Great Moments in Teaching: When Worlds Collide

I’m on vacation! I actually took a whole half day off to add to my spring break, spent a couple days with my grandkids (keep saying the phrase, it will get more real in a decade or three), then embarked on an epic road trip through the northwest. My goal to write more posts is much on my mind–despite my pledge, I’ve only written 10 posts this year. But I’ve gotten better at chunking–in years past, I would have written one “teaching oddness” post, rather than three.

So this new semester, new year, has already seen some teaching moments that are best thought of as crack cocaine, a hit of adrenaline that explodes in the psyche in that moment and every subsequent memory of it, the moments you know that all those feel-good movies about teaching aren’t a complete lie. Not all moments are big; this one would barely be noticed by an outsider.

I was explaining slope to one of my three huge algebra 2 classes, the most boisterous of them. Algebra 2 is tough when half your kids don’t remember or never learned Algebra 1, while the rest think they know all there is to know, which is y=mx+b and the quadratic formula (no understanding of what it means or how to factor). Meanwhile, my recent adventures in tutoring calculus (be sure to check out Ben Orlin’s comment) has increased my determination to improve conceptual understanding among my stronger students, even if my weaker ones get a tad bored.

“I want you to stop just thinking of slope as a number, something you can only get by looking at two points, subtracting y1 from y2, then x1 from x2. The simplest way to start this process is to consider the slope triangle, which I know a lot of you use to find the slope, but don’t really think about.”

“But think of slope as represented by an actual right triangle. The legs represent the relative change rates of the horizontal and vertical (the x and the y). The hypotenuse is the slope. You can see the rate of change. It’s not just a number. Evaluate slopes by their triangles and you can see the ratio in action.”

I’m skipping over some discussion, some give and take. As I drew pictures, I “activated prior knowledge“, elicited responses as to what slope was, what the slope-intercept form represented, etc. But this was pretty close to pure lecture. I can read the audience–they’re not hanging on every word, but they get it, I’m not preaching to snoozers.

“How many of you remember right triangle trigonometry last year, in geometry?” A few hands, mostly my top kids.

“Come on, SOHCATOA?”

“Oh, yeah, that stuff” and most hands go up.

“So when I teach right triangle trig, I do my best to beat into your heads that the trig identities are ratios. Trigonometry is, in fact, the study of the relationship between the ratios of triangle legs and the triangle’s angles.”

“And that means you can think of the slope of a line in terms of its trigonometric ratio. Take a look at the triangle again, but now use your geometry lens instead of algebra.”


“The slope of a line is rise over run in algebra. But in geometry, it’s opposite over adjacent. The slope of a line is identical to the slope triangle’s tangent ratio.”

“Holy SHIT.” Every head turned around to the back of the room (where the top kids sit), where Manuel, a big, rumpled, exceptionally bright sophomore was staring at my board work.

I smiled. Walked all the way to the back of the room, to Manuel’s desk, tapped it lightly. “Thanks. That means a lot.” Walked back all the way to the front.

Remy smiled knowingly. “That was like some sort of smart-people’s joke, right?”

“Naw,” I said. “His worlds just collided.”

I could do a bit more, explain how I followed up, but no. You either get why it’s great, or you don’t.

<mic drop>

Arizona’s Experience and the Tale It Tells

As always, my response to the WSJ story on Arizona’s economy post-illegal-alien crackdown, as it plunged from fifth to ninth of the states with the largest illegal population is delayed. I’ve been sick, there’s this whole election thing, and I write slow. But the whole article is perfect blog bait, touching on most of my favorite issues.

In brief, the article lays out a surprisingly even-handed examination of the impact. Arizona’s economy took a hit due to the law, legal unskilled employment declined slightly, and businesses catering to immigrants took a big hit. On the other hand…and there were a lot of other hands. The article hit big when it came out, but then mostly disappeared.

While the article was good at broad outlines, I found it frustrating in parts, as the reporters accepted a number of conditions at face value.

Government data on cost of non-citizens is, er, discouraged.

pinning down exactly how much [illegal immigration] costs the state, and how much is collected from illegal immigrants through taxation, is surprisingly hard to do…. and…government spending on immigrants fell. State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.

So, for example, when Alabama tries to figure out how many illegal immigrants are attending public schools, a federal appeals court ruled the effort unconstitutional and the state was forced to abandon the effort in a settlement, because fear of registration “significantly deters undocumented children from enrolling in and attending school”. The citizenry can’t be allowed to know the impact of federal failure because the lawbreakers might be scared. (These same parents usually sign up for the migratory education act, of course, without fear.) About 1 in 20 K-12 students isn’t a native, but we only guess based on a census every ten years.

The government refuses to collect data on immigration costs, the better to fail to provide it. The government thinks it knows better than the people–not unlike certain political parties I could name. The courts give cover, pretending that immigrants might be afraid to demand services if we collect data on the services they demand.

I would like to see a reporter push on this point. Why can’t the citizenry get a clear number of certain expenses? How many children of illegal immigrants are receiving services? What level of proof is required to prove eligibility?

Instead, the reporters tend to shrug and talk about how hard it is to get data.

The easy hiring days of yore

This comment is incredibly revealing:

[Before the Arizona law, an employer said,] “I could pull out phonebooks where I had 300 or 400 guys’ numbers” to create working crew….[Now] “you have to put out feelers, buy ads, go on Craigslist, tap job agencies, just to get a few men….Growth is based on the ability to hire.”

The contractor is annoyed because he doesn’t have a ready labor supply. Yeah, dude, welcome to normal circumstances. ‘Twas ever thus. That’s why we have HR departments. That’s why in corporate America as well as the teaching world, bosses are often reluctant to fire. Finding workers is expensive and time-consuming. Employers that have to invest time and energy in finding employees tend to be reluctant to easily fire them.

But the flood of unskilled immigration has blinded the contractor to normal hiring conditions. He’s completely unmoored by the need to put even a slight effort into finding good employees.

The constant stream of cheap labor has atrophied some employers’ hustle and distorted their understanding of real world employment conditions. They’re so spoiled that they whine about having to use ads and Craigslist. Then they complain that they can’t get natives to do the same work, not even for slightly higher pay.

How is this bad news? Employers who can’t pay enough to make the jobs they offer worthwhile should have to work to find employees. They should not to get special visas for cheaper workers eager for life in easier America—much less hire illegal workers who politicians will then refuse to deport.

Employers don’t have a right to employees any more than employees have a right to jobs. Illegal immigration has utterly wrecked the mindset of entire industries: construction, agriculture, landscaping, hotels, restaurants. No one has the right to easy, cheap labor.

And yes, in many cases it may turn out that ending illegal immigration will end a lot of jobs , as Adam Ozimek once wrote. Many employers will automate, just as Rob Knorr the jalapeno farmer chose to do.

But the story does no comparison of these employer complaints to other industries, or ask if they’d invested in efforts to build up an employee pipeline. At no point do the reporters consider whether the employers’ expectations might be unreasonable.

Nor do the reporters follow up on the fact that illegal workers are still getting jobs.

“E-Verify is a problem for us,” Mr. Castillo [an illegal alien] said. “We can work for a week. It takes that long for the paperwork. Then we’re out.”

E-Verify needs to be more of a problem.

Bye bye immigration surplus

Economic activity produced by immigrants–what economists call the “immigration surplus”–shrank because there were fewer immigrants around to buy clothing and groceries, to work and to start businesses. ….In Latino neighborhoods, sales declined at grocery stores and other businesses catering to migrants.

Other stories document the hit taken by businesses catering to Hispanics. I wonder how much of the unskilled labor employment hit was connected to jobs lost due to the “immigration surplus”? If so, wouldn’t that be inevitable? Fewer immigrant grocery stores, fewer grocery store clerks. Population decreases mean fewer jobs.

I’m sorry, but ending illegal immigration will inevitably lead to a population decline, at least at first. “My business strategy is immigrant-dependent” is not a compelling reason to give up restriction. The nifty little Mexican market that makes awesome burritos will have to rely on gringo purchases. I’ll do my part, I promise. If Western Union has to close down 90% of its offices when remittances dry up, some people are going to lose their jobs, and the stock’s going to take a hit. I understand it’s hard on the stockholders and the job holders. But they can investigate business opportunities that don’t rely on criminal disregard for employment law.

