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ELL isn’t Language Instruction

I’ve only taught English once in a public school (a humanities class), but I’ve been teaching private instruction English for a decade. Language instruction it’s not. I took French for a few years, and vaguely remember having to study verbs, and verb forms. Something about subjunctives. Unlike my father, I’m terrible at all new languages that don’t tell computers what to do.

I thought teaching English as a language was more structured.  Start with common verbs, the “persons”–I eat, you eat, he/she eats, they eat. Then common nouns. Then put things together? Isn’t that how it works? In other languages?

But then, French teachers speak English. Or Russian. Or whatever their students’ native language is–and a French teacher’s students only have one native language. You don’t see French teachers in American classrooms playing to a class of Punjab, Chinese, Spanish, and English students. Nor is the French teacher expected to be utterly ignorant of Punjabi, Mandarin, Spanish and English–yet still teach the students French.

Yet here I am with six students, only two of whom have even minimal conversational English, with four native languages. I’m not supposed to teach them English like a French teacher teaches French. Nor am I supposed to teach them English or anything else in Spanish, Punjabi, Chinese, or French as it’s spoken in the Congo.

American schools have never taught the English language.  Many education reform folk–and most non-experts–glorify immersion, our original method of handling language learners. Dump kids in, let them learn the language. That worked, right? Well, maybe not. Lots didn’t learn.  They just dropped out. As Ravitch the historian (not the advocate) observed, America’s past success educating immigrants has been dramatically overrated. (The immigrants’ children did well, but why we can’t expect that today is a tad Voldemortean for this essay.)

Giving additional services to non-English speaking students  became a public education mandate with Lau vs. Nichols.  But after the Chinese Lau, the case history shows that all major bilingual court cases involved Hispanics.

First, the Aspira case built on Lau, as  New York City signed a consent degree to provide bilingual education to limited English Puerto Rican students until they could function in regular classes. This led to a de facto mandate for nationwise bilingual education, and created the infrastructure of support. Not the curriculum, of course. (Ha, ha! Heaven forfend!)

One of those court cases was also one of the heads of the hydra known as US vs. Texas , which has a long, controversial history much of it not involving bilingual education. But at one point presiding judge  observed that the “experts” were appalled that Hispanic ELL students had only to reach the 23rd percentile in order to be reclassified as fluent.  The kids would only be doing better than 1 in 4 kids, wrote the judge, which simply wasn’t enough to perform adequately in mainstream classrooms. The judge never considered that black students aren’t given all this additional support, despite similar or worse test scores. We still don’t.

Anyway, as a result of that court case,  many if not all of states require ELL students to be proficient on achievement tests before they can be reclassified.  Proficient.  Often above average. Not basic. Different states have different procedures, different standards, but “proficient” is usually mentioned. And remember that ELL is only nominally concerned with teaching non-English speakers, since ELL students are primarily citizens.   Kids are asked  if  English is the only language spoken at home. Those who say “no” get tested, and if they don’t test proficient, they get tagged ELL and stay ELL until they do.  Schools don’t care–arent’ allowed to care–if the student came to America yesterday, a decade ago, or through a womb.

As I’ve written before, in math as it is in English, elementary school “proficiency” is much easier to acquire than the skill required for high school. It is thus much easier to test out of  ELL elementary school, regardless of original language, than high school. Most elementary ELL students test out after two or three years. Those who don’t make it out are categorized “long-term ELL”, meaning they’ve been ELL for over five years and never made proficient. Left unsaid is that kids need a certain cognitive ability to hit those test scores.

Thus by high school, over half the long-term ELL students are US citizens, split evenly among second and 3rd generation Americans who consider English their native language but have  lower than average cognitive ability or some specifically verbal processing issues. These are the kids who weren’t able to meet the relatively low elementary school proficiency standards. The other 44% are foreign born kids who couldn’t test out in the first five years.  It’s unlikely that either group is going to escape ELL in high school.

Consider: the primary reason for sheltering ELL learners once they’ve achieved functional fluency is to avoid kids being stuck in long term ELL. But there’s no solution to the “problem” of long-term ELLS, save accepting it as an artifact of an entirely different attribute.

If you’re following my dispirited trail of musings, you might be wondering if the elementary school proficiency levels are so low, then shouldn’t some of the kids who escape ELL status early run into trouble in high school?”   And to quote Tommy Lee Jones: Oh wow. Gee whiz. Looky here! Many Reclassified ELLs Still Need English-Language Support, Study Finds and points out that this finding is consistent with past research.

If you aren’t following my dispirited traill of musings, you’re thinking this has nothing to do with my assigned task of teaching English to one African, two Chinese, two Mexican, and one Punjabi student.

Sorry, I’m just explaining why I don’t teach English language instruction in an English class of kids who don’t speak English.

ESL and bilingual education from its earliest days was never intended to instruct students in the English language. It was actually a means of directing funding to close the Hispanic achievement gap for English speaking Hispanics which–it was believed–was due to inadequate academic instruction in English.   ELL’s purported objective is to provide support to non-English speaking students until they are proficient. Its actual  purpose is, first, to define a category that reports the academic achievement of  primarily Hispanic US citizens of lower than average cognitive ability–the better to beat our schools up with. Second, the classes gives the kids something to do until immersion gives them enough English to be mainstreamed, or at least into a higher ELL class.

So just as before, ELL teachers don’t provide English language instruction. Kids don’t come to America with a six word vocabulary and take English 1, followed by English 2, then English 3, and then AP English because hey, now they’re fluent.

When I express the concern   that I’m not teaching the kids English, I’m just giving them vocabulary and grammar enrichment in a sheltered English class, other ELL teachers and the admins nod their heads approvingly and say “You’re doing a great job!” Because ELL is not about teaching the English language.

Then I look at these six kids–and really, they’re terrific. In an ideal world, I’d never question my assignment. They’re a joy to teach and I’ll do my best for them. But only one of them is a citizen. Collectively, they are consuming one third of three English teachers’ schedule–that is, one full-time position at our school is dedicated to giving language enrichment to five non-citizens. All across America you’ll find thousands of these sheltered classes, for kids who just got here and instantly given free and guaranteed access to small classrooms and support in lessons that may or may not teach them the language, but gives them something to do in school until their English gets good enough for academic instruction. Which will–again–happen outside these classes, because lord knows, we’re not involved in language instruction.

