Category Archives: philosophy

How The Other Half Learns: Who are the Students?

Years before I became a teacher, I found kids of all ages interesting on an intellectual level.  I enjoyed seeing the different ways that their intelligence manifested. I remember the moment I realized my son, just four, was extremely bright, capable of synthesizing a wide range  of information and coming up with interesting conclusions–and this despite the fact that he didn’t read until he was over six, and was always slow on speech milestones. A few years later, I was playing a card game with my twin niece and nephew and realized they, at age two, were out there on the IQ scale, but in different ways: my niece solves problems, my nephew instantly grasps and files away information.

The three proved out my predictions, all with  SAT or ACT scores in the 95+ percentile. My niece has a nursing degree (getting into a nursing school is cutthroat competitive these days), my nephew graduated from a top 20 school with a degree in linguistics. (My son’s history is here.)  Recall that I’m the only college graduate in my family of origin, so degrees aren’t really in the family tradition.

But kids don’t have to be unusually intelligent–or relatives–to capture my interest. My articles are filled with student profiles and class profiles in which I try to give a sense of the intellectual presence in the room, in the interaction. I link in a bunch at the end as a demonstration.

I wanted to know more about the students at Bronx Academy 1, and in this way, How the Other Half Learns disappoints. We get no real insight into the students’ intellectual lives.

This is a shame, really. Why, after all, do we care so much about these charters? Because of their academic results:

If you are a black or Hispanic child in a New York City public school, you have a one-in-four chance of passing the state English Language Arts exam. At Success, 82 percent of black and Hispanic students passed in 2016–a rate that easily outpaces even the 59 percent rate of Asian and white students citywide. In math, 93 percent of Success Academy’s black students and 95 percent of its Hispanic students passed their math test, with 73 percent scoring at Level 4, the highest level.

The Big Question, one I hoped I’d get some insight into: to what extent is Success Academy creaming? Are the charters taking some of those 1 in 4 black or Hispanic students who would pass the ELA exam anyway? Are they taking ordinary kids of average skills and beating enough information into their heads to barely get them past the “proficient” rating? Or are they taking barely literate children and turning them into excellent readers?

Pondiscio argues that Success Academy selects for parents, not for students. It’s certainly true that the school is vetting for parents who can be instantly available on demand, willing to put up with truckloads of excessive and unpleasant demands, which are clearly designed with the same goals that Van Halen had when banning brown M&Ms.  Because he sees parents as central to Success Academy, Pondiscio interviews several, uncovering their own educational history.

But the book has very little insight into the children themselves.

On Tiffany, the student whose needs gave Pondiscio the entire focus of his career:

Her eyes are on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; her homework neat and complete. She has grown up hearing about the importance of education. She believes it, and her behavior shows it. She gets praise and good grades. (emphasis mine)

With the exception of “bright”, which appears to be more about mood than intellect, Pondiscio describes Tiffany primarily by behavior and intent, not ability.

I would trade most of the parent interviews, which all sound the same (“I hated school, I was passed on, I was a drug addict, I fell into a hole, I made something of my life, I need to save my kid, I don’t want my kid to be passed on the way I was, I love the discipline, the end”), for a series of student conversations throughout the year.

Instead, give me evidence the students are developing intellectually. Show me that these are interesting, aware, educated children with an interest in the world around them. Better yet, show me that some kids went from picking their noses to discoursing eloquently on the reasons for a blue sky, all thanks to Success Academy’s brilliant teaching and curriculum.

Interview fourth graders, both those who scored proficient on the third grade test, and those who missed the mark. Are those students who failed still in the school, or were they cut from the program? Are the ones who passed noticeably more developed than the ones who didn’t–assuming they’re still in the school?

I want to hear from all those students who were forced to repeat grades. Did they ever move forward, or did all of them eventually transfer? It’s completely obvious that Success Academy is forcing students to repeat as a way of enticing them to drop out, but do any of them ultimately pass? How are their results?

Tell me stories about the kids who apparently have been spoon fed six books a week for years. What do the kids think about all this reading time? Do the parents actually meet their commitments? What books do they read? Do the parents read the same books more than once? What are their favorite stories?

But Pondiscio gives very little insight into the minds that Success Academy is supposed to develop. For the most part, the students are props. He does provide a description of one pseudo-discovery math class, but his focus is on the teacher, not the students.

When he does provide detail, the results undercut the Success story. (heh).  For example, a student takes a reading test:

“So what did you learn in this book?” she asks. Luis begins to rattle off random facts from memory. Whales send messages to other whales. They communicate with “whistles and burps and…” he struggles to recall a word. “They click,” he says finally. Syskowski presses for more. “What other information did you learn about whales?” Luis describes their ability to “bounce sounds off of fish” to find food. “A blue whale is as big as 25 elephants. They’re the giants of the sea,” he adds, a phrase that comes directly from the book. To ensure he’s demonstrating reading comprehension, not just prior knowledge, Syskowski asks Luis to show her evidence for the facts he’s just cited. …

“….How are whales like people?” she asks. “They find food. They send messages to each other,” the boy answers. “They have babies.” And how are they different? Luis twists his face and looks to the book to jog hism emory. “When people need help with something, they don’t cry or whistle or click. They just call for help. Like on the phone,” he answers. “And whales can’t speak. They speak, like, whale….Is that all of your questions?”

The word for this display is regurgitation. You don’t see a Luis who is interested in whales, enthusiastically telling his teacher about cool whale facts, but rather a Luis desperately trying to “empty his head of all that he’s just read.” Luis isn’t fascinated by whales or constructing background knowledge. In fact, the kid doesn’t seem interested in reading at all. He just wants the reward–to be moved up a level in grading. I’m sure Luis is an adorable little boy, but his reading comprehension skills do not strike me as a ringing endorsement for the Success Academy regime.

On a second grade field trip:

Some boys are trying to impress Ibrahim’s dad, Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant, with everything they have learned about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge. “He got ill and died,” one says….Showing good teaching instincts, [Solomon] pushes for more. “How do you know that’s not the Queensboro Bridge?” he demands. “Tell me how you know.” The boys point out that it’s a suspension bridge but seem at a loss to “prove” that the suspension bridge in front of them is Roebling’s masterpiece. They just know.

I have to take Pondiscio’s word for it that the only fact of note retained from the Roebling reading is not that he fought in the Civil War, made several major advances in bridgebuilding,  or that he lived to 89 before dying of an illness.  Nor could they tell the dad that the Queensboro Bridge isn’t a suspension bridge.

In an already famous anecdote from the book, the kindergarten teacher  tells a kindergartner that his book review (a pencil sketch and a few words) doesn’t make sense and that he can’t play with the “blocks” the next day.

Why not describe the “book report”? What did it say? What was the picture of? How did it compare to the other sketches? What words did the kids know well enough to write?

I never get the sense that Pondiscio is interested in the kids themselves–not because he doesn’t care about them, which he clearly does. But for whatever reason, the kids don’t seem important to his story. Ability  and individualism doesn’t make much of an appearance. Parental character is all:

If Eva Moskowitz is to be charged with creating an opportunity for parents…with more ambition for their children than means, it is a curious charge. If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

This is an egregious statement on many levels, but for now, consider it purely as insight into Pondiscio’s mindset.

