Category Archives: reform

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:

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.


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 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.


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:


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.

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:




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.

Doug Lemov’s Creation Myth

So Elizabeth Green wants to tell us why Americans stink at math, an article promo for her book—apparently builds on all the negatives she incorporated in the article Building a Better Teacher, the hagiography on charter consultant Doug Lemov that served as a launching point for his book. I hadn’t read “Building a Better Teacher” since I began blogging, so I refreshed my memory and was about to click out to write a furious article on journalists functioning as little more than PR hacks…

….and then the phrase caught my eye, “After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder,”

Well, hey now. I knew that wording, often used to obscure the fact that the person in question hadn’t done much time in teaching. Back when I wrote the Wonks piece, I’d done Lemov the mild credit of assuming he was someone who could properly call himself a teacher.

As her tweets make obvious, Green is doubling down on Great Lemov, so I decided to take an upclose look at his resume, so Green’s readers, and Lemov’s (what, you didn’t know he had a book coming out in few months? It’s, like, a complete coincidence!) can have some context.

I started with Green’s original NYTimes article, supplemented with her book—I don’t have an early copy, but Google Books is very obliging—however, it’s possible that the search wasn’t perfect, and I try to keep that in mind throughout. Then I compared Lemov’s version, as told to Green, to Lemov’s resume, page 1,2, 3, 4. (The PDF was here, but now that link is auto-sent to a home page.)

After getting a degree in English from Hamilton College in 1990, Lemov taught English at Princeton Day School, a private school in New Jersey, as an intern the first year (image here). His resume doesn’t make much of his teaching experience; it’s just one element of his job stressing the additional responsibilities he was given: peer counsellor, Admissions Assistant, soccer coach. This is pretty normal for teachers who are on their way to administration; they aren’t as interested in the nuts and bolts of what and how they teach as they are in moving into leadership positions.

He then left Princeton Day School for National Public Radio, where he was a production assistant for shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and worked with Robert Siegel on The NPR Interviews. I can find no mention of this job hop anywhere in Green’s writing on Lemov. Checker Finn describes Lemov as a“former journalist” but no mention of NPR. In all the NPR interviews with Lemov after the 2010 launch, I can’t find any mention of this association. There’s no way to describe this absence without making it sound sinister, which is not the case and not the point.

But with NPR unmentioned, there’s a 3-year hole in Lemov’s resume, and Green fills it. In 1994, says Green, when Doug was in grad school at Indiana University, he was assigned to tutor Alphonso, an illiterate football player whose grades just didn’t match his abilities. The football tutor supervisor told Lemov that poor Alphonso’s troubles were all the fault of his high school, and Lemov was filled with “moral outrage” that spurred him to action.

In fact, according to his resume, Lemov didn’t go to Indiana University until 1996, and got his MA in 1997.

If this is true, then it’s hard to see how Green’s account of APR’s founding could have happened. In her version, Lemov called up Stacey Boyd in 1994, and they vowed to start a school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim. Boyd, another reformer who married Scott Hamilton, yet another reformer who got the KIPP guys their bootstrap money, confirms this story. In founding the Academy of the Pacific, Green says, Boyd and Lemov “discarded” all sorts of education “conventions”, heeding the “horror stories” told them by teachers coming from traditional schools, and jettisoning any hint of progressive education from their doors and creating a “Learning Guarantee”. Even the architecture was different: “the school occupied the second floor of the Most Precious Blood parochial school.”

Green is offering up the “Stacey and Doug founded APR” origins story of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, also promulgated by Checker Finn and Green, as well as Boyd herself, to say nothing, of course, of Lemov.

But then very casually, Green mentions other “founding board members” had “attended Asian schools” and “handed the charter over to Stacey, who had taught in Japan, with a mandate to blend the best of East and West.” Checker, too, briefly mentions other founders.

