Category Archives: policy

Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here, and he works three jobs.”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE, photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path.

As an aside: you ever notice that ELL discussions by outsiders always focus around immersion vs bilingual education?  Neither method is going to get high school ELL students anywhere past pijin. It’s irrelevant.

 

Food for thought.

 


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names.  However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school.   Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.

My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.

The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.

Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.

Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.

As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed).  I was at my best.

Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone.  It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse,  people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.

Wait. Trump-voting teacher,  three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.

He’ll remember me.

Anyway.  While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously,  I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.

In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective chartersimmigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.

But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”

I was taken aback. “I mean, come on.  Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”

Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”

I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.

So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.

“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money.  They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”

“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even  private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”

“That’s fine.”

“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”

“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”

I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”

“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”

“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity,  there’s no need for private.”

“Great.”

“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”

“So?”

“SO?”

I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.

Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.

But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.

[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}

A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education ReformEnd of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.

So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind,  onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.

Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices.  Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs.  Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.

But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.

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I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.

One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”

“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”

“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”

I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”

He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

capstudentdef

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

capstudentselfish

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

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

2003NAALproscomprace2003NAALdoccomprace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chgbyrace92to03

What educational categories saw the most black improvement?

chgbyedrace92to03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier, I wrote:

I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 


Homework: The Rules that Matter

While reading another carefully worded propaganda blast on the value of  homework, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean, a splendid film that I’d remembered recently for my ELL class.

Research on homework, and debates about research on homework can’t really be taken seriously. It’s all more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But the fundamentals of homework are very much a cascading series of Jack Sparrow’s “two rules that matter“. For high school, anyway–and if it’s not high school or beyond, it doesn’t matter.

So as long as we’re just hanging here, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these:

IronLaws

Savvy?

“Homework” is practice, work that is assigned with the intent to improve fluency and understanding. Math homework is the most common sort, but there are also science lab notes, reading textbook notes, those idiotic shoebox assignments, collages, or any other sort of out-of-school activity that isn’t formal written expression or assessment.

“Corrupted” is a strong word for grading that is very much standard procedure in most high schools nationwide, but appropriately dramatic given the degree to which grades are used as a proxy for ability. Many teachers would be upset at this description of their usual practice; in this conversation of mostly college-level instructors, most of the participants acknowledge that many students do well on tests, but flunk or get a much lower grade because they don’t do the homework.  Others point out how absurd this is. At the high school level, far fewer are found in the second group.

Teachers have a wide, legally enforced latitude in grading, but districts and schools can institute policies that reduce options. Overwhelmingly, these policies take place in low income schools, where the students shrug off the Fs and the failure rates affect the graduation rates. District and school efforts to protect students from low grades due to homework take the shape of  forced incompletes,  banning zeros and sometimes banning graded homework altogether.  And the public always scoffs. Lazy kids these days.

District or school-imposed restrictions are not to be confused with parent-initiated drama fests about homework overload.

The research on homework almost all focuses on two questions: does homework improves academic performance? How much homework are students doing? (The latter issue, in particular, has been annoying American parents for decades.)

I’m not…terribly interested in either of those questions. The first, which most consider quite important, is specifically in conflict with a teacher’s responsibility to grade accurately. No one would ever assume that homework improvement is anything other than relative to student ability.

But grades aren’t relative. Teachers can’t grade homework without impacting students’ performance grade. They can’t.

And so  they shouldn’t.

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

I don’t do homework, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the primary damage done by homework’s corrupting impact on grades.

Grades, really, are the main issue. Grades in America are simply junk. I can’t stress this enough.  Research–never mention a moment’s reflection–reveals that in  Title I schools like mine, an A denotes a much lower performance than at a high-income high school.

No one’s interested in adequately assessing student merit across classrooms, much less school districts, much less cities, states, or countries, so laugh at anyone who declares passionately that Harvard and other private universities are discriminating against more worthy claimants, Asian or otherwise.  No one knows who the worthy claimants are, and no one’s interested in finding out.

But that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

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

I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.


Should Reporters Allow Teachers Pseudonymous Opinions?

