TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap

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

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

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

ETSsatpraxisverbal ETSsatpraxismath

Cite

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

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

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

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

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

Then how?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I came up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But suppose I’m right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a tough call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


Don’t Treat A Cop Like a Teacher

So to build on an idea from my last post:

Unlike most people who aren’t police officers, many high school teachers, particularly those in high poverty areas, can say they know what it’s like to be faced with a furious teenager who might possibly be armed, high, both–or, as is usually the case, neither.

As one of those teachers, I know, for example, that when Ezra Klein says Darren Wilson’s story about Michael Brown’s actions is simply not credible, Ezra’s either showing his white privilege or simply not credible himself.

However, I also know that when others claim that Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger simply because a large black teenager was charging him, well, not so much. Not simply from that.

The sequence of events: 1) Brown mouthing off and refusing to get out of middle of street, 2) Wilson moving his car to block Brown and Johnson, 3) Brown attacking Wilson in his car, hitting him and grabbing for his gun, 4) Brown running away, 5) Brown turning around and charging.

If I leave out the gun grab and play out that same sequence of events, I still envision Wilson shooting Brown. A nearly 300 pound young man was charging a police officer after having assaulted him in the car. Of course it was reasonable to shoot Michael Brown. The kid was out of control. Who wouldn’t feel endangered in that situation, in fear of his life?

Well, high school teachers in high poverty schools, for one. My employment has been in relatively mild Title I schools*, but I have frequently faced down angry, hostile, potentially violent teens. I know teachers who’ve had kids get violent, and the stats back this up: 3-5% of teachers are physically attacked. And surely most teachers in high poverty schools have spent time trying hard to talk down a potentially violent kid, even if Plan B is throw something and leave the room. Better that than screwing up his life by assaulting a teacher.

But then there’s the grab for the gun. This excellent comment from cro on my last post agrees with everything I know from frequent viewing of Numb3rs episodes: taking a law enforcement officer’s gun is a Very Bad Thing. Cro, my police officer commenter, says “…you are under orders to kill that person if necessary to retain your weapon.”

I have no reason to doubt cro–hey, he’s an anonymous commenter on my blog!–but if he is correct, then Darren Wilson had a second line of defense that hasn’t gotten as much play. This defense is not a “reasonable person” defense, but a “cop defense”. Attempts to take a police officer’s gun are punishable by deadly force.

My own belief, and I’m certainly not unique on this point, is that cops consider non-compliance a deadly force situation. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Michael Bell all died because they didn’t comply with police officers.

But “look, the guy didn’t do what I told him” isn’t a viable line of defense if the actions come under scrutiny, so instead these legal fictions are constructed, in which juries can consider a cop just a normal guy who was in fear of his life.

My effort to unpack Michael Brown’s actions and Wilson’s defense is not intended as an attack on police officers. Nor am I saying that teachers and cops have similar responsibilities or face similar dangers.

I’m just trying to resolve the paradox. It doesn’t seem credible that Darren Wilson thought he would die simply because Michael Brown hit him and then was charging at him. If an angry, irrational, violent teenager can so easily put an armed police officer in fear of his life, then many countries should be re-evaluating the regular danger that his teachers and oh by the way the other students at his school live in every day. And few schools have just one kid like that.

A DA who wanted to shoot down (oops, unintended) Wilson’s claim that he feared for his life might have subpoenaed teachers from Michael Brown’s high school, an extremely violent environment which had recently graduated Michael Brown, and asked them about a typical day. That would be an interesting switch, wouldn’t it? Usually witnesses testify to what a great guy the victim was, the “gentle giant” in Brown’s case. Instead, bring on teachers who say “Yeah, he’s just a wild guy. Always going off, threw things at teachers when they pissed him off. But he always calmed down and took his suspension like a good sport. Scared? Naw. It’s pretty common at this school.”

It might be more difficult to convince a jury that Darren Wilson was endangered if unarmed, middle-aged teachers described getting a faceful of pepper spray while trying break up a fight between two girls. Such testimony might cause questions about a 6’4″ police officer’s claim that his pepper spray and night stick weren’t sufficient self-defense, given his choice not to carry a taser.

But such testimony would make it harder to sell the polite fiction of “reasonable belief” while actually upholding the unwritten rule that says, “obey the cops or sh** happens”. This rule holds true even if you’re a Presidential pal; Henry Gates and the President no doubt expected far worse to befall James Crowley for arresting a quarrelsome, disobedient Gates than a forced beer summit, until poll numbers caused President Obama to change course.

Obviously, all sorts of vested interests aren’t terribly interested in observing this contrast. I’m personally not certain we’re better off in a country where we all don’t fear cops, so perhaps preserving the polite fiction is the best of several bad options.

But then you have the disconnect, a dilemma captured by Robert Heinlein (thanks to commenter Mark Roulo for the reminder). Kids who live in poverty receive profoundly mixed messages about adults in authority. Angry, sometimes violent, adolescents attend high schools and are rarely if ever killed on campus for being a threat. Yet at the wrong time, in the wrong situation, these young men can be killed by police officers, supposedly for threatening the officers lives, more likely for being defiant and violent in ways not dramatically different from their high school behavior. Thus my observation, “One might say Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.”

So from here I see two clear questions.

First, does the systemic bias towards forgiveness and second chances in public schools create additional dangers for adolescents who get the wrong idea about the role of state authority in their lives?

Second, does the fact that teachers can handle the same students that cops claim put them in danger point to ways in which cops could mitigate their harsh reaction to defiance without using their guns? Leave aside, for the moment, the legitimate question as to whether it would diminish police authority. If Darren Wilson hadn’t had a gun, does anyone really believe he’d be dead instead of Brown?

I have my own thoughts on the first question, some of which I’ve discussed obliquely.** My thoughts do not include any foolhardy notions that school choice, accountability, higher test scores, or the insane notion of corporal punishment will help us find the path towards salvation.

I have some thoughts on the second point, too, since I do believe Darren Wilson would have survived Michael Brown’s charge without a gun.

However, let’s get caricatures out of the way. Cro reminds me that most cops, like teachers, often look for ways to defuse situations. I agree, and never thought otherwise. I do not see police officers as tyrannical bruisers, polar opposites to kind and tolerant teachers.

But then Cro starts his comment with an equally ridiculous caricature, conflating teachers with social workers. Um, no.

Old joke I first read in a Dick Francis novel:

“A man was beaten and robbed by thieves, left bleeding and unconscious in a gutter. Two sociologists came along, gasped in horror. One said to the other, ‘The man who did this needs our help.'”

I can’t speak for sociologists and social workers, but anyone who thinks this caricature applies to teachers isn’t paying attention. High poverty schools don’t offer cottony platitudes of love and understanding, supporting and excusing victims for all their actions. They have a wide range of reactions and consequences: some planned, some spur of the moment, and some forced on them by public policy. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of cro’s comment are just insanely off-base. I know many reformers think this way as well, think that “No Excuses” philosophy is something public schools reject because they don’t want to be mean.

Begin by assuming that cops and teachers have a great deal in common when working with at risk populations, but have widely different constraints.

The question, to me, is to what degree do we want to tighten constraints on police or loosen the constraints on public education? Is there a way we can do this that will help at risk teenagers get the multiple chances they sometimes need to get it right, without putting their lives at risk or endangering public safety?

I’m not sure any solutions get past “do what the cop says, or else”. But perhaps our priorities will change. As John Podoretz wrote, after the Wilson non-indictment, “Americans have often responded to an era of relative calm by deciding that the authorities have been too restrictive and cruel — resulting in a subsequent period in which greater laxity led to higher rates of crime.” If there was a way to thread the needle, to be authoritative without as much cruelty, without it leading to more crime (which I agree is a risk), that’s a discussion worth having.

