Now that she’s got the kids, where to find teachers?

If you remember a previous post, I pointed out that the Success Academy Charter Schools was advertising for students in some very interesting places, which included my neighborhood of Park Slope, as well as a website where I publish educational materials. How happy I was that the deadline passed, and  no longer have to look a these ads begging me to fill out a form so that my child can enter their “lottery.” (Yeah, like I would buy a ticket for that contest, even if it was free….)

Well, now that Eva has gotten all her eager young students ready to grace her halls this coming fall (including the building where she is going to displace a program for handicapped students who will have to travel miles away), it looks like she’ll be needing teachers to educate those eager young minds. So what do I see when I log into my TeachersPayTeachers account? You guessed it:


Want to join the team? Eva's got room for you (well, not if you're too expensive, that is...)

Want to join the team? Eva’s got room for you (well, not if you’re too expensive, that is…)


and this!


It gets even better when you arrive at the web site: prospective applicants are told the following:

At Success Academy, we make history every single day. Our schools rank in the top 1% in math and top 7% in reading among all New York schools. 100% of all scholars passed the 2013 science exam with 99% earning the highest possible rating. We provide an exploration driven curriculum for grades K-8, focused on the whole child. Chess, art, and other specialized subjects bring excitement to the school day and foster a lifelong love of learning. Our communities are calling for more, and we are meeting this urgent demand with rapid expansion.

If that doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I don’t know what does, especially because much of what is in this paragraph is not actually “true.” But then again, everyone loves working with a winner, so why not invite all those eager, underemployed, impressionable and disposable youths to do this:

Are you ready to join this movement and make an indelible mark on education reform across New York City?

That is, if the “movement” is funded by such right-wing “philanthropies” like the Walton Family Foundation or pseudo-educational foundations intent on compromising public education like Bill & Melinda Gates, not to mention the billionaire hedge-fund managers who crashed the economy and threw tens of thousands of people out of work. Yes, this is the type of ‘movement’ I want to join!

I’m truly tempted to “apply now,” if only to see whether I could actually game something beyond a cursory “thank you for your application; we’ll contact you if you have any positions open in your area.”

Of course, being a 54 year old man finishing his 30th year in education in a “high needs” area (math and science), I’m a most unlikely candidate for any position at Success Academy, where young, inexperienced teachers probably fit their needs a bit better. I probably couldn’t put up with the demands of the work day (at 54 years old, teaching for 8 hours with just a lunch break is most likely beyond my stamina), and being bossed around by an “education manager” who has 2-3 years in “people management” is probably going to grate on my nerves (especially when I’ll have to spend most  of my time improving test scores and making sure kids look ‘straight ahead’ at all times.)

On second thought, I’ll keep my day job.


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Moron VAMs & Non-Cognitive Ability

In a recent post, I summarized and explicated on research conducted by C. Kirabo Jackson, a professor at Northwestern University, who published a paper that examined the use of test scores to measure the effectiveness of a teacher using the “value added model,” which is better known as VAM.

In this post, I’m going to continue where I left off last time, as well as present Jackson’s findings using visual representations.

To begin, Jackson shows that by analyzing data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study from 1988, that there are two types of outcomes from teaching: cognitive and non-cognitive. These are summarized in the table below:

A comparison of cognitive vs. non-cognitive ability.

A comparison of cognitive vs. non-cognitive ability.

Jackson cites extensive evidence showing that teachers have differing effects on both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities of their students, and that together these two effects these can be represented as a  “vector” – that is, each one acts on the long term outcome on an individual student in combination.

Incidentally, “grades” are different from “test scores” in that when a teacher issues a grade to a student , it usually comprises different aspects of the student’s work, which would include things like completing assignments, taking part in activities, and showing up to class. As such, it is much more representative of a student’s cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. What is interesting is that test scores are only moderately related to grade point average (GPA). According to Jackson, there is only a 36% correlation between test scores in math and English and a student’s GPA. Even more interesting is the fact that test scores are completely unrelated to socio-behavioral outcomes. Okay, let’s just repeat that in bold: test scores are unrelated to socio-behavioral outcomes.

Knowing this, we can understand that teachers vary in their abilities to increase their student’s cognitive and non-cognitive ability; similarly, students also have their own vector, which is represented by their cognitive and non-cognitive ability. Therefore, the effect of student “a” being in a class taught by teacher “b” is the sum of their two vectors. Pretty simple, yes?

Some examples of  “teacher ability vectors” (my terminology) appear below:

three different teacher ability vectors

The left graph shows a teacher who improves both a student’s cognitive and non-cognitive abilities equally; the middle graph show a teacher who is very effective at raising test scores, while being ineffectual at raising non-cognitive behaviors. The right graph shows the performance of a teacher who has a great effect on non-cognitive ability, while not improving test scores a great deal. Which leads us to the question: which teacher is the “most effective?”

