Category Archives: reform

How The Other Half Learns: Who are the Students?

Years before I became a teacher, I found kids of all ages interesting on an intellectual level.  I enjoyed seeing the different ways that their intelligence manifested. I remember the moment I realized my son, just four, was extremely bright, capable of synthesizing a wide range  of information and coming up with interesting conclusions–and this despite the fact that he didn’t read until he was over six, and was always slow on speech milestones. A few years later, I was playing a card game with my twin niece and nephew and realized they, at age two, were out there on the IQ scale, but in different ways: my niece solves problems, my nephew instantly grasps and files away information.

The three proved out my predictions, all with  SAT or ACT scores in the 95+ percentile. My niece has a nursing degree (getting into a nursing school is cutthroat competitive these days), my nephew graduated from a top 20 school with a degree in linguistics. (My son’s history is here.)  Recall that I’m the only college graduate in my family of origin, so degrees aren’t really in the family tradition.

But kids don’t have to be unusually intelligent–or relatives–to capture my interest. My articles are filled with student profiles and class profiles in which I try to give a sense of the intellectual presence in the room, in the interaction. I link in a bunch at the end as a demonstration.

I wanted to know more about the students at Bronx Academy 1, and in this way, How the Other Half Learns disappoints. We get no real insight into the students’ intellectual lives.

This is a shame, really. Why, after all, do we care so much about these charters? Because of their academic results:

If you are a black or Hispanic child in a New York City public school, you have a one-in-four chance of passing the state English Language Arts exam. At Success, 82 percent of black and Hispanic students passed in 2016–a rate that easily outpaces even the 59 percent rate of Asian and white students citywide. In math, 93 percent of Success Academy’s black students and 95 percent of its Hispanic students passed their math test, with 73 percent scoring at Level 4, the highest level.

The Big Question, one I hoped I’d get some insight into: to what extent is Success Academy creaming? Are the charters taking some of those 1 in 4 black or Hispanic students who would pass the ELA exam anyway? Are they taking ordinary kids of average skills and beating enough information into their heads to barely get them past the “proficient” rating? Or are they taking barely literate children and turning them into excellent readers?

Pondiscio argues that Success Academy selects for parents, not for students. It’s certainly true that the school is vetting for parents who can be instantly available on demand, willing to put up with truckloads of excessive and unpleasant demands, which are clearly designed with the same goals that Van Halen had when banning brown M&Ms.  Because he sees parents as central to Success Academy, Pondiscio interviews several, uncovering their own educational history.

But the book has very little insight into the children themselves.

On Tiffany, the student whose needs gave Pondiscio the entire focus of his career:

Her eyes are on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; her homework neat and complete. She has grown up hearing about the importance of education. She believes it, and her behavior shows it. She gets praise and good grades. (emphasis mine)

With the exception of “bright”, which appears to be more about mood than intellect, Pondiscio describes Tiffany primarily by behavior and intent, not ability.

I would trade most of the parent interviews, which all sound the same (“I hated school, I was passed on, I was a drug addict, I fell into a hole, I made something of my life, I need to save my kid, I don’t want my kid to be passed on the way I was, I love the discipline, the end”), for a series of student conversations throughout the year.

Instead, give me evidence the students are developing intellectually. Show me that these are interesting, aware, educated children with an interest in the world around them. Better yet, show me that some kids went from picking their noses to discoursing eloquently on the reasons for a blue sky, all thanks to Success Academy’s brilliant teaching and curriculum.

Interview fourth graders, both those who scored proficient on the third grade test, and those who missed the mark. Are those students who failed still in the school, or were they cut from the program? Are the ones who passed noticeably more developed than the ones who didn’t–assuming they’re still in the school?

I want to hear from all those students who were forced to repeat grades. Did they ever move forward, or did all of them eventually transfer? It’s completely obvious that Success Academy is forcing students to repeat as a way of enticing them to drop out, but do any of them ultimately pass? How are their results?

Tell me stories about the kids who apparently have been spoon fed six books a week for years. What do the kids think about all this reading time? Do the parents actually meet their commitments? What books do they read? Do the parents read the same books more than once? What are their favorite stories?

But Pondiscio gives very little insight into the minds that Success Academy is supposed to develop. For the most part, the students are props. He does provide a description of one pseudo-discovery math class, but his focus is on the teacher, not the students.

When he does provide detail, the results undercut the Success story. (heh).  For example, a student takes a reading test:

“So what did you learn in this book?” she asks. Luis begins to rattle off random facts from memory. Whales send messages to other whales. They communicate with “whistles and burps and…” he struggles to recall a word. “They click,” he says finally. Syskowski presses for more. “What other information did you learn about whales?” Luis describes their ability to “bounce sounds off of fish” to find food. “A blue whale is as big as 25 elephants. They’re the giants of the sea,” he adds, a phrase that comes directly from the book. To ensure he’s demonstrating reading comprehension, not just prior knowledge, Syskowski asks Luis to show her evidence for the facts he’s just cited. …

“….How are whales like people?” she asks. “They find food. They send messages to each other,” the boy answers. “They have babies.” And how are they different? Luis twists his face and looks to the book to jog hism emory. “When people need help with something, they don’t cry or whistle or click. They just call for help. Like on the phone,” he answers. “And whales can’t speak. They speak, like, whale….Is that all of your questions?”

The word for this display is regurgitation. You don’t see a Luis who is interested in whales, enthusiastically telling his teacher about cool whale facts, but rather a Luis desperately trying to “empty his head of all that he’s just read.” Luis isn’t fascinated by whales or constructing background knowledge. In fact, the kid doesn’t seem interested in reading at all. He just wants the reward–to be moved up a level in grading. I’m sure Luis is an adorable little boy, but his reading comprehension skills do not strike me as a ringing endorsement for the Success Academy regime.

