Smarter Balance Tests: California’s Juniors Did Well

So the Smarter Balance results are out and everyone is certain all the news is bad. The LA Times called the results sobering, while the Chronicle said they “weren’t stellar”.

But in fact, California’s juniors did a good job.

They qualified as “college ready” or “a year from college ready” at the same or higher rate than prior years. We can’t do a pure comparison at this time in math, but I’m hoping that California will make the necessary data available. However, even in a broad comparison, junior math scores improved over 2014 and was on par with 2014. As for English, far more juniors are going to finish high school qualified for credit-bearing college courses than ever before.

California’s Early Assessment program (EAP) provides juniors with an assessment of their college readiness in math and English. Students are categorized as either Proficient (fully ready for college work) or Conditional (must get a C or higher in a qualifying course their senior year). While the state is admirably thorough in providing results data, reporters tend to boil all this complexity down to a single factoid–the percentage of students deemed ready for college math. And even this, they usually get….well, not so much wrong, but the information is portrayed in a misleading fashion.

Before last spring, the EAP assessments were not a single test. In English, juniors had to agree to sit for an essay test a few weeks before the California Standards Tests (CST). Then, during the CST, interested juniors took an augmentation packet of questions in additional to the standard test. ELA participation was relatively high, but rarely 100%.

The math EAP was more complicated, but at least took place in one sitting. Juniors taking Algebra 2 or higher took their usual CST end-of-year test as well as another augmentation packet. Unlike the ELA, math students taking the EAP did not all take the same CST test. Students in Algebra 2 took the Algebra 2 CST; students who had finished algebra 2 took the Summative CST. Both groups were then evaluated with select questions from these different tests and the total augmentation packet.

Juniors who hadn’t yet reached algebra 2 could not be assessed for college readiness in the CST years. A few years back I had some excellent geometry students who might have been able to test at conditional status if given the opportunity. I emailed a query and learned that simply taking the additional packet was not enough; the students had to take either the Algebra 2 or Summative test.

The EAP state results only provided passing percentages based on EAP testers. So it’s easy to look at the 2014 results, see that 49% of all testers “did not demonstrate readiness” in math, and wrongly conclude that 51% of all juniors did demonstrate readiness. The numbers to make the right conclusion are on the page, but easy for the novice to miss.

Since 2015, all juniors take the Smarter Balanced test, regardless of their math entry point, and so all juniors are assessed for college readiness. This affects the ELA numbers somewhat, and the math results dramatically, since in prior years around a third of all students weren’t allowed to take the test.

So how’d they do? The cleanest year to compare to is 2013, the last year we had both the CSTs and the old-style EAP. The next year, 2014, juniors took the CST purely for EAP purposes, but the state wasn’t as careful with the statistics, and it’s a bit hard to determine how many juniors didn’t take the EAP that could have. Here are 2013-15 results–the important numbers are in the last two columns, which show what percentage tested as proficient or “conditional” (a year away from proficient).

Year Total
Math %
2013 435,223 384,722 143,870 253,004 128,159 33% 29.5%
2014 464,534 332,065 130,153 209,584 112,468 28% 23%
2015 455,953 418,802 234,529 428,179 121,217 56% 29%

Unless I’ve made a boneheaded mistake, these numbers do not jibe with the reporting of the results. California’s juniors should be singled out as a substantial exception to the overall story of lower scores. They did far better on the ELA and held their ground in math, improving over the most recent year.

Is the test significantly easier? The best way to determine this requires information about the pass rates per course. How many algebra 2 students passed? How many geometry and algebra 1 students passed, if any? I’m hoping that the new results in October will include student passing rates by subject.

Should more than 30% of students be ready for math at an advanced level? That’s a question for another day. For now, let’s take note that California’s juniors did just fine and even improved on prior performance with a difficult new test in a new medium. Let’s take a moment to celebrate their achievement.


On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions

At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs.

Reform’s Most Recent Pivot

In America and its High Potential Kids, Andy Smarick rebukes the country for not caring about its high potential kids:

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

Yeah, that makes sense. It’s America’s disdain for supporting excellence that causes our neglect of high-achieving kids. It’s America’s fault that we had to end tracking.


We had tracking? How could that be? How could America, land of the bootstrapping immigrant, ever have supported an elite notion like tracking, putting advanced kids in challenging classes to help them excel? Smarick must explain that….no, hang on. Smarick doesn’t even mention the word tracking, not once, not even to chastise us for giving it up. That’s odd.

