Category Archives: policy

The Day of Three Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

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

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

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

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

Some other work of mine that strikes me as related:

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

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

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

But that’s a miracle for another day.


Education: No Iron Triangle

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

Education has no triangle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the triangle thing is important. Really.

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


What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s supposedly meritocratic test is a fraud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A joke goes:
gaokaojoke

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

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

When I finally did find an an actual math question:


beijingmathtrans

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

beijingmatheasy

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

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


diffgaokaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, could someone alert Ron Unz?

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


Strategizing Horror

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

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

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

Well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Teacher Wars: A Review

Before I start: I mind Dana Goldstein (could it be she really called herself Daisy, or is this a different Dana Goldstein who graduated from Brown in 2006?) a whole lot less than I do Elizabeth Green or Amanda Ripley. I do have a complaint about book publishers handing book deals to dilettantes. Now Dana is dubbed a brilliant young scholar when in fact, she’s a reporter, a journalist, with a BA in international something or other. I mean, please.

So first off, the title’s a serious case of wishful thinking. This book can’t even be considered an inadequate history of teaching. Goldstein loses sight of her brief within a chapter or two. Anyone looking for a more systematic approach to the development and changes in the teaching profession should check out The Trouble With Ed Schools, by David Labaree, or dip into The One Best System: A History of Urban Education by David Tyack. Perhaps The Great School Wars, by Diane Ravitch, or even her The Troubled Crusade, which addresses mostly k-12 and college developments since World War II, but still gives a good accounting of developments in the teaching profession.

Yes, The Great School Wars is about the history of New York City schools, and Tyack’s work is limited to urban education. But Dana doesn’t stray much from New York all that often, and when she does, it’s usually urban education: Chicago and LA both make an appearance in that regard. But she rarely leaves the Eastern Seaboard. Goldstein leaves out much of America’s diversity: the word “Asian” makes two appearances, neither of which involve teachers working with students, Hispanics are only after the “and” (blacks and Hispanics), rural America not at all, save for the post-Civil War African Americans. This in a book that has the time to sigh wistfully over Catherine Beecher’s drowned fiancé and give a few pages to Horace Mann’s obsession with phrenology.

I found next to nothing in chapters seven and beyond on teachers themselves; it’s all on the changing discourse around teaching. I literally went back to the book title at one point; was I mistaken as to the book’s intent? No, there it was: A history of the profession.

Larry Cuban is a resource on the Cardozo Project, an earlier effort to recruit young, white elites into teaching (in this case, ex-Peace Corps volunteers), which gets the better part of a chapter. Cuban is the best progressive voice in education (and a properly skeptical one), but why does the Cardozo Project get so much time in a purported history of teaching that doesn’t once explain, lucidly, how teachers get credentials? Goldstein briefly describes the process for New York, in the mid-century, twice—usually with disapproval. She occasionally mentions the National Teacher Examination disapprovingly, without ever explaining what it was–and is.

Best mention of the NTE: “a controversial standardized test…known for producing higher scores among whites.” Yes, those state credentialing boards had to search long and hard to find a test where whites scored higher than blacks. It’s so uncommon that we all used to call the NTE “that biased test where whites score higher than blacks” unlike the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, every school test in the existence of the universe…

At least she mentions the NTE. The Praxis series doesn’t get one mention. Yes, in three chapters on the current “history” of teaching, one in which Goldstein regularly bewails the lack of black teachers, not a single mention of the increasing content knowledge standards, no acknowledgement of the considerable legal history on teacher examinations, all of which begins and ends with the disparate impact on teachers of color. This is, of course, one of my beats, so I’d be a tough critic anyway. But the idea that anyone could write about the history of teaching, and declare that “most have below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities” without mentioning the credential test—hell, just cut and paste NCTQ promotional materials in and call it a day.

Another puzzling gap is any mention of the development of student teaching. I haven’t begun my research in this area, but surely any history of teachers would mention the development of the practicum. Oh, hey, here Goldstein does use NCTQ as a reference:

California essentially prohibited the undergraduate education major in 1970. Prospective elementary school teachers there could choose any major and then spend a post-baccalaureate year student teaching while taking a few education classes. According to research from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a single year turned out not to be enough time to train teachers in the pedagogical skills needed for the broad range of subjects elementary teachers, especially, must tackle. Early-grades math instruction in particular was short-changed in California, and students paid the price.

Goldstein later says she tried to stick to analysis, not opinionating. She must have forgotten this passage. NCTQ is not a gold-standard source. The education major is not particularly well-respected; many reformers call for its demise. I’m also pretty sure every state allows a prospective teacher to “choose any major” and then do a year for a credential. This is, after all, how most secondary teachers get their credentials, and no small number of elementary schoolers. Yet here Goldstein is harshly criticizing the one state that did do away with the education major—without ever backing up the “students suffer” claim. (Sure, California has low test scores, but so do a whole bunch of states that offer education majors.)

But the point is that this is the first mention of student teaching, in chapter 8. How and when did teachers start providing free labor as part of training? Did it start at this point? Shouldn’t that be mentioned somewhere? Look elsewhere. Hell, look here in a month or three.

So considered as a history of teaching, Teachers Wars doesn’t even begin to start to deliver.