Look, I’m not defending this idiot, who uses her picture, her location, and her occupation to discuss how she “infiltrates” the public school system with her white nationalist views. If she discusses in class her belief that Nigerians have lower IQs than Swedes,  if she teaches her students nudge-nudge-wink-wink that whites are superior, then she should be fired.

But she should be fired for what she does, not what she believes.

Maybe she’s been an item of constant concern at her school. Maybe she’s convinced her students to lie for her, as she merrily runs her pre-pubescent white supremacist club. Maybe she’s teaching them that the South was destroyed by Northern aggressors, that slavery was really a well-meaning effort by paternal whites looking after their helpless African “workers”.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that she’s mild-mannered Mildred at school, that her podcast is all fantasy land. What if she’s a popular teacher, much loved for her accessible lessons and commitment to equitable outcomes? She thinks all the equity talk is feel-good, useless preachery and runs a podcast to vent her distaste at the liberal nostrums she has to preach. Her little podcast gets popular beyond her wildest expectations, and she starts talking up fiction to increase her audience.

Likely? No. But imagine, for a moment, that she is a good teacher who doesn’t proselytize, who has equitable outcomes.

Does this Florida teacher deserve to lose her job? She isn’t denigrating her students, as Natalie Munroe did.  As I understand it, a teacher’s right to free speech is balanced with the school’s right to efficient operations. Her district will certainly be able to claim she is a distraction to the school’s primary business.

Now. Now, she is. Once the Huffpo reporters got her in their targets. Once they tracked her down and  went to her employer and raised questions, her termination due to the disruption is reasonably certain. I wonder if the union will bother to protect her?

And of course, she used her own picture, used her own town, and claimed to be influencing her students, which gives the reporters a reasonable pretext to out her.

But what if she’d offered no specifics? What if she hadn’t used her picture, hadn’t bragged about influencing her kids, about parents complaining?

I don’t like the teacher’s opinions, although some are far less shocking than the HuffPo folk like to think. It seems quite clear she wasn’t calling for Muslims to be eradicated. I am unfussed by her sarcastic dismissal of white privilege. I find retweeting KKK and the “JQ” comments to be beyond the pale (although apparently the latter is a term not unknown to at least one  US Democrat congressman. )

But no matter how repugnant, these and other views, such as accepting as fact the average intelligence levels of Nigerian and Swedish students, are not illegal.  They’re minority fringe political opinions in a country that says it protects free speech.

What if she just had a podcast and Twitter account as an teacher using a pseudonym, without any talk of infiltration, no use of a picture? I don’t see that stopping the HuffPo reporters once they’d gotten the tip. They clearly see this passage as damning:teachervotingtrump

Three in ten teachers voted for Trump.. Are journalists intending to hunt us all down? Or will that just be added fodder, after the teacher has been nailed for supporting immigration restriction or IQ science?

John Fensterwald is considerably more reasonable than any HuffPo reporter, yet he can’t conceive  of the possibility that a teacher is capable of separating his or her personal beliefs from classroom interactions. In that case what stops any reporter for hunting out teachers who express their opinions in political forums using a pseudonym?  If reporters can’t even imagine that a teacher can treat students decently despite his or her political opinions, then they’ll feel wholly justified in outing these teachers. Hell, it’s a sacred duty.

Don’t even dare suggest these reporters might be deliberately creating a chilling effect for free speech. That the reporters are deliberately creating a furor that forces the district to terminate the employment of a teacher purely for wrong opinions, regardless of the teacher’s professional behavior and teaching ability. Don’t suggest that perhaps  journalism should acknowledge bias, let anonymous people alone rather than enforcing their ideological preferences in the guise of reporting a story.

All that remains is to define racist, intolerant, the “wrong opinions”.

I find that….unnerving.

I guess teachers should know better than to express the wrong opinions.

For now, I’m mildly grateful that a foolish young woman provided a test case that suggests reporters will at least try to find some public interest before outing anyone.

Do I take this personally? Why do you ask?


Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?

Trained?

Flattered?

Teachers?

I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.

 

For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.

 

I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.

 


Teachers and Smart Kids

Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.

Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.

But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.

If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.

That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.