On a second grade field trip:

Some boys are trying to impress Ibrahim’s dad, Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant, with everything they have learned about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge. “He got ill and died,” one says….Showing good teaching instincts, [Solomon] pushes for more. “How do you know that’s not the Queensboro Bridge?” he demands. “Tell me how you know.” The boys point out that it’s a suspension bridge but seem at a loss to “prove” that the suspension bridge in front of them is Roebling’s masterpiece. They just know.

I have to take Pondiscio’s word for it that the only fact of note retained from the Roebling reading is not that he fought in the Civil War, made several major advances in bridgebuilding,  or that he lived to 89 before dying of an illness.  Nor could they tell the dad that the Queensboro Bridge isn’t a suspension bridge.

In an already famous anecdote from the book, the kindergarten teacher  tells a kindergartner that his book review (a pencil sketch and a few words) doesn’t make sense and that he can’t play with the “blocks” the next day.

Why not describe the “book report”? What did it say? What was the picture of? How did it compare to the other sketches? What words did the kids know well enough to write?

I never get the sense that Pondiscio is interested in the kids themselves–not because he doesn’t care about them, which he clearly does. But for whatever reason, the kids don’t seem important to his story. Ability  and individualism doesn’t make much of an appearance. Parental character is all:

If Eva Moskowitz is to be charged with creating an opportunity for parents…with more ambition for their children than means, it is a curious charge. If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

This is an egregious statement on many levels, but for now, consider it purely as insight into Pondiscio’s mindset.

Those familiar with Pondiscio’s writing won’t be surprised. Regardless of what he actually believes, he doesn’t often discuss students in terms of their abilities, as opposed to what methods he wants to use to teach them. In one well-known earlier article, he wrote that students can’t be educated with the “lighting of the fire”, as many teachers say, because “empty buckets seldom burst into flames.” As he wrote in the book, he first turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation because he became convinced that, to quote Dan Willingham, “the wellspring of reading comprehension is common knowledge”. (This always gets near suggesting that kids must be taught knowledge before they can read about it, even though both Pondiscio and Willingham protest whenever this is pointed out.)

Meanwhile, he’s got dozens of articles on the importance of giving parents choice.

“Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. ” (Let Poor Parents Choose Too)

“That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” (Putting the evidence cart before the school choice horse)

“About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is ‘right.’ The salient question ought to be, ‘Which is right for you?'” (When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose)

“I’m strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative.” Deborah Meier, Libertarian?

Even in the book, even when talking about Tiffany, it’s about what her parents did: “She has grown up hearing about the importance of education.” Tiffany didn’t decide this for herself.

Give parents the ability to choose, Pondiscio believes, and they will find the best education for their children. How he squares this with the many caring, ambitious, committed parents who chose Success Academy, jumped through all those idiotic control hoops only to deal with months of harassment once the school targeted their child for expulsion, I don’t know.

I don’t see students as empty buckets. I see them as individual agents with capacities from their parents’ ambitions and desires. For that reason, I wish Pondiscio had dumped all those parent profiles (to say nothing of the Moskowitz power meetings) and spent more time in the book recounting student stories. Let the readers know more about the young people who actually deliver the test scores needed to maintain the Success Academy reputation–and whether they display the intellectual presence we want those scores to represent.

I want to reiterate that I like the book and strongly recommend it. These pieces are just offered up for discussion–the difference between teachers and policy advocates, maybe.

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

Students:
The kid who can do arithmetic in his head but can’t manage basic algebra.
The kid who trusted me more than a math teacher who knew a lot more math.
The kids who had to build a business plan for a basketball team and started by looking up shoe prices.
The kid who asked questions without ever expecting to understand the answers. 
The kid who came back two years after his SAT scores were worse than his worst fears. 

Classes:
Seeing the link between algebraic equations and graphs just before the weekend.
Figuring out the Third Dimension
The electoral college and Trump
Reading aloud to my ELL class.
Advising students on their narratives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’ll remember me.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Great.”

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

“So?”

“SO?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or am I missing something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

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

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

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


What Teachers are Worth

I enjoy reading both Jason Richwine, who I’ve defended before, and Andrew Biggs, who I follow on Twitter. But they don’t strike me as persuasive when discussing teacher salaries, which they do often, most recently No, Teachers Aren’t Underpaid , and also the first time they came to my attention, having written Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid (do you sense a trend?).

I made an extensive comment one time on Richwine’s blog that I’m still quite fond of, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Before I begin, let me point out for the umpteenth time that I like my salary just fine.

I differ with Richwine/Biggs as follows:

  • They keep going on about teacher GPAs and SAT scores as indicators without mentioning credential tests. They’ve been doing this for six (nay, seven!) years. Credential tests are kind of a thing of mine, as you may have noticed, so I’ll just refer you to my previous work. But it’s simply untrue that teacher standards are low, particularly in high school. Grades and SAT scores are irrelevant. Passing scores aren’t amenable to affirmative action.
  • They sugggest (sigh) differential pay for math teachers, special ed teachers, and “language teachers”. (Surely there’s no shortage of Spanish speakers nationwide?) Left unmentioned:  the thus far anemic evidence for other pay reforms, which are significant only occasionally, and only statistically.
  • They point out–actually, this is a Richwine thing–that teachers who leave the field usually end up with lower pay. But they never seem to mull what that means.
  • They point out that teachers get lucrative pensions and benefits. That’s the Biggs thing. They accuse the public and teachers of failing to understand the severity of the pension crisis. Naturally, if the public understood how bad things were, the public would instantly put itself on an austerity program, just as it’s done with the federal deficit. Oh. Wait.

At least they didn’t bring up the old chestnut, merit pay.

Like I said, I’m generally fans of both scholars. But the past two years have seen a complete earthquake in the education reform movement, so why is everyone still pushing the same old ideas that were roundly rejected?

Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study.

The first, sure. The second? If Christina Comerford left the chef’s life to be a secretary, a reasonable job for a woman with a few years of college and no degree, she’d take a big paycut. So is the  Executive Chef overpaid at a hundred grand a year?

But Ed, she’s a chef! An artist!

Sure. An artist who acquired skills outside any academic field of study.

Wages are not purely determined by field of study. Librarians require much more education than teachers for far less pay. College teaching adjuncts work like dogs for peanuts after graduating from a selective PhD program. And raise your hand if you think archaeologists would get higher pay if they had a union and a pay scale.

To quote myself twice:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience.

Segue to

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. …Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. On the other hand, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Don’t think of this as a plea for respect. I’m untroubled by their contempt. I just thought I’d explain why their arguments keep failing.

Besides, they mention wages are determined by supply and demand without mentioning that teachers supply’s kind of a problem at the moment, as most school districts are neverendingly short of teachers.

Despite what reformers constantly bewail as teaching’s low standards and excessive pay, all sorts of college graduates who, on paper, have “fields of study” that would allow them to teach, don’t teach. They’d rather work as, well, bus drivers. Or horribly paid college adjuncts. From 2009-2013, 45% of college graduates worked in non-college jobs, at the same time ed school enrollment plummeted.  Notice that those who pishtosh the shortage aren’t the folks trying to fill the jobs.

No blaming unions, either. West Virginia’s unions are basically social clubs. The teachers aren’t even allowed to strike.  (With teacher’s unions suing Trump over DACA and wasting my fees in various pointless efforts, I’ll cry less about Janus.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin got whomped and was forced to apologize for insulting teachers in yet another state with weak unions. Is it likely that Colorado’s school districts will fire striking teachers when  ed schools face declining enrollment and thousands of jobs  go unfilled each year?

I’m not gloating. I don’t know where this ends. I understand pensions are a problem. But federal policy and court decisions, to say nothing of political realities, have put tremendous pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps Biggs and Richwine should consider attacking teacher pay from the demand side for a while. Richwine, at least, should find that appealing.

Under 1000!


End of Education Reform?

Four years ago, I first described the parallels between cops and teachers. A year after the election, I wrote about unions and asked, again, why the GOP was so intent on attacking teacher protections when cops and other government workers get the same advantages. I mean, even the bitching about gender imbalance is ridiculous, since law ennforcement is far more male than teaching is female.

Then came Ferguson and the start of a bizarre microtrend. Conservatives began this absurd habit of blaming teachers and crappy schools for black kids getting shot by white police officers and ensuing riots. “Choice would end this chaos!” they’d thunder. I’m paraphrasing, but as the sources  show, I’m not exaggerating.

So I’ve been writing about the parallels* between these two jobs since the early days of this blog. But I also—rather presciently, I must say—observed that “acceptable targets change over time” and that maybe we teachers should hunker down and wait for cops to take their turn in the hot seat again.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the pendulum has swung back, if teachers are getting a breather while the cops take the bulk of the scrutiny.

Just four years ago when I wrote my first essay, cops were politically beyond reproach by either party. Since Ferguson, our police forces are increasingly under rhetorical attack, and the Democrats are “balancing” their comments less often. Those on the right are starting to make noises about police unions. Moreover, while the  attempts to prosecute the police officers for high profile shootings have failed, the pressure to bring these efforts has increased.The brutal murders in Dallas, Baton Rouge of course add to this horrible climate.

Meanwhile, the new K-12 education law replacing the reform-designed No Child Left Behind, has utterly dismayed reformers on both right and left by stripping away a lot of federal control and leaving education back to the states. Conservatives, who gave birth to the reform movement, are now unhappy because social-justice warriors have taken over education reform.

Let’s take a look at the three legs of education reform:

Accountability:
Testing? Extremely unpopular, particularly with suburban whites–and if suburban whites aren’t testing, then there’s no benchmark to beat teachers up for when the black and Hispanic students don’t meet it. Kidding. Kind of.

Teacher value add measurements? Reformers are forced to argue that the American Statisticians Association supported VAM because it says that “teachers account for about 1 percent to 14 percent of the variability in test scores”. As I wrote earlier, I don’t think VAM will last much longer. Teachers are being judged by test scores in some states, but the energy is on rolling back those laws, not adding more states to the list.

Student achievement gap? Jerry Brown actually said hey, someone’s got to be a waiter. Stop waiting for me to close the achievement gap. Ain’t going to happen. The man went unscathed after this heresy. I’m still shocked. But the thing is, once people start rejecting standardized tests, demanding other solutions to “the gap” is sure to follow.

Or, as this paper asked: Can High Standards and Accountability Exist? Their answer: Not easily. My answer: No.

Curriculum:

I’m not rehashing the Common Core wars. I will remind you, however, that the governors and education reformers never really cared about the curriculum unless it would drive accountability. As of today, just 20 states are using the Common Core tests. The rest have opted for less stringent metrics.

Choice

Choice lives! Well, kind of. Barack to Hillary is a huge step back for reformers. Barack, Arne, and John King were all “neo-Democrats” on education, which means teachers didn’t like them much. Hillary is very popular with teacher’s unions, even if the teachers themselves wanted Bernie. But neither Bernie nor Hillary are big on choice.

The Donald? The most attention an education policy got at the RNC convention was Donald Trump Jr’s line comparing teacher tenure to Soviet-era stores and then only because his speechwriter had used it in an earlier column. Kind of like Carol Burnett: “Don’t pollute, folks!” Puppy chow for conservatives. It’s not a random happenstance that the presidential candidate most dedicated to traditional education reform barely finishied in the top five and is   back pitching the same old ideas that the GOP voters didn’t even bother to consider before rejecting.