The book succeeds somewhat as a series of occasionally entertaining essays intended as a cautionary tale to education reformers, reminding them they haven’t had a single new idea in the past 30 years. But Tinkering Towards Utopia and The Same Thing Over and Over Again have already covered that ground. Goldstein has little new to offer. She’s too busy hitting all the buttons: feminism, check, teaching ex-slaves, check, union formation and feminism, check, communist pledges, check, overly white profession avoiding diversity, check.

And even considered in this light, the book has deficiencies. Goldstein’s time allocation is lopsided; one hundred and fifty years (1830-1980, roughly) are covered in 140 pages, while 30 years get nearly 100 pages, or nearly triple the attention. This doesn’t count the introduction and epilogue, both focused primarily on the present. Three pages on a random teacher getting canned. Kati Haycock gets an ungodly amount of time. In addition to Larry Cuban’s Cardozo Project, Alex Caputo-Pearl gets a ream or so.

I might not object as much to the past 30 years gets proportionately more attention if Goldstein had any new insights, but apart from learning the name of Reagan’s first Secretary of Education (Ted Lewis Bell–ok, so I didn’t learn it), I found little on that front. Goldstein just regurgitates recent history rather than analyze its impact. The last half of the book is slow going indeed, because there’s little we haven’t seen a million times before. I guess everyone’s forgotten the PBS series that Goldstein appeared to borrow an outline from, and will be intrigued by hints that Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher were romantically involved.

A direct comparison is instructive. The Nation published Goldstein’s chapter on the famous fight for control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools, in which an African American community school board fires 19 teachers without cause and Al Shanker calls a city-wide strike that goes on for over a month. Goldstein declares that the real issue involved was teacher competency (“But what could be done about teachers who were just plain bad at their jobs?”), that the board was just trying to fire bad teachers. She singles out art teacher Richard Douglass, saying he was witnessed by hall monitor Cecil Bowen being completely incompetent. Using this anecdote, Goldstein implies without saying directly this led to the May 9th firings which caused a seven month show-down.

I’m unconvinced. I can find no mention of Douglass in any other account, and while I’m not doubting her source (apparently a contemporaneous magazine article), Goldstein’s claim of incompetent teachers isn’t supported by Ravitch’s history (more on that in a minute) nor a recent history of the account, The Strike that Changed New York, by Jerald Podair. Podair explicitly says that Rhody McCoy and the school board made a list of the educators…most hostile to district control. Podair also writes that that the new teachers hired by McCoy tried to teach differently, engage the kids. Engagement vs.rigor is, of course, a debate still to this day. But I could find no real mention of teacher incompetence as the cause, but rather teacher resistance to the board. Douglass makes no appearance in that book, nor is he mentioned in Why They Couldn’t Wait, or Charles Isaacs’ account from inside. The general consensus appears to be not that these were “bad teachers” but that they were trouble makers. It may also have been true that the teachers “didn’t relate” to the students, but Isaacs’ account makes clear that “relating” means an early entry of the hippy dippy 70s teaching style, truly the nadir of recent American education. And, as Goldstein makes clear , the test scores plummeted under Rhody McCoy and community control, so despite all the supposedly rigid teachers, kids actually learned less with the well-meaning newbies and teachers who “related”.

But apart from that one discrepancy, Goldstein’s account doesn’t break any new ground, and can thus be compared to the first history of this incident, which appeared in Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars.

And the comparison doesn’t serve Goldstein well. It’s easy to mock Ravitch these days, and her credibility in the elite circles of edu-wonks is apparently quite low (education reporters like Alexander Russo openly insult her on Twitter) but her early histories have chapters that just scorch your psyche. I originally included some quotes, but really, the overall comparison is girl to woman, boy to man, History Lite to Serious Shit. Ravitch was 34 when she wrote The Great School Wars, Goldstein is about 30. Ravitch didn’t have a book deal, she wasn’t a journalist from the right schools (much more important these days then back then), she was a housewife and mom with a rich husband with no one to please, and it shows. Agree or disagree with Ravitch’s overarching themes, her early work really is fearless and purely exhilarating to read.

Instead, we have Dana Goldstein, who made it this far by getting into the right school, writing what’s expected of her, not offending anyone, so why start now?


The Available Pool

(This is by far the most Voldemortean topic I’ve taken on in a while. Brace up.)

Some readers might have noted a potential flaw in my observation that ed schools can’t commit affirmative action. If the average elementary school SAT score is 500 per section, and the average content SAT score is 580 in the relevant subject, then there shouldn’t be a shortage. Plenty of African Americans have those scores, right?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “plenty”.

Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Four words I’d never thought I’d say. I liked Gladwell’s article about ketchup. I also find him useful as a predictive sorter: when I meet someone who admires his work, I run like hell.

But recently I came across a page I’d either missed or forgotten about since the last time I flipped through his book.

gladwelliqbarriers

Gladwell even cites Jensen.

Conceding what he sees as a minor aspect of IQ to make a larger point, Gladwell acknowledges that regions, or thresholds, of IQ exist. But beyond these broad ability differentiators, IQ differences are irrelevant compared to factors like luck, birth, language, rice paddy history. Given certain thresholds, IQ is relatively unimportant in outcomes.

And given certain thresholds, Gladwell’s not terribly wrong, as Jensen confirms.

There’s just one pesky little problem still left to plague modern society: the thresholds. The regions, as Jensen describes them, that differentiate between broad ability levels. The ones that even an IQ pishtosher like Gladwell accepts as given. They’re kind of an issue, if by “issue” you mean the fatal flaw lurking in most of our social and education policies.