In the second APR origins story which, unlike Lemov and Boyd’s claim, is well-documented, Academy of the Pacific Rim was founded by Dr. Robert Guen, a Chinese dentist, and a host of community members, who went through tremendous effort to produce one of the earliest charter applications, began in 1994 but delayed to 1995 to make a stronger pitch. The community founders clearly anticipated a primarily Asian school, although they promised to seek a diverse class. The original 1995 application shows the founders had not yet hired a principal. One of the core founders, Robert Consalvo, says he “was very involved in the running of the school, especially in the early years, when he would typically speak with administrators a couple of times each week to ensure that the concept for the school was successfully translated into action.” In addition to the charter application, an Education Week story and Katherine Boo’s New Yorker article, “The Factory”, use this version. Note that both these stories use the same student, Rousseau Mieze, who Green also features. Note also that neither story mentions the influence or “founding” work done by Boyd and Lemov.

The original application for the Academy of Pacific Rim has hundreds of signatures, all looking very Chinese and many supporting letters, often written in Chinese (the links are just samples, the application has 40 pages of letters and signatures). Clearly, the school was originally intended to be an Asian school, vows of diversity not withstanding. Original plans called for the school to be located in Chinatown, but when the lease fell through, the school opened in Hyde Park. No mention of a desire for different architecture initiated by Boyd and Lemov. In fact, the school was originally going to be co-located with Don Bosco Technical High School.

The Chinese American community was not enthusiastically supporting a school for underachieving Haitians. Boo’s New Yorker piece says that Robert Guen was looking for a school to serve Asian students, who he felt were overlooked in Boston’s “black-and-white politics”. Perhaps because of the building move, black students signed up en masse and very few Asians showed, despite their initial overwhelming interest. (Given Guen’s obvious intent, all credit to him for not only continuing his work with the school after the demographics changed, but for sending his own daughters to it.)

Given the extensive documentation and timing of Guen’s efforts to start APR, it’s hard to see how Lemov could have been involved. Boyd’s history after she left Hamilton but before she started working at APR is hard to pin down. She graduated from Hamilton in 1991, probably (I’m guessing) taught middle school in Japan for a year or so, was at Edison Projects in 1992 to 1994 or so. I can find no footprint of Boyd at Edison, nor can I find a resume or other reference with an explicit date for her Harvard graduation with an MBA and MA in Policy, although the most consistent story is that she graduated two weeks before she started at APR. Best guess she probably worked at Edison for a couple years as well, assuming she did actually work there.

So were Lemov and Boyd merely two of the earliest APR employees in 1997 and, if so, is their self-description as “founders” accurate? Or were they working summers to help out? Given their utter absence in the early documentation, it’s reasonable to wonder if Guen just hired Boyd, who brought in Lemov. One might also wonder if Boyd hired on to lead a school of overperforming Asians, based on her one year in Japan, or a school of underperforming low-income blacks, based on her work at Edison?

Stacey Boyd beamed out of APR after a year and moved to San Francisco, starting Project Achieve in late 1998. Lemov replaced her as principal, after a year of teaching occasionally; his primary focus that first year appeared to be Dean of Students, aka AVP of Discipline. He left to go work for Charter Schools Institute at SUNY—a government job, as Vice President of Accounting. According to Peter Murphy , a charter school advocate, Lemov was in charge of overseeing charter schools’ academic accountability. After two years of this, he went to Harvard for his MBA, then became a consultant. This makes sense. Many’s the lad who went to work at a government job to learn how the game is played then parlayed that knowledge into a gig persuading eager customers to please his replacement.

Green gets this backwards, by the way:

….three years after APR opened, he decided to leave for business school at Harvard, where he hoped to learn skills to improve school accountability. ..Eventually, Doug put the idea into practice at a new dream job, managing the accountability system for charter schools across New York State

(emphasis mine).

Lemov’s involvement in the Academy continues beyond his reign as principal; although he is working for a charter governance program (in a different state), he is listed as a board member in 2002 and 2003 (but not as a founding trustee).

