Tag Archives: Michael Petrilli

Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):


You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.


Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):


Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?



So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.



Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.


Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update, dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant.  There sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor.

So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:


Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.

Reading in the Gulag of Common Core

(if you’re here to see KPM’s bio scrub, scroll down to the bottom)

I have five other pieces going and a serious case of writer’s ADD, but Kathleen Porter Magee just really annoyed me.

Porter Magee works part-time at Fordham Foundation, recently tasked with churning out paeans to or defenses of Common Core, and also at the College Board, where she works for the guy who wrote the Common Core, and I’ve yet to see the media inquire as to whether this might be a conflict.

KPM, as she is often called, has been singing the praises of Teach Like a Champion Doug Lemov for a couple years now, which is inconvenient because Lemov pushes prior knowledge, and her new boss Coleman spits upon it. But anyway, she’s trying to thread both needles here—push Lemov and the Common Core insistence that all students be forced to read “grade level books”.

The money quote bolded:

And the pushback against this particular CCSS directive is growing. For example, self-described “small-town English teacher” Peter Greene likened assigning texts based on grade level “without regard for the student’s reading level” to “educational malpractice.” This pushback is backstopped by an entire industry built up over decades on the premise that students should be kept away from complex texts at all costs.

Really? Are you kidding me? There’s an industry devoted to keeping students away from complex texts? Cite, please? The organization that says “my god, we can’t have kids reading hard words!”

That’s insane, but so is her position that teachers should ignore their students’ actual reading ability and insist on assigning books the polite kids just pretend to understand and the impolite kids just ignore entirely. That opinion is very North Korea, frankly, although NK and the chubby new Leader would be much tougher on the impolite kids.

For the record, there is in fact no industry dedicated to keeping kids from reading Metamorphosis. More immediately relevant, KPM is wrong in insisting that teachers should ignore reading ability when assigning texts.

I was interested to realize that Common Core standards differ by subject in their willingness to acknowledge the below-level student.

So the math standards include some advice on what to do with kids who are behind and , like NCLB, has nothing new to offer: tutoring, algebra support, summer school. Yeah, thanks for the tip. None of them worked last time, either.

But the ELA standards largely refuse to acknowledge the reality of struggling readers—not even, I was a bit stunned to see, much recognition for English Language Learners, flatly rejecting the notion that they might struggle a bit and leaving any support to the states to figure out. Common Core’s refusal to placate the massive ELL lobby is telling, because in that case there’s going to be no recognition of native English speakers who simply aren’t smart enough to read at grade level, so English teachers, you’re screwed. Just kidding, because as we all know, standards throughout history have always called for kids to read at grade level, and teachers have and undoubtedly will continue to pick texts targeted to student ability whenever possible (it isn’t always). They’ve always done that, which begs the question why Fordham Foundation is acting like a wild hair has intruded someplace uncomfortable on the subject.

My conclusion: the big focus on “grade appropriate texts” and emphasis on teachers’ refusal to use the Common Core “exemplars” is just strategy. Common Core’s going to fail, so why not build the terrain for the inevitable blame game that’s coming by arguing that even now, at the beginning, teachers are ignoring Common Core by assigning texts their kids can understand, instead of grade-level texts. KPM’s broadside insult to teachers or an unspecified “industry” desperately working to keep kids away from “sedulous” and “balkanization”—and remind me why, again, she’d go work for the guy who’s planning to scrub the SAT of these words?—is, in my view, part of an effort to position the foundation for the standards’ inevitable failure.

And so, their demand that teachers pretend that all kids from kindergarten on have equivalent reading abilities. Yes, some kids don’t read as well, but that’s because they go to the low income schools that have bad teachers who assign some students Dr. Seuss in second grade instead of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. In this way, the seven year olds are denied the ability to debate whether the speaker was referring to his eventual death or his desired but delayed suicide, thus preventing them from being excellent readers on their way to college readiness.

I haven’t opined on the totality of the ELA standards yet, but on this one point I have been consistently shocked ever since Fordham released the study in which it declared, with a straight face, their horror that English teachers were using their students’ reading abilities to assign texts. Usually reformers insist on behavior that at least logically makes sense if you don’t have a clue about the reality of education. But the stance on this is absurd. Why would anyone insist on forcing kids to read books they can’t understand?

I taught humanities for one year in public school, to freshman with reading abilities ranging from sixth grade to college level, and I can state with confidence that the low ability kids did not benefit in any way from being forced to pretend to read Twelfth Night. They liked the movie, though. As I describe in that post, I gave up SSR with my students because they simply stared at books they didn’t want to read. When I took away their choice and gave the weaker students enrichment activities designed for bright fifth graders, they engaged and acquired content knowledge. Why would anyone seriously argue against that?

For the past eight plus years, I’ve taught reading enrichment to a mostly Asian crowd of freshmen, with abilities ranging from FOB to reasonably competent (rarely do I have a stupendous reader and writer, but it does happen). Here, too, I have not seen them benefit from reading texts they don’t understand because, despite their outstanding test scores, the kids I teach have mediocre reading abilities thanks to dismal active vocabularies and weak content knowledge. Much of my teaching time is spent, again, assigning them reading they can understand and demonstrating the importance of remembering content knowledge.

So while I haven’t taught a lot of English in public school, my experience with early high school readers is extensive, and Fordham’s position is flatly ludicrous.

On a slightly different note, I’m getting a bit tired of KPM pushing her teaching experience. Her Linked In profile shows clearly that not only has she avoided anything approaching students for over a decade, but that she was only at the Washington Archdiocese, a prominent mention in all her bios, for ten months. She didn’t leave an impression. Likewise at Achievement First, her title may have been impressive but she still worked part-time, according to her husband, and the only document I can find with her name on it suggests she was basically HR. Achievement First is known primarily for its questionable application of “No Excuses” discipline, not its great curriculum.

She was probably a teacher for some period of time from 1997 through 2000, the three years after she graduated from Holy Cross with a degree in French and Political Science before she started her master’s degree. Maybe she just doesn’t list her credential education. More plausibly, she taught for a year or so at a Catholic school, maybe language, maybe French.

Back when she married Marc Magee, teaching was such an important part of her bio that she never mentioned it, only listing her work at Progressive Policy Institute, Hoover, and Fordham. Her footprint at every place but Fordham is non-existent.

I have mentioned before that very few education policy people on either side have any extensive teaching experience, but better to just plead out than pretend.

