My series of videos about school math finally complete!

Though I am most likely known to those who read my blog as a miracle school debunker, a TFA watchdog, or a education research number cruncher, the thing that I do most with my time is do math, think about teaching math, and teach math.

Sometimes an ed reform twitter troll will accuse me of just being a nay sayer who has nothing positive to contribute to the discussion and I guess they sometimes have a point that I do spend a lot of time fighting against false claims made in The74 or Education Post or places like that. It is true that they have kept me quiet busy.

What you may not know about me is that I have made hundreds of hours of YouTube videos on my YouTube channel when I try to share what I know about math to whoever in the world wants to learn it from me. While my videos are not as popular as the stuff you see on Khan Academy, they do get some traffic and I’ve received a lot of very nice comments.

Most of my videos are geared at high school students and cover some really esoteric topics like math proofs from the History Of Math, which is a hobby of mine. But I had an ambitious idea over the summer: Create a series of videos where I start with kindergarten math and work my way up, sequentially, until I get to about eleventh grade. Though of course I can’t cover every little topic of twelve years of math in just ten hours, the idea is to collect what I think of as ‘the essential’ concepts that I would want my own children to know about math through the various grades. It would give me a chance to do my own ‘master class’ in math based on all my years of teaching math and thinking about math.

I’ve been teaching math, in one form or another, since I was about 16 years old. So for 35 years I have been first a tutor, then a Princeton Review teacher in college, then a 6th grade teacher, a high school teacher in Houston, Denver, and New York, a trainer of math teachers for The New York City Teaching Fellows, an author of two books on teaching and several math review books, and a member of Math For America. Considering how many hours I have dedicated to thinking about math, I hope that my musings on the different topics in the school curriculum will be illuminating to some, especially parents who are trying to help their kids with their math during remote learning.

After I had posted the first four installments (there are now eighteen), I actually came under criticism for being (you won’t believe this) a defender of The Common Core! I was pretty surprised that people thought that thinking of 8+5 as 8+2+3=10+3=13 was something that originated with Bill Gates, but I did not get discouraged and kept pumping out the videos. These are not polished videos with beautiful graphics. But I really am proud of the ‘brain dump’ I did to get my thoughts on K-12 math down in one place.

I don’t know that I would recommend binge watching all ten hours at once, but I would be interested in whether there will be anyone who will start watching the first one and get intrigued enough to watch a video a week and within a few months watched it all. At this time, most of the videos have had under 10 views each. Perhaps this is something that will go unappreciated in my time only to be discovered fifty years from now. Who knows? All I know is that I’m proud of this series and hopefully someone will learn something form it.

The playlist can be found here:

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Education Reinventers

For the past ten years public education has been under assault by the self-proclaimed education ‘reformers.’ Strong personalities like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Michael Bloomberg, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Corey Booker, and others led the movement that gave us Race To The Top, Race To The Top waivers, and the Every Child Succeeds Act.

They got a chance to experiment with their ideas subjecting kids and neighborhoods around the country to school closures, charter schools, and state test madness. After a few years they declared that their experiments were working, they pointed to a few schools that seemingly proved that if you replace unionized teachers who are not scared of being fired with non-unionized teachers who are scared of being fired, you will close the achievement gap measured by standardized test scores. But the successes were mostly false — charter schools were shedding 75% of their students in order to get a so-called 100% college acceptance rate. Other schools were practicing abusive discipline practices that forced out many of the most difficult to teach students. There was even a fiasco called the Tennessee Achievement School District which promised to take over schools in the bottom 5% and move them to the top 25% within five years. Ten years later exactly none of the schools made it out of the bottom 10%.

Reformers needed to change their PR strategy. They replaced Michelle Rhee with television personality Campbell Brown. Then when that didn’t work, they decided that maybe the education reform movement doesn’t need to have a front person so they de-centralized. The word ‘reform’ when applied to education got a toxic connotation and some proud reformers denounced the name, most notably Rahm Emanuel in a speech in 2015.

So the ‘reformers’ became the ‘rebranders.’ Instead of overtly vilifying teachers and teachers’ unions, they started saying things like. We love ‘great’ teachers. Groups like Educators For Excellence popped up supposedly representing ‘great’ teachers who resent less great teachers. Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst basically folded and got taken over by something called 50CAN. Like shapeshifters in some kind of sci-fi movie, it was hard to keep track of who were the bad guys.

You don’t hear the word ‘reformer’ so much anymore. The new thing is a trio of similar ‘re’ words. There are now calls to ‘reimagine,’ ‘reinvent,’ or to ‘rethink’ education.

The first ‘rethinker’ was Laurene Powell-Jobs who, in 2017 bought air space on all four major networks simultaneously in 2017 to ‘rethink high school.’ One of the model schools was the school I had taught at in Houston. My revelation about how the principal artificially increased her test scores by creating a school within the school for her low performing students may or may not have contributed to the principal being fired a few months later.

Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was mainly a ‘rethinker.’ She went on a a ‘Rethink Schools’ tour where she ponders some questions that nobody had ever been shrewd enough to ask:

  • Why limit educators?
  • Why assign kids to schools based on their addresses?
  • Why group kids by age?
  • Why do schools close for the summer?
  • Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun?
  • Why force all students to learn at the same speed?
  • Why measure education by hours and days?
  • Why suggest a college degree is the only path to success?
  • Why believe learning stops at graduation?

To which the answers are: We don’t, because they are close to walk to, because 17 year olds can do harder work than kindergarteners, they don’t in some districts, because if you start school at the setting of the sun it will soon be bedtime for many students, we don’t, because fortnights and scores are archaic, we don’t, we don’t.

But you know that a new moniker only becomes official when Teach For America decides they need to jump on the bandwagon. In a recent piece by TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard entitled ‘The Case For Reinventing Education.’ In it we hear the typical reformer double talk:

We must look beyond a one-size-fits-all model and recognize all learners as individuals with incredible assets and talents to nurture. We can’t limit our focus to getting students “caught up”—they must be fired up. Our young people yearn for an education that’s relevant, personalized, and grounded in their skills, passions, and concerns. We can and should measure learning happening inside and outside the classroom—and we absolutely must know how students are doing so we can allocate resources where they’re needed most. We need to both understand the learning happening right now and develop new assessments that better measure where students are academically, socially, and emotionally.

In other words, we need more standardized testing.

And no reformer, er ‘reinventer’ piece would be complete without saying “Today, a young person’s ZIP code too often determines their educational and life opportunities,” followed by an example of a school, always a charter school, that is beating the odds.

In this Villanueva Beard piece, the model school is Steel City Academy in Indiana. She links to a Bellwether report about schools that are meeting the challenges of remote teaching and learning. So I dusted off my old ‘debunking’ glasses and within about five minutes I tracked down the data on the Indiana state website for this model charter school.

OK, “So what,” you say, “only 1.1% of their 10th graders passed the science test and 2.7% of their 10th graders passed the math test. What matters is ‘growth.” Well in that department they didn’t fare so well either:

Usually it’s a lot harder than this. They often pick a school that has artificially inflated test scores due to attrition. Keep in mind, this is the school Villanueva Beard chose to highlight. One of the lowest performing schools in test scores and growth in the state of Indiana.

Whether they are ‘rethinkers,’ ‘reinventers,’ or ‘reimaginers’, a reformer by any other name still doesn’t know anything about schools.

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Back By Unpopular Demand! My Kindle E-Book About My Life

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a math teacher. Math and teaching are two of my life passions and they are two things that I have some talent for. I would say that I’m a ‘very good’ teacher but merely a ‘good’ mathematician.

I’m also a writer. I’ve written 7 books (4 math books, 2 books on teaching, and co-authored 1 children’s book), about 20 published articles in various magazines and journals, and, of course, hundreds of blog posts. Writing is another passion of mine and, in my opinion, the thing that I do best. I never wanted to go through what it takes to make a living as a writer. I’m not someone who can really force my writing so I don’t think I would like the pressure of needing to write to eat.

So over the past thirty years, I’ve gotten the urge, from time to time, to work on my collection of personal essays about my life. I started writing these when I was about 21 and, over the years, would write an essay when I’d see a call out for the ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul’ series of books or just when I’d get the urge to write. Even though I’ve been a prolific blogger, these essays are much more difficult to write. There are only about 25 of them written in the past thirty years.

Though you might know me as a serious writer who writes about education and charter schools and who makes scatter plots about value-added data, the type of writing that I do is ‘humor.’ Comedy is something that I’ve been drawn to since I was a child. When I was about 11 years old my mother gave me a record of Woody Allen doing his stand-up from the 1960s and I listened to it all the time.

You never know if you are really funny until you try to perform stand-up in a New York City comedy club and, as a hobby over the past 15 years, I have done that from time to time and have always done well. Here’s a montage of some shows over the past 15 years.

About 8 years ago I published a Kindle e-book of essays I had collected over the years. This included essays about my family and about my neuroses and also some older writings from when I wrote a humor column in college. I even included my college application essay. So I put it out there and after a few weeks it had been downloaded a bunch of times. Unfortunately some of those downloads were by my family. And some of those family members are more sensitive than I had anticipated. So I had to un-publish the book. It was sad for me to do this since this was the net result, even though it was only about 150 pages, of a lifetime of the thing that I think I was born to do.

The past four years with Trump in office has been rough for many people. For me, it caused me a lot of stress and I spent hours every day watching MSNBC as a way, I felt, to keep my sanity. So when Biden won I felt a great cloud lifted and decided I was going to enjoy my life and my hobbies more without needing to spend so much time obsessing about Trump. And I took another look at my e-book. And I decided it wasn’t so bad. I changed a few sentences to hopefully make some of my family members less embarrassed and I put it out there again. I’m 51 years old now and I’m really proud of my essays so I’m re-publishing. I’ll deal with the fall out if there is any.