Those familiar with Pondiscio’s writing won’t be surprised. Regardless of what he actually believes, he doesn’t often discuss students in terms of their abilities, as opposed to what methods he wants to use to teach them. In one well-known earlier article, he wrote that students can’t be educated with the “lighting of the fire”, as many teachers say, because “empty buckets seldom burst into flames.” As he wrote in the book, he first turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation because he became convinced that, to quote Dan Willingham, “the wellspring of reading comprehension is common knowledge”. (This always gets near suggesting that kids must be taught knowledge before they can read about it, even though both Pondiscio and Willingham protest whenever this is pointed out.)

Meanwhile, he’s got dozens of articles on the importance of giving parents choice.

“Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. ” (Let Poor Parents Choose Too)

“That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” (Putting the evidence cart before the school choice horse)

“About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is ‘right.’ The salient question ought to be, ‘Which is right for you?'” (When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose)

“I’m strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative.” Deborah Meier, Libertarian?

Even in the book, even when talking about Tiffany, it’s about what her parents did: “She has grown up hearing about the importance of education.” Tiffany didn’t decide this for herself.

Give parents the ability to choose, Pondiscio believes, and they will find the best education for their children. How he squares this with the many caring, ambitious, committed parents who chose Success Academy, jumped through all those idiotic control hoops only to deal with months of harassment once the school targeted their child for expulsion, I don’t know.

I don’t see students as empty buckets. I see them as individual agents with capacities from their parents’ ambitions and desires. For that reason, I wish Pondiscio had dumped all those parent profiles (to say nothing of the Moskowitz power meetings) and spent more time in the book recounting student stories. Let the readers know more about the young people who actually deliver the test scores needed to maintain the Success Academy reputation–and whether they display the intellectual presence we want those scores to represent.

I want to reiterate that I like the book and strongly recommend it. These pieces are just offered up for discussion–the difference between teachers and policy advocates, maybe.


The kid who can do arithmetic in his head but can’t manage basic algebra.
The kid who trusted me more than a math teacher who knew a lot more math.
The kids who had to build a business plan for a basketball team and started by looking up shoe prices.
The kid who asked questions without ever expecting to understand the answers. 
The kid who came back two years after his SAT scores were worse than his worst fears. 

Seeing the link between algebraic equations and graphs just before the weekend.
Figuring out the Third Dimension
The electoral college and Trump
Reading aloud to my ELL class.
Advising students on their narratives









How the Other Half Learns: Teacher Origin Stories

I have a friend (no, really), a lawyer with no interest in or knowledge of education policy. As we’re both avid readers, we often send each other books to check out. A couple years ago, we started an exchange in which each would send the other a book on a topic that they wouldn’t normally read. I picked  Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, which he loved. The next year I chose Ben Orlin’s first book, and I’m not sure he’s recovered. Lawyers really don’t like math. I thought he’d like the pictures, at least.

This year  I chose How the Other Half Learns, by Robert Pondiscio.

My actual review is short: Buy it. Read it. Pondiscio spent a year observing Success Academy Bronx 1. His observations are far more thorough than the two  other education books by “journalists” I’ve discussed on this site. He’s honest, deeply analytical, and always willing to question or offer multiple interpretations. No matter where you stand in the charter wars, even if you’ve never given a thought to education policy, you will find it valuable, interesting, and insightful.

My writing output has been ridiculously low this year, but it’s my plan to write a series of observations on the book. Consider them discussion topics. Things I noticed that the author didn’t seem to, or that he did notice and dismissed, or that he noticed and endorsed.

As you read, however, never forget why Robert Pondiscio was in a position to write this book.

He went into teaching after 9/11, inspired by an advertisement. He got six weeks of training through the New York Teaching Fellows program.

He struggled as a fifth grade teacher in the South Bronx, the lowest performing school in New York City.  His story is well-known to people who follow ed policy; he’s told it many times and recapped it in the opening of his book.  He turned to teachers and administrators for advice, but found it lacking. For anyone who’s read the horrorshow stories in The Battle for Room 314 (a book I utterly despised), he says his own experiences were familiar.  He had a miserable time managing classrooms until he read Ron Clark’s book, The Essential 55.

Here’s a line that sums up his public portrayal of his teaching experience:

“I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.”

Stung by his failure, Robert went into education policy.– “It is not an overstatement to say that our failure to help students become good readers and writers is why I became a curriculum reform advocate.”

He is driven by the memory of Tiffany, an eager former student totally invested in her education, a student he was explicitly told to ignore because she was already at grade level. While Tiffany grew up to graduate from a state college, Pondiscio still counts her as a failure, thinking that with her drive and determination, any private school would have gotten her to Harvard.

When he read of E. D. Hirsch’s work:

Teaching elementary school in a low-performing South Bronx elementary school convinced me that E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s views on literacy are unimpeachably correct. His work described precisely what I saw every day in my fifth grade classroom: children whose lack of background knowledge and vocabulary contributed disproportionately to their reading comprehension struggles. I was so electrified by Hirsch’s insights, which no one in my district or grad school seemed aware of or much interested in, that I resolved to work for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation and to spread his essential ideas.

And so gave birth to his education reform career, first with Core Knowledge, and now with Fordham Institute. He teaches civics, another long-standing interest of his, part time at Democracy Prep–that is, at a charter, not the wild-and-woolly anything goes world of public schools.

This is all well-documented by Robert himself and if I’ve gotten anything wrong, it’s not because I decided to fill in the blanks but just my also well-documented inattention to detail.

Robert Pondiscio is a consultant and advocate and author in education precisely because he considers himself a failed public school teacher and wants to change the world to save the kids he couldn’t.

Successful teachers don’t usually leave the field. They certainly don’t leave the field to become advocates arguing that public education is broken.

Always remember that people who get book deals have a story someone thinks will sell.

“I’m a successful teacher. I love my job. I’ve never been  beaten down by soulless administrators. I disobey rules and policies that aren’t good for my students. I wake up every day  confident I’m helping my students learn how to navigate life and learning. Here are my ideas on education policy.” is not a story that sells.

You should read this outstanding book. But as you read Pondiscio’s recommendations and conclusions, never forget that he advocates charters as lifeboats, as Dale Russakoff puts it.. He believes children need to be rescued from low income schools, that these schools are responsible for low achievement scores, that teachers are failing these students so profoundly that charters are essential lifeboats helping students escape the Titanic of public education, no matter the cost. He believes Success Academy’s methods are worth enduring.

None of these beliefs mean that he’s wrong, inaccurate, or biased in his observations. Nor am I convinced he was an actual failure as a teacher, as opposed to someone who was simply frustrated at achieving less than he wanted to.

Just remember that successful teachers, with happier origin stories, given the opportunity to observe Bronx 1, would have written of a very different year.

But they don’t get book deals.

Hey, under a thousand.


Primer on Direct Instruction: DI vs. di

(If you already know what the title means, feel free to comment on ways I could make this explanation clearer. If you have no idea what the title means, then I hope you find this primer helpful.)