Maybe she’s got more experience than I can find, or slipped in some teaching while working at Fordham part time. Maybe a reporter will ask her to be specific, produce documents of her curriculum work and her lesson plans. Hahahahaha!

Anyway. If it comes down to a choice between an reticent Kathleen Porter Magee and me, an anonymous teacher blogger….wait. Never mind.

Look, I’m not expecting you to take my word for anything. But if you still accept policy hack bios at face value, think again.

As for the Common Core Reading Gulag, where everyone must read at or above grade level because the Great Leader says so, I’ll leave you with a simple application of logic.

On one side, you have an education reform organization, dependent on the will of its funders, insisting that English teachers everywhere are failing their students by assigning them texts that will be more likely to engage them and thus increase content knowledge, rather than texts randomly declared “grade level” by wishful thinkers. On the other side, you have the majority of English teachers, insisting through their actions that students are best served by reading words they can understand.

Michael Petrilli has tacitly admitted (and said so explicitly on the Gadfly show, as I recall) that he never believed in the NCLB goals of getting all students to proficiency, but he had a boss, and that was the party line. Now, he’s pushing the Common Core party line.

You can believe that Petrilli and KPM are pushing a party line because they get paid to, or you can believe that teachers are part of a gigantic industry dedicated to ensuring that students are never exposed to complex text.

It’s up to you.

PS–I just liked the title; don’t take it too seriously.

Addendum, June 12

I am delighted to see that KPM’s bio at Fordham has been thoroughly scrubbed.

Here’s how it appeared when I wrote this piece, on May 17th. It was in place through May 30th, at least, as you can see by the dates of the articles.


And here’s what it looks like now. A lot shorter. All the company names gone, no mention of her teaching, just “working directly in schools”. Still a bit squiffy, but hey, they had to save face.


Think it was me? I hope it was me. It’d be fun if it was me. It probably was me.

Just a Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Bad Old Days

Michael Petrilli wrote an extremely aggravating article suggesting we tell unqualified kids they aren’t ready for college and go to CTE and then a much improved follow up that acknowledges the racial reality of his idea.

In his first piece, Petrilli only mentions race once:


This is a common trope in articles on tracking, a nod to “the bad old days” right after the end of segregation, that time immediately after Brown and ending sometime in the late 70s, or when Jeannie Oakes excoriated the practice in Keeping Track.

In the bad old days, the story goes, evil school districts, eager to keep angry racist white parents from fleeing, sought a means of maintaining segregation despite the Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act. So they pretended to institute ability grouping and curriculum tracks, but in reality, they used race. That way the district could minimize white flight and still pretend to educate the poor and the brown. That’s why so many brown kids were in the low ability classes, and that’s why so many lawsuits happened, because of the evil racist/classist methods of rich whites keeping the little brown people down.

The bad old days are a touchstone for anyone proposing an educational sorting mechanism. So you have Petrilli advocating a return to tracking, who tell us the bad old days are a thing of the past: yeah, we used to track by race and income, pretending to use ability, but we’ve progressed. Districts pretended to use IQ, but they were really using culturally biased tests to commit second-order segregation. Today, we understand that all races and all incomes can achieve. Districts don’t have to distort reality. The bad old days are behind us, and we can group by ability secure that we aren’t discriminating by race.

Before ed school, I accepted the existence of the bad old days, but then I noticed that every reading asserted discrimination but didn’t back it up with data. Since ed school, I’d occasionally randomly google on the point, looking for research that established discriminatory tracking back in the 60s and 70s. And so the Petrilli article got me googling and thinking again. (What, buy books? Pay for research? Cmon, I’m a teacher on a budget. If it’s damning, the web has it.)

I first reviewed Jeannie Oakes, reaffirming that Oakes holds tracking itself, properly applied, as the operative sin. Discriminatory tracking isn’t a main element of Oakes’ argument, although she points out that “some research” suggests it occurred. Oakes’ third assumption, that tracking is largely made on valid decisions (page 4) is accepted at face value. So the grande dame of the anti-tracking movement has completely neglected to mention the bad old days—which, at that time, would have been contemporary.

On I move to Roslyn Mickelson, who does charge Charlotte Mecklenburg schools with discriminatory tracking.


In Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Judge Richard Potter eviscerates her expert testimony, finding faults with her credibility, her accuracy, and her logic.

Mickelson’s research shows that high achieving scorers in year one are not consistently placed in high achieving classes six years later. While both whites and blacks with high scores end up in low tracks and vice versa, more whites get high placement than blacks. But generally, her data shows something I’ve documented before, that achievement falls off each year because school gets harder.

Both whites and blacks experience the falloff, even though Mickelson seems to think that the pattern should be linear. The achievement scale simply gets larger as kids move up in grade levels, and fewer blacks make the top tier. This is consistent with cognitive realities.

There might be a smoking gun in research. But I couldn’t find it.

Then I suddenly realized duh, what about case law? If districts were tracking by race, there’d be a lawsuit.

I started with three legal articles that discussed tracking case law: 1, 2 and 3. They were all useful, but all failed to mention a significant case in which the district routinely used different standards or sorted directly by race or zip code.

From these articles, I determined that Hobson vs. Hanson was the original tracking case, and that the McNeal standard was for many years (and may still be) the test for ability grouping.

So I created a reading list of cases from the late 60s to the early 90s:

Only two of these cases involved schools directly accused of using race to sort students. In Johnson v. Jackson, the schools were forced to integrate in the middle of a school year. The black kids were ported over to white schools and the classes kept intact. The court ordered them to fix this. From first integration order to the fix order: 4 months.

The second case, Rockford, was decided in the early 90s, and the judge directly accuses the district of intentionally using race to ability group. However, Jeannie Oakes was the expert witness, and the judge drank every bit of Koolaid she had to offer and licked the glass. Oakes is presented as an expert witness, with no mention that she’s an anti-tracking advocate. Her testimony appears to be little more than readings from her book and some data analysis.

The proof of “intentional racism” was pretty weak and largely identical to Mickelson’s described above. Major difference: the judge accepted it.

Leaving aside these two cases, I couldn’t find any case in which the district was found to misuse the results of the test, either by using different racial standards or ignoring the tests entirely. The tests themselves were the issue.

In the south, school systems that weren’t “unitary” (that is, were previously segregated districts) couldn’t use ability testing. Since blacks would have lower scores based on past racial discrimination, the use of tests was discriminatory, an intent to segregate.

For school systems that were found to be unitary, ability testing isn’t in and of itself invalid and racial imbalance isn’t a problem (see Starkville case for example).