Which leads us to the following thought experiment: if you had to choose between the teacher in the middle graph and the one on the right (assuming the one on the left is quite rare), which one is more highly correlated with things like fewer arrests, more college-going and improved wages? If you’ve been following me, you know that the data show that improvement in these important outcomes are more highly correlated with teachers who improve non-cognitive ability. According to Jackson, if we went by test scores alone to judge teacher effectiveness, more than half of the teachers who improve these long term outcomes may not be identified as being “effective.” This is because the teacher effects on college going and wage improvements is as much as three times larger than can be identified by using test scores alone.

If you are a educator, parent or policymaker, you should be outraged at this conclusion, which can be represented using this graph:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 12.05.37 PM

All of which begs the questions: if you are a teacher whose job performance is being judged using a “value added model,” you may choose to shift your resources to keep your job:

is this sa good idea?

Indeed, this seems to be the focus of all “school reform” since “President” George H.W. Bush slammed us with “No Child Left Behind,” and President Obama followed up with the equally egregious “Race to the Top.”  Folks like Arne Duncan like to rattle away at something called “accountability,” and in our mindless pursuit of higher test scores, something will be sacrificed. As Jackson’s research suggests, focusing on test scores could likely lead to more students dropping out of high school, fewer going to college and worst of all, lower wages as adults. Wait, is this what educational reformers really wanted?

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Discrepancies #1

Maria Montessori vs. Michelle Rhee: who is the "real" reformer?

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One of many nails in the VAM coffin….

If you’ve read the American Statistical Association’s position on the dangers of evaluating teacher performance based on the “Value-Added Model,” you’re probably wondering how they arrived at this very sobering conclusion. As Albert Einstein was alleged to have stated, “Not everything that counts is countable, and not everything that is countable counts.” In this case, AMSTAT took that advice to heart and so strongly inveighed against VAM that they essentially labeled it a form of statistical malpractice.

Associate Professor C. Kirabo Jackson, the most understated hero to decimate VAM.

In this post, I’m going to examine one of the studies that no doubt had a profound impact on the members of AMSTAT that led them to this radical (but self-evident) conclusion. In 2012, the researcher C. Kirabo Jackson at Northwestern University published a “working paper” for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works (I’m quoting here from their website.) The paper, entitled “Non-Cognitive Ability, Test Scores, and Teacher Quality: Evidence from 9th Grade Teachers in North Carolina”  questions the legitimacy of evaluating a teacher based on his/her students’ test scores. Actually, it is less about “questioning” and more about “decimating” and “annihilating” the practice of VAM.

I downloaded the paper and have been reading it for the past few days. Jackson clearly has done his homework, and this paper is extremely dense in statistical analysis which is rooted in data collected by the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988, which began with 8th graders who were surveyed on a range of educational issues as described below:

On the questionnaire, students reported on a range of topics including: school, work, and home experiences; educational resources and support; the role in education of their parents and peers; neighborhood characteristics; educational and occupational aspirations; and other student perceptions. Additional topics included self-reports on smoking, alcohol and drug use and extracurricular activities. For the three in-school waves of data collection (when most were eighth-graders, sophomores, or seniors), achievement tests in reading, social studies, mathematics and science were administered in addition to the student questionnaire.

To further enrich the data, students’ teachers, parents, and school administrators were also surveyed. Coursework and grades from students’ high school and postsecondary transcripts are also available in the restricted use dataset – although some composite variables have been made available in the public use file.

The survey was followed up in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 2000, which means that it began when students were just about to begin their high school career, and then followed up when they were in 10th and 12th grades, and followed them through post-high school, college and postgraduate life. It is one of the most statistically valid sample sets of educational outcomes available.

What should be noted is that Jackson is not an educational researcher, per se. Jackson was trained in economics at Harvard and Yale and is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Social Policy. His interest is in optimizing measurement systems, not taking positions on either side of the standardized testing debate. Although this paper should reek with indignation and anger, it makes it’s case using almost understated tone and is filled with careful phrasing like “more than half of teachers who would improve long run outcomes may not be identified using test scores alone,” and “one might worry that test-based accountability may induce teachers to divert effort away from improving students’ non-cognitive skills in order to improve test scores.”

But lets get to the meat of the matter, because this paper is 42 pages long and incorporates mind-boggling statistical techniques that account for every variable one might want to filter out to answer the question: are test scores enough to judge the effectiveness of a teacher? Jackson’s unequivocal conclusion: no, not even remotely.