Never mind. We’re Americans. Once we realized that our schools were unjustly elevating our smart kids, we instantly moved to eliminate the practice. That’s why we had a whole de-tracking movement—one more thing that Andy Smarick should be lecturing us Americans on….wait, he doesn’t mention that, either.

Why doesn’t Smarick mention the landslide of support for ending tracking, the huge groundswell of outrage that swept the country as schools quickly moved to rectify the horrors of tracking?

Well, for starters, it never happened. Most schools with honors or advanced tracks had to be forced to end homogeneous clssrooms with lawsuits or the threat of same. There’s a whole subcategory of academia dedicated to congratulatory tomes about the success of detracking litigation, along with lots of condescending advice on detracking voluntarily to avoid lawsuits.

More generally, Smarick doesn’t mention tracking at all, not once in a piece bemoaning the US ill treatment of gifted kids, because it would kill his narrative. American education tracked by ability for most of its history. Most parents adamantly opposed detracking, as did many teachers—damn sure most math teachers. It took the courts to end tracking.

So Andy Smarick appears to think that Americans sneer at the very idea of educating smart kids, despite the fact that the country had to be sued out of tracking, which makes him either dishonest or stupid. I confess I’m not fighting the latter possibility. It’s hard not to decide that he’s clueless about the systematic decimation of ability grouping in our public schools. After all, he’s spent the last year pushing his last book, which had not the teeniest, tiniest, slightest thing to do with high-achieving kids, and the decade before that he was all about closing the achievement gap.

I am not of the wonk world, and mysterious are their ways. But it appears that reformers have decided it’s time for a pivot.

Reformers have gotten the memo: parents are annoyed by the focus on the achievement gap. Rick Hess tried to warn his fellow reformers a couple years back about their “achievement gap mania”, which would have been a perfect opportunity for anyone concerned about our neglect of gifted kids to speak up. Hess features this neglect as a key issue in his essay.

So Andy Smarick was right behind, chiming agreement, right?

Not anywhere that google can find it.

What comes right up when you google “Andy Smarick” “Rick Hess” “Achievement Gap” is Andy reassuring Rishawn Biddle that yeah, Rick’s “controversial” on the achievement gap (you know, all that worrying more about smart kids) but his stuff on Common Core is solid, dude.

In 2002, he was castigating public schools on special ed, because “all children can learn”. In 2011 he was trying to save Catholic schools, which succeed because they believe that “all children can learn”. A year ago, he was still bragging about New Jersey’s scores for low achieving black and Hispanic kids, conspicuously uninterested in how charters were handling the high achievers.

And when pushing his last book earlier this year, he was all about the high achieving kids who might be discombobulated by randomly closing schools that had too many “failing students”. Yeah, I made that up. In fact, he was eager to close down all those broken school districts, presumably because they didn’t believe that “all children can learn”.

Here’s the results for “Andy Smarick” tracking. Not an area of interest for Mr. Smarick.

But that was then, this is now, as Common Core approved author S. E. Hinton wrote. Then, reformers handled the whole issue of ability grouping gingerly. Michael Petrilli, hawking his book telling other people to send their kids to “diverse” schools, pushes differentiated instruction in All Together Now—except sometimes. Then, Katherine Porter-Magee tsked tsked the idea of ability grouping—a really good teacher, she says, can eradicate much of the difference caused by ability. But maybe, sometimes, around the edges, grouping by ability would be okay.

Odd to remember that, back in the late 80s, conservatives opposed detracking. But then they gave birth to the reform movement, and dropped the idea of tracking and ability grouping because it served their purposes to do so. Charters don’t have nearly as compelling a story, no, not even in low-income schools, if the motivated kids can be kept separate from the kids who just don’t want to be there. So reformers largely abandoned their opposition to heterogeneous classrooms, since “all together now” is a policy that continues to prevent top kids from achieving, thus allowing them to target “failing” schools and push charters.

Instead of tracking and giving kids the education they need or want, the reform movement spent nearly fifteen years pushing the mantra, as Andy repeats time and again, that “all children can learn”.

But “now” is not “then”, and so, the pivot.

Now, Brandon Wright argues that the vital element of hard work is more essential to success than intelligence, but that in order to make smart kids work hard, we need to differentiate—not instruction, but classrooms! Hey, did you see how sly he was, there? The whole article never once mentions the word “tracking”, talks about differentiation, but right there, under the covers, there’s a push for putting all the smart kids together so they don’t get lazy! It’s all in the name of hard work!