Over the past couple years, I’ve been unnerved at academics and other highly educated people using the term “direct instruction” in completely inaccurate ways. It’s becoming increasingly common to see someone start by reciting research on Direct Instruction and then morph to discussing direct instruction.

It’s a complicated topic for outsiders, and detangling it in terms that don’t rely on background knowledge isn’t easy. But I’m giving it a shot.

To begin with, what kind of teaching is not considered direct instruction in any way?

University-based ed schools overwhelmingly emphasize and often even demand what is variously referred to as  complex instruction, discovery-based learning, open-ended discourse. I’m going to call the whole category “progressive strategies”.  This pedagogical approach argues that only good teaching forces the student to engage with the material, that simply conveying academic content as  “passive” consumption provided by the “sage on the stage” is the wrong way to go about education. At best, their argument goes, the student simply absorbs the lecture or content as a rote matter, at worst, the student shuts down and rejects school altogether, feeling uninvolved and disconnected. Progressive strategies begin with John Dewey, but took on increased importance as ed schools began to argue that the achievement gap was exacerbated by teachers’ inability to engage students with “authentic inquiry” and “rich problems”.

A clarifier: “method of instruction” and “curriculum” are entirely different animals. Teachers can commit to one method of instruction or mix it up. They can use a textbook that mixes up instruction methods, going from direct to inquiry based, or textbooks that use only one method. Or they can build their own lessons using whatever method of instruction they like.

Curriculum means the specific sequence of lessons. Textbooks are a form of curriculum; however, many teachers just use textbooks as a source of problem sets without actually using the curriculum itself. Other teachers go through every problem in the book. Some formal curricula use entirely progressive strategies: e.g., CPM at the high school level. Quite a few elementary school textbooks are entirely inquiry based.  So progressive strategies can either be a method of instruction or encased in a formal curriculum that districts purchased.

The term “direct instruction” dates at least to 1893. Over time, the term splintered into a variety of meanings that center around the difference between curriculum and method of instruction.

Direct Instruction, hereafter referred to as DI–the body of curriculum built by Zig Engelmann (RIP).  DI’s reading curriculum won a major government competition intended to improve results for disadvantaged children.

DI is a collection of formal, highly scripted and formatted curricula–lessons, textbooks, sequencing, the works, for English and math (none of which are referred to as DI individually).  DI curriculum is primarily created for elementary school, through middle school in a few topics.  Teachers have to teach reading explicit text with sound cues. The students are grouped by ability and can only move on when they have proven mastery. The DI curricula in total was recently the favorable subject of a meta-analysis that I wrote about last year.  While DI is generally considered effective, it is not popular, some of the reasons for which I discuss here.  It has not been easily adopted, and has often been ripped out of schools despite the active resistance of principals and parents. 

di–The most important thing to understand is that di is not DIdi is an instruction strategy, not a curriculum. The only curriculum discussed specifically in this article is DI, above. The next most important thing to understand is that there isn’t one di, but several, which shall be categorized by subscripts.

dib — Broadly, direct instruction is any form of conveying information that is teacher-led. The teacher provides procedures, content, or methods verbally, or by providing materials that directly instruct the student–videos, readings, worksheets. Lectures are direct instruction. Explanations are direct instruction.  Written procedures are direct instruction. What most people think of when they hear the term “direct instruction” is the broad definition, the one that dates back to 1893.

dir –More narrowly, as the achievement gap proved resistant, researchers have tried to quantify specific methods of explicit instruction that work best in terms of improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged or low-performing students. Over time, some researchers began formalizing prescriptive strategies (not curriculum) of straightforwardly conveying information. As these methods derived from formal research, we’ll call these di.

Explicit Direct Instruction is a common research-based strategy. Barak Rosenshein referred to his methods of effective teaching as direct instruction. The bag of methodological tricks advised with the research on cognitive load theory  is another.  These are  prescriptive methodologies (eg, “I do, we do, you do” of EDI). They aren’t curriculum, but they aren’t “just tell the kids what to do” of dib , either. They also apply almost purely to procedural content, which means they are used almost exclusively in math, some applied science, and maybe grammar and phonics. You can’t use EDI  or worked examples when teaching history or literary analysis.

di–The last subscript of di is only distinct because its adherents make it so.  There are people, some of whom are teachers, many of whom are not, most of whom have access to a mainstream audience through various media outlets, who hold progressive strategies in contemptuous disdain.  People of this mindset use “direct instruction” to describe the method they actively support over progressive strategies. These people are wont to say “I believe in direct  (or explicit) instruction” or “I believe in traditional methods”.  dii  advocates see progressive methods as at best ineffective, at worst harmful or destructive. They feel that education schools are destroying America’s schools by indoctrinating teachers into a failed instruction technique.

It’s important to realize that this is an ideological position, not a curriculum or a strategy. In actual practice, most dii  teachers use dib  , although some may subscribe to a particular dir . They are stating an ideological position (hence the i subscript).

So DI curriculum exists outside of the di pedagogical strategies, and two of the three di strategies exist in planned and formal opposition to the progressive strategies that dominate in education schools. Got it?


Everything up to this point has been an honest attempt to describe the categories simply, without boring you to tears with unnecessary details. I’m not the first person to describe this ambiguous term–several explanations have been linked in throughout this essay and for just one more,  here’s Larry Cuban on the topic. I did not invent the DI/di nomenclature, nor am I the only person to categorize them (e.g., Rosenshein’s group of Five), although the subscripts are mine own.

I’m writing about these terms because very few of these explanations address the penetration levels of these strategies.

Add up all the teachers using strict versions DI curriculum , dir  strategies, or any formal, committedprogressive strategy.  What percentage of American teachers would that be?

No one knows. Everyone outside the DI/diproponents would agree unhesitatingly that the combined total is very small. Progressive advocates certainly know they’re in the minority.

My own guess would be about 10% of all the high school and middle school teachers and almost all of that number would be progressive teachers. DI curriculum barely exists for high school, and while districts periodically commit to various di strategies, they never follow through for long.  Others put the total number higher.

Everyone I know of agrees that the numbers, whatever they are, are higher in elementary school, if only because there are numerous elementary DI and progressive curricula and elementary school teachers are more committed to textbook use than middle and high school teachers are. I’d still place it low, at something like 15%, but it may be as high as 30%. Others would argue for more, but in my opinion that would be stretching the definition. Again, this percentage is combined  DI/dir and progressive strategies.

Understand my numbers aren’t counting as progressives teachers who run through  an occasional inquiry-based lesson, or who demand their students demonstrate they understand the “why”, nor am I counting as DI/dir the teachers who lecture or work an example on the board. I’m talking about full-throttle discovery all the time, or “word what word?” or “I do, we do, you do” every day without exception. It’s….not many teachers.

This debate, which consumes almost all schools of education, no small number of researchers, and and the bulk of education reformers, is almost entirely irrelevant to most actual teachers and their practice.

In the real world, most teachers use dib , without a conscious, fully formed method of instruction or pedagogical philosophy.

You’re thinking wait, ed schools mandate progressive strategies, but very few teachers use them?


