerful counterforce pushing political and business leaders away from cognitive ability testing.

Hmm. What on earth could that counterforce be? But I’m at 1600 words already, so that’s the next article.

I can’t prove Caplan is wrong about employers and disparate impact. Caplan doesn’t take the long view, and it’s quite possible that today, given the ubiquitous nature of college attendance, employers do see failure to attend college as a sign of either low intellect or low conformity. But because Caplan elides or omits a great deal of importance from his argument, he makes the issue seem simple  when it clearly isn’t. Again, I don’t get the sense he’s making a serious case. Griggs wasn’t decided by stupid people. They had a reason for trying to stop employers from using cognitive ability as a hiring criterion.

I learned a great deal in fact-checking Caplan in this section. Most importantly, I learned that those of us who blame Griggs aren’t telling the whole story. Griggs was declared unconstitutional and then its elements were explicitly forced back into law by Congress and President Bush I. Disparate impact might not be similarly rescued in the future.


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

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

I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.


Teachers and Smart Kids

Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.

Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.

But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.

If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.

That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.

The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.

“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding.  He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”

I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”

She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it.  I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”

She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.

and then……a weird thing happened!

“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”

I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”

And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.

I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.

Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.

My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.

But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence.  Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice,  but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help.  My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.

One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.

But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.


“Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform

 

 Student achievement is soundly measured; teacher effectiveness is not. The system is spending time and effort rating teachers using criteria that do not have a basis in research showing how teaching practices improve student learning.”–Mark Dynarski, Brookings Institute

Goodbye Mr. Chips. Up the Down Staircase. My Posse Don’t Do Homework. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. The 4th season of The Wire.

The “great teacher” movie has become a bit of a cliche. But decades of film and movies work on our emotions for good reason. That reason is not “Wow, this teacher’s practice is soundly based in practice that research shows improves student learning!”

“You cannot ignore facts. That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways.”–President Barack Obama, announcing Race to the Top

 

Reform movies usually fail. Won’t Back Down, a piece of blatant choice advocacy, bombed at the box office. Waiting for Superman was a big hit in elite circles but for a film designed as propaganda, it notably failed to move people to action, or even win considerable praise from the unconverted.

In general, performance-obsessed folks are the villains in mainstream movies and TV.

In Pump Up The Volume, the villain was a principal who found reason to expel teens whose lack of motivation and personal problems would affect her school’s test scores. This was before charters, when such practices became encouraged.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie, as opposed to the book), the parents reject the competition-obsessed teacher who wanted the boy to spend all his waking hours on chess, giving equal time to a homeless street guy who advocates a more open, aggressive, impulsive approach to chess. The parents preferred a son with a happy, rounded life to a neurotic who wouldn’t know a normal life. (Their son is, today, a happy well-rounded brilliant man who never became Bobby Fischer. In every sense of that meaning.)

In the famous season 4 of The Wire, AVP Donnelly tries hard to “juke the stats” by gaming the test, “spoonfeeding” the “Leave No Child Behind stuff”. Prez rejects this approach: “I came here to teach, right?”

I can think of only one movie in which a teacher was judged by his test scores and declared a hero:  Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

But most people throwing about Escalante’s name and achievements don’t really understand that  it took  fourteen years of sustained effort, handpicked teachers, legally impossible demands of his students, and a supportive principal to get 73 kids to pass the AB Calculus exam, with another 12 passing the BC, with around 140-200 in his program, out of a student population of 3500 . Once Escalante lost his supportive principal, he  was voted out as department chair because he was an arrogant jerk to other teachers, and handled defeat by  leaving the school.

Escalante’s story, channeled through Jay Mathews, thrilled policy wonks and politicians, and the public was impressed by the desire and determination of underprivileged kids to do what it takes to get an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. But those same wonks and politicians wouldn’t have tolerated Escalante’s tracking, and 2% would have been an unacceptably low participation rate. He rejected a lot of kids. Mine is a contrarian view, but I’ve never though Escalante cared about kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work he demanded.

“Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals-—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed.”–The Widget Effect ((publication of the National Council for Teacher Quality)

In the book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the teacher Dana Rocco makes two brief appearances. The first is in a parent-teacher conference with Kevin’s mother:

danarocco

We don’t know how Dana Rocco’s students’ performed on tests, or even how she taught. But purely on the strength of this passage, we know she is passionate about her subject and her students, who she works to reach in ways straightforward and otherwise. And in the second passage, we learn that she kept trying to reach Kevin right up to the moment he split her head open with a bolt from crossbow while she was trying to carry another of his victims away from danger.

In Oklahoma, a hurricane blew down a school, and they pulled a car off a teacher who had three kids underneath her. Teachers were pulling rubble away from classrooms before the rescue workers even got there. Were they delivering on their core responsibility as professionals?

The Sandy Hook teachers died taking bullets for their students.

Were they fulfilling their core responsibilities as professionals? Would NCTQ celebrate the teachers who abandoned their students to the deranged young gunman, who left their students to be buried in rubble? Could they argue that their efforts were better spent raising test scores for another ten years than giving their lives to save twenty students?

“Most notably, [the Every Student Succeeds Act} does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores—a key requirement of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system in connection with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.–Stephen Sawchuk, “ESSA Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations”

ESSA is widely acknowledged to have ended the era of education reform, started in the 90s, hitting its peak in the Bush Obama years. Eulogies abound, many including prescriptions for the future by the same people who pushed the past policies that failed so completely, so spectacularly. In future years, the Bush-Obama choice/accountability reforms will ever more be accompanied by the words “roundly repudiated”. The world we live in going forward is as much a rejection of Michael Petrilli, John King, and Michelle Rhee as the “Nation At Risk” era was to the wasteful excesses of the 70s. The only real question left is why they still have billionaires paying their salaries.

They failed for many reasons. But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. This conviction is easily communicated, and allowed reformers to move politicians and policy in directions completely at odds with the public will. Reformers never captured the  hearts and minds of the public.  They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

The repudiation of education reform policies and preferences in favor of emotion-based, subjective expectations is one of the most comforting developments of the past twenty years. Go USA.


Algebra 2, the Gateway Course

I’ve been teaching a ton of algebra 2 the past three years.  I squawk periodically, and the admins give me variety for a semester or so, but then the classes come back. Back in 2016, I taught 5 classes, all of them full, over the two semester block courses, or about 160 kids. Last year, I had just one course of 30 kids. This year, I’ve already taught three and one coming up.  I also get a steady flow of trigonometry classes–not as many, but three or four every year.  I’ve requested more pre-calculus every year;  they’ll give me one every so often, like a bone to a cranky dog.

In my early years here, I taught far more pre-calculus. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, I taught five pre-calc courses. From fall 2015 to now, I’ve had three.

Why? Because Chuck got his way. Chuck came to our school determined to upgrade the math department. He wanted to make it possible to get a committed kid from algebra 1 freshman year to AP or regular calculus senior year. As I pointed out at the time, this goal is incompatible with helping more kids attain advanced math. You can increase standards or increase inclusion, but not both.

Chuck knows this, and so every semester, particularly the midterm when we finish a “year” and do the turnover to new courses, he starts noodging us for the lists. Kids are often scheduled in two consecutive math courses, so Chuck wants to make sure that the kids who get Ds or Fs in the first course are removed and rescheduled into a repeat. Every year he sends out an email to the algebra 2 teachers, nagging them to give him a list of kids who are failing so he can get them rescheduled. Every year, I ignore him, because I find this activity unseemly and cruel.

I take this task on far more personally and by age. Seniors are given a C if they work hard but can’t pass the tests. Juniors get a choice: retake the course if I think they have the ability to learn more, or take our stats course  (which is designed for very weak kids, lots of project courses). All sophomores get this conversation: you don’t quite grok this material, and you should take it again. Ideally, with me, but either way, take it again. I’ll give a passing grade so you’ll get the credits. But you’re going to  fail if you move forward, and retaking trig is a waste of time, while you will learn more if you retake algebra 2.