The first thing Jackson does is review a model that divides the results of education into two dimensions: the cognitive effects, which can be measured by test results, and the non-cognitive effects, which are understood to be socio-behavioral outcomes, which when combined, determine adult outcomes. To paraphrase the old Charlie the Tuna commercial, it’s more than whether we want adults that test good – we also want them to be good adults. Clearly, Jackson is aiming a little higher than those who would believe that test scores are the end result of “good teaching.” He’s focusing on what “non-cognitive” effects a teacher can have on a student, which includes things like diminishing their rates of truancy and suspensions, improving their grades (which are different from test scores) and helping increase the likelihood that they will attend college.

Which poses the less than obvious question: if teachers have an effect on both cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes, are they correlated or independent? That is, if a teacher is effective in raising test scores, will that lead to less truancy, fewer suspensions, better grades and less grade retention? Even more interesting is the idea that teachers could be more effective on one scale while being low on the other: is it possible for a teacher to be very effective at improving a student’s non-cognitive functioning while not having an effect on his/her test scores?

By page 4, Jackson’s paper starts to draw blood: using the results of the NELS 1988, Jackson concludes that a standard deviation increase in non-cognitive ability in 8th grade is associated with fewer arrests and suspensions, more college-going and better wages than the same standard deviation improvement in test scores. It’s almost as if Jackson is telling us, “hey, 8th grade teachers: want to improve your students future life? Spend less time on test prep and more time helping them show up at school, staying out of trouble and improving their actual grades.” 

This alone would be enough of a takeaway, but this incredibly dense paper continues to hammer away at any thought that test scores are meaningful in any way: in the same paragraph, Jackson states that a teacher’s effect on college-going and wages may be as much as three times larger than predicted based on test scores alone. HFS! Oh, and just to make things more interesting, it is followed by this statement: “As such, more than half of teachers who would improve long run outcomes may not be identified using test scores alone.”

To summarize, we’re only in the middle of page 4 of this paper, and we’ve already learned the following:

a) Teachers have an effect on both cognitive skills of their students, and non-cognitive skills of their students. The first leads to higher test scores, the second leads to more college going, fewer arrests and better wages.

b) In 8th grade, non-cognitive achievement is a better predictor of college going and higher wages, as well as fewer arrests and suspensions, than test scores.

c) A teacher’s effect on these “non-cognitive” outcomes is as much as 300% greater than can be measured using test scores.

But wait, there’s more!

Okay, I’m only below the middle of page 4, and already I’ve read three conclusions that essentially kill off any legitimacy to judging a teacher’s effectiveness based on test scores, and the good stuff has even gotten started!

What Jackson is up to in his paper is something bigger, way bigger: it would be possible to argue at this point that somehow cognitive and non-cognitive skills, while both responsible in some part to positive adult outcomes, are still  correlated; that is, if you improve the test scores, the other non-cognitive stuff will come along as a bonus. This is where Jackson goes for the jugular, and, as is typical of research papers, he essentially “buries the lead.”

“This paper presents the first evidence that teachers have meaningful effects on non cognitive outcomes that are strongly associate with adult outcomes and are not correlated with test scores.” (Emphasis mine, italics his, by the way.)

I have to stop with this blog post here (but I promise to do more deciphering of this paper in the next few days.) My only question at this point would be: why hasn’t anybody explained this to Arne Duncan, perhaps through the use of hand puppets and a mallet?

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The Myth of School Diversity

I was traveling on the 6 train this morning, which runs up the East Side of Manhattan. I got on at Broadway/Lafayette, and because it was rush-hour, the car was crowded, but more crowded than usual. On the train were a gaggle of middle-schoolers who were having themselves a good old time, and it did not escape anybody’s notice that they all happened to be Asian. This would not be surprising as the 6 train does run right through Chinatown. But observing them got me to thinking about diversity in schools.

Stuyvesant High School, one of the most selective high schools in the city, is 72% Asian. As I watched these “yutes,” I knew that a good number of them would be attending Stuyvesant at some point in the future, and it got me thinking about the recent report that New York City has among the most segregated schools in the United States. These students live in a very tight-knit community where families share the same language, the same culture and the same ideas about what a “good” education looks like. They’ve “gamed” the Stuyvesant admissions test by setting up cram schools in their community, and no doubt every one of these students have friends or relatives who went to Stuy and their parents no doubt aspire to have them attend the same school. They know their children will be among other children like themselves, and they no doubt know the teachers and administrations who work there.

With 72% of the school populated by Asian students, it may appear that Stuy is not a very “diverse” school. This belies the fact that being “Asian” could mean many things: when we label someone as Asian, we could be talking about someone from China, Japan, Korea, India or Pakistan as well as the incredible number of islands in the Pacific Ocean, each of which has it’s own distinct language and culture. It also belies the fact that Asians can be first, second or third generation, or that they could be trans-racially and/or trans-nationally adopted. They could be Buddhist, Hindi, Muslim, Christian and, yes, even Jewish. This is not to mention the fact that there is economic diversity within the community, which includes those who live in the poverty that is found in sections of Chinatown to those who commute in from the wealthy suburbs of Long Island. Beneath the “visual” homogeneity of Stuyvesant High School lies a vast mosaic of diversity that remains invisible.

