Tag Archives: Common Core

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Damage?

History will probably never adequately address the reasons for Common Core’s educational failure to improve results (as opposed to political failure, which I’ve outlined over the past year).

Contemporary analyses can’t even agree that they’ve failed.

  1. We need more implementation time to show the results. (ex: Stay the Course)
  2. The standards were too easy. (ex: Common Core Has Failed. Now What?)
  3. Standards don’t make a difference. (ex: Common Core Has Not Worked)
  4. What are you talking about? Common Core didn’t fail! ex: In California, Common Core Has Not Failed)

Before NAEP failed to show any improvement, everyone pushing Common Core called NAEP the “gold standard” of educational testing. After NAEP scores failed to show any improvement, some Core proponents including, sadly, Michael Kirst, blamed NAEP.

But to me, there’s always been another interesting question: granted that Common Core didn’t improve academic performance, did it do something worse? Did it actively slow or retard student progress?

NAEP Reminder

To begin with, for those who don’t actively pore over NAEP scores, here’s the reformer nightmare:

Click to enlarge. ELA on left, fourth grade on top. These scores go from 1990 to 2019. Notice that the only steep hike is in 4th grade math, next steepest in 8th grade math, and both of the major growth happens not only before Common Core, but before NCLB–that is, long before reformers got their way at the federal level. My take on this: the growing criticism from “A Nation at Risk” on clearly convinced states to take academic achievement more seriously, teaching more content earlier, thus leading to a boost in scores.

That boost in achievement, as anyone who knows NAEP will tell you, never translated to high school:

There are three explanations of why high school NAEP scores remain flat. First, we are holding onto more students, so their ability level is lower, thus pulling down scores.  Next, the population demographics have changed, and the growth rate has been among the races with lower test scores, which prevents the average from increasing. That’s certainly possible, but looking at 17 year old scores by race:

They all seem pretty flat, so surely that would have resulted in a decrease? Eh.

My own pick for why scores stay flat in high school is that the question is reversed. Instead of asking why scores stay flat in high school, ask yourselves why so many more blacks and Hispanics do well in younger grades. I first wrote about this in my seminal article The false god of elementary math scores–well, seminal in the Ed Realist oeuvre, at least:

We should take to heart the Wise Words of Barbie. Math achievement will fall off as the courses get more challenging. Students who excelled at their times tables and easily grasped fractions might still struggle with complex numbers or combinatorics.

Or, as Steve Sailer said once, Usain Bolt wasn’t much faster than any of his age peers–at six months old.

State Tests

I’ve always preferred state test scores over NAEP. Granted, they aren’t standardized over geography or time. But the entire state population is tested by grade on the same assessment.  You’d think that would be a baseline requirement, but in fact NAEP just selects kids at random, allowing the states some selection sculpting, and then tests those kids on a subset of the entire question set.

So what did the state tests show about Common Core?

God Bless Education Week.

Common Core 2015 Test Results

Blue states are SBAC, red states are PARCC, purple states either didn’t adopt Common Core or didn’t adopt the tests, using their own.

Step through every state’s results from 2013-14 to 2014-15 and you’ll notice that all the purple states saw little or no change in test scores. Meanwhile, the red and blue state scores plummeted, with the singular exception of Missouri, whose English scores on the SBAC were an improvement from the year before. Someone should ask Missouri why. All  the rest, all the way down: state-designed tests, no change. PARCC or SBAC, steep drop in proficiency.

Edweek compared overall student populations over a year period. I picked three states: California, Illinois, and Colorado (an SBAC state and two PARCCs) and broke them out by grade and growth/decline over a five year period.

Orange is before; blue is after. So, a massive hit in test scores. And this was the norm, fairly close to universal, for all states that adopted the PARCC or SBAC. Which is why so many states dumped the tests.

They were designed to be more difficult. Education reformers desperately want to expand charters beyond their primary base of low income parents looking for a way out of chaotic schools. They wanted to break into the suburbs and wreak the same kind of budgeting havoc in wealthy school districts as they do in poor ones. The path towards achieving this, they thought, was to “convince suburban parents that their schools sucked, too!” as Michael Petrilli said in a podcast several years ago.

Reformers thought most people approved of their goals. They thought the public had their backs. They thought the public shared in the disapproval of those dumbed-down NCLB era tests. They were wrong.

Why Make The Tests Harder?

The tests could have been made more difficult, the cut scores higher, without making any underlying change in the materials learned. But Common Core standards, at least in math, were much harder.

Why? Because the Common Core developers had their own ideas about the falloff between elementary and high school scores.  They understood, as I’ve pointed out, that elementary school focuses on arithmetic fact and algorithm mastery.  Math curriculum gets dramatically more difficult and more abstract in high school.  Thus, elementary school test scores are always higher than high school scores. It’s easier to achieve mastery of arithmetic and algorithms.

But they didn’t even consider the Wise Words of Barbie.  The Common Core developers, as well as all education reformers and progressives, see ability as irrelevant to policy planning. They see the falloff as a failure of instruction and expectations.

Solving the huge influx of abstract math in high school required,er, flattening the difficulty curve. Teach young children the theory behind arithmetic, rather than just the algorithms and math facts. Introduce conceptual math much earlier into the educational time line. Students would master difficult arithmetic concepts earlier and be ready for the higher difficulty of advanced math.

As far as I can tell, I’m one of the only people who correctly observed this plan seven years ago, in Core Meltdown Coming, (I’m kind of proud of this, given that the Common Core math criticism was that the standards were too easy). You can read some of the details of how they pushed the difficulty down in that article. Or you can just read the thousands of articles delineating the angry woes of elementary school kids throughout the country.

One could easily explain the perceived failure of the past fifty years of educational policy as nothing more than the failure to see ability as highly relevant to educational achievement.

Teaching vs. Learning

So Common Core’s failure to improve academic achievement could be seen as the imposition of ruthless reality: Introducing difficult math concepts earlier didn’t lead to earlier mastery.  

But Stripe wasn’t harmed by the attempt to teach him whistling.

What if teaching more abstraction not only didn’t achieve understanding but also prevented the understanding previously taken for granted? What if kids who’d previously been able to grasp the basics of math facts and algorithms were now struggling with them? If you don’t tell a kid that 3+8=11, but rather continually ask him to prove it, maybe the kid’s own intelligence influences understanding of math facts.  Bright kids will realize that there’s a pattern to the “proofs”, that they are actually just using patterns to reflect reality. Less able kids might  never get around to realizing that math facts are facts, as opposed to opinions they can prove kind of like in writing class, just by finding a cool quote.

Possibly–just possibly–Common Core math standards interfered with algorithm and math fact mastery.

That would explain the falloff in NAEP math performance, although once again NAEP isn’t focused enough to pick up on this in any comprehensive manner. It would also explain why the lowest achievers were the hardest hit.

I have no evidence. Zip, nada. (Although I was just reminded that Spotted Toad wondered the same thing, and that’s a good sign.) It’d be an interesting research project, requiring a deep dive into particular question types. Someone should check it out. My theory has face validity, at least. Intuitively, teachers all understand that teaching students aggressively beyond their capabilities is damaging. It’s why so many of us reject the demand for “higher standards” and often actively support “dumbing down” as a way for children to learn more effectively.

Imagine being an education reformer shilling and then defending Common Core. NAEP scores, which you routinely describe as the “gold standard of education measurement” flatten or drop in fourth and eight grade math and reading in apparent response to a  hugely expensive, howlingly unpopular standards change.  Then it appears that the lowest performers are declining more than high performers, when your argument for Common Core was that higher standards were what weaker kids needed to know what is expected of them.

At that point, you’re left with “It was the implementation!” or “Stay the course!” or “The NAEP is testing the wrong stuff!”

And so, the national standards dream died a horrible death once more.

And so, finally, I have finished all but the final chapter of my Rise and Fall of Bush/Obama Education Reforms. The pandemic derailed my focus, alas, and I probably could have done better on Common Core. Each one of these pieces has something interesting to say, I think, but ideally I would have collapsed them all into two. Sorry about that.

 


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Why Didn’t They See Common Core Fail Coming?

Rick Hess’s article, How the Common Core Went Wrong, unerringly dissects the failures of the proponents’ strategy, no small feat for contemporaneous writing. Granted, he goes off the rails when he offers the states a three step way-out: take back control from the feds, form a small coalition of states willing to implement tough standards consistently and test on them, and make sure they implement the “rigorous” Common Core, not the “frivolous” one. Uh, sure.  (I am reminded of Ender’s siblings Valentine and Peter, who never agreed about what the world ought to be, but rarely disagreed about what the world actually was.)

Here Hess is on the world as it actually is.

The crucial compromise [of NCLB] was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.

What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A “race to the bottom” was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.

