Category Archives: policy

Handling Teacher Preps

I was initially horrified at my schedule when I first saw it last June. Having since conceded the possibility–just the possibility, mind you–that I might have overreacted, I thought I’d discuss teacher preps.

Preps is a flexible word. A teacher’s “prep period” describes the free period the teacher gets during the day, ostensibly to “prep”are. “I’ll do that during my prep” or “I go get coffee during “prep”. But if a teacher asks “How many preps do you have?”, the query involves the number of separate courses the teacher is responsible for. So a teacher could say “I have no prep, but I’m only teaching one prep–geometry” or “I’ve got three preps and it’s brutal” without explaining which prep is which.

Non-teachers can’t really understand preps properly without realizing something I’ve mentioned frequently: teachers, particularly high school teachers, develop their own curriculum.

Odd that I’m mentioning Grant Wiggins again, but a little over a year ago, he said that too many teachers are “marching page by page through a textbook”. I’m sure that’s true, but said even teachers who march through a textbook using nothing but publisher generated material, make decisions about which problems to work, which test questions to use, and, unless they are literally walking through the textbook as is, which sections to cover. And those are extreme cases. Most teachers that I would describe as “textbook users” still make considerable decisions about their curriculum, including going “off-book”.

So preps are a proxy for workload. A teacher with four preps has a much greater workload than a teacher with one prep.

I’ve taught at 4 high schools (including my student teaching) and observed how many others operate. So this next description is typical of many schools, but variations on the theme occur.

At both the middle and high school level, math teachers are kind of like the swimmers in Olympic sports—we’ve got the most events.

English has many courses, but more of them are electives (journalism, creative writing) and then there’s the “ELL” split that few teachers cross. Most students take a four year sequence by grade, either honors, AP, or regular. Science and history courses add up because unlike math, each course has an AP version. Science has a 3-year sequence that lower ability students take four years to get through; the rest take an AP course in one of the same subjects, or an elective. History has a four-course sequence over three years, and can’t take an AP course again, which is too bad.

High school math has a six-course sequence that students enter at different points–five course if you count algebra 2/trig as one. From geometry on, each course has an honors version. Calculus is generally offered in both general and AP versions AB and BC. Algebra often has a support course. Then there’s statistics and AP Stats, and usually Business Math. Toss in Discovery Geometry. What is that, 17? And unlike ELL vs. regular English, we math teachers cover it all.

English and history high school teachers rarely have more than two preps, often a primary and secondary. I won’t say never. Science teachers are the most likely to have single preps, or general and honors in the same subject, because they have specialized credentials.

Math teachers often have three preps. Larger high schools may have more specialization. Maybe in big schools you’ll hear someone described as a geometry teacher, or a calculus teacher. But that’s just never been the case in any school I’ve seen.

To the degree math teachers do specialize, it’s a range of the 6 year sequence. The most common is the algebra specialist, a gruesome job that others are welcome to. (It’s only been four years since algebra terrors, my all-algebra-all-the-time year, can you tell? I still get flashbacks.) Some algebra specialists have limited credentials and unlimited patience. Others are genuine idealists, determined to create a strong math program from the bottom up. All of them can go with god, so long as I don’t go with them.

Sometimes you find the high-end experts, the ones that teach AP Calc, honors pre-calc, AP Stats, or some combination of. Sometimes these folk are the prima donnas with the math chops. Other times, they just aren’t very good with kids so they get stuck with the most motivated ones—they also teach the honors algebra 2 and geometry courses sometimes, because they just can’t deal with kids who aren’t as prepared or motivated. (No, I’m not bitter. Why would you think that?) And while we don’t have a name for what I do, it’s not uncommon for a math teacher to focus on “the middles”, the courses from geometry to pre-calc.

But not all schools go the category route. Others require all math teachers to cover a low, mid, and high level course in the sequence to be sure that no one gets cocky.

So now, after that explanation of preps, go back to the beginning, when I mention my hyperventilation over easy, familiar preps that I thought would be boring. Many teachers would agree—quite a few colleagues in all subjects commiserated with my dismay. Other teachers consider it rank abuse of power when admins assign them two preps, much less three.

Why? Because some teachers love the additional workload, love building and developing curriculum, mulling over the best way to introduce a new topic. For teachers like me, that’s an essential element of teaching—and repetition, teaching the same content three or four times a day, is so not essential, but rather Groundhog Day tedious. Others see curriculum as something they want handed to them or will do, reluctantly, once. Or, something they’ve honed after umpty-ump years and it’s perfect so they aren’t changing a thing. To these teachers, curriculum is a distraction from their primary job of teaching, the delivery of that curriculum–the job they actually get paid for. Give them the day of the school year, they know what they’re teaching.

If you’ve never really considered teacher preps before, certain questions might come to mind. Does teacher effectiveness (however measured) vary with the number of preps? Does teacher effectiveness vary by subject? (I’ve wondered before if I’m just better at geometry than algebra, for example.) Could we improve academic outcomes by giving weak teachers one prep in a limited subject, and strong teachers multiple preps (assuming we know what that is)? Do teacher contracts negotiate the maximum number of preps that can be assigned? While Ed’s informed assertions are interesting, surely there’s better data that gives a better idea of how many preps high school academic teachers have, on average? Or middle school teachers?

What terrific questions. They all occurred to me, too. And while I’m a pretty good googler, I began to wonder if I wasn’t using the right terms, because I could find no research on teacher preps, no union contracts restricting preps.

Let’s assume that some research has been done, that some contracts exist but escaped my eagle Google. Teacher preps still are clearly not on the horizon. I can’t remember ever hearing or reading a reformer mention them. When I was in ed school, the subject never came up—how to identify the best combination of preps, what number was optimal, and so on. Given how little control teachers have over preps, ed schools may just count it as one more of the nitty-gritty elements of the job we’ll discover later.

Education reformers simply don’t understand the degree to which teachers develop or influence curriculum and the resources it takes. They don’t understand the tremendous range of curriculum development that takes within a school. Moreover, most reformers don’t even understand that preps exist or have any impact on teacher workload. Few of them ever taught at all. So they don’t really know what a “prep” is, and then assume that most teachers rely largely on a textbook. That doesn’t leave them much room to mull.

Researchers don’t discuss preps much, either. I’m not even sure Larry Cuban, who describes teacher practice better than almost anyone, describing here the multi-layered curriculum which explicitly describes teacher-designed curriculum, has never written about preps. Many researchers also tend to confuse textbooks with curriculum.

I wonder if researchers are prone to ignoring high school preps because they would have to acknowledge how questionable their conclusions are without taking preps into consideration. If a researcher compares two high school teachers using a new curriculum, does it matter if one teacher has one prep and is teaching the same topic all day? This may give that teacher more time to adjust, notice patterns, change instruction. Meanwhile, the busy teacher with three preps who is just teaching one class with the new curriculum may just be doing it as an afterthought. Alternatively, teaching one class all day may also bore the teacher to the point of rote delivery, while the teacher with one class jumps in with enthusiasm.