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*My view, entirely anecdotal: Dealing with kids who’ve been ensconced in homogenous, multi-generational, welfare-reliant poverty is a very different and more difficult task than working with kids equally poor, but living in a racially and socio-economically diverse area. This difference is not related to test scores, and of course both highly motivated and incredibly unmanageable kids are found in both groups. Again anecdotally, the violence is much less of a problem in the second group. This is why it’s harder to set up charters for the suburban poor–both kids and parents tend, on average, to like their schools.

**

  1. Start with Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways to the end,

  2. Start with charter schools succeed because of their ability to control students, not teachers to the end.

Strategizing Horror

When I watch TV news, it’s Fox News–well, it usually is, except my current cable company doesn’t offer the channel and I’m moving soon enough that I haven’t bothered to change over. But I was out of town and oh, hey, look, Fox. I didn’t even know what show I was watching when suddenly….

You can see the whole 8 minutes of the Forbes on Fox segment here: Searching for Unifiers.

In a nutshell, David Asman and three panel members–Steve Forbes, David Webb, Sabrina Schaeffer–all observed that what Ferguson needed was more Polly Williams– black Democrats pushing for school choice. The key to fewer Ferguson incidents is educational freedom. Vouchers bring families together because they can’t just be passive recipients. “The people to blame [for Ferguson] are the Democrats and the teachers unions,” thundered Schaeffer. David Asman argues for giving poor parents the $12K it costs on average to educate a public school student, let them use that money for an elite private school to get a real education. (John Tamney, the one voice against the magic choice pill, said that academic outcomes are a result of kids and their parents, and that choice won’t fix that problem.)

Well.

So sure, the Forbes on Fox folks sounded like middlebrows because they can wallow in their own nonsense without fear of contradiction, and thus sound like a bunch of yutzes to anyone with a passing knowledge of the research, much less working experience educating poor kids. And remember, I actually watch Fox News, because I’m basically a Republican, if just across the border, and I find such yammering marginally more tolerable than similar nonsense at MSNBC or CNN, so I understand the context.

That’s not the point. Choice is a stupid idea, but whatever.

The point, the part that enraged me to the point that I haven’t done much but write this piece for the past 24 hours, is that Forbes on Fox engaged in political strategizing that I already find incredibly offensive and wrongheaded.

Briefly: Republicans attack teacher unions and exempt cops and firefighters from their cutbacks. These guys–and they are almost entirely white guys—are all given a pass because they traditionally vote GOP. So much better to attack teachers, whose list of job protections reads just like cops and firefighters except teachers don’t get overtime, generous retirement packages at 20 years, or disability, to try and scale back union protections without offending their own base. They can get to cops later—or, more likely, once the protections are scaled back, the cops will lose inevitably, leaving Republicans with cleaner hands. (If the Politico story is any indication, cops aren’t buying.)

This has been dismally ineffective in terms of moving the public opinion needle. Teachers are routinely well-represented in public respect polls–consistently above cops, generally below firefighters (who don’t even fight fires, dammit). Those most likely to attack teachers are politicians or their proxies (lobbyists), journalists, or business execs—all with very low rankings. So when this all gets too aggravating, I remind myself that journalists, politicians and business leaders attacking teachers is analogous to a bunch of carrion crows bitching about hummingbirds, in terms of their professional public respect.

The public policy needle has moved slightly more in their desired direction, but there’s a reason Bill Bennett calls the public education machine The Blob. I suspect, ultimately, that teachers will move off the political hot seat in a few years—possibly after the public is outraged at the utter waste of time and money now known as Common Core.

But to shill this during Ferguson is simply outrageous, for reasons best articulated by Jonah Goldberg. I quite like Goldberg despite his own tendency towards the middlebrow on teachers, as is evidenced in this diatribe on the evils of public unions that mentions teachers twice, the DMV once, and but neglects to criticize Walker for protecting cops and firefighter unions. He wrote a marvelous piece after the Newtown tragedy that you should read, saying What I dislike is the immediate rush to turn the slaughter into an any argument at all.

Yes. Bad enough that on ordinary days I have to listen to both Republican and Democrat politicians preach that education is a “civil rights” issue, that the reason the country must act to purge teachers is because of the immediate need of our disadvantaged youth. Let’s go ask the disadvantaged if their civil rights are violated more by cops or teachers, shall we? You think the high numbers in those “professional respect” polls are all coming from white people?

But when the world is watching riots occur because a white male cop shot a black male teenager, I find it beyond repugnant that Republicans of all ilk (and conservatives, whatever that difference is), decide to use the horror to blame teachers. Christopher Caldwell, another writer I admire, ends his piece with a school slam. Kevin Williamson of NRO blames defective schools 4 times in an article on Michael Brown that mentions—not blames— the police just once.

And no one objects. The left also bewails the schools but not the teachers, so they’re perfectly happy with the segue from–let’s just say it one more time–a white male cop shooting a black male teenager on a public street to see, this is what happens when schools suck for poor kids.

Let it be known that Darren Wilson resigned and was not fired. It would have been near impossible to fire him, as it is near impossible to fire all “bad” cops—because he’s got the gold-plated union protection that everyone in the public debate seems determined to pretend is available only to teachers.

But Darren Wilson isn’t a bad cop, you say. He had reasonable cause to fear for his life. Michael Brown shouldn’t have charged him.

I normally wouldn’t comment, but everyone else keeps dragging teachers into this mess, so I’ll point out that while I’m unqualified to judge Darren Wilson as a cop, I can say without question that using a teacher’s standards, he handled the encounter very badly. I have actual experience facing down very large male teenagers, be they black, white, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. (I suppose there are large male south or east Asians, but frankly I’m considerably more terrifying than the many I’ve met thus far.) I have seen kids of all ages, genders, and incomes go from zero to boiling hot angry in seconds. I have seen kids make their lives miserable by not walking something back, and I’ve learned how to help them walk it back, how to ignore an outrageous insult or a blatant rules violation from a kid with an ankle bracelet who really needs a second, third, or tenth chance to reconsider willful defiance that will earn him a visit with his probation officer.

In Title I schools, the hard truth is that some days, some times, high school teachers face situations not dissimilar to the sort of situation Darren Wilson found himself in when Michael Brown and friend refused to get out of the middle of the road. You see a boy ambling around the courtyard and because you know he spends most of his time outside the classroom, you tell him in no uncertain terms to get back to class and on a bad day, the kid tells to f*** off. Or you tell an angry girl to put something away and she throws it across the room, just missing you (other times, it hits you, but then there’s no walking it back). You see a guy texting during class for the kajillionth time and you sigh and go over to take his phone away, and he smacks it into your hand with an expletive and then flips a pencil in your general direction, claiming it was an accident. All of these situations come from my own experience, and all of them are mild compared to the kids who flip out and physically attack teachers for telling them to put their cell phones away or trying to stop them from selling drugs. Despite these showier cases, we teachers are told constantly do not physically touch students. Even self-defense is incredibly iffy. And while relatively few teachers get attacked and occasionally killed by their students, the poorer the school district the more at risk the teachers are. We deal with obnoxious, angry, offensive, stoned, abusive teenagers as a not infrequent part of our job.

When Darren Wilson told the two kids to stop walking down the middle of the street and they mouthed off, he was dealing with irrational pain in the ass teenagers, quite possibly stoned or otherwise high, and that’s my turf, baby. And what you don’t do, if you are thinking about that teenager and your own responsibility to that teenager, is physically block the teenager to try and get him to follow your orders. You don’t want to ignore the slight, because that way lies a whole different side of crazy that we can’t have.