In December 2008, Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association issued “Benchmarking for Success,” a report that urged states to develop and adopt common standards; called for federal incentives to promote that effort; and advocated aligning textbooks, curricula, and tests to those standards. If all states played by the same rules, there would be no race to the bottom. (emphasis mine)

Here he is on the world as it ought to be.

A push for a meaningful common measure of educational quality should start with a small number of deeply committed states that choose the rigors of true commonality.

So let’s unpack that.

First, No Child Left Behind set criteria of 100% proficiency with stiff penalties for states that didn’t make progress. In response, states made their tests easier to increase proficiency rates and reduce the noticeable proficiency gap between races, demographics, language status, etc.

Is this true? Yes. Without question, states were lowering cut scores.

So why did they need waivers?

Remember all those media stories recording reformer complaints about low cut scores? Not one reporter asked, “if cut scores were so ridiculously low, why were waivers required? Shouldn’t all the students have been passing?”

Again: The states made the tests easier. They made the tests a lot easier.

And there was still an achievement gap. Not a single state achieved 100% proficiency. 

The Obama administration was able to force states to adopt Common Core because the states needed waivers because various student demographic groups weren’t passing their extremely easy tests.

The governor’s association that dreamed up the need for Common Core didn’t think “Hmm, the states lowered the standards to the point that 10% correct was proficient and still there were kids who didn’t get proficient so maybe we should take a beat and evaluate if perhaps our expectations of all American kids are a tad unrealistic.”

No, what they thought was, “We need to force the states to use a much more difficult common test.”

Now return to the point of my last article, which is that the states are experts at taking federal money without any intention of fulfilling the requirements attached to the largesse (which is only fair, mind you, given the idiotic demands the feds make without anything approaching full funding).

The last law was ignored in everything but spirit and nonetheless drove all the states into non-compliance. The Obama administration used the states’ desperate desire to get a penalty waive to force them to sign up for common standards and collaborate to create really difficult and expensive tests–that they didn’t have to use.

So the states didn’t use them.

The only way you could make states “play by the same rules”, as Hess puts it, is to force them to. He envisioned a voluntary cooperative because, as I said, Hess is better at describing reality than anticipating it. There’s no way states would sign up for tests that would increase their achievement gap. They couldn’t even end the achievement gap by making the tests simple. Why would they sign up for something harder?

Insanity. Also amazingly stupid. And of course, expensive.

At which point you realize that only really unique aspect of Common Core was the redistribution of $345 million  from the federal government to Pearson and other testing companies. Everything else was business as usual: feds hand out money with requirements, the states take the money and ignore the requirements.

Common Core standards survived, sure. But only because the tests didn’t.

Now the standards are just….wallpaper.

Hey, under a thousand.


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Alex or Gloria?Common Core Assessments

In my last post* I  said that the tests excited reformers “almost more” than the standards. That’s because the truth would have derailed the article. The truth?  The tests were more important to reformers than the standards.

And the tests failed beyond the reformers’ wildest, most dystopian nightmares.

To focus on the standards is to miss the point entirely. As Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute said, famously, “…..standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they’re ignored.

Recall once more  that No Child Left Behind’s failure, which the education reformers themselves baked into the law, created the very failure they were planning to resolve with Common Core tests. States eager to avoid the penalities of not meeting this impossible standard just lowered the cut scores to allow more students to score as proficient.

So as far as reformers were concerned, NCLB failed because the states refused to maintain high standards.

From that perspective, a primary argument for common standards was to provide an excuse for new, common, assessments. Standards themselves were incidental.  That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by a McKinsey hack was in charge of writing the standards. That’s why all the pedantic objections to specific Core strands were waved off. The people who foisted Common Core on America thought of standards as…..wallpaper.  What they cared about was the tests. They wanted to use the tests to hold states and schools and teachers accountable.

Ed reformers’ reliance on the assessments might be considered the Alex Forrest component of Common Core.

“They weren’t going to be ignored, Dan.”

It was all right there out in the open. From the beginning, all the people pushing Common Core standards mentioned assessments in the same breath.

President Obama:
…I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

Checker Finn: Implementation, Implementation, Assessment, Assessment

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

In a well-known 2014 Intelligence Squared debate on “embracing the Common Core” , usual allies Michael Petrilli  and Rick Hess of AEI took opposite sides. But both confirm the primary purpose of all this change.

Petrilli: “Rick is right that…a number of states have decided to pull back from common core testing….My argument is that those states have not fully embraced the common core. You cannot embrace higher standards if you don’t also embrace better assessments. They go together…..We should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments..that are worlds better than the tests that we’ve been living with for the past few decades.”

Rick Hess: “The Common Core does not solve the problem it was designed to solve…the concern that state were playing games with their test scores in order to make their schools look better than they were. Common Core was supposed to help address this… (emphasis mine)

Note: Hess and partner Carol Burris lost the debate by audience vote.  They both come out very well in retrospect. Petrilli and his partner were wrong on everything.

Given this obvious expectation, the Common Core proponents were, quite simply, idiots.

Alex Forrest thought she’d won Dan when he succumbed to her charms–at the bar, in the restaurant, in the kitchen sink, in the elevator. How could he say no?

The new tests were going to be so great. No one could say no.

“I don’t think having dinner with anybody’s a crime.”

Playing Michael Douglas’s Dan, the cheating husband, are the progressive educators on the left–the union, ed schools, academia.

These folks examined the standards purely on their educational merits and gave into temptation. Remember, liberal policy wonks want integrated math. They support delay in algorithms while emphasizing “conceptual understanding”. They liked the lack of content and, while they’re rarely honest on this point, progressive educators prefer the emphasis on writing over reading. Reading between the lines, Common Core’s instructional shifts” (the “dog whistles”, as Tom Loveless called them) suggested that the Common Core would allow them cover to demand schools use these methods. I doubt they would have had much success, but that’s another issue.

By supporting Common Core, they could point to nationwide standards mandating all their progressive shibboleths while also getting brownie points for  accommodating with the then-popular ed reform movement. Play nice, and get cover to official  progressive instructional methods. It seemed win-win. And the wife–public school parents, for the most part–would never know because no one cares about standards.

Hey, it’s just dinner.

But just as Dan never thought Alex was a beserker who wouldn’t leave him alone, the progressive left never once realized that Obama, their president hero, was explicitly planning on using these new assessments to evaluate schools and teachers.

You can tell the point at which they figured out it because  union leadership and other key players on the left went ballistic. And so you see Carol Burris, at the time a nationally-known Virginia high school principal, and Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT teacher’s union, originally support the standards and then speak out in opposition.   Both Burris and Weingarten mention that they didn’t realize the standards would be linked so firmly to accountability tests. They also realized that the standards which on paper supported progressive goals would in fact create tremendously difficult tests that would not only make life difficult for public schools

” If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.”

Once this horror dawned on them the unions and other left of center advocates not repudiated the standards, they also alerted Dan’s wife, Beth, played in our little saga by affluent parents. Some of those parents take elementary and middle school far more seriously than, really, they should. Some of those parents have high school kids sitting ten to twelve hours for 4 or 5 Advanced Placement tests in May and are ready for any excuse to accede to the kids’ demands for a few days off while the schools give tests they find meaningless. And so the “opt out” movement, driven primarily by parents, encouraged occasionally by teacher unions, centered in states with stronger links between test scores and teacher evaluations. Students also took the opportunity to jump in and opt out.

Parents don’t care about standards. Before Common Core, they didn’t care much about state tests, either. Granted, many parents didn’t like them much, especially if they had sensitive children prone to bursting into tears at the least sign of stress. But without a hook, opting out just seemed…weird. Everyone else’s kids were taking the tests.

Then the tests went and killed their bunny.

The Power Player

The flamboozle about opting out and “instructional shifts” acted as a shiny bright object for the media, and certainly explains the public distaste for Common Core and its assessments. But the progressive left and public school parents aren’t responsible for the total meltdown of the Common Core tests, in my opinion.

The temporary agreement of the unions? The parenting optouts? Irrelevant, really. Nice theater. The power players here were the states.

What mattered, in the end, wasn’t that the tests made parents unhappy.

What mattered is that the tests were ridiculously expensive.

But….but wait, you ask. Isn’t that what Obama administration forked out hundreds of millions of dollars for?

No. NAY. Nyet. Nein. Aw HELL naw, Karen.

The Race to the Top money was just to develop the tests. All that money went to consultants and right about now is when you realize why progressives froth at the mouth over Pearson.

How the Money was Spent, courtesy of hard work by Edweek. Orange is SBAC only, blue is PARCC only, and green for greedy got both.

SBACPARCCVendors

So the Common Core consortia funds went to a bunch of testing and curriculum companies. Said testing and curriculum companies developed the tests for Smarter Balanced and PARCC.

But the tests had to pay for the administration and scoring.