In all these cases, I couldn’t find a district that was tracking by race. They were guilty of tracking by test. Everyone knew the tests would reveal that blacks would have lower ability on average, and therefore ability grouping was by definition invalid in previously segregated schools. This was an era in which judges said “The court also finds that a Negro student in a predominantly Negro school gets a formal education inferior to the academic education he would receive, and which white students receive, in a school which is integrated or predominantly white.” (Hobson)

Once the system is declared unitary, or that was never an issue, the record is mixed. When judges did accept the results as valid, they ruled in favor of the school districts (Starkville, Hannon). In Pase v Hannon, the judge actually reviewed the test questions himself and determined they were unbiased with few exceptions, all of which were far above the IQ level in question.

In California, on the other hand, where de jure segregation wasn’t an issue*, the mere existence of racial imbalance was still a problem (Pasadena, Riles). In Riles, Judge Robert Peckham banned all IQ testing of blacks in California for educational purposes. He later extended the ruling even if black parents requested testing, but later withdrew that order. Peckham’s reasoning is much like the other judges who believed in cultural bias:

Even if it is assumed that black children have a 15 percent higher incidence of mild mental retardation than white children, there is still less than a one in a million chance that a color-blind system would have produced this disproportionate enrollment. If it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed towards black children.

Notice the reasoning: of course it’s not possible that blacks have a 50% greater incidence of an IQ below 75. Except it’s worse than that.

This image is from The Bell Curve (borrowed from here) reflecting the frequency of black/white IQ distribution:


As many blacks as whites populate the sub 75 IQ space, but the population distribution being what it is, blacks are far more likely to have low IQs.

When Charles Murray researched this for The Bell Curve:

In the NLSY-79 cohort, 16.8 percent of the black sample scored below 75, using the conversion of AFQT scores reported in the appendix of TBC and applying sample weights. The comparable figure for non-Latino whites was 2.2 percent. In the NLSY-97 cohort, the comparable figures were 13.8 percent for blacks and 2.7 percent for non-Latino whites. (Charles Murray, personal communication)


Blacks didn’t have a 50% higher chance of an IQ below 75 when Peckham made his ruling, but rather a several hundred percent higher chance, a chance that is still in the triple digits today.1 Peckham couldn’t even begin to envision such a possibility, and so no IQ testing for blacks in California.

(As for the lower frequency of blacks in the “trainable” mentally retarded division, as it was called then, an interesting but rarely discussed fact: Low IQ blacks are often higher functioning that low IQ whites. They are less likely to be organically retarded, and more likely to be capable of independent living. This despite the fact that their IQ tests and academic outcomes are identical. Arthur Jensen discovered this phenomenon, and I highly recommend that article; it’s fascinating. I wonder if the difference is somehow related to crystallized vs. fluid intelligence, but haven’t read up enough on it.)

So there it is. Obviously, if I missed a key case in which a major district was found to have deliberately tracked kids by race, please let me know.

I couldn’t find the bad old days of discriminatory sorting. What I found, instead, was a judicial rejection of IQ and other ability tests, coupled with an inability to conceive of the actual distribution patterns of cognitive ability.

Please understand my limited objective. Many Southern districts did everything they could to avoid integration. See, for example, US v Tunica, where the school tried to assign students based on test scores, but were denied because of the achievement testing ban and required to reassign students and teachers to achieve integration. The teachers refused assignment to integrated schools and resigned, white parents withdrew their kids, then the white schools set up shop at local churches, classes largely intact. Money? Not an issue. They used taxpayer dollars, since the district paid the teachers who resigned and the kids took all their school books with them.

But believe it or not, there’s no mention that the district was only pretending to use test scores, actually assigning students by race. And this is a place where I’d expect to find it. Opposition to integration, absolutely. Achievement testing used as a way to minimize racially mixed classes? Sure.

In many other cases, schools or districts instituted tracking as a genuine attempt to educate a much wider range of abilities, or even had a tracking system in place before integration.

The inconvenient realities of cognitive ability distribution being what they are, the test scores would be depressingly indifferent to intent.

Then there’s the messy middle, the one that Mickelson probably found in Charlotte and Oakes found in Rockford and any one looking at my classrooms would find as well. All tracked classrooms are going to have inconsistencies, whether the schools use tests, teacher recommendations, or student choice. The honors classes fill up or a teacher suddenly dies or all sorts of other unforeseen situations mean some kids get moved around and it’s a safe bet high income parents bitch more about wrong assignments than poor parents. Go through each high score in a “regular” class and each low score in a tracked, and each one of those test scores will have a story—a story usually doesn’t involve race or malign intent. The story occasionally does involve bad teachers or district bureaucracy, but not as often as you might think.

Teacher recommendations are supposed to mitigate the testing achievement gap but teachers are moralists, particularly in math, as I’ve written before. It doesn’t surprise me that new study shows that controlling for performance, blacks are less likely to be assigned to algebra as 8th graders by teacher recommendation. I can’t tell you the number of bright Hispanic and black kids I’ve run into (as well as huge number of white boys, including my son) who don’t bother with homework and have great test scores. So their GPA is 2.7, but their test scores are higher than the kids who got As–and the teacher recommendations.

Parents: some parents insist that their kids need to be in the top group to be challenged. Others feel that their kids do better when they feel secure, able to manage the challenge. Then there are the parents who don’t give a damn about their kids’ abilities but don’t want them in a noisy classroom with kids who don’t give a damn about education. White and Asian parents are disproportionately represented in the first group, black and Hispanic parents take up more than their share in the second, and all parents of all races worry about the last.

So let’s stop using teacher recommendation, stop allowing parents or students to ask for different placement. Test scores are destiny.

But test scores today still reflect the same reality that the judges assumed, back then, could only be caused by racism or bias.

The tests haven’t changed. The kids haven’t changed much.

The judges are another story.