My daughter, who is now 22 years old, was never interested in attending Stuyvesant, and none of her friends were interested either. She attended a fairly high performing middle school, and her intention was to attend a high school that would prepare her for college. However, her middle school drew children who were interested in the arts; the school had an excellent reputation for it’s photography, music, drama and dance program, and many of the students went on to attend the best schools in the city which focused on performing and visual arts.

The high school my daughter attended, the Beacon School, appeared to have a very diverse population: during her time at Beacon, my daughter regularly brought home friends who were from all parts of the city and from many ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. However, beneath this visible “diversity,” there was quite a bit of homogeneity: the families all appreciated the fact that Beacon was a very progressively minded school that sent its students to places like Cuba and post-Katrina New Orleans in the name of social justice. I can’t imagine there would be many parents with strong conservative political views who would be comfortable sending their child to Beacon. At the same time, if you were deeply interested in science or math, Beacon wouldn’t be a good place to spend your high school years. While the sciences were taught, there was no push for the kind of high-flying research projects that are found at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

It’s very interesting watching how diversity has become the new buzzword in the field of education: every private school website has a page about “diversity” in their school, which touts the fact that the school is committed to having a range of students in their classes, but what constitutes diversity is quite elastic. A private school may have “visual” diversity in that there are students of different skin color, but the reality is that they are quite homogenous in that the families belong to the same economic class. On the other hand, we can somehow assemble a school of students in different economic classes like Stuyvesant, where 41% of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, yet it appears to be incredibly homogenous in the vast majority come from Asian backgrounds.

The problem is that homogeneity occurs for many reasons that have nothing to do with racism, classism or any of the other type of discrimination. In many schools, segregation comes about as a result of geography: I work in a school in the South Bronx once a week. it is 60% Hispanic and 40% Black, which makes it seem like a very homogeneous population. But as we all know, there is considerable diversity within the Hispanic population, which means we have children from the Caribbean Islands, including the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, or North America, Central America or South America. The Black students come from all over Africa: some are Senegalese, others are from Somalia, and still others are from Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But there’s considerable homogeneity here: the students all within walking distance from the school, and they are all poor. Very poor.

My conclusion is this: schools are inherently segregated places. This is while families want their children to attend schools with diverse populations, they also want their children to be around others who have similar values to their own, which leads to homogeneity. They may feel that their children should be around other children who share the same cultural or linguistic background, they may want their children to go to school with the same families who live in their neighborhood, they may have the same “aspirational values,” or, in the most extreme scenarios, they want their children to only associate with those who share the same socio-economic class, the same religious affiliation or the same political philosophies. At the same time, consideration must be given to the school’s environment (“no excuses” discipline vs. caring culture), or its reputation for arts or sciences.

From what I  can conclude after this subway ride up the East Side of Manhattan (all the Asian middle schoolers got off at 59th street, btw), schools are, by their nature, homogenous, and the solutions we’ve tried in the past have not moved the needle into more diverse territory. In fact, they have only made schools more segregated in one way or another: “magnet schools” segregate children according to their interests, “gifted and talented” programs segregate children according to their “measured intelligence” (which is highly unstable), and charter schools are well known to exclude those with learning disabilities and limited English proficiency (their “no excuses” discipline systems and almost pathological focus on standardized test prep also keep away those with progressive educational philosophies.) Parochial schools segregate children according to religious affiliation (and even degree of that affiliation), and expensive private schools segregate children according to socio-economic status.

In the end, I have no answers, only an observation and a conclusion. But that does not mean there is no hope: just because schools cannot be diverse does not mean they should not be diverse. At the same time, we have to put a lot more thought into what is meant by diversity, why it is important and what can be done about it.


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Thought Experiment: Is there such a thing as an “Ethical” Charter School?

In my series of rants about charter schools and their discontents, I’ve been accused of being a “lumper” rather than a “splitter.” That is, I’ve been characterizing all charter schools as bastions of segregation, discrimination, military-style “no excuse” discipline systems and political machinations that include busing parents and teachers to “rally for their cause.” Oh, and taking billionaire funding for “astroturf” organizations to promote their wanton destruction of the public school system, inexperienced faculties and overpaid administrators, obsession over test scores and dislocating students who were attending the self-described “failed” school. Did I mention suspension rates that are substantially higher than their local public schools, as well as expulsion of students before the all important state testing season? Have I forgotten to shoot holes in their rigged “lottery” systems that appear to be “fair,” but actually screen out many who might be tempted to make the plunge into this experiment taking public money to fund private education?

