Category Archives: policy

GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.




Teacher Federalism

A year or so ago, our school’s upper level math teachers met to define curriculum requirements for algebra two.

I’d been dreading this day for several weeks, since we agreed on the date.  I teach far fewer Algebra 2 topics than the other teachers. Prioritizing depth over breadth has not made me terribly popular with the upper math teachers–who of course would dispute my characterization of their teaching. There were three of them, plus two math department leaders who’d take their side. I’d be all alone playing opposition.

Only two possible outcomes for this meeting. I could, well, lie. Sign off on an agreed curriculum without any intention of adhering to my commitment. Or I could refuse to lie and just and fight the very idea of standardization The good news, I thought, was that the outcome would be my choice.

Then the choice was taken away from me.

Steve came into my room beforehand. Steve is the member of the upper math group I’m most friendly with, which means we are, well, warily amicable. Very different characters, are we. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, Steve is all J and I’m as P as P can be.  But  over the years we realized that while our approaches and philosophies are polar opposites, we are both idiosyncratic and original in our curriculum, more alike than we’d imagined. He was interested by my approach to quadratics and his approach to transformations is on my list of innovations to try.

So Steve tiptoed into my room ahead of time and told me he wanted the meeting to be productive. I went from 0 to 95 in a nanosecond, ready to snap his head off, refusing to be held responsible for our departmental tensions, but he called for peace. He said it again. He wanted this meeting to be productive.

I looked, as they say, askance. He asked me if I would be willing to settle for good, not perfect. I said absolutely. He asked me to trust him. I shrugged, and promised to follow his lead.

For reasons I won’t go into, no one expected Steve to run the meeting. But in the first five minutes, Steve spoke up. He said he wanted the meeting to be productive. He didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

We all wanted what was best for our students, he said. We all thought we knew what was best for our students. But we had very different methods of working. If we tried to agree on a curriculum, we’d fail. Eventually, someone in power, probably at the district, would notice, and then that someone might make the decision for us.

So rather than try to force us all to commit to teaching the same thing, why not agree on the topics we all agreed were essential, “need to know”?  Could we put together a list of these topics that we’d all commit to teach? If it’s not on the list, it’s not a required element of the curriculum. If it was on the list, all teachers would cover the topic. We’d build some simple, easily generated common assessments for these essential topics. As we covered these topics–and timing was under our control–we’d give the students the assessment and collect the data. We could review the data, discuss results, do all the professional collaboration the suits wanted.

If we agreed to this list, we would all know what’s expected. All of us had to agree before a topic went on the “need to know” list. No teacher could complain if an optional topic wasn’t covered.

I remember clearly putting on my glasses (which I normally don’t wear) so that I could see Steve’s face. Was he serious? He saw my face, and nodded.

Well. OK, then.

Steve’s terms gave me veto power over the “need to know” list.

Wing and Benny were dubious. What if they wanted to teach more?

As requested, I backed Steve’s play.  “We could make it a sort of teacher federalism. The “Need to know” list is like the central government.  But outside these agreed-upon tenets, each individual teacher state gets complete autonomy. We can teach topics that aren’t on the list.”

“Exactly,” Steve added. “The only thing is, we can’t expect other teachers to cover things that aren’t on the list.”

In other words, Steve was clearly signaling, no more bitching about what Ed doesn’t cover.

We agreed to try building the list, see if the results were acceptable. In under an hour, we all realized that this approach would work. We had 60-80% undisputed agreement. At the same time, Wing and Benny had realized the implications of the unanimous agreement requirement. A dozen or more items (under topics) the other three teachers initially labeled eessential) were dropped from the “need to know” list at my steadfast refusal to include them.  Steve backed me, as promised.

While all three raised their eyebrows at some of the topics downgraded to the “nice to have” list, they all listened carefully to my arguments. It wasn’t just “Ed no like.” As the day went on, I was able to articulate my standard–first to myself, then to them:

  1. we all agreed that students had to come out of Algebra 2 with an indisputably strong understanding of lines.
  2. We routinely have pre-calc students who need to review linear equations. In fact, I told them, this realization was what led me to dial back algebra 2 coverage.
  3. Non-honors students were at least a year away from taking precalc, which was where they would next need the debated skills. If some of our students weren’t remembering lines after three years of intense study, how would they easily remember the finer points of rational expressions or circle equations, introduced in a couple weeks?
  4. This called for limiting new topics to a handful. One or two in depth, a few more introduced.
  5. Our ability to introduce new topics in Algebra 2 was gated by the weak linear knowledge our students began with. If we could convince geometry teachers to dramatically boost linear equations coverage, then we could reduce the time spent on linear equations in algebra 2.

Once I was able to define this criteria, the others realized they agreed with every point. Geometry priorities were a essential discusison point, but outside the scope of this meeting and a much longer term goal. That left all debate about point 4–how much new stuff? How much depth?

