Category Archives: policy

What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

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My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.


What It Looks Like In Practice

“Matt, are you getting anything done?”

“I’m Mark. And yes. I’m on problem 13.”

“You’re Mark? No. I thought I had this straight. You’re Matt.”

“Nope. Mark.”

“Well, crap. I was just going through the quizzes and saw a Mark and a Matt and thought ok, there’s Matt who I always want to call Mark. And I was wondering who the Mark was, trying to visualize which Mark I was missing.”

“No, I’m Mark.”

“Huh. Matt must be in block 2, but I don’t think I have a Matt in block 2. But then, I don’t think I have a Mark in block 2. I have a Mark in US History, but that Mark isn’t one of the students I have for both US History and Trig. This is all very confusing.”

Tonee snorts. “Dude’s just messin’ with you. That’s Matt.”

“Oh. Phew. Left to be discovered is who’s Mark. But don’t do that, Matt.” Matt grins, the class gets back, somewhat noisily, to work. I wander round the room one more time, then settle in to my desk to put the quiz grades in.

Casey meanders up to my desk. “I think I can clear up some of your confusion.”

I look at the petite, redhaired senior, delicate features marred (in my view) by two horrible lip piercings. “You can? What confusion?”

“The Mark/Matt thing.”

“Oh! Lord, that was, like 20 minutes ago. I’d forgotten all about it. You know the Mark I’ve somehow completely lost track of?”

“I am Mark.”

I stop typing. Look over at, it turns out, Mark, who I learned for the first time last year was merely biologically female when an ex-student Connie walked by and said “Hey, you have my foster brother Casey in your class. He says you’re great!” and only acknowledged after ten minutes of demands that Casey wasn’t “actually a guy, but you know, wants to be.”

“Sh**.”

“I’m sorry.”

SH*****t.”

“I used my last name! I thought that would be the clue.”

“Case…Mark, I can’t even remember Matt isn’t Mark, and you think I keep track of last names? Sh**.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m swearing because I made a public deal out of this and I’m feeling bad. It’s not you. Any other sane teacher would have wondered wait, who the hell is Mark on this quiz and resolved it right then, but I’m teaching so many different classes with so many repeating students and doubled up students I just figured I was forgetting someone. And I shouldn’t swear, of course, but you’re a senior. Anyway, I’m sorry for screwing this up.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have used my new name, but you were so cool about it last year…”

“I was so cool last year? I kept on screwing up your pronoun.”

“You were so really nice about it. I appreciated your support.”

“You’re nuts. Anyway, what the hell? I thought Casey was your new name.”

“Yeah, I decided on Mark.”

“OK. Thanks.”

“I’m really so…”

“Shut up. I’m a disorganized teacher. This happens. Get back to work.”

Later on, giving the tests back, I say “Matt, come get your quiz.”

“I’m Mark.”

“No. You’re Matt.” Matt starts to wilt under my glare, but notices who comes up to get Mark’s quiz and doesn’t claim to be Mark again.

Related news: A special ed teacher told me I was selected by two of her senior students as the one they most enjoyed having and asked me to put together a little paragraph as part of a plaque she’s giving to each. One of them, Victor, wears makeup, nail polish, and curly hair in a casual bun. I’ve heard Victor doesn’t like to be called gay.
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I hope Casey and Victor forgive me, should they ever learn that I thought the Obama directive on k-12 schools and transgender bathrooms to be idiotic and enraging. I’m quite worried that the current Supreme Court will decide it makes perfect sense to force to accomodate transgender teens in their quest for bathroom freedom. Given the conservative Justices’ contempt for public school teachers, my original fear was they’d give Gavin bathroom rights to strike one more nail in our coffin. But I wronged them mightily; the four conservatives voted to overturn the Fourth Court, with Justice Breyer the only hope as a swing vote, voting with the conservatives as a “courtesy” to maintain the status quo, the horrible repressive status quo we live in now, the one that allows us to ignore Obama’s directive and require bathrooms match biology.

I believe those who adamantly insist on having gender reaassigment surgery are mentally ill. Kids who want to be the opposite gender are probably going through a phase. Some simply love the attention; others are depressed or troubled. Still others just like being different. I have no problem with respecting phases. I’m appalled by the current trend of honoring these phases to the extent of hormones and gender surgery, and pleased that the Trump administration appears to be undoing the Obama idiocy.

I’m blissfully untroubled by the knowledge of what bathroom Mark who was once Casey uses. Every so often one of our more adamant social justice teachers gets up and demands that our grading and attendance software “reflect our students’ desired gender” and I roll my eyes so hard I get a seizure but beyond that we haven’t had any staff discussions on the subject. Please, god, keep it that way.

I wonder if many people opining on transgender schools understand how schools handle them. Do they know what it looks like in practice? Do they think schools are busy insisting on biological reality? Quite the contrary, and political views aren’t really involved.