But this year, Chuck turned into a wily bastard and instead of asking me for the list, got it from the counselors. He then emailed a list to me and  Benny , the other two teachers covering non-honors Algebra 2:

Hi, can you tell me which of these students won’t pass, so I can email the counselors?  Here’s all the algebra 2 non-honors students who either have a D or F right now, or who got an NOF at the last notification:

Benny (teaching one class of 30):
list of 12 students

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

Ed (teaching three classes of 35, or 105 students):
15 students

(I don’t know why Chuck put his own students on the list, maybe to remind me that he was living by his own rules)

So a student in Benny or Chuck’s class had a 1 in 3 chance of failing algebra 2 with a D or F. In mine, their odds were 1 in 7. I was teaching three times as many kids but kept back half as many as they did combined.

Benny, Chuck, Steve, and Wing, the upper math teachers, complain constantly about the seniors they get stuck with, kids forced into a math class by the administrators, even though they hate math and don’t need the credits. The students sit in class every day and refuse to work. Their parents either support this choice or shrug in defeat. The kids have an F by the first quarter. They get bored and disruptive.  The kids waste an entire semester (our year) in their classes, sitting there doing nothing.

I find this akin to malpractice, and say so–well, I don’t say “That’s malpractice.” But I point out how odd it is that I never have this problem, despite being assigned many seniors with similar objections. Most end up like Wesley, learning more math than he ever dreamed.

I was reminded of this recently when going through my desk, cleaning out stuff for the new semester, and coming across Estefania’s note. I give an assessment test on the first day,  and discovered Estefania ignoring the test, writing on a slip of paper. I took the paper away from her, told her to give that test her best effort. I  was going to toss the note but then noticed it was a form of some sort, and opened it:

Estefanialet

Estefania came up after class. “I tried on the test, but I didn’t know a lot of it. Can I have my note back?”

I handed it to her. “I don’t think you should turn it in. I think you should take the class.”

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

“Math teachers always tell me that, like I’ll finally get math and be good at it. But I’m not any good and I’ve already failed twice.”

“You don’t understand. Come to class. Try. I will give you a passing grade. I don’t care if you fail every single test. I guarantee you will get a passing grade. And odds are really good you’ll also learn some math.” I held out my hand for the note. She hesitated, and then handed it back. And stayed. She did pretty well, too, well enough that she smiled whenever I reminded her about that note.

When I found the note in my drawer, I looked up some of her work on the finals.

Exponential functions:

Estefaniaexp2Estefaniaexp1

I forgot to take a picture, but she did quite well on the log questions, understanding that log base 2 of 16 is 4.

Here she is on quadratics, her best subject (she got an A, flat out, on her parabola graphing quiz.):

EstefaniaquadEstefaniaproj

She received a 60 on the first part of the final, putting her in the bottom third (most of my fails were between 42 and 60). I haven’t graded the second part,  although she clearly knew the quadratics. Girl learned some math, y’know?

Chuck and my four colleagues sometimes suspect that I dumb down my course. In fact, thanks to the epic teacher federalism agreement, my course is considerably harder and more cognitively complex than it was three years ago.

A month ago, Chuck trumpeted the results of his project. Six students entered at Algebra 1 or lower in their freshman year, and succeed in taking  AP Calculus their senior year. (One of them was Manuel.) Eight students entered at the same level took regular calculus. So fourteen students were not identified as honors students, took no honors classes, yet had made it to calculus by their senior year.

Of those fourteen students, I’d taught ten of them twice in their progression through algebra two, trigonometry, and pre-calcululus. Two others I taught once. Of the fourteen, only two had never been in my classroom.

The  road to Chuck’s dream runs directly through Ed.

Now you know why I get all those algebra 2 students. Because our administrators want to sign up for Chuck’s dream, but they don’t want a bloodbath. No one says so directly. They don’t have to. My schedule says it all.