This reasoning convinced them I wasn’t a lightweight, and they all knew that my low failure rate was extremely popular with the administrators. So they bought in to my criteria, and were able to debate point 4 issues amicably, without loaded sarcasm.

I knew I needed to give on topics. At the same time I was shooting down topics, I was frantically running through the curriculum mentally, coming up with topics that made sense to add to my own curriculum, making  concessions accordingly.

The other teachers looked at the bright side: I’d be the only one changing my curriculum. Every addition I agreed to had to be carefully incorporated into my already crowded Algebra 2 schedule. I did have some suggested additions (a more thorough job on functions, say), but none of mine made the cut. The other teachers’ courses were entirely unaffected by our “need to know” list.

At the end of the day, we were all somewhat astonished. We had a list. We all agreed that the list was tight, that nothing on the “like to know” or “nice to have” list was unreasonably downgraded. I want to keep this reasonably non-specific, because the issues apply to any subject, but for the curious: rational expressions were the most debated topic, and the area where I made the most concessions.  They covered addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, graphing. We settled on introduction, graphing of parent reciprocal function and transformations, multiplication and division. Factoring was another area of dispute: binomial, of course, but I pushed back on factoring by groups and sum/difference of cubes. We agreed that exponential functions, logarithms and inverses must be covered in some depth, enough so the strongest kids will have a memory.

“What about grades?” Benny asked. “I don’t want to grade kids just on the need to know list.”

“But that’s not fair,” I objected. “Would you flunk kids who learned everything on the need to know list?”

“Absolutely,” Wing nodded.

I was about to argue, when Steve said “Look, we will never agree on grading.”

“Crap. You’re right.” I dropped the subject.

In a justly ordered world, songs would be sung about “That Day”, as we usually call it. Simply agreeing to a federalist approach represented an achievement of moon walk proportions. Then we actually built a list and lived by it, continually referring to it without the desire to revisit the epic treaty. Stupendous.

I  didn’t write about the agreement then because I worried the agreement would be ignored, or that other senior math folk would demand we revisit. Instead, our construction of the  “Need to Know” list shifted the power base in the math department in interesting ways.   Our point man on these discussions did indeed express displeasure with the Need to Know list. It’s too limited. He wants more material on it. He expected us to comply.

Wing, Benny, and Steve could have easily blamed me for the limits. “Oh, that’s Ed’s doing. We all want more on the list.” Instead, upper math folk presented an instantly united front and pushed back on incursion.  No. This works for us. We don’t want to break the agreement. We like the new productivity of our meetings. Team cohesion is better. Wing and Ben still think I’m a weak tea excuse for a math teacher, but they understand what we’ve achieved. With this unity, we are less vulnerable.

In short, we’ve formed our own power base.  As I’m sure you can guess, Steve is the defacto leader of our group, but he gained that status not by fiat, but by figuring out an approach to handle me that the others could live with. No small achievement, that.

Will it last? Who knows? Does anything? It’s nice to watch it work for the moment. I’ll take that as a win.

We’ve used that agreement to build out other “need to know” lists for pre-calc and trigonometry. They aren’t as certain yet, but Algebra 2 was the big one.  Worth the work it took to update my curriculum.

Our teacher version of federalism has allowed us to forge ahead on professional practices, lapping the lower level crew several times. In fact, on several department initiatives, the upper math department has made more progress than any other subject group, something that was duly noted when hot shot visitors dropped in on our department meeting. The other groups are trying to reach One Perfect Curriculum.

I’m not good at describing group dynamics unless it’s in conversational narrative. But I wanted to describe the agreement for a couple reasons.

First, some subject departments  operate in happy lockstep. But many, even most, high school math departments across the country would recognize the tensions I describe here. .  I recommend teacher federalism as an approach. Yes, our agreement may be as short-lived as some “universal curriculum” agreements. But the agreement and the topics list are much easier to agree to, and considerably more flexible. I’ve seen and heard of countless initiatives to create a uniform curriculum that foundered after months of work that was utterly wasted. Our group has had a year of unity. Even if it falls apart next year, that year of unity was purchased with a day’s work. That’s a great trade.

But in a broader reform sense,   consider that none of the four teachers in this story use books to teach algebra 2. Not only don’t they agree on curriculum, but they don’t use the same book. Some, like me, build from scratch. Others use several books as needed.  Our epic agreement doesn’t fundamentally change anyone’s teaching or grading. We simply agreed to operate as a team with a given set of baselines.  Noitce the words “Common Core” as the federal government (or state, your pick) defines it never made an appearance. It was simply not a factor in our consideration.

Does this give some small hint how utterly out of touch education policy is? How absurd it is to talk about “researching teacher practice”, much less changing it? I hope so.

