Category Archives: policy

ELL isn’t Language Instruction

I’ve only taught English once in a public school (a humanities class), but I’ve been teaching private instruction English for a decade. Language instruction it’s not. I took French for a few years, and vaguely remember having to study verbs, and verb forms. Something about subjunctives. Unlike my father, I’m terrible at all new languages that don’t tell computers what to do.

I thought teaching English as a language was more structured.  Start with common verbs, the “persons”–I eat, you eat, he/she eats, they eat. Then common nouns. Then put things together? Isn’t that how it works? In other languages?

But then, French teachers speak English. Or Russian. Or whatever their students’ native language is–and a French teacher’s students only have one native language. You don’t see French teachers in American classrooms playing to a class of Punjab, Chinese, Spanish, and English students. Nor is the French teacher expected to be utterly ignorant of Punjabi, Mandarin, Spanish and English–yet still teach the students French.

Yet here I am with six students, only two of whom have even minimal conversational English, with four native languages. I’m not supposed to teach them English like a French teacher teaches French. Nor am I supposed to teach them English or anything else in Spanish, Punjabi, Chinese, or French as it’s spoken in the Congo.

American schools have never taught the English language.  Many education reform folk–and most non-experts–glorify immersion, our original method of handling language learners. Dump kids in, let them learn the language. That worked, right? Well, maybe not. Lots didn’t learn.  They just dropped out. As Ravitch the historian (not the advocate) observed, America’s past success educating immigrants has been dramatically overrated. (The immigrants’ children did well, but why we can’t expect that today is a tad Voldemortean for this essay.)

Giving additional services to non-English speaking students  became a public education mandate with Lau vs. Nichols.  But after the Chinese Lau, the case history shows that all major bilingual court cases involved Hispanics.

First, the Aspira case built on Lau, as  New York City signed a consent degree to provide bilingual education to limited English Puerto Rican students until they could function in regular classes. This led to a de facto mandate for nationwise bilingual education, and created the infrastructure of support. Not the curriculum, of course. (Ha, ha! Heaven forfend!)

One of those court cases was also one of the heads of the hydra known as US vs. Texas , which has a long, controversial history much of it not involving bilingual education. But at one point presiding judge  observed that the “experts” were appalled that Hispanic ELL students had only to reach the 23rd percentile in order to be reclassified as fluent.  The kids would only be doing better than 1 in 4 kids, wrote the judge, which simply wasn’t enough to perform adequately in mainstream classrooms. The judge never considered that black students aren’t given all this additional support, despite similar or worse test scores. We still don’t.

Anyway, as a result of that court case,  many if not all of states require ELL students to be proficient on achievement tests before they can be reclassified.  Proficient.  Often above average. Not basic. Different states have different procedures, different standards, but “proficient” is usually mentioned. And remember that ELL is only nominally concerned with teaching non-English speakers, since ELL students are primarily citizens.   Kids are asked  if  English is the only language spoken at home. Those who say “no” get tested, and if they don’t test proficient, they get tagged ELL and stay ELL until they do.  Schools don’t care–arent’ allowed to care–if the student came to America yesterday, a decade ago, or through a womb.

As I’ve written before, in math as it is in English, elementary school “proficiency” is much easier to acquire than the skill required for high school. It is thus much easier to test out of  ELL elementary school, regardless of original language, than high school. Most elementary ELL students test out after two or three years. Those who don’t make it out are categorized “long-term ELL”, meaning they’ve been ELL for over five years and never made proficient. Left unsaid is that kids need a certain cognitive ability to hit those test scores.

Thus by high school, over half the long-term ELL students are US citizens, split evenly among second and 3rd generation Americans who consider English their native language but have  lower than average cognitive ability or some specifically verbal processing issues. These are the kids who weren’t able to meet the relatively low elementary school proficiency standards. The other 44% are foreign born kids who couldn’t test out in the first five years.  It’s unlikely that either group is going to escape ELL in high school.

Consider: the primary reason for sheltering ELL learners once they’ve achieved functional fluency is to avoid kids being stuck in long term ELL. But there’s no solution to the “problem” of long-term ELLS, save accepting it as an artifact of an entirely different attribute.

If you’re following my dispirited trail of musings, you might be wondering if the elementary school proficiency levels are so low, then shouldn’t some of the kids who escape ELL status early run into trouble in high school?”   And to quote Tommy Lee Jones: Oh wow. Gee whiz. Looky here! Many Reclassified ELLs Still Need English-Language Support, Study Finds and points out that this finding is consistent with past research.

If you aren’t following my dispirited traill of musings, you’re thinking this has nothing to do with my assigned task of teaching English to one African, two Chinese, two Mexican, and one Punjabi student.

Sorry, I’m just explaining why I don’t teach English language instruction in an English class of kids who don’t speak English.

ESL and bilingual education from its earliest days was never intended to instruct students in the English language. It was actually a means of directing funding to close the Hispanic achievement gap for English speaking Hispanics which–it was believed–was due to inadequate academic instruction in English.   ELL’s purported objective is to provide support to non-English speaking students until they are proficient. Its actual  purpose is, first, to define a category that reports the academic achievement of  primarily Hispanic US citizens of lower than average cognitive ability–the better to beat our schools up with. Second, the classes gives the kids something to do until immersion gives them enough English to be mainstreamed, or at least into a higher ELL class.

So just as before, ELL teachers don’t provide English language instruction. Kids don’t come to America with a six word vocabulary and take English 1, followed by English 2, then English 3, and then AP English because hey, now they’re fluent.

When I express the concern   that I’m not teaching the kids English, I’m just giving them vocabulary and grammar enrichment in a sheltered English class, other ELL teachers and the admins nod their heads approvingly and say “You’re doing a great job!” Because ELL is not about teaching the English language.

Then I look at these six kids–and really, they’re terrific. In an ideal world, I’d never question my assignment. They’re a joy to teach and I’ll do my best for them. But only one of them is a citizen. Collectively, they are consuming one third of three English teachers’ schedule–that is, one full-time position at our school is dedicated to giving language enrichment to five non-citizens. All across America you’ll find thousands of these sheltered classes, for kids who just got here and instantly given free and guaranteed access to small classrooms and support in lessons that may or may not teach them the language, but gives them something to do in school until their English gets good enough for academic instruction. Which will–again–happen outside these classes, because lord knows, we’re not involved in language instruction.

I think of the millions of citizen kids. Of the bright high schoolers who could use challenging enrichment, maybe digging in deep to a Milton sonnet because they have the ability to do something more than fake their way through interpretation in carefully modeled  Schaffer chunks.  Of the many citizen students from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who didn’t check the “another language spoken at home” box and thus are not given additional time and money….not to get higher test scores, but just spend time with a teacher reading them a story and talking about vocabulary and context at a level they can enjoy. Every day. Of the many citizens from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who are told for their entire k-12 education that their native language isn’t, in fact, their native language.

Of course, whether or not we should be spending this kind of money on non-citizens never comes up. All we ever debate is whether we should use immersion or follow Krashen’s dictates and instruct every 1 in 20 kids in their native language. See, dedicating one full English position to six kids is the cheap version, the one favored by conservatives and most taxpayers. Bilingual advocates want native language instruction, which would further reduce class size from six to one or two, in every language we run into in our public schools.  Of course, we don’t have enough qualified teachers in each language, but since we can’t have perfection, at least  it’s a great way to boost employment in immigrant communities. So not only do we spend more resources on the kids, but the schools often provide more employment to the communities. As for citizens, well, you know, being bilingual is important. You should have studied more.