I think of the millions of citizen kids. Of the bright high schoolers who could use challenging enrichment, maybe digging in deep to a Milton sonnet because they have the ability to do something more than fake their way through interpretation in carefully modeled  Schaffer chunks.  Of the many citizen students from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who didn’t check the “another language spoken at home” box and thus are not given additional time and money….not to get higher test scores, but just spend time with a teacher reading them a story and talking about vocabulary and context at a level they can enjoy. Every day. Of the many citizens from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who are told for their entire k-12 education that their native language isn’t, in fact, their native language.

Of course, whether or not we should be spending this kind of money on non-citizens never comes up. All we ever debate is whether we should use immersion or follow Krashen’s dictates and instruct every 1 in 20 kids in their native language. See, dedicating one full English position to six kids is the cheap version, the one favored by conservatives and most taxpayers. Bilingual advocates want native language instruction, which would further reduce class size from six to one or two, in every language we run into in our public schools.  Of course, we don’t have enough qualified teachers in each language, but since we can’t have perfection, at least  it’s a great way to boost employment in immigrant communities. So not only do we spend more resources on the kids, but the schools often provide more employment to the communities. As for citizens, well, you know, being bilingual is important. You should have studied more.

The entire debate about bilingual education vs. immersion is a canard. Of all the many education debates that aren’t as they seem, none wastes as much time,  money, and resources as that of the ludicrously named English Language Learner.

No one is asking whether we should be doing this at all. Well. I am. But then, I’m no one.

Someone, somewhere, will furiously argue that I’m “pitting brown students against each other”.  No. That’s what ELL does. And not just to kids of color, either.

Cynical? Scratch the surface of any ELL program and see how far off I am. Don’t listen to what they say. Go look at what they do.

Not sure if this piece has a point.  In math, I don’t have to think of this too often.

At the end of the day, I remind myself that I like the job, the boss folks like what I’m doing, and regardless of what you call it, this is a hell of a lesson.


Twitter: A Choice, Not a Publication

Jim Ruttenberg is upset because Twitter isn’t policing itself like radio and TV did. Hatred spewed by “venomous” pseudonymous accounts–the new “white hoods”–is simply not rooted out and purged as it  should be. (Disclosure: Education Realist is not, in fact, my name.)

I’ve been around the online world, although not as Ed, for close to twenty years, which is a middling time. Usenet is forty years old, older than the the Web itself, older than the domain naming system, and the Great Renaming that created the notion of “alt” is thirty.  And for nearly that long, we’ve all known that  the news groups and every other online communication form invented has been used to promote racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and all the other bad isms. I don’t think Rutenberg wants us to believe that any of these opinions are new, although he doesn’t say so in that many words.

I wonder if Rutenberg has discussed this with Chris Cillizza, who has written two  different articles celebrating the death of blog comments, explaining that comments aren’t nearly as good as the superior, “self-policing” nature of Twitter.

I think it was Alex Russo who observed that Twitter has done a lot to kill comments sections. For the commenters, Twitter offers a much  bigger audience, freeing them from the blog’s limited readership. For the media organizations who abandon comments, the single biggest reason isn’t the aggravation from blowhards, but the cost. Comment curating is expensive, and leaves them open to free speech and consistency complaints.  Advertisers don’t value comments pages, or their views. So comments cost a lot in employees and bandwidth and don’t offer much.Twitter’s larger audience drives views and saturation –and it doesn’t cost the publishers a cent.

Journalists and other figures came to Twitter long before the their corporate owners did. They  willingly cast off the protections offered them by a media website without realizing the tradeoff. They can refuse to read their email. They can refuse to engage with the comments section. They can ignore all the the angry blog posts linking to their work.  Twitter doesn’t give them that option, and their publishers can’t protect them.

But they want Twitter. They want to compare follower stats and watch their popularity grow. They want the “viral” attention of a popular article.They want the increased visibility.  They want the rapid communication with their colleagues and experts. They even want the feedback of the many intelligent and committed readers. They want it all for free, the audiences that can rapidly join up and participate without the overhead of websites, domain names, and curation. They want to show their real selves to their loyal fans whilst still pretending to be unbiased in their “real” journalism.

They also want to look in on the little people to produce some of that “real” journalism or to further reinforce their professional status. Hey, I’ll just grab some “regular people” tweets for my article. Let’s see what the hashtag for the newest terrorist attack has in the way of color commentary. Or hey, look at this racist tweet–I’ll just tweet it out to my followers for shaming. Here’s a moron I can mock. Maybe it will go viral and I’ll look influential.  Or look, here’s a bathos-drenched Twitter conversation amongst rape victims that I can rewrite with little effort for lots of clicks, and I don’t need their consent.

Journalists and other elites routinely cull Twitter for content, whether to keep their followers happy, to fuel their causes, or to do something they think of as reporting or analysis.  Yeah, they want Twitter.

They just want Twitter without any risk of being called out,  mocked, and abused, because   calling out, mocking, and abusing people has been the media’s job for generations. It’s not supposed to go the other way.

When journalists left the confines of the media domain protection and set out onto the open range, they became the news, just like the little people. Because on Twitter, no one is little, or everyone is. Blue check or no.

Rutenberg calls Twitter a “new media development”. But Twitter is a communications medium, not a publishing empire. It’s the connective fiber, not the content. Twitter “publishers” don’t exist in a centralized form. Or, as one academic puts it, Twitter enables ambient journalism, in which the public doesn’t just receive the news and analysis selected by the gatekeepers, but participates in  “digitally networked” information generation in which news generation goes in multiple directions.

The problem isn’t Twitter. There aren’t any sentiments on Twitter that haven’t lived online since online existed, and before that  lived in print. But in a networked digital world, the journalists can’t filter.  Journalists aren’t wilting flowers. They’re used to criticism. But just as Twitter makes reporting on “the people” easier, so too does it make the people’s response a lot easier to deliver.

Jim Rutenberg calls for a “robust discussion” about Twitter’s danger to national discourse, even though he’s clearly aware that the platform has been around for a decade. He’s been a member for half that time.  Little late, Jim.

I am not excusing the Pepes, the gas chambers, the tweeted threats. Nor am I drawing any equivalencies between media mockery of their chosen targets and the *isms we can’t filter out now. My advice to journalists and other opinion folks: stop calling for purges. Stop castigating anonymity, as if ordinary people have nothing to fear from your prying eyes. Stop pretending that rudeness and nastiness actually dangerous. Stop demonstrating, once again, that you think you’re more important than the rest of us.