What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

The Glenn Show, Glenn Loury’s semi-monthly discussion show on blogging heads, is always outstanding and I watch most of them if I don’t discuss it here. Happily, a good chunk of his recent discussion* with Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College involved vocational education and at-risk student populations.

I’m going to criticize some points below, but the conversation is excellent. Cherry speaks passionately about his topic, and  Loury comes through every so often to summarize with an elegant clarity that’s one of his great strengths. If you don’t have the time to listen, here’s a transcript of the vocational education section, which I created to be sure I didn’t misrepresent anything.

One small point regarding the section on at-risk youth: Cherry goes on at some length about how at risk kids coming from weak, dysfunctional families experience violence, hunger, lack of love. This disruption and chaos profoundly affects their ability to perform academically and increases the likelihood they’ll act out, even strike out. He thinks high schools should spend resources and time understanding and assisting the stressed, traumatized youth come from, give them support, help them work through their trauma instead of merely disciplining them.

On behalf of Title I schools everywhere:  Um, dude, what the hell do you think we’re about? High schools spend as much time as they can understanding and getting help for their kids. We have psychologists at our school. Kids who feel stressed can go see their counsellors.  Teachers often know what’s going on with their kids, and we email key info to colleagues with the same students. Administrators do a lot of listening, a lot of bringing families in to discuss issues, a lot of calling in secondary support services.  Could we use more resources?  Sure. Would more resources improve outcomes?  I don’t know. But Cherry seems utterly clueless as to the vast array of substantial support high schools give now, which calls into question his certainty that such services would help.

Cherry then argues that at-risk students who struggle in school should be given short-term career training to immediately prepare them for jobs and income that will alleviate their stress. In this section he makes three points:

  1. “High school jobs are a thing of the past.” Teenagers don’t work anymore: only one in seven black teens has a job, just 2 in 7 white teens do.
  2. The reason teens don’t work anymore is because of the view that everyone must go to college.
  3. Colleges are inundated with unqualified or remedial students, but they have thus far been more likely to lower standards than discourage people from going to college, thus further discouraging any other development paths.

The first is a fact. The third is also true,  as I wrote in my last piece. But the second point is way off, and in important ways.

Cherry doesn’t mention relevant research on teen unemployment, although he often supports his comments elsewhere in the discussion with studies or data. But the employment drop  has been discussed  at some length for a number of years, with debates on whether the primary cause is supply or demand. Supply: teens aren’t working because they are taking summer school enrichment classes, working at museum internships,  jaunting off to Europe or maybe just doing homework imposed by teachers trying to get them to college.  Demand: teens face competition from other workers. So Cherry’s only proffered reason is supply-related. He thinks teen employment is down because academic activities are becoming more important to high school students, thanks to societal demands and pressures to go to college.

I’m deeply skeptical. First, on a purely anecdotal basis, the teens I know are eager to work, whether it’s full-time over the summer or part-time during the year. But employment requires a work permit, and permits often require acceptable GPAs**. I have had more than one student beg me to boost their grade so they can keep a  job or get a permit for a job offer.

Of course, the same students ineligible to work during the school year are then stuck in  summer school, retaking courses they still don’t care about.  Summer employment is a particular challenge for the same students who can’t get work permits during the year, for the same reason.

As I wrote earlier, high school students are failing classes at epic rates, and graduate requirements have increased. In our district, I see a disproportionately black and Hispanic summer school population repeating geometry, algebra, US History, English–and every August, they have a summer school graduation ceremony for the seniors who couldn’t walk in June because they hadn’t passed all their required courses.(Remember Michael Brown of Ferguson had just graduated a day or two before he was shot in August? That’s why.)

Rich kids of all races might be going off to Haiti to build houses instead of working. Asian kids, particularly Chinese and Koreans, are almost certainly not working because their parents won’t allow it. The days of supporting mom and dad in the business are mostly over, at least where I live. Chinese and Korean parents, particularly those who just got here, go  into debt, borrow money from back home, and send their kids to hundreds of hours a year in private instruction. But it’s not schools pushing them into this activity. (Schools, if anything, try to discourage this obsessive devotion to academics.)

But rich kids and certain Asian demographics aside, the average teen, particularly those from disadvantaged families, cares considerably more about financial remuneration than academic enrichment.  If teen employment has decreased dramatically and academic activities are taking up any bit of that time, the first thought should not be “Oh, they’re just being encouraged to value academics so they can go to college” but “Oh, they aren’t being allowed to work because they’re failing required classes.”

Teen employment is not a “thing of the past” because teens have decided not to bother with it. They face significant, intentional policy barriers that preclude employment. Most students want jobs.  Cherry implied that teens considered employment passé. That’ s not my experience and the data doesn’t support that interpretation.