As early as 2012, the great Gewertz (Catherine, of Edweek, the only publication that consistently did bang-up reporting on Common Core), asked how much Common Core would cost, comparing Fordham’s cheerleading lowball estimate with the Pioneer Institute’s warning about the implementation costs. Other Common Core advocates acknowledged the cost, but argued it was worth it.

Proponents  argued that the $25 or so per student was ” not far from the nationwide average of what states currently pay”, but there were a lot of states below that national average and California’s lower than average costs tilted the average down.

But that per seat prices was just for administration and scoring. That cost didn’t include the tremendous infrastructure investment required to create a testing platform. The tests were all computer based, so many states and districts had to spend millions beyond the millions required for the tests, the implementation, and the scoring.

In other words, the states were going to have to shell out a lot of money to be told their students were total losers as far as David Coleman was concerned.

The  Common Core advocates always knew that, so far as love and affection goes, they were the mistress, the girlfriend, the bit on the side. They were always going to lose out to the wife and kids. But that didn’t matter, because those tests meant they weren’t going to be ignored.

It’s just they had the wrong mistress in mind.

The wrong woman

You know who else thought she was Alex Forrest? Gloria Trillo.

She thought she’d seduced a married guy who’d feel so guilty and scared by his infidelity that she could brazen her way into a relationship with him, whether or not he left his wife.

But she’d gotten herself involved with a mob boss, and didn’t know what that meant.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but it’s important to understand that despite this battle being fought in the media by think tanks and unions and progressive educators, these people were entirely out of the loop on delivery. The states  signed up for Common Core. The states joined testing consortiums,. The states had to deliver the tests, score the tests, live by the results of the tests.

The states aren’t Alex’s slighty guilty Dan. The states are fifty Tony Sopranos. They got mistresses, they got whores, they got the bimbos they screw occasionally at the Ba Da Bing club, they got the infrequent smoking hot number they spot at a party and screw in an elevator for a quick thrill but in the end, they go home to the Madonna, the woman too good to f*** the way they want. Guilt? Fuggedabout it. They’ve been playing this game for 50 years.

SBAC and PARCC were the testing equivalent of strippers. Strippers who want the occasional mob boss attention don’t make waves. They don’t create headaches. They don’t for sure go visit the wife and upset her.

Because if you do, well, Patsy comes by for a test drive and makes it really, really clear that Gloria understands just how thoroughly she can be ignored.

“And here’s the point to remember: my face is the last one you’ll see. Not Tony’s.”

Tony is going to ignore you, Gloria. Go back to selling cars, or end up splattered all over those fine leather seats. That’s the choice. You’ll never get near the wife. You’ll never spend a second more of time in Dan’s brain, even as annoyance, because alas, Dan wasn’t Dan. Dan was Tony.

And the end, well. Not very cinematic. As of late 2017,

parcsbacgeogparccsbactestdecline

Collapse. As bad as that looks, it’s worse just two years later. SBAC is down to 12 and PARCC–well, PARCC isn’t used in full by any state, best I can tell. (Spotted_Toad, who has been watching the PARCC demise up close, agrees.) PARCC’s gone. SBAC has traction in the West Coast. But no common cut scores, no universal benchmarks, not even the figleaf of a win for the people who went to so much trouble to foist Common Core upon a serene and oblivious public.

This was a long way around but I hope it communicates the primary issue: whatever you hear about the standards quality, the unhappy parents, the worried teachers–it was all mostly irrelevant. Politically useful, sure. But the reason that Common Core advocates consider the effort a failure is not because the standards weren’t popular, nor are they particularly worried that states rooted them out. They wanted the tests. They didn’t get the tests.  They thought they were dealing with Dan, that the opposition was the union. In fact, they were cut out of the game by mob bosses.

I have more, but let’s see how this goes.

*****************************************************************************
*(Seven or so weeks. Sorry. No one thing, but a great deal of the delay was because I couldn’t figure out how to explain the fall of the Common Core assessments in a way that covered everything. I mean, you could talk about opt out or bad polls or the 2016 election, but none of it really captured the root cause for the failure. How could I get that point across? Then I could deal with the details.

Suddenly, and I can’t remember why, I thought of probably absurd analogy that runs through this piece. Hope it helps.)


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Meltdown Came

I categorized the glory years by president, but the way down it has to be by subject. Common Core’s catastrophic fall requires much explaining.

When we left off, the Obama admininstration had enacted a significant chunk of the accountability education reformers’ agenda (remember, the three legs of  modern reform are accountability, choice, and curriculum). By holding out dollars to cash-starved states, Obama and Arne “convinced” a lot of states to first adopt one national common academic standard (purely voluntary! not federal!) and then to use the brand new tests they promised to buy in order to evaluate teachers. Ironically, they were able to basically coerce states into taking these actions because of the policy failure that was No Child Left Behind, designed to evaluate schools based on test scores. Unsurprisingly, they were undaunted.

So what happened? Why is 2012 the turnaround year?

2012: Braking

In 2012, the Republicans started to  split on the Common Core. This was a completely unanticipated development. Republican politicians, at least, unhesitatingly support education reform, the better to document the achievement gap, blame teachers for the achievement gap, fire the teachers and, ideally, end tenure.

But  Obama ran for re-election claiming credit for “demanding” standards and tests, which was nails on a chalkboard to Tea Party folks after the narrow Obamacare victory.  When he won in 2012, the ACA became a near-certainty, leading many red state legislatures began looking for ways to stop what they saw as Obama extending control. Education, the last redoubt of state control, became an obvious choice  given Obama’s regular rhetoric about demanding behavior and compliance from the states–to say nothing of revoking waivers when states didn’t comply with their demands….sometimes.

Political Maneuvering

It wasn’t just Republicans by any means. Common Core got beat down on all sides. And not all the efforts to repeal Common Core succeeded in the early days. But the breadth and depth of the pushback was helped along all those eager GOP legislators eager to call hearings and write new laws to do what they could to limit the encroachment of (as they saw it) Obama’s influence on their education.

Financially, they were aided by organizations that are usually strongly in support of education reform: Koch Brothers, Heritage Foundation, and so on.  Republican politicians got the message; notable flipflops were Chris Christie and  Bobby Jindal. Ultimately, Jeb Bush and John Kasich were the only holdouts.

Importantly, the political efforts  were aided by the first group of Common Core naysayers, the ones who’d opposed it from the start: the academics.

ELA Opposition

Sandra Stotsky, who wrote the famous Massachussetts standards, was furious that the state had abandoned them and came out against Common Core in 2010, offering testimony for any state legislature that asked her. Emory professor Mark Bauerlein joined her in opposition, as did a large number of 6-12 grade English teachers. The ELA debate was, as Tom Loveless characterized it, “inside baseball” , involving the degree to which the standards devalued literature in favor of informational texts, giving equal weight to both.

Common Core ELA writers (some might say compilers) David Coleman and Susan Pimental protested that their standards were intended for the “broad spectrum” of subjects–not just ELA but also math, science, and history. And that, readers, explains why ELA opposition was limited to the second half of the educational age group. Elementary school teachers cover all subjects and, when faced with additional informational text requirements could decide to reallocate time in the other three subjects. stealing from history, math, and science to teach reading and ELA.

But in middle school and beyond, teachers cover just one subject. Speaking as a credential holder of three of the four academic topics, I can assure you that math, history, and science teachers have spent not one second outside of mandatory PD mulling their informational text responsibilities to the ELA Common Core. They weren’t worried about ELA standards. They weren’t going to have their performance assessed by the ELA test. Responsibility for test scores would lie entirely on the English teachers. And Coleman and Pimental were telling those English teachers “oh, don’t worry, those topics are for other teachers to cover” and the English teachers looking back at them in horror thinking “oh, my lord, these standards were built by jackasses who know fuck-all about reality.”

Another common complaint was likewise accurate but got less attention: the Common Core ELA standards seemed much more focused on writing than reading, and much more focused on writing as critical reasoning than as personal narrative.

Math Opposition–High School

Opposition to Common Core math at the high school level is a bit complicated–in my view, considerably more insider baseball than the ELA ones.

Unlike the academic opponents on the ELA side, James Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman  didn’t get nearly the traction for complaining that the math Core was too easy and didn’t go far enough.  Every math teacher I talked to who had actually looked at the standards thought this argument was insane. As I wrote in the article that gave this one its name, the standards drastically increased the cognitive demands for elementary school math in order to move half of geometry concepts and most of algebra 1 into 7th and 8th grade math, thus transforming algebra 1 into a a course that most schools would call algebra 2. Milgram, Wurman, and others ignored all this and focused on the fact that Common Core standards put algebra in ninth grade, meaning no students could take calculus in high school, putting them at a disadvantage in college admissions.

Tom Loveless suggested that Common Core might be dogwhistling de-tracking, just as the standards also  opened a window for Integrated Math  and “conceptual understanding“. He argued that the Common Core math standards were an implicit invitation to schools to implement NCTM standards, root cause of the math wars of the 90s.