Richard Posner, in a much-quoted 1997 decision on an appeal to the People Who Care v Rockford did what he has done before–made my point with much greater efficiency:

Tracking is a controversial educational policy, although just grouping students by age, something no one questions, is a form of “tracking.” Lawyers and judges are not competent to resolve the controversy. The conceit that they are belongs to a myth of the legal profession’s omnicompetence that was exploded long ago. To abolish tracking is to say to bright kids, whether white or black, that they have to go at a slower pace than they’re capable of; it is to say to the parents of the brighter kids that their children don’t really belong in the public school system; and it is to say to the slower kids, of whatever race, that they may have difficulty keeping up, because the brighter kids may force the pace of the class. …

Tracking might be adopted in order to segregate the races. The well-known correlation between race and academic performance makes tracking, even when implemented in accordance with strictly objective criteria, a pretty effective segregator. If tracking were adopted for this purpose, then enjoining tracking would be a proper as well as the natural remedy for this form of intentional discrimination, at least if there were no compelling evidence that it improves the academic performance of minority children and if the possible benefits to the better students and the social interest in retaining them in the public schools were given little weight. The general view is that tracking does not benefit minority students…although there is evidence that some of them do benefit… All this is neither here nor there. The plaintiffs’ argument is not that the school district adopted tracking way back when in order to segregate the schools. It is that it misused tracking, twisting the criteria to achieve greater segregation than objective tracking alone would have done. The school district should be enjoined from doing this not, on this record, enjoined from tracking.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg case mentioned above cited Posner’s reasoning. The third of my case law articles discusses Holton v Thomasville II, which doesn’t mention Posner but does say that racial imbalance in ability grouping isn’t of itself evidence of discrimination, and points out that the time for judicial interference in educational decisions is probably over:


Most districts ended tracking out of fear of lawsuits. It may be time for parents to demand more honors classes, test the limits.

So what does this have to do with Petrilli? Well, less than it once did, now that Petrilli has acknowledged the profound racial implications of his suggestion.

But if the bad old days of racial tracking never really existed, then Petrilli can’t pretend things will be better. Yes, we must stop devaluing college degrees, stop fooling kids who have interest but no ability in taking on massive loans that they can never pay off. And with luck even Petrilli will eventually realize as well that we have to stop forcing kids with neither interest nor ability to sit in four years of “college preparation” courses feeling useless.

So what comes next? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

*Commenter Mark Roulo points out that California did commit de jure segregation against Hispanics and was ordered to stop in Mendez v. Westminster. See comments for my response.

1See Steve Sailer’s comment for why black IQs might have been biased against lower IQ blacks and the 97 data more representative.

The Reverse Drinking Game

Well, school’s about to start and I’m two thirds of a way through a piece that I probably won’t finish for a while, and I’ve decided I need something longer than Twitter but shorter than the usual me to send out when people are being annoying.

So let’s call this the reverse drinking game post. Every time someone doesn’t mention cognitive ability while discussing student outcomes, go grab a beer.

So for example, Michael Petrilli writes about the problem of proficiency:

Proficiency rates are terrible measures of school effectiveness. As any graduate student will tell you, those rates mostly reflect a school’s demographics.

Grab a beer.

When Checker Finn rebuts Petrilli, saying:

One more point: Mike began his argument with the assumption that many schools have scads of entering pupils who are already far below “proficiency” when they arrive. He had in mind middle and high schools—and there is no doubt that many such schools do indeed face a large remediation challenge with incoming eleven- through fourteen-year-olds who have already been gypped educationally in the early grades.

Crack one open.

When Richard Venning writes:

The inconvenient truth I describe below is that when we benchmark academic growth rates, the best velocity is often not adequate to catch kids up to college and career readiness within a reasonable time.


However, far too many schools also have students in poverty making low-growth rates, where they progress more slowly than their advantaged peers and that is not acceptable.

Grab two beers. Three, if you spot: “Among students that score in the bottom performance level in Colorado, the percent making adequate growth is in the single digits. The statewide goal is 100 percent. Schools with top statewide velocity for low-income students are not moving kids to proficiency within three years—and Colorado is not alone.”

When Rick Hess, Rishawn Biddle, Michael Brickman talk about lowered AP scores, the importance of entrance standards vs. the importance of high expectations, go grab a whole sixpack. Or maybe some single malt scotch.

When Jason Bedrick, Michael Petrilli, or Andrew Rotherham sneer at the public schools “failing children”, it’s time to bend an elbow.

When the primary ed school credentialing organization proudly announces that it is raising the bar on “teacher quality”, when everyone goes all atwitter about Jason Richwine‘s work on teacher cognitive ability (before he broke the rules on Hispanic cognitive ability), ask yourself why so many people are willing to discuss the impact of teacher cognitive ability on academic achievement (you mostly have to squint to find any ) but never mention student cognitive ability. But do it before you get a beer, because I find, at least, that I often start banging my head in annoyance and it’s best to do that unarmed.

When people say that income matters more than race to academic achievement, tell them they are lying or misinformed on your way to the fridge.

Tweet or email whenever you spot an opportunity to play.

Hey. Under 500 words! A new record.

Two Math Teachers Talk

Hand to god, I will finish my post about the reform math fuss I twittered in mid-week, but I am blocked and trying to chop back what I discuss and I want to talk about something fun.

So I will discuss Dale, a fellow math teacher who was a colleague at my last job. Dale is half my age and three days younger than my son. Yes. I have coworkers my son’s age. Shoot me now.

He and I are very different, in that he is an incredibly hot commodity as a math teacher, whose principal would offer him hookers if he’d agree to stay, and gets the AP classes because he’s a real mathematician who majored in math and everything. He turns down the hookers because he’s highly committed to his girlfriend, who is an actual working engineer who uses math every day. I am not a hot commodity, not offered hookers, and not a real mathematician. I also don’t have a girlfriend who is an actual working engineer using math every day, but there’s a lot of qualifiers in that last independent clause so don’t jump to too many conclusions.

He and I are similar in that we both were instantly comfortable with teaching and the broad requirements of working with tough low income kids who don’t want to be in school, and extremely realistic about cognitive ability. We also don’t judge our students for not liking math, or get all moral about kids these days. (Of course, he is a kid).

We are also similar in that we like beer and burgers (he has a lamentable fondness for hops, but no one’s perfect), and still meet once or twice a month at an appropriate locale to talk math. I tell him my new curricular ideas, which he is kind enough to admire although his approach is far more traditional, and ask him math questions, particularly when I was teaching precalc; he tells me that most of the department wants him to be head, despite his youth and relative inexperience. We also talk policy in general. It’s fun.

“I have some news for you,” I told him, “but you will laugh, so you should put down your beer.”

He obligingly takes a pull on his schooner of Lagunitas IPA and sets it down.

“A new study came out,” I said, “and apparently, many high school algebra and geometry courses have titles that don’t actually match the course delivered.”

Dale, who clearly thought I was going in a different direction, did a double take. “Wait. What?”

“The word used was ‘rigor’. Like, some Algebra I courses don’t actually cover algebra I. Same with geometry.”