Maybe reformers call themselves “founders” if they are early employees. John B. King, NYC czar of public schools, writes in his dissertation that the founding group behind Roxbury Prep, of which he, a black and Puerto-Rican teacher, was a member, spoke “explicitly” of their goals in the charter application. But Michele Pierce, who graduated from Stanford’s Teacher Education Program was the person identified to work with founder Evan Rudall to run the school, modeled after their work at Summerbridge. I found a google search of King mentioning that Evan Rudall decided to delay a year, and that King joined the team in spring of 1999 (same website, can’t even see the cached version, just the text from google). So King wasn’t involved in the charter application and wasn’t technically a founder, either.

If you came here looking for a smoking gun, some sort of declaration that Lemov is a complete fraud, leave disappointed (or reassured). Assuming they can’t be explained, none of these discrepancies are fraudulent so much as self-serving. But that’s really the question—why did he bother to obscure his actual resume?

Why would Lemov deny Guen and the APR founders their place in history? Why would Green fail to mention Lemov’s two or more years at NPR?

Lemov’s resume from 2000 on has no classroom time. Zip, nada, zilch. Look at the first two pages of his resume. The man spent the ten years before Green launched him as a consultant, and he wasn’t advising his clients on the finer points of teaching. He visited classrooms, yes. He trains principals and teachers, yes. But on what basis does he claim expertise, other than all those visits? And what kind of teacher calls charter governance a “dream job”?

My best guess: Lemov can’t really sell the image of a man fascinated by teaching, so obsessed by the subject that he went out and studied teachers for hours and hours, dedicated to discovering, as Green puts it, “an American language of teaching.” His real resume makes it much harder present himself as an innovative dreamer (and dreaming about teaching, not checking schools’ test scores), given that he appears to have been more of an….employee for his first twelve years. His little creation myth lends credibility to his teaching primer and allows him to sell his charter system as an education option whose founding members are dedicated to all aspects of learning. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who sought to escape the classroom as quickly as possible; he’s got to be the guy who dreams of the perfect lesson. His resume forces us to take his word for his real values. The creation myth has the evidence built right in.

Of course, Lemov can push whatever creation myth he likes. The real shame is that he’s gotten Green to help him. While many “anti-reform” folk complain about Chalbeat’s relationship with Bill Gates, I wonder whether she’s acknowledged the potential bias in taking money from SeaChange Capital, a primary investor in Uncommon Schools, Lemov’s organization.

But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, too.

Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on ed school, when someone retweeted Peter Sipe’s op ed about his ed school training, which he went through at the same time his wife went through med school.

It’s a good piece that accurately captures, not caricatures, graduate ed school (the only type I’m discussing). My ed school did not make us throw around a medicine ball. I recall posters and drawings and gingerbread men.

But I part ways with the second half of Sipe’s article, and our difference characterizes an important philosophical conflict in teacher training.

The difference begins and ends here: “The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything.”

Ed schools, the complaint goes, want their teachers to “reflect” on their philosophy and methods, but don’t teach the “hows” and the “what’s”. I find this charge to be somewhat misguided. While most ed schools don’t spend a lot of class time on these topics, they require apprenticeships in the form of student teaching where plenty of hows and whats are discussed. Leave aside the issue of the quality of student teaching experiences for the minute. Ed schools as currently designed explicitly allow for teachers to experiment with the hows and the whats. But yes, ed schools do not mandate a specific list.

A second charge against ed schools is their lack of academic freedom. Ed schools are disastrous and keep FIRE in business, say the critics, because the “teacher dispositions” criteria allows them to expel anyone who just, well, doesn’t have the personality or the right qualities to be a teacher, providing a convenient tool to reject or expel students lacking the correct ideology.

So ed schools are insufficiently prescriptive on technique and overly prescriptive on political ideology.

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

As Paul Bruno observes, both reformers and progressives argue that teachers should be more like lawyers and doctors. But law schools and med schools aren’t exactly bastions of academic inquiry and experimentation. Peter Sipe’s wife spent all her free time memorizing madly. Law and medicine have huge bodies of knowledge, and candidates don’t get to challenge the professors or argue about the necessity of given approaches and techniques.