Once I really started thinking about preps from a policy perspective, I became really flummoxed at the lack of play it gets. I may be missing a whole field of research, that’s how odd it is.

Administrators keep preps firmly in mind; whether contracts require it or not, they rarely give high school teachers more than whatever a commonly agreed amount is (usually three). Ideally, they will limit new teacher preps, although my mentee from last year had three preps each semester. Now that I think on it, I had three preps, too. Never mind—they pile it on newbies, too.

If VAM ever gets taken seriously at the high school level (which I find very unlikely), preps are likely to become a contract issue. Teachers being judged on test scores will probably demand a large sample size, which means fewer preps.

Fewer preps for teachers, of course, means far less flexibility for administrators putting together the dreaded master schedule. Ultimately, it means more teachers on the pay roll or fewer courses offered, because fewer preps and less flexibility must be compensated for somehow.

And hey. I just realized that Integrated Math (bleargh) schools have fewer preps. Maybe this is another foul plot of Common Core.

For myself, I do not want limited preps, even if my feet are forced to the fire on the point that hey, I’m really enjoying this easier year. But honesty compels me to point out that preps should be explored for their impact on teacher satisfaction, teacher productivity and–to the extent possible–academic outcomes.

I have no real ideas here. Only thoughts to offer up and see what others have on tap.

However, there’s another issue never far from my mind that perhaps the above mullings cast some light on: that of teacher intellectual property. Stephen Sawchuk just wrote a great piece on various issues in the related arena of teacher-curriculum sharing, and mentioned IP and copyright. I have huge issues with the absurd notion that districts own teacher-developed curriculum, which I’ll save for another post.

But surely this post makes it obvious that if teacher preps vary, then one of two things must be true. Either teachers in the same subject are getting paid the same salary for doing dramatically different jobs–and I don’t mean quality here, just work expectations.

Or teachers are paid to teach, in which case the actual delivery is the same no matter how many preps we have. Teachers then have the choice–the choice–to use the book and supplied materials extensively, or develop their own, to do the job as they determine it should be done. This seems to me to be the obviously correct interpretation of teacher expectations and the “work” they are “hired” for.

And in my world view, teachers are not paid to develop the curriculum, and therefore the district can keep its damn paws off my lessons.


Education Proposals: Final Thoughts

I’m trying to remember what got me into this foray into presidential politics last July.

It’s the age of Trump. Many people I greatly admire or enjoy reading, from Jonah Goldberg to Charles Krauthammer to Charles Murray, are dismayed by Trump. Not I. What delights me about him–and make no mistake, I’m ecstatic–has nothing do to with his views on education policy, where I’m certain he will eventually offend. I cherish his willingness to say the unspeakable, to delight in unsettling the elites. I thought Megyn Kelly was badass for telling her colleagues not to protect her. I also think she’s tough enough to deal with an insult or three from The Donald, and I imagine she agrees. What’s essential is that the ensuing outrage wasn’t even a blip on the Trump juggernaut.

Why, given Trump’s popularity, haven’t other Republican candidates jumped on the restrictionist bandwagon? Why did John Kasich, who I quite like, go the other way and support amnesty?

To me, and many others, the reason is not that the views aren’t popular, but because some vague, nebulous top tier won’t have it that way. The rabble are to be ignored.

This isn’t bravery. Politicians aren’t standing on their principles, looking the people in the eye firmly, willing to lose an election based on their desire to do right. Ideas with regular purchase out in the real world are simply unmentionable and consequently can’t become voting issues. Americans on both sides, left and right, feel that they have no voice in the process. I could go on at length as to why, but I always sound like a conspiracy nut when I do. The media, big business, a vanilla elite that emerged from the same social class regardless of their political leanings…whatever.

And along comes Trump, who decides it’d be fun to run for President and stick everyone’s nose in the unsayable.

I understand that conservatives who oppose Trump are more than a bit miffed that suddenly they’re the ones on the wrong side of the Political Correctness spectrum, given their routine excoriation by the media and the left for unacceptable views. Better political minds than mine will undoubtedly analyze the Republican/conservative schism in the months and years to come.

I don’t know how long it will last or what he will do. I just hope it goes on for longer, and that Trump keeps violating the unwritten laws that dominate our discourse. The longer he stays that course, the harder it will be to instill the old norms. That’s my prayer, anyway.

Anyway. Back in July, someone complained that education never mattered in presidential politics and expressed the hope that maybe Common Core or choice would get a mention. Maybe a candidate might express support for the Vergara decision!

Every election cycle we go through this charade, yet everyone should know why education policy doesn’t matter at the presidential level. No presidential candidate has ever taken on the actual issues the public cares about, but rather genuflects at the altar of educational shibboleths while the Right People nod approvingly, and moves on.

So I decided to demonstrate how completely out of touch the political discourse is with the Reality Primer, a book the public knows well, by identifying five education policy issues that would not only garner considerable popular support, but are well within the purview of the federal government. (They would cut education spending and reduce the teaching population, too, if that matters.)

I support all five proposals in the main, particularly the first two. But my agenda here is not to persuade everyone as to their worthiness, but rather illustrate how weak educational discourse is in this country. All proposals are debatable. Negotiable. We could find middle ground. The problem is, no one can talk about them because the proposals are all unspeakable.

No doubt, the Donald will eventually come around to attacking teachers or come up with an education policy that irritates me. I’m braced for that eventuality. It won’t change my opinion. Would he be a good president? I don’t know. We’ve had bad presidents before. Very recently. Like, say, now.

But if he’s looking for some popular notions and wants to continue his run, he might give these a try. Here they are again:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates

In the meantime, at least let the series serve as an answer to education policy wonks and reporters who wonder why no one gives a damn about education in politics.

As for me, I got this done just an hour before the Starbucks closed. I will go back to writing about education proper, I promise.

Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only

I’ve been sketching out education policy proposals to contrast with the platitudes we usually see from reporters and wonks asking “questions” about “education platforms.” The policies I’m proposing would, alas, be too popular. So they can’t be mentioned.

Onto the fourth.

Last year, when President Obama’s amnesty decree flooded the school system with thousands of relocated students, the DoE and the DoJ issued a stern warning to force remind states to accept these students.


I have long been fascinated by Plyler vs. Doe, in which the Supreme Court held that states cannot deny school funding for educating illegal immigrants. I re-read it periodically to try and grasp its legal reasoning, as opposed to reacting purely as a citizen wondering what the hell the justices were thinking.

Plyler, in brief (sez a non-lawyer):

a) Illegal aliens are protected by the 14th Amendment.
b) Although aliens are not a suspect class and education is not a fundamental right, it’s an important one, so the state must provide a compelling interest for denying children education.
c) Undocumented status alone is not compelling interest.
d) Preserving limited resources for education of lawful residents is also not sufficiently compelling interest, as no evidence was presented that excluding illegal aliens would improve the state’s ability to provide high-quality education.

The Court emphasized their dismay that children were being punished for their parents’ choices. Moreover, the Texas law was enacted in part to discourage illegal immigration, and the Court pretty much decided that denying illegal minors education was a “ludicrously ineffectual” means of achieving this goal.