He looks at me. Takes another pull. “Like, not all algebra teachers actually cover the work formula?”

“Like, not all algebra teachers cover integer operations and fractions for two months. Like not all algebra teachers spend two weeks explaining that 2-5 is not the same as 5-2.”

“Uh huh. Um. They did a study on this?”

“They did.”

“They could have just asked me.”

“They can’t do that. They think math teachers are morons. But there’s more.”

“Of course there is.”

“Apparently, the more blacks and Hispanics and/or low income students are in a class, the less likely the course’s rigor will match the course description.”

He sighs. “I need more beer. Ulysses!” (that’s actually the bartender’s name.) “I’m assuming that nowhere in this study did they even mention the possibility that the students didn’t know the material, that the course content depended on incoming student ability?”

“Well, not in that study. But you know what happens when we point that out.”

“Oh, yeah. ‘It’s all that crap they teach in elementary schools!’ Like that teacher in that meeting you all had the year before I got here. ‘Integer operations and fractions! Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?‘”

“Yes. Actually, the researchers blamed the textbooks, which was a pleasant change from the platitude–and-money-rich reformers who argue our standards are too low.”

“Did anyone ever tell them if it were that simple, whether textbook or teacher, then we could cover the missing material in a few weeks and it’d all be over? Wait, don’t tell me. Of course they told them. That’s the whole premise behind….”

Algebra Support!” we chorused.

“But then there’s that hapless AP calculus teacher stuck teaching algebra support. He spent, what, a month on subtraction?”

“And the happy news was that at the end of the semester, the freshmen went from getting 40% right on a sixth grade math test to 55%.”

“The bad news being at the end of the year, they forgot it all. Net improvement, what–2 points?”

“Hell, I spend the entire Algebra II course teaching mostly Algebra I, and while they learn a lot, at the end of the course they’re still shaky on graphing lines and binomial multiplication. And I don’t even bother trying to teach negative numbers, although I do try to show them why the inequality sign flips in inequalities.”

“But it’s our fault, right?”

“Of course. But that’s not the best part.”

“There’s a best part?”

“If you like black comedy.”

“The Bill Cosby sort, or the Richard Pryor catching himself on fire sort?”

“Someone doesn’t know his literary genres.”

“Hey, we can’t all be English majors. What’s the best part?”

“The best part is that Common Core is supposed to fix all this.”

“Common Core? How?”

“By telling us teachers what we’re supposed to teach.”

I’d forgotten to warn Dale, who was mid-gulp. “WHAT???”

I handed him a napkin. “You’ve got beer coming out your nose. Yes. Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli always use this example of the shifty, devious schools that, when faced with a 3-year math requirement, just spread two years of instruction over three!”

“Wow. That’s painful.”

“Well, they don’t much care for unions, either, so I guess they think that when faced with a mandate that’s essentially a jobs program for math teachers, we teachers use it as an opportunity to kick back. But that’s when they are feeling uncharitable. Sometimes, when they’re trying to puff teachers up, they worry that teachers will need professional development in order to know the new material.”

“How to teach it?”

“No. The new material.”

“They think we don’t know the new material?

“Remember, they think math teachers are morons. On the plus side, they think we’re the smartest of teachers. (Which we are, but that’s another subject.) There’s still other folks who complain because ed schools don’t teach teachers the material they’re supposed to be teaching.”

“But we know that material. That’s what credential tests are for. You can’t even get into a program without passing the credential test.”

“Do not get me started.”

“So when the test scores tank, they’ll say it’s because teachers don’t know the material?”

“Well, they’ve got the backup teachers don’t have the proper material to teach the standards, in case someone points out the logical flaws in the ‘teacher don’t know the material’ argument.”

“Sure. If it ain’t in the textbook, we don’t know it’s supposed to be taught!”

“Don’t depress me. Yes, either we don’t know what’s supposed to be taught or we don’t know how to teach it without textbooks telling us to.”

Dale starts to laugh in serious. “I’m sorry, Governor. I would have taught vectors in geometry, but since it wasn’t on the standards, I taught another week of the midpoint formula.”

“I’m sorry, parents, I would have dropped linear equations entirely from my algebra two class, but I didn’t know they were supposed to learn it in algebra one!”

“Damn. A whole three weeks spent teaching fraction operations in algebra when it’s fifth grade math. I could have spent that time showing them how to find a quadratic equation from points!”

“I didn’t know proofs were a geometry standard. Why didn’t someone tell me? Here I had so much free time I taught my kids multi-step equations because my only other option was showing an Adam Sandler movie!”

“Stop, you’re killing me.”

“No, there’s too many more. Who the hell went and added conics to the standards and why wasn’t I informed? Here I spent all this time teaching my algebra II kids that a system of equations is solved by finding the points of intersection? Apparently, my kids didn’t bother to tell me that they’d mastered that material in algebra I.”

“I can’t believe it! Four weeks killed teaching kids the difference between a positive and a negative slope! Little bastards could have told me they knew it but no, they just let me explain it again. No wonder they acted out–they were bored!”

My turn to snarf my beer.

“Jesus, Ed, I’ve wondered why we’re pulling this Common Core crap, but not in my deepest, most cynical moments did I think it because they thought we teachers just might not know what to teach the kids.”

“That’s not the most depressing, cynical thought. Really cynical is that everyone knows it won’t work but the feds need to push the can—the acknowledgement that achievement gaps are largely cognitive—down the road a few more years, and everyone else sees this as a way to scam government dollars.”

“New texbooks! New PD. A pretense that technology can help!”

“Exactly. I’d think maybe it was another effort to blame unions, but no.”

“Yeah, Republicans mostly oppose the standards.”

“Well, except the ‘far-seeing Republicans’ who just want what’s best for the country. Who also are in favor of ‘immigration reform’.”

“Jeb Bush.”

“Bingo. You’ll be happy to know that libertarians hate Common Core.”

“Rock on, my people!”

“Yeah, but they want also want open borders and privatized education.”

“Eh, nobody’s perfect.”

“But all that depressing cynicism is no fun, so let me just say that I would have taught sigma notation except I thought that letter was epsilon!”

“Hey, wait. You do get sigma and epsilon confused!”

“No, I don’t, or I wouldn’t call the pointy E stuff sigma notation, dammit. I just see either E shape out of context and think epsilon. Why the hell did Greeks have two Es, and why couldn’t they give them names that start with E? Besides, the only two greek letters I have to deal with are pi and theta, and really, in right triangle trig there’s no difference between theta and x.”