Surprisingly, Cherry doesn’t even mention the possibility of demand-related drops. If you could CTRL-F the conversation, as Steve Sailer says, “immigra” would return a “not found”.  Neither Loury or Cherry mention that constant increases in low-skilled immigration would present competition for teenage workers.***

Which is odd, because there’s all sorts of research on plummeting teen employment, and  immigration is often identified as the culprit.   Christopher Smith, on the Federal Reserve Board of Governers, has two papers precisely on point.

The first,  The Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Employment Market has this conclusion:


The second, written a year later, examines the degree to which the decline might be to other factors–was it immigration, or the displacement of adults from better paying jobs, or is it the push for college? From Polarization, immigration, education:

Notice it’s 3.5 or more for demand issues–immigration, increasing competition in low-skill market (which is just another way of saying increased  immigration)–and 3 at most for supply factors–things like summer school or other educational opportunities.

Remember, too, that if employers have a choice, they prefer adults devoted to working as many hours as possible with no parents or schools hovering in the background. So  teens  are competing against ever increasing supplies of low-skilled immigrants–and thus more adult low-skilled workers generally–and competing from the bottom of the desirability index, too.

Cherry talks about the “current push” to send everyone to college, suggesting the push is a recent development. As Kevin Carey pointed out a few years ago, people have been questioning the value of college since at least the seventies, when Richard Freeman wrote The Overeducated American. (If the Harvard Crimson isn’t pulling my chain, college journalists were complaining about wasted degrees back in 1883.)

But Freeman’s book didn’t have the impact of  A Nation at Risk. The 1983 education treatise didn’t list “Everyone must go to college” as a recommendation. It did suggest that if all high school kids didn’t take four years of English,  three years each of advanced math and science, and resolutely study a foreign language for two years, Japan would bomb us back into the Stone Age.

I’ve written before that Nation At Risk killed high school vocational education. In that same piece, I point out that  2001’s No Child Left Behind did much to redefine vocational ed as highly competitive career technical education (CTE). Both changes made non-college paths practically unreachable for the average schlub uninterested in college and belatedly trying to get some career options going.

Since the rise of education reform in the 1990s, low test scores have been the club used to beat up public schools in favor of charters using the  KIPP “no excuses” model.  Low test scores aren’t really important unless used as a club to argue that those scores keep students from college.

All of these things have increased the demands on high school. But it’s not new.  The first push to send everyone to college began back in the 70s, before escalating immigration and while teens were still working.  For many years, sending more students to college didn’t conflict with teenage employment. So I don’t see how it could suddenly be a big cause of the change now.

Cherry is dead on the money regarding public universities’ response to unqualified students. After decades of losing borderline or weaker students to the quagmire of remediation, colleges are simply ending the struggle by reducing already lowered standards even further.

Cherry: So CUNY is just dumbing down the assessment exam, the math assessment exam that has mostly arithmetic but some algebra. They’ve just decided they are taking out the algebra, make it just arithmetic. So at Brooklyn College we’re already seeing that, the provost has just sent out a notice that he’s worried, too many people are transfer students…that 500 people are going on probation, 200 are being expelled. He thinks it’s more tutoring, more support services, when we’re just taking in people who don’t have the skills….

Well, yeah.  That sounds familiar, as I just recently wrote that California’s largest university system, and the largest in the country  has gone even further, simply ending the remedial category altogether.

But  Cherry’s prescriptive tone has vanished. He certainly put the “everyone must go to college” rhetoric at high schools’ feet, and (wrongly) implied that high schools are more eager to discipline than support at risk students.  But here, when talking about colleges’ continual failure to enforce their own standards he merely sounds sad. Loury doesn’t follow up on the point, either.  The two men seem remarkably passive about post-secondary failings. I hope to say more about that in a subsequent piece.

My complaints notwithstanding, check out the conversation. I’m glad that our best intellectuals are seriously engaging with the problems presented by low-skilled students. But they still seem more likely to blame culture than look further afield–the culture not only of black families, but what they imagine to be the culture of high school education communities.

Our education policies certainly help to discourage low-achieving teens, making them feel like failures, taking up their spare time in joyless academics far beyond their capabilities and interests. I am certain we can do more to make education more accessible to this population, and believe the path involves more time to learn less demanding content. But ultimately, I continue to believe the most important factors affecting teen employment are demand-related. I hope Glenn Loury and Robert Cherry come down harder on this point in later discussions.

*Okay, a month ago. Hey, I have a day job.

**Work permits vary by state, but in most states the school, not the state, issues the permit. Age/Certification by State
*** Loury has previously acknowledged the impact of immigration on low-skilled employment.

Corrupted College

I try  to take the long view on education policy.  In the long run, education reformers, education advocates, and policy wonks are wasting their time trying to change the underlying reality.  They’re paying their own bills and wasting taxpayer dollars. Nothing else.