Stop feeling sorry for yourselves. Stay safe within the confines of your publisher’s website if you don’t want the abuse, and pay the price of a lower profile and a smaller audience. Twitter is your choice. But it’s not your property.



(Hey. Less than 1000. Sorry for breaking up my ELL series. But this has been on  my mind for a while.)



Defining the Alt Right

Am I of the alt right?

Last spring, I thought the answer was ‘yes”. I figured it was the new name for the “Dark Enlightenment” or neo-reaction.  I’m barely right of center, having travelled that long road from barely left of center over the past fifteen years, so my membership is more of an adoption than a joining. But others would (and have) put me there.

The ensuing discussion has  left me pretty sure the answer is “no”. I don’t read Breitbart or Ann Coulter, much less Stormfront, 4chan, Richard Spencer, or Jared Taylor of American Renaissance. “Cuckservative” and “mudshark” are not in my vocabulary, much less my ideological framework.  I didn’t even know who Milo was until a few months ago, when I read his treatise. I only use one parenthesis on each side, solely to denote a diversion or clarification on the sentence’s main point. I don’t tweet out pictures of gas ovens or frogs.

Notice that I exclude myself based on behaviors. Because everyone is clear on what the alt-right does. Journalists and political writers don’t like the behavior one bit. They want it to stop.

What the alt-right believes, what opinions they hold, is a different matter, where no clear agreement is found. I’ve only seen three pieces, two of them recent, that are well-reported, well-sourced, and  make a sincere effort to accurately represent the alt-right.

Dave Weigel’s otherwise solid analysis  linked Steve Sailer and Jared Taylor as “alt right” or “race realists”, which made me very nervous. Yes,  Steve is an influential writer at Taki and VDare, and I thought he was well-represented in that piece. But Steve is a writer whose primary sin is that of noticing, as he often says. He’s snarky and sarcastic and occasionally brutal, but if he’s a racial separatist, the sentiments don’t make their way into his writing. Jared Taylor is a political activist with explicit goals of giving individuals and businesses the legal right to self-segregate. If these two are in the same region, it should be a very large one. Weigel makes it sound small.

A December piece by Rosie Gray  that I reread after listening to her on NPR does the best job of capturing “alt-right” beliefs. Jared Taylor, who I heard for the first time on that same NPR show, strongly approved of Gray’s work and didn’t mention anything about  the reassuring (to me) fact that Gray omits Steve Sailer. She gives  plenty of space to some major players in what is clearly a fringe movement, capturing both the beliefs and the behavior, while allowing conservative pro-Trump folks like Coulter and Limbaugh a chance to clarify whether or not they were part of the alt-right, rather than just assuming it.    I learned a few things–that The Cathedral , as Moldbug calls it, is  their Synagogue,  and how “echo” links to the multiple parentheses.  Gray even explains the frog.

Up last is my favorite of the three alt-right descriptions by TA Frank,  How the Alt Right Became the Party of Hate. While Gray reports from the inside, Frank examines the movement’s path from unknown to mainstream, spotting this Evan Osnos piece as the initial piece connecting Trump to the alt-right, and  pointing out that Breitbart is “nowhere near” the alt-right, linked to them only through its “biggest provocateur, Milo”. Frank’s piece often delights, for example: He was not reading Carl Schmitt. Neither is Bannon. And neither is the 70-year-old billionaire for whom Bannon is now working. (Trump’s staffers would be lucky to get their boss to read his own policy papers.)

But more importantly, from my admittedly self-absorbed perspective, Frank likewise portrays the “alt-right issue” as one of different regions. The alt-right–white-nationalist, anti-Semitic, democracy doubting– is fringe, a tiny country with rocky terrain and few  friendly neighbors. Another region, according to Franks, is white resentment and tension as more whites struggle economically, while  thanks to continuing progressive disparagement makes them feel under attack. In my geography the men’s rights movement, neoreaction, the Dark Enlightenment proper, all live here. This region is, I believe, consistent with what Breitbart writer Milo considers the alt-right–and, possibly, accounts for the behavior problems mentioned above.

The third region contains the people who notice and describe the denial ferociously practiced by those responsible for our nation’s social policies. In this world lives Ron Unz, hbdchick, Razib Khan, Jason Richwine, JayMan, Greg Cochrane, VDare magazine (I think), John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and, yeah, me. People in this space have either suffered professionally for their opinions and writings, or are anonymous because  they fear repercussions. But it’s their opinions, not their political objectives or behaviors, that are at issue.

The three regions don’t overlap much. The first two read the third, but the reverse is less common. The first two are safely described as alt-right. The third is the one that is cause for disagreement.

What binds the three regions, why they think of themselves as related in some way, is not anti-Semitism, not racism, (or “race realism”),  not men’s rights, not separatism, not political objectives. I can’t stress this enough.

The common factor is utter disdain for the aforementioned  Cathedral, the fortress-like canon controlling the dogma of the neighboring region called The Mainstream.

Few literally think of the elite Cathedral as a religion, but the paradigm is the most effective metaphor to describe its impact. Frank calls it “a rebellion against political correctness” but  that term seems a tad mild to describe the rigidity of the canon that excludes, or seeks to exclude, all contrary thoughts.  Jon Chait, for example, complains about political correctness, but he’s a paid up member of the Cathedral.

Well within mainstream regional boundaries are the Breitbart reporters other than Milo, Ann Coulter, Mickey Kaus, and Mark Krikorian.  Most agree that just being a Trump supporter isn’t sufficient to qualify, so they go here as well.

Thus, agreement on what the alt-right does, and what the alt-right isn’t, and the three articles above should give people a decent start on figuring out what alt-right is.

Who is in and out of the alt-right becomes less a matter of academic inquiry when the GOP starts calling to exclude them from the party. Jonah Goldberg–a writer I’ve liked and read for nearly two decades–wants to “John Birch” the alt-right, defined thusly:JGaltright

So Goldberg wants to purge the tiniest of these regions, the people who want to segregate by race, the “white supremacists”.

But hang on a sec. Didn’t the GOP say “no” to white supremacists a long time ago?

(Pause. Note that Democrat and Republican answers to this question…..vary.)

Any attempt by the GOP to purge itself is probably doomed to fail. Some day soon, an earnest mainstream media folk is going to ask Jonah Goldberg why he’s friendly with Charles Murray. Jonah will protest in outrage, arguing that Charles Murray isn’t a racist. I absolutely agree.  Murray is also brilliant, and someone I find personally generous with feedback and helpful data despite my lamentable support for Trump, a candidate he  ferociously rejected from the escalator on.