Now, Fordham, one of the loudest proponents of No Child Left Behind, has declared its shock, no really, it’s shocked to learn that their hobby horse had done serious damage to the most academically able students. (But that’s okay, because NCLB did a great job of raising achievement in low ability—oh. Never mind.)

Now, Andy writes a passionate clarion call to action, a Big Question for reflection amongst education reformers: What is my organization doing for the highest-potential students? What is our reform movement doing for them?

Great question, Andy. What, exactly, have you been doing?

Not a frigging thing.

Not that anyone will notice. Reporters will interview him and he’ll be invited onto panel discussions, and over time he’ll study up and look less stupid about pretending Americans didn’t care about smart kids, and no one will say, “Wait a minute, weren’t you talking about how ALL KIDS CAN LEARN just last year?” Because everyone knows the game.

Naturally, reformers (or anyone else) are reluctant to acknowledge that “smart kids” exist on a spectrum with “average kids” and, forgive me, “not smart kids”. Reformers never hesitate to label schools with low scores “failing” without ever once acknowledging that these schools might just possibly have a deficit of smart kids—or even, troubling as this is for everyone, a surfeit of kids who aren’t either smart or average.

Much easier just to pivot around the unpleasantness and talk out of both sides of their asses mouths. All Kids Can Learn! pivot left We Need Schools For Smart Kids! pivot back We Must Save Failing Schools! pivot wait, where the hell was I? Our Nation Needs Its Best Brains!

Progressives, at least, are consistent. They’re wrong, too, but at least they have the courage of their convictions.

Unlike any reformer, I’ve been so consistent in my support of tracking that I nearly got kicked out of my elite ed school. Unlike any reformer, I’ve taught kids with several years’ range of abilities in both math and English, and I’ve taught classes composed entirely of kids with extremely weak math skills. I know quite well that not all kids are smart, that “all kids can learn” at their own pace and to their own limits, set both by ability and desire.

And so, I find the pivot simultaneously disgusting and amusing. Disgusting because the movement will now undoubtedly call not for tracked classrooms, which don’t help charters, but tracked schools. Hey, suburbans, worried about the influx of poor, near-illiterate kids in your classroom? Start a charter for smart kids! Disgusting because reformers are already blaming schools for another failure that was pushed on them by litigation and laws that ignore education’s reality. Disgusting that reformers like Smarick are now pretending that America just doesn’t “get” the need for helping high-achieving kids—as if it wasn’t reform’s signal legislation, No Child Left Behind, that finally killed any ability to give stronger students their due. As if Common Core standards, which many reformers hawk, aren’t an explicit statement that all children can achieve at the same level.

Amusing because…..well, hell. Because if I don’t laugh, what’s left?

Diane Ravitch at Stanford

I went to see Diane Ravitch give a talk and then discuss education policy with Linda Darling Hammond and Eric Hanushek at the Memorial Auditorium. For the record, I think Ravitch is generally right about what’s wrong, but completely wrong about how to make things right. Hanushek is wrong about both.

Olive, I think you should know this: you’re a horrible actress. Cheech, Bullets Over Broadway

Lord, Ravitch is a horrible speaker. Has no one ever told her? [Not, I hasten to add, the way Cheech told Olive, although by the end of her speech I felt some sympathy for the method.] I googled every combination I could think of, but could find no mention of Ravitch’s flat affect, monotonous delivery, and unstructured, wandering content. Yes, yes, she’s a writer, not a speaker. But if she were forced to face critical audiences more often, I’d like to think she’d up her talking game. “Here’s a hoax… And then another hoax….but then the greatest hoax of all is is….Another hoax….And then there’s the hoax….but the biggest hoax….” I am not, in fact, sure what the biggest hoax was. Many different candidates emerged throughout her speech, in no particular order and no emphasis in her voice to signal a winner.

She could strengthen her message and convince more non-worshippers if she focused her message. Everyone and her mother is complaining about teacher evaluations, but few people have really zeroed in on the farce of the “public” charter, and here Ravitch is at her best. Charters are allowed to select and limit their population, something few public schools are allowed to do. (For my money, magnets are as non-public as charters are).

