Category Archives: progressives

Baraki, Caldeira, and Foolish Hysteria

(hey,kinda rhymes)

Back in November, Abigail Shrier, a journalist who achieved notoriety by pointing how much of the trans movement involves girls in their early teens,  revealed, with much fanfare, How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids: (Yes. A while back. I’ll explain the delay.)

Two California middle school teachers, Kelly Baraki and Lori Caldeira, of Spreckels Union School District, gave a presentation at an October union conference about their struggles and triumphs running a gay-straight alliance club. Based on the recordings, though, their primary focus appeared to be helping “trans” kids find themselves. Highlights of their claims:

  • They advised finding alternate club names (UBU instead of GSA) that didn’t alert parents to the club’s purpose.
  • They didn’t keep club meeting rosters to keep parents unaware of their child’s participation.
  • They were concerned about club attrition and their efforts to keep the kids motivated and attending the gender awareness clubs.
  • They described “stalking” kids’ online activity during the pandemic to identify students who expressed interest in exploring sexuality.
  • They discussed the best ways to “integrate” their gender preference instruction into their anti-bullying presentations so the students are less likely to mention it to their parents.
  • They mocked parents who complained about their kids being exposed to sex-ed. They crowed that with tenure,  the principal might “flinch” but couldn’t respond to parents’ concerns.
  • In every way they presented their club as a recruitment project, in which parents were to be ignored and subverted whenever possible.

Shrier, as is evidenced by the title of her piece, characterized their presentation as “insight…into the mindset and tactics of activist teachers themselves.”  She saw this presentation as education and instruction.

I read about this at the time and several things immediately seemed obvious, pointing to a real failure on Shrier’s part to do any reporting or analysis.

First, and this is fairly minor but it speaks to the hysteria: Shrier was reading way too much into “union conference”. She clearly sees it as indoctrination. It’s not. Most teachers are required to document seat time for recertification; all of them have to come up with educational credits to move along the pay scale. These union conferences serve as seat time for recertification and, for extra money, can be converted into credits. Plus, Palm Springs! Take the kids, sit by a pool. Nobody–but nobody–sitting in that conference was being educated, advised, or instructed.

Clearly, Shrier didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. Namely, who was paying? Were teachers listening to this swill on district time? Were Caldeira and Baraki getting paid by the district to present? I did some research on union conferences, and am reasonable satisfied that districts don’t pay for teachers to attend. Someone ought to make sure, though.

Regarding the content of the presentation, I was stunned. Tracking kids’ internet activity? Total control over morning announcements? Not keeping attendance at club meetings? Mocking angry parents and gloating that tenure protects them? Smugly talking about the principal “flinching” but being forced to back them?

Why would anyone believe all this?

Teachers can’t hold club meetings and keep them secret. Morning announcements aren’t the personal domain of a teacher. No teacher is stupid enough to think pissed off parents can’t change her existence, especially with a principal who is privately flinching at her behavior but feels forced to comply. Tracking a student’s internet activity…that was so weird I googled and found out about GoGuardian, which freaked me right out, as I teach for one of the 90% of schools who don’t use it. I think it’s only for Chromebooks? And in the classroom I could see it being useful. But either way, I don’t believe any teacher, even one with the worst intentions in the world, could “stalk” kids internet use without singling them out ahead of time or running reports after the fact. No teacher would brag about the first, and there had to be controls on the second, which meant they were lying.

So most of what Caldeira and Baraki were recorded as saying was utter bullshit and obviously, once the tapes came out, these two tearchers were toast. If their presentation was accurate, they’d be fired now that it was public. If they were lying, as seemed likely, they were going to be fired for embarrassing the district.

I commented to this effect on Shrier’s blog. And I was right.

The district, upon learning from Shrier about the recordings, instantly sent out a response, suspending the club, requiring principals to sign off on announcements, and denying some of the claims the teachers made. As I expected, the district emphasized that Baraka and Caldeira were using personal days and not speaking as school representatives. The two teachers were placed on administrative leave while a formal investigation (done by a lawfirm, not the district) took place.

In early July, the lawfirm released the results of a thorough investigation: 1600 documents reviewed, 21 witnesses. The text of the report is very specific on a key point: Baraki and Caldeira made “harmful and disruptive comments” during the presentation that “were not reliable evidence of their actual conduct.”

That is, they lied.

Baraki and Caldeira never put any gender-related comments in the announcements. They didn’t mislead kids during their lessons. While they generated 30 reports of student activity between 2015 and 2019 (which doesn’t strike me as a lot, but I can’t be sure), but all of them had some other purpose. They did notice a student clicking on a link, but never followed up with that student. The only two kids they invited to the club meetings had first approached their teachers about joining.

Baraki and Caldeira resigned and were not fired. They almost certainly would have been, although it might have taken a couple years. But no administrator or district official would forget the shit those two caused by, let’s not forget, lying.

The details were reported sympathetically by the SF Chronicle which talks of the teachers being cleared but glossing over the fact that they lied. Oddly–or maybe not so oddly–Shrier wrote five stories on this in six weeks last winter but hasn’t mentioned this update in three weeks.

Brief aside: this has to be bad news for Jessica Konnen, mother of a former Caldeira student who went through a phase of believing herself transgender while attending the middle school. Konnen was notified by Caldeira and the principal, where the two made it clear that they’d known about this for a long time. After hearing the tapes, she was convinced that Caldeira had unduly influenced her daughter and got lawyer Harmeet Dhillon taking her case against Caldeira and the district, which was filed in June. The recordings were a key part of the evidence and now a law firm investigation has shown the teachers were lying.

What Shrier et al. see as an appalling example of business as usual in our public schools is, in fact, exaggerated or rule-breaking behavior the teachers are bragging about in order to impress their audience.

Of course, that’s still bad.  Baraki and Caldeira are bragging to make themselves look good The dreary reality, in their minds,  is that school procedures prevent them from finding all the potentially confused kids to straighten out. They don’t have the control they claim to have over morning announcements, student clubs. But they want to project a voice of authority to impress their audience–an audience, they presume, who is excited as they are at finding transgender kids who need their help. You want evidence of a polarized country? There you go. Many people support helping kids find their identities, as they think of it. 

But they aren’t the cause! Yes, Baraki and Caldeira want to “find” (convert, to Shrier et al) more transgender students. Yes, they want to run over the rights of concerned parents. Yes, they want to “educate” (indoctrinate) kids by making their club seem exciting, by normalizing gender issues in school, by growing their club. And yes, the union staff setting up the conference see those goals as admirable. All of these are, in my view, horrible objectives and reflect a terrifying mindset.

Except they can’t achieve their goals. School and district policies prevented it. Parents were leery and districts heeded parents. In fact, when the district learned that Baraki bragged about controlling announcements and not keeping a roster, it instantly created policies forbidding that control–policies that normally wouldn’t be needed, because if Baraki had indeed been sliding in propaganda, someone would have noticed. Doesn’t matter. Avoid the risk, mandate signoff. Mandate attendance lists (something common in high school, anyway).

So if the teachers like Baraki and Caldeira have to lie to pretend to have any power, they certainly aren’t the ones preventing parents from being told their kid is transgender. Who’s doing that? 

State and federal governments, that’s who.

I’m in this weird situation where I get reviled by progressives for being a hateful anti-trans bigot and yelled at by conservatives for being a pedophile groomer. I think  “gender dysphoria” is at best a phase and at worst a mental illness.  I am comfortable with finding adults finding whatever gender solution works for them. I am against younger kids taking medical steps. Use of proper pronouns is polite, but should not be required or forced at risk of social and economic obliteration. Any discussion of gender with young kids is wildly inappropriate, whether it’s a doctor, teacher, librarian, or drag queen raising the subject.  Kids should not be actively taught about sexuality….ever, as far as I’m concerned. Let them figure it out for themselves. All of this is enough to get me reviled by progressives.

But the people, whatever their ideology, who are appalled by this radical ideology and the insistence on demands and requirements that seem to violate the laws of reality seem to have no idea of what’s causing it and the wrong idea on who to blame. Once again they focus on unions, teachers, ed schools. 

Smug parents bragging that they homeschool are fooling themselves. Pediatricians think screening kids for gender is a great idea. If it’s not already a state requirement, just wait. Their churches probably won’t comply but why are so many corporations are coming up with DEI initiatives? 

The institutional capture people need to worry about is not teachers and ed schools but state policy makers and legal overreach. If you want to know why schools take a particular action, don’t look to unions but policy, laws, and accreditation–not just of K-12 schools but also colleges, universities, and every organization you can think of.  If states don’t play along, the feds can just devise some sort of mandate to qualify for funds.

This article is too long already, but in researching this story, I found a very troubling expansion that may illustrate the real perpetrator. From the most recent Chronicle article on Baraki and Caldeira:

The California Department of Education says that school staff should not disclose information about students’ gender identity without student permission under AB1266, which protects transgender students’ rights and went into law in 2014.

The first link goes to the CDoE policy which is a full page of things California schools must do to support transgender students because of AB1266–including restrictions against telling parents. The second is a link to AB1266 which says that California Education Code 221.5 shall be modified. It’s not specific about the modifications, which necessitates a look back to 221.5 as it existed in 2010 to learn that 221.5 had five clauses, a-e, and AB1266 added one more:

(f) A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.

That’s it. 

Well. That’s enough. That’s the wording, undoubtedly enacted in many states, enabling males to compete as females and the bathroom confusion. But there’s no mention of parents. 

So the CDoE is attributing a near total mandate forbidding schools from notifying parents (with a few weasel words for cover) and using as its rationale legislation changes that don’t mention parents at all. 

Now, go back to the CADoE FAQ and it’s clear that all the legal text added in that section is rationale. Someone took this opportunity to interpret privacy laws and create a whole slew of school mandates that were not in the original legislation. You have to wonder if that’s what Tom Ammiano, the legislative sponsor, had in mind. An attempt to recall the legislation failed. 

By the way, this change to California law happened back in 2014. Long before anyone was paying attention. 

Think it’s only California and those wacky progressives? Trump SecEd Betsy DeVos resisted his order to change policy on transgender students and bathrooms. GOP bastion South Dakota legislators passed a law to force transgender students to use the bathroom matching their biology in 2016, but the governor, a Republican, vetoed it. Even today, Governor Noem was willing to kiss any shot at the presidency goodbye by vetoing a ban on transgender athletes.  I see plenty of GOP opinion folks mocking Rachel Levine; far fewer mocking Dierdre McCloskey.

Understand what forces compelled Noem to veto that law despite the overwhelming support in her state and why DeVos resisted ending transgender access to bathrooms. Accept that people who pushed this started things in motion long before most people were paying attention. Remember  that schools, the institutions most subjected to these pressures, still care about parents and political pressure. Push them hard and they’ll close gaps. Ensure minimum compliance with laws and don’t allow overreach.

Untangling this craziness while still allowing self-determination will be a long process and the other side on this has a head start. But there’s an obvious state law that should be made immediately, one that reporters making their bones on transgender outrage should immediately support:

Mandate  schools to immediately notify parents should their child express a gender identity different from his or her biological one. Specifically: student confides as transgender to school employee, school employee notifies administrator, form letter goes out to parent. If the school’s opinion is the child would be endangered by parental notification, school notifies child protective services who takes it from there. Schools are not allowed to keep this information from parents.

This is a no-brainer. And quite apart from the logical reasons to support this change, there’s one additional positive side effect:  ending or at least wildly curtailing the clubs and activities that seem to encourage student gender confusion. It is perversely easier to force teachers to hide secrets from parents than it is dealing with really pissed off parents blaming the school’s UBU club for their suddenly transgender kid. 