I treat transgender kids the same way I’d treat other kids who face difficult social situations. I call them whatever the hell they want. I try to avoid pronouns (as I have in this piece) because they’re much tougher than names. I would ruthlessly step on any teasing or harassment, assuming kids in our world-wise school would ever be so mean. I will leave decisions on their gender treatment to their parents or guardians. My job is to educate them to the best of my and their ability, and to the extent possible, make them feel safe and comfortable as they navigate the crazy teen years.

If Gavin Grimm loses the case, I doubt schools will do anything differently. Most teachers will go much further than I do in supporting students who identify as transgender.

If Gavin wins the case, I expect that charter schools will soon have one more advantage that they’ll never mention directly, but will nonetheless be seen as a clear advantage by otherwise progressive parents. And there will be one more item to add to the meme “Why Trump Won”.


The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

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

Confused, I said, “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


In Which Ed Explains Induction

So I’m at a Starbucks with my mentee, Bart. Bart looks like  Jared Leto playing Jesus. Many piercings, tattoos, big puppy dog eyes, long brown hair. We have been friends since his first day as a teacher, when I showed up in a (successful) effort to offer assistance, and I’m now mentoring him in his second year of induction (third year as a teacher.)

Some context: it is 6:15 pm. We both began our day at 7:15 am for a mandatory  75-minute staff development meeting, and not the sort where you’re surreptitiously grading papers while listening to required procedural instructions you’ve heard eight years in a row. No, this is intense department negotiations on curriculum and pacing. Interesting, but high intensity, and no checking out. Then our normal day.  Then we supervised our twice weekly, 90-minute sessions with about twenty kids working on science projects. Now we are at Starbucks, working on Bart’s induction project.  I don’t normally do the “teachers work long days” whine, but it had, in fact, been a long day.

Bart’s a great teacher, much adored by his students. He has his own idealistic values, like he still assigns homework because he wants kids to want to do it. I smile indulgently at such foolish romanticism. The guy spends hours working on lesson plans, writing extensive notes, building meaningful lessons and assessments. Not too much time–he’s not silly about this stuff–but he is a thoughtful person developing his practice, and he is in fact a really good teacher.

Induction is designed to engage and encourage new teachers to think productively about their practice. Bart and I had, up to this time, spent many hours in fruitful conversation, valuable to both of us, designing a year-long induction plan that interested him and would deepen his teaching experience.  He turned in his plan early, asking for feedback. I was pretty confident he’d be praised–my last mentee had done far less work under a different system and had done very well.

But alas, it was not to be. The induction administrator returned Bart’s plan politely, saying it showed real promise, but required a bunch of nitpicky changes.  In many cases, her changes expected Bart to be very detailed about the results of analytical or exploratory work that hadn’t yet happened.

I was very concerned. Bart thought the whole thing was absurd. So we were spending a few hours retooling his plan so that the wording pretended to comply with her demands. My years in corporate America have given me a thorough grounding in this task as well as an acute fear of failure; Bart has no such protection.

“What is the point of rewording all this?”

“Satisfying a bureaucrat without, you know, sex or money or drugs involved.”

“But why? I mean, why do we even have this induction nonsense?”

“Well, it all started with the achievement gap.”

“Induction will fix the achievement gap?”

“Of course not. Nothing will fix the achievement gap. So while there were some early successes, things mostly stalled out about twenty-thirty years ago.  Meanwhile, we started spending far more on education–bilingual education, increased academic requirements, special ed. Increased teachers–while our pay is about the same, we’ve had way more growth in teachers than in students. Many people noticed we had nothing to show for it, but no one seemed to notice that we are making far more demands on our students.”

“Completely unrealistic demands!”

“Of course. ” (Note: my original history here: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform on this topic is still one of my favorites.)

“But what does this have to do with this crappy makework?”

“Well, back in the 80s, when the Nation At Risk declared that we were destroying our country and Russia would win…”

“A Nation at Risk?”

I sighed. “That’s right, you went to one of those online ed schools. It was this huge report written by conservative Repulicans arguing, basically, that American high schools are destroying the country by making school too easy. So that began a wholesale upgrade of required high school courses–except, of course, many kids weren’t capable of learning advanced material. Schools tried tracking, but they were sued out of it in diverse districts, leading us to try things like differentiation and group work and resulting in the wide range of abilities you see in your classroom today.”

“Anyway, back in the 90s, it finally began to occur to folks that not all kids were ready for this material, but rather than change the requirements, they started a big push for “readiness” at the middle school and elementary school level. This is where charters had a lot of success; it’s how KIPP made its bones. Turns out  that if you cream highly motivated kids of average ability and push testing, you can bump test scores, and back in the 90s, everyone screamed that oh, my lord, this is proof that our public schools are disasters and teachers are morons.”

“Did they have success in high school?”

“No, but of course higher test scores in elementary scores would lead to  better high school performance.”