So this entire argument punches far outside its weight class. The research gets translated into mainstream publications and the di folks, those ideologically committed to fighting progressive strategies, are very good at getting published.  (I make that sound sinister, don’t I? No, I’m admiringly envious.)

I don’t know whether the DI/di confusion is cause or effect but increasingly I’m seeing a lot of highly educated people with a very consistent set of beliefs:

  1. Most teachers use progressive strategies.
  2. Research shows direct instruction is more effective than progressive strategies.
  3. If more teachers used direct instruction, students would learn more, like they did in the past when schools were more successful.
  4. Teachers refuse to use direct instruction because they are a) brainwashed, b) lazy, c) ideologically driven, d) some other reason involving their low status brain power

These beliefs are either completely false or, at best, incomplete. I sometimes wonder if these beliefs lead to the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world thinking that K-12 education is an easy fix–just get those damn teachers to explain things clearly, and we’ll see a huge boost in academic outcomes.

But it’s not that simple. Nothing in education is ever simple. For example, the more heterogeneous the class ability, the more likely it is that whatever method the teacher uses is going to hamper some students while at best only slightly helping others. There isn’t a smart kid on the planet who is ideally served by a steady diet of DI or di*, and disadvantaged, low-skill student can at worst be actively harmed by progressive instruction methods.

So next time you read an article on DI/di*, see how well the writer manages to make these distinctions clear–and remember that regardless of the  writer’s intensity level, most teachers don’t care in the slightest.

Note: Michael Pershan was invaluable in giving me feedback on this piece, and Tom Loveless gave me some important data. Their help should not be construed as agreement. Thanks to both.


More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder

So I should confess to begin with that I really can’t stand Kamala Harris. As I say quite often on Twitter, her voice is as grating as Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s astonishing she doesn’t remind everyone of their least favorite ex-girlfriend or a really obnoxious seventh grade social studies teacher. What everyone else saw as passion in her debate, I saw as a windup doll whose string had been pulled.

But never mind that. As I write this, the consensus opinion among GOP analysts (Jonah Goldberg being the only demurrer I’ve seen) is that Harris poleaxed Biden when she said:

Clearly, her team had planned this carefully, up to and including using an altered image that makes her look like a black child of poverty.

But more to the point, why wasn’t every GOP analyst and every conservative reporter up in her face about it?

Harris lied, for one thing. Or at least implied, that we all might infer.

She was not the second class to be integrated at Berkeley public schools. The Berkeley school district, like most districts in California since Mendez vs Westminister, enrolled by neighborhood. Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. After nearly a decade of black community pressure, junior high schools had been integrated in 1964. Berkeley High had tremendous racial tensions throughout the sixties, caused not by white segregationists but demands by emboldened black radicals. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

After the school board survived a recall vote by opponents, they decided to work more slowly to integrate the elementary schools. This gave white opponents time to leave, and many of them did. (Prior to this white flight, Berkeley was a primarily conservative town; the liberals banded together with blacks to gain control. )  However, many other progressive whites moved to Berkeley to support the idea of voluntary integration, so the white population stayed the same. Notably, the black population didn’t increase: blacks in unintegrated Oakland stayed put rather than move to Berkeley.

Four years later, in 1968, the elementary schools were integrated via busing, with the black children in the Berkeley “flats” traveling to the mostly white schools of the hills, and vice versa. Kamala Harris was in the second class of integrated elementary school students. (all of this is easily sourced, but this book  goes into the most detail) While the elementary integration is generally considered successful, it hasn’t done anything to improve the achievement gap or de facto segregation.

All she had to do was insert one word in between “public” and “schools”.  There’s no question that Berkeley’s elementary school integration was notable for its two-directional busing and its smooth implementation. 1960s Berkeley was still discriminatory; it’s unlikely Harris’s academic mom could have lived outside the flats, thanks to redlinining practices. High school students were tracked ruthlessly, although most reports suggest accurately. Blacks weren’t doing well at Berkeley High, and Berkeley itself wasn’t the enlightened tolerant place it is today.

But to acknowledge that she wasn’t breaking color barriers would have ruined the narrative. How else could she hint at the horrors of racism if not to suggest that even liberal Berkeley was forcibly keeping black kids in black schools until she and her peers boldly broke the color lines?

Harris could rest assured that no mainstream media outlet would object to her lie. supported her lie, even as it revealed the truth. This way, Harris could pretend that there but for the grace of liberal courts, her legal career would have been denied her.

The second part of Harris’s claim is ludicrous as well as dishonest. Her parents were academics, not working class or uneducated blacks. Her father was gone by that time, but Harris lived a very nice life even if her mother chose to live in the Berkeley flats while working at Cal. Given her parents’ background, how likely is it that the Harris sisters would have gone to a bad school?

Denied a professorship at Cal, Harris’s mother uprooted the family and took them to Canada for a new job, also in academia. Harris graduated from a Quebec high school.

So Harris is lying about the environment that gave her a bus ride, and pretending that going to a partially white elementary school when she was seven is all that prevented her from being a dropout or, god forbid, a teacher.

None of this is terrible. It’s just irritating in that no one picked up on the lie. Everyone accepted it, even though the misstatement is well-documented. Everyone allows her to pretend that busing is why she’s AG and a Senator.

But what I’m more puzzled and aggravated by is all the Republican pundits gleefully celebrating, or at least enjoying, the purported slam dunk of Biden. Ha, ha! Look, there’s Harris, a black woman, taking Biden apart for opposing busing when she was bused! It’s perfect! Wow, what timing! What elan! Harris wins!

It’s all about the gotcha and its entertainment value.

And I’m sitting here thinking what the hell? Busing? Busing was a disasterMuch of the country hated busing. Joe Biden took the lead on busing because he’d have been a one-term Senator if he didn’t. Read about the anger and the white flight throughout the 70s that resulted when cities tried to forcibly desegregate neighborhood schools and end de facto segregation and Biden’s position becomes obvious.

No one else seemed to notice, though. Even conservatives like Mollie Hemingway, Comfortably Smug, and Hugh Hewitt were gleefully celebrating Harris’s body blow based, from what I can tell, purely on hahahaha she’s black, he’s old, she’s using his decades old vote to catch him out on changing times.

Every conservative I follow was rightly stunned at the entire slate’s support for open borders. As Ari Fleischer put it:

But most people were so wowed by this comment that they don’t seem to think about what it meant:

And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed [sic] to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

…..It’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

That’s where the federal government must step in.

Look, Americans who aren’t dealing with immigrants every day often don’t completely grasp what it’s like, and go squishy on things like border control or amnesty.

In contrast, they are entirely clear on the intrusive, invasive ways the federal government can “step in” to order schools.  And they don’t like it one bit.

Go ahead, Kamala, you brave truth teller, you survivor of segregated Berkeley discrimination. Tell all those Dem voters how busing is what America’s schools need to achieve the necessary diversity. Tell them how you’ll appoint judges who’ll overrule Milliken, allow states to mandate integration across districts.