Choice will stay around, but I don’t see it having a strong supporter in the White House.

The philanthropy may be shifting, too. Bill Gates admits he’s spent millions on schools to little effect. Mark Zuckerberg wants to convince us that his $100 million in Newark wasn’t wasted, but most of the world thinks he got schooled. So the “billionaire philanthropists” are backing off of education.

But Michael Jordan has just donated $2 million to non-profits in what is clearly a thoughtful and hopeful effort to support community policing.  Perhaps his act is a one-off–or perhaps we’ll see more wealthy African Americans funding ideas and programs that benefit both urban youth and the police serving their communities. I wish them more success than the billionaires had with schools.

Education reform, the era that began with Nation at Risk and traveled through the explosion of choice, the testing era of No Child Left Behind, the imposition of Common Core–well, it may be over. We’ll still have choice in urban areas where many desperate parents are willing to submit to absurd behavior standards in order to get some semblance of peer selection. Voucher programs will have periodic disruptions. I suspect, though, that ongoing regional teacher shortages  will limit charter expansion (same amount of kids, more teachers). I wonder if the public will ever notice that private schools get created simply to grab the voucher money, and whether they will find it unseemly. Or maybe vouchers will continue to exist as a way for parents who can afford tuition to get a discount. Ed tech will continue to disappoint. But I see more of a whimpering out over years, not a sudden bang, if I’m not nuts about this.

And if I’m nuts, well, at least one of the granddaddies of education reform, Checker Finn, agrees with me.

I’m not gloating, not about the potential end of reform and certainly not about the increased scrutiny and pressure that’s being placed on our police forces. I just sense a shift. We’ll see.

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

*I don’t overstate the parallels.The police are tasked with public safety with all the demands that entails.  We teachers are charged with education and student safety while they’re in our purview. Those are non-trivial differences; the police are compensated with higher pay, overtime, easier access to disability, and better pensions. I’m not complaining.

 

**I’m in a new phase, apparently, where my new essay ideas come from my tweet storms.


Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.

brooksvotech

Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update, dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant.  There sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor.

So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:

hessvoced

Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.


The Many Failings of Value-Added Modeling

Scott Alexander reviews the research on value-added models measuring teacher quality1. While Scott’s overview is perfectly fine, any such effort is akin to a circa 1692 overview of the research literature on alchemy. Quantifying teacher quality will, I believe, be understood in those terms soon enough.

High School VAM is Impossible

I have many objections to the whole notion of modeling what value a teacher adds, but top of the idiocy heap is how little attention is paid to the fact that VAM is only even possible with elementary school teachers. First, reading and basic math are the primary learning objectives of years 1-5. Second, elementary schools think of reading and math ability in terms of grade level. Finally, elementary teachers or their schools have considerable leeway in allocating instruction time by subject.

Now, go to high school (of which middle school is, as always, a pale imitation with similar issues). We don’t evaluate student reading skills by grade level, but rather “proficiency”. We don’t say “this 12th grader reads at the 10th grade level”. We have 12th graders who read at the 8th grade level, of course. We have 12th graders who read at the third grade level. But we don’t acknowledge this in our test scores, and so high school tests can’t measure reading progress. Which is good, because high school teachers aren’t tasked with reading instruction, so we wouldn’t expect students to make much progress. What’s that? Why don’t we teach reading instruction in high school, if kids can’t read at high school level, you ask? Because we aren’t allowed to. High school students with remedial level skills have to wait until college acknowledges their lack of skills.

And that’s reading, where at least we have a fighting shot of measuring progress, even though the tests don’t currently measure it–if we had yearly tests, which of course we don’t. Common Core ended yearly high school tests in most states. Math, it’s impossible because we pass most kids (regardless of ability) into the next class the next year, so there’s no “progress”, unless we measure kids at the beginning and end of the year, which introduces more tests and, of course, would show that the vast majority of students entering, say, algebra 2 don’t in fact understand algebra 1. Would the end of year tests measure whether or not the students had learned algebra 1, or algebra 2?

Nor can high school legally just allocate more time to reading and math instruction, although they can put low-scoring kids in double block instruction, which is a bad, bad thing.

Scope Creep

Most teachers at all levels don’t teach tested subjects and frankly, no one really cares about teacher quality and test scores in anything other than math or reading, but just pretend on everything else. Which leads to a question that proponents answer implicitly by picking one and ignoring the other: do we measure teacher quality to improve student outcomes or to spend government dollars effectively?

If the first, then what research do we have that art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers, or, god save us, special education teachers improve student outcomes? (answer: none.) If the second, then what evidence do we have that the additional cost of testing in all these additional topics, as well as the additional cost of defending the additional lawsuits that will inevitably arise as these teachers attack the tests as invalid, will be less strain on the government coffers than the cost of the purportedly inadequate teachers? What research do we have that any such tests on non-academic subjects are valid even as measures of knowledge, much less evidence of teacher validity?

None, of course. Which is why you see lawsuits by elective teachers pointing out it’s a tad unfair to be judged on the progress of students they’ve never actually met, much less taught. While many of those lawsuits get overturned as unfair but not constitutional, the idiocy of these efforts played no small part in the newest version of the federal ESEA, the ESSA, killed the student growth measure (SGM) requirement.

So while proponents might argue that math and English score growth have some relationship to teacher quality in those subjects, they can’t really argue for testing all subjects. Sure, people can pretend (a la Common Core) that history and science teachers have an impact on reading skills, but we have no mechanism to, and are years away from, changing instruction and testing in these topics to require reading content and measuring the impact of that specific instruction in that specific topic. And again, that’s just reading. Not math, where it’s easy enough to test students on their understanding of math in science and history, but very difficult to tangle out where that instruction came from. Of course, this is only an issue after elementary school. See point one.