The entire debate about bilingual education vs. immersion is a canard. Of all the many education debates that aren’t as they seem, none wastes as much time,  money, and resources as that of the ludicrously named English Language Learner.

No one is asking whether we should be doing this at all. Well. I am. But then, I’m no one.

Someone, somewhere, will furiously argue that I’m “pitting brown students against each other”.  No. That’s what ELL does. And not just to kids of color, either.

Cynical? Scratch the surface of any ELL program and see how far off I am. Don’t listen to what they say. Go look at what they do.

Not sure if this piece has a point.  In math, I don’t have to think of this too often.

At the end of the day, I remind myself that I like the job, the boss folks like what I’m doing, and regardless of what you call it, this is a hell of a lesson.


End of Education Reform?

Four years ago, I first described the parallels between cops and teachers. A year after the election, I wrote about unions and asked, again, why the GOP was so intent on attacking teacher protections when cops and other government workers get the same advantages. I mean, even the bitching about gender imbalance is ridiculous, since law ennforcement is far more male than teaching is female.

Then came Ferguson and the start of a bizarre microtrend. Conservatives began this absurd habit of blaming teachers and crappy schools for black kids getting shot by white police officers and ensuing riots. “Choice would end this chaos!” they’d thunder. I’m paraphrasing, but as the sources  show, I’m not exaggerating.

So I’ve been writing about the parallels* between these two jobs since the early days of this blog. But I also—rather presciently, I must say—observed that “acceptable targets change over time” and that maybe we teachers should hunker down and wait for cops to take their turn in the hot seat again.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the pendulum has swung back, if teachers are getting a breather while the cops take the bulk of the scrutiny.

Just four years ago when I wrote my first essay, cops were politically beyond reproach by either party. Since Ferguson, our police forces are increasingly under rhetorical attack, and the Democrats are “balancing” their comments less often. Those on the right are starting to make noises about police unions. Moreover, while the  attempts to prosecute the police officers for high profile shootings have failed, the pressure to bring these efforts has increased.The brutal murders in Dallas, Baton Rouge of course add to this horrible climate.

Meanwhile, the new K-12 education law replacing the reform-designed No Child Left Behind, has utterly dismayed reformers on both right and left by stripping away a lot of federal control and leaving education back to the states. Conservatives, who gave birth to the reform movement, are now unhappy because social-justice warriors have taken over education reform.

Let’s take a look at the three legs of education reform:

Testing? Extremely unpopular, particularly with suburban whites–and if suburban whites aren’t testing, then there’s no benchmark to beat teachers up for when the black and Hispanic students don’t meet it. Kidding. Kind of.

Teacher value add measurements? Reformers are forced to argue that the American Statisticians Association supported VAM because it says that “teachers account for about 1 percent to 14 percent of the variability in test scores”. As I wrote earlier, I don’t think VAM will last much longer. Teachers are being judged by test scores in some states, but the energy is on rolling back those laws, not adding more states to the list.

Student achievement gap? Jerry Brown actually said hey, someone’s got to be a waiter. Stop waiting for me to close the achievement gap. Ain’t going to happen. The man went unscathed after this heresy. I’m still shocked. But the thing is, once people start rejecting standardized tests, demanding other solutions to “the gap” is sure to follow.

Or, as this paper asked: Can High Standards and Accountability Exist? Their answer: Not easily. My answer: No.


I’m not rehashing the Common Core wars. I will remind you, however, that the governors and education reformers never really cared about the curriculum unless it would drive accountability. As of today, just 20 states are using the Common Core tests. The rest have opted for less stringent metrics.


Choice lives! Well, kind of. Barack to Hillary is a huge step back for reformers. Barack, Arne, and John King were all “neo-Democrats” on education, which means teachers didn’t like them much. Hillary is very popular with teacher’s unions, even if the teachers themselves wanted Bernie. But neither Bernie nor Hillary are big on choice.

The Donald? The most attention an education policy got at the RNC convention was Donald Trump Jr’s line comparing teacher tenure to Soviet-era stores and then only because his speechwriter had used it in an earlier column. Kind of like Carol Burnett: “Don’t pollute, folks!” Puppy chow for conservatives. It’s not a random happenstance that the presidential candidate most dedicated to traditional education reform barely finishied in the top five and is   back pitching the same old ideas that the GOP voters didn’t even bother to consider before rejecting.

Choice will stay around, but I don’t see it having a strong supporter in the White House.

The philanthropy may be shifting, too. Bill Gates admits he’s spent millions on schools to little effect. Mark Zuckerberg wants to convince us that his $100 million in Newark wasn’t wasted, but most of the world thinks he got schooled. So the “billionaire philanthropists” are backing off of education.

But Michael Jordan has just donated $2 million to non-profits in what is clearly a thoughtful and hopeful effort to support community policing.  Perhaps his act is a one-off–or perhaps we’ll see more wealthy African Americans funding ideas and programs that benefit both urban youth and the police serving their communities. I wish them more success than the billionaires had with schools.

Education reform, the era that began with Nation at Risk and traveled through the explosion of choice, the testing era of No Child Left Behind, the imposition of Common Core–well, it may be over. We’ll still have choice in urban areas where many desperate parents are willing to submit to absurd behavior standards in order to get some semblance of peer selection. Voucher programs will have periodic disruptions. I suspect, though, that ongoing regional teacher shortages  will limit charter expansion (same amount of kids, more teachers). I wonder if the public will ever notice that private schools get created simply to grab the voucher money, and whether they will find it unseemly. Or maybe vouchers will continue to exist as a way for parents who can afford tuition to get a discount. Ed tech will continue to disappoint. But I see more of a whimpering out over years, not a sudden bang, if I’m not nuts about this.

And if I’m nuts, well, at least one of the granddaddies of education reform, Checker Finn, agrees with me.

I’m not gloating, not about the potential end of reform and certainly not about the increased scrutiny and pressure that’s being placed on our police forces. I just sense a shift. We’ll see.


*I don’t overstate the parallels.The police are tasked with public safety with all the demands that entails.  We teachers are charged with education and student safety while they’re in our purview. Those are non-trivial differences; the police are compensated with higher pay, overtime, easier access to disability, and better pensions. I’m not complaining.


**I’m in a new phase, apparently, where my new essay ideas come from my tweet storms.

Vocational Ed: Advancing the Debate

(note: I’m calling it vocational ed in the title, but throughout will use career/tech, career ed, whatever.)

In my last post I discussed the reason that skilled career/vocational education training has declined–which is not because schools themselves sneer at anything less than college. For those who keep griping about the “disdain” America shows “the trades”, I hope the last essay provides a better understanding of the tensions involved. Increasing investment in skilled non-college education will require addressing the concerns raised there.

So I thought I’d give it a shot. Here’s what I won’t take on:

  • Whether career/tech ed is worth it–This Post story shows that getting a certificate from community college only increases income by $1500/year, which is far better than getting the credential from a for-profit school, which loses people $900/year. Wait, what? For other minds than mine, though.
  • Business involvement—certainly, businesses will benefit and thus should fund part of this effort. I’m not sure how, though, and again, turn over to other minds.
  • Currency–how do you keep the offerings current? When does it make sense to put resources into training people for a new field? How are winners and losers declared?

All outside my ken. Designing these features hold no interest for me. Because if the system doesn’t address the disparate impact issue I discussed here, then it will ultimately fail either through lawsuit or lack of interest.