In prior years, I was teaching more precalculus for a similar reason, as far too many students who’d made it that far were wasting their last year of high school math. But when Chuck unrolled his initiative, my principal realized that algebra 2 was going to be the new choke point. Well, not so much realized it as heard it straight from Chuck’s mouth, as in “More kids will fail algebra 2 because it’s going to be a much harder course if we’re going to  achieve this goal.” Rather than tell Chuck no–because it is indeed a worthy goal–our principal threads the needle between achievement and equity by adopting Chuck’s goals but assigning me the lion’s share of students in a critical gateway–or gatekeeping–course.

If I want to teach more pre-calculus, I need more colleagues with my methods and priorities teaching upper-level math. I spent three years mentoring Bart to share the teaching load, an objective I made clear to both Bart and the principal. Bart liked that idea. The principal did, too. But Bart wanted to teach physics, too, and we have a new science initiative, and now Bart teaches freshman physics. I am still pissed about that, but hell, we drink beer together so I can’t kill him.

In the meantime, our department chair is retiring. So I need to request input into the hiring decision for his replacement.

Yet I pause just for a moment to celebrate the Estefanias in my world, and remind everyone again that as teachers, we owe our first loyalty to the students, not the subjects.

As Joe said in All That Jazz when Victoria wanted to quit:

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Or take this question, which I first asked four years ago:EdRomanticism

If you teach at-risk, low-skilled kids and don’t struggle with this question, you aren’t really teaching them.

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

My standard disclaimer: all my colleagues are good teachers who want the best for the kids. I disagree with their philosophy. They disagree with mine. No criticism intended, other than, you know, they still kill the bulls to worship Mithras while I’m Zoroastrian. (Also, all names are pseudonyms.)

The great Ben Orlin recently mused on this, giving birth to my take. Robert Pondiscio argues that education reform’s “underperformance” lies in their assumption that policy, not practice, is the key to drive “enduring improvement”. I don’t know that reformers will get anywhere until they realize that the facts on the ground say we’re teaching kids at capacity and that “enduring improvement” is likely a chimera. (Note: I edited this paragraph slightly to correct my characterization of Pondiscio’s argument.)

Previously, I’ve described my outrage at college policies that abandon remediation , conferring college-readiness on people who can’t manage middle school math. Anyone want to know how I square that needle with what I’m writing here? It’s an interesting question. I’ll get to it later.


Coaching Teachers

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”

“OK.”

“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”

“Bingo.”

“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”

“Why?”

“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.

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

Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.

 


Killing My Own Snakes

When I was hired to teach at Southeastern in May, 1979, the Academic Dean at the time gave me only two pieces of advice: “Make your own way,” and “Kill your own snakes.”-Steven Fettke

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received, from two different teachers in two different years (student teaching, first year), was that a new teacher had to know what “quiet” is.  If kids wouldn’t shut up, then kick them out until finally, the teacher experiences….silence. Without that baseline, a new teacher has no gauge to assess the ambient classroom noise.

I began teaching as a better than average classroom manager, and somewhat shrugged this wisdom off until I got the advice the second time after five particularly troublesome geometry students wouldn’t shut up during an entire lesson. So the next day, I warned them once and then tossed one then another off to the office. After two were gone, the other three realized I was serious and shut up, after growling a bit about unfairness. Turning back to the board, I suddenly heard…..silence. Utter, attentive, silence. And from that point on, I knew what silence was, and what to expect when I demanded it.

As a mentor, I always advise new teachers to err on the side of excess with disruptive students. If they have an entire class out of control, ask for help. If they have a few students misbehaving, toss them out after a warning. Screw fair. Get silence. Know what it sounds like.

New teachers are often fearful of  sending students out. They worry that administrators will judge them. They’re right to worry. Administrators often notice. At my last job, the volume of my referrals was  a constant source of tension.  In really poorly managed schools, the admins refuse to accept students and send them back. (Note: leave that school.)

This is where mentors come in. Mentors can, and should, give balance to new teachers. My induction mentor’s support and acknowledgement of my unimaginably disruptive students finally forced administrators to take action. If the teacher is weak, by all means help shore up the crumbles. But in the meantime, encourage the teacher to boot students who disrupt teaching time. I get impatient with people who bleat that removing kids from the class is depriving them of education. All students deserve an education. Students who are determined to prevent that can step outside.