I thought the article did a good job revealing this information, but shouldn’t the article have observed that any population drop will result in lost business?

An earlier study by Sarah Bohn et. al (the researchers quoted in the piece), Lessons from the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act, offers up another interesting impact caused by “immigration surplus”:

Many people assume that the lower skill workers who are affected by immigration are all white, or maybe black. But of course, many of them are Hispanic with a “skill” that white and black low skill workers lack: the ability to speak Spanish.

If employers can easily communicate with workers without translators, then job opportunities for translators are “immigration surplus”. I’m good with that, and the fact that some workers are hurt because Spanish-speaking is no longer a bonus is great news. Low-skilled Hispanics, blacks, and whites can compete on an equal basis.

Hispanic legal workers are hit not only because their legal status and bilingual abilities, but because of the restrictions themselves, something the LAWA research confirmed:


Translated, this seems to be saying that many Hispanics are here legally, but have trouble proving it, or decide to leave because they’d rather not prove it. This argument isn’t new, but it’s also not a reason to stop enforcing employment laws.

Real-estate agent Patti Gorski says her sales records show that prices of homes owned by Spanish-speaking customers fell by 63% between 2007 and 2010….At the Maryvale Market, in an immigrant community of ranch homes, Ashok Patel says his business is down by half since 2008.

Notice the name Ashok Patel? There’s also a Vietnamese owner quoted in the 2010 article, owner of a 99 cent story, too. Arizona’s Asian immigrant population is booming–and so Asian immigrants are complaining that Arizona’s enforcement is interfering with business.

If restricting illegal immigrants makes America less attractive to potential immigrants eager to come here and exploit lawbreakers, how is that a bad thing? I would have liked to see the story mention that legal immigration growth in Arizona has continued, and what industries or areas of business they dominate.

Fewer people, cheaper rent?

Wait, did someone mention occupancy rates?


If rental vacancies increase, don’t rents decrease?

Well, hey now. And take a look here, too: Phoenix Arizona Residential Rent and Rental Statistics . Graphs and tables, even.

Rents declined significantly during this period, probably because of the rental vacancies caused by Arizona’s law. There’s a significant point the WSJ article didn’t exactly play up.

So while low-skilled natives might not have all improved their employement prospects, many of them were able to live cheaper until they did find a job. Affordable housing for natives. What a concept.

Education. Remember education? This is a blog about education

State and local officials don’t track total spending on undocumented migrants or how many of their children attend public schools.[see what I mean about not reporting immigrant expenses?]…But the number of students enrolled in intensive English courses in Arizona public schools fell from 150,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2012 and has remained constant since. Schooling 80,000 fewer students would save the state roughly $350 million a year, by one measure. During that same period, annual emergency-room spending on noncitizens fell 37% to $106 million, from $167 million. And between 2010 and 2014, the annual cost to state prisons of incarcerating noncitizens convicted of felonies fell 11% to $180 million, from $202 million.

The economic factor is huge in terms of what it saves Arizona taxpayers,” primarily on reduced education costs, says Russell Pearce [the law’s sponsor].

(emphasis mine)

Look at that. Reducing immigration saves money on education. The Arizona experiment proves that reducing immigration cuts immediate education costs–and that’s without factoring in the reduced pension burden.

Despite the usual GOP rhetoric about greedy teacher unions, merit pay, and ending tenure (blissfully absent this election, did you notice?), the Republicans have signed on whole hog for all the educational extras. High standards for all, despite remedial level students. Legally mandated special education and English Language Learner services.

All services are guaranteed to all students, citizen and immigrant, legal and illegal, courtesy of the let’s-keep-it-tied-up Supreme Court and Congress. All services are costly, and have very little evidence demonstrating effectiveness. And most of all, all those services require teachers.

Few folks outside the teaching “business” really grasp that hiring teachers is the pain point, not firing them. While the teacher shortage talk may be overblown, it nonetheless exists.

Teachers require higher than average IQs (particularly for high school academics), college degrees, clean records, verbal facility and a tolerance for young folk. Teaching offers inflexible schedule, limited potential for career growth, and work that’s utterly resistant to productivity improvement. On the other hand, it offers generous (read expensive) benefits, and really great pensions. Not as good as cops, but still. It’s a huge occupation; the largest in America. Yet despite the regular pay increases and job security, feeding the great maw of K-12 education requires constant replenishment. Schools are constantly in search of teachers in most states.

States could spend a lot more on our neediest citizens if they weren’t footing the bill for remediation, English language, tutoring, free lunches, and all manner of special education services for non-citizens.

Wouldn’t it be nice if unskilled labors were a little harder to hire, and skilled teachers a little easier to find?

Here’s hoping more states undertake Arizona’s experiment.

Making Short Math Tests

A trig student told me he was hanging out with a group of friends, some who’d had me, some who hadn’t. One was bitching about his four page test.

My students snorted. “Ed’s tests are double sided single pages. Once we had a three page test, but only for the space.”

A debate ensued, and those with the widest range of math teacher experience agreed: My tests are shortest, and hardest.

I’m not sure what this means. I don’t try to make my tests difficult. But periodically I’ve perused other teachers’ tests off the copier, and…wow. They are four or five pages. The questions are straightforward. They are typically of what I would call rote difficulty–they could have peeled off a few pages of one of these tests. When math teachers snort about regurgitating algorithms, these are the tests they have in mind.

I used to have more traditional looking tests, but even back then I wasn’t an exact match for typical. Once I started down the multiple answer path, it became even easier to wander miles off the reservation. But without question, multiple answer tests make it easier to assess understanding on multiple topics—thus shorter tests.

This semester, I finally decided to start my class with a functions unit. Regular readers know that I’ve been beefing up my functions curriculum, after initially (as a new teacher) giving it a perfunctory treatment. But I still began the year with linear equations. This last semester start, though, I went back to the textbooks. Why do they always start with functions? I finally started to grasp the logic: beginning with functions allows the teacher to work with transformations, parent functions, mapping, as well as challenging algebra (solving for x in a square root or quadratic function, etc).

So I mapped out a basic plan:

  • Function definition: domain, range, criteria
  • Function notation
  • Transforming functions
  • Four parent functions (line, quadratic, square root, absolute value). I told them we’d be introducing lines to ignore them until the next unit.
  • Transforming parent functions.
  • Solving for input and output

I originally planned to introduce inverses, but the kids were maxed out. This was a much tougher first unit than linear equations, and a good chunk of the lower ability students were struggling with the abstractions. Generally, I was pleased.

Some new questions from my first functions unit test–which was a single page, double-sided.


Notice I slipped in a couple function notation questions? That’s how I save space.

Here’s a mapping question:


Again with the function notation! Am I the only math teacher whose kids simply can’t compute the difference between “f(3) = ” and “If f(a) = 3, a=”???? I do my best to beat it into their heads.

Here’s another way I use space effectively, I think:


So a graph, some free-response algebra, and conceptual understanding. (Most of them DO NOT understand how to read graphs, and missed d.) Time and again, I had to show the students how to write the equation, but they are learning how to isolate. Relatively few order of operations errors.

I didn’t ask them to graph this next one, but again, practice at setting up an equation to find the input given the output. Another plus of doing functions early is an introduction to quadratics, which is a tremendously tough Algebra 2 unit.


Hands down, this next question had the weakest response. The strongest students understood it, but many of the same students who were able to graph the square root were flummoxed by this one. Go figure. But again, notice that I assess several different knowledge areas with the same question.


A New Quiz

I don’t usually discuss my quizzes, which are often relatively straightforward compared to my multiple answer assessments. But I created a quiz on Thursday that I’m really pleased with. It’s my second quiz for linear functions. The students have learned the three different linear forms. The first quiz covers slope intercept and standard form, which are the forms for modeling situations. This one focuses on point slope and creating equations from points, as well as parallel and perpendicular points. We actually did much more modeling of real-life situations than this quiz shows. Usually, my quizzes are a very reliable guide to what the students have done in the previous week, but this was an attempt to see how well they could transfer knowledge and work several concepts in combination.