The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.

“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding.  He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”

I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”

She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it.  I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”

She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.

and then……a weird thing happened!

“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”

I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”

And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.

I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.

Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.

My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.

But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence.  Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice,  but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help.  My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.

One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.

But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.


The Things I Don’t Write

For someone who struggles to write four essays a month, I do a lot of outside work for my blog. Much of it goes nowhere-I can’t package my thoughts, I can’t find the data I want, I get overwhelmed, or I realize that it’s all going back to the one big idea I have about education which is OH MY GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE DELUSIONAl.

For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve:

  • read three books on various educational topics
  • determined how many immigrants, legal and otherwise, live in each state
  • collected and analyzed the third and fifth grade test scores from Illinois for the years 2001-2006
  • Tried to figure out how to run a regression analysis that I could make sense of. Robert Verbruggen even helped, but I threw up my hands and said alas.

In previous years, I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out the precise development of our modern math curriculum, which I almost have nailed, but not quite. I’ve looked up the demographics of 50 cities on Money’s Best Places to Live list. I’ve spent hundreds of days almost writing things, and then abandoned the effort.

Sometimes I’ve gotten an idea at 11:30 pm and written all night because I know that if I stop, I’ll never get back to it. Other times I’ll write all day and then sudden stop, depressed, knowing it’s going nowhere.

So right now I have 98 drafts in my WordPress account. A lot of them are nearly blank, with a few sentences and a link. Some are considerably more.   And since I spent so much time this week researching, I had a thought–why not just talk about the work I don’t finish?

I couldn’t bring myself to publish the draft posts. That feels like too much of a commitment. These pieces aren’t ready. Instead, I created PDFs of snipped pages. That’s weird, I know. Stop looking at me like that!

Memory: January, 2014

I’d just written Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me, another piece I did a great deal of research for. When I finished it, I really had something more to say, so I promised a part 2.

But part 2 never gelled. I wanted to start by making people think about different things that memory means, and I still like the four anecdotes. But I instantly knew they were too long, too distracting. I left them in and kept plugging away, because sometimes I get focus and put things together in ways I hadn’t originally intended. Then, a second problem–the issues with memory are so directly related to curriculum, to skills vs. knowledge. So I felt I had to discuss those issues, and man, by that time it was just a mess. Each individual part is interesting, but it’s about four pieces.

Today, I’m much better at seeing that, at chunking off pieces and limiting my scope. But back then, I just gave up. So here it is: Memorize What, Exactly?

It’s a big mess, but I do like the four anecdotes, particularly the Game of Thrones one. I was disappointed in my failure to finish this, and for years, I ignored the published essay. But a year ago I revisited it and am really pleased. Certainly the research wasn’t a waste. I talk to my students about episodic versus semantic memory, echoic vs. iconic and they always enjoy it.

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Bruno was one of my favorite bloggers, one of the only teachers I knew of who cared about policy. (Alas, he cared about policy so much he left teaching and is now working on a PhD, last I checked.) He wrote a piece on Common Core that triggered a longstanding beef I have with the curriculum folks–namely, their peculiar belief that standardized curriculum have any sort of meaning in  a world outside France, which apparently teaches exactly the same thing every day in every school. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway, I wrote one of many different attempts to state how insane it is to care about what textbook we use, at least at the high school level. We all customize. And at some point I went oh, lord, why bother? I have no evidence other than that of my own eyes. So I put it aside.

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

The Weekly Standard has three of my favorite writers: Matt Labash, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. (My tweet on this point neglected to mention Caldwell, but only because I thought he’d left the magazine.)

In 2014, Ferguson wrote this stunningly awesome piece on the Common Core lunacy, shredding what anyone familiar with the landscape would call the reform side of education policy. But then, in two paragraphs, he slimed the progressive side of thing–teachers, ed schools, unions, the like–without the slightest acknowledgement that he was now attacking the opponents of those who inflicted Common Core among us. Imagine reading an article ripping the NRA apart as “gun nuts” and then casually spending two paragraphs mocking the people who want to ban assault weapons–and calling them “gun nuts”, too. That’s what Ferguson did.