In my experience, novice teachers stuck with unusually unruly students will improve their management skills if given the opportunity to remove the disruptors. As time goes on, these teachers will improve their handling of rambunctious students. Part of that improvement involves knowing what silence sounds like.

So new teachers should not try to kill all their snakes, particularly given the likelihood that they’ll have the toughest students.

I assume most teachers kill their own snakes after the first few years. But I’m often amazed at what senior teachers will tolerate. Sample statements, followed by my (usually unspoken) response.

“I’m teaching an Algebra 10-12 class, and the kids start packing up their stuff with fifteen minutes to the bell. Does that ever happen to you? What do you do to prevent that?”

I tell them to unpack their damn books and get back to work. Right now. And if they don’t start moving right away, oh my goodness, pop quiz.

“I’ve been having so much trouble with kids using cell phones constantly in class, not paying attention at all. What do you do?”

I take their damn cellphones away, giving myself extra points if I can swipe it from under their nose without signaling intent. Students who can’t keep off their phones lose them until the end of the day instead of the end of class. And they don’t dare complain, because I can always hand it over to the administrators, whose penalties are far more stringent.

“I have these two kids who constantly talk to each other, but when I try to separate them, they insist on sitting together. It’s so frustrating.”

Why the hell do you give them a choice? Tell them where to sit. In fact, tell everyone where to sit.

“I tell the kids not to bring food to the class, but what do you do when they’ve just bought lunch?”

You take the lunch away and tell them they can enjoy it cold later.

“I’ve tried taking away phones/telling them where to sit/taking their lunch but they refuse to give it over, and I don’t know what to do.”

You call and have them removed from the class.

“What? For something so minor?”

Listen well, little teachlings. Defiance of a teacher is not minor. It’s one of the few snakes that even experienced teachers should hand off to an administrator if they can’t convince the student to comply. Give the kid a chance to walk back. Offer alternatives. Draw a line, though, and if the line gets crossed, have the kid removed for the day.

And of course, logistics get in the way sometimes. More than once, I’ve picked up the phone to call for a supervisor to come take a defiant kid away–and no one answers the damn phone. So I have to call another number. Sometimes no one answers. All that drama and then….man, turning back around to face the class really sucks.

But well over half the time, simply picking up the phone has results, and the defiant one says something like “Well, you want me to give up my lunch AND my drink! No way!” and I say quickly, “No. Just the lunch. I insist on the lunch!” which leads to “Oh, I thought you wanted my drink, too. OK, have my lunch. BUT I KEEP MY DRINK!”

Other times,  the troublesome kid smirks. “Ha, ha, you can’t catch me, copper!” Shrug. Just shrug. And then later, call again, after the smirker has forgotten all about it, and have him pulled from the room, protesting. Don’t gloat. Just go on with the lesson like this is no big deal.

 

So you might be reading all this saying, wow, Ed’s a tyrant. Which is hysterical, because I’m one of the loosest teachers you’ll ever run into. Remember, I don’t assign homework. My kids sit in groups. I have a non-existent detention rate, the lowest in the school. I rarely give an F grade.  To my considerable pride, I’ve gotten the coolest of the Student Nominations three years running (best story teller, most unpredictable, most dramatic).  My classes are noisy and boisterous affairs. In many ways, my classroom environment is a progressive’s dream, the kind of place that Ed Boland dreamed of having before he realized he hated students.

I have five rules, handwritten seven years ago on still bright yellow poster paper. Students should avoid:

  1. arguing with the ref (me)
  2. eating, drinking, or grooming
  3. setting objects airborne
  4. travelling without consent
  5. incessant yammering

But bottom line, do what I tell you.  My lines are very clearly marked, albeit occasionally negotiable. Just pay close attention to when I say “when”. As  I tell my kids every year at syllabus time: in order for “all this”–school, teaching, classroom environment–to work, I have to be in charge. Students have to obey my direct orders.

I realize that many teachers feel that schools already exert a great deal of control over student lives. They feel that rules about eating, phones, and seating are an unfair imposition. These same teachers often feel that “consequences” must be “deserved”, that their restrictions on those who have made bad choices, are somehow more reasonable.