These debates didn’t find much purchase in the mainstream media.  High school math teachers understandably considered fewer unprepared kids in advanced math a feature, not a bug. Shifting to integrated math, of course, is a different matter. As I’ll go over in the next post, Loveless is correct–the standards were inducement to states and districts to implement math reforms that were otherwise politically impossible.

But for the most part, as I’ve tweeted possibly a zillion times (with Tom Loveless’s agreement, no less!) high school was almost completely unaffected by Common Core requirements, math or otherwise.

Math Opposition–Elementary School

Unlike the high school opposition, the complaints about elementary school math were bottom up. Parents were really annoyed. I think this 2012 Barry Garelick article was the first one I read to explicitly mention  problems parents were seeing while helping their kids with homework, but eventually those complaints exploded into media stories.

Why the explosion? The math was a lot harder. To restate, Common Core math standards were designed to shove a lot of math concepts and abstractions earlier into a student’s development. As a tradeoff, they delayed a lot of operational math until later grades. So younger students were learning a great deal about place value and grouping numbers and the conceptual underpinnings of subtraction and addition (i.e., number sense), but the algorithms were delayed–long division is pushed to sixth grade, simple “stacked addition” didn’t have to be mastered, and so on. So not only were kids not acquiring what the public considered basic skills, but they were spending time and energy mastering longer algorithms and processes without really grasping the “conceptual underpinnings” that were the purpose of the longer processes. The parents didn’t grasp them either.

Testing Opt Out

Adding to all the drama, one of the earliest states to use the new tests was New York, home to New York City, home to any number of hyper-competetive drama queens, and that’s just the parents.  This Times story covers the anguish after the ELA portion of the test, before the almost certainly greater trauma of the math, and notes that  “Even outside of New York City, there was an unusual amount of protest.”

In fact, though, NYC parents were relatively slow to the testing opt-out movement, which already had some small traction in New York and New Jersey, but was never a real political force until the Common Core tests. In 2013, 320 students opted out–a tiny number, but still a surprise to the DoE. At the same time, a number of NYC’s selective “choice” schools (as if there is such a thing) announced that they would not use Common Core tests for admission criteria. But in some New York suburbs , particularly Suffolk County and areas of Long Island, opting out had already reached 5% or higher in 2013, and by 2015, many areas had exceeded 50%. Opting out spread to other states, notably Colorado and Florida.

I don’t have any real insight into any reasons for opting out other than the reported ones: the parents thought both the writing and math tests were ridiculously difficult for their kids. Famously, a pilot ELA common core test had a reading passage about a talking pineapple that approached magical realism–and questions that made no sense at all.

High school students, particularly in wealthy and/or high achieving districts, often gave the tests a pass and not just in New York City. They were studying for AP tests and the SAT/ACT,  and had no interest in helping their communities maintain real estate values.

David Coleman was wrong. So was Arne.

Coleman was wrong about many things as he meandered a series of jobs from McKinsey Consultant to startup founder of software company that *presented* test results–that is, just data display–to “emerging evangelical of standards” buddy of Gene Wilhoit to the guy who Bill Gates gave tons of money to in order to “found” Student Achievement Partners so that he and Jason Zimba could singlehandledly write up Common Core standards to the president of the College Board who led a horrible redesign of the SAT that has led more and more people to demand for its elimination from college admissions.  Coleman’s gift is to convince people through ready adoption of buzzwords and an unhealthy dose of overconfidence that he can master any task he turns his hand to.

But the subheading refers to  his famous comment in response to concerns that the writing standards focused on argument rather than personal narrative:  “no one gives a shit how you feel.”

Turns out, a lot of people had feelings about Common Core, and a whole bunch of other people gave a shit.

Arne Duncan just as famously sneered about how fascinating it was that “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”  Arne didn’t understand that it wasn’t “fascinating” that white suburban moms didn’t like his innovations, it was fatal.

Denouement

So the political turnaround on Common Core, the constant attempts by most GOP state legislators to repeal adoption, had a ready supply of respectable academics to give testimony, lots of angry parents, a huge chunk of whom were liberal Democrats, and a working class base that was becoming extremely angry at the Republican national establishment going along with Obama.

By 2014, almost every state was fighting some kind of political or grass roots action–meaning, when Louis CK, beloved (at the time) of the smart set, blasted Common Core for making his daughters hate math, there was a huge audience that knew exactly what he was talking about. A year later, John Oliver provided another benchmark of Not Cool by spending  entire Last Week Tonight mocking not just the tests, but President Obama.

Not all the efforts to ban Common Core were successful by 2014, but look through this list and see if you can find any state other than California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont that hadn’t either made concessions (delayed testing at least a year, delay teacher evals based on tests), fought back constant attempts to repeal, or left the testing consortium to placate angry opponents.

Originally, 46 states and DC approved Common Core. Since 2017, just 17 have the same standards with no changes. Another nine states still have the standards, but made minor changes. Twelve states have made far more substantial changes. And eight have withdrawn entirely.

Whatever else they are, the standards are no longer common.

But so what? If most states are mostly using the standards, why the big deal? Why did you, Ed, devote an entire post to the “core meltdown”?

Good question.

Start with this fact: standards are irrelevant. Tom Loveless pointed this out as early as 2012:

Standards have been a central activity of education reform for the past three decades. I have studied education reform and its implementation since I left the classroom in 1988. I don’t know of a single state that adopted standards, patted itself on the back, and considered the job done. Not one. States have tried numerous ways to better their schools through standards. And yet, good and bad standards and all of those in between, along with all of the implementation tools currently known to policymakers, have produced outcomes that indicate one thing: Standards do not matter very much….On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement.

(Tom Loveless is right. A lot.)

Using history as a guide, Common Core at best wasn’t going to make any difference.  But instead, Arne Duncan, Obama, and ed reformers promised that Common Core was the secret to 21st century success. No, not just the secret–the key. The essential element. They bribed states to adopt the standards.

They spent billions to get rebellion, bad press, ridicule and standards that exist in name only. They achieved bipartisan hatred and did much to drive the repudiation of an entire movement.

You know what they didn’t get? Well, stay tuned.

(Note: I finished most of this a month ago, but had to figure out a cutoff. More coming, I hope. Had a tough last week. Borrowed the comic.)


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Zenith

(This is part 2 of my brief (hahahah) history of the rise and fall of modern education reform. This part is longer because much more happened. Unlike the events in part 1, I experienced the Obama reforms as a teacher, having graduated from ed school the year of his inauguration. I began blogging the year he was re-elected.)

Bipartisan Achievements

Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 while simultaneously blasting NCLB and praising charters and merit pay for teachers. In practice, he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kept giving reformers everything they wanted–although in fairness, reformers got increasingly nervous about their gifts as his presidency matured.

Ironically, given the general sympathy that the Obama administration had for education reform, a new version of the ESEA was impossible throughout most of the Obama presidency. This proves to be an extremely significant limitation.  Arne Duncan and Obama, rather than force states to live with the unpopular mandates, invited the states to submit waivers asking to be exempt from the penalties. This gave the Obama administration considerable power to force states to adopt policies the federal government wanted. Conservatives were unnerved by what most would considera a violation of Section 438 of the General Education Provisions Act banning any federal control over state educational choices.

Bribing the States, round I: Race to the Top, Waivers

First up was Race to the Top, enacted as part of the economic stimulus plan of 2009, in which over $3 billion was set aside for rewards to competitive bids. Compared to the moon shot by Arne Duncan, the competition demanded compliance with most key aspects of education reform. Of the 500 points awarded,  313 of them (63%) were for teacher effectiveness (138 points), adopting “common core” standards (70 points), supporting the growth of “high quality” charters (55 points) and intervention into low-performing schools (50 points).  Schools that didn’t promise to  fulfill ed reformers’ wildest dreams didn’t stand much of a chance. From the link above: “Between 2001 and 2008, states on average enacted about 10 percent of reform policies. Between 2009 and 2014, however, they had enacted 68 percent. And during this later period, adoption rates increased every single year.”

Around 2010, it became possible to observe two developments that were in fact completely forseeable to everyone back in 2001, when NCLB was signed.

First, NCLB allowed states to define proficiency and then penalized schools that didn’t meet that definition.  That might not have been a problem except for the second development:  no matter how easy the tests got, 100% proficiency never happened. And the gaps were the usual ones.

But now  2014 was squarely in sight and closer and schools well outside the usual urban dystopias were getting hammered into program improvement.