The quiz itself, I think was cool. I stole the nuggets of two ideas from textbooks, but the presentation and questions are mine own.


I’ve seen this crickets question in both Pearson and Holt Harcourt books. I built the graph on Desmos, and was dismayed that a number of kids counted the barely visible lines, rather than use the points. But most of them didn’t.

Notice that this is a relatively easy question. I didn’t want to focus on the algebra needed to find the y-intercept. I wanted them instead to look at the patterns (the 120 chirps is exactly halfway between 0 and 240), and think about what graphs say vs. what they mean. Most kids confused question c and d, explaining that the temperature was too cold for chirping, or that the crickets died. But after a few pushes, they go…”negative chirps?” which is fun.

Here, I’m just testing their fluency:


Lots of room for self-correction. One student asked me why all her solutions were “Neither”, and I suggested that perhaps she should check her algebra, where she’d handled a negative value incorrectly. Other students plotted the points incorrectly and, because they were only able to find slopes from the graphs, couldn’t catch their mistake–thus giving me an opportunity to reiterate the importance of using different methods to validate and self-correct.

As part of the work leading up to this quiz, they’d derived the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm, given two points. I decided to give them the formula to see if they could recognize the errors in verbal description and work a solution using fractions.


And then my favorite:


I got the basic idea from my new favorite textbook series, Big Ideas Math, then played with the goals a bit. Big Ideas has wonderful scenarios.

As always, if you spot any errors or ambiguities, let me know.

Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

A couple weeks ago, I left halfway through the day after having felt awful for 3 days. I thought perhaps I needed another inhaler. The doctor yelled at me for ignoring a strep infection. I protested, went home, watched TV. Still contagious, I woke up super early, snuck into school, got the quiz ready, left notes for my student teacher, and then tried to request a sub before leaving but it was past the deadline. I didn’t follow the correct procedure, having never once called in sick before at this school. I did know to call the principal’s secretary, She Who Runs Everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and grovel for screwing up her day, since she’d have to hunt down the sub. She yelled at me, too. I went home again, watched TV. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to Not Teach when you hurt. Apologies, by the way, to any one who caught strep from me. I wasn’t being noble; most of the time I go to the doctor they tell me I’m not sick.

I have now taken 1.5 sick days in four years; 4 days total in 7 years. I have something like 60 accrued days. As I’ve said, handling the teacher perks took some adjustment.

And so, we come to Teaching Oddness #3.

In order to understand teaching and absences, consider the many ways in which teaching absences are profoundly different from any other profession’s:

  1. The teacher can’t make up the time.
  2. The teacher can’t swap an absence with a colleague.
  3. A school can’t “work short”. Each class has to have a legally authorized adult present. Therefore every teacher absence incurs a direct expense to cover that absence.
  4. The substitute is in almost every case not as good as the teacher.

Remember, teacher days are already extremely restricted.In most traditional schedule schools, teachers get no more than an hour off during the day, and even in block schedules the max time off is 90 minutes. We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement.

Does any other profession operate with these constraints? I don’t think so. Yes, employee absence often creates expense, but not in such a brutally one-for-one fashion.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a while back, but have always wanted to revisit.

So let’s take the Teacher A and Teacher B case and make it a bit clearer. Note: I’m adding in PD for days worked, and just using $100 for costs when it’s probably higher, but this is just for illustration. And knowing me, I screwed this up, so put any corrections in the comments.

  Teacher A Teacher B
Salary 63,000 63,000
Sick Days 10 0
Days Worked 172 182
Actual Daily Pay 366 346
Daily Sub/Admin Cost 100 0
Yearly Replacement Cost 1000 0
District Total Cost 64,000 63,000
Per Day 352 346

So on a yearly basis, Teacher A is paid more per day worked, and costs the district more per day worked. Teacher B gets to accrue the sick leave, meaning that he or she will ultimately get paid more for the unused time, and take it as either a cash buyout or a pension increase, depending on the state. I am ridiculously fuzzy on these details for my own state, and I should get on this, because for all I know I’m losing days by hitting an accrual limit.

Some facts generally agreed to: female teachers are absent more than male, high-poverty schools see more absences than low-poverty schools. Elementary school teachers are absent more than high school teachers. The Clotfelter analysis is still the best resource, I think.

Every so often, reformers argue that accrued sick leave is a calamitous pension expense; other times reformers complain about teacher absences. Chris Christie, in his various tangles with government workers, says sick leave should have no cash value”.

I mean, that’s just idiotic. Corporate America has largely ended paid sick leave precisely because employees know better. Of course sick leave has cash value. Look at Teacher A and Teacher B. Teacher B is working more days for the same money, despite costing the district less—and that’s without taking into account the learning loss accrued by the students of absent teachers. Why should Teacher B tolerate this inequity?

I understand the pension problem. I just don’t see how anyone can seriously propose a solution that values teachers who take their sick leave more than teachers who don’t, given the constraints. (Let’s stipulate that teachers with strep should take their sick leave.)

My personal solution, as a teacher who doesn’t get sick, is pay us a good bit more and then actually dock us slightly for absences–say, the cost of a sub and an administrative fee. And I mean, pay us a good deal more because Chris Christie, despite his Trump endorsement, is a moron if he thinks sick leave has no value for any employee, much less employees in a job requiring a legally authorized adult presence in every classroom.

That’ll go over big. I know.

But absent teachers cost more and negatively affect student learning. I’m not blaming sick teachers. It’s a benefit, so use it. And I haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that districts will use school days for professional development, instead of putting it after school or on weekends and pay teachers a bit more.

I get it. But any restriction of pension or sick leave accrual is hurting the teachers who cost less and maximize student learning. Restricting the payment for additional time on the job predictably would lead to all teachers using all their sick leave every year. We could shorten the school year, given the number of teachers who’d just take off for the last two weeks.

Either way, take away the accrual or some form of compensation, and much as I hate it, I’ll just get better at sub plans.

So next time you read a proposal or jeremiad on teacher absenteeism, please remember the constraints above. Ask yourself what you’d do if someone was getting paid for fewer days on the job than you, without penalty—and all you had to do in order to get the same deal was take more days off.

Curriculum Development: Not Work for Hire

I chopped off part of my last piece to expand more on teacher intellectual property, a topic near and dear1.

The conventional wisdom (which Stephen Sawchuk nicely outlines in the last part of this piece) holds that teachers are district employees, so any curriculum, lessons, or tests are considered work for hire . The teacher is paid specifically to develop the curriculum by the district, so the district owns the copyright and any subsequent profits from all of their teachers’ work—tests, worksheets, lesson plans, sequencing, whatever. .

In theory, my district could force me to pull down my posted curriculum from this blog—since I don’t own the copyright, I don’t have the right to give it away for free. Sites like Teachers Paying Teachers are illegal in this view, since teachers are making profits off their district’s property.

Originally, a teacher’s work was exempted from the work to hire rule, but in 1978 Congress didn’t include the exemption. Teachers’ unions have been trying to get the exemption reinstated.

Not for the first time, I’d argue the unions are going about this in exactly the wrong way. The exemption is unnecessary. Teachers aren’t hired to write curriculum. We are hired to teach. I’ve now outlined three well-established, time-honored practices that support this interpretation.

  1. Teacher contracts spell out their time commitments, which are the time in the classroom, staff and department meetings, supervisories, and mandatory professional development. No contracts hold teachers responsible for developing their own curriculum. A teacher is welcome to teach day by day from a provided textbook, or eschew a textbook altogether. They are not evaluated on the strength of their curriculum development in any way, nor can they be required to improve performance on this point. (More about this here.)

  2. While districts have begun to claim copyright, districts have never paid each other for teacher-developed curriculum. I have been in three districts. Like all teachers, I have a directory of my own curriculum, and I’ve carried it from school to school without any district ever informing me I couldn’t–much less demanding payment from my new district for use of their copyrighted curriculum.

    This practice, which has gone on for generations, clearly demonstrates that districts don’t consider themselves owners of the teacher curriculum. So if they want to ban a teacher from selling it, they need to start seizing the curriculum from teachers who developed it. Good luck with that.