Abandoning false gods

For the past 20 years or so, school policy has been about addressing “preparation”, which explains the obsession with elementary school. Originally, the push for school improvement began in high school. Few people realize or acknowledge these days that the Nation at Risk, that polemic seen as groundbreaking by education reformers but kind of, um, duh? by any regular people who take the time to read it, was entirely focused on high school, as can be ascertained by a simple perusal of its findings and recommendations. Stop coddling kids with easy classes, make them take college prep courses! That’s the ticket. It’s the easy courses, the low high school standards that cause the problem. Put all kids in harder classes. And so we did, with pretty disastrous results through the 80s. Many schools began tracking, but Jeannie Oakes and disparate impact lawsuits put an end to that.

I’m not sure when the obsession with elementary school began because I wasn’t paying close attention to ed policy during the 90s. But at some point in the early 90s, it began to register that putting low-skilled kids in advanced high school classes was perhaps not the best idea, leading to either fraud or a lot of failing grades, depending on school demographics. And so, it finally dawned on education reformers that many high school students weren’t “academically prepared” to manage the challenging courses that they had in mind. Thus the dialogue turned to preparing “underserved” students for high school. Enter KIPP and all the other “no excuses” charters which, as I’ve mentioned many times, focus almost entirely on elementary school students.

In the early days of KIPP, the scores seemed miraculous. People were bragging that KIPP completely closed the achievement gap back then, rather than the more measured “slight improvement controlling for race and SES” that you hear today. Ed reformers began pushing for all kids to be academically prepared, that is hey! Let’s make sure no child is left behind! And so the law, which led to an ever increasing push for earlier reading and math instruction, because hey, if we can just be sure that all kids are academically prepared for challenging work by high school, all our problems will be fixed.

Except, alas, they weren’t. I believe that the country is nearing the end of its faith in the false god of elementary school test scores, the belief that the achievement gap in high school is caused simply by not sufficiently challenging black and Hispanic kids in elementary school. Two decades of increasing elementary scores to the point that they appear to have topped out, with nary a budge in high school scores has given pause. Likewise, Rocketship, KIPP, and Success Academy have all faced questions about how their high-scoring students do in high school and college.

As I’ve said many times, high school is brutally hard compared to elementary school. The recent attempt to genuinely shove difficulty down earlier in the curriculum went over so well that the new federal law gave a whole bunch of education rights back to the states as an apology. Kidding. Kind of.

And so, back to VAM….Remember VAM? This is an essay about VAM. Well, all the objections I pointed out above–the problems with high school, the problems with specific subject teachers–were mostly waved away early on, because come on, folks, if we fix elementary school and improve instruction there, everything will fall into place! Miracles will happen. Cats will sleep with dogs. Just like the NCLB problem with 100% above average was waved away because hey, by them, the improvements will be sooooo wonderful that we won’t have to worry about the pesky statistical impossibilities.

I am not sure, but it seems likely that the fed’s relaxed attitude towards test scores has something to do with the abandonment of this false idol, which leads inevitably to the reluctant realization that perhaps The Nation At Risk was wrong, perhaps something else is involved with academic achievement besides simply plopping kids in the right classes. I offer in support the fact that Jerry Brown, governor of California, has remained almost entirely unscathed for shrugging off the achievement gap, saying hey, life’s a meritocracy. Who’s going to be a waiter if everyone’s “elevated” into some important job? Which makes me wonder if Jerry reads my blog.

So if teacher’s don’t make any difference and VAM is pointless, how come any yutz can’t become a teacher?

No one, ever, has argued that teachers don’t make any difference. What they do say is that individual teacher qualities make very little difference in student test scores and/or student academic outcomes, and the differences aren’t predictable or measurable.

If I may quote myself:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience. Treat it as a medicine, mandate a particular course of treatment, and hundreds of thousands of teachers will simply refuse to comply because it won’t cure the challenges and opportunities they face.

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. Teaching, like art and acting, runs the range from velvet Elvis paint by numbers to Renoir, from Fast and Furious to Short Cuts. There are teaching superstars, and journeyman teachers, and the occasional lousy teacher who keeps working despite this–just as Rob Scheider still finds work, despite being so bad that Roger Ebert wrote a book about it.

Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. Upside, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Most teachers understand this. It’s the outside world and the occasional short-termers who want teachers to be rewarded for excellence. Most teachers don’t support merit pay and vehemently oppose “student growth measures”.

The country appears to be moving towards a teacher shortage. I anticipate all talk of VAM to vanish. But if you want to improve teacher quality beyond its current much-better-than-it’s-credited condition, I suggest we consider limiting the scope of public education. Four of these five education policy proposals will do just that.

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1 I was writing this up in the comments section of Scott Alexander’s commentary on teacher VAM research, when I remembered I was behind on my post quota. What the heck. I’m turning this into a post. It’s a long answer, but not as long-winded as Scott Alexander, the one blogger who makes me feel brusque.


The Day of Three Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

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

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

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

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

Some other work of mine that strikes me as related:

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

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

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

But that’s a miracle for another day.


TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap

As I’ve written, the available pool of black teachers is small because ed school can’t commit affirmative action and still produce teachers that can pass the licensure tests. This leads to a question that’s been plaguing me for a few months: how the hell can Teach for America have recruited around a thousand African Americans?1

Of course, to even raise the question is to offend with the premise. But then, that’s why I’m anonymous, to offend in the name of explanation. So let me be Vox:

Here’s 4 charts that explain everything you need to know about Ed’s perplexity:

ETSsatpraxisverbal

ETSsatpraxismath

Cite

What you see right away: most blacks are getting credentialed as elementary, special ed, or PE teachers.