But every so often, I worry.

Check out this Edsource story on the  California State University system’s announcement of its intent to abandon the “strategy” of remedial courses.

At last! I thought. CSU was finally telling low-skilled applicants to attend adult education or community college. Hahahaha.  Five years of education policy writing just isn’t enough time to become properly cynical.

CSU is not ending its practice of accepting students who aren’t capable of college work. CSU has ended its practice of remediating students who aren’t capable of college work. It makes such students feel “unwelcome.” Students who aren’t capable of doing college work are getting the impression that they don’t really belong at college.

And so, CSU is going to give students who can’t do college work college credit for the classes they take trying to become ready for college.

Understand that the CSU system has been accepting these students for over 30 years. CSU used to offer unlimited remediation until 1996. After taxpayers protested, CSU passed regulations reducing remediation efforts to one year and vowed to ultimately eliminate all remediation by 2001. But alas, when 2001 came along,  ending remediation would dramatically reduce black and Hispanic enrollment, so the deadline was extended to 2007. (Cite ) But 2007 came along and things were even worse. After that, well, California ended its high school exit examination  and retroactively awarded diplomas to all the students who hadn’t been able to pass it. Why bother? CSU was accepting students who didn’t have the diploma anyway.

So, CSU decided on a new “strategy”, defining “college readiness” as “student is earning us tuition dollars”. They’re even looking at ending any sort of reliance on California’s version of the Smarter Balanced test, the Early Assessment rating that California has used for years to guide high schools towards getting their students ready for college.

Loren J. Blanchard, CSU executive said  that remedial education represents a deficit model that must be reformed if we really hope to achieve our equity and completion goals.” James T. Minor, a “senior CSU strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence” says that purely remedial or developmental classes “is not a particularly  good model for retention and degree completion.” Jeff Gold “emphasizes” that all the new program does is offer “extra help and services”, that rest assured, academic quality shall continue undisturbed. The CSU just wants to make sure that students who can only do middle school work “belong here” at CSU. CSU trustee chairwoman Rebecca Eisen is “thrilled” to hear about this change, as more students will “feel this is something they can do” and stay in college for longer.

Reporter Larry Gordon accepts all this at face value. He doesn’t push Blanchard to explain why students who can’t do college level work aren’t, by definition, a deficit model. Or why students who couldn’t pass an 8th grade math test should be retained long enough to complete a degree.

Nor does Gordon  observe that CSU has been offering extra help and services for thirty years.  In the current model, the help and services were not counted towards graduation. In the new model, they will be. That’s the change. Giving college credit for colleges that an advanced eighth-grader could complete is a reduction in academic rigor.

And note that Rebecca Eisen, at least, knows that Jeff Gold is lying. The remedial students were leaving because they couldn’t do the work. The change will make the students stay. Because the classes will be made easier and the students will get credit for them in this reduced academic environment.

Edsource checks in at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which has already been converting its remedial courses to “co-requisite” courses in statistics and algebra and that remedial students taking the co-requisite courses are passing at roughly the same rate as those who aren’t remedial.

Left unmentioned is that Cal State Dominguez Hills’ converted SAT averages has a 75th percentile SAT score of 450.  Everyone at CSUDH is remedial by a “typical” college’s standards–and by CSUDH’s standards, eighty percent were remedial in both math and English, which gives a small hint as to why the college might want to end remediation.

While Gordon reports the news without any context on the student ability level, he hastens to assure readers that ignoring remedial status is a public university trend. “Several other states, such as Tennessee, reported success in putting students in so-called corequisite courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018 and also is starting to allow math requirements to be fulfilled by statistics or quantitative reasoning classes, not just by algebra.”

Meanwhile, this  decision “dovetails” (read: is driven by)  the CSU Graduation Initiative, which is a plan to increase the four-year completion rate from 19 to 40 percent.

So in 1996, California wanted to completely end remediation by 2001. Now, in 2017, California wants to give students college credit for remedial courses so that in eight more years two out of every five students will graduate in four years.

I once wrote an essay calling for a ban on college remediation.  But events are just getting way ahead of me. Anticipating that colleges would start giving degrees to people with middle school skills was something I foolishly rejected as implausible.

But as bad as this is, my dismay and disgust is deepened a thousand-fold by this fact: high schools aren’t allowed to teach remedial courses.

We can’t say hey, this kid can only read at the eighth grade level, so let’s give him more vocabulary and leveled reading. Heavens, no. In fact, you see education advocates arguing that giving kids reading above their ability level is going to improve their reading (something unestablished at the high school level). In practice, this means that all but the most severely deficient readers are expected to read and thrive on Shakespeare and Sophocles.

