Category Archives: policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there’s the neutral use.

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

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

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


The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

I decided to pull down my last post on this topic. Even though I wrote the anecdotes to avoid giving offense, you never know.

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

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

  • Teachers work late into the evening developing curriculum and planning instruction, but violate their contractual obligations by occasionally or consistent tardiness to staff and department meetings. Timely colleagues who meet their contract commitments see the tardy attendance as unprofessional, while the latecomers fume that the gripers often leave 3 minutes after the last bell.
  • An attendance clerk wonders why a student is skipping first class each day for two weeks. The teacher in that class said the student was getting inducted into the Marines. The clerk contacts the other teachers to confirm that they had marked him present despite his absence, since he was joining the Marines. Further investigation reveals that the student was on a cruise. Shortly after this incident, the principal announced that failure to take attendance and submit completed attendance verification reports would be made an evaluation point, if needed.
  • A new teacher is confused as to why one teacher is “department head” and another is a “math coach” since neither approached him in any way when he signed on. The teacher who did approach him and offered help told him not to worry about it, since neither had any authority over him.

  • A few senior teachers had formed a compact to improve advanced math instruction by holding students to higher standards by teaching a demanding curriculum at a faster pace. They formally requested that the principal fire a colleague moving at a slower pace with a much wider “passing window”. The principal refused. One of the senior teachers left. The newer teacher continued with the same priorities.
  • A team of teachers and counselors are attending a conference on methods to improve student achievement outcomes, and are enthusiastically discussing methods to convince colleagues to comply with a new district-wide initiative. One team member cautions against mandated compliance, suggesting they accept cynicism and caution as logical responses. The team decides to go much more slowly, realizing that they can’t really enforce compliance anyway. They introduce a smaller initiative that builds on existing interest, hoping to win more compliance through results.
  • A second-career teacher, passionately committed to helping at-risk students get to college, has over a decade of success in directly improving first generation college success. He is a valued and highly respected leader in the teaching staff—right up until he confesses to inappropriate contact with a student. He is arrested and fired.

Back when he was promoting his Cagebusting Teachers book, Rick Hess said, in an interview:

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

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

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

Political activism is one of the utterly useless proxies for teacher quality. What makes a good teacher? Let us count the many ways that broad circles can’t safely capture and identify teaching populations.

An engaging, creative teacher can be a terrible or indifferent employee, showing up to meetings late, missing supervisories, forgetting to submit grades on time. An uninspiring or incompetent teacher can be a fabulous employee, impeccably on time with contract obligations: grades, attendance, and assigned tasks. Teachers of any instructional or employee quality can be activists fighting against reforms they see as damaging to either their jobs or children—or on the reform payroll (yes, it does seem that way to us) pushing for merit pay or an end to tenure.

This doesn’t even begin to address teacher attendance, and the degree to which an ordinary, somewhat tedious teacher does a better job than a creative curriculum genius simply because the first has over a year in accrued sick leave while the other misses ten or more days a year—and it leaves aside entirely the wide range of quality displayed by teachers who are unlawful employees, from the extremes of unthinkable sexual behavior to the seemingly innocuous falsification of state records, by failing to follow state mandates for credentialed teachers.

To outsiders, the soubriquet “Teacher of the Year” is meaningful, which shows once again the vast divide between teachers and those who seek to describe us.

Winning the selection process is a nice break for the teacher. But the selection process itself is utterly without regard to objective quality. At the initial level, we teachers often “nominate” candidates, even though we rarely step into each other’s classrooms much less have an idea of each other’s impact. For this reason, many of us don’t bother to nominate or vote in the run-off. Alternately, the principals nominate candidates. Beyond the initial level, the selection process at the district, state, and national competition becomes intensely ideological, reflecting the qualities the judges want to award, which have little to do with any objective measures of quality (and passes through the occasional later-to-be-determined sexual abusers as well). So while reporters and advocates on both sides offer up the title as objective evidence of excellence, teachers themselves see the designator as little more than a PR stunt.

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

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

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

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

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

Who doesn’t want teacher leaders? Teachers who don’t want to be teacher leaders. Which is most of them. (New teachers often long for advice and “classroom in a box” procedures, but they aren’t desperate for authority figures.)

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

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

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

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

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


White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In exchange, charter caps are significantly increased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To recap:

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

How would this play out, given some time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Handling Teacher Preps

I was initially horrified at my schedule when I first saw it last June. Having since conceded the possibility–just the possibility, mind you–that I might have overreacted, I thought I’d discuss teacher preps.

Preps is a flexible word. A teacher’s “prep period” describes the free period the teacher gets during the day, ostensibly to “prep”are. “I’ll do that during my prep” or “I go get coffee during “prep”. But if a teacher asks “How many preps do you have?”, the query involves the number of separate courses the teacher is responsible for. So a teacher could say “I have no prep, but I’m only teaching one prep–geometry” or “I’ve got three preps and it’s brutal” without explaining which prep is which.

