Category Archives: policy

Should Reporters Allow Teachers Pseudonymous Opinions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find that….unnerving.

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

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

Do I take this personally? Why do you ask?


Why Not Direct Instruction?

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

And whose fault is that?

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

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?




I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

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

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

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

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.


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

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

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

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

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are questions that deserve investigation.


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

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


Teachers and Smart Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then……a weird thing happened!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Things I Don’t Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory: January, 2014

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

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

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

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

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

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

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

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

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

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

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

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

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

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

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

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

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

September 2016: Fixing Schools

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

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

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

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


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

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

What Counts as Teaching?

I met Dale, his girlfriend Maya, and their new puppy for lunch on Friday.  Dale and I worked together at my previous Title I school in his first year (my last). Within three years, Dale was department chair,  teaching AP Calc BC and AP Stats,  honors pre-calculus, designing his own courses, settling colleague spats. But Dale began his career teaching Algebra I, and even after taking a leadership position, he never hesitated to take on a low-level class to give his colleagues more variety. Given that Dale’s school, like mine, assigns teachers to categories of classes, he could easily have stayed in the stratosphere, but he easily handles tough kids.

Dale had planned to stay at that school forever. I remember one lunch when Maya and I pointed out he might be better moving to a different school, but he was adamant. However,  Maya (who makes a lot more money) has become exhausted and stressed by her commute. They decided to move closer to her job, which is in a much wealthier part of the world. Dale still isn’t thirty, and you don’t get hired into department head positions, particularly not in the wealthy suburban districts near his new place. Dale knew that, knew that  prioritizing location would limit his options, that he’d be unlikely to get the ideal course load he now had. My own school would have taken him in a heartbeat, given him the AP class load he preferred, but he wanted to be close to home.

We knew all this. We’d talked about it last year, when he was looking. When Dale accepted a job, we talked about his schedule: a bunch of algebra I classes and computer science. All freshmen. More money, but not enough more to get excited about. Dale’s a cheery guy and showed no resentment, at most mildly philosophical about the change.

End preamble. Nod to Dale’s awesome relationship priorities.

So we’re talking about Dale’s new job at lunch. He is using the district curriculum that is mapped out by day. He spends no time at all developing his own lesson plans, but since the required curriculum has regular quizzes and tests, he spends far more time grading than he used to. He loves it, though. The students  (mostly white) are capable and interested and far advanced of anything he’d seen at his last school. They do homework. They ask in depth questions, demand deeper understanding.

As he told me all this, Dale was grinning. I knew he was remembering something I told him early on in our acquaintance, when he was a first year and I was a third: “Look, I’m not sure what you call it when people deliver centrally planned lessons to prepared kids, but it sure as hell isn’t teaching. Because if it is, what the hell is it we’re doing?”

“So,” I said now. “Is it teaching?”

“Sure feels like it. But yeah, it’s different. Their questions are amazing. We’re really discussing in-depth math. The kids enjoy it. They aren’t obsessed about grades. I’d rather plan my own lessons, although I can see how I’d get used to just downloading the worksheets for the day. But the kids, they want to know about math. And I get to tell them all about math. What is that, if not teaching?”

Every so often, I can get my head around this notion. When I think of reformers going on and on about the importance of curriculum, how arrogant teachers are to think they can create their own, I realize these are people whose notion of teaching is something like Dale’s classroom. When I read a paper stating that to improve teaching and advance student learning requires weaving together the curriculum that students engage with every day with the professional learning of teachers“, I realize they, too, think that my world is just a slightly more chaotic, lower-level version of Dale’s universe.

But see, it goes beyond curriculum. That’s just my pet peeve. Think about what a PE teacher does every day. A first grade teacher. A high school special ed teacher managing twelve aides and eight severely disabled “students” who have to wear mitts to stop from hurting themselves, who will be attending “school” all year round until they’re twenty one because Congress gets crazy some time. Think about any teacher in a poorly managed inner city school, where chaos reigns. Or what about an ESL teacher who only speaks English, but has eighteen students from Congo, India, Salvador, China, Afghanistan, and three other countries?

What counts as “teaching”?

It’s a few hundred thousand blind men and a camel.

I’ve written various renditions of this point throughout the years. And I know teachers aren’t unique. Lawyers, engineers (if there is such a thing), doctors–all the professions have similar width and breadth.