We can’t say hey, this kid can’t do pre-algebra, much less algebra, and at his current knowledge and interest levels, he can’t possibly succeed at the three or four years of math past algebra that high schools require for graduation. No, we have to  teach second year algebra concepts to kids who aren’t entirely sure what 6×8 is because we know they’ll graduate before they end up in pre-calc.  High schools with diverse student populations can’t offer courses for the entire range of abilities encountered. Schools with entirely low-ability students can just lie.

Thanks to the education reforms of both the right and left, high schools are under tremendous pressure to force all their students into advanced courses and not given any options for students who aren’t ready. There is no “ready” but college-ready.

It’s gotten so idiotic that many high schools have started “dual enrollment” programs for their at-risk students. The best students are taking demanding high school courses. But the at-risk kids are going to college to get the remediation their high schools aren’t allowed to give them.  They shade the truth, of course, mouthing nonsense about giving kids a taste of college. But read between the lines and you’ll see that the students are getting remedial courses. So high schools are paying tuition for low-level kids to take middle school courses at their local college.

But why? I’ve asked, time and again. Colleges are allowed to remediate. Why not let high schools provide the remediation, get kids closer to college ready? Any remediation we do will reduce the burden on colleges.

Ah, but that’s where the idiocy gets intense. The same public universities offering (or ending) remediation require that all students take advanced courses in high school.   CSU application requirements include algebra 2. If CSU remedial students were even approaching second year algebra ability, the university system wouldn’t be ending remediation.

But CSU, and all the other colleges with admissions requirements well above the ability of the bottom 30% of their student population, know this. So why?

I’ve thought and thought about this, and can only come to one conclusion. Colleges are desperate to give opportunities to black and Hispanic students in a public atmosphere with no tolerance for affirmative action. They’ve tried every way they can think of. Standards have already been lowered. Course demands have been almost entirely eliminated–top-tier public schools will issue bachelor degrees with no additional math courses (after the remedial course, that is).  This is just the next step.

The public discourse has become almost entirely bifurcated. At one end, we see education reformers hammering on high standards while suggesting, tentatively, that perhaps everyone isn’t really meant for college. We see learned professors opining that of the two proposed methods of improving low-income kids’ academic achievement, “no excuses” is better than integration because at least “no excuses” won’t hurt suburban schools.

Meanwhile, the actual colleges are lowering standards dramatically to the point that we will now routinely see people–primarily but not all black and Hispanic–with bachelors degrees despite reading at the eighth grade level and minimal math abilities. What makes anyone think that actual achievement is going to matter?

I haven’t seen any education reformers discuss the constant push to end or limit remediation, which has been going on for five years or so. They aren’t terribly interested in college policies. Education reformers want to kill teacher unions and/or grab public funds for essentially private charter schools, and this doesn’t help.

So now our public universities will accept anyone with a transcript spelling out the right courses. They’ll just put them in middle school courses and call it college. Education reformers, college professionals, all the middlebrow pundits opining on our failed education system won’t care–they send their kids to more expensive schools, the ones whose diplomas won’t be devalued by this fraud.

I’d put this insanity into the bucket of “Why Trump Won”, but does Betsy DeVos even care? She’s too interested in using federal dollars to push choice to win disapproval  denying federal dollars to colleges who want to “improve access”. She’s the worst of both worlds: a committed voucher advocate who wouldn’t be bothered by the destruction of public universities. But then, a  Democrat EdSec wouldn’t give a damn–in fact, a Clinton or Obama presidency would probably pressure colleges to lower standards even more. No one seems to actively try to change these policies.

But public colleges like CSU and CUNY are what bright kids from less well-connected families, kids whose parents don’t have the social capital to get into the “right” schools, were once able to use to get ahead. These schools have already done themselves a lot of damage, making it harder and harder for anyone, no matter how qualified, to get through in less than six years because of the time, resources, and expense involved educating the near-illiterate–and, of course, paying for  vice-chancellors of gender sensitivity and diversity awareness by accepting loads of Chinese students who prepared for college by committing fraud on the SAT.

If this doesn’t stop, America will have a much more serious problem than failed college students with huge college debts and no diploma. We’ll have thousands of college grads who got their diplomas with no better than eighth grade reading and math skills.

I’m not a high-standards maven.  Nor am I patient with the pseudo-cynical idiots who think they’re in the know, smirking that college degrees have been worthless for years.

No, they haven’t. But they’re going to be.

Meanwhile, people should maybe read more David Labaree.












The Challenge of Black Students and Advanced Placement

When the bell rings at Wheaton North High School, a river of white students flows into Advanced Placement classrooms. A trickle of brown and black students joins them. —The Challenge of Creating Schools That Work for Everybody, Catherine Gewertz

Gewertz’s piece is one of a million or so outlining the earnest efforts of suburban schools to increase their  black and Hispanic student representation in AP classes. And indeed, these efforts are real and neverending. I have been in two separate schools that have been mandated in no uncertain terms to get numbers up.