But that’s besides the point. “Murray the racist” is an article of faith  held by far too much of the mainstream academia and media. The Southern Poverty Law Center, commonly (and, in my opinion, ludicrously) cited by major outlets as an objective think tank on racist organizations,  says that Charles Murray is a white nationalist. Murray is  more than just a member of my ideological region, he’s the patron saint of many within the land, one of the people who attracted us to the cause, as it were, and much beloved (until his Trump heresy) of the neighbors Taylor, Spencer, and heartiste.  Jonah Goldberg calling for a purge of white nationalists leads right to Murray.

And so it will go, forever. The media, academia, the Dems, and even portions of the GOP media, will seek to define the alt-right as anyone in violation of the Cathedral, growing the region larger and larger,  enveloping Coulter, Kaus, Krikorian and anyone else who can be discredited and shut down. The distinct regions I carefully described above matter to me and many others but certainly not everyone. If both parties with access to the megaphones start purging, I don’t think Jonah Goldberg will like where it ends up.

Defining the alt-right isn’t just “a” problem. It’s the problem, because, as Mark Leibovich said just recently, no one agrees on “the curve”. We, as a country, disagree on what constitutes bigotry, intolerance, and the big R. The public–and I mean the public, not white folks–is dramatically out of synch with the media on this issue, but the media and other elites have vehement internal disagreements on this point as well.

I suggest we reframe it as an opportunity, and in this I’m joined by TA Frank:


Am I of the alt-right? As a practical matter, using the definition most agree to,  no. I hold to the Voldemort View and the wisdom of Philip K. Dick. I’m an immigration restrictionist and Trump supporter. I’m a nationalist, not a white nationalist. I’ve lived in more racial diversity my entire life than the vast majority of elites preaching its value can even conceive of.  I don’t live in the same ideological region as Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer, or heartiste and men’s rights advocates. That’s a difference that won’t matter to the media, which is why I’m anonymous.

At the heart of this semantic debate, of course, lies more than words and ideas themselves, but our visions for the country. Jared Taylor said in the interview above that he doesn’t want America to be an experiment. Too bad. The United States has been an experiment since its founding.  But a successful experiment requires parameters, careful hypotheses, and data showing results. It requires open inquiry, skepticism, challenges.

Instead, our society’s elites  are refusing to stop and take stock, evaluate the conditions. They refuse to consider control groups.  They go further and simply reject results they don’t like, and then shut down any attempts to challenge their findings.1

Defining the alt-right requires acknowledging that many among us view the recent years of the American experiment with skepticism, some with outright rejection. Such an effort would, I think, serve as an important balance to the excesses that it’s safe to laugh about now but might just be added to the list of behaviors our high priests check for (gender pronoun usage, kneeling for the anthem).  Certainly many would learn that many unacceptable beliefs (IQ differences in racial groups, gender biology) are routinely accepted as fact by the quieter, science-based members of academia. Or, as  Steven Pinker’s famous smackdown goes: What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.”

The media is filled with people bewailing this miserable election. I’m excited, regardless of outcome. Our leaders, policymakers, and journalists have been forced to face how little their opinion matters to the people who have little say but their votes. That realization can lead to many valuable and, with luck, productive conversations.

Best of all, their ability to stop the conversations is diminishing, day by day.

(added later: I’ve gotten enough comments to know my regular readers understand this piece. But Jonah Goldberg‘s response made me go wait, what?

I am not advocating an embrace of the alt-right. I am observing strategic and semantic problems with trying to purge them. By all means, give it a try. I’m happy to be wrong. But my primary point is, literally, to define who is and is not the alt-right and to join with TA Frank in calling for a more open discourse. If you think “open discourse” means “talk to Nazis” then you aren’t clear on how much debate and information is forbidden at risk of economic or career disaster. So for now, just accept that I do not advocate giving the mic to Nazis, people who tweet images of gas ovens, or those use the term “mudshark”–never mind those who advocate ending democracy or using violence.  And for now, accept that many are concerned about legitimate discourse being shut down. If this translates to you as “embrace Nazis or racists” then accept you have an experience gap beyond the scope of this essay.)


1And not just on the right–see Fredrik deBoer for a look at what the alt left thinks is wrong with the country (sadly, he shut down his blog a month ago, but his essays are still there).

2Note to my followers on Twitter and my readers here: I realize that many of you are not Trump supporters, not “of the alt right”, and very often not GOP.  I appreciate everyone who takes the time to engage with my ideas  and am glad that online–as in real life–I’m able to maintain my connections to people of a wide range of political and social beliefs.

Writing a Tweet Storm Chain

Here I offer a practice that will bring all of us Tweeters together as one. Discovery zealots or zombie-denying traditionalists. Content knowledge worshippers or skeptics. Math, English, or history teachers–or those of you who, you know, do that other topic. Immigration restrictionists or citizens, not Americans.

Twitter will be a happier place if its users learn that tweet storm are not as effective as tweet chains.

Others have come before me, but they were writing for early adopters, the ten percenters. I wasn’t an early adopter.

Like other innovators of the obvious, I began with a question: How the hell can I write more than one tweet without forcing everyone to read backwards? And irritants: numbering my multiple thoughts. I could never remember what number I was on–or worse, not bothering to number at all. Yes, I know there’s an app somewhere, but since I didn’t like making everyone reading backwards, I didn’t want that solution anyway.

Lately, I’ve seen the nested retweet, as used here by Megan McArdle and Mickey Kaus, but while this approach does link the tweets, they are still presented in backwards order and also gives readers the feeling they’re spiraling in an endless loop. I recommend against.

At some point I noticed elegant chains of comments, such as these put together by Ed Asante and Spotted Toad and wondered hey, how can I get in on that?

And the answer is: Reply.

Just hit reply on your own tweet. Remove the moniker. Twitter still treats the tweet (try saying that three times fast!) as a reply, and chains it to the original, which also appears as a reference point to show that the new tweet is part of an ongoing series. Better yet, click on any tweet in the series, and they all appear, in order, going back to the first.

Bam. No need to number, no need to use some sort of tweet deck to organize. It’s all kept track for you. Twitter isn’t the easiest interface, and certainly not designed for archival, but if you want to dig up an old series, you can just “Reply” to the last tweet and it chains perfectly. Then, to draw attention to the whole series, use retweet.

Examples: Here’s one of my earliest tweet chains, just to show how late to the game I was.