 

 


Wokesters, Grift, and Bureaucratic Sludge

Late one Tuesday night in 2018,  I checked my email, thank god, and learned that next morning’s staff meeting devoted to professional development (PD) was “Understanding Trans Students”. I’ve endured a wide range of asinine PD, including one hilarious afternoon years ago with a black activist consultant who lectured the staff of my last school, which was 75% low income, ELL, Hispanic, on how students were hurt by teachers who didn’t understand what it was like to be black and poor.  

But as early as 2018 the transgender issue was really…fraught. So I gave the meeting a pass and got some grading done. 

Almost immediately after the meeting, our principal sent out an email apologizing for the presentation. Turns out a good chunk of the staff had openly and angrily objected to the presentation as simplistic and insulting, treating the teachers as unenlightened dead-namers.  The principal cut the whole activity short. 

A few months later, we did a session on trans kids’ legal rights, where we were informed that we couldn’t use a student’s chosen name and gender with a parent if the parent was unaware of the student’s sexuality. But how were we to know whether a parent was aware of this or not, a skeptical teacher (raises hand) asked. Reply: we couldn’t know and shouldn’t ask the student.

Juan beat me to the punch. “So we can be sued if we use the student’s birthname to parents who know their kid’s trans, but we can also be sued if we use the student’s chosen name to parents who don’t know their kid’s trans, and it all depends on information we don’t have and can’t ask for?” 

Note: the feds have now likewise stated that we teachers can’t tell the parents that their kid is transgender, even if we don’t know they don’t know.

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

The conservative media is, as always, convinced the entire public education system is a leftist indoctrination mill, intent on spreading wild wokism and CRT throughout the country and hopeful that this time, finally, American parents will rise up and kill public schools for all time. Charlie Brown, meet the football. 

The proper response to all these stories should fall more towards “Jesus, people, don’t panic” with a healthy dose of “nip any shit you see in the bud” when appropriate. But in consuming all the media around these events, I noticed time and again the reported stories don’t make an important distinction. 

Teacher Proselytizing: Bad

A small percentage of the stories actually involve a teacher trying to promote a political world view as a specific objective.  These are the more serious offense, where indeed one should inject a dose of “nip that shit in the bud”. Parents and the community should act instantly and vigorously if teachers engage in any form of values imposition: be it abortion rights (one way or the other), race-shaming, transgender inquisitions or, god save us all, gas chambers and Hitler’s suicide (although that last in real life was a school librarian, a fact I was pretty much the first to point out, while everyone else was screaming about America’s lousy public education.)

But these stories shouldn’t be seen as the tip of an iceberg. They’re too easy to spot.  The kids will talk. The teachers will get caught and canned. Cf: Matthew Hawn in Tennessee, James Whitfield in Texas. 

Public schools are far more responsive to community than either charters or private schools. This, at least, should be obvious given the host of school board bootings in November.  Conservative communities can be assured that tain’t no CRT and white blaming in their schools. (On the other hand, urban schools with majority black populations have been teaching critical race theory for decades, most particularly in the “no excuse” charter schools conservatives love so much, and the few parents complaining about “Fuck Police” posters in Compton are going to get a polite brushoff.)

Some communities will see a more strategic, organized effort to indoctrinate. These  are generally cities that have undergone significant demographic change that has, not coincidentally, altered the politics of many previously white suburban communities. Like, say, in Fairfax and Loudon counties, which have seen their white population drop by respectively 9% and 30% in 20 years. But here again, notice how quickly the communities responded, and how unnerved the schools are by the response. That’s as it should be.

So schools or teachers engaged in an indoctrination attempt are going to get caught. People will be called to account and possibly fired–even in ultra-liberal, ultra-white Mill Valley, CA.  If the district or school board supports these efforts,  they’re voted out. I oppose mayor-controlled school districts plugged by Matt Yglesias and others for exactly this reason. School boards must fear voters in order to respond to community values. (And if you say “but no one votes in these elections”, well, that’s kind of evidence that the community’s not unhappy, isn’t it?)

Professional Development: Yawn

Christopher Rufo is building a reputation  by reporting on progressive indoctrination in all corners of America, focusing heavily on schools. But just three of his eleven “CRT in schools” articles involve classroom exposure to race-blaming. In all cases, the students were majority non-white. Two of them were in majority black schools in Buffalo and Philadelphia–and if you note, Rufo didn’t hear about the lesson from outraged parents, but rather the teachers themselves. (see above note about community standards.) The third example is the hilarious case of white teachers telling Chinese immigrant kids in Cupertino that they’re white supremacists and that’s a mistake because, see, Chinese parents don’t play the guilt game. 

The remaining eight of Rufo’s breathless articles don’t have anything to do with classroom instruction, but professional development: the “heartland” of Missouri, Seattle, Wake County NC, Santa Clara CA, Portland, OR and of course the NEA has all sorts of professional development and curriculum it’d just love to sell to districts.  

As Rufo goes, so too go the rest of the “public school indoctrination” stories: case after case of professional development slides, every so often a horror story about classroom instruction where the teacher was immediately fired.

Overt propaganda in the classroom is a cause for action. But professional development training, both district and union-provided, is not even a cause for worry.

Do you have any idea how much crap we sit through as officially district- or school-sanctioned professional development? I’m  not surrounded by Republicans. My colleagues are solid blue Democrats, of varying levels of progressivism, in the bluest of blue regions, teachers in a Title I, extremely diverse school, and they nonetheless roll their eyes in resigned disgust at the ideology flung their way. If they’re listening at all. Teachers aren’t spending professional development time building critical race theory curriculum or strategizing ways to keep transgender kids’ intention from their parents. Most of the time they’re checking email, grading papers, or planning their next ten-week summer vacation, neener neener. 

Professional development isn’t a mandate. It’s a time waster. It’s extremely rare and often illegal for an principal,  district, or state or federal mandate, to order teachers what to teach. 

But while absurd professional development doesn’t do much harm, it’s a lot harder to eliminate.

Professional development is encoded deep into the DNA of modern American education via the mother of all education reform bills, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which from its earliest version on allowed districts to spend money on instructional services. Title I funding accounts for the vast majority of federal education spending.

Title II is devoted entirely to various forms of professional development, from teacher training to induction and beyond. Districts hire drones to apply for grants, further drones at the state level review them, and then drones on all sides make sure the grant boxes are checked off. Many states outline all the hours of PD teachers must spend (eg New Jersey, Colorado,Florida). Every state has a Title II report, produced by more drones at great expense and audited regularly, again at government expense.

 Federal Title I funding criteria explicitly include mandates like “include strategies for identifying and eliminating gender and racial bias in instructional materials, methods, and practices.” Then there are all the state requirements of which I’ll just give a sample: California, Pennsylvania, ColoradoFlorida, Alabama.  Thanks to Gorsuch and Bostock, transgender equity got added to the already really long list of issues that districts are mandated to include in the PD list.

Red states or blue, diversity and equity are officially sanctioned reasons for the achievement gap, creating a huge market for any folks with a sales approach they can call a learning strategy.

Envision, if you will, the sort of people who want to train teachers on equity and diversity. Now picture their politics. Now remember that states are required to find professional development on equity and diversity. And there you have it: activist grifters using taxpayer dollars to recite dogma to teachers who aren’t listening unless they already believe.

Professional development is simply a massive case of bureaucratic sludge, run by default and drones for half a century. 

Stopping the Sludge

You can’t fire bad PD.  

From a public spending perspective, the outrage is backwards. A progressive ideologue teaching dogma doesn’t cost much money and can be easily caught and canned. Meanwhile, several million teachers spend several days a year in school libraries ignoring the expensive propaganda show put on by activists funded by taxpayer expense, curated by a district or government drone intent on checking off a box on a state or federal form, all processed and paid for, again, by taxpayers. 

But investigating the cause and choice of professional development providers is hard. Easier, and more satisfying to write columns about teacher mind control, show videos of board meetings filled with angry parents, and howl for your allotted 60 seconds on Tucker or Laura or Sean and occasionally get a teacher fired. Considerably more difficult and less newsworthy to hunt down the HR drone who put that consultant company on the “approved” list, or demand to know why our federal and state dollars are paying for this garbage.

There is hope, however. Oklahoma’s CRT law HB1775  specifically bans mandated diversity training for teachers. The law’s text doesn’t make this quite clear, but the state board of education passed emergency rules to clarify, so that the word “course” in this section:

“No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts” 

is translated as 

any forum where instruction or activities tied to the instruction are provided, including courses, training, seminars, professional development, lectures, sessions, coaching, tutoring, or any other class.

Best of all, check out the specific bans on professional development spending at the state and district level. 

That’s the kind of language that might actually cut the grifter employment a bit, and make enough of an impression on HR drones to force the bureaucratic sludge ever so slowly in a different direction–or even cut off certain pathways entirely. Pray the Oklahoma law survives the lawsuits.

Naturally, many folks both oppose CRT instruction and any laws to ban it in public schools. Some are liberals who think woke has gone too far (looking at you, Bari Weiss). On the conservative side, chief among the “CRT is bad but don’t ban it” flagwavers is David French…and I’m not a lawyer, but does it strike you as odd that French, a lawyer, is always in favor of solutions that require lawsuits? He doesn’t want bright lines, he wants causes of action under Title whatever of the Civil Rights act or the Constitution and oh, hey, I’m not the only person who noticed. Point is, I don’t want lawyers always telling me the best solution is full employment for their kind.

Terry McAuliffe was right about one thing: parents can’t–and shouldn’t–be able to micromanage curriculum. And anyone who thinks that great day is coming can dream on. But schools are run with state and federal money, and it’s entirely appropriate for governments, through its voters, to put some broad outlines on how they spend that  money educating our kids. 

I grant a certain amount of self-interest here. Less of my time spent in pointless PD, less of my tax dollars spent funding grifters, ideologues, or HR drones. Win win.

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

Note: I’ve made a distinction here between banning CRT PD and banning CRT teacher speech. This article is long enough without going into detail, but I’m firmly in favor of the first, largely indifferent to the second. 


More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder

So I should confess to begin with that I really can’t stand Kamala Harris. As I say quite often on Twitter, her voice is as grating as Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s astonishing she doesn’t remind everyone of their least favorite ex-girlfriend or a really obnoxious seventh grade social studies teacher. What everyone else saw as passion in her debate, I saw as a windup doll whose string had been pulled.

But never mind that. As I write this, the consensus opinion among GOP analysts (Jonah Goldberg being the only demurrer I’ve seen) is that Harris poleaxed Biden when she said:

Clearly, her team had planned this carefully, up to and including using an altered image that makes her look like a black child of poverty.

But more to the point, why wasn’t every GOP analyst and every conservative reporter up in her face about it?

Harris lied, for one thing. Or at least implied, that we all might infer.

She was not the second class to be integrated at Berkeley public schools. The Berkeley school district, like most districts in California since Mendez vs Westminister, enrolled by neighborhood. Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. After nearly a decade of black community pressure, junior high schools had been integrated in 1964. Berkeley High had tremendous racial tensions throughout the sixties, caused not by white segregationists but demands by emboldened black radicals. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

After the school board survived a recall vote by opponents, they decided to work more slowly to integrate the elementary schools. This gave white opponents time to leave, and many of them did. (Prior to this white flight, Berkeley was a primarily conservative town; the liberals banded together with blacks to gain control. )  However, many other progressive whites moved to Berkeley to support the idea of voluntary integration, so the white population stayed the same. Notably, the black population didn’t increase: blacks in unintegrated Oakland stayed put rather than move to Berkeley.