  3. As I recently wrote, teachers given the extra duty of a class are paid purely based on the class instruction time, not the additional time (or not) needed to develop curriculum for that class. I’ve written before that teacher preps, or number of subjects actually taught, impact teacher workload. Teaching three different classes would be considerably more work, for most teachers, than teaching the same class four (or six) times. Teaching large classes also impacts workload. The teacher with multiple preps but a free period could have a student load of 150, while the teacher who works the prep could have 120 students (6 classes of 20). Unlikely, but theoretically possible. Doesn’t matter. More preps, more students, more outside work: irrelevant. What earns teachers a significant premium is the number of scheduled classes they are responsible for.

No one ever listens to me, but I’d advise unions to look for a good test case to challenge the work-for-hire idea, rather than argue for a change to copyright law, on the grounds that existing practice has acknowledged teacher intellectual property for decades. Certainly, the district should never be required to pay for the teacher’s work product in later years, should receive automatic use of anything developed during the teacher’s term of employment. But any rights in the curriculum we develop is our own.

I’ve often seen reformers–and other teachers—bemoan the notion of teachers who go home right after school everyday, clearly implying that the extra work developing lesson plans and curriculum is an element of our salary. But this simply isn’t true.

Besides, we don’t have any real idea of what makes a good teacher. Some of us work hours after school, some leave right after. No teachers who spend hours crafting curriculum, be it handouts, lesson plans, or tests, have any guarantee that they are getting better results. What they do know is that they are creating, creating without pay, and what they create should be theirs.

Here, again, acting works well as an analogy. Two actors are cast in a play, given supporting roles with an equivalent number of lines. They are both paid “scale” (whatever that is). The first actor spends six hours a day outside of rehearsal, practicing and perfecting the role, trying out different readings. The second actor barely makes it to rehearsal because he’s busy auditioning for a movie, doesn’t put any time into preparation.

They both would be paid scale for rehearsal and performance hours. The first actor wouldn’t be paid for the additional hours. The second actor might, in an unfair world, receive more acclaim and audience approval despite his lackluster approach.

But neither of them would be precluded from re-using aspects of their performance in later roles. The studied wince. The knowing sneer. The warm beaming smile, the turn and rapid delivery. Their performances were the result of work-for-hire. The script, like the textbook, belongs to someone else. The manner and method they use to deliver the performance are entirely theirs.

I ran into our union rep, an excellent English teacher, in the copy room. We began by chatting about class size (I’m teaching three massive A2 classes, which has given me some sympathy for the limits) and for various reasons (no doubt because this was on my mind), we got around to curriculum development.

“I wonder why the union doesn’t realize that we aren’t paid to develop curriculum? They don’t really need to change the copyright act to give teachers ownership of their work.”

“Or to give everyone ownership,” she said instantly. “There’s good reason to believe that no one’s work is truly original, that everything is derivative.”

Oh, lord. A CopyLeft fan. If our conversation had been Twitter based, I would have been properly contemptuous, but she’s a colleague and really very smart (she knew about the 1978 Copyright Act!) and besides, on this issue, I am actually seeking to persuade so I bite back my first response.

“Yeah, I ‘ve never agreed on that. But can we agree, at least, that whether teachers own their work or everyone owns their work, that the district doesn’t own our work?”

“Oh, absolutely. In order to give it away, we need the rights to it.”

So to the many loopy committed Creative Commons, Open Source, everything is derivative folks, can I just ask that we put aside our differences long enough to get the union to argue our case?

1I’ve been writing about teacher IP and curriculum development for four years, as long as this blog’s been around–that’s in addition to many, many posts on my actual curriculum development. Here’s the primary pieces:

Teaching and Intellectual Property
Grant Wiggins
Developing Curriculum
Handling Teacher Preps
Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.

Teaching Oddness #2: Teach More, Get Paid More

Today, the topic is a teaching oddness I have taken regular advantage of. Like many teaching oddnesses, it exists primarily at the high school level.

High schools determine staffing requirements based on the number of sections the district gives them. The administrators divide the sections by the contractual class load—very often five, for six-period days. In our school, it’s three. (Yes, we teach three 90 minute classes and one 90 minute prep, and then we start all over again mid-year.)

So suppose our school has 192 sections and divides it by 3, meaning they need 64 full-time staffers, but they only have 62 teachers, so six sections are unassigned. Three of the extra sections are math, two English, one history.

Rather than hire extra teachers, the administrators just hand out the extra sections and we get paid for the extra work Some teachers don’t get paid very much more (this article actually shocked me). Others get paid on a schedule like this, stolen at random from an Irving, TX district:


But every school I’ve worked at, the extra teaching duty pay schedule denominator is reduced by one. Teaching an extra class in a 6-period schedule results in a 1/5 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 7-period schedule results in a 1/6 pay boost. Teaching an extra class in a 4-block schedule results in a 1/3 pay boost. That’s what my principal told me, anyway, the first time I accepted the duty. I’ve never actually reviewed my paycheck on that point.

So I’ve been getting 33% over my usual pay for the past year, and for the upcoming semester. I’m in a high-paying district, and I have seven years experience, and a metric ton of education, putting me all the way over to the right column on step and column scale—and then there’s the Master’s bump. In addition, from what I understand, this does wonders for pension calculations. I’m doing my best to save most of it.

I’ve mentioned before that teachers can’t do overtime. In this we are like typical “professionals”, as in “non-hourly workers”. Our decisions on how and what to teach were our own, as were the hours we put into these tasks. We can do as much or as little as we like to deliver the class. As I wrote in Teaching and Intellectual Property (a topic that shall return), we get paid to deliver the class, not to create curriculum.

However, the delivery itself is beautifully quantifiable. We teach n classes a day for d dollars a day. So teachers have an excellent case: If we teach n+1 classes a day, the additional class will be paid d⁄n dollars. Left at issue is the actual dollar value of d , and the method of counting n.

In my district, n = classes in a standard schedule, while d = yearly salary. This is sublimely generous, and reflective of the fact that teachers in my area are hard to find and pretty expensive.

In other districts, n = periods in a standard day, while d = yearly salary. Still very generous, the only difference being that the “prep” period is counted as work time, I think. So instead of a 20% boost on a 6 period day, you get a 16+% boost.

In the horrifying district linked in at first, I’m assuming teachers are easily found and cheap. The fixed price suggests the district uses a different d, perhaps calculating the average cost of class delivery for all teachers. So these teachers get paid the same amount for the extra work, or perhaps the contractual per-diem hourly rate. Ick. (sez Ed, snootily.)

But in all cases, the teacher gets paid directly for the additional work. Cue the cries of “This isn’t how professionals operate.”

So I was a professional out in the world once, even working for corporations. And when professionals are handed additional work, it used to come with several implicit assurances:

  1. This will result in more money and an improved title somewhere down the line.
  2. This will result in an improved resume that leads to more money and an improved title at another company if option 1 doesn’t come true.
  3. This won’t result in anything other than more work. Be grateful for the job.

Back in my day, 1 and 2 held court; I’ve heard things have been different in my world since the dot com bubble crashed, in 2002 (I was still partially in, and rates definitely took a huge hit). Anecdotally, I don’t see many people, even in tech, comfortably in the driver’s seat these days. They’re happy to have a good job. That’s for college educated tech workers; in today’s world Amazon makes temp factory workers sign non-compete agreements for 6 months simply because they can. (it’s the immigration, stupid). That is, these days quite a bit of extra work is handed out without additional payment but merely the assurance that doing the work will save one’s job, for the time being.

Typically, Republicans point to the perks of government employment–such as the awful practice of getting paid for doing more work—as unions extracting unearned value for their workers.

But look at the list again, and realize that none of these in-lieu-of-pay offerings hold for teachers. We don’t want a promotion. We can pretty much teach whatever classes we have credentials for, so the resume add-ons don’t help much, and we can’t be fired for refusing to work extra hours for free because our employer is the government, baby, and it can’t deprive us of our property right in a job without a good cause, and working for free isn’t that cause. (Private employers can, apparently.)

Remember, too, that schools have to provide a properly credentialed teacher in every class and it becomes clear that in tight job markets, teachers have the upper hand when negotiating for “extra duty”. The district has a need, and teachers are in an outstanding position to make them pay full price for that need. In slack job markets, of course, not so much.