A couple years ago, I offered educational solutions, or at least options, for students of middle to low cognitive ability, in Just a Job. The programs I sketch out could easily be included in this program.

I envision “career” or “skills” training, as being designed for cognitive ability levels a bit above and a bit more below average. If using IQs, from 85 to 105.

Ban college-level remediation

Right now, we spend millions, at least, on students who are incapable of doing genuine college level work. We loan them money to take courses for which they will get no credit—loans which they will often be incapable of paying back. We spend money on instructors, on space, on curriculum. We deny increased opportunities to qualified students in the form of reduced schedules, thanks to the increased costs of remediation.

Increasing the opportunities for vocational/career training requires setting a standard for college access. We have to stop spending somewhere in order to pay for expanding vocational options. Freeing up the wasted money on wasted college spending is a good place to start. I lay out the case in the attached link.

Increasingly people push to do away with remedial education, which would mean colleges wouldn’t be forcing students to take remedial courses. Marc Tucker, for example, thinks it’s unfair that community colleges require their students to know any advanced math, since the jobs they’ll take on won’t need that math.

But if advanced math isn’t needed for the job, then why is the job requiring college? As I said at the end of the original essay: 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?

(OK, you have to be wondering if I’ve noticed that banning remediation is the Mother Of All Disparate Impact Lawsuits waiting to happen. I did. The rest of the proposal is designed to withstand all but the most illogical objections.)

Limit the scope of community college.

Most states offer three levels of vocational education: high school, community college and regional career centers. The last two are far more extensive than high school programs. Community colleges have appropriated many trade credentials (cosmetology, dental hygiene, auto-mechanics, etc). Low cost, but with often absurd waiting lists, community colleges attach many general education requirements to maintain the illusion of college and an AA degree.

That’s in addition to community college’s original mission: to provide an affordable method of taking general ed courses that will transfer to a four year college or provide stand alone associate degrees. Moreover, community colleges own the bulk of remedial education.

So in this new world, community colleges should be required to dump remedial education, which should be returned to adult education (more on that in a minute). Community colleges should only accept college ready students, as defined in the first step.

I can’t say conclusively that all career training should be removed from community college, which Wikipedia says handles 30% of all CTE. Some career training may have a significant academic requirement that warrant an associate’s degree. But if we are to develop meaningful non-college career training, it can’t be in college, which has a wide range of priorities and is also motivated to devote resources to immigrants.

Increase adult education funding.

Banning college remediation would be incredibly controversial. Many will correctly point out the disparate impact of this ban, that it’s funding higher education for predominantly white and Asian kids. What they wouldn’t mention is that restricting college for the qualified, regardless of race, would improve access and resources for the qualified low income students, again regardless of race.

However, everyone should have the opportunity to become college ready. Not everyone “gets it” the first time, and others finally decide to get serious about the brains they were given. All remediation, K-12 education that simply improves abilities or helps prepare for college, must be shifted to the adult education category, currently funded out of the K-12 budget but now (I hope) would have its own category.

Centralize training programs at the regional level

Someone’s going to ask why not private training programs. Go away and leave me be.

So community colleges should retain their original academic mission for college ready students. Adult education should include both adult remedial education institutions (which would be repurposed community colleges) and the regional career training centers. As I mentioned, many states offer these regional training centers already. These centers offer the best solution to skills education that crosses boundaries from high school to early college—and beyond, for those returning to the trades. All those in the area could attend their local center or apply for a center in another region, much like applying to local vs out of state public colleges today. Students can attend a combination of high school/college and regional trade school as needed.

Critically, students opt in to career training. If the students choose to enter the trades, high schools can’t be held responsible for sending them there. This reduces the potential for racism charges.

Increase resources, reduce selectivity

Today, thanks to the scarcity of career tech vocational programs, at least half the kids accepted are more than smart enough for college and would easily pass a placement test. But if step 1 is implemented, college is going to be much more challenging and college readiness will be a much bigger deal, particularly for those who can achieve it easily.

The “lower half” or more of the kids accepted to these selective programs are generally ambitious, hardworking dedicated kids who know they aren’t academic, but understand they need to have a good GPA. They stay focused. They work hard. They get internships. They get accepted into journeyman positions or move onto the next level of trade schools. They do this with the blessing and support, the letters, the advice, the guidance of their teachers and administration who—please know this—do not sneer at their career choices.

But if these rigorous, selective career and technical programs only accept the kids dedicated and focused enough to avoid all manner of screw-ups, the kids who schlep around, get suspended a few times, flunk math because they think the teacher’s a jerk, have shut themselves out of these options, often before they’re old enough to take advantage of them. Others start out motivated, then lose focus and can never get back on that path.

So “career-technical training”, voc-ed, or whatever you call it, is an excellent option for a lot of low-to-mid cognitive ability kids, but we have to recognize certain realities. These kids will be disproportionately, but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. These kids won’t always be perfectly motivated with spotless resumes.

Keep standards realistic, but challenging. Give kids a reason to work hard to qualify for a program that interests them. Then, be absolutely sure there are seats available for the qualified kids.

Qualify for skilled training using the ASVAB

Elites tend to think anyone not as smart as they are exist in a vast undifferentiated blob. Firefighter, plumber, truck driver, fast food worker–it’s all the same. But in fact, “the trades” encompasses a wide range of cognitive ability levels, and creating a fair means of ensuring rigor in the programs. The military’s ASVAB would be well-suited for this.

And–key plot point–students who need to work and study to qualify for a higher score can use the adult education program to get the support they need.

Build economies around the career centers

Remember, Brooks wants high schools to provide career and technical training so that their students can train and then leave the area. Given the expense of career tech, what states would willingly fund programs to train kids to leave the state?

But if the career centers themselves can rejuvenate–or at least bolster–a weak economy, it might not seem so pointless.

For example, West Virginia could place specialized regional centers in its ten poorest counties, each one focusing on a rigorous technology. Maybe not all–or even some–of the locals can qualify for the technology, but the center itself would provide jobs. The trainers and teachers relocated to the area would spur some growth as well.

Invest in the students

I don’t know if it makes more sense to subsidize career training through low-cost tuition or low-cost loans. Probably some of both. Certainly remedial education should be inexpensive and readily available (although we should not fund living expenses for remedial ed). Essential, though, is the understanding that the investment spigot isn’t shut off for kids who aren’t eligible for college. If, as I suggest, we close off college for many, the money saved must be spent not only on increasing resources for low-income college-ready students, but also on training and investment for students who won’t be going to college.

So there’s the broad outline.

Mentioned briefly here, but the main point of my tweet storm and Just a Job: restricting immigration is essential to invigorating the job and training market for the low skilled. (Note to Brooks: Rick Hess, AEI point man on education, pointedly observed a federal role for education that you might want to write about next time.) Until such time as we finally dramatically restrict immigration, we should at least limit our investment to citizens. Not just the loans, either. (To reiterate, I don’t hate immigrants. But they have no place in our educational system these days. Too expensive.)

We need to advance the debate on skills training, from say age 16 and older. We need to get beyond the tired tripe of “education needs to stop demonizing blue collar work” and start understanding why so few options exist. The only people glorifying college are the progressive and conservative elites. Us proles in the middle are just fine with jobs.

But if we are to start dealing with the difficult challenges that come with a diverse society with wide ranges in cognitive ability, motivation, and needs, then we need to stop the combination of “everyone can succeed” happy talk and “schools SUCK!” condemnation that consumes the discourse today.

Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.


Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity, which mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

Keep in mind that the US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update , dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant. Everything is irrelevant, there sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor. So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:


Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.

Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

A couple weeks ago, I left halfway through the day after having felt awful for 3 days. I thought perhaps I needed another inhaler. The doctor yelled at me for ignoring a strep infection. I protested, went home, watched TV. Still contagious, I woke up super early, snuck into school, got the quiz ready, left notes for my student teacher, and then tried to request a sub before leaving but it was past the deadline. I didn’t follow the correct procedure, having never once called in sick before at this school. I did know to call the principal’s secretary, She Who Runs Everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and grovel for screwing up her day, since she’d have to hunt down the sub. She yelled at me, too. I went home again, watched TV. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to Not Teach when you hurt. Apologies, by the way, to any one who caught strep from me. I wasn’t being noble; most of the time I go to the doctor they tell me I’m not sick.

I have now taken 1.5 sick days in four years; 4 days total in 7 years. I have something like 60 accrued days. As I’ve said, handling the teacher perks took some adjustment.

And so, we come to Teaching Oddness #3.

In order to understand teaching and absences, consider the many ways in which teaching absences are profoundly different from any other profession’s:

  1. The teacher can’t make up the time.
  2. The teacher can’t swap an absence with a colleague.
  3. A school can’t “work short”. Each class has to have a legally authorized adult present. Therefore every teacher absence incurs a direct expense to cover that absence.
  4. The substitute is in almost every case not as good as the teacher.

Remember, teacher days are already extremely restricted.In most traditional schedule schools, teachers get no more than an hour off during the day, and even in block schedules the max time off is 90 minutes. We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement.

Does any other profession operate with these constraints? I don’t think so. Yes, employee absence often creates expense, but not in such a brutally one-for-one fashion.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a while back, but have always wanted to revisit.

So let’s take the Teacher A and Teacher B case and make it a bit clearer. Note: I’m adding in PD for days worked, and just using $100 for costs when it’s probably higher, but this is just for illustration. And knowing me, I screwed this up, so put any corrections in the comments.

  Teacher A Teacher B
Salary 63,000 63,000
Sick Days 10 0
Days Worked 172 182
Actual Daily Pay 366 346
Daily Sub/Admin Cost 100 0
Yearly Replacement Cost 1000 0
District Total Cost 64,000 63,000
Per Day 352 346

So on a yearly basis, Teacher A is paid more per day worked, and costs the district more per day worked. Teacher B gets to accrue the sick leave, meaning that he or she will ultimately get paid more for the unused time, and take it as either a cash buyout or a pension increase, depending on the state. I am ridiculously fuzzy on these details for my own state, and I should get on this, because for all I know I’m losing days by hitting an accrual limit.

Some facts generally agreed to: female teachers are absent more than male, high-poverty schools see more absences than low-poverty schools. Elementary school teachers are absent more than high school teachers. The Clotfelter analysis is still the best resource, I think.

Every so often, reformers argue that accrued sick leave is a calamitous pension expense; other times reformers complain about teacher absences. Chris Christie, in his various tangles with government workers, says sick leave should have no cash value”.

I mean, that’s just idiotic. Corporate America has largely ended paid sick leave precisely because employees know better. Of course sick leave has cash value. Look at Teacher A and Teacher B. Teacher B is working more days for the same money, despite costing the district less—and that’s without taking into account the learning loss accrued by the students of absent teachers. Why should Teacher B tolerate this inequity?

I understand the pension problem. I just don’t see how anyone can seriously propose a solution that values teachers who take their sick leave more than teachers who don’t, given the constraints. (Let’s stipulate that teachers with strep should take their sick leave.)

My personal solution, as a teacher who doesn’t get sick, is pay us a good bit more and then actually dock us slightly for absences–say, the cost of a sub and an administrative fee. And I mean, pay us a good deal more because Chris Christie, despite his Trump endorsement, is a moron if he thinks sick leave has no value for any employee, much less employees in a job requiring a legally authorized adult presence in every classroom.

That’ll go over big. I know.

But absent teachers cost more and negatively affect student learning. I’m not blaming sick teachers. It’s a benefit, so use it. And I haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that districts will use school days for professional development, instead of putting it after school or on weekends and pay teachers a bit more.

I get it. But any restriction of pension or sick leave accrual is hurting the teachers who cost less and maximize student learning. Restricting the payment for additional time on the job predictably would lead to all teachers using all their sick leave every year. We could shorten the school year, given the number of teachers who’d just take off for the last two weeks.

Either way, take away the accrual or some form of compensation, and much as I hate it, I’ll just get better at sub plans.

So next time you read a proposal or jeremiad on teacher absenteeism, please remember the constraints above. Ask yourself what you’d do if someone was getting paid for fewer days on the job than you, without penalty—and all you had to do in order to get the same deal was take more days off.

Curriculum Development: Not Work for Hire

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Teacher contracts spell out their time commitments, which are the time in the classroom, staff and department meetings, supervisories, and mandatory professional development. No contracts hold teachers responsible for developing their own curriculum. A teacher is welcome to teach day by day from a provided textbook, or eschew a textbook altogether. They are not evaluated on the strength of their curriculum development in any way, nor can they be required to improve performance on this point. (More about this here.)

  2. While districts have begun to claim copyright, districts have never paid each other for teacher-developed curriculum. I have been in three districts. Like all teachers, I have a directory of my own curriculum, and I’ve carried it from school to school without any district ever informing me I couldn’t–much less demanding payment from my new district for use of their copyrighted curriculum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Oddness #2: Teach More, Get Paid More

Today, the topic is a teaching oddness I have taken regular advantage of. Like many teaching oddnesses, it exists primarily at the high school level.

High schools determine staffing requirements based on the number of sections the district gives them. The administrators divide the sections by the contractual class load—very often five, for six-period days. In our school, it’s three. (Yes, we teach three 90 minute classes and one 90 minute prep, and then we start all over again mid-year.)

So suppose our school has 192 sections and divides it by 3, meaning they need 64 full-time staffers, but they only have 62 teachers, so six sections are unassigned. Three of the extra sections are math, two English, one history.

Rather than hire extra teachers, the administrators just hand out the extra sections and we get paid for the extra work Some teachers don’t get paid very much more (this article actually shocked me). Others get paid on a schedule like this, stolen at random from an Irving, TX district:


But every school I’ve worked at, the extra teaching duty pay schedule denominator is reduced by one. Teaching an extra class in a 6-period schedule results in a 1/5 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 7-period schedule results in a 1/6 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 4-block schedule results in a 1/3 pay boost. That’s what my principal told me, anyway, the first time I accepted the duty. I’ve never actually reviewed my paycheck on that point.

So I’ve been getting 33% over my usual pay for the past year, and for the upcoming semester. I’m in a high-paying district, and I have seven years experience, and a metric ton of education, putting me all the way over to the right column on step and column scale—and then there’s the Master’s bump. In addition, from what I understand, this does wonders for pension calculations. I’m doing my best to save most of it.

I’ve mentioned before that teachers can’t do overtime. In this we are like typical “professionals”, as in “non-hourly workers”. Our decisions on how and what to teach were our own, as were the hours we put into these tasks. We can do as much or as little as we like to deliver the class. As I wrote in Teaching and Intellectual Property (a topic that shall return), we get paid to deliver the class, not to create curriculum.

However, the delivery itself is beautifully quantifiable. We teach n classes a day for d dollars a day. So teachers have an excellent case: If we teach n+1 classes a day, the additional class will be paid d⁄n dollars. Left at issue is the actual dollar value of d , and the method of counting n.