My reading of Plyler does not suggest that the justices placed an absolute ban on restricting access to a basic education, but rather that Texas had not made the case for it. The Court later denied a illegal minor access to schools based on parent residency (the child was living with his aunt), and of course not even Americans can go to any school they want to. So schools have maintained their right to restrict access, in some situations. Importantly, the Court continued to hold that education is not a fundamental right. In fact, to win a 5-4 majority in Plyler, Justice William Brennan had to keep Justic Lewis Powell on board and this point was a dealbreaker.

While the states have made efforts before to challenge this restriction, (notably California and Alabama), no one seems to have looked at Plyler as a map of what needs to be done.

Any law seeking to restrict access to American schools can avoid triggering Plyer, in my non-legal reading, by not singling out illegal minors or arguing such restrictions could reduce illegal immigration. To get around the Civil Rights Act, the law can’t discriminate by race, religion, or national origin.

So why not restrict public school to citizens?

Restrict Title I and IDEA funding to citizen students. Or, perhaps, withhold funding from all states that don’t restrict access to K-12 schools. Congress could also bring back the Gallegly Amendment with alterations to restrict immigrant access to public schools. Or a federal law could simply hold that no penalties would be imposed on states that restricted K-12 access to citizens.

Rationale: our citizens deserve our best effort and full resources in order to educate and develop our national potential. The expense and resources required to educate immigrants detract from our ability to educate our own citizenry.

The restriction would not discriminate against anyone based on race, income, or national origin. Any citizen born in Africa, Australia, Europe, South America, or Asia is welcome in our schools. Moreover, this law would not eliminate the compulsory education requirements. Immigrants would still have to educate their children in America. They just can’t use public schools.

It’s not as if legal immigrant children aren’t doing their bit to overburden our schools. According to the 2010 census, 2.6 million K-12 students were not born in this country, or about 1 in 20. Assume all but a few are not citizens. Does it matter if they are here legally when considering costs? They aren’t scattered evenly throughout the country. Asians and Hispanics in particular are heavily concentrated in districts and many of these students are not citizens, legal or not. So while only 5% of all students would be denied access, many districts would see substantial cost reductions in doing so.

Remember, too, that states foot the bill to educate all those refugees imported with federal blessings– Bosnians in San Francisco, Somalians in Portland, the Congolese and Bhutans in North Dakota, and the Syrians all over—and what they don’t cover, the federal government does through Title I. Immigrants can also take advantage of “choice” and create their own charter schools with public funds to self segregate.

Employers of skilled immigrants protest that they don’t impose costs, but that’s nonsense. Techies and professors tend to have kids with high test scores, but they still require teachers, classrooms, and services. Many tech-heavy regions have local schools that are from 40-80% Asian. These regions have much higher teacher salaries (and therefore pensions) because immigrants have driven up housing costs, too.

The usual arguments about immigration benefiting the local economy—whether true or not, once externalities are factored in—are irrelevant here, because school expenses are no longer local or even limited to the states.

Taxpayers foot the bill for all those education extras for immigrants, too. Like bilingual education, thanks to the Supreme Court and Lau v. Nichols, which requires that the states provide education in a student’s native language . About half of all ELL students are foreign born, so we could at least cut those costs in half. (Yes, most ELL students are born here. Worse than that, really. A good chunk of them had parents that were born here. In fact, over 50% of high school ELL students are second or third generation.)

Then all the IDEA special education services described earlier are granted to immigrant students as well. Schools have to assume the full costs of “educating” a child with traumatic brain injury, blindness, or executive function processing issues no matter where he was born.

All those immigrants are then lumped into the melting pot of data that the feds and education reformers of all stripes use to beat schools up for the misfortune of having students with low skills and spotty attendance. School services are expected to support students with multiple issues in multiple languages, yet somehow it’s a shock that schools have more employees who don’t teach.

The advantages of this approach go way beyond just reduced education costs and tremendous popularity for the politicians who support it. Corporations and academic institutions would be forced to limit hires to childless immigrants or compensate for private schools as part of immigrant employment. Citizens would be in a better position to compete for jobs. Similarly, refugee organizations would no longer be able to dump traumatized children on an unsuspecting school district; bringing in refugees would require they fund education costs at private school rates. Chain migration efforts would be stymied; bringing family members over is a much more costly endeavor if education costs aren’t covered.

As for illegal immigrants, they’d be more likely to leave their kids back home, being unable to afford private school.

But although this restriction has tremendous potential to reduce immigration, that must not be the point of the legislation, if we follow the Court’s strictures. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg could show their support for immigration by ending their “philanthropy” for public schools and fund scholarships for illegal immigrant children to attend private schools.

Assuming that tech companies and universities keep hiring skilled immigrants, the private education market would expand tremendously to provide services. The same public schools that pay millions to educate immigrants with public funds would be laying off teachers by the dozens, if not hundreds, once the requirement was lifted, so the private schools could pick up staff cheap.

Yes, immigrants pay taxes. But taxpayers, immigrant or no, don’t always qualify for the services they pay for. Immigrants get considerable benefits from coming to America. They can decide whether or not the benefits are worth the price they pay.

Recently, a Twitter follower tried to gently remonstrate with me when I mourned John Kasich’s loyalty oath to the GOP powers that be, the promise that he’s Jeb in all things immigration.

Immigrants are people too, kiddo.

Because the only reason that anyone could possibly have for wanting to limit immigration is a total absence of contact with the people themselves.

In our national immigration conversation, no one seems to get beyond “immigrants are a threat to America” or “immigrants are hardworking salt of the earth”. Rarely in this debate do you hear the voices of people who routinely work and live with immigrants enough to know that immigrants are both, and neither, and everything in between.

As a teacher, I interact daily and meaningfully with kids of every race from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Legal and illegal. Educated and uneducated. Rich and poor. Brilliant, average, and slow. I’m not serving them dinner, making their lattes, helping them negotiate food stamps, handling their visas, or any other one and done service. Nor am I an expert deeply clued in to one particular immigrant community, be it Hispanic, Hmong, or Haitian.

I form sustained working relationships with all the variety, all the time, all at once: Nigerian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican Republic, ethnic Chinese, actual Chinese, Korean, Indian, Bengalese, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Fijian, Nepalese, Afghan, Iranian, Russian, Syrian…the list goes on. I teach them math, talk about the day’s events, get them to listen to me, yell at them when they don’t. I try to figure out how to engage them, help them learn what they care little about. I talk about movies, music, values, politics. I deal with their parents, codeswitching to comprehend different educational value systems with each conversation.

I very much doubt that anyone in the country has more exposure to the reality of immigration in all its many forms—although many others can tie. Most of those others are teachers. None of those others are in public office, much less running for president.

Only those people are as aware as I am that immigrants are people, too.

My students have my love and dedication regardless of their birthplace. I want the best for all of them.

And that’s why our free education should be reserved for citizens.