 

“That’s idiotic. High school is much more difficult. So is that when credential tests began?”

“Well, high school teachers have had difficult credential tests going back to the 70s, a fact conveniently ignored by reformers. High school teachers are well-qualified, so we already knew that boosting teacher cognitive ability doesn’t lead to higher student test scores. But what means these pesky facts in face of enthusiasm and certainty? It’s when credential tests for elementary and middle school teachers began, though. (You can read all about it here.)”

“But induction isn’t a credential test.”

“Yeah, I’m getting there. Because, as you’ve no doubt anticipated, a wholesale increase in teacher cognitive abilities didn’t have the desired result–although it did result in a huge decrease in black and Hispanic teachers, once the fraud ring was discovered and broken up.”

“Fraud ring? Like taking tests for teachers?”

“Yep. Long story. Never mind that, while the evidence for smarter teachers getting better results is fuzzy,research shows a much stronger link for achievement if teacher and student race match…”

“Teacher and student race? You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Particularly low achieving blacks. Sucks, huh.”

“Jesus.”

“Where was I? Oh, yeah. Anyway, at some point in there progressives and conservatives found something they could agree on. It was ridiculous to assume that teachers could just….teach. They sit in ed school, which is widely agreed to be a waste of time…”

“Mine was.”

“…and do a few weeks of student teaching, and suddenly, shazam. They’re teachers! Once all the professionals sat and thought about that, they decided it was stupid. After all, these professionals had insanely great test scores and got into terrific schools, but teachers, who have our nation’s kids’ future in their hands!–go to crap schools, have low SAT scores, and then we just put them in a class. This has to change. Some of them are terrible. Some quit. Let’s  invest in their success!  Give new teachers more support. Improve student achievement.Blah blah.”

“Ah. Here’s how induction comes into it. But hasn’t it always been that way? I mean, we’ve always just put teachers into a classroom. Were they smarter? I’ve heard that in the old days teachers were smart women who couldn’t get other jobs, and now we’re all idiots.”

“In fact, teacher ability has been pretty constant. While it’s true that fewer really smart women become teachers, a whole lot of reasonably smart men did, along with the existing reasonably smart women.”

“And you’re right. It has always been this way. In the very early days, teachers were taught content. But for sixty years or more, prospective teachers have spent a year or so thinking and reading about pedagogy, six to ten weeks student teaching, and then entered the classroom.”

“All so America could invent the Internet and go to the moon.”

“Win World War II, outlast Communism, make AIDS a manageable disease, and elect a black president. But yeah, faced with the choice of accepting cognitive ability or pretending that teachers are ludicrously unprepared for the classroom, it’s an easy pick: spend billions on a useless training program for new teachers.”

“And so here we are.”

“Well, be happy Linda Darling Hammond didn’t get her way. She wants teachers train for three years after graduation before getting a job. And she’s a liberal!”

“What the hell? Here’s what I don’t get. Teaching isn’t that hard…well, it is hard. But it’s not hard in a way that training helps. It’s incredibly difficult but….exciting.”

“Well, of course.  Teaching is a performance job. Teachers have an audience. And as any actor can tell you, facing a hostile audience is a hellish proposition. Facing a hostile audience every day, eight hours a day, can’t long be borne. Facing a hostile audience of 30 or more children? Sane people run screaming if they can’t do the job.”

“So teaching has its own quality control built right in.”

“Exactly. If you are completely inept, you will quit or be fired in the unlikely event you made it past student teaching.”

“But you’re not saying everyone is a great teacher.”

“No. Everyone who continues teaching is at least an adequate teacher. And beyond adequate, no one can agree on the attributes of a great teacher. Manifestly, great teachers aren’t necessary. Adequate to good teachers are sufficient.”

“But we could do better. I mean, I would have loved to have talked to you before I started work, to get a good idea of what I was facing.”

“You wouldn’t have believed me. In fact, you didn’t believe me! Remember when I gave you that assessment test to give your kids the first day, and you were shocked because it was pre-algebra? These were geometry kids, you said. They’d finish it in 20 minutes. Um, no, I said, they’d need at least 45 and my guess more. You were polite, remember? Like who is this crazy loon.”

Bart was chagrined. “My god, you’re right. I doubted you back then. And then the test took them an hour and the average score was thirty wrong.”

“You still doubt me! You shouldn’t, of course, but teaching is hard to believe until you do it. Which is why induction is a waste.”

“Well, at least they pay you to do this. I do it for free!”

“Yep. Teaching is pay to play. Anyway, it’s seven. Let’s send this off and hope it pleases the bureaucrat.”

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

(It didn’t. The bureaucrat demanded more nonsensical changes. I wrote a cranky note.)

 

 


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:

Accountability:
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.

Curriculum:

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

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.

brooksvotech

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.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: 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.  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).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

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:

hessvoced

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.