The average math/reading scores of blacks passing the Praxis in these 20 states2 is 482/459. The average math/verbal scores for all elementary school teachers, regardless of race, are about 520/480, and for high school academic teachers about 580 in the related content section (math for math/science, reading for history/English) and around 560 in reading regardless of content. As the chart shows, the average SAT score for college graduates is about 542 on both tests, meaning that despite the rhetoric, high school teachers in academic subjects aren’t just above average on the SAT, but above the 50% mark for college graduates.

About 13% of African Americans scored above 550 on the math and reading sections of the SAT each year, give or take.

Most researchers wisely refrain from putting all these numbers in one place, the better to avoid drawing obvious conclusions. But considering all these numbers, and remembering that African Americans have many other occupations to choose from, most of which without a content knowledge test, one can perhaps see why I find TFA’s claim of 1000 black teachers to be worthy of inquiry.

I don’t doubt their numbers. Perhaps I should; lord knows Gary Rubinstein has ample evidence that TFA cooks its stats. But I accept the numbers at face value, and also accept that these numbers reflect corps members who have passed their credential tests.

Then how?

Well, as an obvious starting point: TFA is committing affirmative action. I know this partly because of the dog that didn’t bark. If black TFA corps members have ever had an average 3.6 GPA and a 1344 SAT (math and reading), then TFA would trumpet this fact on every brochure. I also know this because of the numbers I just provided–only 13% of African Americans are getting over 550 on any SAT section, and a smaller number is getting 550 over both (can’t tell how many, but it’s a percentage of a percentage, usually).

Besides, any time I see an article celebrating TFA’s high credential test passing rates, those passing rates aren’t 100%. Some TFAers are failing these supposedly simple tests. I imagine I know more about the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT than most and can score in the 98th percentile or higher on all of them. The elementary school credential tests in the linked articles present no challenge for anyone with a 1344 SAT.

So TFA commits affirmative action because the available pool of minority candidates simply doesn’t allow them to use the same criteria. Hence, lower SAT scores for blacks and Hispanics—except not too low, because of those same pesky credential tests.

Then what? How does TFA thread the needle to recruit African American can didates, given the tremendous opportunities in much better paying careers that exist for blacks with the cognitive skills necessary to pass the credential tests?

Here’s what I came up with.

  1. Find top-tier candidates with goals TFA can serve.
    Whites and Asians might take on teaching for a couple years to burnish their resume on the way to grad school, but black college graduates who can pass high school math and science credential tests are shoo-ins for law and med school. They don’t need TFA as a resume sweetener.

    But strong African Americans and Hispanics with “soft” degrees might see TFA as an obvious path to management that only requires a couple years in the classroom. I could also see TFA making a pitch on entrepreneurial grounds—teach for a couple years, then get in on the ground floor of an education business or consulting practice. Or management—black administrators outnumber black high school teachers, and that might be a great path to starting a charter, then maybe a chain, and build an empire.

    That’s a small number, I’m thinking, but it happens.

  2. Find blacks who have already passed the credential test.

    A while back, I noticed a big jump in already-credentialed teachers, aka education majors, getting accepted to TFA. In 2009, 3% of the TFA corps had education degrees; in 2014, education majors had more than tripled to 10% of a larger population.

    If a black education major has a credential, he or she has passed the necessary tests. Just make sure the candidate gets assigned to the same state and hey, presto. I can’t find any stats on the race of TFA’s ed major candidates, but certainly this would be a great way to increase the number of black candidates.

    But why, you might ask, would a black college graduate with a credential go to TFA? Yeah, geez, why would a black candidate sign up with the organization that brags about its demand for high SAT scores and excellent qualifications? I do believe the word is “signaling”.

  3. Hire second career folks who have already passed another demanding test.

    TFA has also started pushing hard for veterans, who worked for an organization that trains personnel based on cognitive ability. I imagine that TFAers know the link between ASVAB score and speciality, for example. Lawyers and accountants and other professionals who haven’t found the career advancement they expected—or who just wanted to give back to the community—might also be interested. Possibly related: a third of this year’s recruits are career changers. Five years ago, 2% of recruits were over 30. I wonder if the career changers are more likely to be black or Hispanic?

  4. Send black candidates to states with low cut scores on credential tests

    No doubt TFA has carefully reviewed the required cut scores by state for the Praxis tests , and observed that Alabama’s cut scores are remarkably low. This might be completely unrelated to why TFA established an Alabama presence in 2010 and doubled that presence in 3 years. (Why did it take TFA so long to move into Alabama anyway, given its demographics? Not suggesting nefarious motives, just wondering.)

I don’t have proof for any of this, and of course, people get very offended at the very idea that anything other than attrition explains the dearth of black teachers. For the reasons outlined, blacks who can pass the credential tests have many opportunities other than teaching, so it makes sense they’d have a lower tolerance and higher attrition. That said, I’m asserting, based on all available evidence, that it’s the tests keeping blacks out of teaching, and thus TFA’s claim of a 20% black teacher corps meeting the same selection standards needs…clarification.

I would love to be wrong. Proving me wrong would require TFA to provide racial breakdowns for SAT scores, college major, credential subject, and credential state. By all means, bring it on and I will happily recant if needed. If TFA provides hundreds of African American high school math teachers to California, I will gladly shout my wrongness from the rooftops. If the average African American SAT score for this year’s recruits is 1300, then I will paper Twitter with links announcing my error.

But suppose I’m right.

Someone’s surely going to ask, so what? So what if TFA is committing affirmative action and not using the same caliber test scores for blacks as whites? So what if they are recruiting blacks who already have teaching credentials? And why the hell do you have a problem with black veterans becoming teachers?

I have no problems with TFA recruiting veterans, career changers, credentialed teachers, and dedicated prospective teachers with lower test scores. But if black candidates make up a big chunk of these recruits, TFA should make this clear.

Because I get really tired of people like Michael Petrilli, Andrew Rotherham, Dana Goldstein, and all the other education folks praising TFA to the skies for its ability to be both selective and diverse. Whoo and hoo! TFA fixes both the major problems that our broken ed schools can’t be bothered with. Further evidence ed schools suck.