Every time Congress, the courts, or the voters institute another educational requirement, they are constraining resources, demanding tradeoffs. At the micro level, as a teacher who wants the best for all my students, every minute I spend with an immigrant is a minute I can’t spend with a citizen.

Move from the micro-level on up.

Every textbook purchased, every IEP negotiated, every special ed kid on a dedicated special ed school bus, every free meal provided, every language published in….every service that goes to an immigrant, resources are taken away from citizen students.

Every teacher hired to reduce class size, teach support classes, offer advanced classes, every school resource officer hired to maintain order in high poverty schools, every truant officer hired to keep tabs on absentee students, every school clerk tasked with ensuring federal compliance ….and every pension paid to same…all that money spent on immigrant students removes possibilities for citizens.

It’s very close to zero sum. Everything we spend to service immigrant students in our educationial system is money we can’t spend on citizen students. Not just educational resources for those endless math and reading standardized tests, but custodial resources for clean bathrooms and trash-free campuses, more computer labs, later library hours, better gyms, more auditoriums, fewer participation fees, longer air conditioning, and a whole host of amenities that have dropped off the list of services our schools used to provide for free.

Is it too much to ask that we devote our resources to our own? I ask this particularly for our American students living in poverty. Bad enough, in my view, they compete for jobs and college access with immigrants that our country welcomes, officially or no, without thought to their impact on the economy and labor pool. But even as schoolchildren, our citizens, no matter how needy, are forced to stand in line for time and resources behind those whose parents came here for a job or a safe place to live and have already received tremendous benefits just by being allowed to live here—legally or not.

A larger debate can, of course, be had about school spending. But in demanding so much from our schools, why are they required to take on such enormous responsibilities and expenditures for other countries’ children?

What does America owe its own children?

Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart.

Our national education policy has led to an absurd paradox: colleges charge students full freight tuition for a suite of remedial classes that high schools are effectively banned from offering for free.

The ban is most noticeable in math. Some examples: In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped., giving students and their counsellors no other options. A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult. Many state diploma requirements specify three years of math ending in algebra 2, which means the student must get a passing grade in algebra 1 by sophomore year. Some states just indicate “3 years of math” but a close read of the fine print shows that pre-algebra doesn’t count as a credit, but only as an elective (e.g., NYC, Ohio)

It’s less discussed, but English, history, and science have few differentiators other than Advanced Placement classes, and occasionally honors. This story on Madison’s attempt to detrack their English (and eventually science) classes based on reading scores is so completely typical it’s practically a template of the process of course restriction–just change the locations. All students reading at 9th grade level (which was questionably set at the 40th percentile of 8th grade reading scores) were put in “advanced” classes. Those below the 40th percentile were put in “regular” classes, and 8% of that group were given remedial reading. In other words, all but the genuinely illiterate were expected to understand 9th grade material.

The rationale for this wholesale purging of high school course catalogues is well-documented. States or districts are faced with a dramatic racial gap in test scores, which everyone attributes to the equally dramatic imbalance in high school college track course enrollment. Federal mandates, as well as civil rights organizations armed with class action lawsuits, demand the end to imbalance in enrollment, the better to end the gap in test scores . Unlike other education reforms that take money, training, and buy-in to implement, course catalogs and transcripts are entirely under administrative control. Shazam! The courses many students need disappear, leaving only the college track option.

So students who enter high school with elementary reading skills and no basic math facts are put in exactly the same classes as students with college level reading skills and impatient algebra readiness. Schools are given no ability to offer alternate easier courses except by going the extreme route of declaring the students incapable of participating (that is, putting them in special ed). Students have no choice in their education.

Sadly, the problem was misdiagnosed, in large part because many people want to ignore primer rules 1, 2, and 4. Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged. The data on this approach shows failure that’s not only discouraging but depressingly consistent: But then, as Tom Loveless has observed, the “push … is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence”.

Most people address this issue from the other end, complaining that inclusion of weak students damages the education of stronger students. I agree, and see the results of this every day. Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students. Maintaining rigor requires failure for those who can’t achieve it.

Unfortunately, failure requires blame these days. To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Alas, many students still fail these classes, even given our dedication to keeping them on track despite content that is beyond their capabilities and/or interest. But remember, the schools offer no courses to fall back to after failure. Kids just have to take the subject again.  America spends millions teaching the same kids the same course twice, or even three times, both during the school year and in summer school and other credit recovery programs. Many of them don’t learn much the second time or third time through, of course, but teachers and administrators are fully aware of primer rule #3, which is why we pass them anyway, eventually. That way, at least, they can go to college and get the remedial classes we can’t offer, even if the poor kids will have to pay for them.

Those of you who focus on lost opportunities for the high achievers, I ask you to take a moment and ask yourself what it’s like for kids at the other end, to constantly fail courses that they have no choice in taking, no interest in, and no ability to genuinely understand. And to make it worse, once students are identified as strugglers whose test scores will hurt the school, they’re shoved into “support” classes for math and/or English, stuck for twice as long in classes they already despised. Why even try, when they know that if they stick it out eventually they’ll get a passing grade? And who can blame them?

This must change. High schools need to be able to teach all students at the appropriate pace and content level, which for many doesn’t begin to approach the expectations of our absurd national education policies. Pre-algebra, arithmetic and basic math literacy and general purpose reading and composition are necessary to allow students who needs those skills to acquire them without having to go to college to pay for them. Science and history need to be appropriately gauged as well, so that students can learn basic information at the pace they need.

The many students challenged by these simpler topics will be unlikely to progress to college level work. Ever. Algebra during senior year might often be a worthwhile goal. However, all students, regardless of underlying ability and interest, can learn to use the knowledge and skills they have and we can, indeed must, learn to build curriculum to challenge and extend their capacity. But schools can’t do this while lying about student capacity, which is what schools are forced to do when policies prohibit them from offering a full range of courses that meet student interests at the appropriate cognitive level.

So what can a presidential candidate do? Well, since the states have made these changes in response to federal pressure, a good place to start is get rid of the pressure. Praise the new ESEA bill for returning accountability back to the states. Promise to collect data, but accept that student learning is a complex mix and leave it at that.

Then promise to fund efforts to research and develop challenging yet accessible high school curriculum and course sequences to assist in educating the students who weren’t able to absorb the information from the prior eight years of schooling. Everyone fears that putting students into remedial classes will involve thought-obliterating worksheets piled on one after the other. I’ve taught remedial classes, and have been able to develop or borrow engaging curriculum. But the risk is legitimate.

A presidential candidate can also address the most compelling objection to this proposal: fear that schools will just place black and Hispanic kids into the lowest level classes by default. I think that fear is overrated; I once went looking for the bad old days and couldn’t find many (if any) cases of schools deliberately, systematically putting high-scoring black students into low ability classes. Many schools used test scores, which created the imbalance, as test scores by race always will. However, there’s still a messy middle in which white parents and black parents make different demands for kids with identical test scores, or badly behaved low income students who are nonetheless quite bright are failed by teachers who confuse behavior with ability.. Testing and required placement will help mitigate that risk. The federal government can certainly require proof that schools and districts are appropriately placing students with strong test scores, regardless of race. (States, schools, and districts will need that data to avoid lawsuits.)