Recently, education reformers have gone on the offensive, attacking private public schools, attacking the “attendance restrictions” of geography, arguing that many public schools are just as “restrictive” as charters—just in a different way. But this is nonsense. Many formerly wealthy districts have been transformed because the residential population has changed. Certainly, districts that are cushioned on all sides have a degree of protection, but that comes down to luck, not law. So a formerly wealthy, predominantly white school like Willow Glen High School in San Jose is now a Title I school with a majority Hispanic, non-English speaking population, while Leland and Lincoln,both also in San Jose, are cushioned on all sides by other schools and so have far fewer low income students on the fringes of their districts. But if property values change, then those schools, too, will be forced to take all comers because that’s what public schools do. And, if the population changes too much and the richer residents don’t like it, then the solution should not be “create a charter with public funds to keep out certain elements” but “pay money for private school”.

Ravitch is at her best attacking the quasi-private nature of charters. She’s also making a good point in blaming leadership, not teachers, for “failed schools”—and by this she means not schools with low test scores, but schools that aren’t safe by measures of violence or abuse. She is a tad cavalier about dismissing test scores, but her point that scores are largely irrelevant in assessing school quality given the community is one that deserves more discussion. Finally, I thought she made a telling point in observing that she is not simply arguing for the status quo, since after ten years, reform clearly owns much of that status quo.

She’s at her worst when offering solutions, which is nothing more than a liberal’s wish list. Really, Diane? You were in the Bush administration. You were the darling of the reform movement for over a decade. And suddenly, the only answers you can come up with are smaller classes, preschool, and free health care? Smaller classes don’t work, although dramatic reductions may offer some small improvement for low income students. Preschool, likewise, has revealed few to no improvements in academic outcomes, although resource-intensive interventions that cost a fortune barely managed to move the needle once, some fifty years ago. Access to health care likewise has not been shown to improve outcomes much. We can debate the impact around the margins and cost-benefit ratios, but Ravitch’s current answers are just as problematic as the answers she offered a decade ago.

I first saw Linda Darling-Hammond speak the day after Obama won in 2008. I’m no more a fan of her ideas now than I was then, but she is much more effective when she’s playing from the middle, with Ravitch on the outside. And until now, I never realized that she has a great speaking voice, which was a pleasant change from Ravitch.

However, both LDH and Ravitch troubled me by their eager adoption of the “teacher quality” meme. They both push “teacher professionalism”, an idea I find flatly offensive. We aren’t “professionals” now? Be specific please. How, exactly, are teachers unprofessional? LDH asserted that teachers can’t get paid more if they aren’t “more professional”, but that it’s hard to get them “more professional” if they aren’t paid more.

The only translation of “more professional” that makes sense in this construct is “higher standards”, read “smarter”. She would, I suspect, deny this. LDH has said many times that she wants teachers to train for two-three years. Please, god, no. Ravitch, too, called for a more “professionalism”. It’s hard to tell, really, how much if any her views have changed since this testimony, when she said that ed schools like Stanford’s “committed themselves to an unending campaign for reform, without bothering to establish canons of knowledge about subject matter and about effective practice to guide future teachers” and that leading education professionals “feel no such need to know the latest education research”. She did recently repeat her adulation for the Finland model, so I assume she is also in favor of increased years of education (Please, god, no) and an extremely selective population.

This “elite speak” from progressives like LDH suggests that they want teachers more “like them”, a more well-bred, well-spoken crew than the current bundle of apparent ragtags they’re stuck with. LDH and Ravitch want a “more professional” teacher workforce in part because it will give them better ammunition to fight against Teach for America and other alternatives. How can anyone argue in favor of just planting new college graduates in front of the classroom if the existing teaching force is “professional”—unlike the existing teaching force which, by implication, is not?

I find this constant harping on “teacher professionalism” to be very troubling. Who, exactly, would LDH and Ravitch leave out to cull the field?

At one point Ric Hanushek asked Ravitch how teachers could be professionals and still be part of a union—implying clearly that “union” and “professional” couldn’t exist in the same sphere. Ravitch responded that unions protected teachers by giving them due process, but that she didn’t support seniority rights.

This was a hugely telling moment. Neither LDH nor Ravitch made the obvious rejoinder: professionals and unions happily co-exist in many occupations. Pilots, musicians, nurses, film technicians of every imaginable specialty are all unionized professions.

I am not particularly pro-union, and believe that teachers would have sufficient due process protection without them, as all government workers do. What I object to is the implication by both Ravitch and LDH that our current teaching force needs “improving” in some nonspecific way that seems to involve paying lots more money to ed schools to get “trained” in one particular way.