Here is a possible reaction from the viewpoint of a teacher, just to illustrate. You GET OUT OF THE DAMN CAR. You stand at a distance, stop all movement, and say, loudly, “HEY. What did I just tell you to do?”

“F*** OFF! I told you we’d be off soon!”

“Yeah, well SOON doesn’t protect you if a car comes by and for reasons passing understanding I don’t want you to get run over. So finish crossing the street!”

There are many things that could happen from that point, from grudging or even laughing obedience to the same headlong charge that ended Brown’s life. If Michael Brown charged me, I couldn’t get out my gun and start blasting. I’d just run or get in the car and drive away or get help or whatever, satisfying myself that he’d probably end up in jail because I’d sure as hell press charges.

I am not suggesting this as an alternative reaction for Wilson. Teachers are legally and morally responsible for the well-being of their students. Protecting students is their top priority. Darren Wilson isn’t a teacher. He’s a cop, responsible for public safety, and for a number of good reasons, public safety is determined to be best served if cops feel safe and unthreatened, which means challenges to their authority are akin to a death threat. He doesn’t have to help kids walk it back. He has a gun. Like anyone, cop or no, he can use that gun if he reasonably feels his life is in danger. Juries take a very broad view of “reasonable”, as we’ve seen time and again. One could say that Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.

This is why I laugh when politicians–usually Republicans–suggest that arming teachers could prevent another school shooting. Insane nutjob shooting up a school happens once every so often, scattered around the country. Teachers being put in fear of their lives happens every day. Give teachers guns, and “school shootings” will start to have a very different meaning. Which is why I think it’s a stupid idea despite being a second amendment purist.

Education is complicated. It’s incredibly difficult to educate those who have no interest or ability. School choice will not make kids polite to white cops. It won’t stop them from bullying liquor store clerks. It won’t make them any less likely to commit petty theft. It won’t get them better test scores, even if they were able to go to the best private schools, which is very unlikely. Elite private schools, or even expensive suburban public school districts, will never willingly corrupt their environments with low-income brats who walk down the middle of the street for no other reason than to inconvenience people with the wherewithal to purchase automobiles. The only schools that will take such kids are those legally required to do so: the public schools who do their best to educate those with no interest and ability (they do a pretty good job educating low income kids with one or the other, by the way). Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away..

Slamming teachers for the same job features that cops get a pass for purely to achieve a limited political objective is mildly irritating. Blaming teachers and schools in any way for the events in Ferguson is pretty pathetic. I’m amazed that elites on both sides of the spectrum seem to think it acceptable discourse.


Mentoring Teachers

Last August, our new AVP asked me if I wanted to be an induction mentor. I fought off the urge to look at her in shock and said sure. I am not a fan of induction, but what the hell. My views on ed school have changed round the edges since that post, so maybe I could re-examine my firm belief that induction is the devil. Besides, neither of my induction mentors taught math, and if I’d refused this assignment the new teacher would have been assigned to someone Not a Math Teacher. Plus, amazingly, I get paid extra.

I would have done it for free, simply for the novelty of having been asked. Apparently, the move to my third school mad me a terrific teacher. All the administrators say hi unprompted and look at, rather than through, me. They ask my advice and want my feedback on interviews. I’m in my third year here and still haven’t really gotten used to being considered a valued resource. And the only thing that changed about my teaching practice was the address.

My mentee is a third year teacher who was very nervous that her induction mentor would treat her like a newbie whose ears needed wiping. Once we got past that, I think we’ve been doing well.

Induction itself has been a challenge. I’m a good mentor for new teachers (more on that in a minute), but she doesn’t really need mentoring on the basics. She needs me to play the other half of the induction process. Order. Following instructions. Attention to detail. Listening more than speaking. All attributes missing from my toolbox. I actually wake up nights every so often worried I’ve neglected something, that I’ll have let her down. Which means, I think, the exercise is good for me.

In addition, induction requires regular conversations about teaching practice, conversations that require give and take, as opposed to just jabbering about my own teaching which, it will come as little shock to regular readers, I am very fond of doing. I have to think about asking good questions of a peer, to be probing and challenging without dominating the conversation.

And at some point, I’ll have to observe her which means getting a substitute. Not crazy about that part. Still, this has really been useful professional development. Quite apart from just being thrilled to be asked, I’m learning a lot and working outside my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, we finally hired a full-time math teacher to replace the long term sub who was being terrorized by her Discovery Geometry class. Watching that go down was to witness a grueling demonstration of student brutality that I felt helpless to stop.

I met with this sub on many occasions. I personally handed her referral slips and wrote down the number to call to get students removed. I called supervisors to the room when the thumping and banging went on for more than two minutes. I told her not to let the kids even go to the bathroom and certainly not to let them go twice. Instead, she kept her door open in defiance of rules we’d been repeatedly told of, and kids came and went as they pleased. The other teachers in the surrounding classrooms were equally troubled; one of the most respected teachers on campus came in the classroom when the kids were throwing paper and empty water bottles at the sub. She told me privately she’d never shown so much contempt for students as she did in yelling at them—and that she could see some of them were ashamed. But they were at it again the next day. Those two months were an exercise in abuse psychology I’d just as soon have skipped, thanks. I learned that some teachers who can’t manage their classrooms just….go somewhere weird in their brains. They see themselves as helpless, even when they aren’t.

All of the teachers who witnessed this met with the administrators at various times to formally report the problem. I asked that supervisors stop by the classroom each day once or twice and just randomly remove kids who were acting out. Doing that a couple times would get kids leery waiting for the next supervisor appearance. It would have worked, I think. But no such action was taken.

While I wish our administrators had responded more vigorously, I’ve heard of this happening at other schools and it seems to be a universal response. I have concluded tentatively that administrators simply can’t bear to deal with the problems that occur when teachers—long-term subs or out-of-their-league probationaries—can’t control their classes. They look away. They have other things to do—including hiring replacements so they won’t have this problem next year.

What administrators ignore–or maybe just don’t let themselves think about or worst of all do think about and don’t ignore but can’t prevent—is the damage done to the kids. Never mind whether or not they lost instruction time (in fact, this sub was good on content). Kids in control of a classroom upsets the natural order. Students are troubled by this. Even the defiant nasties, the ones who’d do their best to disrupt in any circumstance, are bothered by teachers who just sit there and let it happen.

Anyway. When the new teacher came in, I came by to see him in his first hour on campus and recounted this history. He’s an intern, so he’s finishing up ed school while teaching (we should all be so lucky), a mild-mannered young guy with long hair and multiple piercings. I told him that I had zero authority over him, that he could take or leave anything I said, but that I believed he could permanently destroy himself as a teacher if he didn’t make classroom management his top priority. I don’t know how teachers recover from the memory of entire classes that hold not just their authority but their very existence in such contempt. I’m not convinced that most of them do.

I told him to come see me if he needed anything at all. He asked what he should do for the first day, and I suggested my algebra assessment test.

“But I don’t want to give them a test they haven’t had time to prepare for.”

“Tell them the only way they can get a bad grade is if they don’t try, and that you’ll be able to tell if they aren’t trying.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea. So this gets me through the first 20 minutes, then we can grade it, then what?”

“It will take them 45 minutes, then you can grade it, then you can go over class rules, which start with no one goes to the bathroom for a week in your classroom. Again, suggestion, I promise. But a strong suggestion.”

“This assessment will take them 45 minutes?”

“Your geometry class. The Discovery Geometry kids probably will need an hour, but some of them will just stop after that point.”