Four years later, in 1968, the elementary schools were integrated via busing, with the black children in the Berkeley “flats” traveling to the mostly white schools of the hills, and vice versa. Kamala Harris was in the second class of integrated elementary school students. (all of this is easily sourced, but this book  goes into the most detail) While the elementary integration is generally considered successful, it hasn’t done anything to improve the achievement gap or de facto segregation.

All she had to do was insert one word in between “public” and “schools”.  There’s no question that Berkeley’s elementary school integration was notable for its two-directional busing and its smooth implementation. 1960s Berkeley was still discriminatory; it’s unlikely Harris’s academic mom could have lived outside the flats, thanks to redlinining practices. High school students were tracked ruthlessly, although most reports suggest accurately. Blacks weren’t doing well at Berkeley High, and Berkeley itself wasn’t the enlightened tolerant place it is today.

But to acknowledge that she wasn’t breaking color barriers would have ruined the narrative. How else could she hint at the horrors of racism if not to suggest that even liberal Berkeley was forcibly keeping black kids in black schools until she and her peers boldly broke the color lines?

Harris could rest assured that no mainstream media outlet would object to her lie. Factcheck.org supported her lie, even as it revealed the truth. This way, Harris could pretend that there but for the grace of liberal courts, her legal career would have been denied her.

The second part of Harris’s claim is ludicrous as well as dishonest. Her parents were academics, not working class or uneducated blacks. Her father was gone by that time, but Harris lived a very nice life even if her mother chose to live in the Berkeley flats while working at Cal. Given her parents’ background, how likely is it that the Harris sisters would have gone to a bad school?

Denied a professorship at Cal, Harris’s mother uprooted the family and took them to Canada for a new job, also in academia. Harris graduated from a Quebec high school.

So Harris is lying about the environment that gave her a bus ride, and pretending that going to a partially white elementary school when she was seven is all that prevented her from being a dropout or, god forbid, a teacher.

None of this is terrible. It’s just irritating in that no one picked up on the lie. Everyone accepted it, even though the misstatement is well-documented. Everyone allows her to pretend that busing is why she’s AG and a Senator.

But what I’m more puzzled and aggravated by is all the Republican pundits gleefully celebrating, or at least enjoying, the purported slam dunk of Biden. Ha, ha! Look, there’s Harris, a black woman, taking Biden apart for opposing busing when she was bused! It’s perfect! Wow, what timing! What elan! Harris wins!

It’s all about the gotcha and its entertainment value.

And I’m sitting here thinking what the hell? Busing? Busing was a disasterMuch of the country hated busing. Joe Biden took the lead on busing because he’d have been a one-term Senator if he didn’t. Read about the anger and the white flight throughout the 70s that resulted when cities tried to forcibly desegregate neighborhood schools and end de facto segregation and Biden’s position becomes obvious.

No one else seemed to notice, though. Even conservatives like Mollie Hemingway, Comfortably Smug, and Hugh Hewitt were gleefully celebrating Harris’s body blow based, from what I can tell, purely on hahahaha she’s black, he’s old, she’s using his decades old vote to catch him out on changing times.

Every conservative I follow was rightly stunned at the entire slate’s support for open borders. As Ari Fleischer put it:

But most people were so wowed by this comment that they don’t seem to think about what it meant:

And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed [sic] to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

…..It’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

That’s where the federal government must step in.

Look, Americans who aren’t dealing with immigrants every day often don’t completely grasp what it’s like, and go squishy on things like border control or amnesty.

In contrast, they are entirely clear on the intrusive, invasive ways the federal government can “step in” to order schools.  And they don’t like it one bit.

Go ahead, Kamala, you brave truth teller, you survivor of segregated Berkeley discrimination. Tell all those Dem voters how busing is what America’s schools need to achieve the necessary diversity. Tell them how you’ll appoint judges who’ll overrule Milliken, allow states to mandate integration across districts.

Tell  white working class voters the Dems still need in order to win, all those rich white progressives who purport to love people of color so long as some other school is being integrated, not theirs. Tell low income African Americans to forget about those charter schools they like so much, because your great integration plan means they’ll be unnecessary.  Trumpet your plans to mandate school systems like San Francisco, where racial quotas determine where and how far each child will be sent away from home. While you’re at it, explain how this system resulted in far more segregation. 

Go ahead and tell people that your plan will end segregation as the government sorts populations based on race, just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 planned all along.

But best of all, go tell Asians all about your great plans. Tell all those parents at  those 80, 90% Asian public schools you plan to yank half of the kids out and send them into the inner cities with all sorts of poor black and Hispanic kids. Go ahead and tell Asian immigrants that they can’t cluster and dominate in certain schools, tested or otherwise.

This is a community that sent out a 12 year old girl  to say, in public: “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have an advantage over those who don’t even try?…It’s just not right for me to work hard and do my best while others are being lazy.”

And even after that, the New York legislature backed down on deBlasio’s plan to open up the schools to the kids that girl called lazy.

These are people who brought enormous, angry pressure on a Palo Alto school district when the board wanted to name a school after  a Japanese American who fought for his country.  As immigrants who think of themselves only as Chinese, the opponents looked at an American and saw only a hated enemy from Japan. They won, too.

Raise your hand, everyone who thinks Asian immigrants are going to give the smallest iota of a rat’s dropping about Kamala Harris’s guilt trips? Go grab some popcorn, I say.

I hope Andrew Ujifusa or one of the other Edweek reporters will run with this opportunity hound Harris relentlessly with:

“Senator Harris, you’ve opposed charters throughout your career. In the debate, you strongly supported busing. Are you planning on ending charter schools so you can more easily enforce busing mandates? Will you appoint judges who will overrule the ban on inter-district busing?”

She would have to choose. She could walk back her insistence that the federal government must intervene to enforce school integration. Or she could explain how she’s going to implement country wide integration by taking away all choice from America’s parents.

I don’t understand politics, I know, but for the life of me I don’t understand why every politician from Trump on down to dogcatcher isn’t tweeting about Harris’s plan. Then hound every other Dem candidate and force them to fight that battle for her. Harris will be oh so very popular.

“If you like your school, too bad. Democrats won’t let you keep it.”

Note: I teach in a school that may as well have been formed by Harris’s mandate, so integrated and diverse it is. I like it fine. I just live in a reality-based world most of the time.


A Few Words on Janus

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I’ve always thought the free speech aspect of the Janus case was purely nonsense. Eugene Volokh argued that Abood was wrongly decided in granting that free speech objection in the first place, observing that “compelled subsidy of others’ speech happens all the time”.   How many state-  or CDC-funded ads do we have to sit through, watching people smoke through their breathing tubes?  Or the various “join the military” ads?

I’m not a big fan of unions,although teachers unions come in for a lot of undeserved criticism. But my dislike of unions is professional–totally unrelated to the bizarro conservative hate-on which, I guess, has to do with the unions shoveling millions of easily collected dollars straight into Democrat coffers.

Still, I’m amazed, as always, at the utter cluelessness of the post-Janus gloating–which, typically, focuses almost exclusively on teacher employment, as if there’s no other public employee. I don’t think anyone’s focused on Janus’s impact on cops, for example–unsurprising, really, since the GOP likes cops and doesn’t want to fuss them.

But I’ll go with the flow and talk teachers, since that’s what I know.

First, left or right,  anyone who thinks education reform’s failure has anything to do with unions is kidding themselves. As I’ve written many times, education reform got everything it wanted for sixteen years–and as a result support for charters has plummeted,  support for unions and tenure has increased, and the ESSA deliberately and specifically targeted all the reform “advances” and ripped them into shreds.

So whatever changes Janus brings, I’d bet against Bill Bennett and Fordham Foundation.

We are in the middle of a teacher shortage, so good luck with cutting salaries, raising credential cut scores, or ending tenure. And has often been noted, the recent teacher walkouts have been in weak union states: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky. Colorado’s governor refused to sign a law that would fire striking teachers.

You know how conservatives and others say look, we don’t hate teachers, we just hate unions. Well, specific union objectives, unlike their political spending, are pretty much in line with what teachers want. In a scarce labor market, killing unions won’t make it any easier to push teachers around.

I’m likewise unconvinced that the billions of dollars the unions send to the Dems has anything to do with Democrat political success. Lordy, did you all learn nothing from Trump? Dave Brat? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

So sure, Janus will lead to less money for unions. But dream on if you think Dems are crippled or the public will suddenly sign on for teacher merit pay.

Moreover, the idea that “millions of public employees” are being forced–yea, forced!–into paying to receive union-negotiated salaries just strikes me as bogus. I don’t like my dollars going to progressive causes, and as an immigration restrictionist, I get really annoyed at union shills wailing about family separations or the travel ban. But when Republican-leaning public employees growl about unions, they are, like me, unhappy about the waste of dollars sent to left-leaning organizations. How many public workers are actively opposed to the fundamentals of public employment? I’m skeptical. If  millions of public employees were outraged by job protections and pensions, conservatives wouldn’t have had to wait so long for the odd ball public employee to hang their case on. It took them years to find Friedrichs and then Janus out on the fringes to make the case.

But why should unions be required to negotiate contracts and protect employees who don’t pay for their services? The Supreme Court waved off the “free rider” problem, but who’s to say there will be paying riders? What’s stopping all teachers from saving hundreds of dollars a year, if the unions will work the contracts no matter what?

Considering that the state laws requiring unions to represent non-members have just been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the unions have a logical next step.

Unions should refuse to work for free. They won’t  provide any service to non-members.

Some services can be easily split between members and non-members. Job protections and other benefits, for example, are easily managed. Non-members who oppose job protections can just live with a greater risk of termination, while members can still ask for union representation.

But contract and salary negotiations apply to all employees, members or not. So unions should refuse to engage in these activities for any salary schedule that has less than 100% membership. Neither members nor non-members will get new salary schedules until someone else steps up to that task–and that someone else will want to be paid.

I can envision many ways out of the chaos that ensues, but certain truths seem obvious. Salary negotiation for millions of teachers, firefighters, police officers, DMV workers, prison guards and the rest is a labor (heh) intensive task. Right now, public employees pay for that task through their union representation. If unions refuse to do this, then how will public employees get raises? Fond fantasies aside, at some point the government is going to have to figure out how to replace that service.

While conservatives dream of a world in which government employees negotiate their salaries individually, absorbing the cost at a unit level, their dreams probably don’t include the onslaught of lawsuits that would follow in a world where local government officials decided salaries on merit. That’s why most charter and private schools use salary schedules, despite their ostensible freedom from these one-size-fits-all charts.

If unions just flatly ended all contract negotiations, the pressure for a Janus-fix would be immediate, particularly for teachers and cops. But wait! unions say–at least, this is what I think they should say. We’re not here to be obstructionist.  We’ll offer membership “tiers”.

Tier 1: Contract and salary negotiations only. Price: a couple hundred at most.
Tier 2: Tier 1 plus performance issues representation. Price: five hundred at most.
Tier 3: Tier 2 plus the cool bennies, political spending, other perks. Price: one thousand at most.

All employees on a given salary schedule must be at least a Tier 1 union member. No 100% membership, no contract and salary negotiations.

Some districts might not be able to get 100% membership. They could then contract to bring the union in for salary negotiations. Still other district employees might decide to do without unions entirely. Maybe they’ll figure out another means of negotiating salaries. Or maybe they’ll realize that union salaries are higher than non-union salaries for a reason.

Unions should not put the cost of their contract negotiations solely on their members. They should demand compensation for the services they perform that benefit all employees. If the employees don’t pay, then no union negotiations.

At the same time, unions could stop charging so much money, accept that they can’t use all teachers’ dues as a piggy bank for their political spending, and be more focused on offering services that all members can benefit from.