Jensen’s regions correspond to the IQ standard deviation markers. The average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15. An IQ of 70 is 2 SD below the average of 50 (2nd percentile), 85 is 1 SD below average (16th percentile), 115–the marker for graduate level work, according to Gladwell and Jensen—is 1 SD above the mean.

Translating Gladwell and Jensen into standard deviations: in order for an American student to be ready for a college graduate program, he needs to have an IQ at the 84th percentile, with “average” (this is Gladwell’s word) as the 50th percentile. Give or take. IQ tests are finicky, no need to be purist. These are broad strokes.

Using those broad strokes, we know that average African American IQ is a little less than one standard deviation below that “average IQ” (again, Gladwell’s term), which means that the 84th percentile for all IQs is attained by just 2% of blacks. Test scores consistently prove out this harsh reality. While the mean African American IQ has risen five points since 1970, test performance has often remained stubbornly 1SD below that of whites. As Chistopher Jencks observes, “typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests”, and often as much as 85% (or 1SD). Much has been written about the 1 SD difference; you can see it in the SAT, the GMAT, and the LSAT. (The SAT is much easier these days; before the recentering, just 70 blacks got over 700 on the verbal, whereas today it’s 2100, or 2%. In 1995, 90% of African Americans scored below 430 on the verbal section whereas the unrecentered LSAT has a score distribution chart registering no black scores over 170.)

(You’re thinking oh, my god, this is Bell Curve stuff. No, no. This is Gladwell, remember? Secure position in the pantheon of liberal intellectual gods. It’s all good.)

We are oversupplied with whites with IQs over the 115 threshold, all of whom have the requisite tested ability to be lawyers and doctors and professors. Since these fields are highly desirable, the educational culling process weeds out or rejects all but the most cognitive elite candidates. Thus all the cognitively demanding fields have a sorting process for whites: medicine, law, academia, science, technologists, executives, politicians, venture capitalists, mathematicians, yada yada yada all the way down to high school teachers, the peasants of the cognitive elite.

The available pool of blacks with the requisite Gladwellian-approved IQs to test into graduate education is barely toe deep.

To build cohorts with blacks exceeding single digits, graduate schools in law, medicine, and business, to name just a few, commit deep discount affirmative action, regardless of legal bans. Ed schools can’t, for reasons I described in the last post. Given the wide range of choices blacks with anything approaching the requisite cognitive ability have, it’s hard to say if any sorting occurs at all.

Much has been written of the supposedly low standards for teacher licensure exams but what do we know about the standards for becoming a lawyer in Alabama or a doctor in Missisippi?

I often ask questions for which data is unobligingly unavailable. Sometimes I just haven’t found the data, or it’s too broad to be much good. Sometimes it’s like man, I have a day job and this will have to do.

Med school: Not much data. See Razib Khan’s efforts.

Law school: For all the talk about mismatch or the concern over dismal bar exam passing rates for blacks, the reality is that low LSAT scores, law school, and persistence can still result in a licensed black lawyer. State bar exam difficulties aren’t uniform (which is also true for teaching). This bar exam predictor says that a law school graduate with an LSAT of 139, three points below the African American mean, attending an Alabama lawschool not in the top 150, graduating in the bottom tenth of his class, has a 26% chance of passing the bar. In Iowa, the same person has a 17% chance–in California, just 4%.

If that predictive application has any validity, the cognitive abilities needed to pass the average high school math or science licensure test in most states are higher than those demanded to pass a bar exam in states filling out the bottom half of the difficulty scale. Passing the math or science licensure exams with an SAT score below the African American mean would be next to impossible in most states. English and history probably compete pretty well on that front as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cognitive demands needed to pass elementary school licensure tests in tough states (California) are greater than those needed to pass the bar exam in easy states (Alabama). (sez me, who has passed the tests in three subjects, and sez all available information on average SAT scores for passing candidates).

Here we are back at the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in the last post. Received wisdom says teachers are stupid. Reality says teacher credential tests have significant cognitive barriers, barriers that appear to exceed those for law and may do so as well for medicine—and the other professional tests are presumably easier still.

Before I looked into this, I would have assumed that licensure tests for law and medicine weeded out a “smarter” class of blacks than those weeded out of teaching. Now I’m not as sure. It seems law schools and med schools keep out the “not-as-smart”whites and Asians while admitting blacks and Hispanics who would only be “not-as-smart” if they were white or Asian. The med and law school licensure exams, in knowledge of this weeding, are gauged to let in the “not-as-smart”, secure in the knowledge that these candidates will be mostly black and Hispanic. (A number of “not-as-smart” whites and Asians will make it through, assuming they paid a small fortune for a low-tier law school, but jobs will be much harder to find.) Understand that I’m using “smart” in the colloquial sense, which means “high test scores”. And most evidence says these are the same thing. I’ve said before now I’m not as certain of this, particularly with regards to African Americans.

This isn’t enough to prove anything, of course, and I wanted more. What else could I could use to—well, if not prove, at least not disprove, what seems to me an obvious reason for a dearth of black teachers?

Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and ethnicity

I made some predictions going in:

  1. Blacks would be a higher percentage of elementary/middle school teachers than of high school teachers. I couldn’t sort out academic teachers from special ed and PE teachers, and I wasn’t sure whether sped teachers would be included in the count. But given the easier licensure test, I was betting the percentage would be higher.
  2. There would be more black school administrators than black high school teachers.
  3. The ratio of black lawyers and doctors to black high school teachers would be higher than the ratio of white lawyers and doctors to white high school teachers (in absolute numbers).
  4. The ratio of black social workers to black teachers would be much higher than the same ratio for white teachers.

So this table shows the total employed in each category, the percentage black and white, the absolute number black and white:
blackwhiteprofs

This table calculates the ratio of each non-teaching occupation to K-8 and high school teachers by race. So the number of black high school teachers is 25% of the number of black K-8 teachers, and there are 154% more black administrators than there are black high school teachers, and so on.

blkwhiteprofperc

I didn’t want to over-interpret the data, so this is just simple Excel, pulling the numbers right off the table (calculating white percentage by subtracting the other races). And I was right about a lot, except this very funny thing:

There are more white lawyers than white high school teachers!

Still, this data mostly bears out my predictions. I threw in some other categories: entertainment/media, and all health, just for compare/contrast.

Many blacks become social workers, far more than become high school teachers or even K-8 teachers. Now, I know teachers complain about low pay, but social work has really low pay, less attractive vacations, and a client base even less cooperative than the average high school student.

I was wrong about lawyers, obviously, but not about doctors. While black high school teachers and black physicians/dentists are in roughly equal supply, white doctors are just 87% of white high school teachers. Whites have to compete with Asians, who are 20% of doctors (and just 5% of lawyers), but if the professions were cognitively sorting on anything approaching an equal basis, there should be a lot more black high school teachers, shouldn’t there? And when expanding the field to all health care practitioners and technicians—therapists, optometrists, nurses, hygienists, pathologists—blacks outnumber black high school teachers by twice the ratio that white high school teachers are outnumbered.

So blacks are choosing skilled health care work over teaching at considerably higher rates than whites are making that same choice, and the number of black doctors have near parity with black high school teachers, while white doctors are a bit further behind.

Then there’s my amazing perspicacity in predicting the overrepresentation of black education administrators. Pretty obvious, really. Districts can only practice affirmative action in teacher hiring to the extent they have black candidates. But administrative positions are wide open for affirmative action. While I’m sure there’s a test, it’s got to be a piece of cake compared to the high school subject credential test. I can’t really take all the credit, though.
CJ Cregg first alerted me to affirmative action in principal selection. But before you shed all sorts of tears for Tal Cregg, remember that the Brown decision resulted in thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs, all in the name of racial equity and equal access.

I only had one surprise. When I started this effort, I figured that I’d include a snarky remark like “Want more black teachers? Raise the cut scores for the bar exam.” But no, lawyers, it turns out, are whiter even than high school teachers. That might explain why the cut scores are set so low on the bar exam, and it suggests that the predictive application knows its stuff. The legal profession in many states is doing its best to bring in more black and Hispanic lawyers by lowering the cut score—in others, not so much.

Steve Sailer noticed something I’d missed in my original post on teacher SAT scores—namely, teachers had strong verbal scores regardless of the subject taught. Law, too, is a field heavy on the reading and talking. So maybe whites are drawn to fields that reward this aptitude. It’s arguable, in fact, that America’s entire educational policy through the century was informed, unknowingly, by its unusually large population of unambitious smart white people who like to talk. We might want to consider that possibility before we start demanding diversity.

Anyway.

Step one in investigating the lack of black teachers should start with the oversupply of black social workers and see why, given their strong interest in community work, they aren’t going into teaching. The uninformed yutzes who presume to opine on education policy think ed schools are either prejudiced against or just uninterested in recruiting black teachers. Those actually interested in creating black teachers think it’s the licensure tests. I’m with them.

So go find out. If I’m right, we can start talking about lowering the cut scores for k-3 licensure tests. Once we realize that the Common Core goals are a chimera, we might create high school teaching tiers, with easier tests for basic math and English classes. (In exchange, maybe, for loosening up the affirmative action grip on administrative positions, if such a grip exists.)

Given the tremendous overrepresentation of blacks in our prisons, I’d argue we need to spend our time and policy creating more black lawyers, not black teachers. Better pay, better status and who knows, maybe better justice.

The available pool of black cognitive talent is small. Tradeoffs must be made. If we want more black teachers, we’ll have to lower the cognitive ability standards required for teaching or reduce the number of black professionals in better-paying, higher-status jobs. To a certain extent, the first of those options make sense. The second one’s just stupid.

I got into this because of that damn TFA announcement saying that 1 in 5 of their teaching corps was black, and the congratulatory nonsense that spewed forth in the announcement’s wake. And you still should be wondering how TFA is getting so many blacks that can pass the licensure tests. Next up, I promise.


Parents and Schools

John Merrow, a solid education reporter who should stay away from analysis proves me right once more.

If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?

So I shall start with the mild compliment: he has nicely identified a bit of hypocrisy. Leave aside the vagueness of “professional educators” (he later declares that a 1st grade teacher is not a professional educator. I presume he’s teaching for free?). Without question, school leaders, many teachers, educational policy wonks make big noises about how important a role parents play in their children’s education and they don’t really mean it.

But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks. We don’t need them to do anything other than their jobs. As parents. You know, feed them, potty train them, give them some semblance of understanding of institutionalized behavior, obedience and self-discipline, and most of all, get them to school.