My Unusual Life has 22 essays and costs 99 cents. So that’s less than 5 cents an essay. As I wrote in the Amazon blurb. “If you love the writing of David Sedaris, you’ll like the writing of Gary Rubinstein.” Here is a free sample:

A Guy For All Seasons

If you got a problem, my father’s got just the guy for you.  After representing alleged organized crime members in court for most of his career, my father likes to think he’s connected.  When he can’t be the ‘go-to guy’, himself, he will settle as the ‘go-to-go-to guy’.  Among his army of consultants, there’s his Doctor Guy, his Directions Guy, his Business Guy, his Fireworks Guy, and his Upper East Side Restaurant Guy.  He’s a Guy-necologist.

His Interior Decorator Guy is a large Italian man named Val.  Before meeting Val, my father’s decorating style could be described as ‘post modern bachelor’.  He was content to cover his walls with sports memorabilia and paintings of clowns.  Now, his apartment is furnished with gaudy Italian furniture and esoteric framed artwork.  These include black-and-white photos of ornate vases and prints of ink drawings of horse sculptures and of Corinthian Greek columns.

When his friend’s son was applying to college, my father contacted his Admissions Guy at Farmingdale Community College.  FCC is not known for its academic integrity.  I think its motto is “We take Discover Card”.  The guy came through, and he was quickly matriculated.  Anytime I ask about it, my father says, “Did I tell you how I got him into Farmingdale?”

The first time I called one of my father’s guys, I was fifteen years old and looking for a summer job.  I had a vision of working at the local park, passing out basketballs and scheduling tennis court reservations.  A city job like that, my father told me, required some kind of inside connection.  “I think I may have a guy for that,” he said.

The next day my father called me, beginning the conversation with “Write down this number.”  These four words always signaled that my father had found his connection.  “Ask for Lou.  He knows about summer jobs.”

I called the number, and then nearly hung up when I heard the greeting.  “Chicken and Ribs.  This is Lou, how can I help you?”  Chicken and Ribs was a fast food restaurant located a few blocks from my home that displayed a permanent ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window, since most teenagers have enough acne problems without subjecting their pores to gaseous chicken grease.

“Hi.  I’m Ron Rubinstein’s son.  He mentioned that you may have some information about job opportunities at Merrick Town Park.”

“I don’t know nothing about Town Park, but we have a part time opening here if you want.”

This was the first of many disappointments with my father’s Guys.  Most were not experts at all.

When I have a relapse of my hypochondria, my father insists that I call his Doctor Guy, my uncle Jerry.  Uncle Jerry is a talented, but minimalist, physician.  He rarely prescribed antibiotics because everything sounded to him like nothing.  When his wife, my aunt Sandy, was having trouble breathing, he wasn’t alarmed.  A few weeks later she nearly died of pneumonia.  Knowing my uncle’s history of conservative diagnoses, I’d sometimes upset my father by challenging the ability of one of his guys.  “Your uncle Jerry is a brilliant doctor,” he’d argue, “He read ‘Hawaii’ in one night.”

When one of my father’s guys lived up to their reputation, it was all the more thrilling.  When Billy Joel was playing at Nassau Coliseum, I asked my father if he had any connections for my sister and me.  He got back to me the next day and instructed us to meet his guy, Aury, behind the arena an hour before the concert.  Aury was part of the union, it seemed, that did the catering for the roadies and the performers.  We arrived at the meeting place and waited for about a half hour.  We were getting ready to give when Aury showed up with a thick stack of tickets in his hand.  “How many do you need?” he asked.  He gave us our two tickets and said, “Say hi to your father for me.”

When we showed up at the entrance gate, we were partly expecting them to send us away with our fake tickets.  Instead, the usher looked down at our tickets and then gave a double take.  The tickets were in the front row.  I spent the next three hours standing with my elbows resting on the stage.  At one point Billy Joel came to the front of the stage and put his hand down and gave me and the others in the front row an opportunity to slap hands with him.  When it was my turn I got a bit too excited and grabbed onto his hand for what, at least for Billy Joel, was a few seconds too long.  I knew I held on for too long when I felt him tug away from me.  It was one of the most memorable evenings of my life.  Sing us a song you’re the piano guy.

At college, I got an urgent call from my father.  “My friend Feigy’s daughter has a problem,” he said, “She has to write an essay or something for freshman English.  I told her that you’re a writer, and I gave her your number.”  If my Bar Mitzvah made me a man, this phone call had made me a guy.

A few hours later, Feigy’s daughter called.  “Your dad said I should call you.  I have to write an essay on how I could use an ordinary object in an unordinary way.”  Only able to think of vulgar ideas, I told her I wasn’t very creative with that kind of assignment.  If she wrote it, however, I’d be happy to check her spelling.

Eventually I was my father’s Theater Guy, Movie Guy, Writing Guy, and French Dessert Guy.  Half the time that people called me for advice on my supposed specialty, I had no idea what they were talking about.

Sometimes my father’s Guys could have been, just as easily, my Guys.  In these cases my father still insisted on acting as the Guy liaison.  When I was about twenty-five, I wanted to bring a date to my cousin David’s wedding.  I asked my father what he thought and he said that he’d take care of it.  My cousin became his Wedding Invite Guy.  “I got you an extra invite to the wedding,” my father proudly reported.