Since a new ESEA was still politically impossible, the Obama administration began offering “waivers” from the consequences of extended failure to meet NCLB,   in exchange for setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success:

  • State must adopt college and career ready standards
  • Schools must be held accountable
  • Teacher and principal evaluation systems

Some education reformers (the conservatives) were concerned about the quid pro quo nature of the waiver requirements.   Other education reformers (the neoliberals) pishtoshed those concerns, saying (much as they said later about immigration) that Congressional gridlock made the waivers and demands logical and reasonable. A typical debate, in which  Andrew Rothernam, neoliberal reformer from the Clinton administration, rationalized the Obama waivers  “This dysfunction matters because when NCLB was passed in 2001, no one involved imagined the law would run for at least a decade without a congressional overhaul.” (translated, good god, no one took that nonsense about 100% proficiency, we expected to modify it before then!)

Obama announced the waivers in February, 2012, and by July of that year 26 states had waivers, with another 9 awaiting approval. A year later, all but seven states had waivers. Jerry Brown and the California team flatly refused to intervene in “failing schools” or evaluate teachers by test results and never got a waiver (although a few districts applied separately and got one).

While we refer to the testing consortiums (consortia?) as the Common Core tests, I was surprised to learn that the original competition for the grants was part of Race to the Top. Arne Duncan announced the winners, PARCC, which had 26 states signing on, and SBAC, which had 33 (some states joined both), in 2010.

The tests, almost more than the standards, excited education reformers. No more would individual states be able to dumb down their tests to reach NCLB standards. All the states would be held to the same standard.

But it wasn’t federal mandates, of course. No, no. This was all voluntary!

Bribing the States, round II: Common Core

The Common Core initiative was originally the brainchild of Janet Napolitano when she heading up the National Governor’s conference, documented in 2007’s Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-Class Education (note: it’s kind of amazing how hard this document is to find. All the links to it reference the NGA doc, but that’s been deleted. I think this is the only existing online copy). She convened a group, and they came up with a set of five action items, three of which you can see reiterated above in the Obama waiver, because they were basically copied.

But it would never have gone anywhere had not Gene Wilhoit (head of school superintendant organization) and David Coleman, described in the link ahead as “emerging evangelical of standards” but actually little more than an ex-McKinsey guy with an assessment display (display. not design) startup  went to see Bill Gates, whose enthusiasm should have been a big neon light of warning, given his track record. Gates funded the development of standards. Coleman used the money to start “found” Student Achievement Partners and hire Jason Zimba, an ex-business partner who now worked for Coleman’s mothert(or, was a professorat Bennington College, where Coleman’s mom was president). Zimba, Phil Daro, and William McCallum wrote the math standards. Coleman and Susan Pimental wrote the ELA standards. The original Benchmarking report stated that the standards would be based on the American Diploma Project, but for reasons I don’t understand and might be interesting for someone else to explore, Coleman and crew rewrote a lot of it.

As the history shows, education reformer groups–those involved with accountability and choice–weren’t directly involved in the birth of Common Core, although it’s also clear from the verbiage in the Benchmarking report that education reform initiatives like teacher value-added measurement, charters, and school takeovers were very much in political parlance at that time, and very much bipartisan.

But education reformer groups loved the Common Core because they saw it as a way to bail them out of the two serious failures of NCLB described above. As Rick Hess observed in a five-year retrospective of Common Core, “The problem with that is if you had hard tests or hard standards you made your schools look bad. So there was a real, kind of perverse incentive baked into NCLB [to make the tests easier]“.  Hilariously, Michael Petrilli, who was in the Bush administration and was a key bureaucrat in the passage, has often said he disagreed that the 100% proficiency goal but “his boss” forced it on him. So now that NCLB was in a bind, the ed reformers were all for Common Core bailing them out.

The waiver process is often blamed for the rapid adoption, but in fact every state but Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia had adopted Common Core standards by  2012, and all of those but Wyoming had done so long before Obama announced the waivers. Apart from the conservatives “in principle” objections, the original hullaballoo over heavy-handed federal interference was teachers’ outrage at a president–a Democrat, no less–using money to bribe states into evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores.

Regardless, states eagerly adopted the Common Core standards and in 2012, all seemed right in the world of education reform.

Governance

Technically, all of the above was the Obama Administration’s bribes to the states to change their governance.  These are just some specific cases or other items of interest.

Tennessee won the Race to the Top, getting $500 million to enact First to the Top. Initiated by Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, carried through by Bill Haslam, Republican. Tennessee’s application promised two things of note, First, it would use its existing, longstanding teacher evaluation system (TVAAS) and use it as a formal evaluation tool, responsible for 35% of teacher evaluations. Then, in order to invervene in “failing” schools,  it set up a state-run district, the Achievement School District, creating a  as opposed to a state taking over a district. The lowest performing schools were simply placed in that district. The stated goal of the ASD was to take schools from the bottom 5% and “vault” them to the top 25%.  In 2011, Haslam appointed Kevin Huffman, ex-TFA teacher and executive, as well as Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband,  as Commissioner of Education.  The first ASD superintendent was Chris Barbic, former TFA teacher and founder of Yes Prep, another charter system in Houston.

Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah in 2010 and, with great fanfare, donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey schools.  Chris Christie appointed Cami Anderson, alumni of TFA management,  as superintendent of the district in May 2011. A year later, Anderson signed a contract with the Newark Teachers Union giving bonus pay for higher test scores or teaching math and science (although teachers could choose to be paid traditionally). The pot was sweetened with a lot of back pay which, to put it mildly, was not what Zuckerberg wanted the money to be spent on.

Michelle Rhee got a lot of attention, bragging of giving DC schools a “clean sweep”, dumping all the “bad” teachers and administrators who didn’t get test scores up. Eva Moskowitz was dumping students who didn’t get test scores up. Joel Klein left his NYC post in 2011; Bloomberg’s pick of Cathy Black, a woman with no teaching or administrative experience, was extremely unpopular. Bloomberg gave up on Black after four months and appointed Dennis Walcott, who was accepted at face value as an improvement. School turnaround consultant Paul Vallas ran the Louisiana Recovery District (mostly New Orleans Schools) for 4 years.

Education reform generally became more popular in Democratic circles, given Obama’s strong support.  Steven Brill’s article The Rubber Room called attention to NYC’s practice of housing teachers who’d been removed from the classroom but couldn’t actually be fired.  Waiting for Superman, a documentary promoting choice and blasing unions and tenure, opened to universal praise by media, politicians, and other thought leaders. In 2010, Obama openly supported the dismissalof a Rhode Island high school’s entire staff, saying, “our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”

All this criticism kept building. 2012 was a nadir year terms of establishment discourse about public school teachers, although their reputation among the public seemed largely unchanged. It became increasingly popular to attack teacher tenure, again by both Democrats and Republicans, and certainly in the generally left of center media. Many states had agreed to evaluate teachers by test scores and both major unions had signed onto the Common Core standards, although teachers themselves were very doubtful.  A preponderance of politicians and academics were more than willing to agree that teacher quality needed to improve, that tenure might be problematic, and that teachers should be judged at least in part on test scores.  The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, pitting union president Karen Lewis against Rahm Emmanuel, and media sympathies were entirely with Rahm. Governor Scott Walker ended collective bargaining for public workers (except cops and firefighters!).

One major setback: DC’s 2010 election, in which black voters booted Adrian Fenty, the media-popular mayor, largely because they wanted to get rid of Michelle Rhee, who stepped down the day after the election. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, kept firing teachers, but she’s black, which might have made a difference. Rhee immediately announced a new organization, Students First, and let Richard Whitmire write an admiring biography.

Standards

In 2008, California made algebra I the “test of record” for eight graders, meaning that 8th graders would take an algebra end of course test or the schools would receive a penalty towards average yearly progress.

High school exit exams mostly held constant; this 2008 Edweek article actually says that fewer than half of the states required exams, but that may be because of lawsuits. California, for example, was sued constantly about the use of the CAHSEE in the early 2002.

Charter Growth, Choice, TFA

Just one state, Washington, authorized charters during the Obama administration. Absolute growth was still slow through  2011,  but then recovered from 2012 to 2017. As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017.  By 2012, charter advocates began pushing the suburban progressive charter, realizing that growth would continue to slow if they couldn’t disengage white folks from their beloved public schools. Suburban charters were (and are) popular with whites in racially diverse areas, particularly in the south; for example, Wake County charter schools were 62% white in 2012.

When the 2007-2008 meltdown hit, TFA recruitment soared ever higher as elite grads sought shelter from a horrible job market. Relay Graduate School began in 2011, basically providing a teaching credential for new hires of inner city charters.

In 2010, Douglas County (major Colorado suburb) began a highly contested investigation into a voucher program, one that would give public money for all private schools, including religious ones. The school board ultimately supported a move forward, despite a split community.

And that’s the end of the very nearly straightforward rise of education reform. It’s impossible to cover every major development, but I really tried to look at advances in every major area.