Alas, when it comes to our basic expectations of parents “doing their jobs” as educators define them, low income parents (disproportionately, but not entirely, black and Hispanic) are most likely to fall down on those essential tasks. Moreover, schools are now assessed on student outcomes and the students most likely not to meet the outcomes expected have parents with performance problems on those essential tasks. Many of their kids are absent a great deal, and when they’re present they aren’t on time, aren’t behaving, they aren’t obedient, aren’t really interested in success, and often aren’t fed.

So yeah, educators talk a good line about parental involvement because they are looking for a way to get buy-in from low income, mostly-but-not-all black and Hispanic parents on the school’s expectations—and it’s a bit tacky to say to everyone else no, really, we just mean them.

Schools might be better off without the pretense and speak honestly about the specific behavior they want. But that brings up other issues. Most educators are white females, which means their behavior expectations have been defined by middle class and higher Americans, mostly whites but also blacks, Hispanics, and 3rd plus generation Asians. Most of the time the behavior expectations are reasonable; some of them are probably not. Like many others, I’m dismayed that the feds are enforcing disparate impact regulations on school discipline measures. But somewhere between “black and Hispanic kids misbehave more” (generally true) and “schools and teachers are racist” (generally false) lies the reality: many teachers discipline—or worse, grade—kids of all races, but disproportionately black and Hispanics, for not meeting their own cultural expectations without having really considered the impact on their students.

Public schools can’t require parents or students to comply with behavior norms, and as you see, the feds will step in if their disciplinary attempts are racially skewed. Charters can require both parents and students to meet their cultural and behavioral requirements, and on this count alone, charters should not be called public schools.

It is, of course, a complete coincidence that the No Excuses brand of charters, like KIPP, specialize in working with just that demographic that disproportionately falls down on parental expectations. That the selective “No Excuses” schools are desired by parents from this demographic who want to do their job, but live in districts filled with parents who don’t and can’t afford to move to a district filled with parents who do, is also entirely a matter of random chance.

Also utterly unrelated: “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

Parents with real choices would never tolerate this from a school, which is why white kids don’t do KIPP, or any other of the schools requiring absurd behavior. And since whites aren’t there, No Excuses schools can suspend or expel black and Hispanic kids in willful abandon, free from federal intervention, which is why the cities that pride themselves on their charter saturation also have shockingly high expulsion and suspension rates.

So back to John Merrow. Remember Merrow? This is a post about Merrow. (need a cite, o young uns?)

He clearly thinks that schools should think of parents as partners, that they should live up to their rhetoric. Fine. I disagree, but no matter. Merrow didn’t try to make the case for the essential nature of parental involvement. Were he to try and make that case, he’d run smack into the problems I just spend the first thousand words pointing out. If schools can’t require parental involvement—and public schools can’t—then they can’t depend on it.

The rest of his post is insulting, when it isn’t risibly foolish. Here’s the best part:

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

He thinks this is profound. Because it’s never once occurred to “education” that parents want their children to succeed. No, educators’ default assumption is eh, these parents, they just don’t give a damn. They’ve never tried to treat them as partners. They’ve never spent millions of dollars on outreach. For the entire history of American education, no one in policy, teaching, or administration has really given much thought to parents.

Like I said. The man should stay away from opinionating. He’s a hell of a reporter.

So no one asked me, but most people have this backwards. Parents aren’t supposed to support schools. Schools are supposed to support parents.

Teachers aren’t monolithic, on this or any education issue. Some agree with Merrow and blame schools for not seeking ever more input from parents. Some demand an annoying degree of parental involvement. Others blame the parents for not valuing education sufficiently. Still others, like me, think parents largely irrelevant to their job. It often depends—I know you will find this shocking—on their student demographics.

But regardless of these differences, few teachers would deny that their job involves supporting parents. Teachers are the primary adult outsiders in any child’s life from six through eighteen. There’s a reason we’re mandated reporters, why we are legally responsible for our students in our classroom, why you don’t hear stories about teachers running away when the crazed gunman shows up at the door. Most parents have to send their kids to school. Most teachers and the schools they work for take that responsibility seriously. We want your children to be safe and productive, in that order, while in our care. And we have insights and observations about our students—intellectual, social, emotional—that parents might want. Or might not. It’s their call.

Parent interaction isn’t a huge part of the job, thank god. Not that I don’t like parents. I was a parent long before I became a teacher, and my sympathy for the typical suburban parent frustrations is deep and genuine, while my disdain for the usual teacher niceties makes me fairly popular with working class parents of all colors (doesn’t hurt that I came from that strata). But I didn’t get into teaching to be a team player; my quality time is in front of a class and building curriculum. (I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!) So I like my parental interaction to be done via email, with the occasional meeting as needed. No phones, please.

When I mention this view, I invariably get a litany of complaints about the many teachers who don’t return emails within 3 hours, who won’t personally check Sally’s backpack daily because the poor girl has executive function problems and forgets her homework, the principals who didn’t take Bobby’s fear of PE seriously, and, of course, the many stories about teachers and principals who are actually jerks.

We aren’t servants or employees, and you aren’t paying us by the hour. And rare is the teacher who excels at all aspects of communication, while also being a fabulous pedagogue. Just as many teachers and schools (KIPP, I’m looking at you) are unrealistic in their expectations of students, so too are many, many parents absurdly unrealistic in their demands of teachers.