David Frum, who I linked in an image of above to show how NOT to do it, at very nearly the same time used the more elegant chaining method, so I’m not sure why he’s still stuck in the old ways (perhaps it’s an app).

If people reply to a tweet chain with another tweet chain, you get a nice elegant conversation, like this one between me and Billare, on whether the canonization of the Khans and their appeal to emotion is unseemly. And here’s Dan Meyer not chaining, but showing how to reply to tweets in the chain fashion, so you can easily follow the conversation.

I usually stay out of technology issues. In my former techie life, I was unusual in resolutely avoiding power user tricks. I value flexibility over speed, and since I was always entering new environments with new rules, I wanted to get functional as quickly as possible, not whine about how this new program or operating system wasn’t as cool or powerful as my way better one.

But tweet chains have really enhanced my use of the platform. Furthermore, I’ve now twice written essays after organizing my initial response on Twitter–and given how hard it is for me to start pieces, that’s no small thing.

In any event, I needed to prove again I can keep a piece under 1000 words if I try, and wanted another July piece to keep my count to three. Hopefully, another one comes tomorrow.

So if you see someone laboriously numbering their tweet deck or retweeting a chain, send this along.

Note: It occurred to me that while this is well under 1000 words, the advice itself is about 50. Only I could use 500 words when 50 would do. So here’s an image to pass on: twitterchaininstructions

Happy Saturday.

Wearing Anonymity

I wear my anonymity loosely. It’s mostly fine if you know who I am. It’s Google I want kept in the dark.

“Mostly” in that sure, there are people out there who would be very happy to see me lose my job, and I’d just as soon those people didn’t have the opportunity to put together a campaign to get me fired. While I have just recently obtained tenure (whooohoo!), I’m not at all sure that tenure would protect me in this circumstance. Despite all the whines, teachers with tenure are fired all the time. The administrator just has to want it. Just ask Natalie Munro, a tenured teacher who blogged about her “lousy” students and was gone within two years. I despise Munro’s behavior, but I believe her over the administration when she says she had no problems before her blog.

For the record, my school administrators think I’m terrific, and I admire their work. I have never knowingly said anything offensive or critical about my co-workers, bosses, or students. Even when I’ve disagreed with them, my disagreement has been couched as “choices are hard”. I love my current school and I’ve always loved all my students at every school.

But we teachers aren’t guaranteed first amendment protection, and the rules on blogging are very fuzzy. My administrators know about my blog; I hope they check in on it periodically, although that’s unlikely. None of that would save me if there was the wrong kind of fuss.

For this reason, I don’t tell people who I am without asking that they not disclose this information online. Gender, location, name, all left out of the discussion. Every person I’ve informed of my identity has complied with this request. The bulk of the people I’ve told were journalists. The rest were mostly professors or policy wonks. And this number is very, very small–no more than 15-20 people.

That means if someone out there in the wide world of the internet says “Ed Realist is Mark Murgatroyd from Chicago” or “Ed Realist is a San Francisco-based teacher who hates Asians” or “Ed Realist also posts as Lance Jackson” or “Ed is one of those rare women who speaks honestly about race and IQ”, that person did not get this information from me. In some cases, they believe they have guessed my identity but are speaking of it, wrongly, as a fact. In others, they read this information at another site from another person who did not get this information from me. In still other cases, they may have heard the information second-hand offline from someone who did get it from me, although I doubt that last one. I’m not important enough to discuss offline.

I’m not commenting about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the information. Nor do I want anyone to go out there and build a case for me being person X or person Y. I’m not saying “nyah, nyah, you can’t catch me, coppers!” My blog has gotten much, much bigger than I ever dreamed. I would have kept age, parental status, and a few other details back had I known. Anyone who wanted to build a logical case to strongly suggest that person X is me could probably manage it.

For this reason, I try very hard not to be coy, give hints, or deny. Someone claims I live in Location Y, I respond I’ve never mentioned my geographic area online. Someone claims I’m a man or a woman, I respond that I’ve never mentioned my gender online. Someone claims that I’m teacher X, I respond that I’ve never identified myself online. I like to think that’s why I’ve managed three years of anonymity, but then maybe no one has ever cared enough. I hope I’m still unimportant enough that this post won’t lead to speculation about my identity.

I would appreciate reader consideration when characterizing me and my work. I’m a teacher. I used to be a tutor and test prep instructor. Anything else I mentioned on my blog you are free to use, but try not to overstate.

If you’ve read someone comment about my gender, location, or identity, please remember they did not get this information from me. No reason to get into a pissing match, but a link to this statement would be appreciated.

If you think you know who I am: You might be right. So what? What is it you hope to achieve by posting about your guess? If you’re wrong, you could be hurting another teacher. If you’re right, then you could be putting me at risk of losing my beloved job. If that’s what you want, well, then I guess I can’t stop you.

But you didn’t get the information from me.

2014: Half a million satisfied page views

Yes, I have half a million page views. Not bad for someone who only has 650 Twitter followers.

My page views increased from last year, but not by a whole lot. I had 42% more views in the first half of the year, but was down 22% for the second half. As I mentioned, I had an insanely busy first semester, teaching two brand new classes (one not math) and mentoring two teachers. I only had 3 posts in November, and one lonely post in October. I’d hoped to write 72 posts (6/month); in fact I averaged just fewer than 4 posts a month, at 45. That accounts for most of the drop off.

But I also didn’t have the huge posts that I had last year. At the bottom of this post is a list of my top posts overall (1500 views or more).
Here are the top posts I wrote this year (over 1000 views):

Just a Job 2831
The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty 2527
Strategizing Horror 2027
Encylopedia of Ed, Part I: Things Voldemortean 1802
Ed Schools and Affirmative Action 1776
The Available Pool 1721
Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines 1588
College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT 1575
SAT’s Competitive Advantage 1392
Reading in the Gulag of Common Core 1236
Finding the Bad Old Days 1224
A Talk with an Asian Dad 1156
Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me 1128
Multiple Answer Math Tests 1086
Parents and Schools 1067
Math Instruction Philosophies: Instructivist and Constructivist 1022
Why I Blog 1016
Advanced Placement Test Preferences: Asians and Whites 1008

In all, 41 posts out of the 244 got over one thousand views in 2014 alone (not counting views from prior years).

Compared to last year, I had far fewer big posts. Compared to posts written in prior years, this year’s posts did far less business. Also, the disappearance of both Who Am I and About from my top posts means I had far fewer new readers.