Those states with laws requiring unions to represent non-members are welcome to take them to court. However, I like to think that the same conservative jurists who hate unions also think it reasonable that unions get paid if they provide a service.

I’d be shocked, although pleased, if unions took this approach–with adjustments, of course, because I have no idea how much unions costs in other parts of the country, much less all of their many activities.  If they don’t, though, I’m ending my membership entirely. I’ve always refused to do the paperwork for agency fees–too much work for too little money. But I’ve paid nine years of union dues that went to political goals I not only don’t share but actively opposed. That’s enough to cover my next six years to retirement.

 

 


Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers

I have at least one more post on reform math, but I got distracted while looking for examples of Dan Meyer’s teaching (as an example of his math in action) then realizing that many of my regular readers wouldn’t know Dan Meyer, and so started to construct a brief bio. In doing so, I got distracted again in considering Meyer’s quick-yeast rise and what it says about the gatekeepers in the education racket and access to microphones.

This may seem like insider baseball, but I hope to illustrate that Dan Meyer is an unobjectionable guy with a good idea, whose unhesitating adoption by the elites represents a real problem with educational discourse in this country. I will probably overstate and paint a picture that suggests plan and intent by those causing the trouble, when in fact it’s fuzzy and reactive with only big picture general directions, but probably not to the extent that Diane Ravitch (or, indeed, Dan Meyer) commit that particular sin.

Dan Meyer, 31, is in the process of becoming a celebrity math teacher (hey, it’s a small group). Much of his rapid trajectory upward can be explained by his message, which involves a digital curriculum that will (he says) instantly engage and perplex kids and thus resolve all classroom management issues (more on this later), a message tailor-made to appeal to both techies, since it implicitly attacks all teachers, and progressive educators, since it is inherently constructivist.

Most of the rest of his said trajectory can be explained by his excellent luck in his early audience—not only were they progressives and techies, but they were influential progressives and techies–Chris Lehmann, O’Reilly Publishing folk like Kathy Sierra, Nat Torkington and Tim O’Reilly himself, Brian Fitzpatrik of Google, and Maggie Johnson of Google and Stanford.

A teeny-tiny bit–ok, maybe more–of that trajectory can be explained by the Great White Hope factor. As I’ve written many times, every corner of education is desperate for young teachers, particularly young male teachers, most especially young white male teachers. Smart young white male pushes technology-based teaching, implicitly or explicitly declaring that all those old teachers (mostly white female grandmas) are doing it wrong. Hard to resist. So attractive message, demographic felicity, and luck. Not bad.

I’m going to summarize what I see as the relevant points of Meyer’s career thus far, but go straight to the source: Meyer describes his teaching career in this excellent video, which I recommend watching to instantly “get” his appeal. Go watch. I’ll wait.

He taught his first year at a Title I school in Sacramento, CA and, as he says above, was both miserable and ineffective, which he blames on his failure to create a “classroom ethos”. The improvement in classroom ethos began during his second year at San Lorenzo Valley High. It apparently never occurred to him to wonder whether the “classroom ethos” improvement at his second school, was helped along by a student demographic that was 87% white. Meyer actually noted the novelty of a non-English speaking Hispanic student which is the only time he ever mentions a minority student on his blog, best I can see.

While he made numerous videos that ended with the tagline, “I like to teach”, he in fact wasn’t all that attached to teaching. At the beginning of his third year, he was already predicting he’d be in school for either an administrative credential or doctorate by the end of the next year (he was off by two), because “I’m just keenly aware how much of my strength as a teacher derives from my ability to relate to student culture, to talk like they talk and dress like they dress” and his awareness that he feels “obliged to entertain”. He often implied that he’d mastered the technical aspects My personal favorite::

I am at a place, for example, where classroom management no longer challenges me. Not that every day is all smiles and hard work, just that I have identified the mix of engaging instruction, mutual respect, and tough love that eluded me for years.

Four ENTIRE years, this eluded him! This meme runs throughout his blog and is, in fact, the seed of his image-based curriculum. Meyer states time and again that he worked hours on end to keep from boring his students, thinks student approval as essential to improved learning outcomes and thus presents his curriculum as a better way to entertain kids, to perplex them in a way they will value, and once entertained and perplexed, they will learn.

Then, at the end of five years, he declared he was quitting teaching because he’d been transformed from “miserable to happy, incompetent to competent” (astonishing, really, how few of the commenters openly laughed at his hubris). He originally planned to attend UC Santa Cruz’s PhD program but his aforementioned contacts got him a year as curriculum fellow at Google, and he taught part-time for one more year. While at Google, he made his first TV appearance on Good Morning America (probably via Google) to discuss his theory as to whether regular or express grocery lanes were faster.

At some point after that, he pulled a TEDx invitation—very nice work if you can get it—which got him onto CNN and good lord, how could Stanford let him get his doctorate at Santa Cruz, after all that publicity? So now he’s at Stanford in year 3 of his doctoral program.

A star was born.

Like most teachers, Meyer’s a good talker; unlike many teachers, he’s good with any audience. He’s a bright guy and his videos are genuinely entertaining (go to the end to catch his early work), and I say that as someone who disagrees with very close to all of his primary assertions. As a young white male teacher he could demand nearly anything, and he nonetheless stayed in algebra and geometry, rather than push for advanced classes that his principal, eager to keep him, would easily grant. I suspect that some of his willingness to stay in low status classes was caused by his short-timer’s attitude, while another part of it was caused by his 70-hour work week. Anyone working that hard and long on classes he’s been teaching for years is unlikely to embrace new subjects. But those stated priorities nonetheless reveal a guy who is well beyond committed and flat out obsessed with doing a good job.

He’s hard to pin down ideologically not because he’s an original thinker but because he was, and is, profoundly uninterested in education policy. So no coherent philosophy, but Me Like, Me No Like. He would disavow the charge that he is on the “reform” side of the math wars, although less vehemently than a few years ago—Jo Boaler, High Priestess of Reform Math, is his adviser, after all. But even now, a few years after starting a Stanford PhD program, he’s very foggy about the specifics of major debates in math education. So he’s been trying to consolidate his positions, but he’s not always sure what the right ones are. In his earlier iterations, for example, before he became well-known, he often adopted strong education (not math) reform positions—he had an “educrush” on Michelle Rhee. In the early years of the blog, he dripped contempt on most teachers, particularly older ones, including coworkers. Early on he harped often on the need for professionalism, and asserting we’d be better off without teachers that do it just for love. But once Stanford put him on the doctoral payroll, he’s become more typically math reform, which means he’s disavowing education reform positions and doing his best to walk all that talk back. Well, not all of it–here he is on a forum last year talking about the need to train teachers on Common Core:

I think if you’ve taught for thirty years under a particular style of teaching, it has to distort what your perception is of math and how it should be taught. It’s unavoidable, to be steeped in that for so long. So to realign yourself, I imagine, is a very difficult thing. So PD that involves problem solving, involves reasoning, argumentation, that’ll be essential going forward.

So the nastiness to older teachers, still there. I don’t blame anyone who wonders if promoters consider that a bug or a feature.

Meyer’s writings never describe his “classroom action” in detail relative to other math bloggers (e.g., Fawn Nguyen, Sam Shah, Michael Pershan, Kate Nowak and, okay, me). He rarely describes the success or failure of a particular lesson, or gives any kind of walkthrough. He never describes a lesson in full detail, down to the worksheets and responses. He often went to the data collection well, and just as often failed, as in his two-month long “Feltron” project in which half the class dropped out early during data collection and had to be given other tasks, or this similar project

Meyer and metrics aren’t a natural fit. A few years ago, he was, comically, shocked by news of California’s Hispanic achievement gap. Dude, didn’t you get the memo? He never blogs about it, never discusses it, then out of the blue: Damn! We’ve got an achievement gap! And then he rarely mentions it again, save for this recap of Uri Treisman’s speech. He almost never discusses his student’s test scores and when he does, they are usually not great, although he mentions once in passing that his algebra students beat the department (no data, though). He cheerfully talked about standards-based grading for a year or two and blew off the commenters who wondered if the students were retaining the skills they’d “mastered” twice in a week. When he did finally get around to looking for that data, the answer was no, and it’s quite clear that he’d never before wondered about this essential element of success. So while I suspect that Meyer was a popular teacher who convinced a lot of kids–mostly white boys–to work hard at math, there’s little evidence of that in his written history of his years teaching.

I can find little evidence of intellectual achievement in education once he left teaching, either. At Google, he and three other curriculum fellows worked for a year on computational thinking projects. When his project shipped he wrote, somewhat obscurely, “Near as I can tell, of the sixty-or-so modules listed, only one of them ….is mine. I always admired Google’s lack of sentiment in deciding when to invest itself and when to divest itself. Still it’s strange to see a year of work reduced to a single entry in a long list.” (emphasis mine)

At Stanford, his qualifying paper was not hailed as an instant masterpiece:

The criticism I remember most vividly: a) my weak review of the literature, b) the sense that I wasn’t really taking myself anywhere new with the study, and c) a claim about equity that had me reaching beyond my data.

In short, he didn’t set the curriculum world on fire at Google, and the critiques of his qualifying paper suggest an analytical lightweight—which is pretty typical for salesfolk. So thus far Meyer has established himself as a stupendous salesman, but not much of an intellectual—at least, not of the sort that Google and Stanford like to pretend they invest in. He was even wrong in the GMA segment. Unsurprisingly, he was unflustered.

Realize that I know all of this because of Dan Meyer’s blog, so he’s not hiding anything. Hell, he doesn’t need to.

But he was brought to Google and then to Stanford and then Apple gets involved, and now we’re talking three of the most elite institutions in the country are pushing him not because they have any evidence of his ability to close the achievement gap, or even whether his digital curriculum works, but simply because he’s Dale Carnegie, and boy oh boy, is that a depressing insight into their motivations, just as his success is indicative of the desires of the larger educational world. It’s not “go develop your ideas and expand and prove them” but “here’s a bunch of elite credentials that will make your sales job easier”. So they dub Dan an “expert” and give him a microphone—which makes it a whole lot easier for a largely ignorant general media to hear him.

No, I’m not jealous. My karmic destiny demands that I enter new communities with neither warning nor fanfare and utterly polarize them within a month, usually without any intention of causing trouble. Lather, rinse, repeat. I gave up fighting that fate fifteen years ago. I have attended two elite institutions in recent memory; one of them ignored me desperately, the other did its best to hork me up like a furball. I don’t want to go back. Academia isn’t for me. And if a corporation handed me money to sell my message, they’d be facing a boycott. My blog has fifty times the readership and influence that I ever imagined, and I love teaching. I am content.

Previous paragraph notwithstanding, this essay will be interpreted by some as an attack on Dan Meyer, who is largely unfamiliar with anything short of worshipful plaudits from eager acolytes (he occasionally heeds polite dissenters, but only occasionally) since he began his blog. But while he’s a dilettante as a teacher, I think his simplistic curriculum ideas have interesting potential in teaching certain demographics, and I wish him all success in developing a coherent educational philosophy. Oh crap, that was snarky. I wish him all success in his academic and business career.