“Well, you’re going to have to stop making that mistake because thanks to Common Core, you’ll know that you’re supposed to teach sequences and series.”

“Damn. So I won’t be able to teach them binomial multiplication and factoring and let them kick back and mock me with their knowledge, which they have because they learned it all in algebra I.”

“Here’s to Common Core and math research. Without them, America wouldn’t be able to kid itself.”

We clinked glasses just as Maya, Dale’s girlfriend walked in, a woman who actually uses centroids, orthocenters, and piece-wise equations in her daily employment. The rest of the evening was spent discussing my search for more real-life models of quadratics that don’t involve knowing the quadratic formula first. She offered road construction and fruit ripening, which are very promising, but I still need something organic (haha), if possible, to derive the base equation. So far area and perimeter problems are my best bet, which gives me a good chance to review formulas, because until Common Core comes out I won’t know that they learned this in geometry. I wondered if velocity problems could be used to derive it. Dale warned me that it involved derivations. Maya was confused by my describing velocity problems as “-16 problems”, since gravity is either gravity is either 32 ft/sec/sec or 9.8 m/s/s. Dale interpreted. I’m like Jeez, there are people who know what gravity is off the top of their heads? This is why I don’t teach science. (edit: I KNEW I should have checked the numbers. I don’t do physics or real math, dammit. Fixed. )

But all that’s for another, happier, post.

Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat

…but anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about education reform knows that kids experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter kindergarten at age five matter a whole lot in terms of how well they are going to do once they are in school, and I would say that even hardened cynics would concede that high quality preschool programs could make a dent in our mile-wide achievement gaps.” — Michael Petrilli, around the 1:24 mark.

As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.Charles Murray

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K. Dick

You know how every one mentions the Perry project as the gold standard, a small “hothouse” study that had good results but the fear is the results can’t be replicated? Here’s the data they’re talking about comparing cohorts at age 27 and age 40 (click to enlarge):

So all those people tweeting and posting excitedly about the pre-school initiative—this is what they’re worked up about? “Hey, if we take really incredibly at-risk kids and spend billions on them in pre-school and manage to replicate the very best outcome we’ve ever managed, only 1 in 3 of them will be arrested five times by their 40th birthday, instead of 1 in 2!”

That’s the gold standard, the “good news” in preschool programs: the achievement gap moves barely a nudge, measured cognitive ability goes up a tad, and the jail gap isn’t quite as spectacularly awful. Pick your own personal favorite preschool research and you’ll still get the same results: not anything to complain about, but the subjects are still much more similar to the control group than to any middle-class norms.

And yet, do-gooders keep talking up preschool, despite Russ Whitehurst‘s appeal for hardheadedness. They blow past the so-far indifferent results and talk up the happy day when we’ll do it right. Then they combine that dream with the current meme on the Vocabulary Deficit—currently in vogue because of E. D. Hirsch and the NAEP results—and so you see folks on the right, left, and even the supposedly unbiased talking up the possibility that vocabulary instruction, or the lack thereof, is causing the achievement gap.

But I’m going to ask everyone to think about Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox, sort of.

Say a single welfare mom has a sixth baby that she doesn’t really want and in a moment of grief and despair she sticks the baby in a box with a subatomic parti….no, wait, that won’t work. But she puts the baby in a box and leaves it on a street corner in front of a security camera—and then, right after she drops the baby off, the camera breaks and the last shot we have is of the foundling sitting in the box, while a rich, childless couple approaches, just after having been rejected by their ninth adoption agency, in search of a child to whom they can devote their lives and considerable income.

We don’t know what the child’s ultimate fate is. Maybe the rich, childless couple happen upon the baby and raise it as their own. Or maybe the single welfare mom comes to her senses and returns to her baby, which she raises with her other five kids by different fathers. The security camera image doesn’t say, so as with Schrödinger’s cat, we can imagine either outcome.

According to the vast majority of educated elites, the adopted version of the child would be successful and happy, starting preschool with a rich vocabulary and, after an academically demanding high school career, embarking on a successful adult journey. The version raised with the welfare mother would, in contrast, start preschool with a vocabulary deficit in the thousands of words, which a struggling public school with incompetent teachers won’t be able to fill, and embark upon adulthood in a life of poverty—assuming that adulthood didn’t start earlier than eighteen with either a pregnancy or a jail term.

According to the experts who actually study these outcomes, the environment in which the child is raised would have relatively little impact. Adoption studies don’t usually track granular academic achievement such as grades and test scores, but they do track IQ and personality and long-term academic outcomes (highest degree received, etc), and all available evidence from adoption studies says that by adulthood, IQ tracks more closely to the biological parent than the adoptive parents.

So if we were staring at that last frozen image from the security camera, wondering if the rich parents or the struggling welfare mom ended up with the baby, we could console ourselves on this point: academically, the outcomes would probably be a wash.

For the past twenty years or so, our educational policy has been devoted to ignoring the considerable mountain of data that suggests neither government nor parents can do much to mitigate the academic and life outcomes of children living in poverty, because the outcomes aren’t really caused by the poverty. All research suggests that the child’s IQ is linked closely to the biological parents’ and IQ, not poverty, has the strongest link to academic outcomes.

To point this out in public is to commit heresy or, as Steve Sailer puts it, to invite a “point and sputter” fest. Blah blah Richard Nisbett, blah blah French adoption study, blah blah blah BLAH Malcolm Gladwell, blah blah Duckworth (who did, after all, find that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation”).

If you are genuinely wondering what to believe, don’t cherrypick. Read a summary of generally accepted understanding (Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns). Definitely take any claims of making young children smarter with a big dollop of skepticism, since fadeout is a nearly universal downer when looking back at early childhood studies. And if you ever see a mention of the Flynn Effect, go ask James Flynn himself:

The most radical form of environmental intervention is adoption into a privileged home. Adoptive parents often wonder why the adopted child loses ground on their natural children. If their own children inherit elite genes and the adopted child has average genes, then as parents slowly lose the ability to impose an equally enriched environment on both, the individual differences in genes begin to dominate.

(I guess Nisbett missed that, given his liberal appeal to the expert Flynn, coupled with what seems to me a major misrepresentation of adoption studies.)

Actual experts, in other words, will point out that E. D. Hirsch and all the pre-school advocates probably have it backwards, that vocabulary deficits don’t cause low cognitive ability, but that low cognitive ability is the source of vocabulary deficits. Knowing more vocabulary doesn’t make you smarter. Smarter people know more vocabulary.