In my district, n = classes in a standard schedule, while d = yearly salary. This is sublimely generous, and reflective of the fact that teachers in my area are hard to find and pretty expensive.

In other districts, n = periods in a standard day, while d = yearly salary. Still very generous, the only difference being that the “prep” period is counted as work time, I think. So instead of a 20% boost on a 6 period day, you get a 16+% boost.

In the horrifying district linked in at first, I’m assuming teachers are easily found and cheap. The fixed price suggests the district uses a different d, perhaps calculating the average cost of class delivery for all teachers. So these teachers get paid the same amount for the extra work, or perhaps the contractual per-diem hourly rate. Ick. (sez Ed, snootily.)

But in all cases, the teacher gets paid directly for the additional work. Cue the cries of “This isn’t how professionals operate.”

So I was a professional out in the world once, even working for corporations. And when professionals are handed additional work, it used to come with several implicit assurances:

  1. This will result in more money and an improved title somewhere down the line.
  2. This will result in an improved resume that leads to more money and an improved title at another company if option 1 doesn’t come true.
  3. This won’t result in anything other than more work. Be grateful for the job.

Back in my day, 1 and 2 held court; I’ve heard things have been different in my world since the dot com bubble crashed, in 2002 (I was still partially in, and rates definitely took a huge hit). Anecdotally, I don’t see many people, even in tech, comfortably in the driver’s seat these days. They’re happy to have a good job. That’s for college educated tech workers; in today’s world Amazon makes temp factory workers sign non-compete agreements for 6 months simply because they can. (it’s the immigration, stupid). That is, these days quite a bit of extra work is handed out without additional payment but merely the assurance that doing the work will save one’s job, for the time being.

Typically, Republicans point to the perks of government employment–such as the awful practice of getting paid for doing more work—as unions extracting unearned value for their workers.

But look at the list again, and realize that none of these in-lieu-of-pay offerings hold for teachers. We don’t want a promotion. We can pretty much teach whatever classes we have credentials for, so the resume add-ons don’t help much, and we can’t be fired for refusing to work extra hours for free because our employer is the government, baby, and it can’t deprive us of our property right in a job without a good cause, and working for free isn’t that cause. (Private employers can, apparently.)

Remember, too, that schools have to provide a properly credentialed teacher in every class and it becomes clear that in tight job markets, teachers have the upper hand when negotiating for “extra duty”. The district has a need, and teachers are in an outstanding position to make them pay full price for that need. In slack job markets, of course, not so much.

So when we are handed a certain form of more work, we are immediately paid more money in proportion to the demands made on our time. Cool beans. And definitely odd, I think, in the private sector.

Two observations arise out of this oddness.

First, reformers like Bill Gates or Fordham Foundation like to push the idea of giving teachers bigger classes–like, say, 4 or 5 more students per class, for more money.

These conversations never seemed reality-based, since they always begin with the premise that teachers have 20-22 students per class. I have three classes of 35 right now, and one class I literally call “tiny” at 20. But in any event, it’s become very popular to advocate changing base pay to a form of “merit” pay by giving teachers bigger classes.

Is it clear, once again, that reformers demonstrate bizarre ignorance of the actual logistics of staffing a school?

They’re calling for increased class size—in an age when parents unequivocally support smaller class sizes, data be damned—and a contractual change giving some teachers more money for taking more kids. Unions will oppose them tooth and nail for anything approaching merit pay, they’ll never get it anyway, and all to get “good” high school and middle school teachers about 20 more students a day, in a standard 6-period day. Elementary school teachers, just the 4 or 5.

Meanwhile, right now, on the books in most districts, exists a means of giving each “excellent” middle or high school teacher 25 to 35 more students, as well as a lot more money, without upsetting parents and increasing class sizes. No negotiations needed, no formalization of procedure–it’s there already. I am reasonably certain that principals already use “extra duty” as a way of rewarding high quality teachers interested in the money.

So are they ignorant? Probably. Would reformers start promoting “extra duty for excellence” if they had some small inkling of how staffing actually works? Probably not, since their goal, really, isn’t rewarding teachers but breaking contracts. But in any event, the next time a reformer pushes the idea, have this essay at the ready.

(Note: In the comments, Brett Gillan points out another problem with paying teacher by classload so obvious I could kick myself for not thinking of it. Namely, student load is not constant. I often end up with much smaller classes; students transfer to alternative school, go to a different district school, move, and so on. The higher the poverty level of the school, the more the variance.)

Second observation—well, on second thought (thanks to Roger Sweeney), I’m going to make this second thought a second post.

Teaching Oddness #1: Teacher’s Aides, HS Version

Do outsiders know what TAs are? I went looking for research on this point, and could find none. These descriptions aren’t accurate, and most of the rest refer to employed teacher aides.

Teacher’s Aide is a student elective “class” in which the student provides the teacher with free labor as needed.

I get a bit stalled here, because the same practice can be used for neutral or ill. Arguably, there’s no “good”.

Neutral: Why would any student sign up to be a gofer? It’s not for the resume value, I assure you. But high school students are required to take a full slate of classes, and electives are in limited supply. So at a certain point, a mid-tier student with a good GPA but every intention of going to a junior college is left with no appealing electives. Every semester, students with schedule holes have to find somebody to work for, or they’ll get stuck in an actual class with responsibilities and grades, a class they have no interest in taking.

Some of them are assigned to run errands for the front office, taking notes out to the teacher rooms and back for counsellor call-outs, direct mail delivery to students, getting a teacher’s signature on a document, whatever. But schools only need three or four office TAs.

The rest of the students beg teachers to take them on as either doorstops or free labor, in exchange for an A. Because TA jobs get graded, and any grade less than an A raises eyebrows. (Colleges exclude TA from GPA calculation.)

Admins spend some serious cycles on TA assignment. First, the notes come out telling us that no teacher can have two TAs per class. (Yeah, what? OK.) Then out comes the notes begging teachers to take some TAs that still don’t have assignments. Then, occasionally, a TA shows up at the door with an administrator and a question, “Can you use a TA?” and while the answer would otherwise be “No”, the administrator keeps asking until the teacher says “Yes”. Then hours are spent entering these into the schedule for attendance and assignment and transcripts.

I’ve concluded tentatively that the student TA system is both a significant source of free labor to teachers and schools, and a non-trivial burden for teachers and administrators when willing users of that free labor can’t be found.

Many teachers, those teachers who come in each day with their task list set a week, or a month, a year, or three years ago—these people with a plan, they love TAs. Good, yes, I have a million little tasks to be done. Grade this quiz I created three five years ago, then enter the test scores. Create my bulletin board decorations, using this design. These are the ones who have to be told they can’t have more than two TAs per class.

I’m the teacher who was forced, year one, to take a TA. The AVP showed up at my door, just as described above. I was 4 days into my first job, and already knew I had no use for a TA, especially when they told me I couldn’t use him for the single most essential task eligible for delegation: copying.

That’s the insane part: WE CAN’T USE THEM TO MAKE COPIES. Moreover, no one seems to think that, so long as we have all this student labor going begging, a COPY CENTER MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA. Nothing causes teachers more unforced stress than needing the copy machine when it’s broken or unavailable, thanks to a 20-teacher queue in the morning or lunch. A colleague and friend once took up lunch running 50 sets of 30 page documents. When a week later she announced her transfer, I told her she wouldn’t be missed. I wasn’t entirely joking.