Linda Darling Hammond also implied more than once that our math scores are lower on international measures because of unspecified “problems” with way we teach math. I would have loved for her to be more specific. I suspect, however, that her colleague, Jo Boaler, a major player in the “math wars”, on the reform side, has some ideas. To which I say, again, please god, no.

Eric Hanushek wasn’t given much time, and what I found fascinating was his ability to keep Ravitch focused on issues she claimed weren’t that important. Ravitch said repeatedly that international comparisons weren’t meaningful, yet a substantial portion of the debate time was spent on what TIMMS and PISA told us. Point to Hanushek, since he had limited speaking time, and was nonetheless able to focus the conversation on the big issue of his new book.

I was pleased to see the moderator, Peter Schrag, bring up Texas’s NAEP inclusion issues when Hanushek played up Texas. Hanushek flatly denied it, saying that Texas had addressed those issues. Not since 2011, anyway. It was clear Schrag wanted to go further but without facts and figures ready, the format made it impossible to do without wasting time. No matter. Knowing to bring it up was a big plus. However, he hadn’t done his homework on Ravitch’s claims and so didn’t do much to challenge her.

The final speaker, Channa Mae Cook, gave a nice five minute talk and should have been given more time.

I’m glad I went. Every so often the simple act of sitting and listening, without stopping the tape to google a fact, change the channel or live-tweet a quote or reaction, can give me different insights than I’d get from reading an article or watching a taped show while doing five other things.

Higher Standards and Santino

A couple years ago, an administrative vice principal (AVP) walked into my classroom and asked, “I’m checking up on previously ELL students who were reclassified English proficient (RFEPed) to be sure they are getting enough support. What can you tell me about Santino?”

“Santino? He’s doing well. He’s gotten either a high F or a solid D on every test so far, which is a big step up for him.”

“Really. I guess we have different notions of what ‘doing well’ is.” She raised her eyebrow, refrained from sneering, made a check on her clipboard form, and walked back out before I could respond, which was probably a good thing.

Santino, a junior in my geometry class, was passing all of his classes at that time. He had finished his sophomore year with a sub-2.0 GPA, still higher than his freshman year. Ultimately, that AVP would determine that Santino’s upward progression was evidence of a valid reclassification. She didn’t walk back into my classroom and apologize for her nasty bit of snark, though.

Santino had a shock of black hair, big black glasses, and a rail-thin physique, which he clothed daily in black tees, skinny black jeans, and a light black hoodie. Think Hispanic Emo without the makeup. He almost never smiled in school. He didn’t amble but stalked silently through the halls, eyes always on the ground, occasionally with an equally silent and dark-garbed friend. His English was surprisingly fluent, considering his qualification for the Migrant Education Program and two parents who spoke no English, and his rarely used voice unexpectedly mellifluous.

As a sophomore, he sat silently through almost the entire first semester of my algebra class, doing nothing. He didn’t goof around. He just sat. He turned in empty tests. I’d called his home a couple times and tried to get him to work in class to no avail. Finally, I made contact. I vividly remember our first nearly wordless exchange.

In an early November test, Santino was just sitting there again, blank test in front of him. I stopped at his desk and picked up his pencil. Problem: Alycia made five times as many pumpkin pies as apple pies. If she made 24 pies, how many apple pies did she make?

I drew five circles, marked each one with a “P”, then handed him the pencil. He reread the problem and drew one circle, labeling it with an “A”. I waited. He thought. Drew another five “P” circles. Then another “A”. I smiled, and walked away. When I came back, the entire problem space was filled with circles, and the words “4 apple pies” was scrawled down in the corner.

“So let’s try this next one.” Problem: Julio was at the beach, and noticed that the ratio of seagulls to blackbirds was 3:2. If he counted 30 birds, how many blackbirds were there?

I drew 3 Ss and handed him the pencil. He drew 2 Bs, then three more Ss. “There you go.”

For the first time, Santino turned in a non-blank test. He got all three ratio problems correct, with pictures and “guess and check”. Everything else was still blank.

For this particular ratio unit, I had taught students both the algorithm and the visual method I’d just used with Santino. I’d taught it not once, but several times. I’d given the students a number of different techniques to help conceptualize a ratio, concepts that they’d already been taught extensively their previous year, either in Algebra or pre-Algebra. I had already dramatically simplified and slowed instruction for the class.

Yet Santino’s response to my intervention demonstrated that I still had students for whom the gap between the content I was teaching and the support they needed proved much larger than I’d imagined.