So when we are handed a certain form of more work, we are immediately paid more money in proportion to the demands made on our time. Cool beans. And definitely odd, I think, in the private sector.

Two observations arise out of this oddness.

First, reformers like Bill Gates or Fordham Foundation like to push the idea of giving teachers bigger classes–like, say, 4 or 5 more students per class, for more money.

These conversations never seemed reality-based, since they always begin with the premise that teachers have 20-22 students per class. I have three classes of 35 right now, and one class I literally call “tiny” at 20. But in any event, it’s become very popular to advocate changing base pay to a form of “merit” pay by giving teachers bigger classes.

Is it clear, once again, that reformers demonstrate bizarre ignorance of the actual logistics of staffing a school?

They’re calling for increased class size—in an age when parents unequivocally support smaller class sizes, data be damned—and a contractual change giving some teachers more money for taking more kids. Unions will oppose them tooth and nail for anything approaching merit pay, they’ll never get it anyway, and all to get “good” high school and middle school teachers about 20 more students a day, in a standard 6-period day. Elementary school teachers, just the 4 or 5.

Meanwhile, right now, on the books in most districts, exists a means of giving each “excellent” middle or high school teacher 25 to 35 more students, as well as a lot more money, without upsetting parents and increasing class sizes. No negotiations needed, no formalization of procedure–it’s there already. I am reasonably certain that principals already use “extra duty” as a way of rewarding high quality teachers interested in the money.

So are they ignorant? Probably. Would reformers start promoting “extra duty for excellence” if they had some small inkling of how staffing actually works? Probably not, since their goal, really, isn’t rewarding teachers but breaking contracts. But in any event, the next time a reformer pushes the idea, have this essay at the ready.

(Note: In the comments, Brett Gillan points out another problem with paying teacher by classload so obvious I could kick myself for not thinking of it. Namely, student load is not constant. I often end up with much smaller classes; students transfer to alternative school, go to a different district school, move, and so on. The higher the poverty level of the school, the more the variance.)

Second observation—well, on second thought (thanks to Roger Sweeney), I’m going to make this second thought a second post.

Teaching Oddness #1: Teacher’s Aides, HS Version

Do outsiders know what TAs are? I went looking for research on this point, and could find none. These descriptions aren’t accurate, and most of the rest refer to employed teacher aides.

Teacher’s Aide is a student elective “class” in which the student provides the teacher with free labor as needed.

I get a bit stalled here, because the same practice can be used for neutral or ill. Arguably, there’s no “good”.

Neutral: Why would any student sign up to be a gofer? It’s not for the resume value, I assure you. But high school students are required to take a full slate of classes, and electives are in limited supply. So at a certain point, a mid-tier student with a good GPA but every intention of going to a junior college is left with no appealing electives. Every semester, students with schedule holes have to find somebody to work for, or they’ll get stuck in an actual class with responsibilities and grades, a class they have no interest in taking.

Some of them are assigned to run errands for the front office, taking notes out to the teacher rooms and back for counsellor call-outs, direct mail delivery to students, getting a teacher’s signature on a document, whatever. But schools only need three or four office TAs.

The rest of the students beg teachers to take them on as either doorstops or free labor, in exchange for an A. Because TA jobs get graded, and any grade less than an A raises eyebrows. (Colleges exclude TA from GPA calculation.)

Admins spend some serious cycles on TA assignment. First, the notes come out telling us that no teacher can have two TAs per class. (Yeah, what? OK.) Then out comes the notes begging teachers to take some TAs that still don’t have assignments. Then, occasionally, a TA shows up at the door with an administrator and a question, “Can you use a TA?” and while the answer would otherwise be “No”, the administrator keeps asking until the teacher says “Yes”. Then hours are spent entering these into the schedule for attendance and assignment and transcripts.

I’ve concluded tentatively that the student TA system is both a significant source of free labor to teachers and schools, and a non-trivial burden for teachers and administrators when willing users of that free labor can’t be found.

Many teachers, those teachers who come in each day with their task list set a week, or a month, a year, or three years ago—these people with a plan, they love TAs. Good, yes, I have a million little tasks to be done. Grade this quiz I created three five years ago, then enter the test scores. Create my bulletin board decorations, using this design. These are the ones who have to be told they can’t have more than two TAs per class.

I’m the teacher who was forced, year one, to take a TA. The AVP showed up at my door, just as described above. I was 4 days into my first job, and already knew I had no use for a TA, especially when they told me I couldn’t use him for the single most essential task eligible for delegation: copying.

That’s the insane part: WE CAN’T USE THEM TO MAKE COPIES. Moreover, no one seems to think that, so long as we have all this student labor going begging, a COPY CENTER MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA. Nothing causes teachers more unforced stress than needing the copy machine when it’s broken or unavailable, thanks to a 20-teacher queue in the morning or lunch. A colleague and friend once took up lunch running 50 sets of 30 page documents. When a week later she announced her transfer, I told her she wouldn’t be missed. I wasn’t entirely joking.

What was my point? Oh, yes. So I had a TA year one who sat at my desk and surfed the web. He wasn’t a bad kid, although I can’t remember his name. His only responsibility was to sit in a nearby room during tests with my top kids, as my room wasn’t big enough to hold thirty kids and cheating was rampant. Pulling out the top kids ended that little game.

I don’t remember TAs being available at my next school, but I just texted a former colleague and will update this space.

My current school happily doesn’t pressure teachers to take TA, but who needs administrative pressure when students apply guilt? My first year at this school, one girl begged me to let her TA. She showed up late and texted each day. I vowed never to be suckered again. Except I did the next year, when a stoner begged me to let him TA my pre-calc class. He was worse than useless, but a better conversationalist than the girl, so there’s that.

But then, it all changed. Last year, Rufus, an exchange student and a top performer in my trig class, convinced me to let him TA, and then another favorite football player, Ronnie, begged me for a chance. I figured I may as well spend time with students whose company I actually did enjoy.

Rufus worked with my students, paying a little too much attention to cute girls, but with that exception, he was very good. Ronnie wasn’t as good in math and definitely liked distracting cute girls, but one day he volunteered to clean up my office space. Kid worked like a fiend, and no one recognized my room.

As I mentioned, Year 6 was busy and here, I have to break off a bit to explain something.

Full-metal, 4×4 block has killed my love of grading. We cover a year’s worth of instruction by the end of January. My assessments are difficult, and I’d rather give them less often, but I pretty much have to give a test or quiz every five or seven days to have grades for progress reports. Since I’m designing a new test system, I was spending much more time building and grading assessments already.

And that was before year 6, when I had two new subjects (trig and history) and three preps (subjects taught), four classes (no free prep period) and 110 students in the second semester.

My returned test lag time was now over a week, which really nagged at me. My work life was becoming something like create a test, created a key, grade a test, enter the grades, turn the test back, lather rinse repeat. Amd that’s without all the curriculum for the new classes. Mind you, this is a typical teacher complaint, but this is all work I typically enjoy. I was just running out of cycles.

Rufus was taking my history class as well as operating as my TA, and knew how slammed I was. He offered to grade. By this time, he’d proven himself reasonably trustworthy, so I decided to risk it. I’d create the key and the point system, have him grade a few samples, and then let him go.

Wow. Huge difference. I still reviewed the grading, adding or knocking off points, but time spent was cut from six to one hour. Rufus bragged to Ronnie (does this sound like Highlights?), who demanded he be trusted with grading as well.

Ronnie and Rufus provided the first really positive TA experience I ever had. I took them out for Starbucks at year-end, and am still in touch with both.

Last semester, Jacob, also from a previous trig class, asked if he could TA and I asked him if he minded grading. I worked Jake so hard I gave him cookies and Starbucks cards for Christmas, and told him I’d violate regulations to give him some service hours if he needed them. Jacob saved me dozens of hours. I couldn’t get over how I could use student labor to make my life easier.

This semester I have three, count ’em THREE, TAs: all previously successful students, all aware when they signed on that they’d be expected to grade or, occasionally, help students. I put one in each algebra 2 class.