But here’s the real education policy proposal for the candidates of 2016: Stop pretending education is the answer to poverty. Many kids who don’t care for school are galvanized by the possibility of a job. Stop offloading national responsibilities onto the schools. Schools can’t give students jobs with good wages. The economy can. Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels, by squashing requests for more H1B visas, scrutinizing citizen layoffs for cheap Indian labor, and enforcing our immigration laws. You build an economy with the workers you have, not the workers you can import at the price you want.

To say this proposal is at odds with the zeitgeist is to reveal how thoroughly at odds the public is with the “white professional ghetto”, as Harold Myerson describes the intelligentsia. The public doesn’t believe that everyone can achieve equally; that’s a delusion reserved for people who’ve never spent time in the schools they want to “fix”.

Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

So if any presidential candidate is out there looking for ideas–particularly you Republicans–here’s my first proposal:

Colleges and universities have been constantly complaining for 30 years or so that incoming students are in dire need of remediation1. These complaints inevitably lead into a conversation about failing high schools, accompanied by fulminations and fuming.

The correct response: Why are remedial students allowed to matriculate in the first place?

It’s not as if the knowledge deficit comes as a surprise. Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test. Those who don’t make that cut have to take a placement test. Community colleges usually cut straight to the placement test. The most common placement tests are also developed by the Big Two ((Accuplacer is SAT, Compass is ACT).

So why not just reject all applicants who aren’t college-ready?

Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard.

Most states (or all?) offer two levels of post-secondary education: college and adult education. As colleges have sought to increase access to everyone who can demonstrate basic literacy (and far too many who can’t even manage that), adult education has withered and nearly died.

Pick a level and split them. My cutoff would be second year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education, which is not eligible for student loans, but we could probably give some tax credits or something for self-improvement.

Adult education could be strengthened by repurposing the funds we now spend on remedial education. The existing community college system could, for example, be split into two tiers—one for actual college level work or legitimate AA degrees, the other for adult education courses, which are currently a weak sister of K-12.

The federal government could enforce this by refusing to back Pell grants for remedial courses in college, as Michael Petrilli and others have called for. State legislatures could arguably just pick a demonstrated ability level and restrict funding to those public universities that ignore it.

Of course, some argue that college is for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This path leads to a complete devaluation of the college degree, of course, but if that is to be the argument, there’s an easy solution. If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

Proposal #2: Put Remedial Classes Back in High School


1College remediation in its present form came about during the seventies, when colleges expanded access largely to give opportunities to blacks and other minorities. At the time, remedial education was dubbed “compensatory”. Believing that socio-economic circumstances and poor schools led to a correctable deficit….well, see, I can stop right there. If you want the whole history, check out CUNY’s version of it; similar responses took place in campuses all over the country. But I don’t have to explain why that was a flawed belief. Just see the primer items 1-4.

Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics

Every election year, someone bemoans the fact that education is never a major factor in presidential politics. This year might be an exception, because of Common Core. But the reality is, presidential aspirants never talk about the issues that really interest the public at large.

Instead, politicians read from the same Big Book Of Education Shibboleths that pundits do.

To wit: Our public schools are a national disgrace with abysmal international rankings. Our test scores that haven’t budged in 40 years. Unions prevent bad teachers from being fired. Teachers are essential to academic outcomes but they are academically weak and unimpressive, the bottom feeders of college graduates. Administrators are crippled because they can’t fire bad teachers. We know what works in education. Choice will save our country by improving student outcomes. Charters have proven all kids can learn and poverty doesn’t matter. And so on.

All the conventional wisdom I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph is false, or at least complicated by reality. Any education reformer with more than two years experience would certainly agree that the public is mostly unmoved by rhetoric about teacher quality, tenure, curriculum changes, and choice—in fact, when “education reform” is a voting issue, the voters are often going against reform.

Education reformers are very much like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: All this time I thought he didn’t want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.  

Yeah, sorry. Your ideas, reformers, they just don’t do it for the public.

So I put together some policies that a lot of the public would agree with and many would consider important enough to make a voting issue. In each case, the necessary legislation could be introduced at the state or federal level.

There’s a catch, of course. These proposals are nowhere on the horizon. But any serious understanding of these proposals will lead to an understanding of just how very far the acceptable debate is from the reality on the ground.

To understand these proposals, a Reality Primer:

1) Some children cannot learn to the desired standard in an acceptable timeframe or, in the case of high school, in any timeframe.
2) The more rigorous the standard, the greater number of students who will be incapable of learning to that standard.
3) As a result of the first two immutable facts, schools can’t require an unbendable promotion standard.
4) By high school, the range of student understanding in any one classroom is beyond what most outsiders can possibly conceive of.

and somewhat unrelated to the previous four:

5) Education case history suggests that courts care neither about reality or costs.

The primer is important. Read it. Embrace it. In fact, if you read the primer and really get on board, you’ll be able to come up with the proposals all by yourself.

Some additional reading to remind readers of where I’m coming from:

I originally had all the proposals as one huge post, but I’ve been really short on posts lately. Here’s the list as I build it:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates

The Day of Three Miracles

I often hook illustrative anecdotes into essays making a larger point. But this anecdote has so many applications that I’m just going to put it out there in its pure form.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.


I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera.

Many of my readers will understand the larger point implicitly. For those wondering why I chose to tell this story now, I offer up Marc Tucker, whose twopart epic on American education’s purported failures illustrates everything that’s wrong with educational thinking today. I would have normally gone into greater detail enumerating the flaws in reasoning, facts, and ambition but that’s a lot of work and this is a damn good anecdote.

Some other work of mine that strikes me as related:

I think I’ve written about my suggested solution somewhere, but where…(rummages)….oh, yes. Here it is: Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat–the last few paragraphs.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

When everyone finally accepts reality, we can start crafting an educational policy that will actually improve on our current system, which does a much better job than most people understand.

But that’s a miracle for another day.

Education: No Iron Triangle

I came from the corporate world, which invented the project management triangle. (“Fast, Good, Cheap: Pick Two.”)

Education has no triangle.

Money, of course, doesn’t work. Just ask Kansas City. Or Roland Fryer, who learned that kids would read more books for money but couldn’t seem to produce higher test scores for cash. Increased teacher salaries, merit pay, reduced class size are all suggestions that either don’t have any impact or have a limited impact….sometimes. Maybe. But not in any linear, scalable pattern.

“Good”? Don’t make me laugh. We don’t have a consensus on what it means. Most education reformers use the word “quality” exclusively to mean higher test scores. Teachers do not. Nor do parents, as Rahm Emanuel, Cami Anderson, Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee have learned. Common Core supporters have had similar moments of revelation.

So until we agree on what “good” is, what a “high quality education” means, we can’t even pretend that quality is a vertex of education’s triangle, even if it existed. We could save a whole lot of wasted dollars if people could just grasp that fact.