But time and again, the world will be assured by some well-meaning elite that really—no, really—all IQ really measures is a person’s education. People with high IQs were given a good education, people with low IQs were not. Preschoolers with high vocabularies are just reflecting their superior education. But here’s a nice overview of three recent studies that specifically test whether education drives cognitive ability or the other way around. All three found that cognitive ability (IQ) drives education achievement to a great degree. (Richard Nisbett doesn’t mention those studies, either. But then, he also says that The Bell Curve was widely acclaimed by an uncritical press. Um. What?)

We don’t have a lot of research on IQ and specific educational outcomes—say, correlating reading ability or middle school algebra results with IQ. You’d think that the people who wince at the very mention of IQ would be pushing for unequivocal research on IQ and test scores of school age kids. After all, research would prove all these pernicious myths about IQ were wrong once and for all, right? Take, say, a longitudinal study of 10,000 children, from preschool to adulthood, of all incomes and races. Test their IQ, vocabulary word bank, and other cognitive markers as appropriate. Collect parental SES, parental education, parental marital status, parental behaviors (do they read to their kids? Do they beat their kids? Do they have drugs in the house? and so on), early education status, race, location….pick your demographic data. Then yearly collect their GPA and test scores, their transcripts as they move through high school. And see what pops up. How well did IQ predict test scores and GPA? How much did poverty impact the scores kids with high IQs? How much did parental wealth influence the outcomes of kids with low IQs?

But there won’t ever be that kind of study. Why?

Because poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids so consistently that it would make the news if they didn’t. Here’s a cite from 1991 test scores, back before the College Board stopped sorting by both income and race: satscoresbyraceincome91 (As well as my usual standby cite)

and here’s a recent study that establishes the SAT as a reliable IQ predictor.

But it’s not just the SAT; low income whites outperform “not-poor” blacks everywhere—the NAEP data ruthlessly collects this data every year:



California’s CST scores show the same thing: economically disadvantaged whites outperform non-economically disadvantaged blacks and basically tie with non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics.

So no one in the educational policy business is in any hurry to call for long-term research on income, IQ, and test scores (state, SAT, AP, whatever). Much easier, really, to continue talking about poverty, environment and really crappy teachers, secure in the knowledge that anyone observing the naked emperor will be castigated as a racist.

But just suppose we completed this study I propose, and tracked school/NAEP/SAT test scores by IQ over a long period of time. Tracked from age 2 on, imagine the study shows that low-income kids with higher than average IQs have test scores and academic skills comparable, if not quite as high, as higher than average middle and high income kids. Likewise, high-income kids with low IQs have test scores and skills similar to low income kids with equivalent cognitive abilities. Imagine that we remove every shred of a reason to blame poverty for anything more than a high distribution of kids with low cognitive ability, thus making the schools hard to manage and blunting slightly the brightest kids’ ability to learn in such a loud environment.

In other words, imagine the unthinkable: the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution.

Do I hope this hypothetical study would result in this finding? No. I would, in fact, be pleased to learn that poor, high IQ kids faded due to lack of development and support in their schools, drowning in low ability kids, and that rich kids with low IQs do substantially better than poor kids with the same IQs. That’s a problem we could fix. But I worry that for the most part, such a study would end with the hypothetical results I propose, because based on available data, it seems the most likely finding.

But again, all I’m asking here is that you imagine this outcome. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: what conclusions would we be required to accept, however reluctantly?

If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.

It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race.

Okay. So let’s continue through this hypothetical and posit that we accepted these conclusions. (ha ha! this is me, laughing at my hopeless optimism. But work with me.)

For starters, we could accept that academically speaking, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment would not yield dramatically different outcomes and that preschool isn’t even a tiny bit of a magic learning pill. We might be satisfied with preschool that, as Charles Murray says, “buys some [low income children] a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home”. Maybe we’d stop holding preschool responsible for long-term academic outcomes and ask instead how it helps poor kids with unstable home environments and parents with varying degrees of competency, convincing these kids that their country and community cares about them and wants them to be safe.

Maybe we’d get to the point where we start exploring the best educational methods for kids with low cognitive ability. Sure, we’d start with Direct Instruction, although I can’t be the only teacher who doesn’t see a miracle at work in this old video. Show me the part where they remember it a month later and I’ll be impressed. And if you add “for kids of low to mid-cognitive ability” to the end of every E. D. Hirsch sentence, you’d have a perfect prescription for elementary and middle school education. The problem with Hirsch, as I mentioned to Robert Pondiscio in the comments of this post, lies in our “cultural diversity”—that is, teaching specific content leads to “cultural homogeneity” and no, no, no, that just won’t do. Better to not educate our low ability blacks and Hispanics at all then educate them in a useful content knowledge that wasn’t Afro or Latino-centric.

Someone’s going to chime in when I finally post this and say “But Ed, you don’t understand. If we teach them with Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge, the achievement gap will disappear! Look at KIPP’s results! Look at Rocketship Academy!” and I warn him to beware the false god of elementary school test scores. If the achievement gap is a function of IQ distribution, then effective education methods will not fix the gap, but rather help us educate low-IQ kids in a way they find meaningful and interesting, which will keep them invested in the process rather than giving up.

Let’s leave what to do about high school for a different post, because this one will be long enough.

What the results of such a study would do, I hope, is force everyone to stop thinking of low test scores as a missed opportunity to create more computer programmers or doctors but rather as a natural outcome of IQ distribution. With luck, well-meaning reformers will realize that they must stop looking at low test scores as an indictment of the educational system. Well-meaning progressives might cease their declarations that poverty and the evils of income inequality are stopping our poorest children from achieving college. Perhaps the results would stop educators from making low IQ kids feel utterly hopeless by declaring that more school, more learning, is their only possible chance for success, and end permanently the moralistic drumbeating for “lifelong learning”. Maybe we’d start using our considerable creativity to address the obvious pitfalls that could come about if we accepted the reality of low IQs. We don’t want to return to a educational world in which such kids are relegated to dreary, regimented education, because we must give all our kids as many skills and as much knowledge as they can absorb. Acceptance does not mean resignation and abandonment.