When I was ten, my parents divorced, and my mother started seeing Ed Dennehy, one of the stars of her theater group (though less well known than his very famous brother Brian).  Ed quickly became my father’s understudy when he took over his role as man of our household.  He acted as my unofficial stepfather for almost ten years.  It was Ed who taught me about movies, theater, and writing – three of the things for which I eventually became my father’s Guy.

My father resented that Ed lived in our house, in direct opposition with the alimony agreement.  I was somewhat shocked, therefore, when my father called our house, once, and asked to speak with Ed.  He had a job for him.

Using his theatrical directing abilities, Ed worked with my father’s clients to help them act more innocent on the stand.  Ed had made the transformation from his Home wrecking Guy to his Acting Coach Guy.  By getting divorced my father didn’t lose a wife, he gained a guy.

After my mother and Ed had split up, I’d still go to his plays, occasionally, where backstage he’d introduce me to the other actors as his son.  My father also became a fan of his consultant’s talent.  Once, he called me raving about ‘Barrymore’, Ed’s one-man-show.  When I told my father I’d like to see it, he said,  “I’ll call Ed and see if I can get you some tickets.”

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My Remote Teaching Tips Videos

Maybe the only advantage to teaching remotely is that you can fart anytime you want.

Compared to live teaching, remote teaching introduces so many new challenges. I think the biggest challenge is that teachers don’t get to leverage a personal connection with their students. Hearing a pep talk from a teacher in a small square on your screen just doesn’t have the same effectiveness. And with all the windows on my screen and the technologies, I’m not able to build relationships the way I did before. Delivering content has its own challenges. In a live classroom, I can feel the energy of a class that is getting it, but on Zoom with students looking tired it is hard to gauge.

Last spring when we switched to full remote in March, the main technology I used was Zoom with chat and breakout rooms. I wasn’t so happy with my effectiveness so this year I made sure to improve things. Now I have a daily flow that I am quite proud of and I am sure my students are learning very well because of it.

I made a series of videos which I put on a playlist to share with other teachers who want to be more effective remote teachers.

Here is the playlist

There are currently 6 videos up and if people seem to like them, I will make more. The first video shows the hardware I used in school to maximize effectiveness. The second video is how I did a similar setup from home. The third video is what I sent to parents ahead of parent teacher conferences. The fourth video is about DeltaMath, which is a platform for assigning math problems in class and for homework. The fifth video is about Desmos Activity Builder which is a great free tool for any subject. The sixth video is about ClassDojo which is how I keep track of participation and absences and lateness. I use other tools besides these, like PearDeck and GeoGebra, so maybe more videos later. If you have some good tips, leave a comment!

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Effective Remote Teaching Part 1: Tools of the trade

Like many teachers around the country, I am currently teaching my students in a room by myself. Remote teaching is very taxing. It takes me about five to ten times as long as it used to to prepare my lessons each day. At the end of the day my head is spinning from all the screen time and the lack of walking around. And the feedback that I’m used to getting, the energy I get back from seeing the students learn in person is replaced by students looking into a zoom looking equally struggling.

But if I’m going to do something in teaching, I want to do it as best as I’m able so I’ve taken the task very seriously and I’m hoping that I can share some of the methods I’ve come up with to be as effective a remote teacher as I can.

In this first post, I want to show you my setup. Every component of this setup is absolutely critical to me being able to do all the things I need to: teach, give feedback, get student input, and assess. I know that some teachers will not have access to all this technology and they will say they can’t afford to buy all this stuff. But hopefully many will be able to scavenge their school buildings for at least some of it.

The tools:

2 Computers

3 Monitors

1 iPad

1 Apple Pencil

1 Document Camera

1 Microphone

1 Pair of Blue Blocker Glasses


Airbeam TV app

Here is a photo of the setup

Here is a video I made explaining the setup and how I use the different components of the setup. I will make more videos in the future showing the software I use.

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No Way To Treat A Scholar

Success Academy is the largest and most controversial charter network in New York City. With over 15,000 students, Success Academy is known for their high state test scores.

Though Success Academy has been in existence for about 14 years already, it has only been the last few years that people have begun to question whether the strategies that Success Academy uses to achieve these test results are immoral if not illegal.

Public data shows that very few students who begin at Success Academy actually graduate from Success Academy. The class of 2018 started with 72 students and only 16 graduated. The class of 2019 started with 80 students and only 27 graduated. The class of 2020 started with 350 students and only 98 graduated. Success Academy argues that this is normal attrition over 12 years, but one of the most jarring statistics I have ever seen about Success Academy is the attrition rate from students who are in the school at the beginning of their senior year but who do not graduate with their class 10 months later.

For the recent class of 2020 there were 114 seniors in the school in November 2019. But by graduation time in June there were only 98 graduating seniors.

In June I blogged about an interview I saw with Eva Moskowitz where she explained that some students need five years to graduate high school for various reasons. Success Academy is known for leaving a lot of students back each year. They often use the threat of leaving a student back as a way to get a parent to ‘voluntarily’ transfer out their child even. And though some research has concluded that the cons of leaving students back outweighs the pros, I can see how having 14 years to complete 13 years of schooling could benefit some kids. So somewhere along the way a student repeats a grade and that helps them get on track, I can see that. But for a student to make it through 12 years of school, Kindergarten through 11th grade at Success Academy, and then in their senior year to be told part of the way through that year that they have to repeat 12th grade again, you would think this would be very unusual. Moskowitz says that some students experience trauma and uses an example that if the father of a student is murdered during that student’s senior year, she may not be able to focus on her studies so repeating 12th grade could be necessary. Of course this would be exceptionally cruel to not allow a 12th grader to graduate under these circumstances. I would think that after 12 years at the school, they would do anything they can, make any accommodations they can to help a child whose father had just been murdered, but maybe I’m too soft.