Okay, so perhaps I’ve been playing my curmudgeon hand too hard. Maybe I should look at the other side: would it be possible to create an “ethical” charter school? I’ve blogged about this before, but I thought I would actually inject some practical suggestions into the mix. Maybe I could form a rating system that gives a school a “ethical rating,” say from 0 – 10, with 0 being the most unethical charter school around, to 10, being that they are actually building a new model of what a school could be and doing it in a way that “does no harm” to the children around it (as well as those who attend) while justifying the money used by you and me, the taxpayers?

I just would like to point out that among the ArneDuncan-MichelleRhee doomsayers, there are plenty of public schools that are creating beautiful new models of what education can look like. Here is a particularly nice example: the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, which is, what do you know, a PUBLIC school!

So here goes: my attempt at a charter ethical rating scale. I did make a valiant attempt to construct a sliding scale that would allow me to weigh certain attributes over others, but in the end, all I could come up with is what I call “dealbreakers.” If the charter engages in specific practices, then even if the school is themed around saving the earth, bringing peace to warring parties AND preserving liberty and justice for all, then I’m sorry, it’s just not “ethical,” even if you slap that label on it.

• Location: If you’re locating in an underused building and have no intention of displacing students who may already be there, or  you intend to locate in a private space and pay rent for it, then you’ve got my support. If your intention is to “co-locate” in an overcrowded building, ask me to pay your rent and proceed to displace the current students to other locations, well, it can only be one thing: DEALBREAKER 

Fun Fact: Is there a charter school that actually practices this? Apparently, yes, the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School chose to rent space on their own rather than displace students in the building they were sharing. Of course, they can’t pay their administrators $400,000 a year, but in tough times, we all must sacrifice!

• Enrollment: Does your charter set aside spaces for students with learning disabilities and students who require ESL instruction in the same proportion as the local public school? If so, you’ve got my support. If not, DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact:  Although The Ethical Charter School says that it offers an “ethical education” for its students, an enrollment of 12% learners with disabilities and 8% English Language Learners puts it significantly below the District 14 average of 18% and 12% respectively. Where’s the truth in labeling here?

• Support for ELL and LD: Does your charter offer a wide range of services for your ELL students and LD students? This would include a trained ESL teacher who offers both pull-out and push-in instruction. The school must have teachers with training in working with children who have learning disabilities, as well as occupational therapists, mental health professionals, and speech therapists. If so, you’ve got my support. If not: DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact: New York City does not have a single charter school that is dedicated to educating students with learning disabilities. By way of contrast, the NYC Department of Education offers 56 different programs for helping students with learning disabilities.

• Discipline: Does your charter school have reasonable discipline codes that take into account the tremendous variability in mental health and home environment of your students? Do you suspend students at a rate similar to the local public school? If so, you’ve got my support. If not, DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact: Harlem Success 1 boasts a suspension rate of 22%, which is over 3 times that of the local district. I guess all those well-behaved children we see in the advertisements are not angels after all.

• Expenditures on Students: Does your charter spend the same proportion of its money on actual student instruction, or are you using my money to pay your administrators lavish salaries? The NYC public school system is known for its maze-like bureaucracy, so it seems like a “no-brainer” for charters to cut down significantly on administration. If you can devote a greater proportion of your money to students as the local public school, then you’ve got my vote. If not, well, it’s a DEALBREAKER!

Fun Fact: According to a study by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, charter schools spend a greater percentage of money on “administration” than their public school peers. Hey, Eva Moscowitz, how’s that $400,000+ yearly salary working for you?

Charter School, have you passed this simple test of your ethics? I’d love to hear from you if you have: I’ll send you my “Ethical Charter School” seal of approval. Actually, let’s wait on that: I have some questions about working conditions for your teachers, billionaire sponsored political lobbying, and claims about your “high performing” students…

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Annie Murphy Paul: She Ain’t So Brilliant

I’ve held a long running skepticism of Annie Murphy Paul, most likely because she has made a career writing about something she knows nothing about. I don’t know what qualifies her to pen a book and blog called “Brilliant: The Science of Smart,” when, in fact, she is neither “brilliant” or a “scientist.” In fact, for someone who spends a whole lot of time reading and regurgitating hard-core research reports from obscure journals, it seems as if Ms. Murphy Paul wouldn’t know the difference between a t-test from a cup of darjeeling.

I know I haven’t ranted about Murphy Paul in a while since I outed her for misrepresenting data when comparing American and Chinese students on basic mathematical skills. When I challenged Murphy Paul on the inaccuracies in her story, I was rewarded by being blocked on her Twitter feed. Oh, and a neighbor reported that someone who looked like her apparently rang my door bell and ran away.