I’m not bothered by this. First, I chose a bunch of esoteric topics. Fox, dammit, not hedgehog. Second, as I said, I had an incredibly busy second half of the year.

Third, when I did have time to write, I spent all the time researching. These pieces consumed well over hundreds of hours of googling and reading:

Only three of them made my top posts. Meanwhile, I knocked out The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty in 2 hours one very late evening and it hits second place. Again, I’m not complaining. If Steve Sailer or Charles Murray isn’t interested in a post, it’s unlikely to get big numbers on the first viewing.

I also didn’t spend much time on pedagogy this year, and that’s something I vow to change in the upcoming year. I have all sorts of topics that I don’t think of as much because I’m teaching advanced math. The following pedagogy posts got at least 1000 views, got more readers this year than last, despite being over 2 years old, and three of them made my top posts for the year:

Multiple Answer Math Tests, written this year, also got over 1000 views, and a lot of my older curriculum work gets close to 1000 views.

This reinforces a pattern I’ve seen for over two years: Google likes my blog, and teachers like my curriculum. Teachers are not a big part of my regular reader base, but they seem to find my work and if they didn’t like it, google would know somehow. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that teachers might be finding my pedagogy useful.

I am also reminded that the teacher tales, which I consider some of my best work, are not google friendly. Teachers really like my stories, but since they aren’t part of my regular base, they don’t often stumble across my work. I’m not sure how to address this—I mean, how often does someone think “Hmm, I want to google some fun teacher stories!”?

In the meantime, I thought my Teacher Tales from this year were very good. Hey. Maybe I could do a page. Huh.

I will update my Encyclopedia of Ed pages pretty soon–it’s clear they are getting some use, which is nice.

Finally, the second half of this year did see some disillusionment on my part. Not with teaching, or with writing, but with the realization of just how many people in education reform are poseurs, and yet are treated as experts simply because they’ve got an employer claiming they are. I thought I was cynical to begin with, but at this point I’ve become exhausted realizing just how many people are just flat out regurgitating opinions that their employer pays them to have.

On to year 4.

Posts getting over 1500 views this year:

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 8577 2013
Homework and grades. 3590 2012
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 3058 2013
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 2524 2012
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 2490 2012
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 2419 2012
Core Meltdown Coming 2317 2013
The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty 2527 2014
The Gap in the GRE 2213 2012
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 2151 2013
Strategizing Horror 2027 2014
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 1818 2013
Encylopedia of Ed, Part I: Things Voldemortean 1802 2014
Ed Schools and Affirmative Action 1776 2014
The Available Pool 1721 2014
Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 1640 2012
Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines 1588 2014
Kicking Off Triangles: What Method is This? 1554 2012
College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT 1575 2014

A Talk with an Asian Dad

Summer enrichment ended two weeks ago. I enjoyed my classes as always, although the commute, now that I’ve moved, was brutal. Not sure I’ll take it on next summer, but that’s a while away.

On the last Monday Nick asked me if I’d speak to his dad.

“I’m happy to, but you have to run it by the director.”

At Kaplan, parent management is turned over to the tutor. Not so here, or at other hagwons I’ve known of. At first, I assumed the company just didn’t want parents trying to privatize the tutor and cut out the middleman. Until six years ago, when a parent whose child I was tutoring in APUSH got my number somehow and called me fourteen times, leaving agonizingly long messages giving her schedule to ask when I could meet, asking over and over again if I could meet more frequently, telling me she’d call at x o’clock, then calling up to cancel the scheduled call, asking for a report on progress each day, wondering idly if I could meet directly with them but assuring me she couldn’t afford high fees—all during a 3-day period after I’d met with her daughter for the first time. I told my boss, he threatened to fire the parent, I didn’t get any more calls.

Run all parent contact by the director. This is a rule I follow.

So after class the next day I sat down with Nick and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman.

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests—which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year—he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60–even 65–then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”


On our last day, I showed The Sixth Sense, which went over very big.

“Okay, I want you to heed me well on this. You must never tell anyone the ending.”

“You mean that he’s a….”

“STOP! Yes. That’s what I mean. Some movies—and it’s a small list—have surprises that take you out of the conventional, that take the story in a direction you never dreamed of anticipating. Tell people and you’ve robbed them. Never tell.”

“It’s like giving away the ending?”

“Worse. So, kids, we’re at the end. I’ve loved working with you. Do your best to take away the lessons from the summer. Speak up! Don’t just sit like a lump. Have ideas. Ask yourself what you think. Keep aware of what’s going on in the world. Remember that a 4.0 GPA has no bearing on whether you’re an interesting companion or a valuable ally in a bar fight.”

“But my parents…” Lincoln starts.

“Ahahah. Stop. I’m not telling you to disobey your parents. But your decisions, ultimately, are your own.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You’re right. But I can give you a strategy, provided you promise never to say it came from me.”

“Get caught cheating?”

I look around for something to throw. “That’s not even funny. DO NOT CHEAT. I know you have pressures and it feels like the easiest way to have a life and keep your parents off your back.”

Way, way too many nods.

“Don’t. I mean it. Never mind the morality, never mind how deeply wrong it is. Every time you cheat to get that better grade, you are adding to the pressure you already feel.”

Wide eyes.

“Anyway. Here is a strategy. First, you have to make an appointment with the counsellor at your school. The white counsellor.”

“But my mom always tells me to go to the Asian counsellor.”

“Yes, I know. For this, you need a white counsellor. Then you prepare. Irene, you take in your notebook, and have it open to all sorts of dark, depressing pictures. Ideally, one with you sitting in a corner, distraught. The rest of you don’t have that out, but make yourself look sad, and exhausted.”

“I am exhausted.” from Ace.

“And if I get a B, I’ll be really sad,” said Ben.

“So it should be easy. Then you tell the counsellor how much pressure you feel, how you feel like you can’t ever screw up, that your parents will be sooooooo disappointed if you ever don’t get an A, that you sometimes can’t sleep thinking about how much they expect, and how bad you are for letting them down, by not being perfect. The counsellor will want to contact your parents. You look horrified at first, say they’ll be angry. The counsellor will back off, and then try again. You reluctantly agree. The resulting meeting will be something your parents will not want to repeat. They will either soften their behavior, or take you back to China, Korea, India, wherever, so they don’t have to deal with these crazy soft white people.”

They’re all howling with laughter by this point.