Tell  white working class voters the Dems still need in order to win, all those rich white progressives who purport to love people of color so long as some other school is being integrated, not theirs. Tell low income African Americans to forget about those charter schools they like so much, because your great integration plan means they’ll be unnecessary.  Trumpet your plans to mandate school systems like San Francisco, where racial quotas determine where and how far each child will be sent away from home. While you’re at it, explain how this system resulted in far more segregation. 

Go ahead and tell people that your plan will end segregation as the government sorts populations based on race, just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 planned all along.

But best of all, go tell Asians all about your great plans. Tell all those parents at  those 80, 90% Asian public schools you plan to yank half of the kids out and send them into the inner cities with all sorts of poor black and Hispanic kids. Go ahead and tell Asian immigrants that they can’t cluster and dominate in certain schools, tested or otherwise.

This is a community that sent out a 12 year old girl  to say, in public: “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have an advantage over those who don’t even try?…It’s just not right for me to work hard and do my best while others are being lazy.”

And even after that, the New York legislature backed down on deBlasio’s plan to open up the schools to the kids that girl called lazy.

These are people who brought enormous, angry pressure on a Palo Alto school district when the board wanted to name a school after  a Japanese American who fought for his country.  As immigrants who think of themselves only as Chinese, the opponents looked at an American and saw only a hated enemy from Japan. They won, too.

Raise your hand, everyone who thinks Asian immigrants are going to give the smallest iota of a rat’s dropping about Kamala Harris’s guilt trips? Go grab some popcorn, I say.

I hope Andrew Ujifusa or one of the other Edweek reporters will run with this opportunity hound Harris relentlessly with:

“Senator Harris, you’ve opposed charters throughout your career. In the debate, you strongly supported busing. Are you planning on ending charter schools so you can more easily enforce busing mandates? Will you appoint judges who will overrule the ban on inter-district busing?”

She would have to choose. She could walk back her insistence that the federal government must intervene to enforce school integration. Or she could explain how she’s going to implement country wide integration by taking away all choice from America’s parents.

I don’t understand politics, I know, but for the life of me I don’t understand why every politician from Trump on down to dogcatcher isn’t tweeting about Harris’s plan. Then hound every other Dem candidate and force them to fight that battle for her. Harris will be oh so very popular.

“If you like your school, too bad. Democrats won’t let you keep it.”

Note: I teach in a school that may as well have been formed by Harris’s mandate, so integrated and diverse it is. I like it fine. I just live in a reality-based world most of the time.

Getting Smarter, or Getting Better at Using Smarts?

Influence of young adult cognitive ability and additional education on later-life cognition

Or, as Stuart Richie says:

Cool new PNAS paper about potential educational effects on IQ.

Previous work: control for age-11 IQ, still find edu-IQ correlation later in life.

This paper: control for age-20 IQ, correlation is gone. Suggests education has limited influence after age 20.

IQ measurement doesn’t interest me much, but IQ development or change over time does, for ego-driven reasons. As long-time readers know, I have a very high IQ (I qualified and participated in a research study for 3SD+), but my spatial abilities are very weak and I was stymied in advanced math (past algebra 1)  until, in my early 40s, I learned how to compensate using logic. I also was late to learn how I learned; my brain won’t acquire new information unless it’s tagged with all sorts of meta-data. Learning new concepts was so laborious that in my teens, I simply assumed I was incapable of learning; not until I was faced with job-related challenges  did I learn how I learned. My verbal skills are extraordinarily high, although it’s hard for me to compare to others because my particular combination of smarts would have required a more thorough classical education, which I don’t have.  I read 1000 wpm and can acquire extraordinary amounts of information through inference, which of course can sometimes lead me astray.

So. In 2001, I took the GRE and got 790V, 640Q, 690A. It was the last time the Analytical section was included. 640 quant was the 65th percentile that year, 690 analytical was in the 85th percentile–some logic games are brutally spatial. Anything over 700 Verbal is in the 99th percentile. I was very proud of that quant score.

In 2008, I took the GRE and got 780V, 800Q. (I’m still annoyed by the 780; if I’d focused in more, I might have gotten a double 800.) 800 Q is just the top 4% in any given year, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a top 10% score.

According to this GRE IQ estimator, my original GRE V+Q of 1340 is 99.452nd percentile, and my second GRE V+Q of 1580 is 99.993. But (forgive me IQ estimators), any IQ based on combining V+Q makes no sense, because an 800V-640Q  is considerably more difficult to achieve than an 640V-800Q, so how can they be identical, IQ wise? Plus, the decimal point specificity is just goofy.

Looking at my quant score alone, in seven years from the age of 39 to 46, I jumped from just above average in math to pretty close to 2SD.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence?

The quant section of the old GRE was extremely g-loaded. I used to tutor for the test and ran into dozens of people who’d majored in college in math, knew more calculus and all that nonsense about vectors and matrix determinants and ordered ring fields than I’ll ever know, yet scored in the high 600s. Which is not to say that it wasn’t relatively easy, just that lots of smart people would occasionally miss questions because they were more about g than math competency. The new GRE combines both. I can’t find an online GRE practice test, but I did the problems on the ETS site, and I think I’d still get in the top 10%.

The GRE Math Subject test is what used to be called an “achievement” test. God, testing lingo has changed so dramatically in so little time. g is involved in the sense that a certain level of intelligence is required to learn the material. But a 120 IQ who’s taken calculus and number theory would outscore a 145+ IQ  who has not.

I got 13 right out of 56. A 390. I wonder how many people get an 800 on the GRE General Quant and a 390 on the GRE Math? That’s a terrific illustration, really, of the difference between achievement and aptitude.  I knew none of the number theory, only some of the stats, none of the integral questions, but all of the limit and derivative questions, and random other stuff.

Every single one of the questions I answered correctly was using math I’ve learned in the past fifteen years.  Had I taken the test in 2005, I would have gotten zero correct. I took AP Calculus as a senior, remember none of it.  All the math I know today is from my tutoring days or my time in teaching.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence? Here, it seems clearer than in the first case. The GRE Quant (old form) is definitely an aptitude test, which makes my big score jump odd. But acquiring new knowledge isn’t the same as having a higher IQ. Right? (asking seriously). I could do much better on this test if I studied up on integrals and 3-dimensional systems. Hold that thought.

To contrast, I took the GRE English Literature Subject Test, all 230 questions. For me, this test is diametrically opposite the GRE Math Subject test. The latter requires actual math knowledge. But the English Lit test is about 70% interpretation, 10% terminology (literary terms) and 20% content knowledge (knowing the plot of Ben Jonson’s plays, or familiarity with Matthew Arnold’s poems). I missed 56 questions, scoring a 650, in the 86th percentile (although I’ve always distrusted the scoring on English lit tests). Two of the misses were analysis and both were careless errors I’d never make in a real test. All the other missed problems were content knowledge–not anything I’d forgotten, but things I’d never learned. My English degree wasn’t terribly rigorous, but what I learned thirty five years ago, I remembered. I recognized Shakespeare’s writing in a sonnet I’d never read before–ditto Donne and Milton. I even guessed my way through Derrida and Foucault. But Wiliam Caxton, Nikki Giovanni–eh. Never heard of them. I read a lot of Faulkner short stories, but avoided his novels. And so on.