Shrug. I’m not saying there’s only one way. Other teachers can make their own choices. Me, I avoid morality plays. I don’t talk about what students deserve or earn, simply about what helps me teach and others learn.  I handle even cheating as a pragmatic issue, not a value judgment.

From students’ perspective, their least  favorite of my management techniques is  my yelling, specifically  calling out or putting a student on blast.  They prefer teachers who rebuke quietly and in private. But they also agree that when you aren’t being the one called out, it’s fun to watch me rant.

As I invariably mention when going through the syllabus, the only action a student can take to earn a permanent black mark is deliberate cruelty to another student. I will punish that and I’m much better at being mean.

Note that I prohibit being mean to other students.  Nowhere in my rules is it verboten to be mean to me, the teacher.

At least once a year, I (usually inadvertently) get a student furious, and the exchange goes something like this:

Student: “F*** YOU!!!!”

Me, unfussed and occasionally confused: “Sit down.”

Student: “NO!!! You F******* *****! F*** YOU!! F*** OFF”

Me: “Sit down.”

Student, walking to the door: “NO WAY. EAT SH**. I’m OUT! YOU #*@#W%@#W%!”

Me: “DO NOT WALK OUT THAT DOOR!”

Student: “WHY NOT?”

Me: “BECAUSE UP TO NOW, YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING WRONG!”

This usually stops the student for a minute or so, giving me a chance to calm things down. In every case, after a brief talk with a fascinated class watching on, the student sits back down and everyone gets back to work. Show’s over.

Which is not to say I let students take nasty potshots at me. Like I said, I’m much better at being mean than your average adolescent. But I don’t demand respectful behavior, and don’t get upset at rudeness.  This will not come as a shock to people who know me online.

Look. Teaching is very much an expression of personality.  Mine is a teacher-centered classroom. But nowhere is it written that teacher-centered classrooms must be ruthlessly controlled environments of churchlike stillness.  My classroom is, like me, loud and often disorderly, friendly, sarcastic. It sometimes changes on a dime. But its purpose is always there, driving things along, moving everyone forward.

New teachers: does your classroom environment reflect your personality, your values? Experienced teachers: are you setting rules that matter? Are you sure?

 


Three VIPs for New Teachers

You’re a new teacher, worried about how to start? Let me tell you about the three most essential contacts to make in your earliest days. Notice that none of these people are, technically speaking, colleagues. If you can find teachers who want to help you, great. I always make sure new teachers have a mentor or at least my help if they need it.  But this is about getting the support you need to do your job and other teachers aren’t really the first line of defense.

The Tech Guy

It’s usually a guy, so I will call him a “he”. Districts usually centralize technology, but each school site usually has a dedicated support guy. The first person you’ll meet is the principal’s secretary (more about her in a minute) but your first real friend must be the tech guy.

Few teachers recognize the advantages to being on first name terms with the guy with keys to the computer room, so they often won’t think to mention him. “Who’s the tech guy?” is a question that leads to other questions. Try “Is my email set up already, or will I need to request it?” or “Do you know if I have an account on the district server?” are excellent questions to elicit the tech guy’s name quickly.

I’ve been at three considerably different schools and found good tech support. But even if the guy is a lazy loafer with no real redeeming qualities, cultivate his acquaintance.

Take printers, for example. You can buy your own printer and request to set it up. This often violates several district policies, needs approval, and in some cases can’t be done at all. Alternatively, you can casually mention to the tech guy that if he has any spare printers, you’d be happy to set it up yourself, keep his workload low….and leave it dangling. Three schools, three printers set up for the asking in under three days. Old ones, sure. But they all worked, and I had them day one. And got replacements when needed.

I’ve seen teachers go two weeks without email, been forced to take attendance (shudder) manually, have no idea how to print to the main copy machine, all because they didn’t take twenty minutes to meet the tech guy. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten ten minute turnaround time when my DVD player doesn’t work on Movie Day, even though I make it clear my problem is non-critical.

