Tag Archives: Neal McCluskey

Unstructured Musings on Choice

I had a brief twitter talk with Neal McCluskey about Jay Greene’s article arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to take state tests.

Best line: “So, the state only pays for its own vision of a good education but you have to pay extra if you want to pursue something else. “. Um. Yeah. Similarly, the state only pays for its own vision of law enforcement, its own vision of unemployment funds if people don’t have jobs, and so on. Why should education be any different?

This sort of proposal seems, at first glance, to be breathtakingly full of horseshit chutzpah. Like, so let me get this straight. You base your whole argument for choice on the fact that public schools are cesspits of failure and incompetence. Give parents a choice! you say, don’t force them into terrible public schools. Don’t force black kids to go public just because of race, let them choose! Give them vouchers! Create charters! But then, when it comes to proving that choice actually results in increased learning, heavens, no! These schools are different. Parents chose them because they wanted something other than the state’s idea of education. Don’t make them take those pesky tests!

Huh? The entire impetus for choice, the entire rationale that won the day for vouchers, the reason the Supreme Court finally approved vouchers even for religious schools, was not “Hey, parents should get a choice for their children” but “parents without economic means need a way to escape failing public schools”. Choice advocates think the rationale is broader than that, of course, but time and again they lost that fight. In fact, even now, choice people are pushing “tax credits” over “vouchers” because, I think, they realize how untenable choice is without the spectre of poor kids with few options.

So the whole basis for choice is failing public schools! If you weren’t convinced they were incompetent cesspits, what the hell? What’s your basis for choice?

To which Neal McCluskey says hello? See who I work for? We never wanted state-run schools! Choice all the way down the line.

At which point I feel like Henry Clay arguing with western farmers about killing the bank. Wait. You’re for soft money. Jackson’s a hard money freak. Why the hell are you on his side?

Snicker. Hey, whatever works! sez Neal.

Kidding. Kind of.

So this used to puzzle me, but then I read an old review by James Q. Wilson of a Checker Finn book, in which he spelled out three different reform remedies. The first is to reform pedagogy/methods/curriculum—fix what and how the schools teach. The second remedy is choice, which will improve schools through competition. The final remedy involves the belief that schools are failing because the rules are flawed. Change the rules and measure the schools by those rules, and they’ll improve through accountability.

This was very enlightening because Wilson, an advocate for choice, delineates the difference between accountability and his own preference, which aligns fairly well with the distinction between Jay Greene and the folks at Fordham, to pick one at random, or the libertarians at Cato with Michelle Rhee. (The third pedagogy et. al is a much broader group, including constructivism and content knowledge, for example, and we’ll leave that alone for now.)

The Common Core argument you see among reformers is in part a split between these two groups. Accountability advocates want the Common Core—more federal control! Choice advocates see the federal control as intolerable. This doesn’t cover all of it—progressives and teachers mostly don’t like common core, and Tea Party folks like public schools, I believe, but want local control. Still, it explains the big split at the wonk level that is playing out as I write this.

No Child Left Behind was also accountability, not choice. But I think it caused less of a split because first, the law left testing up to the states, and second, the law allowed choice when schools failed to live up to the standards, and everyone knew that schools wouldn’t live up to standards. Many reformers thought NCLB was a failure because parents didn’t exercise choice.

I really shouldn’t be the person explaining this, hence the title of this essay. But it’s interesting to consider the differences. Half the accountability people and all the choice people hate the political power that teacher unions represent. The accountability Republicans seem to just want Republicans to be in power, or at least reasonably represented. The choice people don’t really want anyone to be in power educationally speaking, but also hate the political power of unions because they see them as, oh, I dunno, more committed to increased federal power. No, that can’t be right. But something along those lines. ( The other half of accountability folks, the Andrew Rotherhams, the Dems who want to reform schools with unions, them I don’t get, so leave them out for now.)

(Wait, Ed, you don’t understand. All that political stuff might be true, but you forget these people are working for good schools. Yes, yes, reform opponents want good schools, too, but these guys actually want results. Why are you laughing, Ed?)

So the accountability people just want more voices for charters to help destabilize public schools and unions. In return, accountability people give lip service to vouchers, but their hearts aren’t really in it.

It seems to me that choice people themselves understand that this might be the best they can get, which is why they’ve mostly hitched their wagon to the accountability star, getting more choice around the edges and corners. They can’t get it outright for the reasons I described early on. The public is not going to give parents money to send their kid wherever. Consequently, Jay Greene’s article makes no sense, strategically, because it completely undercuts their admittedly opportunistic basis for pushing choice. Hence my surprise.