But 16 out of 114 is about 1/7 of the seniors and there is no way that 1/7 of the students had something as traumatic as the murder of one of their parents that year. But Moskowitz gave no other example of why 16 out of 114 seniors did not graduate seven months later.

There is a new Instagram and Twitter account called Survivors Of Success Academy. They get messages from parents and students about their negative experiences with Success Academy and they post them anonymously.

One of the posts on their Instagram last June was about how a senior was told she would have to repeat 12th grade.  The school said that if she would transfer to another school, they can graduate on time, but it would be better for them to just repeat the 12th grade as Success Academy.  The post did not say which option that student chose — transfer out and graduate on time or stay for a second senior year at Success Academy.

In response to this post, though, another student with a similar experience shared her story:

I experienced the same thing.  The principal of the high school would tell me I couldn’t get into community college if I applied senior year.  He would tell me just about anything to convince I needed to stay a 5th year.  They also did so without communicating any of their plans to my mother until they have already decided they were going to put me in the 5th year program.  I had to leave SA February, this year to a credit school just so I can graduate on time.  A week after leaving I got accepted to two great colleges.  (I also got a 1260 on my SAT first time ever taking it junior year.)

I responded to this comment and asked this student “What do you suppose was in it for them?” and they wrote back:

All of the students they targeted had not applied early decision to their colleges.  So they had not gotten accepted to any colleges yet.  Success prioritizes their stats & data for the public & funders of the school.  I think that they truly believed I would not get into a highly selective college & so they did not want that data for their graduating class.  There’s obviously more to this but I think that played a factor in this.

Now I don’t know the entire story and I don’t think it would be worth the time to reach out to Success Academy to comment on this.  But this is a student who was at Success Academy for 12 and a half years.  This student was a Kindergartener in 2008 and went through all the grades, surmounting all the difficulties and seeing 80% of her classmates leave the school for one reason or another over the years.  So I find it pretty cold that Success Academy was not able to find a way for this student to graduate with that student’s cohort.

What I do know for sure is that 1/7 of the students who were seniors at Success Academy in November did not graduate seven months later.  This student says that all the students targeted had not applied early admission to college when they were told they had to stay for a second senior year if they wanted to graduate from Success Academy.  I also know that The New York Post wrote a story about the senior class with the headline “Entire Success Academy senior class accepted to college” which surely came from the Success Academy PR department.  If, as this student contends, this is partly because of Success Academy’s self-interest to boast about 100% of seniors getting into competitive colleges, well that would be a very cruel reason to abandon one of the students they have taught (I almost used the word ‘nurtured’ but, well, this is Success Academy after all!) for so many years.

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My ‘Essential Math For Kids (And Parents)’ Series Parts 1 to 3

There’s nothing I like more than talking about math.  There is no math topic that I find too trivial that it is not worthy of intense discussion.  I remember when I was living in Houston and my roommate was a 6th grade teacher and we talked for a very long time about how it is not totally obvious that just because 7+2 is 9 that 9-2 should be 7.

With this pandemic going on and so many people learning math through videos, I’m making a series of videos that I hope helps some parents and teachers help their children or their students learn math.

When complete, this will surely be over 12 hours long, starting with addition and ending with trigonometry.  So far there are three videos that go from kindergarten through about 3rd grade, ending with the dreaded ‘long division.’

Here is a link to a playlist and are the first three installments



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My New Video Series — Essential Math For Kids (And Parents)

Even though most people who read this blog know me as a critic of ed reform, the thing that I spend most of my time thinking about, actually, is how students learn math and what the best ways to teach it is.

Depending on how you count it, I’ve been teaching math for at least 23 years.  My first year as a professional teacher was in 1991, and that was 29 years ago, but I took a few years off after my fifth year of teaching.  But I was tutoring math when I was a high school student which was back about 35 years ago.  And even before that, one early memory of mine was helping my older sister with counting when I was about 4.  What I’m getting at is that I have been teaching math for a long time.

I teach high school now, but I’ve taught in middle school too, and as far as elementary school goes, I have two children, one is 9 and the other is 12, and I’ve helped them with their math and studied the skills that they have learned in their schools.

In this pandemic, parents find themselves in the position of trying to help their children with their math more than ever.  So something that I’ve thought I might do is create a series of videos that go over what I consider to be the essential skills I think kids should know as they progress through the grade levels.

Depending on whether anyone is watching these, I could see myself making about 50 of these 40 minute videos, starting with lower elementary and going though Algebra II and Trigonometry.  Anyway, here is the very first one in the series and it covers what I think the essential math skills I want my own children to master by 3rd grade.