And this information and support is never going to function ideally. Schools are necessarily imperfect, as are parents. All I’m doing is articulating a basic truth: parents need information, feedback, and support from schools.

Perhaps we should frame the discussion that way and discuss reasonable expectations, rather than engage in the pretense that schools need parents.

What, you’re waiting for the ed school insights? Me, too.


On interviewing and ed school

Up to now, when I spoke of interviews, I was the ‘-ee’. When our school recently had to hire some math teachers, I was naturally entranced at the very idea of being an “er” and gloriously, one of the interviews happened during my prep. For the first time, I got to sit at the other side of the table and see what happened.

I talked to the candidates about teaching, got a sense of their classroom demographics. What’s their grade distribution? What was their relationship with the cooperating teacher? I looked for their approach to teaching. Did they mix things up? Step away from their supervisor to try a different path? Do they build their own curriculum or assessments? What are their goals? I had no required answers. I don’t like too much certainty, unless it’s mine. I just want to know if they think about teaching, about the issues they face in the classroom.

I also asked them about policy via the questions on Common Core, heterogeneous classrooms, differentiation. What do they think about Common Core? Do they group kids, and if so, how? Could I get a conversation going with them? Could I see this new teacher handling the wide range of student personalities that they’d be facing?

Both the candidates I interviewed could talk readily and engagingly about teaching. They clearly gave a lot of thought to their work. Both of them faced student learning outcomes they were unhappy with and on their own initiative made changes to their classroom practice to improve results. Both talked readily about their goals, their planned next steps.

Both had made significant innovations on their own time. One had an excellent website that he used to build resources and put daily lessons. When kids missed a day (a big deal in a block schedule), he gave them the ability to come in and watch the lecture or power point at lunch, for a bit of extra credit. I tend to blow off missed days, even knowing the kids need the material, so I instantly felt guilty. This candidate acknowledged that it’d be much harder to keep up to date with a full schedule—a touch of reality there.

The other guy didn’t use textbooks, built his own curriculum and assessments, had a lot of fun illustrating activities, always had extra activities for his top kids when they finished early. Which might sound familiar to regular readers and, for that reason, I would have tilted slightly more towards this guy than the other, while being pleased to get either candidate.

Race: Between the principal, the AVP, me, and the two candidates, the Big Four all had representatives. The AVP and one of the candidates were the same race.

We had The List of Questions (see link above) that me and the AVP were to rotate through while the principal listened in. While we went through the List (differentiation, English language learners, classroom management, assessing understanding, etc), the format of the interview was much more freeform than not. I was apparently pretty good at asking good follow-up questions and getting the teachers to open up. Unless it’s normal to get an enthusiastic note of praise from both principal and AVP on my contributions, followed by the AVP’s decision that I interview the second candidate, even though it wasn’t during my prep. A oorah day all round, that was.

Both candidates were good. I have no idea who we actually hired or if we went in a different direction, but I would have been pleased with either one.

But here’s the interesting part. One of these candidates was articulate and well-informed on the policy questions. He had an opinion on Common Core, was fully informed about its impact on math instruction, and voiced sincere skepticism. On English language learners, he risked what might be considered a dangerous opinion (except I share it): language difficulties have to be really really major to interfere with math comprehension, and on a day to day basis few of us really have to give much thought to ELLs. He did group his kids, but put strong kids in with weak ones because he’d been advised to by his ed school professors. When I told him I group by ability, he was fascinated and we spun off onto a five minute dialogue.

The other candidate wasn’t nearly as familiar with Common Core; his school hadn’t begun implementation. He didn’t understand the ELL question without further clarification. He wasn’t aware of the “heterogeneous classrooms” debate.

I was taken aback, because he was clearly a thoughtful teacher who had a decent knowledge of math pedagogy. The other candidate had mentioned discussing Common Core in his ed school classes, so I asked how much discussion he’d had about Common Core in his classes. Answer: None. What kind of readings had his school done on heterogeneous classrooms? Answer: None.

The second candidate’s ed school hadn’t covered any of these issues in depth and, like all teachers, he wasn’t terribly interested in policy. So he was largely unaware of the ongoing pedagogical issues and debates in the field. In contrast, the school’s curriculum instruction was pretty good.

You ask why I could blame the ed school, and not the candidate? I wouldn’t have seen so much potential. My sense was he was a good, motivated teacher who’d been through a mediocre program. While I won’t go so far as to say teachers can only be born, not made, I do believe teaching is an art, not a skill. There isn’t a body of knowledge to be passed down as fact, no “how to” manual that we use to bone up on the basics. I’m new to the interviewing process, but felt very strongly that both candidates had “the stuff”, regardless of their teacher preparation.

The stronger institution wasn’t an elite ranked private university, but the local public university charged with producing a huge chunk of the state’s teachers. The other candidate attended a local private university.

Now, before someone points out the obvious, of course I know that hiring administrators don’t consider ed school quality. That’s not the point. Few would realize that the candidate with the stronger ,more informed answers had gone to a better ed school, because most interviews don’t get to the depth of discussion that you’d need to determine the source of the better preparation.

As I’ve said, I considered both to be excellent prospects, and communicated as much to the AVP. In no way should anything written here be taken as critical of either teacher.

But as a result of the interviews, I began mulling the value and purpose of ed school. Paul Bruno has been on a kick for a while about its utility; if I understand him correctly he would pretty much kill it entirely. We’ve had several twitter exchanges on the topic; I also discuss it frequently with Stephen Sawchuk, the only reporter I’m aware of who really groks teacher certification. These conversations paint me, fairly accurately, as a fence-sitter who leans towards ed school.