Non-teachers can’t really understand preps properly without realizing something I’ve mentioned frequently: teachers, particularly high school teachers, develop their own curriculum.

Odd that I’m mentioning Grant Wiggins again, but a little over a year ago, he said that too many teachers are “marching page by page through a textbook”. I’m sure that’s true, but said even teachers who march through a textbook using nothing but publisher generated material, make decisions about which problems to work, which test questions to use, and, unless they are literally walking through the textbook as is, which sections to cover. And those are extreme cases. Most teachers that I would describe as “textbook users” still make considerable decisions about their curriculum, including going “off-book”.

So preps are a proxy for workload. A teacher with four preps has a much greater workload than a teacher with one prep.

I’ve taught at 4 high schools (including my student teaching) and observed how many others operate. So this next description is typical of many schools, but variations on the theme occur.

At both the middle and high school level, math teachers are kind of like the swimmers in Olympic sports—we’ve got the most events.

English has many courses, but more of them are electives (journalism, creative writing) and then there’s the “ELL” split that few teachers cross. Most students take a four year sequence by grade, either honors, AP, or regular. Science and history courses add up because unlike math, each course has an AP version. Science has a 3-year sequence that lower ability students take four years to get through; the rest take an AP course in one of the same subjects, or an elective. History has a four-course sequence over three years, and can’t take an AP course again, which is too bad.

High school math has a six-course sequence that students enter at different points–five course if you count algebra 2/trig as one. From geometry on, each course has an honors version. Calculus is generally offered in both general and AP versions AB and BC. Algebra often has a support course. Then there’s statistics and AP Stats, and usually Business Math. Toss in Discovery Geometry. What is that, 17? And unlike ELL vs. regular English, we math teachers cover it all.

English and history high school teachers rarely have more than two preps, often a primary and secondary. I won’t say never. Science teachers are the most likely to have single preps, or general and honors in the same subject, because they have specialized credentials.

Math teachers often have three preps. Larger high schools may have more specialization. Maybe in big schools you’ll hear someone described as a geometry teacher, or a calculus teacher. But that’s just never been the case in any school I’ve seen.

To the degree math teachers do specialize, it’s a range of the 6 year sequence. The most common is the algebra specialist, a gruesome job that others are welcome to. (It’s only been four years since algebra terrors, my all-algebra-all-the-time year, can you tell? I still get flashbacks.) Some algebra specialists have limited credentials and unlimited patience. Others are genuine idealists, determined to create a strong math program from the bottom up. All of them can go with god, so long as I don’t go with them.

Sometimes you find the high-end experts, the ones that teach AP Calc, honors pre-calc, AP Stats, or some combination of. Sometimes these folk are the prima donnas with the math chops. Other times, they just aren’t very good with kids so they get stuck with the most motivated ones—they also teach the honors algebra 2 and geometry courses sometimes, because they just can’t deal with kids who aren’t as prepared or motivated. (No, I’m not bitter. Why would you think that?) And while we don’t have a name for what I do, it’s not uncommon for a math teacher to focus on “the middles”, the courses from geometry to pre-calc.

But not all schools go the category route. Others require all math teachers to cover a low, mid, and high level course in the sequence to be sure that no one gets cocky.

So now, after that explanation of preps, go back to the beginning, when I mention my hyperventilation over easy, familiar preps that I thought would be boring. Many teachers would agree—quite a few colleagues in all subjects commiserated with my dismay. Other teachers consider it rank abuse of power when admins assign them two preps, much less three.

Why? Because some teachers love the additional workload, love building and developing curriculum, mulling over the best way to introduce a new topic. For teachers like me, that’s an essential element of teaching—and repetition, teaching the same content three or four times a day, is so not essential, but rather Groundhog Day tedious. Others see curriculum as something they want handed to them or will do, reluctantly, once. Or, something they’ve honed after umpty-ump years and it’s perfect so they aren’t changing a thing. To these teachers, curriculum is a distraction from their primary job of teaching, the delivery of that curriculum–the job they actually get paid for. Give them the day of the school year, they know what they’re teaching.

If you’ve never really considered teacher preps before, certain questions might come to mind. Does teacher effectiveness (however measured) vary with the number of preps? Does teacher effectiveness vary by subject? (I’ve wondered before if I’m just better at geometry than algebra, for example.) Could we improve academic outcomes by giving weak teachers one prep in a limited subject, and strong teachers multiple preps (assuming we know what that is)? Do teacher contracts negotiate the maximum number of preps that can be assigned? While Ed’s informed assertions are interesting, surely there’s better data that gives a better idea of how many preps high school academic teachers have, on average? Or middle school teachers?