Dan Meyer’s rapid rise isn’t the problem. Dan Meyer himself isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the Gatekeepers: with Stanford, who knows that Dan’s not the solution, with Google, Apple, and publishing companies like Shell Centre (well, they’re in England) and Pearson. That intersection between academia and business, the group that picks the educational platitudes and pushes them hard, while ignoring or banishing dissent. They’re the ones granting Meyer the credentials that cloak him in the illusion of expertise. And I believe that, at least in part, they grant those credentials with a clear eye to the attributes that are diametrically opposed to the attributes they pretend to focus on. It’s no coincidence that Dan Meyer is a young white male. It’s the point. It’s not a fluke that he primarily taught white kids, many of whom were obviously sent to him with strong skills by teachers who valued homework above ability. It’s the only way he could have come up with his curriculum. Yet his message is adopted and embraced by elites who castigate education, particularly teachers, for failing black and Hispanic kids. I don’t know if they do this consciously or if they genuinely believe that all teachers are just meanspirited morons who don’t know math and deliberately deprive certain kids of meaningful math experiences. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

I suspect Meyer and others will ignore this essay (Meyer snarked obscurely at my reform piece, assuming this tweet means what I think it does), but whether that’s because he doesn’t like dissent or, more probably, because he subscribes to the Voldemort View, I couldn’t tell you. But maybe this piece will make reporters and educational wonks a bit more wary about the backgrounds of the “experts” they quote, and the gatekeepers who create them.


Reform Math: An Isolationist’s View

For my sins, I periodically peruse the Method Math teacher blogs. I call them Method Math teachers because, much like those self-important thespians in the Actors Studio can’t just act, these guys can’t just teach. Not for them the order of a structured curriculum; no, they want “meaningful math”. They don’t want their kids to do well unless it’s the right kind of doing well. Do they love math? Do they have the proper respect and curiosity for math? What’s the student’s motivation?

They are correctly described as reform math teachers. In math, “reform” refers to the “progressive” side of the debate, in which math is not so much a field of study as it is an ideological value system. Discovery and complex instruction are the guiding lights of their lesson planning. However, since they are teachers, and most teachers don’t really care about education policy in any coherent sense, many teachers who embrace the tenets may not be aware of the ideological underpinnings of their chosen Method. They Like or Don’t Like, without much sense of anything beyond their classroom. (and in that, they are like most teachers).

Reform math is all about social justice, enabling blacks, Hispanics, and girls to “feel successful” about learning math. Actually being successful at learning math is a whole different thing; certainly these demographic categories are successful with their teachers, but when it comes to outside assessments, not so much—which is why reformers don’t much care for standardized tests. But in the classroom, constructivists and discovery-based lessons can accept multiple methods, which means no one method is wrong. And explaining! Explaining is vital. “Explaining your process” is the way that the “procedurally competent” kids (only in reform math is this a bad thing) can be flunked or at least marked down for not explaining their work, while other kids can find “other ways to be smart”. Convenient for grading, this value system allows teachers to dream up all sorts of ways for top kids to fail with the right answer, while tolerating all sorts of other ways for low ability kids to succeed with the wrong one.

(Ironically, these same people who focus on the importance of explaining the “why” are always insisting that teachers reduce the literacy demand of word problems, for kids who can’t read. That’s because the explaining aspect is meant to assist white girls weak on math but strong on literacy, whereas literacy reduction is all about making the problem set up easier for blacks and Hispanics to interpret.)

Reform math practitioners enthuse about this “open-ended discourse”, which avoids calculations and algorithms and, you know, answers. At least definitively right answers. Which teachers don’t give. Teacher explanations = failure. Hence Dan Meyer, the Lee Strasberg of the math blogosphere, famous for his Ted talk, has a blog that proudly bears the label “less helpful”.

Open-ended discourse requires curiosity and ability, which some might deem a feature, but the knowledgeable understand is a bug. Inquiry teaching deliberately eschews algorithms or process or anything resembling a structured approach (while allowing that “blind memorization” might occasionally be useful). Few reform teachers understand the underlying rationale for this method, which lies in the hope that open-ended problems will narrow the achievement gap—not by improving achievement of the lower half, but by narrowing all achievement into a much thinner band. Hence the importance of grading down the top students, and slowing (well, they call it deepening) instruction to be sure that no one is pulling too far ahead.

Ed schools ferociously pretend that all but a few racist fuddy-duddies teach using constructivist methods, but out in the real world, reform math is mostly fringe. The greatest penetration is at the suburban elementary school level, which has a teaching population disproportionately comprised of cheery young women who care more about their students’ interpersonal skills than intellectual development (a feature, not a bug). Complex instruction requires students to “share ideas and knowledge” and the strongest students are responsible for the weakest students’ learning, entrancing elementary school teachers with the delusion that math lessons can enhance social justice. Besides, elementary school teachers aren’t terribly strong at math to begin with, so a method that de-emphasizes algorithms reinforces their own preferences.

Since elementary school teachers rarely have the math chops to develop their own lessons, most reform curriculum development is found in middle school, where kids don’t stay long enough for the parents to complain and the teachers are knowledgeable—and teaching the subjects most attended to by reformers (pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry). So there’s a big support group and lots of material to build on.

Few high school math teachers embrace reform; those who are committed to the Method don’t have a long shelf-life. Most give it up after a few years, the rest show up at grad school where they can pretend that constructivism and complex instruction are valid, proven methods. They get a Phd and demand conformity from prospective teachers in ed school, successfully selling their dogma to a few eager apostles. These converts, alas, ultimately abandon the method or return to grad school where the cycle begins again. Thus Dan Meyer is no longer teaching math but getting his PhD at Stanford with Jo Boaler, Queen Mother of Reform Math. (Understand, however, that reformers do not practice what they preach in ed school. There aren’t multiple ways and many right answers when training new teachers. Heavens, no.)

To the extent reform math survives for any length of time, it does so in white, suburban elementary schools, although not without a struggle. Elementary teachers’ support is counterbalanced by well-educated parents who generally despise it. Parental protests have killed reform math programs at all levels for decades throughout the country. Districts have to balance happy teachers with howlingly angry parents. The high school battles ended over a decade ago, but elementary school parents have to deal with teachers who actually like the program.

But reform math wars are mostly a tale of suburban woes, as parents push back on well-meaning districts hoping to close the achievement gap of their bottom 10-20% by depressing their top performers. It stresses the parents out, but the kids will catch up. For all that reform math propagandists want to change the world for black and Hispanic kids, the techniques are abandoned quickly in high poverty, low ability schools, particularly at the high school level. The story goes like this: a complex instruction curriculum is introduced with great fanfare, math teachers complain, the complainers that can’t be fired are transferred, cue the fawning news coverage with much noise about “equity” and “access”, a few beaming parents who barely speak English talking about their children’s newfound love of math, clips of young black teens and Hispanic girls talking about how they like this math sooooo much better than “just being told what to do”…..and then the dismal state test scores come rolling in and all the canny zealots who once exhorted the grunts to be guides standing to the side are now publicly championing sage on the stage. Back comes explicit direct instruction and the cycle begins again.

The Jo Boaler brouhaha contains one such example, as James Milgram points out:

Indeed, a high official in the district where Railside is located called and updated me on the situation there in May, 2010. One of that person’s remarks is especially relevant. It was stated that as bad as [our work] indicated the situation was at Railside, the school district’s internal data actually showed it was even worse. Consequently, they had to step in and change the math curriculum at Railside to a more traditional approach. Changing the curriculum seems to have had some effect. This year (2012) there was a very large (27 point) increase in Railside’s API score and an even larger (28 point) increase for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, where the target had been 7 points in each case.

Railside High is San Lorenzo High School, in California. As Milgram says, its 2010 scores are dismal, while 2012 scores are improved. Not substantially—ain’t no getting around basic cognitive ability coupled with absurdly unrealistic expectations. But improved.

So I began this post to explain the tiny twitter tempest I began last week, and I’m not there yet. And to get there would take the post into specifics when thus far it’s been general. Sigh. For some reason, I’m writing very slowly this summer. But I didn’t have any clear description of reform math that I could link to in order to explain reform math as I see it, which is not quite as most critics see it.

If the Method teachers out there in the blogosphere do read this, they may confuse me for a traditionalist and, uh, no. My ed school is committed to complex instruction and inquiry-based learning, and I am very fond of my ed school. It’s not fond of me, of course, but then who is?

At that ed school, my all-discovery, all-inquiry, all-complex-instruction master teacher provided me with the best learning experience of my life, adopting effortlessly to my strengths and skepticisms to give me fantastic advice that I hark back to this day. I am, to put it mildly, Not Easy to Teach. That I got six months of valuable education counts for a lot. Thanks to that teacher’s willingness to focus on goals, not methods, I learned to do the same. I can find a lot of good in reform objectives, and steal interesting concepts in their lessons. I might think reform methods are awful but, like progressive educators in general, reformers are thinking about how to teach math, which as it happens is a subject much on my mind.

I am not and never will be a member of the Method group. I am Switzerland, or the US between world wars. Ignore the fact that my first year out I put my students in rows for three weeks until I couldn’t stand it anymore and put them in groups. Second year out I lasted 10 days. Third year out and beyond, I gave into the inevitable and just put the kids in groups from the start. I use manipulatives, introduce units not with facts but with activities that illustrate facts, minimize my use of algorithms, and always remind students that I’ll take a good estimate in lieu of a calculation (and give most of the credit). Anyone evaluating my teaching practice would conclude I have much more in common with the Method crew than I have with traditionalists.

Still, they are profoundly wrong, and their nonsense grates on me much more than the many ways in which the traditionalists err. That’s what led to my tweet, which yes, I still haven’t explained. But I’m ready to start explaining now, so that’s a step up.

Edited later to add:

A couple points. First, I welcome comments on this much because it will help me determine whether I’m getting the right ideas across. I know I can be tough on commenters who misinterpret me, much as I try not to, but I will really try not to if you want to complain about something you’ve misinterpreted on this particular post.

Second, I paint in broad brushes. Keep that in mind!

I’m going to try hard to get the second part of this up faster than normal, for me. I’m hoping for a couple days, but if I fail, know that I tried.


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

I had a huge month in April, over 25% larger than my last winner, November. My blog has a total of 121,000 page views (since January 1, 2012) and have 178 followers on Twitter. The last probably doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but I literally started with 0 followers. I told no friends or family of my blog, although three or four found me over the months. I had just 7000 pageviews in June 2012, when I created a Twitter account. (First follower: the hyperliteral Paul Bruno, of This Week in Education, who I argue with via twitter but quite enjoy as a writer.)

I have absolutely no idea what this means in relative audience size. What matters to me is that, in a loyal band of regular readers, interspersed between teachers, parents, and Dark Enlightenment folk, I count more than a few policy wonks and reporters—and even a publisher, apparently. I might not have a large crowd following my every tweet, but well over half of my followers do. I started this blog to inform and persuade. So far, so good.

I often check my top posts, reading the growing numbers in awe and wonder, because they, too, confirm that my blogging goals have been and continue to be met. The most popular posts cover pedagogy, policy, some unique data analysis or exposure, and my somewhat scathing opinions about the reform crowd. (I don’t much care for progressives, either, but plenty of people are around to debunk them.)

Since my audience has grown again, I thought I’d remind everyone of my most popular posts, in case someone wanted to check them out. Most of my essays represent at least five or six hours work (I worked on the Philip Dick essay for over a month, the algebra pointlessness one for two weeks), and I think any of the 1000+ view entries are worth a look for a general audience.

Title Views Written
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 4,733 Aug 12
Escaping Poverty 3,664 Nov 12
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 3,417 Jan 12
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 2,992 July 12
Homework and grades. 2,576 Feb 12
The Gap in the GRE 2,280 Jan 12
Why Chris Hayes Fails 2,240 June 12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 2,102 April 13
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 1,907 Nov 2012
An Alternative College Admissions System 1,553 Dec 2012
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 1,525 Mar 13
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 1,137 April 13

I left off my “About” page, but both it and “Who am I” right below were nowhere on the horizon last December, so more people are checking out my bio. Neat, if unnerving.