I’ve been reluctant to argue about this, because I can’t really say that ed school of any sort is essential. I could have started teaching right away, without forking out the cash for a credential. I’ve known good TFAers who were reasonably functional despite a “training” program that’s little more than hours of indoctrination.

But so what? I could also pass the bar without going to law school and everyone says that law school doesn’t teach lawyering. Upon reflection, I realize I am willing to argue for the utility of ed school, that traditional ed school, with all its flaws, is closer to what we need than TFA or the various gulags of highly regarded alternative teacher education (MATCH, KIPP, Teaching Fellows, I’m looking at you).

So in a followup post, I’m going to try and define what ed school should do, where current ed schools fall short, and why they are still better, on average, than any other teacher preparation method.

Here’s a hint: Everything NCTQ says is wrong. But then, ’twas ever thus.


Rick Hess Recycles

So Rick Hess, after delivering a bracing face slap to reformers on their complaints about pesky little implementation details, apparently decided to be evenhanded and talk tough to educators about their desires to run schools without the interference of those pesky politicians:

I had smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems. About pols who weren’t willing to spend enough on schools. About why pols don’t listen to them or ask their advice. About how the pols ought to stick to their own business, and let educators run the schools.

And what does he tell them?

Mostly, I tell edu-leaders to get over themselves. Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public policies. Whether made by legislators or bureaucrats, and in Washington or locally, those policies sketch what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

And when educators respond by saying but wait, this is new behavior, what does he say?

Two answers: One, you’re wrong. Pols have always written regs about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. Two, the reason today’s policy feels more invasive is because there’s substantial dissatisfaction with how schools are doing and with the effects of these older rules and regs. So, new policies focused on accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, and the rest, are an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well served and that public funds are spent effectively.

Besides, we have to sympathize with the life of a politician looking to improve schools:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

But why do they get to make policy?

it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can argue that educators should have an untrammeled right to spend public dollars, educate the public’s kids, and run public schools as they see fit. But you can do so coherently if, and only if, you think military officials should have a free hand to make national security policy, police should get a free hand to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like health policy or whether police racially profile, then you need to recognize that folks expect educators to live by those same rules.

Well, he sure told off educators. But I have a few….……Wait. Wait. HOLD ON!

I’m so embarrassed. I am using the wrong Rick Hess tells off educators column! He wrote this one nearly two years ago. How could I screw up like that?

Here’s the one he wrote this week.

Talented educators regularly gripe to me about dumb accountability systems, teacher evaluation schemes, and such. They gripe about politicians who aren’t willing to spend enough on schools, to listen to them, or to ask their advice. They exclaim that policymakers ought to mind their own business and let educators run the schools.

And his response?

I get it. It’s an understandable premise, especially for a hard-working, talented teacher. But I tell these folks they need to step back and look at this with fresh eyes. See how it looks to the policymakers, say. After all, public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public officials. Those officials are going to set the policies that shape what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

Hey. They don’t have to get over themselves any more! But apparently, these educators still think it’s new behavior, and:

There are two responses here. One, is that you’re wrong. Politicians and state bureaucrats have always written regulations about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, which textbooks would be used, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. We’re used to all this, though, so it can be less noticeable. Two, the reason that today’s policy feels more invasive is because policymakers have been convinced that these older rules and regulations weren’t getting the job done. So, they’ve adopted new policies around accountability, school choice, teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and the rest, in an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well-served and that public funds are well spent.

No change there. He still wants sympathy for the politicians, and he “puts it the same way”:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level or high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable to think you need to do something about it. Now, it’s totally cool to disagree with what policymakers are doing: to think it’s misguided or wrong-headed. But you’re in an infinitely better place to cage-bust if you start with an appreciation for where they’re coming from.

And why do these politicians get to make policy?

If you’re wondering why people who aren’t experts on schooling get to make policy, it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can wish that educators should be free to spend public funds and run public schools as they see fit. But that’s not the way it works. In any event, you can only make that argument in good conscience if you think military officials should have a free hand to craft national security policy, police to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical reps to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like whether we invade other nations, what health care should look like, or what our laws say, then educators need to be prepared to live by those same rules.

You’re wondering how I recognized this. I’d love to say I commit Rick Hess’s work to memory, but in fact I responded to the earlier piece, in one of my favorite posts: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. You should read it. Rick Hess did, because I emailed the post to him and we had a nice conversation about it. My conclusion:

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

I was tempted to just repost this whole essay and see if anyone noticed, but I’m not as famous as Rick and I doubt anyone would. Notice.

Note to Rick: I know you’re busy with the books and all, but I have to tell you this didn’t end well for Jonah Lehrer.


Keeping Teachers New

So John Merrow of Taking Note discusses “teacher churn” . Merrow, who I don’t really object to much, is a bit like another veteran education reporter Jay Mathews in that he’s superb at hard reporting but should avoid analysis. (At least Merrow hasn’t been responsible for massive grade fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars. Thanks, John!)

… somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years…The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job.

And in fairness, his flawed reasoning here isn’t any worse than the crap that most policy advocates, particularly on the reform side, go through.

But flawed it is. One, we are hiring more teachers. Two, more teachers are leaving the profession after a few years….but wait. No, we don’t know that more teachers are leaving the profession, as a percentage of the population, since 1988. It’s a bit like an SAT inference question, isn’t it?