What terrific questions. They all occurred to me, too. And while I’m a pretty good googler, I began to wonder if I wasn’t using the right terms, because I could find no research on teacher preps, no union contracts restricting preps.

Let’s assume that some research has been done, that some contracts exist but escaped my eagle Google. Teacher preps still are clearly not on the horizon. I can’t remember ever hearing or reading a reformer mention them. When I was in ed school, the subject never came up—how to identify the best combination of preps, what number was optimal, and so on. Given how little control teachers have over preps, ed schools may just count it as one more of the nitty-gritty elements of the job we’ll discover later.

Education reformers simply don’t understand the degree to which teachers develop or influence curriculum and the resources it takes. They don’t understand the tremendous range of curriculum development that takes within a school. Moreover, most reformers don’t even understand that preps exist or have any impact on teacher workload. Few of them ever taught at all. So they don’t really know what a “prep” is, and then assume that most teachers rely largely on a textbook. That doesn’t leave them much room to mull.

Researchers don’t discuss preps much, either. I’m not even sure Larry Cuban, who describes teacher practice better than almost anyone, describing here the multi-layered curriculum which explicitly describes teacher-designed curriculum, has never written about preps. Many researchers also tend to confuse textbooks with curriculum.

I wonder if researchers are prone to ignoring high school preps because they would have to acknowledge how questionable their conclusions are without taking preps into consideration. If a researcher compares two high school teachers using a new curriculum, does it matter if one teacher has one prep and is teaching the same topic all day? This may give that teacher more time to adjust, notice patterns, change instruction. Meanwhile, the busy teacher with three preps who is just teaching one class with the new curriculum may just be doing it as an afterthought. Alternatively, teaching one class all day may also bore the teacher to the point of rote delivery, while the teacher with one class jumps in with enthusiasm.

Once I really started thinking about preps from a policy perspective, I became really flummoxed at the lack of play it gets. I may be missing a whole field of research, that’s how odd it is.

Administrators keep preps firmly in mind; whether contracts require it or not, they rarely give high school teachers more than whatever a commonly agreed amount is (usually three). Ideally, they will limit new teacher preps, although my mentee from last year had three preps each semester. Now that I think on it, I had three preps, too. Never mind—they pile it on newbies, too.

If VAM ever gets taken seriously at the high school level (which I find very unlikely), preps are likely to become a contract issue. Teachers being judged on test scores will probably demand a large sample size, which means fewer preps.

Fewer preps for teachers, of course, means far less flexibility for administrators putting together the dreaded master schedule. Ultimately, it means more teachers on the pay roll or fewer courses offered, because fewer preps and less flexibility must be compensated for somehow.

And hey. I just realized that Integrated Math (bleargh) schools have fewer preps. Maybe this is another foul plot of Common Core.

For myself, I do not want limited preps, even if my feet are forced to the fire on the point that hey, I’m really enjoying this easier year. But honesty compels me to point out that preps should be explored for their impact on teacher satisfaction, teacher productivity and–to the extent possible–academic outcomes.

I have no real ideas here. Only thoughts to offer up and see what others have on tap.

However, there’s another issue never far from my mind that perhaps the above mullings cast some light on: that of teacher intellectual property. Stephen Sawchuk just wrote a great piece on various issues in the related arena of teacher-curriculum sharing, and mentioned IP and copyright. I have huge issues with the absurd notion that districts own teacher-developed curriculum, which I’ll save for another post.

But surely this post makes it obvious that if teacher preps vary, then one of two things must be true. Either teachers in the same subject are getting paid the same salary for doing dramatically different jobs–and I don’t mean quality here, just work expectations.

Or teachers are paid to teach, in which case the actual delivery is the same no matter how many preps we have. Teachers then have the choice–the choice–to use the book and supplied materials extensively, or develop their own, to do the job as they determine it should be done. This seems to me to be the obviously correct interpretation of teacher expectations and the “work” they are “hired” for.

And in my world view, teachers are not paid to develop the curriculum, and therefore the district can keep its damn paws off my lessons.

Hrmph.


Education Proposals: Final Thoughts

I’m trying to remember what got me into this foray into presidential politics last July.

It’s the age of Trump. Many people I greatly admire or enjoy reading, from Jonah Goldberg to Charles Krauthammer to Charles Murray, are dismayed by Trump. Not I. What delights me about him–and make no mistake, I’m ecstatic–has nothing do to with his views on education policy, where I’m certain he will eventually offend. I cherish his willingness to say the unspeakable, to delight in unsettling the elites. I thought Megyn Kelly was badass for telling her colleagues not to protect her. I also think she’s tough enough to deal with an insult or three from The Donald, and I imagine she agrees. What’s essential is that the ensuing outrage wasn’t even a blip on the Trump juggernaut.