In the interest of keeping my blood pressure at bay, I have studiously avoided Murphy Paul’s junk writing because, well, I have better things to do. However, when someone who I trust and respect like Steven Strogatz goes and re-tweets a link to one of her articles, I knew it was time to spring into action.

Murphy Paul blogs for the “Motherlode” blog at the New York Times and I certainly hope that there aren’t any parents who are taking her reporting seriously. Her latest howler, Research on Children and Math: Underestimated and Unchallenged, is an excellent example of her lazy and stupid style of reporting. First, she begins by reporting that according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, the United States ranks 26 out of 34 countries in mathematics. Okay, let’s get the numbers straight: yes, the U.S. is low on the list, but there are 65 nations and territories that took the test, so we’re 26 out of 65, not 26 out of 34.

PISA has long been criticized since the results were released in 2009; in fact, the PISA Wikipedia page devotes five paragraphs to discussing the sampling error that skewed the PISA scores for the US downward. It’s not a good sign of what is to come when you call Americans a nation of “dullards” in your first paragraph based on a well-discredited international examination.

Murphy Paul proceeds to describe some research from the American Educational Research Journal by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago. I’m sure Murphy Paul read many of the words on that highly complex piece of research, but the part she seems to have skipped was the part showing that poverty was the strongest indicator of mathematical achievement in kindergarten children. Furthermore, the entire question of administering tests to kindergarten children is highly suspect to begin with: studies have shown that young children are incredibly variable when it comes to assessing their understanding of anything, which is why 79% of the pre-kindergarten children who are assessed as “gifted and talented” in NYC would no longer have this tag attached to them when they graduate from high school 12 years later.

I could go on, but why bother? In my mind, Murphy Paul’s business is not really to educate and enlighten, but to sell…. Annie Murphy Paul! You wake up in the morning, pick up a science journal, select an article with an interesting title, write a summary of the “conclusion” section (because the “brilliant” Murphy Paul doesn’t really understand statistics), and then write a good lead decrying how stupid people are, and presto, you’ve got your blog post done for the day. At the end of the year you compile the articles into a book, set up a tour to convince people to buy a copy, and then do it again. Like the “Hokey Pokey,” that’s what it’s all about!

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…a feeling of inferiority… stop privatizing education…

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Charter Schools & Dog Whistle Politics in New York

I’ve lived through my share of the outrageous when it comes to political pandering, having grown up in the days of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” campaign advertisement, right up through Reagan’s “Cadillac Queen” to Bush the Elder’s take-down of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis using the infamous Willie Horton commercials. This is not to mention the “swift boating” of John Kerry and the classification of President Obama as not being “a real American.” The tactic was refined through the development of “dog whistle” politics that featured such loaded terms as “family values” and “welfare reform” to prick up the faithful ears of fundamentalist Christians and “angry white men.”  Until now, this was something that was favored by Republicans, who could depend on their sometimes veiled, and other times overt, messages of racism and religious intolerance to “bring out the vote.”

It worked for George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and many other demagogues: why not Andrew Cuomo, Michele Rhee and Eva Moskowitz?

It appears, though, that politicians like Andrew Cuomo, and neo-politicians, like Michele Rhee and Eva Moskowitz, have taken this strategy and re-purposed it for their own brand of racial-urban-class warfare. Their “dog whistle,” however, is designed to lure African-American voters to their side of the ledger by doing the bidding of the rich and powerful. How else would you get 10,000 people of color to rally for a practice that creates a new era of de facto segregation?

If you examine the racial composition of charter schools in New York, you would find that the numbers point to a new pattern of separate and unequal schools. While African-American students comprise 30% of the student population in NYC, they make up 60% of the charter school enrollment. On the other side, 40% of New York’s student body is Hispanic, yet they represent about 30% of the students in charter schools. This imbalance is clearly not accidental.

As if these numbers were not bad enough, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles released a report today that New York schools have grown even more segregated, with charter schools leading the way. According to the report:

In New York City, the largest school system in the U.S. with 1.1 million pupils, the study notes that many of the charter schools created over the last dozen years are among the least diverse of all, with less than 1 percent white enrollment at 73 percent of charter schools.

Things are even more dismal on the status of children who are English Language Learners (ELLs.) In a city where 15% of students are ELL, the public school population of these students outpaces charters by 300%. Yes, you read that correctly: there are 300% more ELLs in public schools than in charters.

Here are the stats....

The stats from 2010; do you think things have improved since then?

In the days of George Wallace, African-American families rightfully demanded that they be admitted to the “separate and clearly unequal” schools that were reserved for whites; it was a basic issue of equality. When Brown vs. The Board of Education was handed down, it was not because the court believed that the solution was to create schools for African-Americans that were identical to those attended by white students: Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney on the case, showed that the presence of all-white schools created a special class of students who would be considered superior to their peers of color. This was best exemplified by the research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark: their “doll test” studies proved to the Supreme Court that segregation had an impact on black schoolchildren’s mental status. How is this any different than a charter schools network that uses public money to elevate the status of one group of students over another?