Most of the high difficulty questions (less than 30% answered correctly) were literary analysis, and I nailed them. The only hard questions I missed were three content knowledge (obscure authors) and  one grammar question. The rest were in the 45-65% range, which is typical when the test is covering a broad range of material and no one knows everything. I think I could probably learn my way to a 700, but higher than that would require more interest in literature than I have.

So the GRE Math subject test requires specific knowledge, while the GRE Literature subject test allows people with high aptitude to do very well, even if their specific literature content knowledge is weak.

There aren’t many forty-something folks taking GRE Subject tests, but doesn’t it seem likely that it’s more common for someone to develop math content knowledge later in life than it is to suddenly develop excellent reading skills? Which suggests that reading comprehension, verbal ability, is more hard-wired to cognitive ability than math is. That might explain why math test scores have improved more than reading scores, generally. For all the wailing about math achievement, we do better at teaching students to improve their math abilities than we do at making them better readers.

From the study abstract: “Education does improve cognitive ability”

It does? That seems backwards to me. Cognitive ability improves educability.  If all we had to do was educate people to make them smarter, I wouldn’t have this blog.

Does education actually make people smarter, or does it just teach them how to use their existing intelligence?

I have no answers, so I’ll stop here.

Lawton Chiles Middle Academy: When the Cop Shows Up

Our school has a ritual, a long-standing one. We start the announcements with the pledge. For the first five years of my employment, it was an enjoyable thing. Everyone stood up. If a kid didn’t stand up, the teacher exhorted him or her jovially, and the kid stood up, whining. It took less than a minute.

Cue Colin Kaepernick and his foolish, self-destructive campaign. Many football players started “taking a knee”, which was fine. Stupid, but fine. But then other kids would just refuse to stand up.  Teachers would, as usual, exhort the kids to get up, and they usually would. Until a parent got the superintendent involved, and the superintendent sent out a note saying that under no conditions could a teacher require a student to stand up. These kids, by the way, are not even remotely interested in the NFL and why Kaepernick is taking a knee. They have all sorts of reasons from “I hate Trump” to “The flag’s racist” to “I just want to sit and look at my phone”.

To me, that’s bullshit. It’s our school ritual. If we can’t tell the kids to stand, or kneel, and the kid is allowed to sit on his or her phone during the Pledge, then what’s the point of the Pledge? So I take phones away from kids and they go screaming to the admins, but the admins are firm, so far–the teacher can’t tell you to stand, but the teacher can take your phones.

Most of the time it’s been ok, and I’ve gotten around it, but this semester I’ve got a class of kids who literally refuse to stand. Just 12 of 35 get up at all. That’s far too many to police, so now I just say the Pledge with the kids who stand and randomly remove phones, which keeps that violation in line.

Most teachers in our school agree; I’m not alone in arguing that if we can’t enforce minimum behavior for a school ritual, one that’s been going on for decades, then a) that’s a bad thing and b) we should stop the Pledge and “let the Commies win”, as a particularly right of center student of mine used to call it.

I used to be annoyed at the Pledge for “under God”–as an agnostic, I think the rebuke to non-believers is a deliberate slur that came out of the anti-Communist era and would still be happier if the phrase was dropped. But in today’s world, with an immigrant population that increasingly takes America for granted, the Pledge had become an enjoyable ritual until Kaepernick and the NFL ruined it all.

If schools are not allowed to insist that students simply stand or kneel respectfully during the Pledge, then it should be dumped. At this point, I hate the first five minutes of class, and have asked that the Pledge be dropped from announcements.

All that is prelude to this story about a Florida kid “getting arrested for refusing to say the Pledge”. Key details:

  • This was a substitute teacher.
  • The substitute teacher was a Cuban immigrant.
  • The kid refused to leave the room without disruption.
  • The kid was arrested for threats.

So the media headlines are, essentially, lying. The kid was not arrested for refusing to say the Pledge, unless the police want to speak to Jussie Smollett for buying a Subway sandwich.

The shocking part, to me, was the teacher’s comment to the kid, until I read well into the newspaper stories. As is usually the case when demographics conflict with the narrative, the media holds back or delays release of demographics. So it’s well into the story before you learn  the sub, Ana Chavez, is an immigrant, while the kid in question is, I think, a non-immigrant African American.

We come, once again, to the clash of “Who/Whom?”. Normally, immigrants can say things that white Americans can’t, so Ana Chavez probably thought she was secure in her ability to criticize a snotty little kid who wouldn’t stand for the flag. Notice that she actually put her comment in the report!

But no one warned Ana of the dire fate that awaits the loser of a narrative clash. On the plus side, Ana Chavez is a common name, so she can leave town and sub somewhere else.

The administrator decision to remove the student from the classroom isn’t surprising. We have a nationwide sub shortage. If the sub had said “remove this kid because he’s wearing a blue shirt that’s hurting my eyes”, he probably would have removed the kid and took him to another room saying “Sorry, don’t worry, this is no big deal.” Maybe dump the sub, maybe not, depending on the scarcity, the sub, and the kid.

What I don’t understand, and can’t without more information, is why the school resource officer was called in.  I can think of two possibilities off hand. First, the administrator came, the kid refused to go, and then the SRO showed up. Second, the administrator and the SRO came together, and I can only conceive of that occurring if the student was utterly out of control–or the substitute teacher made it sound that way.

Then I looked up the school and considered a third possibility:  Lawton Chiles is a fairly rich, very high-achieving middle school (supposedly ranked 11th in the entire state) and is also 15% black, with  most  blacks scoring proficient on state tests. Perhaps they don’t have many discipline problems, so the dean and SRO are twiddling their thumbs waiting for each call. Unlikely, but I offer it up.

However, this part seems quite clear:

The student was asked more than 20 times to leave the classroom by the dean of students and the school resource officer intervened, asking the student to leave the classroom and the student refused, the police say.

Police say the student eventually left the classroom and created another disturbance, making threats while he was escorted to the office at the school.

They didn’t walk into the room and arrest him. They asked him to leave. More than twenty times. Many, many school officials read about the events at Spring Valley and learned their lesson well. They made no effort to physically force the boy from the room.

Eventually, the sixth-grader did leave, probably making threats. But it took a long time, and during that time, that student had directly disobeyed a police officer. Once he left, he apparently made more threats.

Do I think he should have been arrested? Absolutely not, on the evidence.

But my primary reason for writing this short piece is to remind people, once again, that the underlying issue becomes irrelevant once a cop shows up. Students–particularly  black students, it seems–need to learn a fundamental truth: don’t treat a cop like a teacher.  The minute the cop walks into the room, the facts on the ground shift unalterably.

I wish more of the media coverage would focus on this, which is of course a foolish dream. The media wants to convince everyone that schools are racist, that black children are deliberately put on a school-to-prison pipeline because of white teachers’ intolerance and bigotry.

Perhaps consider this: the Lawton Chiles Middle Academy case is a big step up from Spring Valley. The dean and the SRO acted with restraint in removing the recalcitrant student from the classroom. Perhaps they arrested the young boy because they can’t allow students to holler violent threats with impunity. Whatever their reason, reports make it clear they didn’t just charge in and lock the kid up.