But the data does not suggest overrepresentation. I’m going to focus on African American representation for a few reasons. Until recently, the College Board split up Hispanic scores into three categories, none of them useful, and it’s a real hassle to combine them. Moreover, the Hispanic category has an ace in the hole known as the Spanish Language test. Whenever you see someone boasting of great Hispanic AP scores, ask how well they did in non-language courses. (Foreign language study has largely disappeared as a competitive endeavor in the US. It’s just a way for Hispanic students to get one good test score, and Chinese students to add one to their arsenal.)

College Board data goes back twenty years, so I built a simple table:


I eliminated foreign language tests and those that didn’t exist back in 1997. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the mean scores for each test have declined in almost every case:


Enter a caption

While the population for each test has increased, it’s been lopsided.


It’s not hard to see the pattern behind the increases. The high-growth courses are one-offs with no prerequisites. It’s hard to convince kids to take these courses year after year–even harder to convince suburban teachers to lower their standards for that long. So put the kids in US History, Government–hey, it’s short, too!– and Statistics, which technically requires Algebra II, but not really.

The next three show data that isn’t often compiled for witnesses. I’m not good at presenting data, so there might be better means of presenting this. But the message is clear enough.

First,  here’s the breakdown behind the test growth. I took the growth in each score category (5 high, 1 low) and determined its percentage of the overall growth.


See all that blue? Most of the growth has been taken up by students getting the lowest possible score. Across the academic test spectrum, black student growth in 5s and 4s is anemic compared to the robust explosion of  failing 1s and 2s. Unsurprisingly, the tests that require a two to three year commitment have the best performace. Calc AB has real growth in high scores–but, alas, even bigger growth in low scores. Calc BC is the strongest performance. English Lang & Comp has something approaching a normal distribution of scores, even.

Here you can see the total scores by test and category. Calc BC and European History, two of the tests with the smallest growth, have the best distributions. Only four tests have the most scores in the 1 category; most have 2 as their modal score.


The same chart in 2016 is pretty brutally slanted. Eight tests now fail most students with a one, just four have a two. Worst is the dramatic drop in threes. In 1997, test percentages with 3 scores ranged from 10-38%. In 2016, they range from 10-20%. Meanwhile, the 4s and 5s are all well below 10%, with the cheery exception of Calculus BC.


Jay Mathews’ relentless and generally harmful push of Advanced Placement has been going strong since the 80s, even if the  Challenge Index only began in 1998. So 1997’s result include a decade of “AP push”. But the last 20 years have been even worse, as Jay, Newsweek, and the Washington Post all hawked the Index as a quality signifier: America’s Best High Schools! Suddenly, low-achieving, high-minority students had a way to bring some pride to their schools–just put their kids in AP classes.

As I wrote a couple years ago, this effort wasn’t evenly distributed. High achieving, diverse suburban high schools couldn’t just dump uninterested, low-achieving students (of any race) into a class filled with actually qualified students (of any race). Low achieving schools, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. Just dub a class “Advanced Placement” and put some kids in it. Most states cover AP costs, often using federal Title I dollars, so it’s a cheap way to get some air time.

African American AP test scores don’t represent a homogeneous population, and you can see that in the numbers.  Black students genuinely committed to academic achievement in a school with equally committed peers and qualified teachers are probably best reflected in the Calculus BC scores, as BC requires about four years of successful math. Black students dumped in APUSH and AP Government  are the recourse of diverse suburban schools not rich enough to ignore bureaucratic pressure to up their AP diversity.  They are taking promising students with low motivation and putting them in AP classes. This annoys the hell out of the parents and kids who genuinely want the rigorous course, and quite often angers the “promising” students, who are known to fail the class and refuse to take the test. The explosion of 1s across the board comes from the low-achieving urban schools who want to make the Challenge Index and don’t have any need to keep the standards high.

Remember each test costs $85 and test fees are waived by taxpayers for students who can’t afford them.  Consider all the students being forced, in many cases, to take classes they have no interest in.  Those smaller increases in passing scores are purchased with considerable wasted time and taxpayer expense.

But none of this should be news. Let’s talk about the real challenge of black students and AP scores and methods to fix the abuses.

First, schools and students should be actively restricted from using the AP grade “boost” for fraudulent purposes. The grades should be linked to the test scores without exception. Students who receive 4s and 5s get an A, even if the teacher wants to give a B1. Students who get a 3 receive a B, even if the teacher wants to give an A2 . Students who get a 2 receive a C. Students who get a 1 or who don’t take the test get a D–which, remember, will be bumped to a C for GPA purposes. This sort of grade link, first suggested by Saul Geiser (although I’ve extended it to the actual high school grade) would dramatically reduce abuse not only by predominantly minority schools, but also by all students  gaming the AP system to get inflated GPAs. That should reduce a lot of the blue in this picture:


Then we should ask a simple question: how can we bump those yellows to greys? That is, how can we get the students who demonstrated enough competence to score a 2 on the AP test to get enough motivation and learning to score a 3?