A surgeon can fix the ailment of a patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who stays mute throughout the trial; but success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student…Unless [the] intended learning takes place, the teacher is understood to have failed.–David Labaree, The Trouble With Ed Schools

Labaree goes on to observe that the aspects of health that require patient cooperation–obesity, smoking, addiction–have extremely low success rates. Doctors have offloaded these responsibilities onto therapists, who aren’t expected to have a fabulous success rates.

But when the country began actively forbidding both students from quitting and teachers from limiting their student population, teachers weren’t allowed to offload their responsibilities onto some lower career ladder occupation, or even lower expectations for success. In fact, governments became ever more quantitative in its demands for educational outcomes.

Don’t bleed too hard for teachers. We mostly ignore the outcome expectations. And it’s pretty good pay for most of us, as well as a great working schedule. But for any number of reasons, the public debate and the absurd expectations is a huge part of the job in my region of Teacher World, and not even a tiny blip on the horizon of Dale’s.

That is, if what we do is called teaching.

Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?–Supply

I will never leave my current position. I won’t ever risk leaving the tenure cocoon until I’m ready to leave teaching. I expect to stay seven more years in this job and then move to another state, where I will try to find get a teaching job but will weep no tears if I don’t.

Why? I’m too old to risk being on the market. Barry Garelick couldn’t find a full-time job, and I believe he still works just part-time with kids at a middle school. I doubt I agree with one in five words the man writes but that’s not why he didn’t find work.  I guess he needs an American version of the program Lucy Kellaway has put together  for fifty somethings in the UK.  But in the US, if you’re highly educated and past 40 but think being a teacher sounds rewarding, network like mad, get an internship job first, and don’t spend a fortune on tuition, is all I can say.

But didn’t I just say there’s a teacher shortage?  Well, sure. But age discrimination is everywhere. And there are other caveats.

Ed schools seem to be producing too many elementary school teachers.   One of the first big pieces I ever wrote referenced a study showing that just 77,000 of the 186,000 teacher class of 2010 took a job teaching, and it’s likely that most of the ones who didn’t were elementary school teachers. The best piece on this teaching shortage, skeptical and thorough (and, alas, 4 years old) is still Stephen Sawchuk’s Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Finds.

Notice Sawchuk points out that the data shows this. Note he also points out that “states flush with elementary teachers can face shortages, particularly in urban and rural areas.” And there are many irregularities. For example, Maryland produced 1000 elementary school teachers and hired 1,100, 723 of them new teachers. But over half of the new teachers came from out of state. Wait, what? As Sawchuk notes, teacher supply is complicated.

Another reality: teaching jobs are vastly different depending on the adjectives describing the schools and the students. Some principals can be picky and selective, rejecting and selecting based on their personal preferences. Other principals are the employer equivalent of  drunken out-of-towners looking for love in the bar at closing time: taking what they can get.

These analogical drunks run schools with the wrong adjectives. The schools or their districts are extremely rural, extremely urban, extremely poor, extremely expensive or, of course, two or more combined.  While charter schools definitely contribute to the increase in teaching populations, I don’t think heavy charter presence leads inevitably to a shortage for that state or district, but that’s a data analysis beyond my scope.

So here’s something I always wonder: when those desperate principals are looking, where are the English teachers, the history teachers, the elementary school teachers who change careers or work as substitutes when they can’t find jobs? Are they applying at the schools with the unattractive adjectives?

Reporters don’t often make this clear. In my case, I wanted to work in high poverty districts, although I never got desperate enough to apply to charters or inner city schools. If I couldn’t nail down employment among the suburban poor, I vowed to  move to North Dakota. My kid’s grown and in another state, so I could pretend it was an adventure. Fortunately, I was able to stick within those parameters and find tenure without relocation. Eventually, I probably would have sought out inner city schools, if I had to.

But that was me, with $50K in loans that I could only write off with a teaching job, loans I had no intention of paying off my own self. Suppose you’re a young credentialed college graduate with only a moderate ambition,  no major loans and a parent to help pay them off. Would you be willing to take that 2 am job in the extreme zones? Or were you just interested in teaching with reasonable kids, reasonable pay, reasonable cost of living and reasonable locale offered up by an attractive employer well before the midnight hour?

Then there are the college educated folks working as adjunct professors or barristas or bus drivers that I wrote about last time. Why aren’t they considering teaching?

Well, there’s this other thing to remember: Teaching is brutally hard for some people.

Many otherwise ordinary people can succeed and thrive in teaching. But the job can also crush a healthy ego as easily as an egg.  Who is going to have an easy time, who is going to struggle and thrive, who’s going to slink away with a mental scar that they often flinch away from? Typically, although not always,  counted among the failed are  many Dewey- and dewy-eyed idealists who envision themselves enrapturing a group of wide-eyed, attentive diamonds in the rough who had never once encountered a teacher who really cared. Then they face reality, often with no mentoring and no support. The results are ugly. Some recover. Some don’t.