I’m less conflicted about having three TAs cover the work than I was giving it all to Jake. While he didn’t seem to mind, I was bothered by the idea that one person was contributing so significantly to my workload reduction. Somehow three kids making life easier for me doesn’t seem as bad. When it was just Jake (heh) it took about 4 days to grade 50 tests, even with my working as well.

To illustrate how much they’ve decreased my workload, we’ve just done the cutover at mid-term, which is always tough. We have to both finish final grades while starting brand new classes with brand new kids. I’m teaching all four classes again, no prep, and 109 algebra 2 students, with another 20 in my geometry class.

I gave the first quiz on Tuesday. Each of the three TAs graded a class set, aand I had the grades in the book on Friday. Unreal. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have had that first quiz done for another week. Instead, I was able to review the tests, see who scored well on my pretest but tanked the function quiz, and vice versa. I’ve got time to redo seating, catch low scores early, call kids in to fix misconceptions. It’s great. My TAs also chide me on the state of my desk, and pressure me to collect all the papers and dump most of them, after review. I’m always worried I’ll toss something important.

I also enjoy talking to my TAs, who I chose because I liked and knew that I might be able to help in some way. I have at least once good talk with them a week, and advise them on college choices, course choices for the upcoming year, whatever.

But I can’t get over the fact that I’ve been freed from so much work without it costing me anything. I’m not alone, I know; many teachers brag about how much they turn over to TAs. I also remind myself that many teachers use scantrons and multiple choice tests. I spend substantial hours developing good tests, and I still review and evaluate all the tests before they are returned. I’m new to this; give me a few years and I’ll probably be one of those teachers griping I can only have two TAs a class.

So there’s the neutral use.

But the TA position can often be used to cover up scheduling shortfalls. As mentioned, schools are legally required to give students a full schedule of classes. In many struggling schools, the administration can’t keep enough teachers to offer all the classes needed, and so they use the TA slot as a stopgap. I very much doubt schools use this as a source of cheap labor for teachers, but many kids just can’t get the credits they need to graduate. I’ve mentioned before that the district controls the catalog; the catalog controls what can be assigned, so if a district offers “teacher’s aide” or “independent study” then they can use it to cover up a multitude of sins.

As I said, I can’t really make a “good” argument for TAing–at its best, it’s a way for kids to get out of taking a class and make some extra money by selling advance copies of tests. At its worst, schools use them to keep their doors open, rather than flatly refusing to fake it. We need more high schools refusing to take students, putting pressure on districts and states to address the problem.

Why is there so little data readily available about school’s “hidden work force”? Many tasks could undoubtedly be automated, particularly the office TAs. But then, strawberry farmers, schools will only automate when they lose cheap, free labor.

Note from a Trump Supporter: It’s the Immigration, Stupid!

(Or a la Dave Barry, “It’s the immigration, zitbrains!”)

Ann Althouse predicts a cascade of smart, educated Trump supporters in the coming months. I am kinda sorta in the ballpark of smart and educated–for a teacher, anyway—and came out early for Trump. So I thought I’d take a break from my usual education beat1 and add my voice to the many efforts to explain my people.

Why do I support Trump?

I want another forty year pause in immigration, putting a near-total block on every possible means of legal or illegal access. In part because I’m a teacher who sees no opportunities for far too many of my students thanks to immigration, network hiring, and the constant wage pressure of a never-ending unskilled labor supply. In part because the government is incapable of enforcing the laws so necessary to our national security and well-being, since even the best-intentioned state and federal employees see themselves as providing customer service, rather than ensuring taxpayer and citizen interests.

Finally, I want to turn the flood of immigrants to something less than a sprinkle because the influx is fraying America’s cultural fabric. Immigrants sensibly exploit our cultural and political mores to their advantage, usually without malice or intent to harm. They are supported by legal interpretation of laws that simply weren’t written with any consideration of non-Western cultures. Few of the countries sending us immigrants share American values.

I’m willing to negotiate. But in order to negotiate, shutting down access through visa restriction and border enforcement (land, sea, or visa overstay) has to be speakable. For the past twenty years, the cosmopolitan elite, as Sean Trende calls it, has deliberately shrunk and shifted the Overton window for immigration by punishing opinion violators with social and economic devastation. Ordinary people like me who come out for immigration restriction could lose their jobs. I don’t mind anyone opposing my immigration goals. I mind the attempts to shut down and ruin those who support them.

I don’t hate immigrants. Like all people, they range from fantastic to criminal to every possible characteristic in between. But their merit is not the issue.

Americans deserve a vote on every aspect of immigration. For thirty years or more, the public has opposed the generous federal immigration policy, rarely getting a chance to register their disapproval—and on the rare occasion when they were given a chance to express their opinion, the courts consistently overturned their effort.

The government and the media also conspire to present immigration as a shiny wonderful gift to the country, opposed only by a few nativists and xenophobes, withholding unpleasant facts and generally operating as cheerleaders and gatekeepers.

At present, 25% of the country support deportation and a wall with no immigration at all, with another 30% supporting a wall and very limited immigration, with deportation optional. Yet no major media outlet, no politician joins Trump in catering to that view. Why not? Doesn’t the media want eyeballs, the politician votes? I’ve concluded that the wall of silence is partly ideological, partly fear of repercussions from the powerful. But I don’t know.

What I do know is that Trump comes along, supports just the tiniest fraction of my agenda, and the media and political world goes wild trying to shut him down. They fail, and in that failure, everything changes.

Immigration wasn’t expected to be anywhere on the horizon this election. And certainly, the media has done everything to keep it out of the debates. The topic barely made it into the GOP debates, on weak-tea issues that barely scratch the surface. We saw Rubio and Cruz arguing not about reducing immigration, but which one had flipflopped on amnesty—which they both supported until quite recently, along with all the other GOP candidates, in the world Before Trump.

On the other hand, immigration hasn’t made the platform much at the Democrat debates, either. No rhetorical flourishes on Republican iniquity towards immigrants, no yammering about the Dream Act, no long tirades on the plight of Syrian refugees. The Democrats looked at Trump’s poll numbers and other recent events (Eric Cantor’s unemployment, for example), and got the hint. They’re worried enough that Trump’s immigration and trade talk might peel away their union vote. No one’s making big promises about immigration on the Democratic side.

I’m well aware that Trump’s actual beliefs on immigration, as reflected in his stump speech and, presumably, his private views, are considerably more welcoming than his satisfactory official policy position, but think it unlikely he’ll do a general election pivot. If he were to win the nomination and pivot against restriction, he’ll lose the general. Full stop. The Donald doesn’t need me to point that out.

He probably doesn’t feel this way, but from my standpoint, Trump has already won. From the moment his polls rose after NBC fired him, after Frank Luntz’s idiotic focus group said Trump crashed and burned, after many experts declared him a nuisance,a clown, a bad deal, a a false conservative and through the re-evaluations of his appeal (but not his chances), Trump has understood the strength of and reason for his appeal. He never worried about the media, didn’t give a damn about elite approval. Every additional day puts the hammer on the media and the political elite who have suppressed any discussion, much less a vote, on the issues so many Americans care about.

So Trump’s willingness to court social and economic punishment has already paid off by giving Americans a chance to show how utterly on board they are with limiting immigration. He has kicked the Overton window several notches back to center, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Excellent analyses of Trump’s success abound, but they all suggest Trump’s rise is due to a variety of factors. I believe this is wrong.

Without immigration, Trump is nowhere.

His call to “bring jobs back home” wouldn’t be nearly as appealing if voters were worried all those jobs would go to cheap immigrant labor. Yes, his ferocious assaults on political correctness and elite sensibilities are attractive, but more importantly, they are essential for withstanding the media and political assault that followed his proposal. Hit him, and he’ll hit right back, upping the ante and distracting attention from the original charge with increasingly outrageous insults. Had Trump stoically stayed on message, politely trying to explain his way through the outrage, he’d have been gone before Labor Day. I’m delighted that he’s rendered the media helpless in its self-appointed task of destroying people for the wrong opinions, but that’s not why he’s doing so well.

Without immigration, Trump is just a billionaire dilettante politician with good timing, a populist touch and big hair.

This election has been amazing.