And so, over Christmas break, I winnowed algebra down to the fundamentals, designing an “algebra lite” curriculum for these students. Through trial and error, I settled on a method: start the day with something they could do instantly, without needing explanation. Introduce new material twenty minutes into class with simple practice problems—and I mean simple. Take my initial notion of simple, cut the difficulty in half, and then again. Then take just half the problems I’d planned on and I’d be in the ballpark. They’d work on those problems the rest of the class. The next day, they’d start with a basic—again, really REALLY basic—problem in the new material, and move forward on that. Although this method meant more work (remember, I was still teaching the usual course in the same class), it gave my weakest students a chance to progress. Most of them responded eagerly, grateful for work they knew how to do.

Santino’s math skills didn’t improve dramatically, but his engagement inched up several notches. He worked in class, and his tests (easier ones for this group) were no longer blank. He was noticeably stronger at word problems, and best of all at word ratios, that first type we’d worked on together.

As a sophomore, he took the required California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in March of that year. I assigned my strongest freshmen to coach a sophomore for eight class days, using a tutorial I’d designed to help both freshman and sophomore understand how the test was constructed . For Santino, I chose Carl, a shy, sweet, white kid who wore his NERD teeshirt once a week. I told Carl that any score above 330 (passing was 350) would make Satino feel ready for a rematch, instead of hopeless. Carl understood, and as I wandered the room during that prep fortnight, I would often hear him reminding Santino to “estimate and eliminate”. Santino was always hunched over his practice questions, thinking hard, not sitting passively; he even ventured a question now and again to the far less threatening Carl.

Just over half of my algebra sophomores passed the CAHSEE, which is as much as I could ask for. Santino, who passed the English section with a 356, stunned me with a 348. The day the scores came out, we had the longest conversation of our two year acquaintance.

“I didn’t pass.”

“You got a 348! That is AMAZING! One question from passing! I am so proud of you!”

“I almost did it. I think I will do better next time, because I didn’t know geometry. I need to study again in November. I will pass it then.”

“You make sure to come back and see me in November and I’ll give you the practice material.”


Santino passed my “algebra lite” curriculum and I changed his first semester grade to reflect his new work. His junior year, he was assigned to my geometry class. Come November, even before I’d prompted him, he came up and said, “I will be taking the CAHSEE.”

“I know. Do you want a few days in class to practice?”

He worked independently and diligently. While he didn’t go so far as to ask me questions with, say, his voice, he had questions circled and would look up mutely when I stopped at his desk. I’d coach him on best methods for elimination; he’d nod and get back to work. He came to class the day of the test, a little less inscrutable than usual, just a bit anxious. When the announcement calling students to the testing room came over the speaker, I said, “Go get ‘em” and the class all cheered him and the others on.

He passed with a 356. His seatmates and I harassed him to look happy, until he finally turned the ends of his mouth up, reluctantly. But he did look pleased.

In geometry, Santino would still sit silently in front of a blank sheet if he was stuck, but he never turned in an empty test again. He’d peek up through his shock of hair as I walked by, and point to a problem when I stopped. Most importantly, he was passing the same course as the other students—passing with a D, but passing.

So you can see, perhaps, why I didn’t particularly appreciate the AVP’s snark. Santino was, indeed, “doing well”.

He did well enough in right triangle trigonometry, of all things, that I gave him either a D+ or C- for the second semester. Since he’d passed pre-algebra in summer school his freshman year, Santino had, at the end of junior year, the necessary three years of math to meet his graduation requirements. He was as quiet as ever. Despite our two years’ acquaintance, he never initiated a greeting when we passed by in the yard, although he would, if I waved, give me a “chin jut of recognition”, as Sheldon Cooper would call it.

I left the school that year, but often wondered if Santino would be able to “make the walk”. Would his credit gap force him to an alternative high school for senior year, or some online academy? He didn’t have the grades for the voc-ed program, so that wouldn’t be an option. I have beer or coffee with my ex-colleagues frequently, and would often nag them for any status about Santino. None of them could find his name in the system, but I kept hoping they’d just missed something.

One Tuesday in early August, I ran into another student from Santino’s school, and wished him luck in college. “Did you see my name in the paper? They had the whole graduating class!”

I went home and googled the Mercury News list of graduating seniors for the school. Santino’s name was on the list. He’d walked with his class.

A growing body of research suggests that non-cognitive factors—persistence, effort, motivation—are important in adult outcomes. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University analyzed the impact of teachers on both test scores and non-cognitive skills (as assessed by attendance, graduation rates, and so on). He found that “many teachers who are among the best at improving test scores may be among the worst at improving non-cognitive skills”. Moreover, “teacher effects on the non-cognitive factor explain significant variability in their effects on these longer-run outcomes that are not captured by their test score effects”.