I wrote about a breakdown I witnessed with a long term sub, one who’d taught in India and had originally planned to teach here in America.  Every teacher has these anecdotes, I think. If you want to read a book about the breakdown of an inept teacher whose psyche was severely unglued by teaching, I suppose you can suffer through Ed Boland’s Battle for Room 314, a truly revolting book about a terrible person whose choices are inexplicable, not least because he clearly despises his students. Upside: the self-absorbed, condescending little jerk  who thought he’d become a Great Savior, is permanently defeated by his shortcomings and other inabilities and he’ll be cringing from his failures for the rest of his life. Downside: the horrible little man got a book deal out of it, as well as all sorts of positive attention.

Sorry. I didn’t write a whole piece on that book because, well, you can see. Where was I?

College-educated people who are unhappy with their economic lot in life choose under-employment or insecure employment are already dealing with a sense of failure. Maybe they know they aren’t cut out for a job that can wreak psychological devastation, even one with  tremendous job security, enviable union benefits, and fantastic vacation time. Teachers  who abandon the field when they can’t find the job they want could be making the same calculation: why risk  soul-wringing failure when they already feel unwanted?

And so, the disconnect. Teaching seems to be easy, seems to offer a  ready supply of jobs, but  the jobs in classrooms with capable kids and involved parents  are much harder to come by, and hey, maybe  it’s not always so easy.

Sing me no happy talk about charters and choice. Megan McArdle’s mea culpa got some pushback, but the public has made it fairly clear it’s not on board with education reform.  Eventually, everyone will realize that lousy teachers don’t cause low test scores. And as I observed in my last piece, even assuming charters are making it more desirable to teach in low income areas, they’re consuming more teachers and burning through them at a faster rate.

TFA found another way to convince people to enter the field: make it a resume boost, but that story stopped selling, eventually.

There’s one sure way to convince more people to take on teaching pay a whole lot more. Pay so much the salary makes it worth while for people to move to Alaska, teach in Detroit, take a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Salinas for a teaching job in Palo Alto, risk losing tenure, or live in the remote frozen lands of North Dakota.

And none of these measly 20% increases, or $4K signing bonuses. It’s going to take six figures to get reliable sourcing for the schools with unattractive adjectives.

But that makes no sense. (Ha, had you fooled, didn’t I?)

Leave aside the states that need to revisit pay because they are constantly losing teachers to their higher-paying neighbors. Understand that the expensive  districts are paying through the nose already (average teacher salary in the Bay Area is nearly 6 figures as it is).  Understand that 3.5 million people seem to find the existing pay just fine.

Remember, too, that these are government jobs, with government pensions, and our state government pension commitments give responsible people nightmares.  As it is, pensions are a looming threat. Shortages are already leading to higher salaries in many states, and that only makes the commitments even more threatening.

Then there’s the fact that increasing the teacher supply invariably means lowering teacher standards even further–which, of course, I’ve never argued against. But lowering standards while dramatically increasing pay is just adding insult to injury for the taxpayers. And the reformer path to improved teacher quality–threatening teacher pay and benefits, offering merit pay,  reducing job security–only makes the supply problems more severe, as the charter experience shows. That is, of course, what education reformers have never really grasped, and it’s why their efforts have mostly failed.

I prefer reducing demand, preferably without too much of a baby bust. Faithful readers can probably remember when I’ve discussed that before, but everyone else will have to wait for the next post.

PS–I don’t want to make this whole series sound deeper than it is. I don’t have any hard research under wraps. I just wanted to discuss the various lines of thought that others have offered, and respond.

Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?

The Teacher Shortage Myth is typical of the scoffing view that says “How can there be a teacher shortage when the teacher population is increasing at a faster clip than the student population?

We have a teacher shortage.  Debate the breadth and depth as you will. But if teachers were thick on the ground, would principals be so reluctant to give bad reviews to marginal teachers? Would  Race to the Top have failed so satisfactorily if parents and districts alike weren’t worried that their teacher pool would be threatened? Why are California and Nevada and a number of other states bringing in teachers from the Philippines? 

So for the purposes of this article, accept the fact that we’ve got a teacher shortage.