And most of all, I hope, any reasonable person who understood the impact of IQ on academic and life achievement would instantly realize that we must stop importing low-skilled competition to further reduce the opportunities for our own citizens. Once everyone stops fooling themselves about the quality of American education and realizes that we aren’t doing all that badly once we control for IQ, surely immigration enforcement and even reduction must follow. If enforcement means more illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Chinese head on back home, then our own unskilled and low-skilled workers have more opportunities, even if it raises restaurant prices to pay for legal cooks and busboys, forces homeowners to take care of their own lawns, and makes farmers finally invest in mechanization, or whatever other dire outcome businesses currently predict. Reducing immigration flow means low ability children have less competition for funding, because lord knows our current generous immigration policies forces schools to channel a whole bunch of money into teaching low-IQ kids, both legal and illegal, who weren’t born here and to whom we owe allegiance only because of our own generosity. Maybe we’d even get toughminded enough to realize that the best DREAM Act legislation would send the well-educated undocumented kid back to their country of origin with a little note saying “Hey, this one’s really bright. Give him a job!”

But of course, I’m just positing a hypothetical. We don’t know whether children living in poverty with high IQs have low test scores. And we don’t want to find out. Instead, we’ll just refuse to believe in IQ and pray it goes away.

On Graduation Rates and “Standards”

Stephanie Simon has a piece out on the increasing graduation rate (while I’m at it, mad props to Simon for the charter school piece, which probably did a lot to alert the general audience to charter selections), and various tweets are hailing the good news but—and this is the funny part—expressing concern that this increase rate might be due to schools lowering standards. Checker Finn has also written disapprovingly of credit recovery.

hahahahahaha. This is me, laughing.

Imagine you have forty 18 year olds, who all read and calculate at the 6th grade level, and another group of forty who all read and calculate at the 10th grade level. They are all high school seniors in a state that requires graduation competency tests. Of this overall collection of eighty, the following distribution is entirely unexceptional (and of course, not the only one possible):

  1. Fifteen screwed around from the moment they entered high school, have a GPA in the tenths, and are currently in alternative high school filling out worksheets. No reason to worry about high school graduation tests, though, because they passed them first time out.
  2. Fifteen are, on paper, identical to the previous group, except they haven’t passed any of their graduation tests and so some of their high school time is spent in test prep instead of worksheet completion.
  3. Fifteen are far behind because they went to a charter school that prided itself on making kids repeat grades, and after two years of failure they went back to public school. They’ve passed the high school graduation tests, and have been doing well since they left the charter, GPAs of 2.0 or so. But they’re far behind, so are taking two hours every day to do online credit recovery.
  4. Fifteen are at a charter school, where they have a 4.0 GPA with a bunch of AP courses on their transcripts, (thanks, Jay Mathews and your horrorshow of a Challenge Index) but haven’t passed the high school graduation tests.
  5. Ten recovered from an early bad start, have a solid 2.5 GPA, but haven’t passed their state graduation tests. Half of them have IEPs and official learning disabilities (which means, of course, they aren’t in charters), and so they’ll just waive the requirement. The others will keep plugging away.
  6. Ten have a solid 2.5 GPA after an early bad start and have passed their state graduation tests.

(Note: In case it’s not clear, the kids who can pass the state grad tests are the ones with tenth grade abilities, the ones who can’t are the ones with sixth grade abilities).

Any diverse high school district in the country, surveying its population in comprehensive, alternatives, online campuses, and charters, could assemble those eighty kids without breaking a sweat.

On the lower half of the ability spectrum, grades and credits are utterly pointless differentiators. Once you accept that we graduate thousands of kids who can’t read, write, or add, there’s no reason to cavil at the method we use to boot them out of the schoolhouse.

No, don’t yammer at me about persistence or compliance or god spare me “grit” of illiterates plugging away at school and therefore being more deserving of the diploma than the lazy but somewhat smarter kid. The concern about the increase was not about persistence or compliance or grit, but academic ability.

And so, rest easy, people. We are already graduating illiterates. The increased graduation rate is not achieved by teaching more kids more effectively, nor is it achieved by shovelling through the bottom feeders and thus devaluing high school diplomas. We are simply taking kids, whether near-illiterate or low but functional ability, who fell off the path that our other near-illiterate or low but functional ability kids stayed on, and putting them on a different conveyor belt.

How? As Simon’s article makes clear, by spending lots and lots of money:

* Launching new schools designed to train kids for booming career fields, so they can see a direct connection between math class and future earnings

* Offering flexible academic schedules and well-supervised online courses so students with jobs or babies can earn credits as their time permits

* Hiring counselors to review every student’s transcript, identify missing credits and get as many as possible back on track

* Improving reading instruction and requiring kids who struggle with comprehension to give up some electives for intensive tutoring

* Sending emissaries door-to-door to hound chronic truants into returning to class

Notice that only one of the techniques used actually involved teaching the kids more—not that I’m in favor of forcing kids to give up electives for intensive tutoring (I still have nightmares). But most of the money spent involved forcing or coaxing the kids back to school—and while the kids are mostly low ability, they are no less and often considerably more intellectually able than kids who just happened to jump through the right hoops.

How does this happen, you ask? As I’ve said many times: grades are a fraud.

Or you could put it another way: the increased graduation rate is a triumph of administrators over teachers. Teachers, except those in majority minority urban schools, are flunking kids with little regard to ability and a whole bunch of regard to compliance, with no regard to administrative or societal cost. Administrators are spending money to work around teacher grades.

In this context, bleats about academic standards do seem a bit….well, silly, don’t they?

And now someone is going to say, “You’re absolutely right. We should be failing kids who don’t or can’t do the work, put teeth into the Fs. That’s the only way to raise academic standards.”

Sorry, that fool’s wrong, too. Higher standards are impossible. No, really. Common Core advocates, much like Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights, are parading their favorite toy in front of a mirror in the desperate hope they’ll convince themselves, if no one else. (What, too much? Yeah, it’s late. I’m feeling bleak.) I very much doubt Common Core will ever be implemented (no test, no curriculum, baby), but if it is, nothing will change.

People assume that kids in the bottom half of the ability barrel are there because they suffered a deficit in environment, in parental attention and expectations, in teacher quality. Would that this were so.

Given all the money we’re spending on truancy officers, online credit recovery, counsellors to spot missing transcripts just to push kids through to a diploma, we might just want to consider teaching low ability kids less at a slower pace and stop pretending that they have a “deficit” that can be addressed by college level work and high expectations. We could create a hell of a curriculum for high school kids using nothing more than 8th grade math and vocabulary.

But we won’t do that for the same reason we won’t track, and for the same reason that adminstrators are spending a fortune coaxing kids back to school: namely, the racial distribution would make everyone wince.