In practice, valuing “non-cognitive skills” almost always means lowering academic standards. Many students struggle with advanced content but have no ability to choose easier courses, thanks to our well-meaning but misguided education policies. If teachers hold all our students to a strict reading of the course requirements, students who either don’t want to or can’t understand the rigorous material will fail. Obviously, reasonable standards would eliminate the need for that choice. Schools might provide a menu of classes of varying difficulty, allow students to choose course material they are capable of and interested in learning, rather than set a ferociously high bar and then make some teachers choose between failing most of their students or not covering the material with a rigor appropriate for the strongest kids. But in today’s world, fail or pass a student who can’t really do the work is our only choice.

On the other hand, Rishawn Biddle argues that teachers like me are the problem: “Behind all this gatekeeping is the view among many traditionalists that there are some kids who just aren’t capable of high-level work”, and that students of color are given a terrible foundation due to terrible teachers and weak curriculum.

Biddle’s assertions aren’t borne out by any reality I’ve ever seen. In Santino’s case, he had a solid grasp of math facts but struggled tremendously with abstractions. He attended the same K-8 schools that many of my strongest students, both Hispanic and white, attended. But while I’m no traditionalist, it’s certainly true that I thought Santino was incapable or uninterested, at that point in his life, of deep understanding of algebra and geometry. So I modified both his work and my expectations to give him passing grades. I would do it again. In fact, I have done it again.

While the education philanthropists like Whitney Tilson hold that “kids will live up – or live down – to whatever expectations are set for them”, reality plays out very differently. Many kids simply don’t try. Many kids try but simply can’t do the work. And quite a few kids fall somewhere in between. Fail the kids like Santino, and they either drop out, or settle for a GED, or go to some credit-recovery room, separate from their peers. Pass the kids like Santino, and they get to feel normal, even in an environment designed to make them feel inadequate. The Whitney Tilsons believe that failing a kid simply makes him work harder at an achievable task. But what if they’re wrong, as the majority of teachers who work with low ability, low incentive kids would argue? The data shows that, given the same level of academic achievement, kids are better off graduating than dropping out, or even getting a GED.

So, the question: Do you teach the course or teach the kids? Many math teachers hold that higher standards are essential, that the only way to ensure that our classes accurately reflect their descriptions is to fail those students who don’t perform with the expected rigor. I understand that argument but ultimately, I agree with a colleague who said once, “Look. If half your class is failing, blame the person you see in the mirror.” I simply can’t fail half my kids in classes they didn’t choose to take.

As for Santino, I know this: He almost certainly would not have passed algebra and geometry with a different teacher. This alone gave him a better shot at graduating normally. Without the need to repeat math classes, he had more slots on his schedule to repeat earlier failed classes and make up even more credits. The more he could see graduation becoming a possibility, the more he was willing to work to achieve it.

God speed, Santino. Go get ‘em.

Transcripts vs. Reality

First published in the Mercury News, December 27, 2010. Since archived.

In “Waiting for Superman,” the much-discussed documentary on charter schools, Redwood City’s Summit Preparatory Charter School is celebrated for its inclusive curriculum. All Summit students are required to take college prep and Advanced Placement courses, with no separate tracks for high-, middle- or low-achieving students.

However, perhaps some students would be better off on a less aggressive track, since many Summit students graduate unprepared for college.

According to the 2010 Early Assessment Program test, half of Summit’s current senior class is ineligible for California State University college-level math and composition courses. The EAP test, designed by the CSU to warn high school juniors of their likely path to remediation,assesses second-year algebra and third-year English.

As most Summit juniors took precalculus and Advanced Placement English, the much easier EAP test should present little challenge. Such a high failure rate is a troubling sign. Yet Summit placed all seniors into still more Advanced Placement English, history and math courses,in spite of strong indications that some students weren’t capable of the work.

Should high schools require students to take college-level courses when they struggle with K-12 material? Many schools do so with the best intentions, convinced that under-represented students only lack the right courses for success — even those with serious academic deficiencies.

As Stanford professor Michael Kirst observes,”Access, rather than preparation, is … the theme of many of the professionals who mediate between the high schools and the colleges.” Meanwhile, community colleges and state universities everywhere are buckling under the weight of remedial high school graduates whose weak skills put them years—and thousands of tuition dollars—away from college-credit courses.