I don’t see why anti-teacher folks make so much hay out of the discrepancy between student and teacher growth. I can think of several reasons why schools would need more teachers despite a stable or even declining student population.  From least to most determinative of obvious explanations:

  1. Since 2002 or so, middle school teachers have had to be credentialed at the more demanding high school standard. Existing teachers were grandfathered in, but as they retire, the newer hires are being drawn from the high school pool. At the same time, education policy in practice now requires all students to take four years of math, although likewise in practice this often means students take four years to pass the required two or three years officially mandated. In any case, there’s been a largely unreported increase in the need for academic subject teachers.
  2. A good chunk of that student growth is in immigrants and non-English speakers. We public schools are required to take all kids of school age the minute they set foot on our soil, regardless of their previous education or English ability. An explosion in immigration keeps the need for ESL teachers growing, and those classes are very small. Our school keeps the equivalent of one full-time hire for about 16 kids.
  3. Similarly, a good chunk of the student growth involved more special education students, another population that has a legal ability to demand small classes.  Special ed students cost, on average, twice that of a regular student (the last we checked, which was 16 years ago). In high school, most of them are eligible for what’s basically a study hall, meaning we pay teachers to do a lot of case management, parent meetings, and run classes of 8-10 kids doing very little most of the time.
  4. The big one, of course, is charter schools. According to Edweek, the public school teacher population grew from 3,385,200 to about 3,800,000 in 4 years, with 218,500 of that group teaching at charters. But what the Edweek reporter doesn’t mention is that those same four years earlier, from the same report, the charter teacher population was just 115,600, or an 89% increase. Public school proper teachers grew to 3,581,500 from 3,269,600, or just 9.5%–a believable increase given the first three points. Of the 400,000 teachers added in 4 years, 25% of them work at charters, teaching just 6% of the population.

    I do not understand why people don’t understand the obvious impact of using public dollars to fund what are basically small private schools–with capped enrollment, no less. We have X students. Educating X students at Y schools requires Z teachers. Educating X students at Y + some number of schools will require Z+ some bigger number of teachers. Full stop.


Leaving demand behind, let’s take a look at supply.

Do not expect, dear reader, a jeremiad about the woeful lack of respect the public has for teachers. The public gives us plenty of respect. If you want a fairly well-thought out, pro-union, pro-teacher case for the teacher shortage, here’s Peter Greene from a couple years ago. I don’t know that I agree with all his reasoning, but he’s thorough and logical and despite the anti-reform rhetoric, reasonably compelling. (Remember that I, too, think reform is useless, but our reasons differ, as do our proposed fixes.)

But I think about this differently. Never mind pay, respect, anti-teaching rhetoric. Take a look at these anecdotes from the last few years, all of which describe very current reality:

Millennials are Screwed:


Why So Many Higher Ed Professors Make So Little


The Problem With Being Just a Teacher


I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I make less than a pet-sitter.


College graduates working as bus drivers, barristas, or waiters. PhDs desperately trying to cobble a living out of college teaching contingent jobs.

I am reliably informed that teaching has a low barrier to entry. We don’t learn anything useful in classes, the argument goes, and there’s no knowledge base to memorize. GPAs are ludicrously low. The credential tests are a bit of a facer, but certainly not for the well-educated folks of the stories above.  There’s job security so tenacious it’s given birth to a dozen laws intended to dislodge it–laws that have, for the most part, failed, in a world that otherwise sees the tie between employer and employee disintegrate. Benefits are disappearing. Increasing numbers of jobs are contingent.

But a millennial with a business degree chose to be a bus driver when he couldn’t get a bank job. Adjuncts are so easily found begging for work that colleges can treat them like disposable diapers.

I’m not offering criticism or suggestion, just describing a choice that shouldn’t make sense, given the public policy discourse about teaching. These aren’t entrepreneurs choosing a career that will reward ambition and excellence, sneering at the “widget” teacher. These are people who, for whatever reason, aren’t succeeding in their post-college career. Whether  teachers are underpaid, disrespected, or undeserving mediocrities ensconced in a sinecure,  non-trivial chunks of people with college degrees are rejecting these secure teaching jobs with more pay and security for widget jobs with less pay, less respect, and no future.


So there you go. We have a teacher shortage. I offered some reasons why the growth in demand for teachers might outstrip the growth in students. I’ve pointed out at least two sources of college educated strugglers that apparently aren’t turning to teaching despite its offering of better pay and more security.

I have no evidence for any of this but then, when did that stop anyone else?

Part 2 coming soon, I think. If not, just consider this mind food and mull it over your own self.

Note: I borrowed the feature image, the one that comes through on Twitter, from here



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.