Accountability advocates have a stronger position, but then, it’s a bit fuzzy what their position is. There’s a reason Michael Petrilli calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up. (“Squirrel!”)

Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways that the officially designated accountability advocates ignore entirely. For example, public schools are held accountable if they suspend too many black or Hispanic students. They are held accountable if they group kids by ability and the racial demographics are unrepresentative of the school community. They are held accountable if girls can’t play football, or LBQT students are referred to by the wrong gender. They are held accountable if their students use social media to torment each other about events that occurred off-campus, on the weekend, with no school involvement.

This sort of accountability goes by another name: lawsuits. Lawsuits or the threat thereof are highly effective accountability measures, and are much scarier than Mike Petrilli and Andrew Rotherham. Or even Michelle Rhee. Unfortunately, giving in to these accountability measures does nothing to improve public education and often, in fact, does much to harm it. Not that this matters to lawsuits. Or schools fearing them.

So what, exactly, is accountability as Fordham and Bellwether envision it, separate from choice? Beyond the scope of this essay. Back to choice.

Going back to Neal’s “hey, don’t look at me! I don’t want accountability” wave-off, I just want to ask: do pure choice people really want an education system with no state control? An open marketplace? I realize that we’re supposed to pretend that all parents value school and be insulted at the implication that they wouldn’t want what’s best for their kids, but reality, alas, intervenes, which is why truancy officers are a major profit center for urban schools.

So suppose we just let the kids whose parents didn’t care go to terrible schools or just not go to school at all. Would we get nothing more than unhappy kids on street corners, or would we get something like the scenario portrayed in this comment, during the CTU strike? Any takers?

Teachers are cheaper than cops and prisons and by this I do not mean “uneducated kids will end up in prison” or whatever pious do-gooders might say about the value of education. I mean it literally: some substantial chunk of kids who are now forced to stay in school will get out onto the streets three to eight years earlier and crime will increase. That seems quite obvious.

Someone will undoubtedly say “Wow, Ed, you don’t see yourself as anything more than a glorified babysitter?”

It’s this sort of response that causes most teachers to realize how little the outside world gets it. Because hell yes. That’s what public schools are, sometimes. And have always been. Babysitters. Education will fail to reach a significant portion of the kids who are both low income and low ability. That’s a fact. We do it anyway, in part because, as I said, it’s cheaper than jails and cops. But in part because some number, and it’s not a small number, will be reached, will be persuaded to keep in the game, play by the rules, and eventually get something approximating a paying job in this new economy. That’s what we work for, to increase the number of the kids who do more than mark time until jail.

So don’t think you’re insulting me by calling me a glorified babysitter, and get back to the issue I raised: can you prove that all parents will react responsibly to unfettered educational choices for their kids? Remember, mind you, that a good number of those parents should still be in school themselves, and clearly demonstrated their utter contempt for the value of that institution by getting knocked up or doing the knocking. Many parents make dreadful choices and it’s unpopular to give them tax dollars to screw up any more than we already have to.

Another question: if you’re against public schools, why advocate for charters? As any Cato wonk knows, charters are killing private schools. Increasing charters increases public school spending. More charters will increase the number of kids under government oversight, give even more control to the states and ultimately the federal government. So why are choice people pro-charters? Charter schools purport to give choices but actually just drive up public education costs for the express benefit of a lucky few underrepresented minorities or suburban whites and Asians too cheap to send their kids to private school. As long as I’m ordering the world, choice folks, can’t you go back to pushing tax deductions for private schools? Then let Bill Gates pay tuition scholarships for URMs rather than fund meaningless and usually unsuccessful initiatives in his public school sandbox.

Finally, this: eventually, all three reform positions will realize that they can’t have what they want, that our schools aren’t failing, that their expectations are ludicrous. I just hope, when that happy day arrives, we will take a look at what we can do to convince more low ability kids to leave off marking time in order to work towards adulthood and responsibility. Higher standards, no. Better jobs, yes.

Instead, liberals are getting all excited about a brave new world in which super-rich employers are teaching their Wisconsin nannies about quinoa. Because it’s Wisconsin nannies who will cause all the trouble when we’ve got an entire generation of disaffected youth in a society that didn’t worry about jobs for people who read at a sixth grade level and pretended instead that more choice or tougher standards would give them the intellectual skills for college.

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.