I’m going to call 2012 as the peak of the era, for reasons I’ll go through in the next post. It’s not that all progress stopped. It took four more years before education reformers even began to consider how badly they’d been beaten. But most of them would realize that they were now fighting significant opposition that they couldn’t easily dismiss.

Something I’ve mentioned before: it’s amazing that Republican media folk, as opposed to education reformers and even politicians, still talk like it’s 2008-2012. There’s really no understanding in the pundit world how badly they’ve been beaten.

Working on the next; hoping to get it done before the new year. I will go back and edit these if something significant occurred to me.

 

 


Teacher Federalism

A year or so ago, our school’s upper level math teachers met to define curriculum requirements for algebra two.

I’d been dreading this day for several weeks, since we agreed on the date.  I teach far fewer Algebra 2 topics than the other teachers. Prioritizing depth over breadth has not made me terribly popular with the upper math teachers–who of course would dispute my characterization of their teaching. There were three of them, plus two math department leaders who’d take their side. I’d be all alone playing opposition.

Only two possible outcomes for this meeting. I could, well, lie. Sign off on an agreed curriculum without any intention of adhering to my commitment. Or I could refuse to lie and just and fight the very idea of standardization The good news, I thought, was that the outcome would be my choice.

Then the choice was taken away from me.

Steve came into my room beforehand. Steve is the member of the upper math group I’m most friendly with, which means we are, well, warily amicable. Very different characters, are we. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, Steve is all J and I’m as P as P can be.  But  over the years we realized that while our approaches and philosophies are polar opposites, we are both idiosyncratic and original in our curriculum, more alike than we’d imagined. He was interested by my approach to quadratics and his approach to transformations is on my list of innovations to try.

So Steve tiptoed into my room ahead of time and told me he wanted the meeting to be productive. I went from 0 to 95 in a nanosecond, ready to snap his head off, refusing to be held responsible for our departmental tensions, but he called for peace. He said it again. He wanted this meeting to be productive.

I looked, as they say, askance. He asked me if I would be willing to settle for good, not perfect. I said absolutely. He asked me to trust him. I shrugged, and promised to follow his lead.

For reasons I won’t go into, no one expected Steve to run the meeting. But in the first five minutes, Steve spoke up. He said he wanted the meeting to be productive. He didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

We all wanted what was best for our students, he said. We all thought we knew what was best for our students. But we had very different methods of working. If we tried to agree on a curriculum, we’d fail. Eventually, someone in power, probably at the district, would notice, and then that someone might make the decision for us.

So rather than try to force us all to commit to teaching the same thing, why not agree on the topics we all agreed were essential, “need to know”?  Could we put together a list of these topics that we’d all commit to teach? If it’s not on the list, it’s not a required element of the curriculum. If it was on the list, all teachers would cover the topic. We’d build some simple, easily generated common assessments for these essential topics. As we covered these topics–and timing was under our control–we’d give the students the assessment and collect the data. We could review the data, discuss results, do all the professional collaboration the suits wanted.

If we agreed to this list, we would all know what’s expected. All of us had to agree before a topic went on the “need to know” list. No teacher could complain if an optional topic wasn’t covered.

I remember clearly putting on my glasses (which I normally don’t wear) so that I could see Steve’s face. Was he serious? He saw my face, and nodded.

Well. OK, then.

Steve’s terms gave me veto power over the “need to know” list.

Wing and Benny were dubious. What if they wanted to teach more?

As requested, I backed Steve’s play.  “We could make it a sort of teacher federalism. The “Need to know” list is like the central government.  But outside these agreed-upon tenets, each individual teacher state gets complete autonomy. We can teach topics that aren’t on the list.”

“Exactly,” Steve added. “The only thing is, we can’t expect other teachers to cover things that aren’t on the list.”

In other words, Steve was clearly signaling, no more bitching about what Ed doesn’t cover.

We agreed to try building the list, see if the results were acceptable. In under an hour, we all realized that this approach would work. We had 60-80% undisputed agreement. At the same time, Wing and Benny had realized the implications of the unanimous agreement requirement. A dozen or more items (under topics) the other three teachers initially labeled eessential) were dropped from the “need to know” list at my steadfast refusal to include them.  Steve backed me, as promised.

While all three raised their eyebrows at some of the topics downgraded to the “nice to have” list, they all listened carefully to my arguments. It wasn’t just “Ed no like.” As the day went on, I was able to articulate my standard–first to myself, then to them:

  1. we all agreed that students had to come out of Algebra 2 with an indisputably strong understanding of lines.
  2. We routinely have pre-calc students who need to review linear equations. In fact, I told them, this realization was what led me to dial back algebra 2 coverage.
  3. Non-honors students were at least a year away from taking precalc, which was where they would next need the debated skills. If some of our students weren’t remembering lines after three years of intense study, how would they easily remember the finer points of rational expressions or circle equations, introduced in a couple weeks?
  4. This called for limiting new topics to a handful. One or two in depth, a few more introduced.
  5. Our ability to introduce new topics in Algebra 2 was gated by the weak linear knowledge our students began with. If we could convince geometry teachers to dramatically boost linear equations coverage, then we could reduce the time spent on linear equations in algebra 2.

Once I was able to define this criteria, the others realized they agreed with every point. Geometry priorities were a essential discusison point, but outside the scope of this meeting and a much longer term goal. That left all debate about point 4–how much new stuff? How much depth?

This reasoning convinced them I wasn’t a lightweight, and they all knew that my low failure rate was extremely popular with the administrators. So they bought in to my criteria, and were able to debate point 4 issues amicably, without loaded sarcasm.

I knew I needed to give on topics. At the same time I was shooting down topics, I was frantically running through the curriculum mentally, coming up with topics that made sense to add to my own curriculum, making  concessions accordingly.

The other teachers looked at the bright side: I’d be the only one changing my curriculum. Every addition I agreed to had to be carefully incorporated into my already crowded Algebra 2 schedule. I did have some suggested additions (a more thorough job on functions, say), but none of mine made the cut. The other teachers’ courses were entirely unaffected by our “need to know” list.

At the end of the day, we were all somewhat astonished. We had a list. We all agreed that the list was tight, that nothing on the “like to know” or “nice to have” list was unreasonably downgraded. I want to keep this reasonably non-specific, because the issues apply to any subject, but for the curious: rational expressions were the most debated topic, and the area where I made the most concessions.  They covered addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, graphing. We settled on introduction, graphing of parent reciprocal function and transformations, multiplication and division. Factoring was another area of dispute: binomial, of course, but I pushed back on factoring by groups and sum/difference of cubes. We agreed that exponential functions, logarithms and inverses must be covered in some depth, enough so the strongest kids will have a memory.

“What about grades?” Benny asked. “I don’t want to grade kids just on the need to know list.”

“But that’s not fair,” I objected. “Would you flunk kids who learned everything on the need to know list?”

“Absolutely,” Wing nodded.

I was about to argue, when Steve said “Look, we will never agree on grading.”

“Crap. You’re right.” I dropped the subject.

In a justly ordered world, songs would be sung about “That Day”, as we usually call it. Simply agreeing to a federalist approach represented an achievement of moon walk proportions. Then we actually built a list and lived by it, continually referring to it without the desire to revisit the epic treaty. Stupendous.

I  didn’t write about the agreement then because I worried the agreement would be ignored, or that other senior math folk would demand we revisit. Instead, our construction of the  “Need to Know” list shifted the power base in the math department in interesting ways.   Our point man on these discussions did indeed express displeasure with the Need to Know list. It’s too limited. He wants more material on it. He expected us to comply.

Wing, Benny, and Steve could have easily blamed me for the limits. “Oh, that’s Ed’s doing. We all want more on the list.” Instead, upper math folk presented an instantly united front and pushed back on incursion.  No. This works for us. We don’t want to break the agreement. We like the new productivity of our meetings. Team cohesion is better. Wing and Ben still think I’m a weak tea excuse for a math teacher, but they understand what we’ve achieved. With this unity, we are less vulnerable.

In short, we’ve formed our own power base.  As I’m sure you can guess, Steve is the defacto leader of our group, but he gained that status not by fiat, but by figuring out an approach to handle me that the others could live with. No small achievement, that.

Will it last? Who knows? Does anything? It’s nice to watch it work for the moment. I’ll take that as a win.

We’ve used that agreement to build out other “need to know” lists for pre-calc and trigonometry. They aren’t as certain yet, but Algebra 2 was the big one.  Worth the work it took to update my curriculum.

Our teacher version of federalism has allowed us to forge ahead on professional practices, lapping the lower level crew several times. In fact, on several department initiatives, the upper math department has made more progress than any other subject group, something that was duly noted when hot shot visitors dropped in on our department meeting. The other groups are trying to reach One Perfect Curriculum.

I’m not good at describing group dynamics unless it’s in conversational narrative. But I wanted to describe the agreement for a couple reasons.