I can’t tell whether sheer ignorance or cunning disingenuousness drives these folks, but if reality disrupts that nonsensical narrative, so let it be done.

If TFA is bulking up its black and Hispanic candidates using the methods described, ed schools can’t compete and for more reasons than black credentialed teachers are counted twice.

Everyone tends to forget the one huge advantage TFA has over traditional credential methods. Corps members attend ed school—the same “broken” ed schools that credential traditional teachers. The difference lies in the practicum. Traditional teachers work for free as student teachers for six weeks to a year. TFA corp members’ “student teaching” is actual employment. They get seniority, resume experience, and best of all cash dollars for learning on students—and they do it without constant supervision.

So if you’re thinking of being a teacher but have bills to pay, would you rather take loans and go to ed school while working for free? or get a paid job in five weeks?

Not a tough call.

I’m a career changer who tried all sorts of ways to get into the classroom until I finally threw in the towel and went to ed school once my tutoring and test prep work allowed me to keep my “day job” while working for free as a student teacher. I considered TFA, but was told that the odds of getting in at my age were nil.

Ed schools can’t compete with any internship program that pays for classroom teaching time. Full stop. And before sneering about the marketplace, ask yourself how many people would pay for law school if they could easily practice law by taking a test and passing the bar exam.

But TFA is almost certainly not accepting all second career folk, and call me cynical, but I’ll bet they take black veterans and lawyers with mid-500 SAT scores over white career changers with high 700 SAT section scores but no PR value.

What TFA offers black candidates is the same that it offers white candidates—the imprimatur of a “select” organization, a chance to get a paying job more quickly. But if TFA is using different criteria to hire black candidates, then the selectivity is a lie. The black candidates are serving TFA’s purpose not by being “select”, but by being black, the better to shut down critics.

So the next time TFA trumpets its diversity, demand details.3

If I am wrong, if TFA is actually recruiting top-tier black talent away from law and medicine as opposed to just allowing reformers to pretend it is, that’s worth knowing.

Of course, if I’m not wrong, then everyone is forced to acknowledge the real reason we don’t have many black teachers.

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

1–I’ve been focusing on black teachers because there’s far more data. Everything I’m describing here holds for Hispanic diversity as well.

2–The largest states don’t use the Praxis and aren’t part of this report. CA has just 4% black teachers, and blacks have dismal passing rates on its credential tests. Texas has a low teacher diversity index, sixth to California’s first. New York had a fairly diverse teaching force. Except, have you heard? NY’s credential tests just got tougher. As you may have gathered, harder credential test = higher SAT scores needed = fewer black and Hispanic teachers New York’s change will lead to fewer black and Hispanic teachers.

3–I am both intrigued and puzzled by the enrollment decline in ed schools, although TFA’s decline makes more sense. But ed schools shouldn’t be seeing this dramatic a drop-off, and I’m unsure as to the cause. I’d really like to see the numbers by race. But I left both declines out of this analysis, for now.


Teaching is Unknowable

While I’m really enjoying teaching this year, the job is taking tremendous mental energy. I’m teaching three classes. One of them isn’t math. I’m thrilled. But it’s taking an enormous amount of work, because I have a very clear vision…not so much of what to teach or how to teach, but how I don’t want to teach the class. Having gone into the experience with my eyes wide open, I haven’t been disillusioned or disappointed by how much more difficult the class is. But I’m way outside my comfort zone—which is amazing in and of itself. I have a comfort zone in teaching math! Who knew?

But then, my math classes are outside my comfort zone, too. I’m teaching trigonometry for the first time and recall, folks, I’m not a mathematician. I know right triangle trig very well, know the graphs well, know the identities. But I’ve never taught it. The last time I taught a new class, pre-calc, I followed the book pretty faithfully the first time through—lots of lecture, lots of book work. I lost a good half the class in the first month, and while most of them were saved, I learned that for whatever reason, I should avoid lectures. The second through fourth times through I slowed it down, designed more activities, did less lecturing, and kept the whole class moving forward each time.

So the first time through trig, I’m trying to avoid straight book work. I’m helped here by more subject matter knowledge, and designed the opening unit to take advantage of this. I had some breathing room until I needed to dig in to the new stuff. The class definitely needed the time. Trig, like geometry, with all its facts and spatial notions, comes as kind of a shock after years spent having algebra processes beat into your head. So the class is going well and is, in fact, the closes thing I have to a comfort zone this year. Just one problem—I spent all that breathing room working on the brand new subject class AND…

…my Algebra 2/Trig class, and to explain what’s up with my A2/Trig class I have to discuss administration a bit, and so I want to be really clear that I’m not criticizing. Not only am I not criticizing, I fully acknowledge that there may be facts on the ground of which I am unaware.

Algebra 2/Trig is becoming, in many schools, an advanced class. It combines both algebra 2 and trigonometry in one class. So the kids currently in my trigonometry class took algebra II (also known as intermediate algebra), taking two years to go through what A2/Trig covers in one year. However, as most math teachers will tell you, it’s insane to actually cover second year algebra and trigonometry in one year (particularly in half a year, as our classes are set up). Trig often becomes little more than the unit circle, a brief run through identities, and lots of graphing (amplitude, period, and so on).

Lordy, I just cut two paragraphs of the history of Algebra II/Trig and a rumination on where the hell Pre-Calc started (does anyone know? I’d love a link). Stay focused, Ed.

The point is, I insist on teaching something approximating advanced math in Algebra II/Trig, because if I pass a kid, the next stop is Precalc. But there are only 14 kids in my A2/Trig class right now. And of those 14, only two, maybe four have any business being in A2/Trig. The rest should be in Algebra II, and they wouldn’t be getting an A.