Time is an odd one. We never use the word directly, but clearly, politicians, many parents, and education reformers of all stripes believe we can educate “faster”. Until sixty years ago, calculus was an upper level college course. Once the high school movement began, fewer than 3% of students nationwide took trigonometry, between 10-20% took geometry, and the high point for algebra was 57%–over one hundred years ago–then declining to 25%. (Cite.) One of the little noted achievements of the New Math movement was to alter the math curriculum and make high school calculus a possibility. At first, just kids with interest and ability took that path. Then someone noticed that success in algebra I predicted college readiness and everyone got all cargo cult about it. By the turn of the century, if not earlier, more of our kids were taking advanced math in high school than at any point in our history.

And that was before kids started taking algebra in seventh grade. Sophomores take now take honors pre-calculus so they can get a second year of AP calculus in before graduation. Common Core has gone further and pushed algebra 2 down into algebra I.

Yet 17 year old NAEP scores have been basically stagnant for the same amount of time our high school students have been first encouraged, then required, to take three or more years of advanced math.

Not only do we try to educate kids faster, we measure their gain or loss by time. Poor kids of uneducated parents lose two months learning over the summer. CREDO, source of all those charter studies, refers to additional days of learning. Everyone comparing our results to Singapore always mentions the calendar, how much earlier their kids start working with advanced math. These same people also point out that Singapore has a longer school year. Longer school years don’t appear to work reliably either.

Except maybe KIPP, whose success is mostly likely due to extended school hours. KIPP focuses on middle school and has not really been scrutinized at the high school level. Scrutiny would reveal that the program doesn’t turn out stellar candidates, and while more KIPP alumni complete college than the average low income black or Hispanic student, the numbers are reasonable but not extraordinary when compared against motivated students in the same category who attended traditional schools. Particularly given the additional support and instruction hours the KIPP kids get.

So KIPP’s “success” actually adds weight to the NAEP scores as evidence that time–like money and quality–doesn’t respond to the project management constraints.

Kids learn what they have the capacity to learn. Spending more instruction hours will–well, may–help kids learn more of what they are capable of learning in fewer school years. But the NAEP scores and all sorts of other evidence says that learning more early doesn’t lead to increased capacity later. And so, we’ve moved 1979 first grader readiness rules to preschool with considerable success, but that success hasn’t given us any traction in increasing college readiness at the other end of childhood. Quite the contrary.

I probably don’t have much of a point. I was actually thinking about the increasing graduation rates. It’ll be a while until part 2. I’m swamped at work, moving again, writing some longer pieces, and really would like to post some math curriculum rather than detangle my mullings.

But the triangle thing is important. Really.

Take note: under 1000 words. Hey, I have to do it every year or so.

What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao

I didn’t intend to write about the gaokao, or Brook Larmer ‘s profile of 18-year-old Yang and his family inside Chinese test prep factory. I just started out googling, as is my wont, to find out more information than the article provides. I certainly did that.

The novice might find Larmer’s article emotionally draining. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese academic culture will notice a huge, gaping hole.

I noticed the hole, which led me to an observation, which led me to a better understanding of how the gaokao works, which is almost exactly the opposite of its presentation in the American press.

The hole: In a story dedicated to students preparing for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (aka the gaokao) Larmer never once mentions cheating. This would be a problematic oversight in any event, but given the last anecdote, the omission strains credulity.

When Larmer returned to the town for his second visit, the day before the gaokao, Yang’s scores, which had been dropping, had not improved. As a result, Yang had kicked out his mom and brought his grandfather to live with him in Maotanchang for the last few weeks of prep. While Larmer drove into town with Yang’s parents, the grandfather refused to let Larmer accompany the family to the test site. Grandpa was afraid the family might “get in trouble” for talking to a reporter, according to “someone”.

Yang does exceptionally well, given his fears—“his scores far surpassed his recent practice tests”. Sadly, his friend Cao tanks because he “had a panic attack”.

Yang’s scores were considerably beyond what his recent performance had predicted. Yet it apparently never once occurred to Larmer that perhaps Yang and Grandpa prudently got the New York Times reporter out of the way before they arranged a fix. Maybe Yang wanted more aid than could be provided with “‘brain-rejuvenating’ tea”, or Gramps didn’t want Larmer to see Yang wired up for sound, or that he’d really put in some money and paid for a double.

Yang’s performance might have been entirely unaided, of course. But any article about the gaokao should address cheating, even with Gramps banning access.

When I realized that Larmer hadn’t mentioned cheating, I read the piece again, thinking I must have missed it. Nope. But that second readthrough led to an observation.

I got curious—just curious, nothing skeptical at this point—about the school’s gender restriction on teachers. Was that just for cram schools? What was the gender distribution of Chinese teachers?

I couldn’t find anything. No confirmation that the teacher were all male, no comprehensive source on cram schools, no readily available data on Maotanchang. I couldn’t find anything at all about the school’s business practices online. So I went back to Larmer’s paper to look for a source for that fact—and nothing.

And so, the observation: In his description of the school’s interior and practices, Larmer doesn’t mention interviews with school representatives, other journalism, or a Big Book of Facts on Chinese Cram Schools.

The earliest detailed description of Maotanchang online appears to be this August 2013 article in China Youth Daily, a Beijing paper, which created quite a furor in China and largely ignored here because we can’t read Chinese. Rachel Lu, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, restated some key points for those folks who don’t read Chinese, which is nice of her, because what idiot would copy and paste the Chinese piece into Google Translate?

Yeah, well, I’m an idiot. I won’t bore people with the extended version, but a lot of the details that Larmer didn’t seem to personally witness show up in the Chinese story: same school official quoting management theory, teachers using bullhorns, Maotanchang’s 1939 origins, bus license plates ending in 8, burning incense at the town’s sacred tree, teacher dismissals for low scores.

The excitement over the China Youth Daily article generated more interest, like Exam Boot Camp, also written in August 2013, happily in English, which profiled a female student and her mother who provide data points like higher prices for lower scoring students ,lack of electrical outlets, and surveillance cameras in the classroom.

Am I accusing Larmer of lifting tidbits from these other stories? Well, I’d like to know where he got the information.

Leave that aside, though, because reading through these stories looking for sources led me to all sorts of “new things” to learn about the gaokao. These “new things” are readily available online; in fact, anyone can find most of the information in the Wikipedia entry. But you will rarely read these not-in-fact new things, but well-established facts, explicitly laid out by any major media outlet (although now that I know, I can see hints). I don’t know why. I can’t even begin to see how any reporter wouldn’t trumpet these facts to the world, narrative or no.

China’s supposedly meritocratic test is a fraud.

To begin with, Larmer, like just about any other reporter discussing the gaokao, describes it as a “grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities.”

Wrong. The test score is, technically, the sole criterion for admission. But in China, the test score and the test performance aren’t the same thing.

Testers get additional points literally added to their scores for a number of attributes. China’s 55 ethnic minorities (non-Han) get a boost of up to 30 points , although the specific number varies by province. Athletic and musical certifications appear to be in flux, but still giving some students more points, even though the list of certification sports culled from 70 to 17. Children whose parents died in the military and Chinese living overseas get extra points, and recently the government announced point boosts for morality.