First, some subject departments  operate in happy lockstep. But many, even most, high school math departments across the country would recognize the tensions I describe here. .  I recommend teacher federalism as an approach. Yes, our agreement may be as short-lived as some “universal curriculum” agreements. But the agreement and the topics list are much easier to agree to, and considerably more flexible. I’ve seen and heard of countless initiatives to create a uniform curriculum that foundered after months of work that was utterly wasted. Our group has had a year of unity. Even if it falls apart next year, that year of unity was purchased with a day’s work. That’s a great trade.

But in a broader reform sense,   consider that none of the four teachers in this story use books to teach algebra 2. Not only don’t they agree on curriculum, but they don’t use the same book. Some, like me, build from scratch. Others use several books as needed.  Our epic agreement doesn’t fundamentally change anyone’s teaching or grading. We simply agreed to operate as a team with a given set of baselines.  Noitce the words “Common Core” as the federal government (or state, your pick) defines it never made an appearance. It was simply not a factor in our consideration.

Does this give some small hint how utterly out of touch education policy is? How absurd it is to talk about “researching teacher practice”, much less changing it? I hope so.


Letter to Betsy (#2): Drop Out.

Hey, Bets.

Well, I did say in my last note that you hadn’t shown  much capacity for original thought, that your primary contribution to ed reform were your contributions. I didn’t expect you to prove it so completely in your first at-bat.

Let’s avert our eyes from the tonedeaf response on guns at schools. I’m agnostic on the issue, but you should know that grizzlies aren’t a reason this is a tier-1 conflict. That bespeaks an ignorance I find…unsettling. I accept that you don’t care much about preschool, but what sort of conservative Republican would you be if  you thought universal pre-K was effective? Accountability, on the other hand, is a word you’ve heard before, so your constant evasions were seen–correctly–as attempts to avoid answering that you don’t think charters should be accountable to the same degree that public schools are. (No. Charters aren’t public schools.)

All of these could be explained away, or at least considered tertiary issues. You could say you hadn’t been properly briefed. And in fairness, you did have a nice moment with Bernie Sanders on college tuition: “free college” is indeed a misnomer.

But on two points, you displayed ignorance so profound that Republicans should vote against you.

First, you had no idea that IDEA and other federal legislation requires that states pay for absurd and often useless interventions for a wide range of disabilities, including many mild learning disabilities for which no meaningful interventions exist.

Less than a week before you went to Congress, the Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether or not a school district should provide an autistic kid with private school if the educational benefit the school could provide was “only trivial”.

Left unmentioned was the fact that on any given day, mainstream kids aren’t given this right.   I don’t often get infuriated at education reporters, many of whom do a pretty good job, but  not a single one has pointed out the absurd unfairness of a law that gives a select group of kids the right to sue for the private education of their choice on the grounds that they aren’t benefiting from the education their school provides.

I know many people will snicker–yeah, if all kids could sue their schools, teachers would hate it! Unlikely. I’d expect a lot of kids suing over disruptive classrooms, which would give schools cover to expel troublemakers. I’d expect others to demand the right to be taught what they don’t yet know.  Right now, my Algebra 2 junior who counts on her fingers can’t demand to be taught at a school that will instruct her in ratios and basic math, just as a sophomore with fifth grade reading skills can’t sue his district demanding the right to attend a school that won’t insist on pretending he can understand Antigone or Romeo & Juliet. Of course, no such school exists because they aren’t allowed to. Few teachers  would oppose safer schools or appropriate curriculum.

Once people figure out that giving all kids the right to sue wouldn’t work out as expected, they’ll look at removing the privilege from that select group. I wrote an entire article promoting the repeal of IDEA. I’m very much in favor of special ed being returned to the states and giving voters a say in what priorities special education receives compared to the wide range of needs that schools and their students have.

Betsy, I would have loved to see you  boldly call for an end to federal intervention in special education, to leave these decisions to the states. But you didn’t even know that the responsibility had to be returned! Of course, if you had known what the law was, you’d have burped  up (ladylike, I’m sure) a bromide, followed by a platitude and everyone would have patted themselves on the back for caring about disabled kids.

That leads to the second of your gross errors, about which I have less passion but is far more revealing.  Growth versus proficiency is something that teachers themselves have been talking about for decades, but education reformers have only really stumbled onto in the past few years, as the need arose when  charters didn’t attain the proficiency numbers they expected.  But you should know that. This is right in the ballpark of the field you fund so generously. And you were clueless. Franken was right to interrupt and dismiss your answer. (He was wrong to meander off into gay rights, a matter of trivial interest in public education. Put that in the “Why Trump Won” category.)

If  fifteen or more years actively supporting charters hasn’t brought you up to speed on the fundamental issues determining their success,  then how can we assume you have the capacity to learn about anything less central to your interests?

Bernie Sanders asked the right question. And you proved the correct answer was “No.”  A better woman would have said “I was almost certainly selected because I’m a billionaire who has given money to causes. But I also have a real interest in making life better for poor children.  That’s why I’m here.” That, at least, would be honest.

Better you should go back to writing checks.

Unlike most of the people opposing you, I accept that the incoming SecEd will be someone I disagree with, someone who openly snorts derisively at my profession, while protesting he does no such thing. I’m fine with that. I’d just like someone…smarter. Someone who really does know the research. Someone who, ideally, has been around the block with education reform. Someone who knows it’s more than the platitudes that typical conservatives spill, that “fixing schools” as they envision it hasn’t yet worked out.

My pick, and I’ve thought about this for a while, is Checker Finn. He’s old enough not to worry about his next job (which is why I eliminated Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess from consideration). He’s cranky and willing to offend. He’s wrong, of course, but then all education reformers are.  But when he’s not shilling the reform spiel, he’s knowledgeable on many different aspects of education. And he’s canny. Apart from yours truly, he’s the only person to observe that Trump voters aren’t exactly the target audience for talk of vouchers and charters. He has also recently observed that the era of education reform is over, and wondered whether Trump should even bother with a SecEd, given the restrictions that ESSA has put on the feds. (yay!). This suggests an appropriate level of humility for a long-term reformer, one who understands that 25 years of getting what he wanted in reform hasn’t fixed the achievement gap, that  reformers’ grand scheme of killing ed schools with the 1998 Higher Education Act failed miserably.  Checker Finn understands full well that Common Core was rejected; he argued in favor of them because he hoped they would result in less federal oversight.

Checker was Never Trump and, as mentioned, pro-Common Core, which is two strikes against him in Trumpland. But Betsy, if you decide to take my advice, I hope you put a word in for Checker with your not-to-be boss.

But since you’ll probably ignore me, see you next letter.


Not Negatives–Subtraction

In summer school, I’m teaching what used to be known as pre-algebra and happily, my colleagues had a whole bunch of worksheets that I got on a data stick. Very nice, and the curriculum was very good, leaving me time to tweak but not spend all my time inventing.

It’s not like the curriculum was a surprise: integer operations and fractions played a big part.

Of course, when we math teachers say “integer operations”, we mean “operations with negative integers” because while we don’t really care all that much if they’ve memorized their plus nines and times sevens (sorry, Tom!), kids that don’t fundamentally understand the process of addition are usually un-included by high school.

But negative numbers are one of those “Christ, they’ll never get it” topics. I don’t reliably have an entire class of kids who answer 9-11 with -2 until pre-calculus. I’m not kidding. They say 2, of course. But not negative 2. And if you give them -3-9, they will decide it’s 12 or -6 or, god forbid, 6. But not -12. They’re actually not terrible at subtracting negatives, provided that it’s subtracted from a positive. So they know 9-(-12) is 21, but have no idea what -9-(-12) is, and wildly guess -21.

I’ve suddenly realized that negative numbers aren’t really the problem. Subtraction causes the disconnect, as a result of the tremendous bait and switch we pull when moving from basic math to the abstractions needed for advanced math.

In elementary school, kids learn addition and subtraction. They are not told that they are learning addition and subtraction of positive integers. Nor are they told that they are only learning subtraction when the subtrahend is less than the minuend and, by the way, we need new terms. Those are horrible. In fact, kids are told that they can’t subtract in these cases.

subtractionuntruths

At no point are kids told that everything they’ve been taught is temporary, and that much of it will become irrelevant if they move into advanced math. Consider the big fuss over Common Core subtraction, which is all about an operation that has next to no meaning in advanced math other than grab your calculator. (No, this isn’t an argument pro or con calculators, put your hackles down.) Or consider the ongoing drama over the aforementioned “math facts memorization” which, frankly, gets turned ass over tincups with negatives and subtraction.

Common Core requires that sixth grade math introduce negatives. Along with ratios, rates, fraction operations, and statistical analysis, all tremendously complicated concepts. In seventh grade, things get serious:

ccseventhgrade

Never mind that most non-mathies would clutch their pearls at the very thought of parsing these demands, or that these comprise one of nearly twenty standards that have to be covered in seventh grade. Leave that aside.