I’ve worked in test prep for years with underachieving blacks and Hispanics, and now teaching a lot of the kids not strong enough or not motivated enough to take AP classes. My school is under a great deal of pressure to get more low income, under-represented minorities in these classes as well (and my school administration is entirely non-white, as a data point). A couple years ago, I taught a US History course that resulted in four kids being “tagged” for an advanced placement class the next year–that is, they did so well in my class, having previously shown no talent or motivation, that they were put in AP Government the next year. I kept in touch with one, who  got an A in the class and passed the test.

My advice to my own principal, which I would repeat to the principal in Gewertz’s piece, is to create a class full of the promising but unmotivated students, separate from the motivated students. Give them a teacher who will be rigorous but low key, who won’t give much homework, who will focus on skill improvement in class. (ahem. I’m raising my hand.) Focus on getting the kids to pass the test. If they pass, they will get a guaranteed B in the class, which will count as an A for GPA purposes. (Even if the College Board doesn’t change the rules, schools can guarantee this policy.)

This strategy would work for advanced placement classes in English, history, government, probably economics.  It could work for statistics. Getting unmotivated kids to pass AP Calculus may be more difficult, as it would involve using the strategy consistently for 3 years with no test to guarantee a grade.

The challenge of increasing the abilities and college-readiness of promising but not strongly motivated students (of any race) lies in understanding their motives. Teachers need to give their first loyalty to the students, not the content. Traditional AP teachers are reluctant to do this, and I don’t think they should be required to change. But traditional AP teachers are, perhaps, not the best teachers for this endeavor.

In order for this proposal to get any serious attention, however, reporters would have to stop pretending that talented black students aren’t taking AP courses. The data simply doesn’t support that charge. We are putting too many black students into AP courses. Too many of them are completely unfit, have remedial level skills that high schools aren’t allowed to address. Much of the growth of Advanced Placement has relied on this fraud–and again, not just for black students.

It’s what we do with the kids in the middle, the skeptics, the uncertain ones, the ones who dearly want to be proven wrong about their own skills, that will help us improve these dismal statistics.

1I can’t even begin to tell you how many teachers in suburban districts do this.
2The same teachers who give students with 4s and 5s Bs are also prone to giving As to kids who got 3s. But of course, this is also the habit of teachers in low achieving urban districts. Consider this 2006 story celebrating the first two kids ever to pass the AP English test, and wonder how many of the students got As notwithstanding.

What the Public Means by “Public Education”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can they be full?”

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

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

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

“I don’t?”

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

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


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

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

Public schools don’t get to say no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What It Looks Like In Practice

“Matt, are you getting anything done?”

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

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

“Nope. Mark.”

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

“No, I’m Mark.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Mark/Matt thing.”

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

“I am Mark.”

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


“I’m sorry.”


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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I decided on Mark.”

“OK. Thanks.”

“I’m really so…”

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

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

“I’m Mark.”

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

Related news: A special ed teacher told me I was selected by two of her senior students as the one they most enjoyed having and asked me to put together a little paragraph as part of a plaque she’s giving to each. One of them, Victor, wears makeup, nail polish, and curly hair in a casual bun. I’ve heard Victor doesn’t like to be called gay.

I hope Casey and Victor forgive me, should they ever learn that I thought the Obama directive on k-12 schools and transgender bathrooms to be idiotic and enraging. I’m quite worried that the current Supreme Court will decide it makes perfect sense to force to accomodate transgender teens in their quest for bathroom freedom. Given the conservative Justices’ contempt for public school teachers, my original fear was they’d give Gavin bathroom rights to strike one more nail in our coffin. But I wronged them mightily; the four conservatives voted to overturn the Fourth Court, with Justice Breyer the only hope as a swing vote, voting with the conservatives as a “courtesy” to maintain the status quo, the horrible repressive status quo we live in now, the one that allows us to ignore Obama’s directive and require bathrooms match biology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

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

Confused, I said, “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



In Which Ed Explains Induction

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is the point of rewording all this?”

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

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

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

“Induction will fix the achievement gap?”

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

“Completely unrealistic demands!”

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

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

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

“A Nation at Risk?”

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

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

“Did they have success in high school?”

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


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

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

“But induction isn’t a credential test.”

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

“Fraud ring? Like taking tests for teachers?”

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

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

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


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

“Mine was.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so here we are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



ELL isn’t Language Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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