So then we have the 800-900 views, also worth a read for the general audience unless you really have no interest in math pedagogy or curriculum, in which case skip the obvious suspects. But I’m incredibly proud of those curriculum posts; googling modeling linear equations brings up my post in the top two or three as of this writing; likewise a search for binomial multiplication area model brings my post up right near the top.

Title Views Written
Who am I? 966 Jan 12
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 918 Mar 13
Teaching Polynomials 917 Mar 12
Modeling Linear Equations 907 Jan 12
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 871 Aug 12
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 820 Jan 12
More on Mumford 817 Nov 12
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 790 Sept 12

And now the less viewed posts that represent my favorites of the rest. I really wish people would read more of these, particularly the Chris Christie post and the Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. So pick a few to check out. You can also check my year in review for posts I’m fond of.

Policy:

Title Views Written
Why Chris Christie picks on teachers 699 Aug 12
Radio silence on Clarence Mumford 660 July 12
Learning Math 605 Aug 12
American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People? 602 Apr 13
557
Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help 555 Jan 13
Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.) 548 Jan 13
Boaler’s Bias (or BS) 521 Oct 12
Picking Your Fights—Or Not 501 Apr 13
Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. 493 Dec 12
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? 483 June 12
The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform 454 Sept 12
The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring 219 June 12

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Probably not too interesting unless you’re a teacher. But I have to say that Modeling Probability is pretty kick ass.

I realize these probably come off as vanity posts, but for me, they’re a great way to take stock. I have had a genuinely terrific year, between blogging and teaching, and it’s fun to write it all down.


Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat

…but anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about education reform knows that kids experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter kindergarten at age five matter a whole lot in terms of how well they are going to do once they are in school, and I would say that even hardened cynics would concede that high quality preschool programs could make a dent in our mile-wide achievement gaps.” — Michael Petrilli, around the 1:24 mark.

As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.Charles Murray

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

You know how every one mentions the Perry project as the gold standard, a small “hothouse” study that had good results but the fear is the results can’t be replicated? Here’s the data they’re talking about comparing cohorts at age 27 and age 40 (click to enlarge):

So all those people tweeting and posting excitedly about the pre-school initiative—this is what they’re worked up about? “Hey, if we take really incredibly at-risk kids and spend billions on them in pre-school and manage to replicate the very best outcome we’ve ever managed, only 1 in 3 of them will be arrested five times by their 40th birthday, instead of 1 in 2!”

That’s the gold standard, the “good news” in preschool programs: the achievement gap moves barely a nudge, measured cognitive ability goes up a tad, and the jail gap isn’t quite as spectacularly awful. Pick your own personal favorite preschool research and you’ll still get the same results: not anything to complain about, but the subjects are still much more similar to the control group than to any middle-class norms.

And yet, do-gooders keep talking up preschool, despite Russ Whitehurst‘s appeal for hardheadedness. They blow past the so-far indifferent results and talk up the happy day when we’ll do it right. Then they combine that dream with the current meme on the Vocabulary Deficit—currently in vogue because of E. D. Hirsch and the NAEP results—and so you see folks on the right, left, and even the supposedly unbiased talking up the possibility that vocabulary instruction, or the lack thereof, is causing the achievement gap.

But I’m going to ask everyone to think about Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox, sort of.

Say a single welfare mom has a sixth baby that she doesn’t really want and in a moment of grief and despair she sticks the baby in a box with a subatomic parti….no, wait, that won’t work. But she puts the baby in a box and leaves it on a street corner in front of a security camera—and then, right after she drops the baby off, the camera breaks and the last shot we have is of the foundling sitting in the box, while a rich, childless couple approaches, just after having been rejected by their ninth adoption agency, in search of a child to whom they can devote their lives and considerable income.

We don’t know what the child’s ultimate fate is. Maybe the rich, childless couple happen upon the baby and raise it as their own. Or maybe the single welfare mom comes to her senses and returns to her baby, which she raises with her other five kids by different fathers. The security camera image doesn’t say, so as with Schrödinger’s cat, we can imagine either outcome.

According to the vast majority of educated elites, the adopted version of the child would be successful and happy, starting preschool with a rich vocabulary and, after an academically demanding high school career, embarking on a successful adult journey. The version raised with the welfare mother would, in contrast, start preschool with a vocabulary deficit in the thousands of words, which a struggling public school with incompetent teachers won’t be able to fill, and embark upon adulthood in a life of poverty—assuming that adulthood didn’t start earlier than eighteen with either a pregnancy or a jail term.

According to the experts who actually study these outcomes, the environment in which the child is raised would have relatively little impact. Adoption studies don’t usually track granular academic achievement such as grades and test scores, but they do track IQ and personality and long-term academic outcomes (highest degree received, etc), and all available evidence from adoption studies says that by adulthood, IQ tracks more closely to the biological parent than the adoptive parents.

So if we were staring at that last frozen image from the security camera, wondering if the rich parents or the struggling welfare mom ended up with the baby, we could console ourselves on this point: academically, the outcomes would probably be a wash.

For the past twenty years or so, our educational policy has been devoted to ignoring the considerable mountain of data that suggests neither government nor parents can do much to mitigate the academic and life outcomes of children living in poverty, because the outcomes aren’t really caused by the poverty. All research suggests that the child’s IQ is linked closely to the biological parents’ and IQ, not poverty, has the strongest link to academic outcomes.

To point this out in public is to commit heresy or, as Steve Sailer puts it, to invite a “point and sputter” fest. Blah blah Richard Nisbett, blah blah French adoption study, blah blah blah BLAH Malcolm Gladwell, blah blah Duckworth (who did, after all, find that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation”).

If you are genuinely wondering what to believe, don’t cherrypick. Read a summary of generally accepted understanding (Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns). Definitely take any claims of making young children smarter with a big dollop of skepticism, since fadeout is a nearly universal downer when looking back at early childhood studies. And if you ever see a mention of the Flynn Effect, go ask James Flynn himself:

The most radical form of environmental intervention is adoption into a privileged home. Adoptive parents often wonder why the adopted child loses ground on their natural children. If their own children inherit elite genes and the adopted child has average genes, then as parents slowly lose the ability to impose an equally enriched environment on both, the individual differences in genes begin to dominate.

(I guess Nisbett missed that, given his liberal appeal to the expert Flynn, coupled with what seems to me a major misrepresentation of adoption studies.)

Actual experts, in other words, will point out that E. D. Hirsch and all the pre-school advocates probably have it backwards, that vocabulary deficits don’t cause low cognitive ability, but that low cognitive ability is the source of vocabulary deficits. Knowing more vocabulary doesn’t make you smarter. Smarter people know more vocabulary.

But time and again, the world will be assured by some well-meaning elite that really—no, really—all IQ really measures is a person’s education. People with high IQs were given a good education, people with low IQs were not. Preschoolers with high vocabularies are just reflecting their superior education. But here’s a nice overview of three recent studies that specifically test whether education drives cognitive ability or the other way around. All three found that cognitive ability (IQ) drives education achievement to a great degree. (Richard Nisbett doesn’t mention those studies, either. But then, he also says that The Bell Curve was widely acclaimed by an uncritical press. Um. What?)

We don’t have a lot of research on IQ and specific educational outcomes—say, correlating reading ability or middle school algebra results with IQ. You’d think that the people who wince at the very mention of IQ would be pushing for unequivocal research on IQ and test scores of school age kids. After all, research would prove all these pernicious myths about IQ were wrong once and for all, right? Take, say, a longitudinal study of 10,000 children, from preschool to adulthood, of all incomes and races. Test their IQ, vocabulary word bank, and other cognitive markers as appropriate. Collect parental SES, parental education, parental marital status, parental behaviors (do they read to their kids? Do they beat their kids? Do they have drugs in the house? and so on), early education status, race, location….pick your demographic data. Then yearly collect their GPA and test scores, their transcripts as they move through high school. And see what pops up. How well did IQ predict test scores and GPA? How much did poverty impact the scores kids with high IQs? How much did parental wealth influence the outcomes of kids with low IQs?

But there won’t ever be that kind of study. Why?

Because poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids so consistently that it would make the news if they didn’t. Here’s a cite from 1991 test scores, back before the College Board stopped sorting by both income and race: satscoresbyraceincome91 (As well as my usual standby cite)

and here’s a recent study that establishes the SAT as a reliable IQ predictor.

But it’s not just the SAT; low income whites outperform “not-poor” blacks everywhere—the NAEP data ruthlessly collects this data every year:

2011naepreadingraceincome

2011naepraceincome

California’s CST scores show the same thing: economically disadvantaged whites outperform non-economically disadvantaged blacks and basically tie with non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics.

So no one in the educational policy business is in any hurry to call for long-term research on income, IQ, and test scores (state, SAT, AP, whatever). Much easier, really, to continue talking about poverty, environment and really crappy teachers, secure in the knowledge that anyone observing the naked emperor will be castigated as a racist.

But just suppose we completed this study I propose, and tracked school/NAEP/SAT test scores by IQ over a long period of time. Tracked from age 2 on, imagine the study shows that low-income kids with higher than average IQs have test scores and academic skills comparable, if not quite as high, as higher than average middle and high income kids. Likewise, high-income kids with low IQs have test scores and skills similar to low income kids with equivalent cognitive abilities. Imagine that we remove every shred of a reason to blame poverty for anything more than a high distribution of kids with low cognitive ability, thus making the schools hard to manage and blunting slightly the brightest kids’ ability to learn in such a loud environment.

In other words, imagine the unthinkable: the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution.

Do I hope this hypothetical study would result in this finding? No. I would, in fact, be pleased to learn that poor, high IQ kids faded due to lack of development and support in their schools, drowning in low ability kids, and that rich kids with low IQs do substantially better than poor kids with the same IQs. That’s a problem we could fix. But I worry that for the most part, such a study would end with the hypothetical results I propose, because based on available data, it seems the most likely finding.

But again, all I’m asking here is that you imagine this outcome. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: what conclusions would we be required to accept, however reluctantly?

If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.

It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race.

Okay. So let’s continue through this hypothetical and posit that we accepted these conclusions. (ha ha! this is me, laughing at my hopeless optimism. But work with me.)

For starters, we could accept that academically speaking, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment would not yield dramatically different outcomes and that preschool isn’t even a tiny bit of a magic learning pill. We might be satisfied with preschool that, as Charles Murray says, “buys some [low income children] a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home”. Maybe we’d stop holding preschool responsible for long-term academic outcomes and ask instead how it helps poor kids with unstable home environments and parents with varying degrees of competency, convincing these kids that their country and community cares about them and wants them to be safe.

Maybe we’d get to the point where we start exploring the best educational methods for kids with low cognitive ability. Sure, we’d start with Direct Instruction, although I can’t be the only teacher who doesn’t see a miracle at work in this old video. Show me the part where they remember it a month later and I’ll be impressed. And if you add “for kids of low to mid-cognitive ability” to the end of every E. D. Hirsch sentence, you’d have a perfect prescription for elementary and middle school education. The problem with Hirsch, as I mentioned to Robert Pondiscio in the comments of this post, lies in our “cultural diversity”—that is, teaching specific content leads to “cultural homogeneity” and no, no, no, that just won’t do. Better to not educate our low ability blacks and Hispanics at all then educate them in a useful content knowledge that wasn’t Afro or Latino-centric.

Someone’s going to chime in when I finally post this and say “But Ed, you don’t understand. If we teach them with Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge, the achievement gap will disappear! Look at KIPP’s results! Look at Rocketship Academy!” and I warn him to beware the false god of elementary school test scores. If the achievement gap is a function of IQ distribution, then effective education methods will not fix the gap, but rather help us educate low-IQ kids in a way they find meaningful and interesting, which will keep them invested in the process rather than giving up.