Why, given Trump’s popularity, haven’t other Republican candidates jumped on the restrictionist bandwagon? Why did John Kasich, who I quite like, go the other way and support amnesty?

To me, and many others, the reason is not that the views aren’t popular, but because some vague, nebulous top tier won’t have it that way. The rabble are to be ignored.

This isn’t bravery. Politicians aren’t standing on their principles, looking the people in the eye firmly, willing to lose an election based on their desire to do right. Ideas with regular purchase out in the real world are simply unmentionable and consequently can’t become voting issues. Americans on both sides, left and right, feel that they have no voice in the process. I could go on at length as to why, but I always sound like a conspiracy nut when I do. The media, big business, a vanilla elite that emerged from the same social class regardless of their political leanings…whatever.

And along comes Trump, who decides it’d be fun to run for President and stick everyone’s nose in the unsayable.

I understand that conservatives who oppose Trump are more than a bit miffed that suddenly they’re the ones on the wrong side of the Political Correctness spectrum, given their routine excoriation by the media and the left for unacceptable views. Better political minds than mine will undoubtedly analyze the Republican/conservative schism in the months and years to come.

I don’t know how long it will last or what he will do. I just hope it goes on for longer, and that Trump keeps violating the unwritten laws that dominate our discourse. The longer he stays that course, the harder it will be to instill the old norms. That’s my prayer, anyway.

Anyway. Back in July, someone complained that education never mattered in presidential politics and expressed the hope that maybe Common Core or choice would get a mention. Maybe a candidate might express support for the Vergara decision!

Every election cycle we go through this charade, yet everyone should know why education policy doesn’t matter at the presidential level. No presidential candidate has ever taken on the actual issues the public cares about, but rather genuflects at the altar of educational shibboleths while the Right People nod approvingly, and moves on.

So I decided to demonstrate how completely out of touch the political discourse is with the Reality Primer, a book the public knows well, by identifying five education policy issues that would not only garner considerable popular support, but are well within the purview of the federal government. (They would cut education spending and reduce the teaching population, too, if that matters.)

I support all five proposals in the main, particularly the first two. But my agenda here is not to persuade everyone as to their worthiness, but rather illustrate how weak educational discourse is in this country. All proposals are debatable. Negotiable. We could find middle ground. The problem is, no one can talk about them because the proposals are all unspeakable.

No doubt, the Donald will eventually come around to attacking teachers or come up with an education policy that irritates me. I’m braced for that eventuality. It won’t change my opinion. Would he be a good president? I don’t know. We’ve had bad presidents before. Very recently. Like, say, now.

But if he’s looking for some popular notions and wants to continue his run, he might give these a try. Here they are again:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates

In the meantime, at least let the series serve as an answer to education policy wonks and reporters who wonder why no one gives a damn about education in politics.

As for me, I got this done just an hour before the Starbucks closed. I will go back to writing about education proper, I promise.


Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only

I’ve been sketching out education policy proposals to contrast with the platitudes we usually see from reporters and wonks asking “questions” about “education platforms.” The policies I’m proposing would, alas, be too popular. So they can’t be mentioned.

Onto the fourth.

Last year, when President Obama’s amnesty decree flooded the school system with thousands of relocated students, the DoE and the DoJ issued a stern warning to force remind states to accept these students.

doedojwarning

I have long been fascinated by Plyler vs. Doe, in which the Supreme Court held that states cannot deny school funding for educating illegal immigrants. I re-read it periodically to try and grasp its legal reasoning, as opposed to reacting purely as a citizen wondering what the hell the justices were thinking.

Plyler, in brief (sez a non-lawyer):

a) Illegal aliens are protected by the 14th Amendment.
b) Although aliens are not a suspect class and education is not a fundamental right, it’s an important one, so the state must provide a compelling interest for denying children education.
c) Undocumented status alone is not compelling interest.
d) Preserving limited resources for education of lawful residents is also not sufficiently compelling interest, as no evidence was presented that excluding illegal aliens would improve the state’s ability to provide high-quality education.

The Court emphasized their dismay that children were being punished for their parents’ choices. Moreover, the Texas law was enacted in part to discourage illegal immigration, and the Court pretty much decided that denying illegal minors education was a “ludicrously ineffectual” means of achieving this goal.

My reading of Plyler does not suggest that the justices placed an absolute ban on restricting access to a basic education, but rather that Texas had not made the case for it. The Court later denied a illegal minor access to schools based on parent residency (the child was living with his aunt), and of course not even Americans can go to any school they want to. So schools have maintained their right to restrict access, in some situations. Importantly, the Court continued to hold that education is not a fundamental right. In fact, to win a 5-4 majority in Plyler, Justice William Brennan had to keep Justic Lewis Powell on board and this point was a dealbreaker.

While the states have made efforts before to challenge this restriction, (notably California and Alabama), no one seems to have looked at Plyler as a map of what needs to be done.