In ed school, teachers are actually encouraged to examine approaches and try them out. Paradoxically, despite the legitimate complaints about ideological demands, ed schools grant teachers far more academic and intellectual freedom than law and medical schools do (at least in their early years), and are in that sense more like MBAs. Think of ed school as the equivalent to the last year of law or medical training, when students have demonstrated mastery of the basics and encouraged to explore options and specialize. (this is necessarily simplified, I know). In ed school, the content knowledge tests are “the basics” and we demonstrated that competency as an admissions requirement. From that point, all we have to do is explore options, find our identities as teachers, develop an education philosophy.

So why is ed school so open-ended? And here we come to the issue that has plagued education policy since its inception: teaching doesn’t have an extensive body of knowledge. It never has. The profession has no best practices. I started to expand on this, but really, it’s best to just read David Labaree. I may put some more thoughts down in a second post, whenever it arises. For now, even those who disagree with this assertion would not dispute the lack of agreement about best practices.

Given the lack of any accepted body of knowledge, any attempt to put a stake in the ground is necessarily ideological. .

As an example, consider an ed school that mandates one particular set of hows and whats: Relay Graduate School of Education. (Facts pulled from various places but mostly here)

Charter schools that can’t or won’t hire credentialed teachers hire college graduates who are then shuttled through an alternate certification program while they teach. Back in 2005, Norman Atkins of Northstar and David Levin of KIPP decided they could eliminate the middle man. Rather than using alternative credential programs, they built their own program. They began by running their program through a university (Teacher U), but it was pretty clearly their goal from the start to have their own ed school.

Relay’s teacher “trainees” are put through a largely scripted curriculum, the instructors often literally reading from a script. The program is “competency based” (critics would say bereft of theory or any intellectual exercise).

I put “trainees” in quotes because Relay students aren’t actually training. They’re teaching, usually at a charter school, often KIPP, ACHIEVE, or Uncommon Schools. Students must be full time elementary or middle school teachers—that is, students must have obtained a teaching job without a credential, which limits their hiring pool almost entirely to charters. They can only graduate when they have demonstrated that their students make a full year of academic progress—which again, limits their hiring pool to schools that will boot absentee kids, troublemakers, and unmotivated low achievers.

Is Relay using an accepted body of knowledge? No. They don’t claim to–and in some cases, they are using the same content that ed schools would use anyway. Does Relay have a research base to prove its effectiveness? No. Were Relay’s methods developed to enforce a strong ideological bias about education? Yes. Relay’s ideological canon includes notions like test scores are the only accurate measure of effective teaching (not a given at all) , that more time on task is equivalent to more learning, that rigid control is essential for effective teaching, that effective schools must have uniform education philosophies, and that teachers and schools can and should make behavior demands of low income children and parents as a condition of their education, to name just a few.

Could Relay’s techniques be used to educate all teachers? Oh hell no. Relay’s techniques are designed for mid-ability, low income black and Hispanic children in elementary and middle school whose parents are desperate to remove them from schools that aren’t allowed to expel troublemakers. In return for a guarantee of expelled troublemakers, the parents sign up for all sorts of commitments and expectations that parents with any other choice would laugh at. And Relay’s methods won’t work without that anvil hanging over the kids’ heads. Or, as I said in my last post, white kids don’t do KIPP.

Leaving aside the parents, a significant chunk of the potential teaching population would never sign up for Relay’s ideology. As just one example: Relay provides videos of what it considers exemplary teaching—most of them from Doug Lemov, whose taxonomy drives a lot of Relay’s methods. (at the link, look for Strong Voice, Transitions, or Supportive something or other, as examples. Or check out Doug Lemov’s videos).

Regular teachers often find these exemplaries…..unconvincing. My terms range from “flatly incompetent” to “pretty damn creepy”. Carol Burris goes further and while I don’t agree with everything she says here, my general vibe is way more “right on” than “don’t be ridiculous.” Paul Bruno feels this characterization is extremely unfair. You do not need to agree with me about the videos, but understand that many teachers vehemently disagree with the methods and ideology on display.