If 60% of charter school students are African American, then a back of the napkin calculation shows that over 30,000 African American children attend charter schools in NYC: multiply that by their caregivers, relatives and friends, and you’ve got a critical mass of 200,000 single-issue voters who will run to the candidate that is most aligned with the “pro charter” movement, especially if he/she is given Eva Moskowitz’s blessing. When Andrew Cuomo stands in front of a crowd of predominantly African-American families and proclaims the equivalent of “charters today, charters tomorrow, charters forever,” we know what kind of whistle he is blowing.


Addendum: this fun fact comes from the New York City Charter School Center!:

Question: What types of students attend charter schools?

The approximately 56,600 students who attend New York City’s charter schools come from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and include a higher percentage of Hispanic or African American students than traditional New York City district schools. Last year, there were 92% Hispanic or African American students in New York City’s charter schools, compared with 70% in traditional district schools. This is in part because charter schools are mostly located in areas in which a large number of Latino and African American students live. 

Indeed, 92% of students are Hispanic and African American, but let’s get something straight: just because you put the word “Hispanic” first does not mean that they are anywhere in the majority. Let’s repeat until necessary: 30% of charter school students are Hispanic and 62% are African American. You can change the syntax (since African American begins with an “a,” I believe it should go first) but you can’t change the facts.

Posted in charter schools, racial-urban-class warfare, urban-class warfare | Leave a comment

Torah, Talmud and the Common Core: Oy Veh!

There’s an old joke that if you put two Jews in a room to debate a question, they’ll inevitably emerge with three opinions. This comes about from the fact that Judaism is based on an ancient text written in an extinct language which, depending on whom you ask, could be the literal word of a divine being, or the work of a single author inspired by this divine being, or, as archaeologists have shown, is the work of several authors, which was then compiled over several centuries until it emerged in its current form. This document, which is known the as the Torah, despite its age and mysterious origins, remains one of the central texts of Western civilization.

I am fairly serious about being Jewish, but this does not blind me to the eccentricities and downright nastiness of the Torah. It has elements of originality, lyricism and beauty, while at the same time being furiously murky and downright politically incorrect. On one hand, it can wax lyrically about the glories of the divine spirit, while at other times it can be downright racist, sexist and bigoted (I don’t know what the Hittites and Amorites did to arouse the ire of whomever compiled the Torah, but it must have been over something more innocuous than splitting the check at an ancient Chinese restaurant on a Sunday night….)

The most interesting thing about studying Torah is the lack of agreement on what the meaning and intent of any specific passage may be. This has led to thousands of years of discussions by millions of people, a small portion of which have been collected into such works as the Talmud, which is a record of the great rabbis’ interpretation of what this incredibly dense and puzzling document may be. This being a religious text, there is no “author” to ask for a definitive answer (although there is a comical anecdote where a rabbi makes a tree fly across the yard to prove his particular version of correctness), but that’s hardly the point: the Torah engages us because nobody has the final word. In the end, we read and interpret Torah to enrich our lives and develop new insights into the nature of spirituality.

Which brings me to the Common Core State Standards. Say what you will about how they were presented unto us as a gift from a different kind of “presence” (and whether anyone would regard Bill’ionaire’ Gates as “divine” is beyond my imagination), they are incredibly dry and dense in way that one wishes for some kind of hermeneutic laxative to calm the mental spasms one gets from reading them. Interpreting and implementing these standards has become a very profitable industry because the stakes are so high: failure to follow the Common Core chapter and verse could lead to low test scores, the firing of a teacher and the closing down of a school. Oh, and  no doubt there are consequences to the student as well, but his/her welfare seems to be far down that list.

So what are we to make of this section of the CCSS in 2nd grade?

2NBT 5: Add and subtract within 1000, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method. Understand that in adding or subtracting three- digit numbers, one adds or subtracts hundreds and hundreds, tens and tens, ones and ones; and sometimes it is necessary to compose or decompose tens or hundreds.

I’ll state my question clearly: does this mean that 2nd grade teachers should be taught the “standard algorithm” for adding and subtracting three-digit numbers? Inquiring minds want to know!

As is the case with many things related to the Common Core, “clear and definitive answers are hard to come by.” From what transpired when I asked this question of my colleagues, nobody will commit to a specific answer, because a) nobody really knows; b) nobody is in agreement; c) everybody is trying to protect their  asses; d) Common Core? How about “Common Bore?”