The next day, he reported with considerable astonishment that the geometry kids took 45 minutes; the Discovery Geometry kids took longer. I had street cred now.

He came by and asked for advice and curriculum frequently. Time and again, I was proven correct in suggesting he was being too ambitious in setting instructional rigor, ensuring he had a backup plan in case he needed to slow things down. He tells me this has helped him not only gauge student ability, but keep his classes successful—thus ensuring he keeps the students’ trust. He’s not a great classroom manager yet–the most disruptive class is still giving him trouble—but he’s male, which helps, and the classes are now well in hand.

He’s not eligible for induction, but it turns out we have another program to help intern teachers. Our school rep for that program reached out to him to see if he wanted a mentor and damned if he didn’t say “Hey, I already have one.” So now I’m getting paid to help him, too. I’m hoping I can combine all the observations for this and my induction mentee in one day.

Veteran teachers rarely reach out to help “the new guy” (or girl). At my last school, in just my third year of teaching, I was the go-to resource for two new math teachers whose induction mentors couldn’t be bothered. They both mentioned often how much they appreciated my help. One of them is now a department head (See? Told you he was a rock star) and he makes a point to give new teachers the support I provided him.

Key information:

  1. Copier information
  2. Referral slips
  3. Tech guy contact
  4. Principal’s secretary
  5. First day activity
  6. What to do if you don’t have logins to attendance system, grading book, and email. (First rule: Don’t let anyone make this your problem.)

In parenting, Jean Illsley Clark has defined assertive, supportive and conditional care. This paradigm works well with any kind of mentoring relationship, too. I could tell that my inductee was worried I would be assertive or conditional—that is, tell her what to do or withdraw my support if she didn’t share my teaching values. My other newbie told me apologetically he didn’t feel ready to teach a geometry subject the way I suggested, that he was more comfortable “just explaining it”. I told him that was fine, that methods like mine need commitment and confidence, that he shouldn’t extend himself until he feels ready.

I work hard to be purely supportive. I’m there to help, not make a teacher into a mini-me. Short of seeing a teacher break the law or endanger student well-being, I would never offer “assertive care”. And if there’s one thing that long-term sub taught me, it’s that “assertive care” doesn’t work without authority to back it up.

The upshot of all this: I’m an experienced teacher. I mean, I knew that. But now it’s official. I don’t want to go into management, have no interest in being a department head, and I’m not into sports. So I guess mentoring new teachers is where I go next. Huh. Not what I would have expected. But it would be fun to do this in a methods or classroom management course.

Note: Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, for a number of reasons. I’ve been doing all sorts of research but couldn’t settle on anything. I’m going to take on undemanding topics for a while to break the block.


College Confidential and Brain Dumping the SAT

SAT Scores Delayed for Asian International Students

The above is the official story put out by the Washington Post, which is far more informative than any other outlet I could find. However, Valerie Strauss put some other information in two blog entries:

On Oct. 8, 2014 — days before the Oct. 11 administration of the SAT — the National Center for Fair & Open Testing received an anonymous tip about cheating that included what the sender claimed to be a copy of the December 2013 SAT that was supposedly going to be administered at international sites Oct. 11. This was reported by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the center, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the abuse of standardized tests commonly known as FairTest. He said FairTest tried to confirm the claims but could not.

According to Schaeffer, SAT tests given at international sites are “almost always” repeats of exams administered previously in the United States but not publicly released.

Students began to think that the October 2014 international version of the SAT was identical to the December 2013 U.S. version by Googling some vocabulary words and passage topics and finding that the 2013 test was the one that came up in discussions threads on “collegeconfidential.com,” according to Schaeffer. It is not yet clear, however, whether the two tests are identical.

I’ll have more to say about the media coverage, but I got distracted by reading up on College Confidential. I’ve always been skeeved by the forum, but that’s because I’m usually researching the test threads which are almost certainly populated by Asians and Asian Americans. No doubt the forums have other purposes; I hear parents frequent them. Little has been written about the forum;the NY Times wrote a feature about it that seems out of date. Quantcast shows that Asians represent 13% of the users, considerably above average. 18-24 is the largest age group, 45-54 is second. So it’s clearly not just used for college tests.

Anyway, I read the college confidential thread, which was opened back in early November for the December test, but from page 4 to page 70 is nothing but brain dumps. The posters make reference to Tiny Chat, a conferencing chat room, and google docs, where they are clearly compiling a list of all the answers. Many posters are putting down all the answers they can remember, in specific detail. One poster lists all the math answers by section (page 57, 58, page 59):

ccmathsatanswers

ccmathsatanswers2

ccmathsatanswers3

A few weeks later, a new thread is opened for the December international test, held on December 7th—and posted so early that the thread date was December 6th (the forums on US time, I assume). In response to the creator’s query, another poster announces that the December international test was a reissue of the June 2012 test, and for good measure gives a table:

JAN 2013- MARCH 2010
MAY 2013- JUNE 2009
JUNE 2013- MARCH 2012
OCTOBER 2013- MARCH 2013
NOVEMBER 2013- JUNE 2011
DECEMBER 2013 JUNE 2012

One thread asked about the December 7 international test

The poster is then sent to the June 12th thread, where again, all the answers are put down. One person (poster name largeblackman. I am deeply skeptical) posts reading section answers.

These are the only two months I checked.

Someone reading this going to say “I did this back when I took the SAT. Chewed over everything I remembered with my friends, worried if we didn’t get the same answers.” Well, no. You didn’t do this. Some of the posters are going into shocking detail. They have question numbers, letter answers. A good chunk of the posters were clearly coordinating the creation of a complete document with all the questions and answers.

They were braindumping, an activity that Microsoft spends a lot of time and energy preventing, but the College Board seems to actively encourage by reusing old tests for international students.

No wonder Asians have such a strong preference for the SAT. The credulous press tends to believe in the super tutors of Asia, but they’re much more likely to be New Oriental “prep” methods revisited. Steal the test, then memorize everything on it. GMAT had similar issues.

Valerie Strauss quotes the head of an international school who caught a cheater: This is certainly organized crime.

I suppose it’s possible that all these posts at College Confidential are just 17-year-olds pranking each other. I find that unlikely. More probably, the posters in question aren’t all 17, but adults who are paid to go in and take the tests while photographing or at least memorizing as much of the test as is possible. Or at the very least, the posters are actual high school students coordinating information illegally. Certainly, someone should at least investigate: ask the owners to provide the IP addresses, actually read the threads, ask the posters to produce the google docs they mention, find the actual names of people who participated.

But universities want the Chinese money, and College Board wants the test fees, and the FBI has to keep watch on Ferguson so that Holder can admonish the grand jury when Darren Wilson isn’t indicted. Who has the time or inclination to investigate a possible organized criminal enterprise that’s corrupting our educational institutions?


Strange Happenings of the Everyday

A few weeks ago, the principal’s voice broke in on the loudspeaker.

“Okay, the lockdown drill begins now. Please proceed.”

I don’t know if all teachers do this, but even without the reminder of a school shooting, I periodically go through the “what-ifs” for my particular room. This one has two doors and really doesn’t offer a good line of fire to someone standing outside the room, since I sit my kids in groups. If a school shooter ever did show up and took it into his head to use my students as sitting ducks, I’d have some reaction time.

I’d told the kids of the drill the day before (as we were supposed to). This was the small class, and the boisterous contingent interrupted my explanation some 30 times a minute until I finally made them put their heads down and just listen. But they all went into motion as we’d discussed.