But I couldn’t boot any of them down, because the Algebra II classes are filled to bursting—36 in two, 33 in the other. And I could only boot one of the advanced kids up to Honors A2/Trig (don’t get me started) because that class also has 36 in it.

I emailed all the administrators and saw two personally, pointing out what I thought was the obvious solution: convert my class to an Algebra II class, move some of the overloaded classes into mine. Take the two or three kids ready for A2/Trig and move them into honors, or just switch their schedule around. I pointed out that not only was this a better allocation of teaching resources, but also made a more equitable solution. For various reasons, my Math Support Class For Kids Who Hadn’t Passed the Exit Exam, had been cancelled because of section count. If I was only going to be teaching 14 kids, shouldn’t it be kids who really struggle and can benefit from the direct attention?

And for some of the same and some different various reasons, none of my suggestions were taken. Keep in mind we still don’t have a math teacher and are using a sub (but firing teachers–that’s the big pain point!). One history teacher left mid-September (for good reasons) and they had to hire someone. We were also dealing with the usual beginning of the year craziness, district mandates, and so on. Admins have their own insane workload, which is why I always laugh like a fiend at the idea that they should also be teaching experts.

Then, of course, what I proposed meant altering a lot of students’ schedules. I can’t blame them for saying no. You haven’t been to hell until you’ve done a master schedule, is the AVP motto, and filling that schedule is second.

So I’ve got 12 kids who struggle with most algebra one concepts in a class that, if I pass them, leads straight to pre-calc. I’m planning on putting most of them into trigonometry after this, assuming it’s allowed. The class has other problems on which I won’t elaborate, but planning takes much more time than one would expect for the only class I’ve taught before.

There are about a million and a half high school teachers. I can guarantee you that half or more of them right now have a story about this year similar to one or more of the three I’ve described above: new class in new subject, new class, weird class caused by administrative hassles. Or some other story, maybe like my second year of teaching All Algebra, All the Time. Or just administrative problems—unavoidable, or deliberately inflicted. And for those that are having a smooth start this year (as was true for me last year), we can all come up with another story from another year. Then there’s a whole group saying what, you’re only teaching three classes? Shut up with the whining! and then we can go a few rounds on block vs. traditional.

I’m not writing as much because I’m working my ass off, because even when I’m not working I’m thinking crap, I should be mapping out my next week, making copies, making tests, building some new curriculum, thinking up activities. Even now, I’m writing this because I think I can kick it out in an hour and get “my blog is being neglected” off my list of obsessions so I can go to Starbucks to read up on a topic to plan some lessons. I rarely can’t think of job-related tasks right at the moment. And remember, I’m not a workaholic and definitely not a control freak, two attributes commonly found in Teacherville.

How do teachers react to the demands of the job? It depends on their personalities. I would wager to say that most are like me and work harder when given a new challenge—whether effectively or not, who knows? Some undoubtedly just shut down and get stubborn. Still others meander around incompetently—not because they are incompetent, but because their job has been defined in such a way that it’s now no longer recognizably their job.

At this point, many teachers aggravate me by going the martyr route. See how hard it is to be a teacher? See how hard we work? And all for the kids!

No. I do this for the intellectual challenge. I see nothing incongruous in doing hours more work a week for the same pay, work that will not enhance my resume in any meaningful way, that won’t make it any easier to find a job should this school decide to dump me—and please God, they won’t. (Nor will doing this new work increase or decrease the likelihood that they will keep me, by the way.) I’m an idiot who spends hours a week researching for my blog unpaid, though, so I’m weird.

But can you blame people who do? Say your job for the past decade involved teaching AP Physics 5 times a day, and helping motivated kids learn how the world works, helping them pass a test that gives them college credit, and you were suddenly told great news! You’ll be teaching integrated science to 9th graders who don’t give a damn. So now you’ve got hours more work a week planning activities in an entirely different field for entirely different kids. And, by the way, you are pretty terrible at working with unmotivated kids.

Now if you’re me, the idea of teaching one subject for ten years is grounds for divorce. But not everyone’s me.

I’m not asking for sympathy or understanding. I’m asking for an awareness that no one has a clue what teaching is. Even other teachers can’t be certain what the job means in any universal sense.

The job of teaching is very nearly unknowable to outsiders, because outsiders don’t understand that teaching isn’t one job. Any one teaching position is actually a million interactions between the teacher’s personality, the subject(s) taught, the balance of classroom ability and interest, sculpted by administrative dictates, district and parent socioeconomics, state policy, and school logistics. What I think of as teaching another would consider anarchy. Other teachers hold jobs that I view as little more than sinecures, through little more than luck.

(Edited to add in what I thought was obvious, but comments here and at Joanne’s site (thanks for the link) seem to need explication:)

Obviously, many professions have similar complexity. Lawyering, doctoring, police work, nursing, professional atheletes–all have an enormous range of features from which the individual jobs are sculpted. And should we ever be seeking to describe one huge profession adequately in order to advocate for policy or position changes in the hopes of improving outcomes, saving money, or changing the nature of the people who enter that profession, its unknowability will also be relevant.

**end addition**

Which means please stop surveying 1600 teachers out of a group of 20,000 or so and trumpeting the results as indicative of teacher sentiment on Common Core. Which means stop coming up with plans to create world class teachers because no one agrees on what that is. Which means stop letting teachers testify about tenure and LIFO as if their opinions or experiences are in any way relevant (on either side). Which means, reporters and education writers, please stop saying “teachers” when you mean “elementary school teachers” because this, at least, is a distinction that’s easy to grasp and incredibly relevant.

For good reason, people are reluctant to acknowledge the many aspects of our population that makes teaching so many different jobs, so impossible to easily categorize. But as long as y’all are going to flinch on the big issues, stop pretending you understand teaching.