Perhaps people should tell Dhakira Talbot, the boy’s mother, that while she might wish the school had handled things differently, her most pressing responsibility is to tell her son that no matter what he feels about the flag, or his unjust treatment, he must understand the facts on the ground once a cop shows up to talk to him. Obey the cop. No matter what. Things will get straightened out later.

They can tell her white parents tell their kids the same thing, if it helps.

What I did in January instead of writing

Until 10:00 Thursday night, I really thought I’d get in one post. But then I fell asleep.

Making January the only month in the seven years of this blog that I didn’t get in a single post. I shoot for four. Half the time I make three.  But every month I make one or two. My writing has just fallen off a cliff. Just 28 articles in 2018.

I’m not less interested. I’m just finding it much, much harder to write.

So what did I do in January?

Well, I spent a lot of time researching two different pieces on direct instruction. A movie gave me some interesting insights and more data to research. I read Zig Engelmann’s book again. I tried and failed to organize a way to discuss either article.

I found out how to search the ACS for high school demographics by state (to keep it manageable, I made it populations of 400+). These are stats I’ve wondered about even before I started (and abandoned) Everybody’s Second Favorite. Dick Startz spurred me on with this rather anodyne wail about integration in public schools (which he confuses with opportunity). So that led me to make interesting charts like this: CaSchoolsraceprofNYSchoolsraceprof

But while that was interesting, I was already halfway through January and this takes more time than I had.

I also spent some time at the DMV. My brother has two cars, but he carelessly allowed the registration on one to expire, and then he ignored the followups, and then he ignored the warnings, until he started to worry about how much it would cost. So he bought a new used car from a friend for cheap. The other car was parked at the curb until the city labeled it as unregistered and threatened to tow it. By this time, the battery was dead, so he put the batter from his other car into that one–and it started right up.

“Aww,” I said. “It missed you. You should get it reregistered.”

Until then, he put it in the driveway, where the city can’t get it. But the driveway is my spot–and a non-trivial amenity I pay for with my higher rent. He gets the bigger part of the house, despite paying less.  A lot less. I’m not bitter. I make more.

But it’s now well over a year later, and I want my damn driveway back. It’s often hard to park in the streets; people can (and do) park right in front of the house. So I made an appointment for him to find out what it would cost to reregister a car that hadn’t been paid for in three years. I told him about it and everything.

And I knew he’d forget, so I made a second appointment, on a Saturday, for me. So when he forgot, I spent an hour or so with a surprisingly nice bureaucrat finding out how much it would cost. The answer was much better than feared. My best case was $500, worst case $2000. It was $625. Plus a smog test.  And a battery. Plus by now the tire’s flat, so he needs to fix that. Still, about $1000 to get a second car that he could give to his kids. He’s got the money. He owes me $800 that he has in an account. He doesn’t live large. I told him he could pay me later if he’d get the car done.

It’s 3 weeks later. No fixes. I told my nephew that if he got his dad to fix the tire and buy a battery, I’d pay him $20. Hasn’t happened yet.

I’m sympathetic to people who avoid. I did it for years. Still do. And I want my damn driveway back.

Anyway. That took some time.

Then I read Robert Pondiscio’s article on, among other things, killing education myths and remembered very apt parallels between that particular myth and an Asimov short story. That’d be easy to write. I looked up the text, and promised myself I’d get it started.

But first I opened my mail. That’s….not something I do often. Let me give you an example. At the bottom of the large box of mail was a letter from my financial manager’s company alerting me to a $2500 account that hadn’t seen any activity for three years, and was in danger of being put into the state account. Please notify us before it gets sent to the state. The problem was, the form letter was from December 2017. So I had to call the office and admit I hadn’t opened the letter for over a year, but everything was okay and my money wasn’t at the state, right?  His assistant called me back, chuckling, to assure me that it had been issued in error and my money was safe.

Another half day gone. Then I thought about some Great Moments in Teaching articles I’d postponed, or one on my pedagogy for number sets. Multiplication is the Death Lord. Things like that.

But the major time suck was….

Grading. Jesus. Grading took over January.  I used to like grading. I still like it, really. A whole day of January winter break grading. Then more tests, more grading, rinse and repeat.I don’t know why it kicked my ass so badly this year.

I’ve taken on a lot of fascinating, challenging responsibilities at school that take time and energy. So when I get home, all I do is fall asleep.

In fact, I may be slightly burnt out. My job is fantastic, but I’m usually pretty energized in January. Not this time.

In celebration of my tenth year teaching, I won’t be working this summer. The original plan was 6 week tour of the English-speaking countries of Europe, but my father’s health has been going up and down, and I’d rather stay close. Hopefully, he’ll be up for some trout-fishing or a trip into Canada. Either way, I hope to buy a used SUV and tour the US.

I will try to write more. Hope that’s not a threat.

Hey, under 1000.


Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….



I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?


Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?

The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

Part 5. (Parts onetwo, and three, and four.)

In his book, Caplan goes on at great length about what level of academic achievement predicts probability of success in attaining a credential.  But he complete ignores the fact that the probability of low academic achievement is skewed based on demographic attributes. While it’s fashionable these days to pretend that income is the great demographic divider, the mother of all disaggregations in America is race.

Let’s examine Caplan’s discussion of race in educational achievement. Go get your copy of Case Against Education and check the index. I’ll wait.


Caplan mentions authors named “Black” about as often as he mentions blacks as a demographic category,  which he does three times .

What about Hispanics? No one has the last name “Hispanic”, or “Mexican” or “Puerto Rico”, much less “Dominican” or “Salvadoran”, so the sum total of their mention is uno.

And mind you, I mean mentions.  At no point does Caplan do anything so basic as discuss the  academic performance of different demographic categories. Blacks and Hispanics make a brief appearance in name only during the Griggs discussion and never show up again.

How do you write a book that argues for draconian cuts in our education system—and not discuss race?

Education policy in America is obsessed with race. Name a single problem in education and it’s a mortal lock that it was either caused by the achievement gap or caused by a policy put in place to end the achievement gap. Any attempts to solve educational challenges will be sued out of existence, or fail, or simply ignored to death because of its impact on the racial achievement gap.

But Caplan never once explores whether the implications of his proposals might unduly affect certain demographics. He simply uses median scores and percentages for the overall population. I am not a huge fan of Tyler Cowen’s dystopic fantasies but in education, there’s no doubt that average is over and has been for years. Averages hide too much. In Caplan’s book, averages hide the implications of his “ability archetypes”:


Caplan advises people to use “ability archetypes” to ensure they are realistic about their goals:


Let’s consider the racial implications of his advice.  Once again, we’ll use the  NAAL report that Caplan discarded after culling a few shallow data points.

Here’s the results broken down by race in the four ability categories, from Below Basic to Proficient, for Prose and Document. For example, white comprise 70% of the population and 7% of the tested white population scored below basic in the Prose category.  So 4.9% of the tested population was white and below basic in Prose.  White scores are in gray, black scores in blue.


(I’ve been working on this forever, and just now noticed I didn’t put the percentage of each race’s contribution to each category. Sigh.)