Remember when the University of Michigan used to give students 20 points if they were black, and 12 points if they had a perfect SAT score? Well, imagine those points were just added into the SAT/ACT score. That’s what the Chinese do.

But even after the extra points are allotted, test scores aren’t relevant until the tester’s residence has been factored in. Larmer: “The university quota system also skews sharply against rural students, who are allocated far fewer admissions spots than their urban peers.”

I first understood this to mean that colleges used the same cut scores for everyone, but just accepted fewer rural students, without grasping the implications: city kids have lower cut scores than rural kids.

Xu Peng, the only Maotanchong student to make the cut off score for Tsinghua, where the “minimum score for students from Anhui province taking the science exam was 641.”

Two years earlier, the cutoff score for Tsinghua for a Beijing student was somewhere under 584.

Rachel Lu again:” the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu. [rural provinces]. ”

A joke goes:

Of course, don’t make the mistake, as I did, of thinking the cut scores mean the same thing for each student.

Curious about the nature of the studying/memorization the students do (another vague area for Larmer’s piece), I tried to find more information on the gaokao content. The actual gaokao essay questions are usually published each year and they’re….well, insane.

When I finally did find an an actual math question:


it seemed surprisingly easy and then, I realized that it was only for the Beijing test:


Then I went back to the essay questions and it sunk in: the essay questions differed by city.

The gaokao isn’t the same test in every province. Many provinces develop their own custom test and just call it the gaokao.


At which point, I threw up my hands and mentally howled at Larmer, my current proxy for the mainstream American press: you didn’t think this worth mentioning? Or didn’t you know?

If all this is true, then the wealthier province universities use a lower cut score for their residents. But just to be sure, some provinces make an easier test for their residents, so that the rural kids are taking a harder test on which they have to get a higher score. Please, please, please tell me I’m misunderstanding this.

Consider Larmer’s story again in light of this new information. Larmer can’t say definitively who had the best performance without ascertaining whether Yang or Cao got extra points. Both Yang and Cao might both have outscored many students who were admitted to top-tier universities. Cao may or may not have “panicked”, and may not have even done poorly, in an absolute sense. None of this context is provided.

In my last story about Chinese academic fraud, I pointed out that so much money was involved that few people have any incentive to fix the corruption. All the people bellyaching about the American test prep industry should pause for a moment to think about the size of the gaokao enterprise. The original China Youth Daily story focused on Maotanchang’s economic transformation, something Larmer also mentions. Parents are paying small fortunes for tutoring, for cheating devices, for impersonators, for bribes for certificates. All of these services have their own inventory supply chains and personnel. Turn the gaokao into a meritocratic test and what happens to a small but non-trivial chunk of the Chinese economy?

But I’m just stunned at how much worse the Chinese fraud is than I’d ever imagined.

Sure, well-connected parents could probably bribe their kids into college. Sure, urban kids who had better schools that operated longer with educated teachers would likely learn more than those stuck with “substitutes”. Sure, the content was probably absurd and has little relationship to actual knowledge. Sure, the tests were little more than a memory capacity game, with students memorizing essays as well as facts that had no real meaning to them. Without question the testers were engaging in rampant cheating.

But not once had I considered that the test difficulty varied by province, that some kids got affirmative action or athletic points added directly to their score, and worst of all, that a kid from Outer Nowhere who scored a 650 would have no chance at a college that accepted a kid from Beijing with a 500.

Once again, I am distressed to realize that my cynical skepticism has been woefully inadequate to the occasion.

The gaokao isn’t a meritocracy. Millions of kids who live in the wrong province are getting screwed by a test whose great claim to fame is that it will reward applicants strictly by merit. And of course, the more kids who apply to college, the more cut scores and test difficulty will increase–but only for those students from those wrong provinces. Meanwhile, the kids from the “right” provinces have a (relatively) easy time.

In this context, the 2013 gaokao cheating riot takes on a whole new light. If you really want to feel sad, consider the possibility that Yang’s friend, Cao, now working as a migrant, might have scored higher on a harder test than a rich kid in Shanghai.

By the way, could someone alert Ron Unz?

*Note: in the comments, someone who understands this is (bizarrely, to me) fussed over my use of the “rural/urban” paradigm. I was using the same construct that Brooke Larmer and others have. The commenter seems to think it makes a difference. My point is simpler, and I don’t think obscured for non-Chinese readers. But I caution anyone that I’m utterly unfamiliar with Chinese geography.

Strategizing Horror

When I watch TV news, it’s Fox News–well, it usually is, except my current cable company doesn’t offer the channel and I’m moving soon enough that I haven’t bothered to change over. But I was out of town and oh, hey, look, Fox. I didn’t even know what show I was watching when suddenly….

You can see the whole 8 minutes of the Forbes on Fox segment here: Searching for Unifiers.

In a nutshell, David Asman and three panel members–Steve Forbes, David Webb, Sabrina Schaeffer–all observed that what Ferguson needed was more Polly Williams— black Democrats pushing for school choice. The key to fewer Ferguson incidents is educational freedom. Vouchers bring families together because they can’t just be passive recipients. “The people to blame [for Ferguson] are the Democrats and the teachers unions,” thundered Schaeffer. David Asman argues for giving poor parents the $12K it costs on average to educate a public school student, let them use that money for an elite private school to get a real education. (John Tamney, the one voice against the magic choice pill, said that academic outcomes are a result of kids and their parents, and that choice won’t fix that problem.)


So sure, the Forbes on Fox folks sounded like middlebrows because they can wallow in their own nonsense without fear of contradiction, and thus sound like a bunch of yutzes to anyone with a passing knowledge of the research, much less working experience educating poor kids. And remember, I actually watch Fox News, because I’m basically a Republican, if just across the border, and I find such yammering marginally more tolerable than similar nonsense at MSNBC or CNN, so I understand the context.

That’s not the point. Choice is a stupid idea, but whatever.

The point, the part that enraged me to the point that I haven’t done much but write this piece for the past 24 hours, is that Forbes on Fox engaged in political strategizing that I already find incredibly offensive and wrongheaded.

Briefly: Republicans attack teacher unions and exempt cops and firefighters from their cutbacks. These guys–and they are almost entirely white guys—are all given a pass because they traditionally vote GOP. So much better to attack teachers, whose list of job protections reads just like cops and firefighters except teachers don’t get overtime, generous retirement packages at 20 years, or disability, to try and scale back union protections without offending their own base. They can get to cops later—or, more likely, once the protections are scaled back, the cops will lose inevitably, leaving Republicans with cleaner hands. (If the Politico story is any indication, cops aren’t buying.)

This has been dismally ineffective in terms of moving the public opinion needle. Teachers are routinely well-represented in public respect polls–consistently above cops, generally below firefighters (who don’t even fight fires, dammit). Those most likely to attack teachers are politicians or their proxies (lobbyists), journalists, or business execs—all with very low rankings. So when this all gets too aggravating, I remind myself that journalists, politicians and business leaders attacking teachers is analogous to a bunch of carrion crows bitching about hummingbirds, in terms of their professional public respect.