For the past six or seven months, I’ve been watching, waiting for Trump to cavil or backtrack on the essentials, holding my breath. And instead of disappointment, I’ve had the ….really, the only word for it is elation…as I watched the frustration, the astonishment, the fury at Trump’s success. Watching George Will’s head explode is—forgive me—exhilarating. Watching the Republicans–some I count among my favorite writers and thinkers–who called me stupid and desperate eat crow time and again after their earlier assurances of the desperate idiocy of Trump supporters and his imminent decline has brought me so much joy.

But my personal satisfaction aside, these Republicans’ shock and dismay at the depth of Trump’s support is a necessary first step if the country’s going to change its immigration ways, because change has to come via the GOP.

I don’t know what will take Trump down, if anything does. He’s created a seismic impact just getting this far, and I’m not going to count the effort wasted if it all ends in Iowa, or at some future state primary. I sense it will not. I think those who, like me, have longed for the chance to be a single-issue voter, are going to come out in droves.  I hope enough Americans will vote on this issue to put him over the top.

But if he wins the primary to lose the election, then my side doesn’t have enough votes yet. So be it. Sing me no sad songs about the Supreme Court. I worry about Democrat nominees, yes, but conservative or liberal, the Court doesn’t seem interested in protecting the nation’s borders. Maybe this last executive fiat pushed them too far. If Clinton gets elected, the GOP Congress can just get serious about the “consent” part of its job.

Recently, Ramesh Ponnuru declared that immigration issues are the new conservative litmus test.

Wrong. I’m not conservative. I’ve supported Republicans for a decade not with any particular enthusiasm, but because the GOP politicians have on most issues reliably opposed Democrats in their brand of crazy. It’s not Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley that has me voting GOP; it’s Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and Barack Obama, along with the causes they espouse.

The GOP has been pandering its electorate on immigration for long enough. What I guess the Republican elite didn’t understand until now is just how many GOP voters were, like me, pandering right back. We don’t really support the GOP’s goals intellectually or emotionally, but what the hell, if we vote for them, maybe our turn will come.

Trump is our turn.

1To my regular readers: I understand you range from liberal teachers to alt-right HBDers and everything in between; I’m not assuming a friendly audience. Feel free to fulminate.

The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

To understand why outsiders don’t grasp teacher quality in meaningful terms, consider this list.

Which of the teachers described here are leaders, working with their colleagues to improve school quality? Which ones are speaking out in support of improving the professional community? Which ones forge the way to a new professional concept? Which ones have a clear vision of their teaching identities? Which ones are committed to student achievement? Which ones, in Rick Hess’s phrasing, are cagebusters?

Ignore trifling matters like whether or not the teachers agree with your own values and priorities. Focus on leadership, caring, professional commitment. Yes, this makes it a more difficult task.

  • Teachers work late into the evening developing curriculum and planning instruction, but violate their contractual obligations by occasionally or consistent tardiness to staff and department meetings. Their timely colleagues see the tardy attendance as unprofessional. But the gripers often leave campus three minutes after last bell.

  • An attendance clerk wonders why a student is skipping first period each day for two weeks. The clerk contacts the other teachers and learns that he’s actually been absent in all classes, but that unlike the first period teacher, they’ve been letting it slide, since the student told them he was joining the Marines. Further investigation reveals that the student was on a cruise. Shortly after this incident, the principal announced that failure to take attendance and submit completed attendance verification reports would be made an evaluation point, if needed.

  • A new teacher is confused as to what responsibilities are held by the “department head” and a “math coach”, since neither approached to offer assistance when he began his job. The teacher who did approach him with help (and has no official role) told him not to worry about it, as department “leadership” roles are meaningless.

  • A few senior math teachers informally agreed to improve advanced math instruction by holding students to higher standards and a demanding pace. A new teacher was brought on, who taught at a slower pace and had a much wider “passing window”. The senior teachers requested that the new teacher be fired. The principal refused. One of the senior teachers left. The newer teacher continued with the same priorities.

  • A team of teachers and counselors are enthusiastically discussing methods to convince colleagues to comply with a new district-wide initiative. One team member cautions against mandated compliance, suggesting they accept cynicism and caution as logical responses. The team decides to go much more slowly, realizing that they can’t really enforce compliance anyway. They introduce a smaller initiative that builds on existing interest, hoping to win more compliance through results.

  • A second-career teacher works unceasingly to help at-risk students get to college, achieving a decade or more of success getting first-generation kids to college. He is a valued and highly respected leader in the teaching staff—right up until he confesses to inappropriate contact with a student. He is arrested and fired.

These examples all reveal why Rick Hess’s 90-10 split makes no sense:

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Hess never says so, but presumably we are to assume that the “amazing teachers” are moving test scores, while the disgruntled, frustrated teachers demanding more money are out there on the picket lines, demonstrating against Eva or taking time off to bitch in Madison, while their students sit in a dull stupor.

Would that the dichotomy were that simple. Dots can’t be connected between teaching ability and political activism. The street corner screamers protesting merit pay and standardized testing might just as easily be the ones working until 9 at night, building memorable lessons. The slugs who check out each day at 3 using the same tests year after year might have worshipful students. The former teacher who cries on cue as a paid hack for Students First might actually be less admired than the much loved teacher identified as incompetent based on a single student’s opinion. (I am always flummoxed that reformers think anyone other than the already converted would find Bhavina Baktra compelling.) Political activism is one of the utterly useless proxies for teacher quality.

Teacher Quality–what is it, exactly?

What makes a good teacher? Let us count the many ways that broad circles can’t safely capture and identify teaching populations.

  • An engaging, creative teacher can be a terrible or indifferent employee, showing up to meetings late, missing supervisories, forgetting to submit grades on time.
  • An uninspiring or incompetent teacher can be a fabulous employee, impeccably on time with contract obligations: grades, attendance, and assigned tasks.
  • Teachers of any instructional or employee quality can be activists fighting against reforms they see as damaging to either their jobs or children—or on the reform payroll (yes, it does seem that way to us) pushing for merit pay or an end to tenure.
  • An ordinary, somewhat tedious teacher can have an outstanding attendance record, while a creative curriculum genius misses ten or more days a year;
  • Unlawful teachers–from the extremes of unthinkable sexual behavior to the seemingly innocuous falsification of state records—are, often, “good teachers” in the sense that reformers intend the word. (Just do a google on teacher of the year with any particular criminal activity.

No objective measure or criterion exists for teaching excellence. At best, most might agree on its display. Were a thousand people to watch a classroom video, they might agree on the teacher’s displayed merits. People might agree that certain opinions are unacceptable for teachers to have, or that certain actions are unacceptable. But those merits, actions, or opinions have next to no demonstrated relationship to test scores or other student outcomes.

So What Makes a Teacher Leader?

And if we can’t even know who or what defines a good teacher for any objective metric, then naturally the whole idea of finding “teacher leaders” is a lost cause.

Who’s a leader? The officially designated department heads or coaches, or the de facto mentors who offer advice and curriculum to the nervous newbies? The teachers who follow the contract obligations like clockwork, or the ones who work late and give hours to the kids but are weaker at the contractual obligations? The teachers who want to plow down resisters, or the teachers who suggest accommodating to the reality that the plowdowns will never happen? The teachers who want everyone to follow proven procedures, or the teachers who follow their own vision? The teacher who successfully manages a a site-wide program for at-risk kids, helping hundreds over the years while occasionally making sexual advances, or the teacher who just shows up every day to teach without ever molesting his students? The teachers who want to embrace reforms to improve schools, or the teachers who fight the reforms as the efforts of ignorant ideologues?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. There are people who can brief for either side–yes, even the molester. Just ask Mrs. Miller or, just to ratchet up the difficulty level, the hundreds of kids who weren’t abused by this predator, but found focus and purpose to achieve based on his advice and support.

So who wants teacher leaders, anyway? Reformers. Ed schools. Politicians. Administrators. Teachers who want to be teacher leaders—a handy group that serves as mouthpieces for the other organizations. The same people, in short, who believe the delusion that “good teachers” is an axiom, an easily defined, obvious trait.

Who doesn’t want teacher leaders? Teachers who don’t want to be teacher leaders. Which is most of them.

I repeat, for the umpteenth time: what the outside world sees as a bug, most teachers see as a feature. We trade promotions and pay recognition for job security and freedom from management that industry can only dream of.