Asian and Hispanic results are skewed by the conflation of immigrant and native results.  But it’s instantly obvious that blacks, who were only 12% of the tested population, contribute far more to the lower categories and are almost non-existent in the skill categories Caplan considers suitable for college.

The columns in the graph below list the median score by race in each education category. The horizontal lines are the overall population percentiles. So 14% got Below Basic, while “Basic” scores went from the 14th to 44th, Intermediate from 44th to 85th, and Proficient above that. The “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, and “Poor” classifications are those that Caplan defined and are at (very roughly) the corresponding percentile location. (“Good” is a bit low, I think.)

naal2003raceandedNotice that white high schoolers and high school graduates have roughly the same scores as blacks with 4 year degrees or more. This is a very consistent finding in most test score data.

Caplan argues that only students from the Excellent or Good categories should invest in college. The NAAL report finds that only two percent of blacks read at proficient levels,  31% score at the intermediate level.  If blacks or colleges took Caplan’s directive and only went to college with that qualification (which is actually broader than Caplan would like) just 4% of the overall population would be black college graduates.

NAAL doesn’t disaggregate by race, education, and performance category. But another survey, done three years later, gives us some insight: The Literacy of America’s College Students. This literacy survey tested 25 randomly selected students from each of over 1800 universities.

This survey uses the same assessment as NAAL, and the same categories, to assess  college students in their last semester of an AA or BA degree. Again, I’m restricting the comparison  to blacks and whites.

First, I benchmarked the literacy data to the NAAL data for college graduates. 2006colllitmedian

The literacy survey data is much higher for blacks than the NAAL data, particularly for black AA holders. But it’s pretty close for BA holders. Moreover, standards change over time so it’s at least possible that looking at brand new AA degrees would differ from the overall population.

Here’s the breakdown by score category. Black AA and BA candidates are on the left, whites on the right. Blue and green are intermediate and proficient categories. 2006colllitmedian

And consistent with the first graph, these results seem quite high for African Americans. Only 5% of  blacks in 4 year schools scored below basic?  Blacks in 2 year colleges had no below-basic scorers? Really?

Still, this is fine for my purposes. 1 in 4 blacks about to get a BA had basic or lower reading scores, while less than 1 in 40 whites had the same low ability.

Caplan asserts “we” should  be shocked that  “under a third” of those with a BA or higher achieve Proficient levels in numeracy and literacy.  But close to half of the white college BA holders achieved Proficient levels in the three categories  ( 42%, 45%, and 40%).  The same black proficiency scores are 16%, 17%, and 5%.

Whites are achieving considerably higher than the results Caplan sniffs at, while black scores are far worse than “under a third” but rather “under a fifth”. Moreover, Caplan argues that he’s giving this advice to prevent low-skilled people from failing in college–but clearly, these blacks are about to graduate and made it through with skills he deems too low to succeed.

The college graduate data above would almost certainly be replicated in all the other education categories. Whatever Americans Caplan decries as low-skilled and incapable of succeeding in education, rest assured that he’s skewering a group that’s considerably more African American than the overall population.

Remember, too, that Caplan regularly dismisses the idea that our education system might be able to improve results.  He spent an hour debating Ric Hanushek arguing this very point.

But NAAL results over time (below) suggest that our k-12 system has improved results for African Americans. Asterisked scores indicate significant improvement. Blacks saw significant improvement in all three areas. (note again Hispanic performance declined rather spectacularly, thanks to increased immigration)


What educational categories saw the most black improvement?


Well, hey now. Look at that. The blacks that graduated (or even dropped out!) of high school in the 10 years previous saw significant improvement in prose and quantitative skills.

Black proficiency scores on the NAAL survey are extremely low. But they have improved.

Caplan’s prescriptions run into all sorts of problems when evaluating black academic performance. If Caplan is correct about the skills needed for college, then why is the black college graduate average below the level that Caplan declares essential for college success? Certainly, as I’ve observed, colleges are lowering standards (for all admissions as well as blacks in particular). But while the average earnings of black college graduates are less than those of whites, black earnings increase with education nonetheless. So should they invest in more education even though they don’t meet Caplan’s criteria?

I pointed this out to Caplan on Twitter, and  he observed that the ethnic group improvements were marginal  and that the absolute level of basic skills were “terrible”. Which suggests he was aware of the ethnic group differences and just decided not to mention them.

Breaking down test scores by race can be incredibly depressing. No one likes to do it. But Caplan’s failure to include this information is simply irresponsible.

Caplan argues that people outside the top 30% of academic achievement should stop investing in school, the sooner the better. He sees this as both selfishly correct and also the correct government policy, so he thinks all funding for education past minimal skills should end. Those who are worth further investment can justify the expense to a bank or a parent. Meanwhile, we should end the child labor laws so that the very lowest academic achievers can get to work as soon as it becomes a waste of time to educate them.

Applying his policies to black Americans, around 25 percent would be in need of those changed labor laws, because Caplan wouldn’t spend a penny to educate them.

In his conversation with Hanushek, Caplan proposes giving low-skilled kids “more realistic” careers–the example being “plumber”, of course. Like most elites, Caplan uses  “plumber” as a low-skilled proxy when in fact the occupation is one of the more cognitively complex of blue collar jobs. But I think his focus on the job is also a tactical choice. “Plumber” sounds good, like a meaningful career. You can be self-employed or build a business.

Imagine telling a kid his best option is “janitor”. Now imagine telling a poor black kid his best option is “janitor”. Then imagine telling about 1 in 4 black kids that yeah, “janitors” where it’s at for them.

If you can’t imagine doing that, then don’t write a book arguing that Americans get too much education.

When people talk about the “bad old days” of American education, they are referring to the era when people did exactly what Caplan advises. School counselors looked at the students’ test scores and gave them a list of possible careers. White kids had higher scores and were advised to go to college. Black kids had lower scores and were advised to go to factories or custodial work. For a guy who spent several pages on the likelihood of Griggs lawsuits, Caplan doesn’t seem to have spent a single second looking at the case history of school district consent decrees.

But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those  teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating  will be  competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

Earlier, I wrote:

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?

Nowhere is this dilemma clearer than in Caplan’s utter refusal to engage with the racial implications of his proposals. I, too, want fewer people in college. The best way to keep unqualified people from investing in college is to make work worthwhile. But Caplan wants to devalue work to the point of worthlessness through open borders, all the while denying even the possibility of education to those who can’t afford it.

Caplan complains that no proponents of public education have seriously engaged with his book. That’s because no one has observed, in so many words,  “Bryan Caplan thinks most blacks shouldn’t go to college because they’ll fail. He thinks state funded education is a waste of time. Kids whose parents can’t afford education should have to be smart enough to get a scholarship.”

That’ll get him some engagement. But then, he knows that.

Caplan is often rather smug about his media popularity. “Steve Sailer’s policy views are much closer to the typical American’s than mine.  Compared to me, he’s virtually normal.  But the mainstream media is very sweet to me, and treats Steve like a pariah.  I have to admit, it’s bizarre.”

It’s not bizarre at all. Honesty usually goes unrewarded.





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):


…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.