“Because remember boys and girls, in white people world, Asian parenting styles shock and appall. If you went to a white therapist, that therapist would tell your parents to stop.”

“Oh, god, that makes me laugh just thinking about their faces.” Irene says. “I’d never do it, of course.”

“But at least I can think I have a choice,” from Ellen.

“Exactly. Which is my point. Choose to become genuinely well-educated and thoughtful people. Don’t be satisfied with a report card that lies about you. Now, get out of here. Enjoy the dregs of summer.”

Nick stayed behind.

“My dad is changing the spreadsheet.”


“He has a spreadsheet with my classes through senior year.”


“I’m taking honors English and history this year, instead of a second independent studies project. Then he’s moving the pretty easy biotech class to junior year, and AP Chem to senior year. And I’m going to take a programming course during the summer, rather than during school. That way I’ll be able to focus on AP English and US History as well as BC Calc next year.”

“How’s it feel?”

“Really good.” His beam matched mine. “I’m going to try and talk him down to AB Calc, even. Thanks for helping out.”

One dad at a time.

200 Posts

I did 100 posts in 10 months, but I had a number of ideas backlogged. 200 posts took me 19 months. At the rate I’ve been going, 300 posts will take me 25 months.

I want to change that, but I’m not sure how. I like each essay to be stand alone, and the best way to increase my output is to chunk thoughts. So I did that with Finding the Bad Old Days and Just a Job, which I’d originally planned as one piece. I likewise have chunked Memory Palace for Thee, but Not for Me and the Advanced Placement analysis. But I haven’t gotten back to Memory Palace, and am not sure when I’ll get back to the AP work. On the other hand, if I hadn’t posted that much, when would you all have seen it? I’m still pushing to get to 5 essays a month, but thus far I’ve been hardpressed to keep to four. However, as Mark Zuckerberg said to Cory Booker, “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT”. Billionaires are all Js, in Myers Briggs terms, so I’m going to try and up the J of this blog and downplay the P-ness. (haha! MB joke, that.)

Anyway. I have just hit 385,000 views, have 560 or so Twitter followers, and have long since given up tracking posts that made over 1000 views. I have nine posts that have exceeded 5,000 page views, four of which I’ve written since October of 2012—in fact, all of four have been written since April of last year.

Leaving popularity aside, here are some favorites from the last 100 posts, in rough order of my preference:

And if you’re interested, here’s my most recent take on why I blog.

Newcomers, you can check out the Encyclopedias, which I’ve updated:
Encyclopedia of Ed:
Things Voldemortean
The Players
Movies, Miscellany, and Me

Repeating myself: this blog has a readership and influence that has wildly exceeded anything I envisioned, not only when I started two years ago, but to this day. Thanks again for following me on twitter, on the blog, for your comments (even when I’m cranky), and for taking the time to stop by.

PS: Go ahead, Pershan, mock me.


Just a Job

So Michael Petrilli leads with a somewhat feckless proposal to limit college access but then his follow-up appears, in which he’s shocked—yea, shocked!—to discover that vocational education has significant cognitive demands!

Petrilli still pretends that these deficiencies are an “outrage” caused by poor schools that charters and choice and firing teachers will fix. But here’s the crux of his second piece:

So let’s assume, then, that for the foreseeable future many of our high schools are going to have a heck of a lot of entering students who are prepared for neither a true college-prep curricular route nor a high-quality CTE program. The high school will do its best, but in all likelihood, a great many of these young people will graduate (if they graduate) with low-level skills that won’t leave them prepared for college or a well-paying career. What should we do with these students while they are in high school? What education offerings would benefit them the most?

We’ve got all these kids that won’t be ready for a well-paying career, so what do we do with them while they are in high school? Seriously?

He skips right by the important question: what do these kids do for a job?

Petrilli’s entire reason for existing, professionally speaking, is to offer education as a silver bullet. He’s not someone who will cheerfully accept Paul Bruno’s data showing that education doesn’t fight poverty.

But even Petrilli has to acknowledge that our country has all sorts of jobs that don’t require any training.

What jobs require minimum skills? All the jobs reformers and progressives both describe in disparaging terms: Walmart clerk, hotel maid, custodian, garbage collector, handyman, fast food worker. The average elite makes these jobs sound unfit, an insult to even consider.

I had a kid who I will call Sam in my Math Support Class for Kids Who Didn’t Pass the Graduation Test. He wasn’t particularly memorable, charming or appealing, a slacker constantly trying to get out of any effort. If I didn’t take away his cell phone, he’d never work and even without his cell phone he’d be more likely to draw than practice the basic skills I tried to help him improve on. His skills are incredibly weak; like many low IQ kids he’s got good solid math facts but no ability to synthesize or generalize.

A couple months ago, long after he’d finished my class, Sam came bounding into my room beaming. BEAMING. He’d gotten a job at Subway. He was going to make a presentation in English class on how to make a sandwich, and he was wondering if I could help him edit his essay on the same topic. His essay was weak, but it demonstrated significant effort on his part, and he took my edit suggestions to heart and returned with a still-weak-but-much-improved version. I’ve seen him several times since, getting an update on his increasing hours, a raise, getting his GED because he can’t pass the graduation test. He’s got a purpose and he’s excited. He could give a damn if elites think his job’s a dead end.

Sam’s Indian. A recent immigrant. Weak English skills, which his parents (who are not college graduates) share. Given that many if not all the Subways in my area are franchised by south Asians, I am reasonably sure he got the job through family connections.

You know any women who get manicures? Ask them the last time they paid a non-Vietnamese woman for the service. Then wonder whether these salons would hire anyone who doesn’t speak the boss’s language.

Read this 1994 qualitative study, in which managers of large low or unskilled work forces describe why they hire more Hispanics, the power of networks, and the ability to get good workers for less because hiring by referral was cheaper, even if, or especially if, the workers were all Hispanic. Notice how the employers talk about black and white low-skilled workers, natives, who resented the treatment. Notice the discussion of different hostilities between blacks and Hispanics, but also the fact that Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans didn’t like working together. Then read the same author, Roger Waldinger, finding that second generation Hispanic immigrants are not, as was the case with other immigrants, moving up. So we imported millions of illegal Central Americans, they had kids that are now permanently low skilled workers—and still, as any employer can tell you, subject to the same inter-group hostilities, but now just as entitled as the blacks and whites are. This is a group we need more of?