Any law seeking to restrict access to American schools can avoid triggering Plyer, in my non-legal reading, by not singling out illegal minors or arguing such restrictions could reduce illegal immigration. To get around the Civil Rights Act, the law can’t discriminate by race, religion, or national origin.

So why not restrict public school to citizens?

Restrict Title I and IDEA funding to citizen students. Or, perhaps, withhold funding from all states that don’t restrict access to K-12 schools. Congress could also bring back the Gallegly Amendment with alterations to restrict immigrant access to public schools. Or a federal law could simply hold that no penalties would be imposed on states that restricted K-12 access to citizens.

Rationale: our citizens deserve our best effort and full resources in order to educate and develop our national potential. The expense and resources required to educate immigrants detract from our ability to educate our own citizenry.

The restriction would not discriminate against anyone based on race, income, or national origin. Any citizen born in Africa, Australia, Europe, South America, or Asia is welcome in our schools. Moreover, this law would not eliminate the compulsory education requirements. Immigrants would still have to educate their children in America. They just can’t use public schools.

It’s not as if legal immigrant children aren’t doing their bit to overburden our schools. According to the 2010 census, 2.6 million K-12 students were not born in this country, or about 1 in 20. Assume all but a few are not citizens. Does it matter if they are here legally when considering costs? They aren’t scattered evenly throughout the country. Asians and Hispanics in particular are heavily concentrated in districts and many of these students are not citizens, legal or not. So while only 5% of all students would be denied access, many districts would see substantial cost reductions in doing so.

Remember, too, that states foot the bill to educate all those refugees imported with federal blessings– Bosnians in San Francisco, Somalians in Portland, the Congolese and Bhutans in North Dakota, and the Syrians all over—and what they don’t cover, the federal government does through Title I. Immigrants can also take advantage of “choice” and create their own charter schools with public funds to self segregate.

Employers of skilled immigrants protest that they don’t impose costs, but that’s nonsense. Techies and professors tend to have kids with high test scores, but they still require teachers, classrooms, and services. Many tech-heavy regions have local schools that are from 40-80% Asian. These regions have much higher teacher salaries (and therefore pensions) because immigrants have driven up housing costs, too.

The usual arguments about immigration benefiting the local economy—whether true or not, once externalities are factored in—are irrelevant here, because school expenses are no longer local or even limited to the states.

Taxpayers foot the bill for all those education extras for immigrants, too. Like bilingual education, thanks to the Supreme Court and Lau v. Nichols, which requires that the states provide education in a student’s native language . About half of all ELL students are foreign born, so we could at least cut those costs in half. (Yes, most ELL students are born here. Worse than that, really. A good chunk of them had parents that were born here. In fact, over 50% of high school ELL students are second or third generation.)

Then all the IDEA special education services described earlier are granted to immigrant students as well. Schools have to assume the full costs of “educating” a child with traumatic brain injury, blindness, or executive function processing issues no matter where he was born.

All those immigrants are then lumped into the melting pot of data that the feds and education reformers of all stripes use to beat schools up for the misfortune of having students with low skills and spotty attendance. School services are expected to support students with multiple issues in multiple languages, yet somehow it’s a shock that schools have more employees who don’t teach.

The advantages of this approach go way beyond just reduced education costs and tremendous popularity for the politicians who support it. Corporations and academic institutions would be forced to limit hires to childless immigrants or compensate for private schools as part of immigrant employment. Citizens would be in a better position to compete for jobs. Similarly, refugee organizations would no longer be able to dump traumatized children on an unsuspecting school district; bringing in refugees would require they fund education costs at private school rates. Chain migration efforts would be stymied; bringing family members over is a much more costly endeavor if education costs aren’t covered.

As for illegal immigrants, they’d be more likely to leave their kids back home, being unable to afford private school.

But although this restriction has tremendous potential to reduce immigration, that must not be the point of the legislation, if we follow the Court’s strictures. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg could show their support for immigration by ending their “philanthropy” for public schools and fund scholarships for illegal immigrant children to attend private schools.

Assuming that tech companies and universities keep hiring skilled immigrants, the private education market would expand tremendously to provide services. The same public schools that pay millions to educate immigrants with public funds would be laying off teachers by the dozens, if not hundreds, once the requirement was lifted, so the private schools could pick up staff cheap.

Yes, immigrants pay taxes. But taxpayers, immigrant or no, don’t always qualify for the services they pay for. Immigrants get considerable benefits from coming to America. They can decide whether or not the benefits are worth the price they pay.

Recently, a Twitter follower tried to gently remonstrate with me when I mourned John Kasich’s loyalty oath to the GOP powers that be, the promise that he’s Jeb in all things immigration.

Immigrants are people too, kiddo.

Because the only reason that anyone could possibly have for wanting to limit immigration is a total absence of contact with the people themselves.