What was my point? Oh, yes. So I had a TA year one who sat at my desk and surfed the web. He wasn’t a bad kid, although I can’t remember his name. His only responsibility was to sit in a nearby room during tests with my top kids, as my room wasn’t big enough to hold thirty kids and cheating was rampant. Pulling out the top kids ended that little game.

I don’t remember TAs being available at my next school, but I just texted a former colleague and will update this space.

My current school happily doesn’t pressure teachers to take TA, but who needs administrative pressure when students apply guilt? My first year at this school, one girl begged me to let her TA. She showed up late and texted each day. I vowed never to be suckered again. Except I did the next year, when a stoner begged me to let him TA my pre-calc class. He was worse than useless, but a better conversationalist than the girl, so there’s that.

But then, it all changed. Last year, Rufus, an exchange student and a top performer in my trig class, convinced me to let him TA, and then another favorite football player, Ronnie, begged me for a chance. I figured I may as well spend time with students whose company I actually did enjoy.

Rufus worked with my students, paying a little too much attention to cute girls, but with that exception, he was very good. Ronnie wasn’t as good in math and definitely liked distracting cute girls, but one day he volunteered to clean up my office space. Kid worked like a fiend, and no one recognized my room.

As I mentioned, Year 6 was busy and here, I have to break off a bit to explain something.

Full-metal, 4×4 block has killed my love of grading. We cover a year’s worth of instruction by the end of January. My assessments are difficult, and I’d rather give them less often, but I pretty much have to give a test or quiz every five or seven days to have grades for progress reports. Since I’m designing a new test system, I was spending much more time building and grading assessments already.

And that was before year 6, when I had two new subjects (trig and history) and three preps (subjects taught), four classes (no free prep period) and 110 students in the second semester.

My returned test lag time was now over a week, which really nagged at me. My work life was becoming something like create a test, created a key, grade a test, enter the grades, turn the test back, lather rinse repeat. Amd that’s without all the curriculum for the new classes. Mind you, this is a typical teacher complaint, but this is all work I typically enjoy. I was just running out of cycles.

Rufus was taking my history class as well as operating as my TA, and knew how slammed I was. He offered to grade. By this time, he’d proven himself reasonably trustworthy, so I decided to risk it. I’d create the key and the point system, have him grade a few samples, and then let him go.

Wow. Huge difference. I still reviewed the grading, adding or knocking off points, but time spent was cut from six to one hour. Rufus bragged to Ronnie (does this sound like Highlights?), who demanded he be trusted with grading as well.

Ronnie and Rufus provided the first really positive TA experience I ever had. I took them out for Starbucks at year-end, and am still in touch with both.

Last semester, Jacob, also from a previous trig class, asked if he could TA and I asked him if he minded grading. I worked Jake so hard I gave him cookies and Starbucks cards for Christmas, and told him I’d violate regulations to give him some service hours if he needed them. Jacob saved me dozens of hours. I couldn’t get over how I could use student labor to make my life easier.

This semester I have three, count ’em THREE, TAs: all previously successful students, all aware when they signed on that they’d be expected to grade or, occasionally, help students. I put one in each algebra 2 class.

I’m less conflicted about having three TAs cover the work than I was giving it all to Jake. While he didn’t seem to mind, I was bothered by the idea that one person was contributing so significantly to my workload reduction. Somehow three kids making life easier for me doesn’t seem as bad. When it was just Jake (heh) it took about 4 days to grade 50 tests, even with my working as well.

To illustrate how much they’ve decreased my workload, we’ve just done the cutover at mid-term, which is always tough. We have to both finish final grades while starting brand new classes with brand new kids. I’m teaching all four classes again, no prep, and 109 algebra 2 students, with another 20 in my geometry class.

I gave the first quiz on Tuesday. Each of the three TAs graded a class set, aand I had the grades in the book on Friday. Unreal. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have had that first quiz done for another week. Instead, I was able to review the tests, see who scored well on my pretest but tanked the function quiz, and vice versa. I’ve got time to redo seating, catch low scores early, call kids in to fix misconceptions. It’s great. My TAs also chide me on the state of my desk, and pressure me to collect all the papers and dump most of them, after review. I’m always worried I’ll toss something important.

I also enjoy talking to my TAs, who I chose because I liked and knew that I might be able to help in some way. I have at least once good talk with them a week, and advise them on college choices, course choices for the upcoming year, whatever.

But I can’t get over the fact that I’ve been freed from so much work without it costing me anything. I’m not alone, I know; many teachers brag about how much they turn over to TAs. I also remind myself that many teachers use scantrons and multiple choice tests. I spend substantial hours developing good tests, and I still review and evaluate all the tests before they are returned. I’m new to this; give me a few years and I’ll probably be one of those teachers griping I can only have two TAs a class.

So there’s the neutral use.

But the TA position can often be used to cover up scheduling shortfalls. As mentioned, schools are legally required to give students a full schedule of classes. In many struggling schools, the administration can’t keep enough teachers to offer all the classes needed, and so they use the TA slot as a stopgap. I very much doubt schools use this as a source of cheap labor for teachers, but many kids just can’t get the credits they need to graduate. I’ve mentioned before that the district controls the catalog; the catalog controls what can be assigned, so if a district offers “teacher’s aide” or “independent study” then they can use it to cover up a multitude of sins.

As I said, I can’t really make a “good” argument for TAing–at its best, it’s a way for kids to get out of taking a class and make some extra money by selling advance copies of tests. At its worst, schools use them to keep their doors open, rather than flatly refusing to fake it. We need more high schools refusing to take students, putting pressure on districts and states to address the problem.

Why is there so little data readily available about school’s “hidden work force”? Many tasks could undoubtedly be automated, particularly the office TAs. But then, strawberry farmers, schools will only automate when they lose cheap, free labor.

The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

To understand why outsiders don’t grasp teacher quality in meaningful terms, consider this list.

Which of the teachers described here are leaders, working with their colleagues to improve school quality? Which ones are speaking out in support of improving the professional community? Which ones forge the way to a new professional concept? Which ones have a clear vision of their teaching identities? Which ones are committed to student achievement? Which ones, in Rick Hess’s phrasing, are cagebusters?

Ignore trifling matters like whether or not the teachers agree with your own values and priorities. Focus on leadership, caring, professional commitment. Yes, this makes it a more difficult task.

  • Teachers work late into the evening developing curriculum and planning instruction, but violate their contractual obligations by occasionally or consistent tardiness to staff and department meetings. Their timely colleagues see the tardy attendance as unprofessional. But the gripers often leave campus three minutes after last bell.

  • An attendance clerk wonders why a student is skipping first period each day for two weeks. The clerk contacts the other teachers and learns that he’s actually been absent in all classes, but that unlike the first period teacher, they’ve been letting it slide, since the student told them he was joining the Marines. Further investigation reveals that the student was on a cruise. Shortly after this incident, the principal announced that failure to take attendance and submit completed attendance verification reports would be made an evaluation point, if needed.

  • A new teacher is confused as to what responsibilities are held by the “department head” and a “math coach”, since neither approached to offer assistance when he began his job. The teacher who did approach him with help (and has no official role) told him not to worry about it, as department “leadership” roles are meaningless.

  • A few senior math teachers informally agreed to improve advanced math instruction by holding students to higher standards and a demanding pace. A new teacher was brought on, who taught at a slower pace and had a much wider “passing window”. The senior teachers requested that the new teacher be fired. The principal refused. One of the senior teachers left. The newer teacher continued with the same priorities.