Our school paid for our own tech guy for several years by giving up two class sections. He was worth every penny, and we’d still have him except the district technology director didn’t like him and reinstituted centralized control. Our current tech guy, supplied by the district, is also terrific. He likes green beans. I give him two or three bags of freshly picked beans from my garden, every year.

The Principal’s Secretary

Some schools separate actual secretarial support from the administrative tasks of running the school, but in my experience the job is usually centralized. Simply put: who does keys and subs? Who manages the missed prep list? Who runs work orders and facilities requests? If it’s not one person, you don’t need to worry. But it’s usually one person, and it’s usually the principal’s secretary. It’s almost exclusively a woman, so I will call her “she”.

She is actually the VIPest of the VIPs. You will meet her first when you start the year, but that’s the time to get out of her way. She  will be tremendously busy  and ferociously focused, particularly in the days leading up to the start of school.  Get your early business down quickly, smile, and begone.

In my experience, the principal’s secretary has an undocumented but strictly followed communications regimen. I’ll share the one consistent to the three I’ve known; yours may be different.

  • Email–only for work orders or other action items that go to someone else, something she can put in a folder for documentation.
  • Phone–only used for the immediate action of Send Someone Now. There’s a wasp in your classroom. There’s a fight in your classroom. There’s someone injured in your classroom.  You are about to vomit and need someone to babysit while you run to the john. Etc. You don’t call 911. You call her.
  • In person–the best way to handle three or four questions at once. Stop by during prep, or 15-20 minutes after the last bell.

In person, the five most important words to start all conversations with the principal’s secretary are “I’m sorry to bother you….”  Possibly add in “and it’s probably not your job, but I thought I’d check with you first.” Because in most cases, she will have sent out a document giving you the correct procedure, and in most cases you will not have bothered to read it. That’s fine, just slap your head and look apologetic, and try not to ask her two or three times in as many days for the same instructions.

Carefully restrict these in-person visits with questions in the first weeks of school. Don’t be a nag. Whatever other mistakes you might make, never ever think that your needs outweigh the importance of her job. You’re one of, what, 50? 80? If you don’t show up, a sub’s just a few minutes away. If she’s pulled away, a non-trivial chunk of school business gets put off until she gets back.

Eventually, she shares her observations with the principal. You want her report to be positive.

The All Powerful One at my second school had clearly decided long ago that most teachers were trying to make work for her. So outraged was she at the most innocuous query that I resorted to pure groveling.  “I know this isn’t your responsibility, and I swear I wouldn’t ask you except I’ve tried everyone else and you always seem to know everything that’s going on. Do you know where the purchase orders are kept?”

“THAT’S NOT MY JOB!”

“Oh, ok, it’s not your job to tell people where the purchase orders are kept. Could you tell me whose job it is to tell me where they are? I’m sorry again for bothering you.”

This, she found amusing and deigned to respond with reasonably useful information. After I left, an ex-colleague got in trouble when, irritated at her reflexive outrage, he snapped at her, “I’m helping kids. Your job is to help me.” This earned him a reprimand that went into his permanent file. I advise grovelling.

My current Principal’s Secretary is excellent, properly inspiring fear, respect, and rapid learning curves for all things administrivia. We’d gotten along well for three years until I didn’t call in a sub in a timely manner. No points were granted for my heroic attempt to avoid taking a day off.  I was originally somewhat nonplussed that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about my almost non-existent absentee rate. Then I realized that her job is to get coverage, which meant healthy, noble me was far more hassle than the teacher taking thirteen days a year with a properly notified sub. Humbling.

But she forgave me after a few days of grovelling. I bring her squash and cucumbers every year. Plus, she thinks I’m a pretty good teacher–she’s the mom in this story.

The Attendance Clerk

This will be less focused than the other two because in order to properly value the attendance clerk, you need to understand the importance of attendance.

On the first day at my second school, the union rep reminded us all of the two Do’s and one Don’t: do be on time, do take attendance, don’t touch the kids.  These, she stressed, were the essentials of the job. We all laughed at the truth so brutally expressed: actual teaching is a secondary consideration.