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Success Academy Quietly Settles Discrimination Lawsuit And Pays Families $1.1 Million

Success Academy is the largest and most controversial charter chain in New York.  By one measure — state test scores — it is the most successful.  But over the years they have been embroiled in several significant scandals.  The two most prominent was the ‘rip and redo’ incident, where a teacher was caught on tape screaming at and ripping up a paper of a very well behaved young child, and the ‘got to go’ list where a principal created a list of students he planned to either expel or otherwise compel to leave.

But beyond these two high profile scandals, there are thousands of unreported mini-scandals that are just as harmful to the students who suffer them.  Over the years hundreds, if not thousands, of families have suffered from the way that Success Academy gets those families to transfer their children out of the school.  One trick they use a lot is threatening to leave back — or actually leaving back — students who are passing their classes and the state tests.  This was documented nicely in a podcast about them last year.  But the most heartless way they get parents to ‘voluntarily’ switch to another school is through coordinated harassment.  When Success Academy has students who do not respond to their strict disciplinary code, what they do is start calling the parents day after day and demand that the parents come get their children.  Sometimes the phone calls start at 8:00 AM.  If the parents are at work and they are not able to come and get the child, Success Academy threatens to call Administration for Child Services (ACS) on them and, in some cases, actually does call ACS or the police or has the child picked up by an ambulance and brought to the emergency room.  Even with all this, Success Academy is still the darling of the education reform movement since, I guess, the ends (high state test scores) justify the means (abusing — in my opinion — families and children).

In December 2015, five families of Success Academy students filed a civil suit against them.  The five families had similar complaints about how Success Academy created what the lawsuit called a ‘hostile learning environment.’  Many of the children had various disabilities, like ADHD.  Some of the court filings that I have read describe how Success Academy did not modify their protocols to address these disabilities.  Also in the documents the families filed, we learn that Success Academy was not cooperative during the five year trial.

I had read about this case a few years ago, but had not heard any resolution.  But according to a document that was filed about a month ago, I have learned that Success Academy decided to settle the lawsuit with the families by paying them $1.1 million plus legal fees which seem like they might add up to another few hundred thousand.

Something that is significant about this, I think, is that this opens the door to hundreds if not thousands of other families who have had similar treatment by Success Academy.  The things that these families suffered were not unusual for Success Academy.  It was all the sorts of things I hear about all the time there.  Especially with this legal precedent of the ‘hostile learning environment’ I would not be surprised to see a larger class action lawsuit once news about this $1.1 million payout spreads.

We always hear about how charter schools get more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.  But as this lawsuit and settlement show, accountability doesn’t just mean getting high state test scores.


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Charter Schools And Their Enemies — My Review

Thomas Sowell is an economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His lengthy career has spanned six decades and he is a well respected conservative scholar.

He has recently published a thin volume called ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ (Basic Books 2020)


Though charter schools have been around for about 30 years, they started getting a lot of attention with the release of the documentary ‘Waiting For Superman’ in 2010. The premise of that movie was that American schools are failing and producing mainly illiterate students and that the blame falls on teacher’s unions. The remedy, according to the movie, is non-unionized charter schools. Charter schools, it claims, prove that in-school factors can overcome out-of-school factors as long as teachers are not protected by their unions.

Waiting For Superman coincided with the rise of education celebrities like Michelle Rhee who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2008. The pro-charter / teacher union bashing movement helped fuel the Obama-Duncan Race To The Top agenda which continues to be influential today.
But Waiting For Superman is not taken seriously anymore. The premises in that movie have been dissected and debunked over and over. American schools were not producing mainly illiterate students as it claimed (mainly based on NAEP ‘proficiency’ benchmarks), charter schools were not getting significantly better test results (once you account for factors to make the comparisons more fair), and it appears that even the five children that the movie was about have not had spectacular success in life ten years later (there has never been a ‘where are they now?’ follow up for obvious reasons).

The teacher-bashing movement seems to have hit its peak around 2014 and then, as charter schools failed to deliver on their promises over and over (see the Tennessee Achievement School District for the ultimate example), most education ‘reformers’ began to abandon the hard core anti-teacher’s union line. Whether they did this because they had epiphanies or if it was just a calculation to take on a kinder and gentler tone, there was a welcome shift away from cartoonish scapegoating of teacher’s unions. While there is still some teacher bashing in places like The74 and Education Post, even there they have toned it down a bit.

This is what makes this new book ‘Charter Schools And Their Enemies’ interesting to me. This is mainly a book that starts with the Waiting For Superman premises and follows them through into today’s education landscape.

In the first chapter, ‘Comparisons And Comparability’, Sowell writes about the methodology he uses in order to get an ‘apples to apples’ comparison between charter and non-charter schools. He uses New York City data and finds charter schools that have similar demographics to schools that they share a building with. This is something that is often done when pro-reform journalists want to set a scene and they describe a charter school and then contrast it with the non-charter ‘down the hall.’ But there is nothing special about the building itself that causes students to be more comparable just because they go to schools in the same one. In New York City, especially with regard to charter schools, there is not a ‘neighborhood school’ anymore. Students will travel to go to charter schools and there are often several schools within a few blocks of one another. It would be one thing if you took an existing public school and randomly split the student body into two parts and a charter school taught one of the groups in the same building. Sowell would have us believe that his metric produces the same kind of random sampling that would be needed for an accurate comparison of outcomes. Still, Sowell sets his rules up and shows in chapter two, ‘Charter School Results,’ that in the five charter networks (KIPP, Success Academy, Explore, Uncommon, and Achievement First) that meet his criteria, they all outperform their co-located non-charters in terms of math and ELA standardized tests.