In our national immigration conversation, no one seems to get beyond “immigrants are a threat to America” or “immigrants are hardworking salt of the earth”. Rarely in this debate do you hear the voices of people who routinely work and live with immigrants enough to know that immigrants are both, and neither, and everything in between.

As a teacher, I interact daily and meaningfully with kids of every race from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Legal and illegal. Educated and uneducated. Rich and poor. Brilliant, average, and slow. I’m not serving them dinner, making their lattes, helping them negotiate food stamps, handling their visas, or any other one and done service. Nor am I an expert deeply clued in to one particular immigrant community, be it Hispanic, Hmong, or Haitian.

I form sustained working relationships with all the variety, all the time, all at once: Nigerian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican Republic, ethnic Chinese, actual Chinese, Korean, Indian, Bengalese, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Fijian, Nepalese, Afghan, Iranian, Russian, Syrian…the list goes on. I teach them math, talk about the day’s events, get them to listen to me, yell at them when they don’t. I try to figure out how to engage them, help them learn what they care little about. I talk about movies, music, values, politics. I deal with their parents, codeswitching to comprehend different educational value systems with each conversation.

I very much doubt that anyone in the country has more exposure to the reality of immigration in all its many forms—although many others can tie. Most of those others are teachers. None of those others are in public office, much less running for president.

Only those people are as aware as I am that immigrants are people, too.

My students have my love and dedication regardless of their birthplace. I want the best for all of them.

And that’s why our free education should be reserved for citizens.

Every time Congress, the courts, or the voters institute another educational requirement, they are constraining resources, demanding tradeoffs. At the micro level, as a teacher who wants the best for all my students, every minute I spend with an immigrant is a minute I can’t spend with a citizen.

Move from the micro-level on up.

Every textbook purchased, every IEP negotiated, every special ed kid on a dedicated special ed school bus, every free meal provided, every language published in….every service that goes to an immigrant, resources are taken away from citizen students.

Every teacher hired to reduce class size, teach support classes, offer advanced classes, every school resource officer hired to maintain order in high poverty schools, every truant officer hired to keep tabs on absentee students, every school clerk tasked with ensuring federal compliance ….and every pension paid to same…all that money spent on immigrant students removes possibilities for citizens.

It’s very close to zero sum. Everything we spend to service immigrant students in our educationial system is money we can’t spend on citizen students. Not just educational resources for those endless math and reading standardized tests, but custodial resources for clean bathrooms and trash-free campuses, more computer labs, later library hours, better gyms, more auditoriums, fewer participation fees, longer air conditioning, and a whole host of amenities that have dropped off the list of services our schools used to provide for free.

Is it too much to ask that we devote our resources to our own? I ask this particularly for our American students living in poverty. Bad enough, in my view, they compete for jobs and college access with immigrants that our country welcomes, officially or no, without thought to their impact on the economy and labor pool. But even as schoolchildren, our citizens, no matter how needy, are forced to stand in line for time and resources behind those whose parents came here for a job or a safe place to live and have already received tremendous benefits just by being allowed to live here—legally or not.

A larger debate can, of course, be had about school spending. But in demanding so much from our schools, why are they required to take on such enormous responsibilities and expenditures for other countries’ children?

What does America owe its own children?

Next, and last, of the policy proposals: End the English Language Learner Mandates


Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart.

Our national education policy has led to an absurd paradox: colleges charge students full freight tuition for a suite of remedial classes that high schools are effectively banned from offering for free.

The ban is most noticeable in math. Some examples: In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped., giving students and their counsellors no other options. A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult. Many state diploma requirements specify three years of math ending in algebra 2, which means the student must get a passing grade in algebra 1 by sophomore year. Some states just indicate “3 years of math” but a close read of the fine print shows that pre-algebra doesn’t count as a credit, but only as an elective (e.g., NYC, Ohio)

It’s less discussed, but English, history, and science have few differentiators other than Advanced Placement classes, and occasionally honors. This story on Madison’s attempt to detrack their English (and eventually science) classes based on reading scores is so completely typical it’s practically a template of the process of course restriction–just change the locations. All students reading at 9th grade level (which was questionably set at the 40th percentile of 8th grade reading scores) were put in “advanced” classes. Those below the 40th percentile were put in “regular” classes, and 8% of that group were given remedial reading. In other words, all but the genuinely illiterate were expected to understand 9th grade material.

The rationale for this wholesale purging of high school course catalogues is well-documented. States or districts are faced with a dramatic racial gap in test scores, which everyone attributes to the equally dramatic imbalance in high school college track course enrollment. Federal mandates, as well as civil rights organizations armed with class action lawsuits, demand the end to imbalance in enrollment, the better to end the gap in test scores . Unlike other education reforms that take money, training, and buy-in to implement, course catalogs and transcripts are entirely under administrative control. Shazam! The courses many students need disappear, leaving only the college track option.