As a teacher and test prep coach, I have worked with students to help them avoid remediation, but it’s often too late. Sadly,the choice between high school curriculum and “college-level” courses is a zero-sum game. Time spent in AP courses is time lost to catching up.

Those who advocate “AP for all” argue that some students have a chance at passing, and that even a failing score can improve college outcomes. But fewer than half of Summit’s Advanced Placement tests receive a passing score.

An National Center for Education Statistics study shows that remedial math placement halves the likelihood of a four-year degree, and remedial reading levels lower it even further. Is a year wasted in an AP course really going to improve college outcomes more than a year spent escaping remediation?

Schools face few controls for their AP courses, which are weighted with an extra grade point average point. Teachers can and do give As and Bs to students who fail the course’s standardized test.

The College Board should institute mandatory grading policies, linking the weighted course grades directly to test scores. Failure to test or a ‘1’ score should result in a loss of the AP designation; a’2′ score should receive a C. Only a 4 or 5 score should receive an A.

Saul Geiser, an education researcher at UC Berkeley, recommends that bonus points be awarded for AP courses only where students demonstrate actual mastery of the subject by achieving a passing score on the AP exam.

Either approach would end these courses for unprepared students. Schools wouldn’t risk putting their students in courses if it meant dramatically lowering GPAs — and even if they were willing to, the students themselves would refuse.

Attractive transcripts are worthless when facing off against college placement tests, which decide remediation status and are merciless in their allegiance to demonstrated abilities. Besides, students shouldn’t have to wait until college to get a high school education.

The right way to assess teacher performance

First published in the Washington Post, June 18, 2010.  This is back when I was trying to write op eds. There’s only a limited amount of topics I can limit myself to under 1000 words and have something safe for publishing.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program demands that teachers be evaluated by student test scores. Florida’s legislature passed a bill in April to end teacher tenure and base pay increases on test-score improvement; although Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that attempt, legislatures in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and other states have also modified regulations regarding tenure with an eye toward Race to the Top. Teachers protest, but they are dismissed as union hacks with lousy skills, intent on protecting their cushy tenured jobs because they could never cut it in the real world.

I’m a first-year, second-career high school teacher, a “highly qualified” teacher of math, English and social science, a standing I achieved by passing rigorous tests. I’m not a union fan, nor am I in favor of pay increases based on seniority or added education. Like many new teachers throughout the country, I was pink-slipped and am looking for work, so I don’t have a cushy job to protect.

I’m not your typical teacher. But I believe I speak for many teachers when I say I’m willing to be tested on student performance, provided certain conditions are met. So let’s negotiate.

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.

Without the missing students, the tests won’t yield a complete picture of learning. But the tests’ purpose is to yield a picture of teaching, which isn’t the same thing as learning. Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.

Results will reveal that many students miss this attendance requirement. Put that problem on the parents’ plates. Leave it out of the teaching assessment.

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Yes, teachers could misuse this authority. But if teachers are evaluated by student learning, they must have control over classroom conditions. Then the administration can separately decide what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them. But keep the issue away from measuring student performance; leave it as a personnel call.

(3) Students who don’t achieve “basic” proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

Students who can’t prove they know algebra can’t take geometry. If they can’t read at a ninth-grade level, they can’t take sophomore English — or, for that matter, sophomore-level history or science, which presumes sophomore-level reading ability.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard — the so-called value-added assessment.

I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable. Teachers can’t be evaluated on students who miss 10 percent of the class or don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Yet accepting these reasonable conditions might reveal that common rhetorical goals for education (everyone goes to college, algebra for eighth-graders) are, to put it bluntly, impossible. So we’ll either continue the status quo at a stalemate or the states will make the tests so easy that the standards are meaningless.

Yes, some students are doing poorly because their teachers are terrible. Other students are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality. No one is eager to discover the size of that second group, so serious testing with teeth will go nowhere.

That’s too bad. We need to know how many students are failing because they don’t attend class, how many students score “below basic” on the algebra test three years in a row, how many students fail all tests because they read at a fourth-grade level. We need to know if our education rhetoric is a pipe dream instead of an achievable reality blocked by those nasty teachers unions. And, of course, if it turns out that all our problems can be solved by rooting out bad teachers, we need to find that out, too.

So if we’re going to evaluate teachers based on student results, let’s negotiate some reasonable terms — and let’s not flinch from whatever reality those terms reveal.