Teacher turnover has been an area of study since at least the late 70s. Murnane is a name that pops up often. An early paper by Linda Darling Hammond calls for more data collection, challenging the then received wisdom that teacher turnover and teacher quality were problems that would inevitably lead to shortages—heavens, that sounds familiar. I don’t in fact know that teacher turnover is worse (and trying to hunt that data down is the kind of research that leads to increased lag time between my posts), but certainly it’s been an area of study for close to forty years.

So while Merrow doesn’t actually state that turnover is increasing, he does imply that turnover, or “churn”, is why we’re hiring more teachers. But that’s obviously not the only possibility. The late 70s to early 80s were a tough time for teachers, as the boom generation finally left K-12 education and the “baby bust”, coupled with fiscal issues, led to layoffs. The following echo boom would have required more teachers.

Reduced class size initiatives, the huge increase in special education mandates, charter growth—all of these would lead to increased teacher hiring without entailing turnover. Charters rarely take away enough students from a single school for a one-to-one teacher exchange, and of course charters are allowed to cap growth (nice work if you can get it).

No reason to think the increase in teacher hiring has been caused by increased churn, then.

Given that Merrow hasn’t even really built the case for increased teacher churn, it makes sense that his culprit is totally off.

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.[3] Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

Right, it’s ed schools! They aren’t turning out bad teachers because of their own incompetence, but because it feeds the need for their service!

Except, um, ed schools already overproduce elementary school teachers. (I don’t think they do so deliberately—my sense is a lot of unmotivated women who just want a degree go this route without ever really intending to be teachers. No evidence, but there’d be a lot more complaining if that many teachers each year couldn’t find employment.)

Besides, ed schools benefit from the “step and column” pay structure, in which teachers are paid both by time and acquired education. Most pay scales dramatically slow the “step” increases after year eight to ten, deliberately pushing teachers towards professional development. Teaching is apay to play occupation—the state makes us pay to jump through a bunch of hoops. Ed school benefits from the whole process, not just the entry point. No increased steps, no column. No incentive for massive churn.

As I’ve observed before, teachers and cops have a lot in common and wow, check out the research on cop turnover. Like teachers, policing is a state government job that requires intelligence, doesn’t have a huge amount of upwards growth, but offers qualified people an interesting challenge or a safe job, depending on their inclinations and abilities. And both occupations turn out to be harder than they appear to the outsider, thus leading to what I assume is a higher than average degree of turnover for a professional occupation. Thus I don’t see any sinister cause for teacher churn.

Please God, spare us all from the Linda Darling Hammond solution of more, longer training.

All that said—and in this next part, consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive—I pointed out in the Chris Christie piece above that teachers are clearly targeted in a way that cops aren’t, despite the fact that they’re more expensive, work fewer years and take longer pensions (or disability) and just as hard to fire.

A growing conventional wisdom is forming among the elites—the opinion makers, business leaders, political leaders—that teaching should be a short term job, that they aren’t worth the government expense. While they probably feel this way about cops, too, current memes dictate respect to the men (and they are, usually, men) who fight—crime, terrorists, fires, and the like. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly like elites except not as smart—because otherwise, they wouldn’t go into teaching—and far more female. Hence the emphasis on their supposedly weak qualifications and determined ignorance of all evidence showing the qualifications aren’t weak. To put it in political terms: the center-left is supportive of cops and critical of teachers in a way that’s relatively new. The bulk of the people defending teachers and criticizing cops (these days on stop and frisk) are way, way to the left.

Acceptable targets change over time. Teachers moved up the chain, cops moved down. Makes sense, really—the crime rate was an issue in 80s and early 90s, then crime rates improved. Meanwhile, we’d spent twenty years thinking that affirmative action and equal opportunity would end the achievement gap and that didn’t pan out—time to blame teachers.

So teachers should hunker down, I guess—attentions and fashions will change again.

Certainly, reformers are trying to discourage long-term teaching careers. I see no evidence that cops, judges, firefighters, professors, or lawyers, to pick a random sample, are studied for “effectiveness”, much less found to be more “effective” with years in service. Nor do I see any mention of police use of sick leave, judges’ work load, or state university academics use of sabbaticals. Somehow, the fact that teachers don’t “improve” with time on the job is put forward again and again as evidence that they should be paid differently than any other government worker. And it’s hard to see Andrew Rotherham’s otherwise ludicrous obsession with teaching pensions as anything but an attempt to increase the sweetener for short-termers at the expense of lifers, to encourage teachers to find another line of work after a few years.

But hey, that’s how reformers make their bones.

The problem with teaching is that all “sides” of the debate accept as a given that we are failing to educate our kids, that we could do a much better job. In fact, we aren’t failing, and there’s no evidence we could be doing much better. But so long as everyone agrees that “schools are failing”, teachers will be on the firing line, and “churn” will be seen as either desirable or not based on absurd expectations and beliefs.

Cops were rescued from public condemnation by a dramatic reduction in crime—which they may or may not have contributed to. Teachers won’t be rescued by a decreased achievement gap. We’ll just have to wait for a new scapegoat to another big policy problem. Alternately, for society to accept that we’ll never end the achievement gap.

Which means we better wait for another policy problem. Hey, folks, did you know that firefighters don’t actually fight fires?


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