  • A team of teachers and counselors are enthusiastically discussing methods to convince colleagues to comply with a new district-wide initiative. One team member cautions against mandated compliance, suggesting they accept cynicism and caution as logical responses. The team decides to go much more slowly, realizing that they can’t really enforce compliance anyway. They introduce a smaller initiative that builds on existing interest, hoping to win more compliance through results.

  • A second-career teacher works unceasingly to help at-risk students get to college, achieving a decade or more of success getting first-generation kids to college. He is a valued and highly respected leader in the teaching staff—right up until he confesses to inappropriate contact with a student. He is arrested and fired.

These examples all reveal why Rick Hess’s 90-10 split makes no sense:

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Hess never says so, but presumably we are to assume that the “amazing teachers” are moving test scores, while the disgruntled, frustrated teachers demanding more money are out there on the picket lines, demonstrating against Eva or taking time off to bitch in Madison, while their students sit in a dull stupor.

Would that the dichotomy were that simple. Dots can’t be connected between teaching ability and political activism. The street corner screamers protesting merit pay and standardized testing might just as easily be the ones working until 9 at night, building memorable lessons. The slugs who check out each day at 3 using the same tests year after year might have worshipful students. The former teacher who cries on cue as a paid hack for Students First might actually be less admired than the much loved teacher identified as incompetent based on a single student’s opinion. (I am always flummoxed that reformers think anyone other than the already converted would find Bhavina Baktra compelling.) Political activism is one of the utterly useless proxies for teacher quality.

Teacher Quality–what is it, exactly?

What makes a good teacher? Let us count the many ways that broad circles can’t safely capture and identify teaching populations.

  • An engaging, creative teacher can be a terrible or indifferent employee, showing up to meetings late, missing supervisories, forgetting to submit grades on time.
  • An uninspiring or incompetent teacher can be a fabulous employee, impeccably on time with contract obligations: grades, attendance, and assigned tasks.
  • Teachers of any instructional or employee quality can be activists fighting against reforms they see as damaging to either their jobs or children—or on the reform payroll (yes, it does seem that way to us) pushing for merit pay or an end to tenure.
  • An ordinary, somewhat tedious teacher can have an outstanding attendance record, while a creative curriculum genius misses ten or more days a year;
  • Unlawful teachers–from the extremes of unthinkable sexual behavior to the seemingly innocuous falsification of state records—are, often, “good teachers” in the sense that reformers intend the word. (Just do a google on teacher of the year with any particular criminal activity.

No objective measure or criterion exists for teaching excellence. At best, most might agree on its display. Were a thousand people to watch a classroom video, they might agree on the teacher’s displayed merits. People might agree that certain opinions are unacceptable for teachers to have, or that certain actions are unacceptable. But those merits, actions, or opinions have next to no demonstrated relationship to test scores or other student outcomes.

So What Makes a Teacher Leader?

And if we can’t even know who or what defines a good teacher for any objective metric, then naturally the whole idea of finding “teacher leaders” is a lost cause.

Who’s a leader? The officially designated department heads or coaches, or the de facto mentors who offer advice and curriculum to the nervous newbies? The teachers who follow the contract obligations like clockwork, or the ones who work late and give hours to the kids but are weaker at the contractual obligations? The teachers who want to plow down resisters, or the teachers who suggest accommodating to the reality that the plowdowns will never happen? The teachers who want everyone to follow proven procedures, or the teachers who follow their own vision? The teacher who successfully manages a a site-wide program for at-risk kids, helping hundreds over the years while occasionally making sexual advances, or the teacher who just shows up every day to teach without ever molesting his students? The teachers who want to embrace reforms to improve schools, or the teachers who fight the reforms as the efforts of ignorant ideologues?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. There are people who can brief for either side–yes, even the molester. Just ask Mrs. Miller or, just to ratchet up the difficulty level, the hundreds of kids who weren’t abused by this predator, but found focus and purpose to achieve based on his advice and support.

So who wants teacher leaders, anyway? Reformers. Ed schools. Politicians. Administrators. Teachers who want to be teacher leaders—a handy group that serves as mouthpieces for the other organizations. The same people, in short, who believe the delusion that “good teachers” is an axiom, an easily defined, obvious trait.

Who doesn’t want teacher leaders? Teachers who don’t want to be teacher leaders. Which is most of them.

I repeat, for the umpteenth time: what the outside world sees as a bug, most teachers see as a feature. We trade promotions and pay recognition for job security and freedom from management that industry can only dream of.

Certain things just don’t make a dent in the teacher universe. When math teachers get together for beers, we don’t secretly bitch about how much more money we’d get if teaching salaries were determined by scarcity. Very few sigh for a world in which our pay is dependent on our principal’s opinion of our work. Many of us either aren’t fussed by system bureaucracy or—as if often the case—understand that the bureaucracy isn’t the underlying reason for whatever wall we face.

Given the utter lack of internal demand, teachers suspect, with much justification, that those calling for “leaders” are looking to install their mouthpieces in positions of authority over the rest of us. Call us cynical. Call us justified.

So the next time anyone calls for “teacher leaders”, please remember a few things. Any teaching community has leaders both official and informal. The official leaders are selected, often by management, sometimes by majority vote. The informal leaders are often sought out by colleagues, but occasionally self-drafted. Regardless of selection method, the relationships are many to many, not one to many. These leaders have little actual authority. They have influence. Sometimes.

Teachers don’t want leaders. We have management. We’re good, thanks.

White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

I was re-reading a barely started essay (you don’t want to know how many I have) on reform’s bait and switch, in which I quoted Jersey Jazzman on reformers finally admitting they cream the easy to educate. This reminded me of white elephants.

Our faculty holiday party had a white elephant gift exchange . Everyone brought an item of questionable value, nicely wrapped, and turned it in for a ticket number. The person who got ticket #1 opened a present of his choice. Oh, look, it’s a mug gift with some hot cocoa mix! Oooh, ahh. Then the person with ticket #2 could either “steal” the mug gift with hot cocoa mix, or select a new present, open it, and oh, look, it’s coal in the stocking! (a joke gift, it’s candy.) Then person with ticket #3 could “steal” one of the previous gifts, and so on.

Each person could steal a previous gift or take a new present. But once a gift has been stolen, it’s off limits.

I very much enjoyed this game because my proffered white elephant, a 9 year old digital photo frame that sat in my trunk for six years before I finally needed the room and stuck it in a closet through three moves until I happened to be cleaning out the closet 3 days before the party, was stolen! Someone wanted it! I felt very high status, I can tell you. Plus, I stole a gift when my turn came. All this and lumpia, too. A great party.

And so the white elephant metaphor stood fresh in my mind, ready to hand when I reviewed that draft essay. I’ve been trying to write about this topic forever, specifically about the restraints public schools face with disruptive students. (Charters aren’t public schools. They just use public money. ) But like many issues I feel strongly about, the essay began life as a cranky rant. I do better with humorous rants, so I abandoned delayed the effort.

But thanks to the faculty party, I’m ready to take this on.

Charter advocates’ constraint: caps. They want more schools.

Public school constraint: laws. They are bound by laws that charters can ignore or game, and bound by law to hand their district kids and associated monies over to charters, who aren’t bound by those law when they kick some students back, with no feds chasing after them for racially imbalanced rejects.

So publics can’t reduce their unmotivated misbehaving population; charters want more room to grow because, after all, they provide a superior education.

And it came to me: let public schools create white elephant students, by making a “gift” of a disruptive, unmotivated student, something the public school has and doesn’t really want.

Give public schools the right to involuntarily transfer up to 1-3% of their students to charter schools in their geography, with the limit set by the number of available charters. “Involuntary” to both the students and the charters, neither of whom are given any say in the matter.