The public policy needle has moved slightly more in their desired direction, but there’s a reason Bill Bennett calls the public education machine The Blob. I suspect, ultimately, that teachers will move off the political hot seat in a few years—possibly after the public is outraged at the utter waste of time and money now known as Common Core.

But to shill this during Ferguson is simply outrageous, for reasons best articulated by Jonah Goldberg. I quite like Goldberg despite his own tendency towards the middlebrow on teachers, as is evidenced in this diatribe on the evils of public unions that mentions teachers twice, the DMV once, and but neglects to criticize Walker for protecting cops and firefighter unions. He wrote a marvelous piece after the Newtown tragedy that you should read, saying What I dislike is the immediate rush to turn the slaughter into an any argument at all.

Yes. Bad enough that on ordinary days I have to listen to both Republican and Democrat politicians preach that education is a “civil rights” issue, that the reason the country must act to purge teachers is because of the immediate need of our disadvantaged youth. Let’s go ask the disadvantaged if their civil rights are violated more by cops or teachers, shall we? You think the high numbers in those “professional respect” polls are all coming from white people?

But when the world is watching riots occur because a white male cop shot a black male teenager, I find it beyond repugnant that Republicans of all ilk (and conservatives, whatever that difference is), decide to use the horror to blame teachers. Christopher Caldwell, another writer I admire, ends his piece with a school slam. Kevin Williamson of NRO blames defective schools 4 times in an article on Michael Brown that mentions—not blames— the police just once.

And no one objects. The left also bewails the schools but not the teachers, so they’re perfectly happy with the segue from–let’s just say it one more time–a white male cop shooting a black male teenager on a public street to see, this is what happens when schools suck for poor kids.

Let it be known that Darren Wilson resigned and was not fired. It would have been near impossible to fire him, as it is near impossible to fire all “bad” cops—because he’s got the gold-plated union protection that everyone in the public debate seems determined to pretend is available only to teachers.

But Darren Wilson isn’t a bad cop, you say. He had reasonable cause to fear for his life. Michael Brown shouldn’t have charged him.

I normally wouldn’t comment, but everyone else keeps dragging teachers into this mess, so I’ll point out that while I’m unqualified to judge Darren Wilson as a cop, I can say without question that using a teacher’s standards, he handled the encounter very badly. I have actual experience facing down very large male teenagers, be they black, white, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. (I suppose there are large male south or east Asians, but frankly I’m considerably more terrifying than the many I’ve met thus far.) I have seen kids of all ages, genders, and incomes go from zero to boiling hot angry in seconds. I have seen kids make their lives miserable by not walking something back, and I’ve learned how to help them walk it back, how to ignore an outrageous insult or a blatant rules violation from a kid with an ankle bracelet who really needs a second, third, or tenth chance to reconsider willful defiance that will earn him a visit with his probation officer.

In Title I schools, the hard truth is that some days, some times, high school teachers face situations not dissimilar to the sort of situation Darren Wilson found himself in when Michael Brown and friend refused to get out of the middle of the road. You see a boy ambling around the courtyard and because you know he spends most of his time outside the classroom, you tell him in no uncertain terms to get back to class and on a bad day, the kid tells to f*** off. Or you tell an angry girl to put something away and she throws it across the room, just missing you (other times, it hits you, but then there’s no walking it back). You see a guy texting during class for the kajillionth time and you sigh and go over to take his phone away, and he smacks it into your hand with an expletive and then flips a pencil in your general direction, claiming it was an accident. All of these situations come from my own experience, and all of them are mild compared to the kids who flip out and physically attack teachers for telling them to put their cell phones away or trying to stop them from selling drugs. Despite these showier cases, we teachers are told constantly do not physically touch students. Even self-defense is incredibly iffy. And while relatively few teachers get attacked and occasionally killed by their students, the poorer the school district the more at risk the teachers are. We deal with obnoxious, angry, offensive, stoned, abusive teenagers as a not infrequent part of our job.

When Darren Wilson told the two kids to stop walking down the middle of the street and they mouthed off, he was dealing with irrational pain in the ass teenagers, quite possibly stoned or otherwise high, and that’s my turf, baby. And what you don’t do, if you are thinking about that teenager and your own responsibility to that teenager, is physically block the teenager to try and get him to follow your orders. You don’t want to ignore the slight, because that way lies a whole different side of crazy that we can’t have.

Here is a possible reaction from the viewpoint of a teacher, just to illustrate. You GET OUT OF THE DAMN CAR. You stand at a distance, stop all movement, and say, loudly, “HEY. What did I just tell you to do?”

“F*** OFF! I told you we’d be off soon!”

“Yeah, well SOON doesn’t protect you if a car comes by and for reasons passing understanding I don’t want you to get run over. So finish crossing the street!”

There are many things that could happen from that point, from grudging or even laughing obedience to the same headlong charge that ended Brown’s life. If Michael Brown charged me, I couldn’t get out my gun and start blasting. I’d just run or get in the car and drive away or get help or whatever, satisfying myself that he’d probably end up in jail because I’d sure as hell press charges.

I am not suggesting this as an alternative reaction for Wilson. Teachers are legally and morally responsible for the well-being of their students. Protecting students is their top priority. Darren Wilson isn’t a teacher. He’s a cop, responsible for public safety, and for a number of good reasons, public safety is determined to be best served if cops feel safe and unthreatened, which means challenges to their authority are akin to a death threat. He doesn’t have to help kids walk it back. He has a gun. Like anyone, cop or no, he can use that gun if he reasonably feels his life is in danger. Juries take a very broad view of “reasonable”, as we’ve seen time and again. One could say that Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.

This is why I laugh when politicians–usually Republicans–suggest that arming teachers could prevent another school shooting. Insane nutjob shooting up a school happens once every so often, scattered around the country. Teachers being put in fear of their lives happens every day. Give teachers guns, and “school shootings” will start to have a very different meaning. Which is why I think it’s a stupid idea despite being a second amendment purist.

Education is complicated. It’s incredibly difficult to educate those who have no interest or ability. School choice will not make kids polite to white cops. It won’t stop them from bullying liquor store clerks. It won’t make them any less likely to commit petty theft. It won’t get them better test scores, even if they were able to go to the best private schools, which is very unlikely. Elite private schools, or even expensive suburban public school districts, will never willingly corrupt their environments with low-income brats who walk down the middle of the street for no other reason than to inconvenience people with the wherewithal to purchase automobiles. The only schools that will take such kids are those legally required to do so: the public schools who do their best to educate those with no interest and ability (they do a pretty good job educating low income kids with one or the other, by the way). Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away..

Slamming teachers for the same job features that cops get a pass for purely to achieve a limited political objective is mildly irritating. Blaming teachers and schools in any way for the events in Ferguson is pretty pathetic. I’m amazed that elites on both sides of the spectrum seem to think it acceptable discourse.


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