Of course, all of these employers and managers in that research are white. As the Vietnamese cartel in manicure businesses suggest, Asians have taken to starting their own businesses where they mostly hire their own. Thought I was making it up about Subway and Indians? 1500 Patels in the Subway franchise database—I imagine there are all sorts of Singhs and Guptas, too. In hotels and motels, Indians own 50% of recent hotels and 60% of budget motels. With Cambodians, it’s doughnuts; the Cambodian community loans money to incoming refugees to start a franchise; the independent Cambodian shop owners have largely chased out Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and Winchells out of LA. Cambodians have no history of donuts and from all accounts just use powdered donut mix but thanks to the network effects of cheap money and a steady supply of other low-skilled Cambodian workers, often family members, and undiscriminating illegal Mexican customers looking for a cheap breakfast, they do pretty well. In much of the eastern US, >Dunkin Donuts franchises are dominated by Indians and Portuguese. Meanwhile, 90% of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Koreans where, as in LA, they sell to primarily black communities but never hire blacks to work in their stores. But in the main, Koreans left independently owned businesses and turned to franchises as well. Koreans pretty much own the frozen yogurt market: Yogurtland, Pinkberry and Red Mango have done much to challenge TCBY. I’ve never seen a Yogurtland that didn’t employ Koreans only, but I can’t find any demographics on their employee population.

Franchises and small business are not only dominated by immigrant populations who haven’t, er, gotten the memo on diversity and tolerance, but they are used as a way for non-Americans to get over here in the first place. Franchise Times: “The franchise community has been developing unique tools to secure additional capital. One exciting approach is the use of the EB-5 program (better known as “buying a Green Card”).”

Regardless of ownership, franchises and small businesses that use a lot of unskilled labor are usually hiring illegal immigrants—in fact, “undocumented” Hispanics seem to be the one non-Asian group that Asian small business owners don’t object to as employees, although Chinese illegals have been coming through the southern border in big numbers, so maybe that will change. In at least one quite horrible case, Pakistani 7-Eleven owners brought over illegal Pakistanis and locked them up to work in their stores 18 hours a day for well under minimum wage and committed all sorts of identity theft and money laundering to make millions.

We do not need immigrants to come over to America and exploit illegal aliens. This, manifestly, is a job that Americans are willing to take on.

So Mr. Petrilli wants to know how to best educate low-skilled high school students, but before I get to that, it’s clear that Mr. Petrilli needs some education.

The single most important thing we can do for low-skilled high school students is improve their job market opportunities and the quality of their work experience.

First step: stop importing competition. It’s not enough simply to crack down on Chinese and Hispanic illegal immigration; we should also realize that many immigrants are coming to America with family money and community networks to start businesses that aren’t positively affecting the low-skilled job market. Many of these immigrants are coming over via chain migration.

It is not immediately apparent to me that we gain when McDonalds and other franchise food chains reduce their company-owned stores in favor of franchises. Less risk for the companies, less transparency for the hiring processes, and improved deniability. Since it’s probably impractical to stop franchises, we should at least hold Subway, 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and the rest responsible for hiring violations—not just illegal employees, but also skewed employee demographics, which starts with increased reporting.

Small businesses owned by recent immigrants that only hire family members and take advantage of immigrant networks may have some positive impact on the economy. But not only are we importing competition for our low and unskilled workers, but our schools are required to educate their children, who are often very low-skilled, creating more classroom impact and oh, yeah, the reformers will then scream again about our lousy schools.

So the key to helping unskilled American workers is to improve their job opportunities by reducing or stopping immigration, insisting that immigrant employers follow the same hiring rules as everyone else, and demand transparency from large employers who are doing their best to avoid it by outsourcing to smaller companies to do their dirty work. If we tighten their labor market, many of the (abuses may stop as they don’t have a ready supply of willing victims. Hopefully, pay will increase.

But there’s plenty we could do in education, too, where reduced immigration will also allow us to focus more meaningfully on low-skilled citizens. High school vocational education could be expanded to include low-skilled jobs. Bill Gates and other well-meaning billionaires could open some franchises in districts with many unskilled students. Create training programs for kids to learn the importance of showing up on time, understanding customer service, identify assistant manager potential. Start a training program at Home Depot and Lowes, teach boys how to use all the equipment. Then tell the locals that they can call their local schools directly for miscellaneous labor needs and get a guaranteed source, rather than picking up whoever’s sitting out in front of Home Depot.

I know nothing about how state and local employers hire meter maids, garbage workers, and the like. I bet most reformers don’t either. How about finding out? How about internship programs, again funded by all those well-meaning billionaires, that give kids summer experience writing parking tickets, picking up recyclables, collecting bridge tolls—are any of these jobs outsourced? Suppose we have a discussion about that.

As for education, we can teach kids how to read, write, calculate, and engage their brain on the issues of the day without moving beyond an 8th grade vocabulary. We can even extend that 8th grade vocabulary a bit. Teach them how to read newspaper articles, how to write their opinions in an organized fashion, how to write a letter to the editor—how to craft a job application letter specific to the situation. Certainly we could teach them the basics of business entrepreneurism for those who would like to try self-employment or small business. How about living opportunities? Many kids in this situation can’t afford an apartment and so live with their parents, feeling infantilized. Perhaps they need to be educated on their opportunities: sharing rentals, more affordable regions, and so on.

We don’t even really know yet how to educate people with IQs less than 100, which is probably the most important educational research we aren’t doing. Maybe we can move some of the kids from unskilled to skilled technician jobs, with the right approach.

I’m glad Michael Petrilli has acknowledged reality. But in doing so, he’s opened a big can of worms for the reform movement. Once we realize that the bulk of the kids reformers have been focusing on, the lowest achievers, can’t be educated in the manner they demand, then it becomes clear that employment, not education, is the key area for reform.

Let me finish by referring back to the Sam anecdote. We should not be importing families who will add to the unskilled labor pool, but have an advantage because of immigrant social networks and capital.

But I can’t begin to tell you how completely transformed Sam was when he got his job. He had a purpose. He felt useful. I remember vaguely in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a time when she made a contemptuous remark about their work and hurt a co-worker’s feelings. The co-worker didn’t think the task was a waste of time; she was proud of getting it done correctly.

Progressives and reformers hold these jobs in low esteem because they simply can’t conceive that for low skilled people, these jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. But other times, they’re just jobs, just something that people do to make money and live. “Just a job” isn’t an insult. It’s an objective. It’s a goal. It’s time to start focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for the entire population, instead of giving immigrants the jobs our unskilled workforce needs.

Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,'” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.