Kyle got ready behind the bookcase, waiting for me to open the left door and do one last check for any outside strays. As I shut the door and hit the left light off, he pushed the bookcase in front of the door. Elliot and Ahmed pushed some desks in front of the right door and, at my direction, switched the right light switch off. Kyle, Elliot, and Ahmed sat in the back middle, between the two doors. Ali sat behind the closet on the far back left, out of range. The other ten or so students moved to the front right of the room, creating a small barricade of desks and a huge table. I went back to the front left of the room, turned off my monitor (has a 2 minute sleeping time), and ducked behind the desk.

Within 30 seconds of the call, we were all sitting on the floor in the dark. I wondered briefly if I’d locked the door, but remembered that we were required to now. Our security team had been through training and learned that school shooters don’t usually try to break down doors, but rather try doors looking for open ones. So we have to lock our doors constantly, which is a drag because I have to stand by an open door as my students enter the room each block. Some people call this “creating a welcoming environment”. I call this a waste of five minutes.

“I have to pee.” Naturally, Mohammed. Giggles. “Can I get a pass?”

“No.”

“But I really have to pee. I’ll have to go on the floor.”

“Then you’ll clean it up. And I won’t give you any paper towels.”

“What would I use?”

“Well, your pants would already be wet. You could just be a Mohammed mop, swishing around on your butt to soak up the excess.”

“Or I could take them off.”

“You take off your pants in this room I’ll throw you outside and let the shooter get you.” No, I didn’t say this. I just thought it. Dre said it.

“Whaaaaat?” This shut Mohammed down, as he likes attention but not when the class is laughing at him.

“Okay, class, who starred in Die Hard?”

“Oh, I know! Bruce Willis!” Dylan, one of the quiets, spoke up.

“Who sang Bohemian Rhapsody?”

“QUEEN!”

“What’s the ratio for the sine function?”

“Oh, that stars the Hawk guy, from The Avengers!” Elliot.

“Opposite over hypotenuse,” from Amanda, another quiet one.

“How many Hunger Games movies are there?”

“Two!”

“No, four!”

“They aren’t out yet. It’s just two!”

“The third one is coming out.”

“Yeah, but it’s part one.”

Fortunately, they don’t ask me to adjudicate, since I had no idea how many Hunger Games movies there are. I thought they’d tell me. While they debated the issue, I wondered how my colleague was doing. His huge room has no windows and a heavy door, also windowless. His next door neighbor, with an interior adjoining door, teaches the severely autistic students who can’t tolerate sitting in the dark–or indeed, any sudden change. So when the drill went off, she just brings her students into his pre-calc class. Sudden change, just not sitting in the dark. Hope it went well.

Just then, my email bell went off and the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker.

“Students and teachers, a local school is experiencing a security alert and we are now in lockdown alert mode, although we are in no immediate danger. The lockdown drill will continue. Thanks for your continued response.”

Pause.

“The hell? I thought we were in lockdown already,” from Dre.

“Does this end the drill and we can turn on the lights?”

I turned my monitor back on and read the email, which largely restated the principal’s message. No parenthetical about how we were nesting a real lockdown inside a lockdown drill. Huh. I turned the monitor off again. “Real” lockdowns are issued during local security alerts, requiring us to keep all the kids in the room with a locked door.

“What’d the email say?”

“Nothing helpful. There’s probably a security alert somewhere–a bank robbery or power line down. So we’ll just keep going.”

“That’s weird.”

“I’m sitting on a dirty floor in a pitch black room with fifteen teenagers. Weird left the building five minutes ago, shaking its head at our wacko ways.”

“You funny.”

“Would you save us if the gunman came?” from Elliot.

“Yeah. I’d try to. Whatever door he tried to come in, I’d throw desks and white boards and books at him as long as I could, distracting him best I could, and hope you guys could escape out the other door.”

“But he might see us.”

“Yeah. In that case, we’d stay in. Either he stays out, and we’re relatively safe in here, or he comes in and you all leave.”

“Or maybe we could all attack him.”

“Except Mohammed, who’d be mopping up his pee.”

“No way, I’d throw pee at the shooter. Burn his eyes.”

Principal’s voice came on again. The lockdown was over. Elapsed time: 15 minutes. We turned on the lights, put the desks and bookshelves back, and went on with class.

We passed the drill with flying colors, which is not always the case. At one school I participated in a fire evacuation procedure that made Arnold’s first attempt in Kindergarten Cop seem a paragon of efficiency, and got us a stern talking to by the district. The “real” lockdown inside the drill had been called because of an armed robbery nearby. Sorry for the confusion, they said.

I was reading The Secret Lives of Teachers, an essay at Larry Cuban’s blog (by Steve Drummond), one in a series about teachers when they’re at home and the varied lives they lead. Somewhat implied is the contrast with the sameness of our jobs at school as the kids and the public perceives them: grade papers, make copies, hang out at the luxurious faculty lounge and, occasionally, teach. But then we all go home and really live the lives that fuel our passion, or something.

I’ve always thought our work was pretty interesting. Besides, every so often we get to sit in the dark with our kids and pretend a deranged adolescent is trying to kill us.


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.


The Teacher Wars: A Review

Before I start: I mind Dana Goldstein (could it be she really called herself Daisy, or is this a different Dana Goldstein who graduated from Brown in 2006?) a whole lot less than I do Elizabeth Green or Amanda Ripley. I do have a complaint about book publishers handing book deals to dilettantes. Now Dana is dubbed a brilliant young scholar when in fact, she’s a reporter, a journalist, with a BA in international something or other. I mean, please.

So first off, the title’s a serious case of wishful thinking. This book can’t even be considered an inadequate history of teaching. Goldstein loses sight of her brief within a chapter or two. Anyone looking for a more systematic approach to the development and changes in the teaching profession should check out The Trouble With Ed Schools, by David Labaree, or dip into The One Best System: A History of Urban Education by David Tyack. Perhaps The Great School Wars, by Diane Ravitch, or even her The Troubled Crusade, which addresses mostly k-12 and college developments since World War II, but still gives a good accounting of developments in the teaching profession.

Yes, The Great School Wars is about the history of New York City schools, and Tyack’s work is limited to urban education. But Dana doesn’t stray much from New York all that often, and when she does, it’s usually urban education: Chicago and LA both make an appearance in that regard. But she rarely leaves the Eastern Seaboard. Goldstein leaves out much of America’s diversity: the word “Asian” makes two appearances, neither of which involve teachers working with students, Hispanics are only after the “and” (blacks and Hispanics), rural America not at all, save for the post-Civil War African Americans. This in a book that has the time to sigh wistfully over Catherine Beecher’s drowned fiancé and give a few pages to Horace Mann’s obsession with phrenology.

I found next to nothing in chapters seven and beyond on teachers themselves; it’s all on the changing discourse around teaching. I literally went back to the book title at one point; was I mistaken as to the book’s intent? No, there it was: A history of the profession.

Larry Cuban is a resource on the Cardozo Project, an earlier effort to recruit young, white elites into teaching (in this case, ex-Peace Corps volunteers), which gets the better part of a chapter. Cuban is the best progressive voice in education (and a properly skeptical one), but why does the Cardozo Project get so much time in a purported history of teaching that doesn’t once explain, lucidly, how teachers get credentials? Goldstein briefly describes the process for New York, in the mid-century, twice—usually with disapproval. She occasionally mentions the National Teacher Examination disapprovingly, without ever explaining what it was–and is.