Let’s leave what to do about high school for a different post, because this one will be long enough.

What the results of such a study would do, I hope, is force everyone to stop thinking of low test scores as a missed opportunity to create more computer programmers or doctors but rather as a natural outcome of IQ distribution. With luck, well-meaning reformers will realize that they must stop looking at low test scores as an indictment of the educational system. Well-meaning progressives might cease their declarations that poverty and the evils of income inequality are stopping our poorest children from achieving college. Perhaps the results would stop educators from making low IQ kids feel utterly hopeless by declaring that more school, more learning, is their only possible chance for success, and end permanently the moralistic drumbeating for “lifelong learning”. Maybe we’d start using our considerable creativity to address the obvious pitfalls that could come about if we accepted the reality of low IQs. We don’t want to return to a educational world in which such kids are relegated to dreary, regimented education, because we must give all our kids as many skills and as much knowledge as they can absorb. Acceptance does not mean resignation and abandonment.

And most of all, I hope, any reasonable person who understood the impact of IQ on academic and life achievement would instantly realize that we must stop importing low-skilled competition to further reduce the opportunities for our own citizens. Once everyone stops fooling themselves about the quality of American education and realizes that we aren’t doing all that badly once we control for IQ, surely immigration enforcement and even reduction must follow. If enforcement means more illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Chinese head on back home, then our own unskilled and low-skilled workers have more opportunities, even if it raises restaurant prices to pay for legal cooks and busboys, forces homeowners to take care of their own lawns, and makes farmers finally invest in mechanization, or whatever other dire outcome businesses currently predict. Reducing immigration flow means low ability children have less competition for funding, because lord knows our current generous immigration policies forces schools to channel a whole bunch of money into teaching low-IQ kids, both legal and illegal, who weren’t born here and to whom we owe allegiance only because of our own generosity. Maybe we’d even get toughminded enough to realize that the best DREAM Act legislation would send the well-educated undocumented kid back to their country of origin with a little note saying “Hey, this one’s really bright. Give him a job!”

But of course, I’m just positing a hypothetical. We don’t know whether children living in poverty with high IQs have low test scores. And we don’t want to find out. Instead, we’ll just refuse to believe in IQ and pray it goes away.


Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.)

A brief, illustrative Jo Boaler anecdote by Dan Meyer, currently one of her doctoral students:

I was talking to Jo Boaler last night (name drop!) and she admitted she didn’t really get the whole blogging thing.

I laughed. Some background:

Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor, conducted a longitudinal study of three schools that’s widely known as the Railside paper. She presented the results to a standing room only crowd at the National Meeting of the National Council of Math Teachers in 2008, convincing almost everyone that “Railside” High School, a Title I, predominantly Hispanic high school outperformed two other majority white, more affluent schools in math thanks to the faculty’s dedication to problem-based integrated math, group work, and heterogeneous classes.

“Reform” math advocates, progressives whose commitment to heterogeneous classes has almost entirely derailed the rigor of advanced math classes at all but the most homogenous schools, counted this paper as victory and validation.

Three “traditionalists” were highly skeptical of Boaler’s findings and decided to go digging into the details: James Milgram, math professor at Stanford University, Wayne Bishop of CSU LA, and Paul Clopton, a statistician. They evaluated Boaler’s tests, the primary means by which Boaler demonstrated Railside’s apparently superior performance, and found them seriously wanting. They identified the schools and compared the various metrics (SAT scores, remediation rates) and demonstrated how Railside’s weak performance called Boaler’s conclusions into question. Their resulting paper, “A close examination of Jo Boaler’s Railside Report”, was accepted for publication in Education Next—and then Boaler moved to England. At that point, they decided not to publish the paper. All three men were heavily involved in math education and didn’t want to burn too many bridges with educators, who often lionize Boaler. One of the authors, James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford, posted the paper instead on his ftp site. Google took care of the rest.

The skeptics’ paper has stuck to Boaler like toilet paper on a stiletto heel; she’s written a long complaint about the three men’s “abusive” determination to get more information from her. From an Inside Higher Ed report on her complaint:

[S]he said she was prompted to speak out after thinking about the fallout from an experience this year when Irish educational authorities brought her in to consult on math education. When she wrote an op-ed in The Irish Times, a commenter suggested that her ideas be treated with “great skepticism” because they had been challenged by prominent professors, including one at her own university. Again, the evidence offered was a link to the Stanford URL of the Milgram/Bishop essay.

“This guy Milgram has this on a webpage. He has it on a Stanford site. They have a campaign that everywhere I publish, somebody puts up a link to that saying ‘she makes up data,’ ” Boaler said. “They are stopping me from being able to do my job.”

Boaler is upset because ordinary, every day, people aren’t merely taking her assertions at face value, but are instead challenging her authority with a link to a paper that, in her view, they shouldn’t even be able to read. So you can see why I laughed. This is a woman with absolutely no idea how the web works. “It’s not even peer-reviewed!!!” That people might find the ideas convincing and well-documented, with or without peer-review, isn’t an idea she’s really wrestled with yet.

Identifying the Schools
As I mentioned a while back, I had a strong reaction four years ago when reading an earlier work by Jo Boaler. A few months later, while still in ed school, I perused her Railside paper, which struck me as equally, er, not credible, a product of wishful deception, maybe? Or maybe just wishful thinking. I googled around to see if I was the only doubter and found the Milgram/Bishop/Clopton paper.

Railside High School

The article indicated that the three schools were identifiable. So I just googled algebra “bay area” boaler and in the first 2-3 pages I found this report on San Lorenzo High School:

San Lorenzo’s relationship with Stanford was based on their participation in a longitudinal study conducted by Professor Jo Boaler and her colleagues at the university. ….According to the CAPP liaison to the project, Weisberg, the researchers also found that SLHS math teachers rated high for their constructivist approach to teaching when compared to teachers at the other two high schools in their study.

Praised for their constructivist approach? In five minutes, I’d not only identified one of the schools. I’d identified the big Kahuna–Railside, the star of Boaler’s report, the school whose dedication to complex instruction, problem-based integrated math, and heterogeneous classes had propelled the Stanford professor to fame and glory. Bow to my greatness.

Happily, Boaler’s paper included CST scores for 2003, so I could match them up (as did MBC in their followup paper):

BoalerCSTScores

I could easily confirm that San Lorenzo High School CST scores for freshmen match exactly to Railside’s:
SLHS2003

(you can confirm here, it’s in Alameda County. The Algebra column for freshmen only. See? 1% 15% 33% 36% 15%. 188 students. )

San Lorenzo is an California East Bay suburb, so I’m not sure why Boaler would describe Railside as “an urban school”. California has any number of high poverty, Title I suburban schools.

One down, two to go. But the original MBC paper didn’t specify how the men identified the schools, and google gave too many possibilities for the other two study participants. Besides, I had other things to do, like find a teaching job, so I put away childish things.

Greendale High School

Then four years later, Jo Boaler complains and, in his response, James Milgram explains how they identified the schools:

We took the data above from Table 5, and one of us…checked the entire publicly available 2003 California STAR data-base, looking for schools for which any column was identical to one of the columns in Table 5. In each case we found that there was one and only one school that had that data.

Hey. I could do that. I had Access (the database), even. Which you need, because the CST file is too big for Excel.

Using this method, I identified the other two schools.

I downloaded the 2003 data to a text file, imported it to Access. I know mySQL’s interface but have never used Access before. I feel sure there’s an easier way than the path I took, which was to treat poor Access like Excel: go to the TestResults table, highlight the “total students tested” row, and search for 125, looking to the right for 0,6,27,55,12. It sounded something like this:

ClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClicknoClickno ClicknoClicknoClicknoClickWAITcrap that was it!go back! What, there’s no Reverse?Christ?Where was it?crapcrapcrapscrollbackscrollbackClicknoClickn…yes! There it is!

What, you don’t see it? Click to enlarge:

GD2003AccTableView

I found Greendale!! Whoohoo!

All I had to do was tab to the left a bit and look up the school’s identifying number. Then I went to the form in Access to look up the school and tada!

GD2003CST

According to Jo Boaler, “Greendale High School is situated in a coastal community, with very little ethnic or cultural diversity (almost all students are white).”.

Well, she’s half right. Greendale is definitely mostly white, but it’s in the mountains, not in the excessively wealthy mountains, in the much much much Greater Bay Area. Well, really, it’s juuuuust outside the much much much Greater Bay Area. Very pretty place. If you look at it on Google Maps, you would barely see blue, way off to the left.

It is not coastal.

Hilltop High School
Back to Access and clicknoclicknoclickgobackack!clicknoclickstop!tableft and there! I have Hilltop.
HT2003AccTbleView

Here are the CST scores to match:
HT2003CST

Boaler on Hilltop: “Hilltop High School is situated in a more rural setting, and approximately half of the students are Latino and half white.”

Demographics, right. Location, wrong. Boaler has just described Greendale’s location, not Hilltop’s. Find Hilltop’s town on a map and the blue is just to the left. One would describe Hilltop as “coastal”.

So Boaler flipped the school descriptions, but not the demographics? Was that on purpose, or an error?

I feel pretty confident, therefore, that in Boaler’s report:

  • Railside High School is San Lorenzo High School, in San Lorenzo. Title I school, mostly Hispanic.
  • Greendale High School is located in one of the mountain chains surrounding the Bay Area. Rural community, economically diverse, mostly white.
  • Hilltop High School is in a coastal community just outside the Bay Area, half Hispanic, half white. Greendale and Hilltop are not neighbors, but much closer to each other than either is to the edges of the Bay Area, much less San Lorenzo.

I originally planned to reveal the names of all three schools. I used publicly available data and Boaler’s own study to identify them. The schools have nothing to be embarrassed about. They participated in a study to help further knowledge about effective math instruction. How is that a bad thing? Their scores are already available on government website. Boaler isn’t directly critical of any school. No downside is immediately apparent, at least to me.

But still. In San Lorenzo High School’s case, their participation is easily searchable, so I identified the school. But the other two schools take quite a bit of work to find in Google, and the principals might not want to wake up and find their schools in a blog, even if the news wasn’t bad. This way, they can have some warning—again, with the understanding that this is publicly available data. Using Access is the cleanest way to find them, but at the end of this post I will give some other info to help interested people identify them.

So What Does This Mean?

Well, let’s assume that I didn’t miss schools with identical CST scores (I checked every entry, but who knows, I might have clicked too fast) and that these are, in fact, the schools in the study.

With just a bit of effort, interested parties can now review the Milgram/Bishop/Clopton report and confirm its claims about the overall math performance of the three schools. I’ve spot checked a lot of it, and I haven’t found any errors yet.

I’m not terribly detail-oriented, yet I saw two huge issues.

First, the 2003 CST data I matched up? Boaler provides this data as an external validator, showing how well the Railside kids did compared to the other two groups, thanks to the superior instruction of reform math. As is evident from the screen prints of the actual CST data that Boaler is using freshman 2003 data. But in Table 6, reproduced here:

table6year3

Boaler provides Year 3 data and clearly indicates that the students are juniors in 2003. The freshman algebra scores are not from her cohort. So why is she using this data as evidence of how great the program was? Shouldn’t she be using Algebra II data?

I went back two years to see what algebra scores were like, and discovered San Lorenzo High School (Railside) had fewer than ten freshmen taking algebra—in fact, the school has no math subject-specific scores at all. The other two schools did have freshmen algebra classes. So what, exactly, was Boaler comparing?