A representative from Houghton Mifflin, publishers of Go Math!, which devotes an entire chapter in the 2nd grade curriculum to teaching and practicing the “standard algorithm”  for adding and subtracting 3 digit numbers, gave me her interpretation, which would leave a Torah scholar incredulous at its astonishing  leaps of logic, and perhaps faith:

Dear Mr. Berkman,

I was forwarded an e-mail containing your question on the use of algorithms in the Grade 2 GO Math! program.

In order to prepare my response I went back and carefully reread the explanation of the Grade 2 content standards included in the Critical Area description – p. 17 of the CCSS – as Critical Area 2 was instrumental to our approach around addition and subtraction algorithms:

 “In Grade 2, instructional time should focus on four critical areas: (1) extending understanding of base-ten notation; (2) building fluency with addition and subtraction; (3) using standard units of measure; and (4) describing and analyzing shapes.”

“(2) Students use their understanding of addition to develop fluency with addition and subtraction within 100. 

They solve problems within 1000 by applying their understanding of models for addition and subtraction and they develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to compute sums and differences of whole numbers in base-ten notation, using their understanding of place value and the properties of operations. They select and accurately apply methods that are appropriate for the context and the numbers involved to mentally calculate sums and differences for numbers with only tens or only hundreds.”

 If one only reads CCSS 2.NBT.7, it is possible to conclude that the standard algorithm is not required. 

 However, by looking at the Critical Area description, and 2NBT.5, we believe (emphasis mine) it is clear the standard algorithm is expected for two-digit addition and subtraction, as this is what is meant by “fluency with addition and subtraction within 100.” The Common Core expects a conceptual approach to developing the standard algorithm by making use of the base-ten system and properties. This is precisely what is done in lesson 4.1 (break apart ones to add — uses pictures), 4.2 (make a ten — uses drawings and base-ten materials), 4.3 (break apart addends as tens and ones — uses drawings), 4.4 (model regrouping with base-ten materials), 4.5 (modeling and recording 2-digit addition — again, using drawings and base-ten materials to connect to standard algorithm), 4.6 continues to use drawings and base-ten models, only beginning in 4.7 do students actually begin to practice the use of the algorithm. A parallel approach in conceptual development is utilized for subtraction. In Chapter 6 we address standard 2.NBT.7 as outlined in the standards. By eventually using the standard algorithm in Chapter 6, we are reinforcing 2NBT.5. Our authors believe this fluency is required in order to properly prepare students for grade 3 so they can focus on multiplication and division. This approach is further supported by the critical area statement that students “develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to compute sums and differences of whole numbers in base-ten notation, using their understanding of place value and the properties of operations.” 

 The standard algorithm is a generalizable method to compute sums and differences, and our approach is based on understanding of place value.

 I hope this information is helpful. 


 Mary Connolly

What constitutes a “generalizable” method is open to discussion, if you get my drift. Yes, the “standard algorithm” is a “generalizable method,” but so are drawing diagrams and modeling with base ten blocks. There are many generalizable ways to solve an addition and subtraction problem, but there is only one “standard algorithm” (although who “standardized” this algorithm is one for the educational historians.) I’ll say it again, but this time in bold type: The word algorithm does not appear until the third grade standards. Was this by intention or oversight? What did the “creators” of this document intend?

Unlike the Torah (which, I am given to understand, lacks a bibliography) the Common Core State Standards were written by humans who, presumably, are still alive and well. Surely the person who wrote this standard and the committee which approved it had a specific idea in mind, and I believe the specific idea is that the “standard algorithm” for adding and subtracting three digit numbers would not be taught until 3rd grade. I’ll go even further: based on this footnote in 3.NBT.A.2, the authors clearly state “a range of algorithms may be used” for multi-digit computation. That is, they do not acknowledge or endorse a “standard algorithm” at any point.

It is more than likely is that this may have nothing to do with what the actual authors of Go Math! intended. The alleged “author” of  this chapter was evasive when I brought up the subject of algorithms, hedging her bets by stating “I am not concerned by the labeling; it could very well be called a procedure or process. I think what is important is our intent for children’s learning.” ” What was that intent?” I responded. No response.

Based on my research and conversations, my only conclusion is that the three-digit addition and subtraction algorithms were written into the 2nd grade Go Math! curriculum to placate those who believe the CCSS are not rigorous enough. If you’ve been around awhile, you know that curriculum adoptions are ultimately less about educational appropriateness and more about political appeasement.

The prevarication I’ve encountered leads me to believe that the marketing people at Houghton-Mifflin decided that it would be economically expedient to include content that was clearly out of line with the standards in order to lure in those who demand a traditional form of mathematics instruction. By defiling the standards to bloat their profit sheets, Houghton Mifflin has shown us that while the Common Core State Standards were “supposed” to change everything, it’s really “business as usual” for the big publishers.

Posted in Common Core State Standards, Computation, Go Math!, Junk | Leave a comment