Similar to Waiting For Superman, there is no discussion here about why these might not be ‘apples-to-apples’ comparisons. Nothing about how charter schools experience more attrition than the non-charter schools. Nothing about other types of demographics that can be measures, like whether or not the children live in two-parent homes or whether the hoops that the families have to jump through can produce a group of students more likely to do well on standardized tests.

Like Waiting For Superman, chapters 1 and 2 set up his methodology for getting a ‘fair’ comparison of charter schools and non-charter schools that share buildings. Chapter 3, ‘Hostility’, begins with the question “What reason can there be to be hostile to successful charter schools? Actually, there are millions of reasons — namely millions of dollars.” Here he mentions the oft repeated and highly dubious statistic that there are 50,000 students in New York City on waiting lists to get into charter schools. If you read Robert Pondiscio’s ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ in which he concludes that Success Academy is a net good for students, even he shows the farce of the Success Academy waiting list. So many lottery winners are discouraged from enrolling that motivated families regularly get in off the waiting list.

Sowell argues that since the city pays $20,000 for each student, this represents one billion dollars. Greedy teacher’s unions and schools of education will do anything they can to slow the growth of charter schools so they don’t have to share that one billion dollars.

The first ‘enemy’ of charter schools is mentioned here, Mayor Bill de Blasio. I always find it ironic when de Blasio is cast as such a charter school critic. In his own Department Of Education he allows charter schools to get mailing lists of prospective students each year. Also he and his department surely have access to enough data to uncover so many issues with charter schools with their attrition but, for whatever reasons, he never chooses to reveal such data.

Sowell writes about how de Blasio does not want to pay rent for Success Academy charters. This began an interesting section where Sowell cites different cities in which school districts have denied space to charter schools, even having rules where a shuttered school can be sold to anyone except a charter school. This section could be read side-by-side with the chapter from Diane Ravitch’s recent ‘Slaying Goliath’ where she outlines so many stories of how charter schools capitalize by paying rent to themselves and other double dealings with real estate.

He says that there is no basis for critics who say that charters don’t get results better than non-charters, yet he is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution so he must be aware of the Stanford CREDO reports that frequently conclude that charter school quality is very inconsistent and how even in Waiting For Superman they quietly slipped in the CREDO conclusion that only 1 in 6 charter schools outperformed non-charter schools in one of their studies.

In chapter 4, ‘Accountability’, Sowell reverts back to Waiting For Superman arguments from 2010. The teacher contracts are hundreds of pages long, as if there is some perfect number of pages in a union contract for optimal learning. He revisits the famed ‘rubber rooms’ part of Waiting For Superman where teachers who are awaiting fair hearings go to wait for weeks or months. He describes them as “teachers who did no teaching, nor anything else, because education officials did not want them in the classrooms for various reasons, ranging from incompetence to misconduct. And yet these teachers could not be simply fired, under the highly restrictive provisions of the schools’ contracts with the teachers unions.” No mention of how the teachers in the rubber rooms did not set their own fair hearing schedules. He also mischaracterizes the NYC Absent Teacher Reserve program. Part of an agreement that former chancellor Joel Klein negotiated was that if a school was closed down by the Department of Education for low test scores, the teachers who were displaced did not have to accept a placement that they did not want. They became part of the ATR pool. I have mixed feelings about this policy, but Joel Klein negotiated it and, consequently, some ATRs are working as pricey substitute teachers. But Sowell describes them as “teachers who get full pay to perform substitute or administrative duties because no principal wants to hire them full-time.” This is just another example of an intentional, or maybe just misinformed, explanation of a detail in this book.

Like Waiting For Superman, Sowell says it is almost impossible to fire a unionized teacher, but in charter schools you can be fired for incompetence, no questions asked.

Diane Ravitch is first mentioned as one of the ‘enemies’ of charter schools on page 72. Without any mention of how she was once assistant Secretary Of Education under George H. Bush or about how she was once a supporter of charter schools, his first mention of her says “To Professor Diane Ravitch of New York University — long a critic of charter schools and defender of traditional public schools — ‘tenure means due process’.” He continues absurdly “But if ‘due process’ has any definable meaning, and hence boundaries, then there must also be undue process beyond those boundaries.”

He quotes Ravitch in ‘Reign of Error’ about the impact of out-of-school factors on test scores “If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps.” He then claims to refute this by referring to his data from chapter 2 where he claims to fairly compare charters to non-charters.

In this ‘accountability’ chapter he defends standardized tests and this is one of his more convincing passages. Basically that life is full of tests in one form another, which is true. But in response to the criticism that standardized tests have caused schools to focus solely on them at the expense of other pursuits, he quotes a D.C. principal who says “I’m not going to put my kids in art when they can’t read.” Sowell then writes “For low-income minority students, a mastery of mathematics and English is a ticket out of poverty.”