I spent a week trying to explain why this was crazy. But then I remembered that Republicans are just utterly ignorant of the educational field of play. Despite his brilliance, Ferguson wouldn’t even care about the distinction that rendered his article almost meaningless. Why spend time and energy criticizing one of my favorite writers who would just shrug me off as a stupid teacher?

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

May 2015: Why Isn’t the GOP Looking for Popular Education Policies?

The GOP and/or conservative inability to update their priors on education policy has plagued me for a few years now, so a year after I abandoned the Ferguson essay I tried again.

There’s a riot in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Kevin Williamson all basically blamed white female teachers for problems that, best I could see, involved white male cops and their black male victims. All of this would be solved by choice, they assured us.  Good lord, guys, the 90s are calling. They want their ed policy back. Mainstream conservative punditry and GOP politicians haven’t updated their rhetoric in 20 years. The actual reformers have. They’re in mourning about the utter trouncing they’ve taken both in the political and public arena.

But I get worn out by this, too. So one more essay bites the dust. Here’s the skeleton: Education Policy: Restricting the Range

In retrospect, I wonder if conservative blindness about education policy is linked to the general blindness they all had about Trump. That is, they had GOP voters locked up without any alternatives, so no need to cater. They never really understood how unpopular their ideas were with the GOP voters because no one was providing an alternative. Trump figured this out on immigration, trade, and political correctness. I await the day he grasps reality on education.

September 2016: Fixing Schools

This came about after my August road trip, when I was driving all over the Northwest listening to NPR or conservative radio, whatever reception allowed, and left or right, everyone was talking about our failing schools and what to do about them. So I wrote up my own plan: How to Fix a Failing High School

This one’s actually pretty good. I should get back to it.

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

I spent at least a week looking up demographics for that Money’s Best Places to Live 2016 piece because I was incredibly annoyed at the stated elimination criteria: we eliminated the 100 places with the lowest predicted job growth, the 200 communities with the most crime, and any place without a strong sense of ethnic diversity (more than 90% of one race). (emphasis mine). My mind can’t even conceive of 88% white being granted standing as a place with a “strong sense of ethnic diversity”.

It followed, naturally, that the selected cities would have very little mention of race, which made me curious. I knew, of course, that none of the cities would be majority black or Hispanic. But how many of the chosen were heavily Asian? Or even more interesting, to me, how many were tilting in that direction?

“What our town needs is more black people” said no Asian. Ever. Recent Asian immigrants have next to no use for African Americans, and value Hispanics only for their cheap labor. Hispanics and blacks don’t seem fond of each other; I think New York is the only city that’s managed to grow a Hispanic population while still maintaining the same levels of African Americans, and that may be due to African immigrants.

Few non-majority white diversity levels maintain for the long haul. Three exceptions I’ve noted–remember, all of this is anecdotal.

First,  70-30 Hispanic white high schools persist, perhaps because a good chunk of the Hispanics are multi-generation American and self-identify as white. But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience.

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

Finally, Asians and Hispanics seem to co-exist without toppling over in one direction or the other.

The idea was that white folks are everyone’s second favorite race–if Asians, blacks, and Hispanics can’t have a majority school of their own race, then they want the majority to be white. At least, that’s what their behavior would suggest.

But then, I realized I could turn it upside down. Whites may be first choice of second favorite, but Hispanics do pretty well at not causing extinction-level flights by any race. So maybe they’re not second favorite, but including Hispanics might be key to maintaining diversity.

I can’t find any data on this, which is why I dropped the piece: Everybody’s Second Favorite.

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

I thought Gifted was a sweet little movie that gave public schools more than their due.  I ended up using a piece of this in a later essay, but my son’s second grade teacher deserves her due:  Gifted and Public Education

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So there’s a sampling. I left several pieces off because by golly, maybe I’ll write about them some day.

I’ve been writing now for six years, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the attention this blog has gotten, and the body of work it represents. But given I have a day job, I waste too much time and energy on pieces that don’t go anywhere. Perhaps I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough, but that’s not an attribute I display in any other area of my life. This just seems to be how I make decisions about the best way to spend my time.