Best mention of the NTE: “a controversial standardized test…known for producing higher scores among whites.” Yes, those state credentialing boards had to search long and hard to find a test where whites scored higher than blacks. It’s so uncommon that we all used to call the NTE “that biased test where whites score higher than blacks” unlike the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, every school test in the existence of the universe…

At least she mentions the NTE. The Praxis series doesn’t get one mention. Yes, in three chapters on the current “history” of teaching, one in which Goldstein regularly bewails the lack of black teachers, not a single mention of the increasing content knowledge standards, no acknowledgement of the considerable legal history on teacher examinations, all of which begins and ends with the disparate impact on teachers of color. This is, of course, one of my beats, so I’d be a tough critic anyway. But the idea that anyone could write about the history of teaching, and declare that “most have below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities” without mentioning the credential test—hell, just cut and paste NCTQ promotional materials in and call it a day.

Another puzzling gap is any mention of the development of student teaching. I haven’t begun my research in this area, but surely any history of teachers would mention the development of the practicum. Oh, hey, here Goldstein does use NCTQ as a reference:

California essentially prohibited the undergraduate education major in 1970. Prospective elementary school teachers there could choose any major and then spend a post-baccalaureate year student teaching while taking a few education classes. According to research from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a single year turned out not to be enough time to train teachers in the pedagogical skills needed for the broad range of subjects elementary teachers, especially, must tackle. Early-grades math instruction in particular was short-changed in California, and students paid the price.

Goldstein later says she tried to stick to analysis, not opinionating. She must have forgotten this passage. NCTQ is not a gold-standard source. The education major is not particularly well-respected; many reformers call for its demise. I’m also pretty sure every state allows a prospective teacher to “choose any major” and then do a year for a credential. This is, after all, how most secondary teachers get their credentials, and no small number of elementary schoolers. Yet here Goldstein is harshly criticizing the one state that did do away with the education major—without ever backing up the “students suffer” claim. (Sure, California has low test scores, but so do a whole bunch of states that offer education majors.)

But the point is that this is the first mention of student teaching, in chapter 8. How and when did teachers start providing free labor as part of training? Did it start at this point? Shouldn’t that be mentioned somewhere? Look elsewhere. Hell, look here in a month or three.

So considered as a history of teaching, Teachers Wars doesn’t even begin to start to deliver.

The book succeeds somewhat as a series of occasionally entertaining essays intended as a cautionary tale to education reformers, reminding them they haven’t had a single new idea in the past 30 years. But Tinkering Towards Utopia and The Same Thing Over and Over Again have already covered that ground. Goldstein has little new to offer. She’s too busy hitting all the buttons: feminism, check, teaching ex-slaves, check, union formation and feminism, check, communist pledges, check, overly white profession avoiding diversity, check.

And even considered in this light, the book has deficiencies. Goldstein’s time allocation is lopsided; one hundred and fifty years (1830-1980, roughly) are covered in 140 pages, while 30 years get nearly 100 pages, or nearly triple the attention. This doesn’t count the introduction and epilogue, both focused primarily on the present. Three pages on a random teacher getting canned. Kati Haycock gets an ungodly amount of time. In addition to Larry Cuban’s Cardozo Project, Alex Caputo-Pearl gets a ream or so.

I might not object as much to the past 30 years gets proportionately more attention if Goldstein had any new insights, but apart from learning the name of Reagan’s first Secretary of Education (Ted Lewis Bell–ok, so I didn’t learn it), I found little on that front. Goldstein just regurgitates recent history rather than analyze its impact. The last half of the book is slow going indeed, because there’s little we haven’t seen a million times before. I guess everyone’s forgotten the PBS series that Goldstein appeared to borrow an outline from, and will be intrigued by hints that Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher were romantically involved.

A direct comparison is instructive. The Nation published Goldstein’s chapter on the famous fight for control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools, in which an African American community school board fires 19 teachers without cause and Al Shanker calls a city-wide strike that goes on for over a month. Goldstein declares that the real issue involved was teacher competency (“But what could be done about teachers who were just plain bad at their jobs?”), that the board was just trying to fire bad teachers. She singles out art teacher Richard Douglass, saying he was witnessed by hall monitor Cecil Bowen being completely incompetent. Using this anecdote, Goldstein implies without saying directly this led to the May 9th firings which caused a seven month show-down.

I’m unconvinced. I can find no mention of Douglass in any other account, and while I’m not doubting her source (apparently a contemporaneous magazine article), Goldstein’s claim of incompetent teachers isn’t supported by Ravitch’s history (more on that in a minute) nor a recent history of the account, The Strike that Changed New York, by Jerald Podair. Podair explicitly says that Rhody McCoy and the school board made a list of the educators…most hostile to district control. Podair also writes that that the new teachers hired by McCoy tried to teach differently, engage the kids. Engagement vs.rigor is, of course, a debate still to this day. But I could find no real mention of teacher incompetence as the cause, but rather teacher resistance to the board. Douglass makes no appearance in that book, nor is he mentioned in Why They Couldn’t Wait, or Charles Isaacs’ account from inside. The general consensus appears to be not that these were “bad teachers” but that they were trouble makers. It may also have been true that the teachers “didn’t relate” to the students, but Isaacs’ account makes clear that “relating” means an early entry of the hippy dippy 70s teaching style, truly the nadir of recent American education. And, as Goldstein makes clear , the test scores plummeted under Rhody McCoy and community control, so despite all the supposedly rigid teachers, kids actually learned less with the well-meaning newbies and teachers who “related”.

But apart from that one discrepancy, Goldstein’s account doesn’t break any new ground, and can thus be compared to the first history of this incident, which appeared in Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars.

And the comparison doesn’t serve Goldstein well. It’s easy to mock Ravitch these days, and her credibility in the elite circles of edu-wonks is apparently quite low (education reporters like Alexander Russo openly insult her on Twitter) but her early histories have chapters that just scorch your psyche. I originally included some quotes, but really, the overall comparison is girl to woman, boy to man, History Lite to Serious Shit. Ravitch was 34 when she wrote The Great School Wars, Goldstein is about 30. Ravitch didn’t have a book deal, she wasn’t a journalist from the right schools (much more important these days then back then), she was a housewife and mom with a rich husband with no one to please, and it shows. Agree or disagree with Ravitch’s overarching themes, her early work really is fearless and purely exhilarating to read.

Instead, we have Dana Goldstein, who made it this far by getting into the right school, writing what’s expected of her, not offending anyone, so why start now?


The Available Pool

(This is by far the most Voldemortean topic I’ve taken on in a while. Brace up.)

Some readers might have noted a potential flaw in my observation that ed schools can’t commit affirmative action. If the average elementary school SAT score is 500 per section, and the average content SAT score is 580 in the relevant subject, then there shouldn’t be a shortage. Plenty of African Americans have those scores, right?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “plenty”.

Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Four words I’d never thought I’d say. I liked Gladwell’s article about ketchup. I also find him useful as a predictive sorter: when I meet someone who admires his work, I run like hell.

But recently I came across a page I’d either missed or forgotten about since the last time I flipped through his book.

gladwelliqbarriers

Gladwell even cites Jensen.

Conceding what he sees as a minor aspect of IQ to make a larger point, Gladwell acknowledges that regions, or thresholds, of IQ exist. But beyond these broad ability differentiators, IQ differences are irrelevant compared to factors like luck, birth, language, rice paddy history. Given certain thresholds, IQ is relatively unimportant in outcomes.

And given certain thresholds, Gladwell’s not terribly wrong, as Jensen confirms.

There’s just one pesky little problem still left to plague modern society: the thresholds. The regions, as Jensen describes them, that differentiate between broad ability levels. The ones that even an IQ pishtosher like Gladwell accepts as given. They’re kind of an issue, if by “issue” you mean the fatal flaw lurking in most of our social and education policies.

Jensen’s regions correspond to the IQ standard deviation markers. The average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15. An IQ of 70 is 2 SD below the average of 50 (2nd percentile), 85 is 1 SD below average (16th percentile), 115–the marker for graduate level work, according to Gladwell and Jensen—is 1 SD above the mean.