The book is just six chapters and so far in the first four we get a pseudo-scientific way of finding comparable schools which leads to pretty much Waiting For Superman — Teacher’s Unions are evil, charter schools are the solution. But then in chapter 5, ‘Student Differences,’ Sowell tries to answer some of the criticisms of charters and in doing so, undermines the point he tried to make in the first four chapters.

One common criticism of charters is that they are highly segregated. In answering this charge, Sowell goes into a lengthy explanation about how some students are more intelligent and motivated than other students for a variety of reasons. “To assume that they [students] all want to be there, and are all striving to achieve success there, is to ignore the most blatant realities.” This is odd since all the reformers I know AND all the reform critics I know would say that students do want to succeed. Maybe they don’t always act like they do — they act out because they are frustrated that they are not successful.

One example of student differences, he says, is that the first born child often has a higher IQ than a younger sibling because they get more parental attention. He also writes about how “nutritional differences among pregnant women have produced IQ differences when their children were old enough to be tested.” He writes that some cultures emphasize education more than others, and then writes”

“The taboo against discussing such things openly in the United States works to the disadvantage of the very people that taboo is supposedly protecting. Those black or Hispanic youngsters who are motivated to learn can pay a social penalty, at least, from classmates of their own ethnic background in some schools.”

So in chapter 2 he claims that his process for finding schools with comparable students shows that charter schools are superior to non-charters. But here in this chapter he says something quite different as he discusses whether it is a bad thing that charter schools are highly segregated. He writes:
“what critics call ‘segregated’ charter schools are schools in predominantly minority communities, where motivated minority students are educated among other motivated minority students. In these settings, such students can freely pursue academic achievement without the negative social pressures that can be acute in some racially integrated schools.”

In the next section of chapter 5, Sowell addresses the common criticism that charter schools have more motivated families. In ‘How The Other Half Learns,’ Pondiscio is pretty clear that this charge is true but says it isn’t a bad thing. Mike Petrilli, a few years ago, made a similar argument, calling the most motivated families and students ‘strivers.’ But Sowell just spent four chapters about how charters have the ‘same kids’ especially when they are learning in the exact same buildings.

But here he writes:

“When there is a charter school in a Harlem neighborhood, for example, there is no need to assume that parents who try to get their children into that charter school have the same cultural values and personal priorities as parents who do not. While some critics of charter schools may depict these schools as cherry-picking the students they admit — despite the widespread use of lotteries for admissions purposes — there is no need to overlook the possibility that highly motivated parents may be more common among the parents of children in charter schools.”

“While those parents who enter their children’s names in the lotteries for admission in charter schools may well be more motivated to promote their children’s education, and to cooperate with schools in doing so …”

Then after basically conceding to one of the biggest criticisms of charter schools and invalidating his first four chapters of the Waiting For Superman rehash, he makes an interesting, but invalid, argument that goes like this: Families who enter the lottery are highly motivated and have children who are students who are highly motivated. But since there are these huge waitlists that must mean that the vast majority of these highly motivated families and children go to non-charter schools. So the non-charter schools have nothing to complain about since they get most of the motivated families who weren’t able to get into the charter school. And it would be a good argument if those waitlists were not as large as he believes them to be and if those waitlists, as described aptly in ‘How The Other Half Learns’ are not just a way for charters to weed out the lottery winners who are not up for the hazing period that charter schools put them through. Basically, Sowell’s entire argument crumbles with the inflated wait-lists and he gives up the original argument that charter school kids are an apples-to-apples comparison with non-charters as long as they are in the same building.

Sowell continues alienating himself in chapter 5, next trying to answer the criticism that charter schools have harsh discipline policies. He is in favor of the harsh discipline since the opposite, no discipline at all (which nobody I’ve ever met is in favor of), is even worse.
He writes: “charter schools would lose more than they would gain by following the same lax discipline policies as traditional public schools. Moreover, anti-charter school ‘reforms’ that force charter schools to accept more disruptive and violent student behavior reduce the charter schools’ attraction for parents seeking both safety and better education for their children. Like most such ‘reforms,’ the real beneficiaries are adults with vested interests in traditional unionized public schools, when the competitive attractions of charter schools are reduced.”

Chapter 6, the final chapter, is called ‘Dangers’ and it is about other ways that politicians and teacher’s unions undermine charter school growth. There are unfair charter caps. There are people who want charters to teach social justice to their students which he calls ‘indoctrination.’ He also does not like charters having to teach ‘sex education’ or ‘ethnic studies.’ Finally, he resents that some charter critics want the charters to have their meetings open to the public and to have their records open to public scrutiny. He says that this will make the board members targets of smear campaigns and have their homes vandalized.

All in all, this was quite a strange read. I don’t imagine that many reformers want to be identified with his arguments from the last two chapters and since the first four chapters have already been done in 2010 with Waiting For Superman, this book is not one that I imagine will be remembered for being very relevant.

Still it is interesting to see how little is left in the reform defender’s arsenal.

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