So students who enter high school with elementary reading skills and no basic math facts are put in exactly the same classes as students with college level reading skills and impatient algebra readiness. Schools are given no ability to offer alternate easier courses except by going the extreme route of declaring the students incapable of participating (that is, putting them in special ed). Students have no choice in their education.

Sadly, the problem was misdiagnosed, in large part because many people want to ignore primer rules 1, 2, and 4. Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged. The data on this approach shows failure that’s not only discouraging but depressingly consistent: But then, as Tom Loveless has observed, the “push … is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence”.

Most people address this issue from the other end, complaining that inclusion of weak students damages the education of stronger students. I agree, and see the results of this every day. Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students. Maintaining rigor requires failure for those who can’t achieve it.

Unfortunately, failure requires blame these days. To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Alas, many students still fail these classes, even given our dedication to keeping them on track despite content that is beyond their capabilities and/or interest. But remember, the schools offer no courses to fall back to after failure. Kids just have to take the subject again.  America spends millions teaching the same kids the same course twice, or even three times, both during the school year and in summer school and other credit recovery programs. Many of them don’t learn much the second time or third time through, of course, but teachers and administrators are fully aware of primer rule #3, which is why we pass them anyway, eventually. That way, at least, they can go to college and get the remedial classes we can’t offer, even if the poor kids will have to pay for them.

Those of you who focus on lost opportunities for the high achievers, I ask you to take a moment and ask yourself what it’s like for kids at the other end, to constantly fail courses that they have no choice in taking, no interest in, and no ability to genuinely understand. And to make it worse, once students are identified as strugglers whose test scores will hurt the school, they’re shoved into “support” classes for math and/or English, stuck for twice as long in classes they already despised. Why even try, when they know that if they stick it out eventually they’ll get a passing grade? And who can blame them?

This must change. High schools need to be able to teach all students at the appropriate pace and content level, which for many doesn’t begin to approach the expectations of our absurd national education policies. Pre-algebra, arithmetic and basic math literacy and general purpose reading and composition are necessary to allow students who needs those skills to acquire them without having to go to college to pay for them. Science and history need to be appropriately gauged as well, so that students can learn basic information at the pace they need.

The many students challenged by these simpler topics will be unlikely to progress to college level work. Ever. Algebra during senior year might often be a worthwhile goal. However, all students, regardless of underlying ability and interest, can learn to use the knowledge and skills they have and we can, indeed must, learn to build curriculum to challenge and extend their capacity. But schools can’t do this while lying about student capacity, which is what schools are forced to do when policies prohibit them from offering a full range of courses that meet student interests at the appropriate cognitive level.

So what can a presidential candidate do? Well, since the states have made these changes in response to federal pressure, a good place to start is get rid of the pressure. Praise the new ESEA bill for returning accountability back to the states. Promise to collect data, but accept that student learning is a complex mix and leave it at that.

Then promise to fund efforts to research and develop challenging yet accessible high school curriculum and course sequences to assist in educating the students who weren’t able to absorb the information from the prior eight years of schooling. Everyone fears that putting students into remedial classes will involve thought-obliterating worksheets piled on one after the other. I’ve taught remedial classes, and have been able to develop or borrow engaging curriculum. But the risk is legitimate.

A presidential candidate can also address the most compelling objection to this proposal: fear that schools will just place black and Hispanic kids into the lowest level classes by default. I think that fear is overrated; I once went looking for the bad old days and couldn’t find many (if any) cases of schools deliberately, systematically putting high-scoring black students into low ability classes. Many schools used test scores, which created the imbalance, as test scores by race always will. However, there’s still a messy middle in which white parents and black parents make different demands for kids with identical test scores, or badly behaved low income students who are nonetheless quite bright are failed by teachers who confuse behavior with ability.. Testing and required placement will help mitigate that risk. The federal government can certainly require proof that schools and districts are appropriately placing students with strong test scores, regardless of race. (States, schools, and districts will need that data to avoid lawsuits.)

But here’s the real education policy proposal for the candidates of 2016: Stop pretending education is the answer to poverty. Many kids who don’t care for school are galvanized by the possibility of a job. Stop offloading national responsibilities onto the schools. Schools can’t give students jobs with good wages. The economy can. Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels, by squashing requests for more H1B visas, scrutinizing citizen layoffs for cheap Indian labor, and enforcing our immigration laws. You build an economy with the workers you have, not the workers you can import at the price you want.

To say this proposal is at odds with the zeitgeist is to reveal how thoroughly at odds the public is with the “white professional ghetto”, as Harold Myerson describes the intelligentsia. The public doesn’t believe that everyone can achieve equally; that’s a delusion reserved for people who’ve never spent time in the schools they want to “fix”.

Next up: Repeal IDEA–leave special education to the states.


Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation

So if any presidential candidate is out there looking for ideas–particularly you Republicans–here’s my first proposal:

Colleges and universities have been constantly complaining for 30 years or so that incoming students are in dire need of remediation1. These complaints inevitably lead into a conversation about failing high schools, accompanied by fulminations and fuming.

The correct response: Why are remedial students allowed to matriculate in the first place?

It’s not as if the knowledge deficit comes as a surprise. Most students have taken the SAT or the ACT, which most if not all four-year public institutions use as a first-level remediation indicator–that is, a score of X exempts the student from a placement test. Those who don’t make that cut have to take a placement test. Community colleges usually cut straight to the placement test. The most common placement tests are also developed by the Big Two ((Accuplacer is SAT, Compass is ACT).

So why not just reject all applicants who aren’t college-ready?

Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard.

Most states (or all?) offer two levels of post-secondary education: college and adult education. As colleges have sought to increase access to everyone who can demonstrate basic literacy (and far too many who can’t even manage that), adult education has withered and nearly died.

Pick a level and split them. My cutoff would be second year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education, which is not eligible for student loans, but we could probably give some tax credits or something for self-improvement.

Adult education could be strengthened by repurposing the funds we now spend on remedial education. The existing community college system could, for example, be split into two tiers—one for actual college level work or legitimate AA degrees, the other for adult education courses, which are currently a weak sister of K-12.

The federal government could enforce this by refusing to back Pell grants for remedial courses in college, as Michael Petrilli and others have called for. State legislatures could arguably just pick a demonstrated ability level and restrict funding to those public universities that ignore it.

Of course, some argue that college is for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This path leads to a complete devaluation of the college degree, of course, but if that is to be the argument, there’s an easy solution. If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

Proposal #2: Put Remedial Classes Back in High School

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

1College remediation in its present form came about during the seventies, when colleges expanded access largely to give opportunities to blacks and other minorities. At the time, remedial education was dubbed “compensatory”. Believing that socio-economic circumstances and poor schools led to a correctable deficit….well, see, I can stop right there. If you want the whole history, check out CUNY’s version of it; similar responses took place in campuses all over the country. But I don’t have to explain why that was a flawed belief. Just see the primer items 1-4.


Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics

Every election year, someone bemoans the fact that education is never a major factor in presidential politics. This year might be an exception, because of Common Core. But the reality is, presidential aspirants never talk about the issues that really interest the public at large.

Instead, politicians read from the same Big Book Of Education Shibboleths that pundits do.

To wit: Our public schools are a national disgrace with abysmal international rankings. Our test scores that haven’t budged in 40 years. Unions prevent bad teachers from being fired. Teachers are essential to academic outcomes but they are academically weak and unimpressive, the bottom feeders of college graduates. Administrators are crippled because they can’t fire bad teachers. We know what works in education. Choice will save our country by improving student outcomes. Charters have proven all kids can learn and poverty doesn’t matter. And so on.

All the conventional wisdom I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph is false, or at least complicated by reality. Any education reformer with more than two years experience would certainly agree that the public is mostly unmoved by rhetoric about teacher quality, tenure, curriculum changes, and choice—in fact, when “education reform” is a voting issue, the voters are often going against reform.

Education reformers are very much like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: All this time I thought he didn’t want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.  

Yeah, sorry. Your ideas, reformers, they just don’t do it for the public.

So I put together some policies that a lot of the public would agree with and many would consider important enough to make a voting issue. In each case, the necessary legislation could be introduced at the state or federal level.

There’s a catch, of course. These proposals are nowhere on the horizon. But any serious understanding of these proposals will lead to an understanding of just how very far the acceptable debate is from the reality on the ground.

To understand these proposals, a Reality Primer:

1) Some children cannot learn to the desired standard in an acceptable timeframe or, in the case of high school, in any timeframe.
2) The more rigorous the standard, the greater number of students who will be incapable of learning to that standard.
3) As a result of the first two immutable facts, schools can’t require an unbendable promotion standard.
4) By high school, the range of student understanding in any one classroom is beyond what most outsiders can possibly conceive of.

and somewhat unrelated to the previous four:

5) Education case history suggests that courts care neither about reality or costs.

The primer is important. Read it. Embrace it. In fact, if you read the primer and really get on board, you’ll be able to come up with the proposals all by yourself.

Some additional reading to remind readers of where I’m coming from:

I originally had all the proposals as one huge post, but I’ve been really short on posts lately. Here’s the list as I build it:

  1. Ban College-Level Remediation
  2. Stop Kneecapping High Schools
  3. Repeal IDEA
  4. Make K-12 Education Citizen Only
  5. End ELL Mandates

The Day of Three Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

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

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

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

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

Some other work of mine that strikes me as related:

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

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

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

But that’s a miracle for another day.


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