I got a call from my attendance clerk one time, “Why is Darby skipping your class every day?”

I was confused. “He’s at basic training.”

“What? No, he’s not.”

“He said he was accepted to the military and had all the credits he needed to graduate, so he was starting basic training early….this sounds really stupid now that I say it out loud.”

“Yeah, he’s lying. And he’s in all his other classes.”

“Um. No. He’s not. He’s out of town. I know this because he texted another student to ask me not to mark him absent, but I told him…”

“#(S&U#*(&*QT!” and the clerk hung up the phone.

Darby was in an entirely different time zone. His parents were out of town and thought he was in school. When his parents got automatic notifications of his first block absence, he told them he was sleeping in and showing up late. I was the only one of his four teachers marking him absent. The other three thought he was in basic training, too.

At best, that’s embarrassing. At worst, it’s a lawsuit. At really worst, it’s a lawsuit and millions in settlement.

Schools are legal custodians of the children (in loco parentis) while they are in school. Taking attendance creates a legal document, one that is audited and cross-checked, establishing that the student was in the school’s custody. (Note: Many high schools, like mine, have open campuses, allowing students to leave and return. I have never known how that squares with our legal custodial responsibilities.)  That’s not even getting into the fact that schools often get paid for each student in attendance, and the government likes schools to be able to prove in regular audits that they got paid for actual butts in chairs.

All sorts of  caselaw abounds defining school responsibilities, where they exceed parents, what a “reasonably prudent parent” would do, but we’re all just one nasty case and a cranky judge away from utterly ridiculous strictures. Fortunately most of it is out of your purview. Except attendance.  Most of the admins who’ve evaluated me have also checked with the attendance clerks to see how I’ve done. New teachers in particular want that report to be good.

But that’s all just about taking attendance on time, which you should do anyway. Why is it a good idea to be buddies with an attendance clerk?  As you’ll soon observe, these ladies are at best mildly friendly, at worst complete grouches. Their job requires a great deal of nagging teachers, apprehending students in the act of cutting,  and placating parents when teachers (raises hand) accidentally mark a present student absent.  Never mind the daily duties of nagging teachers to take attendance, sign off on their weekly audits, and so on.

But all of this is why it behooves any new teacher to seek them out and befriend at least one clerk. You’ll screw up occasionally. Or a lot, if you’re me. Don’t hide your mistakes. Don’t hope they won’t be noticed, because they will. Acknowledging your errors and emailing them will not irritate the clerks, but win their appreciation. I once apologized to my favorite clerk for being such a screwup–on more than one occasion I’ve somehow missed taking attendance for an entire day and had to email with a deep grovel and my best recollection of who wasn’t there. She laughed. “You’re in the top 15% of all teachers here. Twenty three percent of our teachers don’t ever take attendance.”  I bring them all a bag of heirloom tomatoes to great acclaim.

Pick an attendance clerk to be your “buddy”–she’ll call you up with questions instead of assuming the worst, allowing you to correct minor errors. She’ll send reminders. She won’t nag. She wants teachers to value her work, not despise her picayune corrections. Let her help you. If it ever comes to a lawsuit, you want to feel good about your attendance record.

What about…..?

If you teach K-5, custodial staff replaces attendance clerks. Custodial staff almost makes the cut, but honestly, you won’t need reminders to be nice to them. These are the first folks to enter your room after the last bell, when they get the trash, take a quick look around the room to plan for later. They’re often the first adult you’ll have seen in hours, so smile and take the time to talk.

Leaving administrators. Shouldn’t new teachers cultivate administrators?

Yes, but this is outside of your control. Administrators make their own choices.  I’ve been at two jobs where the teachers loved me and the administrators looked through me, and one job (here) where administrators loved me from the first day, while  three senior math teachers considered me a dangerous radical, best purged.

It sucks to be unpopular with your colleagues. But if you want the time to build relationships, then it sucks more to be unpopular with your administrators. I wish it were a choice. But schools are an ecosystem, and fitting in is outside simple behavior changes.

Of course, that might just be me.

In any event, you don’t need me to tell you to make nice with the boss.

Here’s to a new year.