Translating Gladwell and Jensen into standard deviations: in order for an American student to be ready for a college graduate program, he needs to have an IQ at the 84th percentile, with “average” (this is Gladwell’s word) as the 50th percentile. Give or take. IQ tests are finicky, no need to be purist. These are broad strokes.

Using those broad strokes, we know that average African American IQ is a little less than one standard deviation below that “average IQ” (again, Gladwell’s term), which means that the 84th percentile for all IQs is attained by just 2% of blacks. Test scores consistently prove out this harsh reality. While the mean African American IQ has risen five points since 1970, test performance has often remained stubbornly 1SD below that of whites. As Chistopher Jencks observes, “typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests”, and often as much as 85% (or 1SD). Much has been written about the 1 SD difference; you can see it in the SAT, the GMAT, and the LSAT. (The SAT is much easier these days; before the recentering, just 70 blacks got over 700 on the verbal, whereas today it’s 2100, or 2%. In 1995, 90% of African Americans scored below 430 on the verbal section whereas the unrecentered LSAT has a score distribution chart registering no black scores over 170.)

(You’re thinking oh, my god, this is Bell Curve stuff. No, no. This is Gladwell, remember? Secure position in the pantheon of liberal intellectual gods. It’s all good.)

We are oversupplied with whites with IQs over the 115 threshold, all of whom have the requisite tested ability to be lawyers and doctors and professors. Since these fields are highly desirable, the educational culling process weeds out or rejects all but the most cognitive elite candidates. Thus all the cognitively demanding fields have a sorting process for whites: medicine, law, academia, science, technologists, executives, politicians, venture capitalists, mathematicians, yada yada yada all the way down to high school teachers, the peasants of the cognitive elite.

The available pool of blacks with the requisite Gladwellian-approved IQs to test into graduate education is barely toe deep.

To build cohorts with blacks exceeding single digits, graduate schools in law, medicine, and business, to name just a few, commit deep discount affirmative action, regardless of legal bans. Ed schools can’t, for reasons I described in the last post. Given the wide range of choices blacks with anything approaching the requisite cognitive ability have, it’s hard to say if any sorting occurs at all.

Much has been written of the supposedly low standards for teacher licensure exams but what do we know about the standards for becoming a lawyer in Alabama or a doctor in Missisippi?

I often ask questions for which data is unobligingly unavailable. Sometimes I just haven’t found the data, or it’s too broad to be much good. Sometimes it’s like man, I have a day job and this will have to do.

Med school: Not much data. See Razib Khan’s efforts.

Law school: For all the talk about mismatch or the concern over dismal bar exam passing rates for blacks, the reality is that low LSAT scores, law school, and persistence can still result in a licensed black lawyer. State bar exam difficulties aren’t uniform (which is also true for teaching). This bar exam predictor says that a law school graduate with an LSAT of 139, three points below the African American mean, attending an Alabama lawschool not in the top 150, graduating in the bottom tenth of his class, has a 26% chance of passing the bar. In Iowa, the same person has a 17% chance–in California, just 4%.

If that predictive application has any validity, the cognitive abilities needed to pass the average high school math or science licensure test in most states are higher than those demanded to pass a bar exam in states filling out the bottom half of the difficulty scale. Passing the math or science licensure exams with an SAT score below the African American mean would be next to impossible in most states. English and history probably compete pretty well on that front as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cognitive demands needed to pass elementary school licensure tests in tough states (California) are greater than those needed to pass the bar exam in easy states (Alabama). (sez me, who has passed the tests in three subjects, and sez all available information on average SAT scores for passing candidates).

Here we are back at the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in the last post. Received wisdom says teachers are stupid. Reality says teacher credential tests have significant cognitive barriers, barriers that appear to exceed those for law and may do so as well for medicine—and the other professional tests are presumably easier still.

Before I looked into this, I would have assumed that licensure tests for law and medicine weeded out a “smarter” class of blacks than those weeded out of teaching. Now I’m not as sure. It seems law schools and med schools keep out the “not-as-smart”whites and Asians while admitting blacks and Hispanics who would only be “not-as-smart” if they were white or Asian. The med and law school licensure exams, in knowledge of this weeding, are gauged to let in the “not-as-smart”, secure in the knowledge that these candidates will be mostly black and Hispanic. (A number of “not-as-smart” whites and Asians will make it through, assuming they paid a small fortune for a low-tier law school, but jobs will be much harder to find.) Understand that I’m using “smart” in the colloquial sense, which means “high test scores”. And most evidence says these are the same thing. I’ve said before now I’m not as certain of this, particularly with regards to African Americans.

This isn’t enough to prove anything, of course, and I wanted more. What else could I could use to—well, if not prove, at least not disprove, what seems to me an obvious reason for a dearth of black teachers?

Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and ethnicity

I made some predictions going in:

  1. Blacks would be a higher percentage of elementary/middle school teachers than of high school teachers. I couldn’t sort out academic teachers from special ed and PE teachers, and I wasn’t sure whether sped teachers would be included in the count. But given the easier licensure test, I was betting the percentage would be higher.
  2. There would be more black school administrators than black high school teachers.
  3. The ratio of black lawyers and doctors to black high school teachers would be higher than the ratio of white lawyers and doctors to white high school teachers (in absolute numbers).
  4. The ratio of black social workers to black teachers would be much higher than the same ratio for white teachers.

So this table shows the total employed in each category, the percentage black and white, the absolute number black and white:
blackwhiteprofs

This table calculates the ratio of each non-teaching occupation to K-8 and high school teachers by race. So the number of black high school teachers is 25% of the number of black K-8 teachers, and there are 154% more black administrators than there are black high school teachers, and so on.

blkwhiteprofperc

I didn’t want to over-interpret the data, so this is just simple Excel, pulling the numbers right off the table (calculating white percentage by subtracting the other races). And I was right about a lot, except this very funny thing:

There are more white lawyers than white high school teachers!

Still, this data mostly bears out my predictions. I threw in some other categories: entertainment/media, and all health, just for compare/contrast.

Many blacks become social workers, far more than become high school teachers or even K-8 teachers. Now, I know teachers complain about low pay, but social work has really low pay, less attractive vacations, and a client base even less cooperative than the average high school student.

I was wrong about lawyers, obviously, but not about doctors. While black high school teachers and black physicians/dentists are in roughly equal supply, white doctors are just 87% of white high school teachers. Whites have to compete with Asians, who are 20% of doctors (and just 5% of lawyers), but if the professions were cognitively sorting on anything approaching an equal basis, there should be a lot more black high school teachers, shouldn’t there? And when expanding the field to all health care practitioners and technicians—therapists, optometrists, nurses, hygienists, pathologists—blacks outnumber black high school teachers by twice the ratio that white high school teachers are outnumbered.

So blacks are choosing skilled health care work over teaching at considerably higher rates than whites are making that same choice, and the number of black doctors have near parity with black high school teachers, while white doctors are a bit further behind.

Then there’s my amazing perspicacity in predicting the overrepresentation of black education administrators. Pretty obvious, really. Districts can only practice affirmative action in teacher hiring to the extent they have black candidates. But administrative positions are wide open for affirmative action. While I’m sure there’s a test, it’s got to be a piece of cake compared to the high school subject credential test. I can’t really take all the credit, though.
CJ Cregg first alerted me to affirmative action in principal selection. But before you shed all sorts of tears for Tal Cregg, remember that the Brown decision resulted in thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs, all in the name of racial equity and equal access.