Certain things just don’t make a dent in the teacher universe. When math teachers get together for beers, we don’t secretly bitch about how much more money we’d get if teaching salaries were determined by scarcity. Very few sigh for a world in which our pay is dependent on our principal’s opinion of our work. Many of us either aren’t fussed by system bureaucracy or—as if often the case—understand that the bureaucracy isn’t the underlying reason for whatever wall we face.

Given the utter lack of internal demand, teachers suspect, with much justification, that those calling for “leaders” are looking to install their mouthpieces in positions of authority over the rest of us. Call us cynical. Call us justified.

So the next time anyone calls for “teacher leaders”, please remember a few things. Any teaching community has leaders both official and informal. The official leaders are selected, often by management, sometimes by majority vote. The informal leaders are often sought out by colleagues, but occasionally self-drafted. Regardless of selection method, the relationships are many to many, not one to many. These leaders have little actual authority. They have influence. Sometimes.

Teachers don’t want leaders. We have management. We’re good, thanks.

2015: Turning a Corner. Maybe.

This chart may be complicated, but since these retrospectives mostly function as my diary, I’ll not worry about that.


So here’s the last three years: Year 4 (blue, 2015), Year 3 (yellow, 2014), and Year 2(green, 2013). The last set of columns shows the cumulative traffic for each year. So Year 3 saw slightly higher traffic than Years 2 and 4. In 2015, I saw about 214K views compared to 215 in Year 3 and 223K in 2014, my high point.

If I wanted to, I could be bummed and think man, I’ve had no increase in growth over the past two years. But that’s why the jaggedy lines are there, to cheer me up. They remind me that if I want people to read me, I have to actually write. I put out a grand total of 5 posts in May, June, and July. Five posts! I only got two out in November, too.

Since I get a minimum of 200 page views just by actually posting, those three months cost me a lot of traffic. And since I’m not really in this for the overall traffic, it means I shouldn’t fuss about the lower overall number, and I won’t. Except to remind myself that I need to write more.

In 2014, I set myself the goal of writing 72 posts, and only managed 46. This year, I just managed 36. THIRTY SIX. That’s ridiculous.

Before I go onto the brighter side of last year, I want to write this down, to document my change in productivity. I wrote 108 pieces in my first year. Year 2, 2013, I wrote 61 essays. It’s like that math activity where the kids bounce balls and measure the height. My essay output is a decaying exponential function….Output year=.75 * Outputyear-1.

What the hell have I been doing with my time since? It’s not that I’m lazy, or that I did less research back then. Some of my best, most popular pieces were written in 2012, including 5 of the 18 pieces that saw over 1500 views just this year–or 6 of the top 20, if you prefer that method, but I don’t because it doesn’t allow like to like comparisons. Admittedly, many in that first year were short teaching stories I don’t do anymore (short? Me? Let’s all laugh.), but that just makes it more astonishing. I did some major research and throwaway posts. How?

I’m not out of ideas. I am more than occasionally frustrated by the utter nonsense I see bruited about confidently, by people paid huge heaps of money to be experts. But instead of writing about it, I get bogged down. That’s the problem. I try to do one big piece and cover everything. I need to create bite-sized chunks. The problem, alas, lies in my knowledge of the likelihood that I’d do the next chunk rather than move on to something else.

The problem isn’t the writing. I can knock out essays in relatively little time when I need to. I did On The Spring Valley High Incident in an evening (a very late evening, though), because I wanted my thoughts to be in the mix so timeliness was essential. I got the five political proposals and their bookends done in a month, a magnum opus of focus. (I suspect hocus pocus. Sorry.) The problem is in the organization and structuring, identifying the goals of the piece.

And yet, this studied consideration is often a strength. I spent nearly a month mulling the “explaining your answer” discussion and came up with the first “math zombie” piece, which contributed much more to the longer term discussion than whatever I would have written in the first week. Except, alas, I couldn’t get beyond thinking about it and so didn’t write anything else that month, killing the momentum I built up from August through October.

I read a P-J example in a Myers Briggs book somewhere. The president of a hobbyist club asked for a volunteer to put out a monthly newsletter. The volunteer who responded put out a charming newsletter, filled with fascinating and useful information, a real pleasure to read—but always put out on the third, rather than the first. In frustration, the president took it over herself, and put out a brief, functional newsletter right on time. Or the test question: “Do you think a meeting is successful when everyone leaves knowing what to do, or when every issue has been thoroughly explored?”

Which is not to say that everything done to task on time is always dry and boring. Mickey Kaus quotes someone else (I forget who) saying that he writes faster than anyone who writes better, and better than anyone who writes faster.

I will put more emphasis this year into improving my essay entry procedures, to stop putting off the challenging task of structuring a piece so that I can write it. Moreover, I was once able to write more than one piece at a time, putting out something simple and descriptive (say, on curriculum) while working on a larger piece. I need to get back to that.

I’m going to try to get back up to consistently four pieces a month. Wish me luck.

Now, on the bright side:

While 2014 saw the most consistent traffic, year 3 was also a relatively unpopular year. Of those 42 pieces, only 18 of them saw over 1000 views that year. My usual benchmark is 1500, and only eight made it over that mark.

This last year was much better. A full 24 of my paltry output of 36 pieces saw traffic over 1000 views; 11 made it over 1500. The most popular essay in 2014 was 2,800 views; this year my international SAT piece saw over 6,000 hits. My college remediation piece and the one on the gaokao got over 4,000.

These numbers are nowhere near my average essay popularity of 2013, the year of my all-time popular piece on Asians, as well as my Philip K. Dick piece on IQ, both of which went over 6,000–and that was just the start. I did some good work that year, and I’m pleased that 2015 was at least in the hunt.

So even though 2014, year 3, was the high point traffic wise, my new work received much more attention this year.

Some highlights:

  • My seven essay series on unmentionable education policies, most of which topped the 1500 mark–the rest just missed. I’m most proud that I gritted my teeth and followed through, devoting the entire month of August and not giving up.
  • What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao highlights my ability to go deep and make a whole bunch of information digestible by the casual viewer–and got lots of traffic for my troubles.
  • I did carry through on my vow to write more about math, showing different aspects of my teaching and writing. Illustrating Functions is a nice pedagogy piece, while functions vs. equations sparked some tremendous discussions throughout the math community. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Jake’s Guest Lecture and The Test that made them go Hmmmm is an accurate representation of my classroom discussions. The zombie sessions with my private student capture my strength as an explainer. I also contined to build my series on multiple answer math tests, and what I can learn from the student responses.
  • I was offered a chance to write an op-ed in a major media outlet about my college remediation policy! I had to turn it down! The downside of anonymity. Although really, is it so terrible a newspaper publish an anonymous op-ed? They use anonymous sources and expect us to believe the journalists have used their judgment. (cough). So why not op eds? But still, it was great to be asked.
  • My Grant Wiggins eulogy—and may I say to Grant, wherever his spirit is, you’re sorely missed.

The pieces that didn’t get as much attention, but should have:

On a personal note, my granddaughter has a new baby brother! My next generation is expanding. And while I like to beat myself up for not writing more, I didn’t waste the time. I had a wonderful year of travel that took me to amazingly beautiful sights, multiple, happy family get-togethers necessitating time spent preparing fabulous food, and oh, yes, I taught a grand class or two. It was a fun year.

So let’s see if I’ve turned the corner on the productivity slump for 2016. Wish me luck.

Below are the pieces that had over 1500 hits.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13 6,948
The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know. 12/31/14 6,329
Homework and grades. 02/06/12 4,491
Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation 08/01/15 4,360
What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao 01/18/15 4,325
On the Spring Valley High Incident 10/27/15 2,948
Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics 07/31/15 2,944
Evaluating the New PSAT: Math  04/16/15 2,866
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12 2,717
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 09/14/12 2,699
Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools 08/02/15 2,253
I Don’t Do Homework  02/15/15 1,799
Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA 08/07/15 1,708
Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal 05/26/13 1,629
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12 1,616
Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only 08/16/15 1,582
Kicking Off Triangles: What Method is This?  11/12/12 1,572
Functions vs. Equations: f(x) is y and more 05/24/15 1,514


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