In exchange, charter caps are significantly increased.

Involuntary transfer, not an expulsion. Students have rights in an expulsion hearing. White elephant students have no say in an involuntary transfer. Parents couldn’t appeal. They can accept the assigned school or try to convince another public school or charter to take their student, now identified as difficult.

But remember the other condition of white elephants gifts: they can’t be handed about indefinitely. Parents “gifted” the public schools, public schools “gift” charters. Game ends. The receiving charter has no involuntary transfer rights for that student. The transfer occurs without regard to the charter population limits or backfilling preferences.

Moreover, the transferred students maintain their public school protections. The charters can’t refuse admission in subsequent years. Unless the students can be expelled, the charters are stuck until the transfers age out or graduate. This restriction means that some kids at charter schools would have more rights than others. Welcome to public education, folks. Public schools have been dealing with this tension for decades.

So public schools would continue to have no choice on incoming students within their districts, but would win a (limited) choice to send students away. Charters would continue to have considerable selection benefits on incoming and outgoing students, but would lose those benefits with a few students.

Logistical issues would need ironing out. Transportation comes immediately to mind, as do actual numbers on transfer limits, but I’m sure others would show up.

Ironically, given the name, the white elephant students would be almost entirely black and Hispanic. Literally and figuratively, that’s where the money is. White and Asian districts aren’t facing heavy competition for their students. Billionaire philanthropists don’t give a damn about poor white kids, which is one big reason why West Virginia’s charter ban doesn’t attract a lot of interest. We could speculate why (perhaps they aren’t really interested in educating kids, just killing teacher unions), but never mind that.

Parents of white elephant kids would lose any real sense of school choice. Sorry about that. But at least the kids will be at a charter, with far fewer peers to help them get in trouble.

On the other hand, the white elephant kids would have a real incentive to behave better in public school. They’d see charters as a real threat. “Behave or I’ll send you to a school that makes you SLANT!

Public schools would see this purely as win-win. They’d still lose money on the transferred students. This incentive, coupled with the involuntary transfer cap, will limit their desire to cavalierly toss out kids for minor offenses. But even if publics did act capriciously, what would the feds say? “I’m sorry, but you are dooming these children by sending them to a charter school, trapped with well-behaved children in smaller classes!”

Never mind whether or not it could be enacted as policy; consider the white elephant proposal purely as a thought experiment, because everyone knows this is true: Charter operators, the highly regarded “lottery” schools, would reject this proposal out of hand.

Why? Because KIPP failed miserably the one time it tried to turn around an existing school. Because to get the results that reformers brag about, charter schools have to control their student population: selection bias at the start, sculpting as needed, uniform learning schedule.

But this proposal on the surface makes perfect sense, based solely on the reform and choice rhetoric over the past decades. Charters have absolutely no grounds for bitching. They want the caps lifted, they want to end charter bans. They’ve been bragging about their superior schools for twenty years. They swear they aren’t creaming, aren’t selecting, aren’t cherrypicking. Great. This policy gives charters everything they want, in exchange for educating students they claim they could educate in the first place. What do they have to lose?

As Jersey Jazzman and countless others have pointed out, this makes a lie out of their boasts. They aren’t getting better results than public schools; they just have better kids and fewer laws to follow.

Now, just for fun, pretend that charter operators took the deal: the occasional mandated student in exchange for additional growth.

Motivated students are desirable, but without the guarantee of high scores, they aren’t in and of themselves a competitive strategy. White elephant students, in contrast, are ideal for horsetrading.

Public schools can designate white elephants only to the extent that charters exist to receive them, and based on the number of public schools affected. So, imagine a district with three elementary schools: one high poverty, two low poverty. When a new elementary charter opens, the state declares that three white elephants per grade per school are allocated for dumping transferring to the charter. The charter primarily skims from the high poverty school. But the other two elementary schools don’t want charters popping up, and see an advantage in a hostile environment, so they “gift” their allocations to the high poverty school, which can now move nine white elephants per grade.

The “lottery” charters will naturally want to opt out of this involuntary transfer program. Sure! For a small fee, of course. How about shaving off 50% of per-student fees charters get for their willing transfers? In that case, the charter would be doing less damage to the public schools by creaming. Moreover, any charter that publicly opted out of the involuntary transfer program has revealed its Achilles heel. Choice advocates couldn’t maunder on endlessly about the superior education charters offered if all the best ones paid to cherrypick.

To recap:

  1. Public schools restricted from selecting their students can use an involuntary transfer mechanism to move troublesome students creating disruptive learning environments to charters.
  2. The maximum number of students subject to involuntary transfer depends on school and charter populations.
  3. Public schools can trade or gift their transfer vouchers to other district schools.
  4. Charter growth caps are significantly increased.
  5. Charters required to give full weight of education law to white elephant students.
  6. Charters can opt out of involuntary transfer program by accepting substantially reduced per-student fee for voluntary charter attendees.

How would this play out, given some time?

Long term, the white elephant program could ironically limit charter growth. The fewer the charters, the fewer involuntary transfers possible. One charter could probably handle 3-4 white elephants per grade without sacrificing too much control and wouldn’t take too many motivated students to damage the public schools in the area. Additional charters, each taking 5-6 troublemakers? Suddenly the charters are struggling with difficult students while the public schools have considerably improved environments, potentially enabling them to lure many prospective charter students back. The fewer charters, the less likely the public schools can dump all their white elephants.

But then, many charters aren’t choosy and don’t have lotteries. They need butts in seats, and could use the white elephant students as a growth strategy. Hire teachers who specialize in handling tough kids, advertise for desperate parents, take the public school white elephants and expulsions. Win win for everyone. Collaboration, not competition. In fact, districts would probably set up their own white elephant charter school, in absence of an outside enterprise for their own schools to use as an outlet. Alternative high schools, you ask?Best avoided.

In an environment where white elephant charters work synergistically (oooh! Big word) with district public schools, any other charters would have to compete with public schools on merits, without the added appeal of “no knuckleheads”. That, too, is going to limit growth.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that typical charters–no excuses, discipline oriented, progressive, whatever–accept white elephants and the disruptive kids thrive. In many cases, disruptive, unmotivated kids with no other options improve in a stricter environment, or perhaps one with a higher percentage of motivated students.

However, this outcome is only likely in a district not drowning with white elephants—that is, a suburban district. Suburban charters operate under entirely different premises, geared towards a progressive curriculum and a “diverse” student population. Suburban districts consider charters an annoyance and an aggravation, not a threat. So if they can dump some white elephants on the earnest do-gooders, it’s all good.

I could go on, but the New Year approaches and this piece is long enough. One final point, for any new reader who comes across this piece: I am kind of the go-to math teacher for low ability and/or poorly motivated kids. This isn’t personal; I don’t have a gift list of white elephants.

But I’ve said before now that I stick with the suburban poor, because when Ta Nahesi Coates casually describes the disruption he routinely inflicted on his high school classes, threatening substitutes, disrespecting teachers while getting violent at any hint of disrespect (and remember, none of his friends or family considered him a “thug”), I get slightly ill at the utter chaos that must have reigned in his school. So I work in Title I suburbs, where my daily tales shock my friends with the disrespect and disruption my students dole out daily, while I know full well it ain’t all that.

Meanwhile, all the signals are pointing in the opposite direction, what with federal discipline “guidelines” and that god awful spare me restorative justice nonsense.

So let’s try gifting. After all, it’s the thought that counts.