I only had one surprise. When I started this effort, I figured that I’d include a snarky remark like “Want more black teachers? Raise the cut scores for the bar exam.” But no, lawyers, it turns out, are whiter even than high school teachers. That might explain why the cut scores are set so low on the bar exam, and it suggests that the predictive application knows its stuff. The legal profession in many states is doing its best to bring in more black and Hispanic lawyers by lowering the cut score—in others, not so much.

Steve Sailer noticed something I’d missed in my original post on teacher SAT scores—namely, teachers had strong verbal scores regardless of the subject taught. Law, too, is a field heavy on the reading and talking. So maybe whites are drawn to fields that reward this aptitude. It’s arguable, in fact, that America’s entire educational policy through the century was informed, unknowingly, by its unusually large population of unambitious smart white people who like to talk. We might want to consider that possibility before we start demanding diversity.

Anyway.

Step one in investigating the lack of black teachers should start with the oversupply of black social workers and see why, given their strong interest in community work, they aren’t going into teaching. The uninformed yutzes who presume to opine on education policy think ed schools are either prejudiced against or just uninterested in recruiting black teachers. Those actually interested in creating black teachers think it’s the licensure tests. I’m with them.

So go find out. If I’m right, we can start talking about lowering the cut scores for k-3 licensure tests. Once we realize that the Common Core goals are a chimera, we might create high school teaching tiers, with easier tests for basic math and English classes. (In exchange, maybe, for loosening up the affirmative action grip on administrative positions, if such a grip exists.)

Given the tremendous overrepresentation of blacks in our prisons, I’d argue we need to spend our time and policy creating more black lawyers, not black teachers. Better pay, better status and who knows, maybe better justice.

The available pool of black cognitive talent is small. Tradeoffs must be made. If we want more black teachers, we’ll have to lower the cognitive ability standards required for teaching or reduce the number of black professionals in better-paying, higher-status jobs. To a certain extent, the first of those options make sense. The second one’s just stupid.

I got into this because of that damn TFA announcement saying that 1 in 5 of their teaching corps was black, and the congratulatory nonsense that spewed forth in the announcement’s wake. And you still should be wondering how TFA is getting so many blacks that can pass the licensure tests. Next up, I promise.


Teaching: The Movie

Another entry in “teacher as entertainer”:

Dave of Math Equality writes that Taylor Mali captures his zeal for teaching. Eh. I get vaguely embarrassed when they play Taylor Mali at PD sessions; he’s like teacher martyr porn or something. I naturally have all sorts of teaching miracle stories. But I don’t tell them to inspire you, dear readers, to convince you that here’s another wonderful, self-sacrificing teacher slaving away unappreciated and exploited, yet nobly giving every drop of sweat and blood to to help navigate self and soul to adulthood or sanity, whichever is needed more.

I’m saying “Look, another day at work turns out to be a F***ING MOVIE!” I made more money in tech, sure, but I didn’t ever experience moments where I thought jesus, people would pay money to watch this on screen and not feel ripped off.

Make no mistake: I am the STAR of this movie. I have a contract giving me a guaranteed audience of thirty for 90 minutes, three times a day. They are to be attentive, listen, watch, and if they learn too, well, cool.

Anyway, I had a moment today that many other teachers have had, and for me it was like, I’d have kicked back $20 to the district for the sheer joy of the experience.

It was fourth block, my prep, and I was just about to leave for Starbucks, as is my routine, when Steve, from third block, knocked on the door.

“Hey, why aren’t you in class?”

Steve, white, tall, skinny, glasses, shook his head. “Can’t handle it. It’s insane in there.” He pointed to the class next door.

The class next door is taught by a long-term sub, because we haven’t been able to find a math teacher. But of course, the big pain point for principals is firing bad teachers. (The AVP offered the job to first one, then the other of my interviews, both took other jobs.) This sub is a qualified physics teacher, new to teaching, just got work permit, teaching a brutal schedule (two Discovery Geometry classes. Shoot. me. now.) I’ve talked to her a couple times, given her some advice.

I got up. “Come on.”

Steve shook his head, “No, they’ll know I brought you over. Can I stay here?” I gave him a withering look–sissy!–and as I walked next door I have to admit I envisioned myself pushing open the saloon doors as the sheriff, come to beat this brawl down.

The sub opened the door and gasped, “Thank you for coming!” The room was….not quite a barroom brawl, but kids were talking and chatting and eating, purses and backpacks on their desk covering the handout. They were manifestly not doing math. One big guy with cornrows (and no, not black) in the back of the room was leaning back in his chair, texting. I took his phone and gave it to the sub.

“What are they supposed to be doing?” I asked, softly.

“They are taking a test.”

“A TEST?” Cue Ennio Morricone.

Heads swiveled. I walked to the front of the room, slowly, looking at students. At least ten of them are in my third block class (not math), and they quieted down immediately. Some of the others were still talking. Discovery Geometry is a tough crowd.

“Quiet.”

“Who are you?”

I just look at him, a big guy, Asperger’s, not malicious. He picked up on a facial cue (hey!) and didn’t demand an answer. The room got quiet in a hurry. Another, smaller guy (this one is black) is perched at the door, half open.

“Are you in this class?”

“Yeah, I have to go the bathroom. Waiting to see what you said.”

“Good plan. You can go. Be back in under two minutes.” To the class, which had briefly started to rustle: “I said QUIET.” Quiet.

“Purses and backpacks on the floor. Now.”

Instant obedience.

“You three are way too close together. You, in red, move to that desk. Then you two spread out. Girls, you in pink sit at the end of the table, other two spread out.” Again, obedience.

“You work the test in silence. I don’t want to hear about any problems. Next time I come here, it’s with an administrator. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

“Get to work.” They all instantly bend over their tests, except Texting Kid, who raised his hand.

“Yes?”

“Could I have a pencil?” (Keep in mind, he’s had the test for 20 minutes.) He got a pencil, and got to work.

I left as Bathroom Guy comes back, well under two minutes.

Steve hustled back to the test, gratefully, after taking my cell and room phone number so he could text or the sub could call me in the event of future disaster.

I never did get to Starbucks, so did some copying. On the way back to my room, who should I run into but Bathroom Boy.

“Hey. What are you doing out?”

“Had to go to the bathroom.”

“You already did that.”

“Had to go again.”

“Yeah, no.” Walked him back to the room. He didn’t even protest. I told the sub no one, but no one without health issues, goes to the bathroom twice in one day. They’d finished the test, and with fifteen minutes left in class, they were talking loudly with nothing to do. I told her no to that, too, in the future. But they’d worked harder and more quietly than ever before, she told me.

I remember an actor saying that in a performance if you have to cry, you can either dredge up a horrible memory or just use an onion. This was all onion. And yet it was also a good fifteen minute’s work. Kids learned someone was watching; they know it’s not free beatdown on sub week. But the whole time I was thinking “Oh, my god, this is SO COOL. I’m CLINT. Or at least the badass principal in The Wire.” Self-absorbed puppy that I am, there is my takeaway.

I am teaching two brand new classes, and an Algebra 2/Trig class I’m struggling to keep somewhat true to its name. It’s not an easy year, I’m not brimming with confidence—although I’m having a great time. So getting to be Clint or the badass principal was just a great moment, a reminder I still have teacher mojo.

Right about now, I realize son of a bitch, I’m a lot more like Taylor Mali than I’d like to think. Yes, I’m more Movie Star than Teacher Martyr, more audience participation than individual redemptions. But ultimately, I’m one of those teachers who can walk into a room of adolescents and command them—-to learn, to think, and sometimes just to obey. And just like Taylor Mali and the people clapping him on, I like what that says about me.

And hell, if you think it’s easy, you try it.


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