But remember, Relay doesn’t want typical teacher profiles. No Excuses charter schools are pulling in a fairly high-performing group for their two years and out teachers. The teacher “trainees” drawn to this approach are, as a rule, control freaks who have just (checks watch) two years to save the world before they go to law school or work for a hedge fund. They are the best of the best of the best, to quote Lieutenant Jake Jenson, and they want no truck with those slouchy teachers who didn’t even get straight As and don’t make baggy pants look nearly as cool as Will Smith does. It doesn’t matter that Doug Lemov isn’t a professor, what matters is the man has an MBA from Harvard. He’ll show the way, and they’ll get it done, just like they always do, unlike those idiot teachers who created this mess they’ll have to fix. They are usually privileged, usually white recent college graduates who just want to know the best way of drilling simple facts and good behavior into “disadvantaged” (read really, really poor) black and Hispanic elementary and middle schoolers using a required set of procedures.

As a university, Relay must guarantee its students academic freedom, but as the alert reader may have noticed, Relay’s students want methods and answers, not intellectual challenge. They don’t give a damn about academic freedom.

But good form demands we inquire whether Relay guarantees its students academic freedom. We are assured of its existence. I’m skeptical, but not because I doubt Relay’s commitment to the idea.

Say a teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter is required to use those creepy finger waves that you see in the video. He wants to try to manage his class without the finger waves. But if he doesn’t use the finger waves, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t have a job, he can’t complete his education at Relay.

If all charters that accept Relay mandate that behavior and Relay mandates employment in order to be in the program, and the only jobs for uncredentialed teachers are at charters, is Relay offering academic freedom?

If other charters allow their teachers the freedom to decide on their own methods and techniques, then maybe Relay will see a test of its values at some point. Would Relay tolerate a teacher in its program saying “the finger waving is some sick stuff and I won’t do it. And the countdown nonsense? I didn’t get into teaching to turn out robots. White parents wouldn’t put up with this crap.”

Suppose a teacher decides her students are better served by teaching them more slowly, giving them time to explore additional content. Her students don’t make a year of academic progress. She gets excellent results, has few discipline problems, accomplishes miracles with students who would otherwise be expelled and sent back to comprehensive schools, but Relay won’t give her a credential because her students didn’t make a year of progress. Where is her academic freedom, her ability to make pedagogical choices for her students?

These are all just hypotheticals, because most Relay students are Koolaid drinkers who bought into the ideology before they started.

But if you want to skip ed school and Relay’s your only choice, keep FIRE on speed dial.

I am being deliberately flip. My disdain for Relay is irrelevant as anything other than illustration of a basic truth: many, many people are repelled by the school’s techniques. If you want a considered assessment of the different approaches, read this excellent Stephen Sawchuk piece on intellectual vs. technical teacher preparation. And the charter demand for a prescriptive approach goes way beyond No Excuses schools; progressive charters are just as ideologically biased.

A prescriptive method for producing teachers simply won’t work as anything other than a specialized fringe method with a guaranteed market. It’s one thing to mandate a fixed procedure for subcuticular stitches, quite another to mandate weighting homework as 40% of the grade or requiring students to sit in groups or in rows, still another to make teachers force kids to perform transition steps in unison or use a 3-second “wait time” with “strategic narration”.

I believe an open-ended approach to teacher training is the only possible method of preparing teachers. Like legions of teachers, I felt entirely prepared to walk into my first classroom and can’t figure out what the hell Peter Sipe is complaining about. That doesn’t mean traditional ed schools couldn’t be improved. But it’s worth remembering that most of them do a lot of things pretty well, and that many teachers—good ones, even—don’t agree with the prevailing “received wisdom” of the chattering class. Which is what I’ll be writing about the next time I take the topic on.

Okay, I’ve been chewing on this long enough. Posting. Maybe I’ll edit later.