Milgram et al cover all of this in greater detail, and they also cover the other big red neon warning I see: if San Lorenzo High, which didn’t track, put all of its freshmen in algebra, while Greendale and Hilltop put their mid-to lower ability students in Algebra while the top freshmen took Geometry and Algebra II, then Boaler should not assert that San Lorenzo High is outperforming the other two schools based on freshman Algebra scores.

Of course, since she’s using the scores from the wrong cohort, she didn’t really demonstrate that the studied cohort from San Lorenzo HS outperformed the other two schools in the CST to begin with.

Why bother?

Like most mathematicians, MBC are vehemently opposed to reform math. Both Milgram and Bishop spend a lot of time working with parents or districts that are trying to get rid of reform curricula. In his rebuttal, Professor Milgram says,

Indeed, a high ranking official from the U.S. Department of Education asked me to evaluate the claims of [the Railside study] in early 2005 because she was concerned that if those claims were correct U.S. ED should begin to reconsider much if not all of what they were doing in mathematics education. This was the original reason we initiated the study, not some need to persecute Jo Boaler as she claims.

However, given both men’s determination to oppose reform math, and their willingness to work with parent groups organizing against reform math, Boaler believes, as Milgram says, that the paper was an attempt to discredit reform math, as opposed to an honest academic inquiry.

I have no opinion on that, but then I spend a lot of time on the Internet. MBC all seem pretty mild to me.

I’m not a traditionalist. I’ve written many times in this blog that for a pro-tracking, pro-testing discovery-averse teacher, I am stupendously squishy. Milgram, Bishop, Clopton, and Professor Wu would undoubtedly disapprove of my teaching methods. My kids sit in groups, I use a lot of manipulatives, I don’t lecture much or give notes, use lots of graphic organizers. To the extent I have a specialty, it lies in coddling low ability, low incentive kids through math classes whilst convincing them to learn something, and what they learn isn’t even close to the rigorous topics that real mathematicians want to see in math class. (Some lesson examples: real life coordinate geometry, modeling linear equations, triangle discovery, factoring trinomials, teaching trig and right triangles.) Nonetheless, I firmly believe that discovery, problem-based math, and complex instruction are ineffective with low to mid ability kids and think tracking or ability grouping is essential. So I’m not really tied to either camp in the math wars.

Besides, the math wars have largely been resolved. Lectures won’t work for low ability kids, but neither does discovery. High ability kids need fewer lectures, fewer algorithms, more open-ended problems, more challenges. Traditionalists have a lot of energy around reform math, but I think they could dial it back. For the most part, reform has lost in schools, particularly high schools.

Since Boaler will, if she acknowledges this post at all, complain about my motives, let me say that I am not a Boaler fan, but my disapproval is based purely on her opinions as revealed through her work: the Amber Hill/Phoenix Park paper, the Railside paper, and yeah, her recent bleat struck me as a big ol’ self-pity fest. But I’m not actively seeking to hurt her reputation, and while my tone is (cough) skeptical, I’m perfectly happy to learn that all of these questions I raise involve perfectly normal research decisions for academics.

However, I am constantly surprised at the unquestioning acceptance of educational research, particularly quantitative research.

Remember, this is a hugely significant paper in the math wars. Boaler is the hero who went out and “proved” that reform math gets better results. Suppose it’s academically acceptable for Boaler to assert that San Lorenzo High School algebra students outperformed the algebra students from two more affluent schools, based on the test results of students not in her study cohort. Would it nonetheless be important for education journalists to point out that the San Lorenzo students included the best students in the school, while the Greendale and Hilltop schools’ best students were in more advanced classes? And that a component of her success metric relied on scores of students who were two years behind her cohort?

To the extent I have an objective, there it is. Educational researchers may, in fact, engage in entirely acceptable behavior that nonetheless hides information highly relevant to the non-academic trying to use the research to figure out educational best practices.

Who’s responsible for bringing that information to light?

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

Identifying the schools

Ironically, when I was originally searching for the schools four years ago, I came across a link that identified Greendale. I just didn’t realize it for reasons that will be clearer once you find the link. Since MBC discuss the Greendale parents’ demand for a “traditional” program, and the school’s reluctant compliance, I tried to use that history to figure it out, googling (exactly): “interactive mathematics program” california high schools traditional. In the first couple pages, I found a link written by one of the MBC authors that references that parental demand as well. There are several schools mentioned in the paper, but only one of them is rural.

I’d also found a link with the Hilltop school in my initial search but had dismissed it, thinking the schools would all be in the Bay Area. But since MBC mentions that the school district forced Hilltop to cancel, I’d googled “interactive mathematics program” california district canceling. That will bring up, in the first two or three pages, a blog post from a once fairly well-known education specialty blogger (since gone inactive) on the school. This battle went on for some time, and the New York Times covered it earlier, but I won’t give the query for that.

A couple other clues: Many of Jo Boaler’s doctoral students posted in support of her complaint. An early supporter, who has a well-regarded math blog, taught at Greendale High School, although after the years of Jo Boaler’s study. That is probably not a coincidence. Jo Boaler thanks teachers in the paragraph in which she also mentions the schools that participated in her study. Maybe check out those teachers and see where they teach (or taught).


Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk.

No, I’m not going to argue that education policy wonks must all spend time in the classroom. But it’s instructive to look at the major names in educational circles today and see what kind of teaching experience they have.

Andrew Rotherham was a corporate trainer, a curriculum designer who “taught civics to high school students” as a curriculum designer (which means he did demo classes?), and from there, went into full-fledged wonkery.

Diane Ravitch began life as an editorial assistant and then an education historian before she began wonking.

Arne Duncan played professional basketball player in Australia, where he spent time with underprivileged children before he ran a non-profit education foundation and then supervised Chicago’s schools.

Linda Darling Hammond spent a year teaching English as a public school teacher in a mostly white Pennsylvania suburb.

Andrew Smarick has no teaching experience, but he was a co-founder of a KIPP school that was closed.

Checker Finn taught public high school for a year, and by his own admission, quit because he was a terrible teacher.

Mike Petrilli had what looks to be a job as a camp counsellor.

Michelle Rhee was a public school teacher for two years and lied misrepresented let people think she had raised test scores. Her classroom management skills were so poor that she made her students wear duct tape to keep quiet. (It’s also possible that Rhee is lying about that story, since no one can really believe she wouldn’t have been fired for that stunt. If she lied, though, it means that Rhee’s so ignorant about teaching that she thinks the story is believable.)

Rick Hess taught in Baton Rouge for two years, and then quit in part because he wasn’t able to teach the AP Econ course he wanted to, even for free.

John Chubb wasn’t a teacher or even a businessman when he got involved with Edison Schools, but by golly, he wants us to have the best teachers in the world. Who apparently aren’t at Edison.

Alfie Kohn emphasizes that he has been a teacher,but keeps most of his teaching career away from the watchful eye of Google. He does mention that he taught “existentialism to high school students”. Cough.

Rick Hess publishes a list of highly visible edu-scholars; of the top ten on the list, only five have any experience in teaching, according to their CVs, and just one, Larry Cuban, has had extensive experience teaching and leading public schools.

I can only think of two educational experts with extensive K-12 teaching experience—Cuban and Deborah Meier. Neither have spent much, if any, time in government, nor have they sought to influence public policy to any large degree (as opposed to Moe, Hanushek, Darling-Hammond, and so on). Meier is a pure play teacher-administrator (if she even has an advanced degree, her bio doesn’t mention it).

Obviously, my list is incomplete; I read a great deal and tried to get a representative group. But I’d be surprised if I’m missing more than one or two counterexamples. It’s hard to find an educational expert with extensive teaching experience who isn’t at least skeptical about the current brand of reform. Cuban, one of my favorite education wonks, is a skeptic with a mildly progressive edge, Meier a committed progressive. On the other hand, if eduformers have any well-regarded educational experts with more than a decade in public schools, it’s a well-hidden secret.

So where are the teachers in the debate? Well, as I’ve written before, teachers are, as a group, astonishingly uninterested in policy. Even union issues engage maybe 20-30% of the teachers at any meeting I’ve attended; the rest are checking their watches. This is a function of personality. Wonks and teachers are from opposite ends of the spectrum. Teaching appeals disproportionately to concrete thinkers interested in the immediate payoff, attributes largely antithetical to the average policy wonk job.

When you run into actual, honest-to-god teachers out there pushing ideas, they usually fall into these categories:

  • Teach Like I Do Marketers: Rafe Esquith, Doug Lemov. These guys have no research or stats to back up their claims; they are lauded as good teachers because their methods impress powerful edupundits. They write a lot of books or consult. (ETA a couple years later–and it turns out, Lemov never did much teaching).
  • It’s the Curriculum, Stupid, aka the Core Knowledge folk (Robert Pondiscio, Jessica Lahey, Barry Garelick, etc): I have nothing bad to say about these guys; they are earnest, somewhat right, but absurdly unrealistic because they mostly work with high-achieving kids. They also have something to sell: the value of the Core Knowledge curriculum. (Note: I originally wrote that CK wanted to sell the curriculum. Robert Pondiscio notes in the comments that the Core Knowledge curriculum is free, and can be downloaded. Fair enough, and I welcome the news, and the correction. However, I believe it’s fair to say that they are still advocates, and in that limited sense, “selling”. I am a fan of CK, fwiw.)
  • Bandwagon Reformers: The “I did my two” sorts who are in the process of getting out by writing an op-ed as a job application. Some of them went into teaching sincerely, and are really pissed at all the pink slips they’ve been getting, winning cites from reformers looking to shore up their credibility. (Look! Real teachers agree with us!) Short shelf lives, as a rule. Either they get that reform think tank job, or they quit teaching.
  • Diane Ravitch’s fan club: The name says it all. Well, I do like Gary Rubenstein, but his obsessive focus on TFA and reform gets a bit old. He needs to branch out.

So most teachers found in the debate have something to sell, or are firmly in one of the two major camps.

What I don’t run into very often are full-time teachers who read a lot about policy, engage with the data, put it up against their own experience working with the average kid (mid to low ability), and then opine about that policy based on their own analysis, which includes both their experience and their knowledge of existing educational policy.

That is, we don’t hear from teachers much as subject matter experts. Few of them are interested in policy because they aren’t wired that way. Most of the rest out there agitating have an agenda.

I can’t think of many teachers who write on policy, period. Some who do have jobs at the top end of the teaching totem pole, which means they don’t have a clue what it’s like to teach low ability kids—and their opinions show this lack. Patrick Welsh writes pretty well about policy and really uses his experience to inform his policy opinions, although I don’t often agree with him. John Thompson left teaching recently, I think, but taught at high-poverty Oklahoma schools for a long time, and it shows. Paul Bruno, also writing on Alexander Russo’s blog, is a middle school science teacher working with “underserved” populations. Both Thompson and Bruno are well-read on policy, skeptical of most bromides, and have views informed by their teaching without being purely dominated by it.

Part of the problem, of course, is that teachers can get fired or otherwise penalized if they have opinions too far outside the mainstream. I’m not the only teacher who thinks cognitive ability shapes the large outlines of academic achievement and that low scores in “failing” schools are caused neither by insufficient money nor bad teachers but fundamentally flawed expectations. And while Richard Posner agrees with me, I’m not going public with my views any time soon.

The larger educational policy world doesn’t really think about teachers as analysts. Progressives are convinced they do care about teachers, and view with suspicion any teacher who rejects their expertise. Reformers think most teachers are union hacks. Both progressives and reformers are constantly calling for an upgrade in teacher qualifications, which means they think teachers are too stupid to have anything of value to offer—except as props.

So here we are: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, wonk. And without a concentrated effort to get teacher expertise into the debate, things won’t change.