Focus solely on NSA1B and NSA1C which, stripped of the verbiage, define the way we math teachers reveal the bait and switch.

So first, you teach the kids about these negative numbers and how they work. Then you show them that okay, we kind of lied before when we taught you that addition always increases. Actually, the direction depends on whether the added value is positive or negative.

But that’s it! That’s all you have to know! Just this one little thing. So negative numbers allow us to move in both directions on the number line.

And subtraction? Piffle. Because it turns out that (all together now!) Subtraction is addition of the opposite. Repeat it. Embrace it. Know it. Then everything makes sense.

So we teach them these two things. Yeah, we lied about adding because we had to wait to introduce negative numbers. But there’s this one little change. That’s all you have to know! because subtraction is a non-issue. Just turn subtraction into addition and funnel it all through the same eye of the same needle. Dust your hands. Done, baby.

Well, not done. As I said, we all know that negative numbers are brutal. We build worksheets. We support the confusion. We do what we can to strengthen the understanding.

But over the years, as I started teaching more advanced math, I realized that subtraction doesn’t go away. Subtraction is essential. It’s the foundation of distance, for starters.

And what the standards don’t mention is that introducing negative numbers changes subtraction beyond all recognition. The people who “get” it are those who reorder the integer universe spatially. Everyone else just stumbles along.

Until this summer, I never addressed this issue. I’m pretty sure most math teachers don’t, but I welcome feedback.

How do we change subtraction?

For starters, we violate the rule they’ve been taught since kindergarten. Turns out you can subtract a bigger number from a smaller number. (And, when a kid asks, “Well, in that case, how come we have to borrow in subtraction?” we teachers say…..what, exactly?)

But that’s just for starters. Take a look at the integer operations, broken down by sum and difference. (Much time is spent on teaching students “sum” and “difference”. More on that in a minute.)

addopsunmatched

So first, a row of numbers like this brings home an important fact: the Commutative Property ain’t just for mathbooks. This provides a great opportunity to show students the relevance of seemingly abstract theory to the real world of math.

But notice how much simpler the addition side is. I color-coded the results to show how discombobulated the subtraction pairs are:

addoppsmatched

Middle school math teachers spend much time on words like sum and difference, but I’m not entirely sure it helps.

For example, consider the “difference” between -9 and -5, which is -4. First, -5 is greater than -9, a complicated concept to begin with–and -4 is greater than both. And–even more confusing to kids taught to limit subtraction–none of those relationships matter to the result.

So -9 – (-5) = -4. Which is the same as adding a positive 5 to -9. So the difference of -9 and -5 is the same as the sum of -9 and 5.

Meanwhile, -9 – (-5) is subtraction of a negative, which we have hardwired kids to think of as “adding”–which it is, of course, but adding in negative-land is subtracting. So what we have to do is first get kids to change it to addition, then realize that in this case, the addition is a difference.

It’s not illogical, if you follow the rules and don’t think too much. But “follow the rules and don’t think too much” works for little kid math. As we move into algebra, not so much–we discourage zombies. Math teachers are always asking students, “Does your answer make sense?” and how can a student answer if subtraction makes no sense?

One of the things I’m wondering about is the end result of the operation. Any two numbers have a difference and a sum, all expressed in absolute values. 9 and 5 have a difference of 4 and a sum of 14, and no matter what combination of sign and operation used, the answer is the positive or negative of one of these two. So I ordered them by the end result.

addoppsendresult

Notice that P+P, N+N, P-N, N-P are ultimately collective sums. No matter the relative size, P+P and P-N move to the right, N+N, N-P move to the left, and result in a positive or negative sum of the two terms.

That looks promising, but I’m not sure how to work with it yet, particularly given the confusion of the actual meanings of sum and difference.

Here’s what I’ve got so far, and how I’m teaching it:

  1. What students think of as “normal” subtraction is actually “subtraction of a positive number”, where the subtracted number is smaller. Subtraction of a positive number always involves a move to the left on the numberline.
  2. In subtraction, the starting value does not change the direction of the operation–that is, -9 – 5 and 9 – 5 will both go to the left.
  3. The starting value must not change. This is a big deal. Kids see -9-5 and think oh, this is subtracting a negative so they change the -9 to 9. No. It’s subtracting a positive.
  4. Please, please PLEASE sketch it out on a numberline. Please? Pretty please?

Hey, it’s a start. I also use a handout I built six years ago, during my All Algebra All The Time year (pause for flashback) and has proved surprisingly useful, particularly this part:

I am constantly reminding kids that subtraction is complicated, that the rules changed dramatically. Confusion is normal and expected. Take your time. I am seeing “success”, with “success” defined as more right answers, less random guessing, more consistent mistakes in conception that can be addressed one by one.

I don’t know enough about elementary and middle school math to argue for change, except to observe that much more time is needed than is given. I once took a professional development class in which a math professor covered an abstruse explanation of negatives and finished up by saying “See? Explain it logically and beautifully. They’ll never forget it again.” We laughed! Such a kneeslapper, that guy.

But I’m excited to get a better sense of why kids struggle with this. It’s not the negatives. It’s subtraction.


Education: No Iron Triangle

I came from the corporate world, which invented the project management triangle. (“Fast, Good, Cheap: Pick Two.”)

Education has no triangle.

Money, of course, doesn’t work. Just ask Kansas City. Or Roland Fryer, who learned that kids would read more books for money but couldn’t seem to produce higher test scores for cash. Increased teacher salaries, merit pay, reduced class size are all suggestions that either don’t have any impact or have a limited impact….sometimes. Maybe. But not in any linear, scalable pattern.

“Good”? Don’t make me laugh. We don’t have a consensus on what it means. Most education reformers use the word “quality” exclusively to mean higher test scores. Teachers do not. Nor do parents, as Rahm Emanuel, Cami Anderson, Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee have learned. Common Core supporters have had similar moments of revelation.

So until we agree on what “good” is, what a “high quality education” means, we can’t even pretend that quality is a vertex of education’s triangle, even if it existed. We could save a whole lot of wasted dollars if people could just grasp that fact.

Time is an odd one. We never use the word directly, but clearly, politicians, many parents, and education reformers of all stripes believe we can educate “faster”. Until sixty years ago, calculus was an upper level college course. Once the high school movement began, fewer than 3% of students nationwide took trigonometry, between 10-20% took geometry, and the high point for algebra was 57%–over one hundred years ago–then declining to 25%. (Cite.) One of the little noted achievements of the New Math movement was to alter the math curriculum and make high school calculus a possibility. At first, just kids with interest and ability took that path. Then someone noticed that success in algebra I predicted college readiness and everyone got all cargo cult about it. By the turn of the century, if not earlier, more of our kids were taking advanced math in high school than at any point in our history.

And that was before kids started taking algebra in seventh grade. Sophomores take now take honors pre-calculus so they can get a second year of AP calculus in before graduation. Common Core has gone further and pushed algebra 2 down into algebra I.

Yet 17 year old NAEP scores have been basically stagnant for the same amount of time our high school students have been first encouraged, then required, to take three or more years of advanced math.

Not only do we try to educate kids faster, we measure their gain or loss by time. Poor kids of uneducated parents lose two months learning over the summer. CREDO, source of all those charter studies, refers to additional days of learning. Everyone comparing our results to Singapore always mentions the calendar, how much earlier their kids start working with advanced math. These same people also point out that Singapore has a longer school year. Longer school years don’t appear to work reliably either.

Except maybe KIPP, whose success is mostly likely due to extended school hours. KIPP focuses on middle school and has not really been scrutinized at the high school level. Scrutiny would reveal that the program doesn’t turn out stellar candidates, and while more KIPP alumni complete college than the average low income black or Hispanic student, the numbers are reasonable but not extraordinary when compared against motivated students in the same category who attended traditional schools. Particularly given the additional support and instruction hours the KIPP kids get.

So KIPP’s “success” actually adds weight to the NAEP scores as evidence that time–like money and quality–doesn’t respond to the project management constraints.

Kids learn what they have the capacity to learn. Spending more instruction hours will–well, may–help kids learn more of what they are capable of learning in fewer school years. But the NAEP scores and all sorts of other evidence says that learning more early doesn’t lead to increased capacity later. And so, we’ve moved 1979 first grader readiness rules to preschool with considerable success, but that success hasn’t given us any traction in increasing college readiness at the other end of childhood. Quite the contrary.

I probably don’t have much of a point. I was actually thinking about the increasing graduation rates. It’ll be a while until part 2. I’m swamped at work, moving again, writing some longer pieces, and really would like to post some math curriculum rather than detangle my mullings.

But the triangle thing is important. Really.

Take note: under 1000 words. Hey, I have to do it every year or so.


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.